I am five. Mrs. Beuten is leading Sunday School class, and there’s a mouse puppet and a mousetrap and a story about sin. This is one of my first memories of church.
I am seven. I am in a world I don’t fully understand, but I have been to Sunday School. I know the song, “Yes, Jesus loves me.” The radio is on, tuned to the Christian radio station. The preacher gives a beautiful sermon, and I don’t understand all of it, and I only remember a line where he says that all sermons should end at the foot of the cross, and he says if I want to accept Jesus, I just have to repeat after him. I say the words. I do not know what they mean, or how much theological baggage lies beneath them, but I say them.
And for the rest of my life, when I share my testimony, I will start with this story.
I don’t know how old I am, only that I am young. I have cleaned my room to the best of my ability, and I ask my dad to approve of it. He comes to look, finds a fault, and goes away. I fix it and call him back. He finds another and goes away. This goes on until he announces that “I can let it slide by.” This happens other times, but I specifically remember this one time.
My future church will warn us that Ouija Boards, Dungeons and Dragons, and Harry Potter and Mary Poppins and other books and movies about witchcraft invite demons into your life, but that was the night I got mine. He’ll spend years reminding me of this feeling, telling me “You’re not good enough.”
I cannot tell you how old I am when this happens either, but my dad says when I disobey him, I’m disobeying God, too. That seems really unkind of God to put down something that says anything my dad says is basically a rule from God.
I am sixteen. I have spent way too long wondering if I am saved or if I am not saved, and I have no idea that I will cringe when I am double that age and type it in a blog post, but I decide that if God is the one doing the saving, without works from me, then maybe me praying every night asking God to save me again is a kind of unbelief, and I decide I believe God saves me, and that’s that. I stop asking for salvation and start believing it’s up to God.
I am twenty-two. I spent the last year driving around in a FedEx Ground truck, dreaming of the day I would marry the girl I am in love with. And when the job became drudgery, I pulled out my pen and write “HOME” on the palm of my left hand, as a reminder of why I’m doing this in the first place.
Now the job and the girl are gone, and I am at Word of Life Ministries reading my Bible during worship. I am reading in Isaiah, and feeling alone and abandoned, and my eye catches on these words:
Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us;
the Lord has forgotten us.”
“Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child?
Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?
But even if that were possible,
I would not forget you!
See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:14-16, NLT)
And I break into a million pieces.
I am twenty-three, writing in front of billowing curtains beside a bunk bed in the house of a woman who, on the day she met me, said
You are a beautiful, unrepeatable miracle.
You are worth the air you breathe and the space you take up.
God did not make a mistake when he created you.
And even though I don’t quite believe it myself yet, I’m starting to believe that she does.
I don’t know it yet, but she will be my supervisor for the next four incredible summers – summers that I will watch flash by far too quickly.
I am twenty-four. I have gone off to a college far away where I do not know a single soul. I am judging everyone around me and thinking how sad it is that nobody here seems to take God seriously, but mostly I am feeling completely alone. I go to an evening worship service and they’re singing “He loves us, Oh how he loves us,” and I have heard it a dozen times already and I wish they would just stop and then I really hear it and I believe it and I collapse onto the floor.
I don’t know how very soon I will be invited to a prayer group named after the small red lamp it uses to comply with my college’s rules about minimum illumination for coeds to be in a room together.
I am twenty-four. I am back at Jumonville, after a year at school that I had begun to think would never end. I pray and thank God, eyes wide open, walking around a place I had begun to doubt I would ever come home to again, but here I am.
And I give thanks.
I am twenty-five. After much hand-wringing, I have asked out the most beautiful and wonderful girl in the world, and she has said yes. I go into the chapel at Jumonville and sing as many verses of “Oh For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” as I can find, at the top of my lungs, and I cannot believe how amazing this is.
I am twenty-eight. I have taken the classes on how to understand the Bible, and I know that Jeremiah 29:11 was not addressed to me. It is not about me. I am not the “you” in “I know the plans I have for you.”
Which sucks, because I could really use someone who has plans for me. I am an English teacher, and God did not make me to be an English teacher, and I have not realized this yet, so I could sure use a Psalm about God’s constant presence, but they are not mine. So I come home and play this song on repeat a few times.
And it helps.
I am thirty-one. I am at the Gay Christian Network conference. I no longer believe in the resurrection, but when this woman talks about her son committing suicide, I know in my bones that he woke up embraced by the nail-scarred hands of Jesus.
I am one day short of thirty-two. I am in the kitchen thinking again about the resurrection, and even though I know it did not happen because resurrections do not happen, no matter how much evidence Josh McDowell thinks demands a verdict to the contrary. I am also thinking about a statement of faith I wrote that expresses my deepest convictions about the love of God, convictions that do not work without the resurrection.