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Called to Serve
I certainly didn’t start out thinking I would be God’s hands and feet, an evangelist proclaiming the good news. In fact, even though I grew up in a strong Christian family with a father who was a lay pastor, I confess I was among those teenagers who shunned “the God squad” in school for a time. I wanted to be cool, and talking about your faith to other teens wasn’t considered cool at all.
I had to get comfortable with myself and my beliefs before I could ever be comfortable and effective in sharing my faith with other people. Even after I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I wasn’t inclined to go forth and save the rest of the world at first. I wanted to be a professional soccer player, but I am built so low to the ground, league officials ruled no one would be able to stop me. So I had to pursue a different career, just to keep it fair for the other blokes.
Once playing for Manchester United was ruled out, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. My dad, the lay pastor, thought I’d be much better off as an accountant, and for lack of other options, I went along with that.
I never considered that my faith would become a career because it was such a personal and intimate aspect of my life. Our family church was the Apostolic Christian Church of the Nazarene in Keilor Downs in the state of Victoria. My memories of going there are mostly focused on being with my parents and my brother and sister and all my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Worship was a very social experience for me.
My father sang tenor and my uncle Ivan sang bass in the church choir. As founding pastors of the congregation, they’d sit in the front row with the other choir members. I joined them as the unofficial percussionist. I kept the beat by tapping my little foot on a hymnal book, which substituted for a drum. Later they bought me a drum machine and eventually a keyboard I could play with my foot. I loved music and it was one of my favorite parts of church. I associated God with everything I loved.
My father always talked about God on a very personal level, and I picked up on that. I conversed with God all the time, it seemed. He was very real to me, like a member of the family or a good friend. I felt like He knew everything about me and I could talk to Him about everything. He was real to me and always there for me. God wasn’t a father figure or a vengeful power; He was more like an older, wiser mentor and friend.
I prayed every night, but I didn’t think of myself as religious. I didn’t dream of being a pastor. Our family just lived in faith. To me, being Christian was like being Serbian or Australian. I didn’t think there was anything special about it, and I certainly didn’t feel I was holier than anyone else.
I felt guilty for years because I had unholy thoughts when our family friends, Victor and Elsie Schlatter, gave a slideshow presentation on their missionary work in the wilds of New Guinea. They had translated the Bible into pidgin English for the natives there, and they recruited hundreds of them to Christianity. It was hard to believe that there were people who had never heard about Jesus Christ. I assumed He was known about by all.
I confess, though, that what left the biggest impression on me from their slideshow were the photos of naked New Guinea women. That probably wasn’t what they’d hoped I’d remember about their presentation, but, hey, I was just a boy being a boy. I was easily distracted. Especially by Miss Isabell, our Sunday school teacher. She had short blonde hair, big blue eyes, and an engaging smile. I thought she was really pretty. I had a crush on her!
I was no saint, believe me. I got in trouble more than a few times for chewing gum in church, and one Sunday I choked on a piece of candy just before the service started. Since we were seated in front, the entire congregation saw my dad grab me, turn me upside down, and slap me on the back to dislodge the candy.
Searching for Answers
That would not be the last time I was saved in church. Other kids could release their nervous energy during services by tapping their feet on the kneelers or drumming their fingers on the pews. When I was antsy, I’d go to the very last pew in the back of the church and rub the back of my head on the brick wall. Crazy, I know! Thanks to that bad habit, for a while I was the youngest person in our church to have a bald spot.
I was a little goofy as well as easily confused. I was totally baffled when a South American immigrant named Jesus showed up in our first-grade elementary school class.
“Why do they call you Jesus?” I asked, wondering if we were at the end of times when Jesus was to return as the Messiah.
I was very suspicious because our Sunday school class had taught us that when the devil showed up, he’d claim to be Christ. I was on the lookout for imposters. Poor Jesus, my classmate, didn’t understand why I kept interrogating him about his name.
I took my Sunday school teachings seriously. When I was six or seven, after we learned about the second coming of Jesus Christ, I had a dream about the rapture. In my dream, I was visiting my grandparents’ house just around the corner from the church, and I saw all these angels come down and take people up. I saw one of my family members go up and waited, but no angel came for me. I desperately, and sadly, thought, "Where is my angel?" Then I woke up, which was a relief!
I didn’t want to be left behind, so I doubled down on trying to be a good Christian boy. Every Sunday in church, the pastor would ask if we had Jesus in our hearts, and I always answered yes as loudly as I could in case the angels were listening. We were taught that to be Christians we needed God in our lives every day. I wasn’t afraid to tell people that I went to church, but we weren’t taught to talk about Jesus with our friends who weren’t Christians. We were supposed to keep it to ourselves and love everyone. I don’t remember ever praying openly for friends to accept Him into their lives. Instead, I did it privately so they never knew what hit them!
The only evangelists we talked about were heroic missionaries like the Schlatters, our family friends. Victor and Elsie became mentors to me later in life. They were the first true global soldiers of Christ I ever knew. Victor was like a Bible character, a big man with long gray hair and a gray beard bigger than my head. They made missionary work sound so exciting. They told us cool stories about life in the rainforest and being chased by people who didn’t like Christians.
I was in awe of them. They were so exotic, like Indiana Jones meets Billy Graham. In their younger days, my parents had considered working in New Guinea as missionaries with Victor and Elsie. On their honeymoon, they even visited the Schlatters to check it out, but my dad said it was too wild for him. I often imagined what my life would have been like if they’d decided to stay in New Guinea. I am thankful my family stayed in Melbourne.
A Greater Vision
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
Truthfully, I didn’t think I would ever be a missionary, because the Schlatters were special people who managed to live and thrive under extremely tough conditions. Still, they inspired me to do whatever I could to help the poor around the world.
They projected their slideshows on the wall at our church, and you’d see all these naked children eating what looked like roots and bugs. We prayed for them and raided our piggy banks to help feed and clothe them. I really admired Victor and Elsie for dedicating their lives to serve as God’s ambassadors.
I was in my early teens when I heard a very dramatic story of a missionary whose plane crashed in a remote area of Papua New Guinea. He was taken prisoner but escaped. I saw an interview in which he said it would have been impossible for him to get out of there, but God made all his captors deaf so he could free himself, take possession of their plane, and get away. The film is called Ee-Taow.
Then I read The Heavenly Man by the Chinese evangelist Brother Yun, a leader of the underground Christian church movement there. I could relate to Brother Yun’s stories of being imprisoned and tortured by government authorities in China; my parents and grandparents had fled Serbia because of the persecution of Christians there.
Yun’s book said that God always stepped in to protect him at the worst times. During his stay in prison, Brother Yun escaped death on many occasions. He was supposed to be hanged, but whenever his time came, the executioner claimed to be too tired or somehow paralyzed. The executioner eventually told Yun that he would make sure he was not killed inside the prison.
Brother Yun also writes of escaping from a maximum-security prison by listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit when it told him to just walk out the prison gate one day. He followed those instructions and walked out without being challenged by the guards; it was as if he were invisible. Though many have argued that his story does not sound plausible, the Chinese government said his escape was “an embarrassing mishap.”
I was in my teens when I read Brother Yun’s book and the books of another brave Christian role model, former New York City gang leader Nicky Cruz. His Run Baby Run is a classic story of a troubled street kid who turned his life around through Christ and became a missionary to other young people.
The inspiring 1970 movie about his life, The Cross and the Switchblade, has been viewed by more than fifty million people in 150 countries. Like Brother Yun, Nicky Cruz endured many hardships, but God seemed to step in whenever his life was threatened. He writes of having a gun pointed at his head, but the gun misfired when his would-be killer pulled the trigger, saving his life.
Books like The Heavenly Man and Run Baby Run, along with the stories told by the Schlatters, later gave me the courage to leave the security of my family and home at the age of nineteen and make my first trip as a Christian speaker to South Africa. They taught me there is no safer place to be than where God leads you.
When we are young, most of us can’t see or even comprehend what God has planned for our lives. Yet looking back now, as I enter my mid-thirties after already traveling millions of miles and speaking to millions of people, I can see the influences and experiences that led me to His path.
I have to laugh, especially when I think how puzzled I was as a boy when my Uncle Sam patted my head and said, “One day, Nicky, you will be shaking hands with presidents.”
I certainly could not see that happening at the time. God must have been whispering into my uncle’s ear, because I’ve met more than a dozen presidents and heads of state over the years. Now I’ve yet to shake hands with any of them, for obvious reasons, but I’ve hugged most of them!
Encouragers and Guides
As I’ve written before, my other influences as a teenager included my high school’s janitor, Mr. Arnold. For some reason, everyone called him Mr. Arnold even though Arnold was his first name. I never knew his last name, but he was always there for me and the other students. He encouraged me to talk openly about my struggles with my disabilities and my faith, first with the students in the Christian teen group he led and then with other students and groups around the area.
I didn’t think of myself as an evangelist even remotely at that point. I was more interested in breaking down barriers between people and simply sharing how I did not think hope existed until I allowed God to help. Over time, I saw that my stories inspired others, especially when I explained how I finally came to understand I wasn’t one of God’s rare mistakes and that we are all beautiful and perfect creations in His eyes.
When I heard my first professional motivational speaker, Reggie Dabs, who gave a talk at my high school, he quieted nearly fourteen hundred restless students and left them inspired simply by telling his life story, which was a message of hope: “You can’t change your past, but you can change your future.”
Reggie showed me there could be a path to a career in public speaking. Because of the times in my life when I felt different due to my lack of limbs, I always made it a point in my speeches to tell everyone they were beautiful and loved by God. I thought it was something people should hear. We are all beautiful as God’s creations.
Still, I never thought that message would have such an impact on people. At one of my first big speeches, a teenage girl raised her hand and asked if she could come up and give me a hug. When we hugged, she tearfully shared that no one had ever told her that she was beautiful until I did. Oh, man, that was powerful!
Even when I began to see myself growing into a career as a professional speaker, my focus was more in the inspirational and motivational realm. I knew many people did not want to hear a faith-based message, but as they heard me talk about life, love, hope, and faith in general terms, they felt free to ask questions about faith. Even then, I still didn’t see myself as a role model for other Christians or aspiring Christians.
My dad didn’t either. He kept encouraging me to get degrees in accounting and business. I took his advice, figuring it wouldn’t hurt to have a backup plan if speaking didn’t work out.