My father's boyhood hero was his cousin, Jim Spence. Jim grew up in the Australian outback. Just before the outbreak of World War II Jim and a six of his mates lied about their ages and joined the Australian Lighthorse Brigade. Jim was sixteen.
War broke out and the boys found themselves fighting in North Africa. Later they were redeployed to fight in the jungles of New Guinea to the north of Australia. As a young teenager my father would eagerly await news of Jim's wartime adventures.
Out of his group of friends Jim was the only one to come home alive. He returned a hero and moved to Sydney to live with my father's family. They formed a close bond of friendship. Dad remembers on hot nights sleeping out under the stars with his war hero cousin sharing his army ration of tobacco. But all was not well with Jim.
Jim had returned a hero but he also returned deeply disturbed by his horrific wartime experiences. He was depressed and contemplated taking his own life. One night he was out walking the streets of Sydney when he came across an open-air preacher. He heard the gospel and was converted to faith in Christ—much to the horror of my father.
By now dad was eighteen. He had cruised through high school doing as little work as possible and getting into plenty of trouble. His one love was playing first grade Rugby Union. He could not understand or accept what had happened to his cousin. Jim invited him to different Christian meetings but dad wanted nothing to do with it.
One day my father was suffering from a bout of the mumps. Jim came to visit and challenged him about where his life was headed. Dad had witnessed the change that had come over Jim. The traumatised war hero was now planning to return to the place that had so damaged him and taken the lives of his comrades. Not as a soldier but as a missionary. Through Jim's example my father became aware that his life was lacking meaning and purpose.
Soon after, dad went with Jim to hear a hell-fire American evangelist and gave his life to Christ. Almost immediately, my father walked away from first grade football and within a few years had completed his theological training and married my mother. They sailed to New Guinea as missionaries. Jim spent the rest of his life in New Guinea serving as a missionary. My father spent the rest of his working life in ministry as a missionary, pastor and head of a Christian welfare agency.
My father had no felt need to a faith of his own until he saw the changes that the gospel had brought to the life of someone he knew. Like a virus, the gospel travels along these lines of pre-existing relationships.