Anyone who has ever been to a small town in Georgia has likely encountered a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. Its jolly pig face logo is as familiar in the rural South as Baptist churches and sweet tea. My first real job was at one of the three Piggly Wigglies in my hometown of Warner Robins. Throughout my four year career there as a bagger, and later as a check-out clerk, I learned some valuable lessons in life, such as responsibility, punctuality, and working with the public. I also learned how to swiftly sack an entire household supply of groceries, load it all onto one buggy and fit it into the trunk of a car without cracking the eggs or smashing the bread. Back then, we did actually cart the groceries out for customers, and I found this a welcome break in the monotony of the beep-beep of item scanning, and of asking every customer “paper or plastic?” Everyone has seen the teenage boy pushing and tugging a line of twenty or so carts back in from a grocery store parking lot. Now picture this boy clad in a white shirt and a tie, khaki pants, and a particularly bright red apron tied in the back, and this was me at age sixteen. I did not mind the job so much, as it provided me with enough income to pay for gas money, car insurance, and fun out with friends, which at that age was my main preoccupation.
One late summer afternoon, while I was carting out a load of groceries, I noticed a small white booklet lying on the floor under the pay phone in the lobby. I noticed it again as I came back inside but, although I was somewhat curious, I did not stop. After several passes however, my curiosity increased and I thought “what is that?” Why my interest should be so peaked over some little discarded booklet I did not know, but I finally went over and picked it up.
It was a strange double-sided publication, essentially two books in one. One side read: “On Borrowed Time”, and when I flipped it over the other side read: “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988”. It being August of 1988 at that time, this second title certainly grabbed my attention. After quickly skimming the contents, I discovered that the author was predicting that the Rapture would occur sometime during the 11th 12th or 13th of September 1988. My alarm went up as I realized that this was less than one month away! I really was not entirely clear on what the Rapture was but I did know that it had something to do with the Second Coming of Jesus. I had to read more, so I pocketed the booklet until after my shift, with my imagination soaring and my heart racing underneath my red Piggly Wiggly apron.
I was not a very religious person, which was a curious thing as my family and I had attended the First United Methodist church across the street from our home for my whole life. I had been baptized there as an infant and had attended Sunday School each Sunday before church, as well as Vacation Bible school in the summers. I completed the Methodist confirmation process in the 8th grade along with many of my friends. I had been involved in the youth group and had gone to various Methodist youth camps and activities. Additionally, I had even attended Catholic parochial school from grades 5 through 8 at the small parish in town. Although we were Protestant, Sacred Heart was the best local private school and my parents had made significant sacrifices to send me and my siblings there.
My mother and father had provided me with a wonderful childhood. My mother in particular had taught me from my earliest days about God and had made sure that I prayed, memorized Scripture and was involved in church activities. I see clearly that my life was set upon fertile soil, but despite all of the seeds which had been sown none had yet sprouted up into even the tenderest shoots of a budding spirituality. At adolescence, I retained only a vague general belief in God, and in Jesus, and this paltry belief did not exert any great influence upon my life. At sixteen I had no prayer life and did not read the Bible. I was just going on my own teenage way, oblivious to any need for God. He seemed more like some distant great-uncle I had been told about who was living in another part of the country, but with whom I had no real relationship. I was only interested in hanging out with my friends, and getting through high school. I had not given much thought to what would happen after graduation, much less at The End of the World. In that way I suppose I was a typical teenager.
Clocking off from my job that day with “88 Reasons” burning a hole in my pocket, I went home and read it with great interest. The author’s startling, detailed, and to me authoritative, calculations that in a few weeks Jesus would appear in the sky and take all of the Christians on Earth to be with Him forever in Heaven was for some reason very exciting to me, even intoxicating. My wide-eyed gullibility over the claims which the author made is humorous to me now, but this was a genuinely seismic moment in my life. For in the midst of all the excitement which I was experiencing about the imminent return of Jesus, the thought grew in my mind that I was not ready. My life was not a Christian life. Why would Jesus take me to Heaven, when I had been basically ignoring Him all this time? I needed to do something to change this while there was still time. I had to prepare. It was then that I set my feet down upon the road towards God.
I began voraciously reading the Bible, and also some Evangelical books which I had gotten my hands on. This material provided with a basic formula for salvation, which was new to me, and involved my acknowledging the fact that I was a sinner and that Jesus died on the cross to pay for my sins. I needed to truly repent of my sins and ask God for forgiveness and He would then forgive me. I would at that point be sure that I would go to Heaven when I died - or when the Rapture occurred. I also learned then the full meaning of the Resurrection of Jesus, that he not only conquered death, but He also provided me with the power to live a new life of obedience to Him. I did not recall ever learning that before, although we celebrated Easter every year. Looking back, I am sure that I had heard the meaning of the Jesus’ Death and Resurrection in church, and at home, but perhaps I had not been ready to really receive it. Now I was indeed sufficiently motivated, although it was mainly out of fear. I prayed “the Sinner’s Prayer” and asked Jesus to “come into my heart as my Lord and Savior”. I experienced nothing spectacular after this prayer. It was easy and painless. I was satisfied though that I was “born again” and guaranteed a place in Heaven. This of course brought me a certain sense of peace with the prospect of the Rapture occurring soon. I then fully indulged in the excitement of anticipation. In my zeal I got several of my friends excited as well about the Rapture, and they followed similar paths in taking Christianity seriously before the Great Event.
We then passed through a strange waiting period during the days of September 11th - 13th. I went through my normal activities, but the thought of the impending Rapture was always there in the background. The recollection I have is of gazing up into the sky, thinking that at any moment the trumpets would sound, the clouds would part, and Jesus and His angels would gloriously appear. Would I and other born again believers just instantly disappear and be transported to Heaven, or would we all float up together into the sky to meet with Jesus? I did not know. I just waited with a breathless anticipation for whatever was going to happen.
The Sun rose on September 11th 1988 in its golden brilliance and sailed across the sky amidst high hopes of heavenly glory. I passed that three day period in a perpetual daze. But of course nothing happened. The heavens did not open up, no one disappeared, and the world of ordinary life went on around me just as it had before. But I was different. There was disappointment to be sure, and a certain sheepishness at being swept up into mild hysteria. But my disappointment did not lead to disillusionment. During all of the feverish excitement, the quiet hand of God had reached down and touched the bare soil of my life. And without any noise or fanfare, a tender green sprout emerged with tiny quivering leaves. A new life had taken root in my life and I felt like I had entered a new world. I could not go back now to simply having mindless fun in life, and blissfully ignoring Jesus and His will for me. Life was deeper and fuller now, and had a real meaning and purpose. Despite being motivated by a false prophecy, I had had what I would later describe as a conversion experience. At the time, however, I simply said that I had “gotten saved”, and my life would never be the same again.
Continued in Part 3 of My Conversion Story: "The Loss of Initial Fervor and Faith"