Recently at work, I was asked, “When did you encounter Jesus?” Along with our theme for this year’s chapel at WCA, I will apparently be one of many teachers and students who will be interviewed on camera in order to play a short clip of our story at chapel for the kids. And if you know me at all, you know I’ve got some reflecting and word-smithing to do on my own before I’m ready to speak in front of a crowd, or in this case on camera (eek!). Attempting to alleviate some awkwardness, I’ll lay my thoughts down here as part one of three. Apologies to friends whom I am about to embarrass.
The first time I recall encountering Jesus was the summer before sixth grade. My incredible friend Caroline (over at In Due Time) invited me to her youth group. I had most likely been complaining to her about my church, which I now realize was fairly spiritually dead. We said words, we sang hymns, and we went through the motions, but there was little to no faith-life there, at least for me. My brother and I had both been falling asleep in church, and our wonderful mother began to fear that we would lose our interest in faith altogether. So, she said hesitantly said yes. I don’t remember much, but I do remember a flurry of activity – the painted walls of KYF, the hum of energy, the uproarious laughs, and the seeming lack of adults. We were in a room filled with kids, and there seemed only to be a few adults in the room, and they weren’t signaling for anyone to sit down or shut up; the adults were mingling with and among the kids, laughing, talking, snacking… What? This was not my definition of youth gatherings at church. Where were the dingy tables, dull lights, worksheets, dusty books, empty hallways? And goodness, the boys in the room were reallllly cute. I liked this place.
After an absurd game of lining up and passing bananas over our heads with our feet (our pre-pubescent posteriors arching over our heads), some type of talk began to which I didn’t pay much attention, and then eventually, more talking, laughing, flirting, goofing off… I came home and said that I loved it.
Caroline continued to invite me to church, and as we spent increasing frequency of time together, that relationship and others deepened into great friendships. Erika, Jenny, Raelyn… I was surrounded by beautiful, silly, and yearning souls like mine who were already growing into incredible Godly women. We talked, and laughed, flirted and goofed off, decorated Bible covers, taped in book tabs (probably from Mardel’s), and learned to pray. Still, I came for the fun, the games, the boys. I came for Caroline and Erika and Jenny and Raelyn and Ashley. I came for myself.
Then, one day, I sat on the KYF carpet in the back of the youth room, cross-legged and eyes wandering, observing and taking in the room, and I heard a woman’s voice grow ever stronger in my ears. Susan Grapegater, who happened to live across the street from Caroline with Mr. Grapengater and their two kids, from whose yard we had retrieved many a poorly aimed soccer ball, in whose house we had youth meals and Superbowls, whose incredibly creepy Halloween haunted house drew in neighbor kid after neighbor kid every year, spoke. She spoke with love and fervor and kindness. I don’t remember the words, but I do remember the feeling. I remember her smile, her knowing glance that seemed to focus on me out of all sixty-some kids in the room. I remember a click, a shift in my heart, an openness, a willingness to lend an ear. I stared at the rough carpet speckled in color, and I felt a nudge, a fearful and wonderful call. She asked us to bow our heads and pray with her. I didn’t know how to respond, but I bowed my head, and I listened. And that evening, after going home in bewilderment, I realized what that call was, and stumbling over the words I had heard again and again and again at KYF that summer, I bowed my head in my bedroom and I asked the Lord to come into my heart and save me. And he did. I encountered Jesus. And when I opened my eyes, it seemed as if everything and nothing had changed all at the same time. I resolved to tell Caroline, but beyond that, I looked around my room at my walls and the life that had been built around me and felt a sense of awe and uncertainty. I realized suddenly that someone else was in control, a partnership of sorts. It was God and me now… and I thought, “What now?”