I grew up on a beef cattle farm in a town called Woodland in east central Alabama. Woodland literally had more cows than people! If anyone ever asked me where I was from as a kid, I would always answer with, “Have you ever heard of Anniston?” As the saying goes, Woodland was so small you had to go “toward town to hunt.”
My grandfather on my dad’s side (who I never met because he died four years before I was born) helped to incorporate the town and served as its first mayor. Going through some of my grandmother’s things as a kid, I found a sheet of paper that listed all of the residents at the time of incorporation…all 117 of them. On this list were a good number of Traylors and a fair amount of Lovvorns, and although people called me “Tray” back then, my given name carried with it the reputation of both families. Or at least that is what I grew up believing.
My dad made his mark on the world through sports, and, at the time of my arrival, was the head football coach at Woodland High School, about one-half mile from the house where I grew up. He and my grandfather both played basketball at Jacksonville State University and I grew up wanting to make it three generations (although I wanted to step it up a bit and make it to Division 1). By the time I started to school, Mom and Dad were both teaching at Ranburne, their alma mater located about 20 minutes north of Woodland. Dad coached basketball and football and Mom taught Jr. High science and English, so I never rode the school bus. I made the 20 minute commute over the county line with them every morning because we never moved from the farm in Randolph County.
We attended the small Baptist church in town where at least three generations of my ancestors are buried. Dad served as a deacon, Mom taught Sunday School and sang in the choir, and we were there literally every time the doors opened. I have many fond memories of VBS during the summer, Easter cantatas in the spring with everything in full bloom, decoration Sunday, or “homecoming”, held every first Sunday in May, and many, many youth lock-ins. I was saved at RA Camp the day after my eleventh birthday on July 2, 1982, along with my brother and three other boys in our small youth group. We made our decisions at the final service on the final day of camp in the middle of the woods in Talladega, AL. I bring up the location of this life-changing event because I had been battling the decision to give my heart and life to Christ since I was 8 eight years old. Every Sunday during the invitation I had a white-knuckled death grip on the back of the pew in front of me, scared to death to step out into the aisle out of fear of those around me. I guess “battling” is really too strong of a word because I really wanted to give my heart to Christ. My problem was that I was so terribly shy and it seemed the only way that salvation “took” was if you walked the aisle at the end of a Sunday service and let the Pastor pray with you.
Well, RA Camp solved that dilemma for me and all five of us were baptized soon after we returned home. I started working through a “Christian Survival Kit”, a gift from my pastor and really learned a lot during that first year. I was ecstatic that my entire family would spend eternity in Heaven and life couldn’t get much better. Sometime in 1985, we got a new Pastor and I hit it off with him immediately. He fed me one book after another and I began learning about the Bible and theology. One of those books was entitled Go Tell by an evangelist from Texas. At first I dismissed the book and its message because up until that time I had opted out of the Matthew 28 commission, citing my bashfulness as my “out clause.” After reading the book, however, I realized that God didn’t provide an out, so reluctantly I began sharing my faith at school among my peers.
In the spring of 1986, something interesting began to happen. Every time I was in a worship service, I began to picture myself preaching from the pulpit. At the time I was taking zeroes on English speeches because of my fear of public speaking, so picturing myself in the pulpit did NOT produce happy thoughts. It absolutely terrified me. For at least three months I wrestled with those thoughts constantly, often crying myself to sleep trying to figure out what was going on. I did not know what it felt like to be “called” to preach and I was not about to share my feelings with anyone. It would have spread like wildfire with people asking questions that I didn’t know how to answer. Added to my fear of preaching was knowing that a guy who went to another high school and had preached at some local churches the year before. Rumor had it that he also was living like the world during the week which had lots of kids at school talking and frequently using the word “hypocrite.” I wanted no part of that.
In June of 1986, one month before my 15th birthday, my pastor stopped me between Sunday School and the worship service and asked if I would meet him at the parsonage after church. Mom, Dad, and my brother all waited in the car after church as I pulled open the screen door to see what he needed. I simply figured he had another book for me and had not given it much thought. To my amazement, he told me that he was going to be out of town on the 24th of August and he wondered if I would be willing to preach for him on that Sunday. Here he was asking a fourteen-year-old kid to fill his pulpit! Did he somehow know what I had been going through? I kept it together on the outside, but I had quite the conversation going on inside my head. Although my pastor and I had spent lots of time talking theology and the Bible, I had not shared anything with him about what I had been wrestling with for the past few months. As it sank in what he was asking me, I felt both fear and relief. I gave him a super spiritual answer by telling I would pray about it.
As I got back to the car, my Mom had lots of questions for me. When I told her that Pastor David had asked me to preach for him on August 24th (her 40th birthday), she immediately began to question whether or not I had heard him right. She thought maybe he wanted to do a youth Sunday that day and involve all of the youth. I said “No, I think he just wants me to preach.” She had no idea what I had been going through up to that point and the rest of our ride home was pretty quiet. Two weeks later I agreed to preach.
So, on Sunday, August 24th, 1986, at fifteen years old, I preached my first sermon to a standing-room only-crowd of about 310 folks. It was obvious that word had gotten out, because most Sundays our church had between 75 and 90 in attendance. (We worked so hard to get over 100 on “High Attendance Sundays.) The title of my sermon was “Go Tell” and I preached it with everything that I had. Relatives and friends from school that I didn’t normally see on the weekend turned out and family came by the house afterwards to celebrate Mom’s birthday. From that point on, I stayed as busy preaching as I wanted to be. By the time I graduated, I had preached in over 200 different churches and at numerous other events.
Not realizing it at the time, I also had bought into a subtle lie. Remember the other guy I mentioned who was preaching at the time? Well, when I accepted the call to preach, I also made a firm commitment that no one would EVER be able to label me as a hypocrite. It really wasn’t all that hard for me to keep a lily white exterior because my Dad was the assistant principal and became principal before my sophomore year. I really didn’t have a place to be rebellious even if that was what I had wanted to do. I made sanctified living an art form and unfortunately equated righteousness and following Jesus with not rocking the boat and living with a “peace at all costs” outlook on life.
After about eight months, I had preached in most of the churches in my area. If the students I went to school with attended church, there was a very good chance that I had preached in one or more of their services…and they were watching me closely. I did not want to “hurt my witness” or let them down, so I masked any and all weaknesses and bought into the belief that “Christians have it all together and, where they do not; they keep secret until they do and no one will know the difference.”
And boy did I have a secret.
When I was eight years old, I accidently found a stash of pornography. This discovery stole my innocence and would prove to have a profound impact on my life for years to come. The shame of my secret and the guilt that ensued was a roller-coaster ride as I tried desperately to beat the addiction on my own so that my reputation would not be scathed. My theology in those days was that God did His work at the cross and that holy, sanctified living was, in essence, a thank you to God for saving me. Christianity for me was the Gospel of sin-management, rather than a bold, wild-hearted adventure with the God of the universe. Overcoming sin was simply knowing what was right and then doing what was right. Well, I knew the pornography was wrong, but found myself powerless to beat it on my own. I felt that I was the only Christian guy who had this struggle and continually beat myself up because I kept running back to the porn. After I began preaching, I often felt like a fraud as I stood in the pulpit on Sunday morning trying to denounce and put out of my mind the images that I entertained the night before. Rather than invite God into my struggle, I felt like God was already disappointed with me because I was struggling in the first place.