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MY EARLY LIFE
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
A sermon preached at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
“One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
This verse is from Psalm 27, my favorite Psalm. It expresses my feeling for the love and peace that we find in Christ and in the house of the Lord, the local church. By the time I give you the story of my early life you will see why this verse is so important to me.
I struggled and prayed to find what God wanted me to speak on this morning. At last, on Friday, God seemed to tell me to speak on my early life. Some of you have heard these things, but I will try to add further details to make it worth your while to listen.
I was born eight months before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. I was born in Glendale, California, the day before Easter Sunday, in 1941. The next morning they brought me in and my mother held me for the first time as she looked out the window and saw 500 white doves released into the air by Forest Lawn Cemetery, to commemorate the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
My parents were not practicing Christians. They never attended church. They never even gave thanks before they had dinner. They never read the Bible. The only person I knew who was serious about religion was the husband of my mother’s sister. They lived with us in the same house. This uncle converted to Catholicism and became zealous in prayer. He would go into a walk-in closet and pray for an hour or so every day. He was also an artist. He made an oil painting of my father, and many paintings of Heaven and angels. Although I was only three years old, that made an impression on me and I remember it quite well. He also taught me the words of the Lord’s Prayer (the “Our Father”). After I memorized it he would have me say it to people, who were surprised that a three-year-old could remember all the words. That was all the religious training I received before I was a teenager. But I said the Lord’s Prayer before I went to bed for the rest of my life, and I still do, along with a few other prayers.
My father left a little earlier and they were later divorced. I never lived with my father again, although I saw him from time to time. I didn’t realize until I was an adult that it wasn’t entirely my father’s fault. They had too many relatives living in the house as a young couple, which put a terrible strain on their marriage. I moved with my mother and grandmother to a house in Echo Park, on Fargo Street. Other relatives came and went from that house. There was a lot of drinking, and a lot of fighting and screaming. I hated it so much that I would usually leave and go down into the basement and gaze at my uncle’s paintings of Heaven, and Jesus, and the angels. Other times, I went out in the back yard and hid under the flowers and prayed the Lord’s Prayer to block out the yelling and screaming from those who were drinking in the house. At other times, I would walk down Fargo Street and go into a Catholic church there. Back in the 1940s it was open twenty-four hours a day. I’d go in where it was so quiet and sit in one of the pews and spend time looking at a life-sized statue of Jesus carrying the cross on His back. It was very realistic, and there was blood on His back and blood running down into His face from the crown of thorns on His head. I remember thinking over and over, “Why did they do that to Him? What did He do to make them hate Him so much?” I did not know the answers to those questions at the time. I just went there to be quiet and to block out the screaming and fighting in the house. I had never read the Bible and had never been to Sunday School. I went to Mass in that church a few times, but I couldn’t understand it because it was all in Latin back then. So I just went there during the week because it was so quiet, and I couldn’t hear them screaming, and I would look at the figure of Jesus and wonder why they tortured Him and crucified Him. I only went to a school for a few weeks before I was nine because I was sick, really sick, most of the time.
When I was nine years old Mother took me to Arizona. I had been sick all the time with allergies and horrible earaches. And the doctor told her I might be cured in Arizona. He was right. I hadn’t been there 24 hours before I heard clickings in my ears, and all the allergies were gone, with no more earaches to keep me out of school. It was there that I first heard George Beverly Shea on the radio, singing “It Is No Secret.” It was there that I begged my mother to take me to a church across the street, and we went a couple of times. It was a Church of Christ. That’s where I sang a hymn for the first time. But I didn’t feel compelled to go to that church because there was no drinking or screaming in our house. I always hated to come back to Los Angeles because it would all start up again. I couldn’t stand the fighting and yelling.
But everything caved in when I was twelve. There wasn’t enough money. We lost the house because Mother couldn’t pay the mortgage. We came back to Los Angeles. Mother married again, but there was not enough room in their house for me, so I had to live with other relatives. They were also drinking, so the screaming started again! I can see vividly in my mind one of those brawls. My aunt was on the floor. A man got on top of her and grabbed her hair on both sides of her head, and was bashing her head up and down on the floor. I ran to the store next door and called the police. That sort of thing went on and on, nearly every day.
But I soon found a place to escape. The people next door had a son who was about a year younger than me. We would play together after school. One night his mother invited me to come in the house and have dinner with them. Afterwards we sat in the living room with his father and sister and watched black and white TV on a little nine-inch screen. Pretty soon I was there nearly every night. I had enough good manners that I would leave when it was dinner time. But half the time Mrs. McGowan would invite me to stay and eat with them. Then we would huddle around that little TV and watch Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, or an old Laurel and Hardy movie. They were Baptist people. Dr. McGowan was a dentist. There was no drinking or yelling in their house. It became my sanctuary, a place to escape from my relatives and their drunken screaming!
One afternoon Mrs. McGowan said to me, “Robert, would you like to go to a revival meeting with us tonight?” I said, “Sure.” I didn’t know what that was, but when you are thirteen, without any parents to stop you, you’re ready for almost anything! So I went to a Baptist church that night with Dr. and Mrs. McGowan and their son and daughter. I can see the inside of the church in my mind, but I can’t remember one word of the sermon. It was the first time in my life that I was in a Baptist church. That was sixty years ago, for I will be seventy-three in a few weeks.
The preacher that night had on a light grey suit and wore a bright green tie. This was in the early 1950s. All Baptist preachers spoke with great vigor back then. Nowadays most of them don’t speak any louder or better than an Episcopalian priest! But that was the spring of 1954. Eisenhower was the President. A Coke cost ten cents. A really good comic book also cost a dime. It cost about fifty cents to go to the movies. Teenagers got their hair cut every other week...for seventy-five cents! There were eight barbers in the shop where I went, and they were always busy! And every Baptist preacher spoke like a flaming orator. I had no trouble listening to the man with the bright green tie that night – though I don’t remember a thing he said. When he was through, they stood and sang a song. The man with the green tie said, “Come on!” People walked to the front. Then my friend, the McGowans’ son, left his seat and went forward. I thought, “That’s what you’re supposed to do.” So I followed him. They took us to another room and the pastor told us to come back a couple of days later to be baptized. That’s all he said. No one asked us why we came forward. They didn’t even ask us if we wanted to be baptized. They just said, “Come back on Sunday morning to be baptized.” The McGowans’ son and I went back. They put white robes on us and we were baptized along with several other children. Looking back, I don’t think any of us were converted.. I know that I wasn’t! I couldn’t have explained the simplest point of the Gospel even if my life had depended on it! I did not know Christ personally. Christ seemed like a tragic figure, who was nailed to a cross long ago, and had nothing to do with me!
I kept on going to Sunday School and church with the McGowans. But I don’t remember any of the sermons. I remember the pastors – Dr. Pegg, Dr. Maples, and Dr. Music. But the only sermons I remember were the ones Dr. Music preached on Sunday nights – a series of sermons against John F. Kennedy because he was a Catholic, which seemed kind of strange, and a series of several Sunday evening sermons against evolution that really angered me – because I believed in evolution! I was really angered by those sermons. I also remember him preaching against a movie, “Elmer Gantry,” about a sinful preacher, which was pretty controversial back then. So I sneaked into a theater to see it. The lights were down low and I couldn’t see at first. When my eyes adjusted I looked to my right, and there was the Sunday School superintendent! We both nearly jumped out of our seats. After the movie we agreed together not to tell anyone!
When I was fifteen my grandmother died. I had never seen a dead body before. It shook me to the core. After the funeral at Forest Lawn I ran away – up a hill, running and running and running. Finally I fell on the grass, gasping for air. Then, suddenly, I felt God come down around me. There was no doubt about it, God was there! I felt like Jacob, when he was alone at Bethel one night and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Genesis 28:16). From that moment on I felt very sinful and guilty. One of my aunts angrily said to me, “You’re the reason that your parents got divorced, Robert. You did it to them – you! you! You did it! It was your fault, Robert Hymers!” It wasn’t true, of course, because I was only two years old when my father left. But I thought it was true. It burned in me like a hot coal. It was my fault! I did it to them. I ruined their lives! “It was your fault, Robert Hymers!” I started trying to get rid of my sin by doing good. I would prove to God that I wasn’t really a sinner!
I started listening very attentively to the sermons. I also began listening to Billy Graham on his radio program every Sunday afternoon. Then, on Easter Sunday in 1958, the pastor said, after he preached, “I think there may be a young man here who is being called by God to be a minister.” I thought, “I’d like to be like that man (the pastor). That’s what I’ll do. I’ll become a preacher. That will help me to be a Christian.” So I went forward and shook the pastor’s hand. Then everyone came down to the front and shook hands with me, and congratulated me for deciding to be a preacher. I started preaching right away, and preached a number of sermons in various places. I was seventeen years old. I was now a preacher. But I still felt like a sinner. Deciding to be a preacher hadn’t helped me at all! I was trying to be a Christian by doing good – but it wasn’t working!
Not long after that they put me in a Passion Play at the church. They cast me as Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus. Every word of that Easter play was taken right out of the King James Bible. That’s when I memorized my first Bible verse. It was the words of Judas, from Matthew 27:4,
“I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood”
Then I threw down the thirty pieces of silver that they had paid me to betray Jesus – and I went off stage and hanged myself. I did that part three times – saying those awful words,
“I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood.”
Those words burned into my very soul. I had caused my parents to get divorced! I had betrayed Jesus Christ! I felt like the worst sinner in the whole world. Night after night I would lie in bed thinking, “I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood!”
About that time I read the life of James Hudson Taylor, the great pioneer missionary to China. I thought, “That’s what I need to do. I need to become a missionary to the Chinese like Hudson Taylor. If I do that God will forgive my sins, and I’ll have peace.” So I went to the First Chinese Baptist Church of Los Angeles one Saturday night. Mrs. Lorna Lum answered the door. She invited me to come to church there the next day. I joined that Chinese church and started teaching Sunday School there. But that didn’t help. I still felt like the worst sinner in the world. I was nineteen years old.
I thought, “I’ve got to go to Bible school to become a missionary, then I will be forgiven by God.” So I went to Biola College (now University) that fall. I thought that would help me to get rid of my sin and be a Christian.
It was there that fall that I heard Dr. Charles J. Woodbridge preach for a week in the chapel. He had been born and raised by missionary parents in China. That made me listen to him very carefully.
He was preaching in chapel every day for a week on Second Peter, in the New Testament. He said that Peter told us the world would end. Then he came to II Peter 3:13,
“Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth” (II Peter 3:13).
He said, “They, the lost people in the world, have no hope! They are just waiting to die! ‘Nevertheless we’ have hope in Christ! ‘Nevertheless we’ know Christ, we have been saved by Him! They have no hope! ‘Nevertheless we’ have salvation and hope in Christ.” Those words shot through my heart like an arrow. All my goodness and religion were worthless. I knew that the world was finished, and judgment was coming. Dr. Woodbridge told us that our only hope was to trust Jesus Christ, who had died on the Cross to pay for our sins. In that moment Christ came down to me and I trusted Him. I can’t explain it, but it was so easy to trust Jesus. I had always thought He was dead before. But that day I knew He was alive, and I trusted Him. My sins were gone, washed clean in His Blood. I was converted. I knew it then, and I know it now.
E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die;
And shall be till I die, And shall be till I die;
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.
(“There Is a Fountain” by William Cowper, 1731-1800).
I know from personal experience what it’s like to come to church without knowing anything about Christianity. That’s how I came to church as a thirteen-year-old boy. I know what it feels like to be confused, and not know what to do to become a real Christian. I know what it’s like to be under conviction of sin and not know how to get out of it. I know what it’s like to trust Jesus and be saved. And I know that I was saved by Jesus to serve Him throughout my life in the fellowship of the local church.
It has now been sixty years since Dr. and Mrs. McGowan first took me to a Baptist church. As I look back across six decades I am more certain than ever that the most important things in life are these – Jesus Christ and His church. Only Christ can give us freedom from guilt and fear. We can’t be good enough to earn salvation. Only Jesus can save us and cleanse us from sin by His Blood. Only His church can give us stability, fellowship and strength and discipline in a hostile and desolate world. Only Christ and His church can give us meaning in an otherwise futile and hopeless existence.
If I had only one sermon to give I would tell you, without hesitation: make sure you know Jesus Christ, and make sure you live out your life here in church. John Calvin said, “Whoever has God for his Father has the church for his mother.” How could anyone who reads the Bible disagree with him on that?
These are the things that will matter most at the end of your life. In the end these will be the only things that matter at all!
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (I Timothy 1:15).
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved”
May God give you the grace to come to Jesus and believe on Him. May God convert you to Christ. In the end this will be the only thing that matters at all!
Oh, what a fountain of mercy is flowing
Down from the crucified Saviour of men!
Precious the blood that He shed to redeem us,
Grace and forgiveness for all of our sin.
(“Oh, What a Fountain!” by Dr. John R. Rice, 1895-1980).
I’ve found a friend, oh, such a friend,
He loved me ere I knew Him;
He drew me with the cords of love,
And thus He bound me to Him.
And round my heart still closely twines
Those ties that naught can sever,
For I am His, and He is mine,
Forever and forever.
(“I’ve Found a Friend” by George C. Stebbins, 1846-1945).
(END OF SERMON)
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Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Mr. Abel Prudhomme: Psalm 27:1-14.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“I’ve Found a Friend” (by George C. Stebbins, 1846-1945).