I spent the first six years of my life as an unrepentant pagan—until one Sunday night, when I couldn’t sleep, I fell to my knees and asked Jesus to be my Savior and Lord.
Well, maybe that is overly dramatic but it really was the decisive moment of my (so far) 74 years. I was never converted again. I grew up in a Christian family and went to church (Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night) regularly and willingly from very soon after my birth. My parents (Walter and Vivian) made sure I knelt by my bed every night and repeated after them a simple prayer. I remember it always started “Dear kind God.” Right there, that tells you something important about how I was taught to view God.
Every evening after supper we all (my three sisters and me included) cleared the table and moved to the living room where we read a chapter in the Bible (two verses each as soon as we could recognize and pronounce “a,” “an,” “the,” and “thee”—the last of those words because King James (the translation) ruled in our home and church). My older sister and parents would help me sound out all the other words when it was my turn (I joined the English teaching team to help my two younger sisters when they came along). Then down on our knees for my dad’s prayer after we finished the chapter of the evening.
I can’t remember ever objecting to any of this home and church activity—from my infancy until I moved out at age 21. But Christian faith was still something happening around and outside of me until that night at age six. Something in the Sunday evening church service scared me into the realization that I needed to ask Jesus to come into my life, not just as a part of my family and church but to be my personal Lord and Savior. I got out of bed, unable to sleep, got my mom to kneel down next to me as I prayed my little prayer of confession and faith. I knew it: I belonged to Jesus and Jesus belonged to me. Six years old.
Life went on. When I was ten, I decided I wanted to be baptized as a public declaration of my faith. At my little Plymouth Brethren church on 40th Street just off Broadway in Oakland we had a big metal trough which was brought into the church, filled with water, and served as a baptistry. I think it was probably intended to water horses and cows on farms but it worked just fine for our baptisms. When I was twelve I officially joined the church (you had to meet first with the elders and explain your faith and commitment) and started taking communion—weekly, with real wine and bread (not crackers and grape juice!).
I learned a lot in weekly Sunday School classes. There was a weekly Bible verse to memorize and stand up and recite. Once a year I had to memorize a longer passage and recite it at some kind of annual event. I am forever grateful that my Sunday School teacher, Mr. Imbeau, got me to memorize all of Romans 12 when I was ten or twelve—it is one of the pillars of my whole philosophy of life and faith. Another life-changing thing that started at age 12 was trying to read my Bible on my own every day. I got the idea that any “real” follower of Jesus should do this. To keep my streak alive, I sometimes would get home late at night and quickly look at just one verse before diving into bed! Yes, I have missed some days over the years and I can’t say I lived it out faithfully every moment of every day. But most of the days of my life I read and paid attention and underlined and circled and really tried to hear God teach me stuff. I have worn through a lot of Bibles, some duct-taped together, this way. Whenever I finished one of the 66 books of the Bible, I wrote the month and year in the table of contents. I was always a little obsessive about wanting to put a date by all 66 books.
As a young teenager I didn’t like the kind of snide, superior, semi-mocking attitudes of some boys just a few years older than me at the church (in retrospect I think they meant no harm). I didn’t like attending our “Young Peoples’ Meetings” and seeing these guys hang back and boycott the half-hearted group singing. When I griped to my dad about this young peoples’ group, he said something like this: “Well I understand what you are saying but what are you doing about it? We asked God to give us a son who would be a leader, not just a complainer!”
My dad was right. So I sold my electric guitar (giving up what no doubt would have been an amazing career with the Beach Boys or Doobie Brothers—hah!) and bought a Martin D-18 with my part-time Shell gas station attendant wages—a great song-leading instrument. Before long my friend Tim Clarke built a “gut bucket” which worked well as a string bass, we printed up our own song book, and the whole culture changed. It wasn’t long before we doubled and tripled our attendance and everybody loved being part of a joyful, learning youth fellowship.
The little church I was raised in (maybe 130 people total at its peak) was wonderful in every respect except one: they thought and taught that they were the only denomination that did things right. They were very critical of all other Christian groups, especially those most like themselves. (By the way, they seem to me much humbler today; some of my relatives are still going there so I know). Now here is the big irony: because my church was so separatist, so confident that they alone taught the Bible accurately, all of us kids went to public schools, never Christian schools (and home schooling was not on anybody’s mind in those days). I went to San Leandro public schools—and then to Cal. My friend, gut-bucket Tim, went to Oakland High and then Stanford. We also were taught not to attend groups like Youth for Christ, Young Life, or in college, Campus Crusade or InterVarsity. Why? Because their doctrine was probably missing something, somewhere. That was the church’s view.
My parents were not temperamentally separatists by nature. They inherited the narrow theology of the Plymouth Brethren from their parents and grandparents. They loved their neighbors, listened to Billy Graham on the radio, took us to hear Mahalia Jackson when she came to Oakland, and read things written by others outside our tradition. But we still held other Christians at arm’s length.
So I had a fun social life with my church friends but I was not allowed to go to movies, dances, or parties, and I had to listen to rock’n’roll quietly on my radio in my bedroom. It was all about trying to be separate and holy. My first movie was “Lawrence of Arabia” when I was a high school senior (thousands of guys fighting on camels in the desert seemed safe enough to my parents). My first dance was my Senior Ball, permitted on the grounds that it was mostly a formal dinner. My date taught me a couple basic dance steps in the basement of her house. My social life was wrapped up in my church youth group so I didn’t spend much time feeling deprived. I did feel a little weird about my odd religious identity but in school I was best known as an athlete. This was permissible as long as I never missed church and didn’t play or practice on Sunday. My scrapbook is full of local newspaper clippings from my sports activities from age ten to eighteen. I was also allowed to be involved in student government.
I could probably give you the name of some cute girl classmate every year on whom I had a crush (Ann Barr in second grade, etc.). But the “no parties, no dances, no movies” boundaries meant it all stayed in my mind. I have often thought that my hyper-activist history is partly the result of sublimating my desire to pursue the opposite sex! Therapists who read these words can tell me if there is any truth to that. In my senior year at San Leandro High School I went semi-crazy when my younger sister Kitty allowed me to see the wallet-size photos of her girlfriends and I saw the picture of Lucia Paulson. I confess that it was not a spiritual motive. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen (and I thought I had been paying attention). I just had to meet her.
The problem was the rule that I couldn’t date a non-Christian. So, making a long story short, when I met her I almost immediately began to evangelize her. Lucky for me she was open-minded and open-hearted and she accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior at my church when she was 15 (I was 17, a high school senior; she was a sophomore). We went steady until we got married four years later. And four years into our marriage our first baby arrived. And the rest is history, pretty exciting history with some sad and difficult times but mostly feeling and being deeply blessed by God.
From the time I was a kid Christian, it was always a challenge and an adventure to figure out how to act out and share my faith in Jesus with my (mostly) secular teachers and classmates. This intensified when I entered Cal Berkeley as a freshman in 1964. In those years the world kind of exploded with protests for free speech, against the Viet Nam war, for civil rights, for women’s dignity and rights, for protection of the environment (“Save the Bay” really did save our then-polluted bay), and so on. For me the big question was “how should I view these issues as a follower of Christ?” My parents and church were not the “Amen corner” for right wing Christian nationalism—nor were they left wing activists. They were “third way” citizens and ambassadors of the kingdom of God. That has been the endless adventure of my whole life and career: refusing to be conformed to this world (right or left) and trying to discover and do the will of God—in my career as professor of ethics, in my politics, and in my life as a husband, father, neighbor, and church member.