I was born in 1952. That makes me a baby boomer. The fifties, what a time to be alive! It all began so innocently. James Dean was a movie star, and so was Marilyn Monroe. John Kennedy was a senator, and Ike was president. Ernest Hemingway was in his prime. Elvis was king.
You could buy a handful of candy for a penny, and for 25 cents you could get a burger complete with the trimmings.
I spent a good deal of my childhood in Southern California and remember watching I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver on black-and-white television. But life at our house was not like it was over at the Beav’s.
I came from a broken home, which often resulted in my being carted off to different parts of the country on short notice to live in various faraway places including New Jersey and Hawaii. I got used to the term new kid, and because I was forced into being a loner because of the many moves we made, I was lonely much of the time; and because I had an artistic streak I retreated into my private world of cartooning. In fact, growing up, it was my dream to one day become a professional cartoonist.
My dad was no Ward Cleaver. In fact, I had no father. I was born out of wedlock and had a series of different men my mother married in her quest to find meaning in her life. I was raised in a very adult world that was disillusioning. I quickly tired of the alcoholic haze that seemed to hover over my home life. I saw alcohol as symptomatic of the times and at an early age determined that there must be more to life than what I had seen so far.
I had a hard time growing up; in fact, I grew up too soon, even in the age of innocence known as the fifties.
Then one day, shots cracked the air in Dallas, and as bullets ripped through the body of President John F. Kennedy, the age of innocence came brutally to an end for me and my generation. No more illusions that life would ever be like it was depicted on TV, always a happy ending.
Other icons of our generation were checking out ahead of schedule too: James Dean was killed in a head-on car crash. Marilyn Monroe was found dead of an overdose of barbiturates. Then while running for president, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, following in his brother’s bloody footsteps.
Now it was the sixties, and kids my age are trying to get a handle on all these dreams going up in smoke. Like millions of other teens, I thought I could—we could—change the world. Never trust anyone over thirty, now a cliché to describe the mindset of the generation, rang true for me, too.
I remember the first time I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was living with my grandparents at the time. They were thoroughly disgusted with those four mop-top lads from Liverpool. But I was intrigued by their music and its message—a message that became increasingly drug motivated.
As the Beatles went through their many phases of musical and personal discovery, I followed suit on the heels of a whole generation. We didn’t follow the music as much as the musicians, Pied Pipers of a generation playing the soundtrack to our lives. It was as though an entire generation was caught in an unseen current that pulled us along in an uncertain direction. None of us knew where it was leading, but we were enjoying the ride.
While there are idyllic memories of hot summer days driving to Corona del Mar Beach in Southern California, savoring the aroma of Coppertone suntan lotion as I listened to “Surf City” by Jan and Dean on the car radio, there was trouble brewing in paradise.
As did so many others of my generation, I bought into the idea that drugs might contain some of the answers I was looking for, so I could truly find myself. It seemed that everyone was doing drugs and that drugs were actually being celebrated in our culture. Love beads. Flower power. Long hair. Peace symbols. Psychedelic prints. Bell-bottom jeans.
I followed along at first, almost believing that the answers to the questions would eventually come, as promised. However, it wasn’t long before I saw the futility of this lifestyle as I watched my creativity, motivation, and skills diminish. I was told drugs would make me more aware, and in many ways that was true. I became more aware of how empty and lonely I was deep down inside myself. After a particularly frightening drug-induced experience, I knew that I had to stop doing drugs forever. At that moment I knew drugs would be part of my past, not my present, and certainly not my future.
I had also seen the devastating effects of drugs on the lives of sixties cult heroes who self-destructed while still in their prime: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison—all gone.
Add to that the ominous cloud of the Vietnam War that hung over the heads of the nation’s young men, including me. We sat in our living rooms watching the daily news reports while the statistics piled up on the latest casualties: guys the same age who had been struggling with the same issues. Every one of us who were draft age lived with the uncertainty that at any minute we could be headed for Vietnam, right after being hastily taught how to handle a gun. Then there was Watergate. We watched the highest office in our country unravel and saw a president fall.
All these converging issues caused fear and disillusionment. At a very early age, I found myself asking the big questions: What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? And the one that really kept me up nights was, What will happen after I die?
The popular belief of our culture seemed to be that once a person died, there was nothing. Life followed by one big zero. No afterlife. No heaven. No hell. Nothing. A product of the culture, that about sums up what I believed and the thought of forever nothingness terrified me. How could a person like me—a person with thoughts, dreams, feelings, inspirations—simply cease to be?
While I cannot say that I was obsessed by these questions, they did seem to be coming up pretty frequently for a teenager. Interestingly, the person who pointed the way for me to find answers was a girl I’d noticed on my high school campus. It wasn’t that she was a beauty queen, although she was attractive. She just seemed to glow from inside herself. And it wasn’t that I had a crush on her. I just saw something different about this girl and was determined to find out what it was.
One day my chance came. I saw a friend of mine talking to her and decided to just walk up and casually join the conversation. As I came closer, I noticed she was carrying several books under her arm. One of them was a Bible. Oh no! I thought. That means she’s one of those Jesus freaks! That’s so sad! Nevertheless, I walked boldly over and joined the discussion, just as I had planned, while mentally crossing her off my list of potential girlfriends.
I had seen her kind before, these crazy Christians who would carry their Bibles on campus and constantly talk about God as though He were a next-door neighbor. It all seemed quite insane to me. Don’t get me wrong. I believed in the existence of God. In fact, when a crisis hit, He was the first One I called on. But frantic prayers in times of crisis were pretty much the extent of any communications I had with the Almighty.
I had always admired Jesus, too. After all, I had seen all His movies: The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, King of Kings, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Ben Hur. This celluloid Jesus seemed like a decent person. I was always particularly touched by the crucifixion scenes and thought, “What a terrible waste!” I wanted someone to do a contemporary picture, giving the life of Jesus a new treatment. Why not toss all this death and gore out the window? Why not play up His message of brotherhood and love and just let everyone live happily ever after?
Although I felt certain that Jesus was out there somewhere, I certainly did not think He was interested in me or my problems. Anyone who wanted to spend time talking to Him, or about Him, was fine with me. I just didn’t want Him pushed off on me. “To each his own” was my motto. I determined to put some distance between me and this young mystery girl. But several days after having that three-way conversation with her, I spotted her sitting on the front lawn at school, along with about 30 other Jesus freaks. They were singing songs about God. Already a seasoned people watcher, I determined to study the group from a distance without getting too close. After all, I couldn’t sit close enough for any of my friends to think I was one of them. That would have been the equivalent of social suicide in high school.
I watched as passersby would snicker. Even the most abusive remarks seemed to go unnoticed as the group continued their time of prayer, Bible study, and worship. I was touched by their sincerity, even though it struck me as odd that anyone my age would want to spend time singing songs about God. Then a young man named Lonnie Frisbee stood up with a Bible in his hand. He was a youth pastor with Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, where the Jesus Movement was in full swing. With his shoulder-length hair and beard, he almost looked the way I had seen Jesus depicted in paintings and in the movies. He opened the Bible and began to speak. Although I listened to what he said that day, I don’t remember any of his comments except for one statement: Jesus said, “You are either for Me or against Me.” What side are you on?
That really struck me. Never before had I heard that faith in Christ was an either/or deal. Jesus was just this wonderful historical figure who lived a long time ago, did a lot of good turns, and taught brotherly love. As a teenager, I thought that was cool. But for the first time, I had heard that it was actually possible to know Him in a personal way. It seemed too good to be true. I looked over at these Christians, all sitting cross-legged in a circle, and thought, Undoubtedly, they are for Him. Knowing I was not one of them, it dawned on me that this must mean I was against Him.
This impassioned preacher told the group that anyone who wanted to know Jesus in a personal way should get up and walk forward. Then he would lead in a prayer. I dropped my head and thought, if it truly is possible to know Jesus in a personal way, I would love that. Immediately, the doubts came: What if this isn’t real? What if Jesus says no to me? I just can’t do it!
But before I knew quite what was happening, I found myself standing with a handful of other brave souls, praying with the long-haired minister to receive Jesus Christ into my heart and life. I had the distinct sensation that a tremendous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. In no uncertain terms, I knew my life had changed dramatically. That was in 1970.
I have never forgotten where I came from or the way I used to think. Because I remember so vividly the path I was on and the dramatic way my life’s course changed, I want to tell my generation that the questions so many people are asking today are the same ones I had once asked.
Eventually each one of us asks the big questions. Why? Because each of us has the same four basic issues to deal with. Whether we are rich or poor, male or female, famous or unknown, American, European, Asian, African, Latino, white, black, or brown, these four things are true of all humanity.
Each person, no matter how wealthy or powerful, has an emptiness inside. Every person is lonely in a way that relationships can’t fill, children can’t fill, friends can’t fill. I believe that it’s a loneliness for God. There is a sense of guilt in every person. Not only are we all empty, lonely, and guilty, but every one of us is also afraid of death.
After making that commitment to Jesus Christ, I began to use my artistic ability to try to convey the gospel to my generation. Not long after my conversion, I found myself teaching Bible studies of all things. This is ironic when you consider that I was not the best student, to say the least. But I had never read a book like the Bible before and it came alive to me, making me want to share that with others.
Since then I have pastored a church, written a number of books, produced a few films, and preached at evangelistic events called Harvest Crusades.
My mother came to Christ shortly before going to heaven some time ago, and I thank God for that.
If you want to check out my ministry page, visit harvest.org.