As a child, February 15 was always a significant date to me. I was one of those kids who ran around telling people that I was “six and a half” years old, instead of just six, and February 15 was my “half-birthday,” six months from my actual birthday. I outgrew giving my age as a fraction sometime in my preteen years. But ever since my half-birthday my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, I had a much more important reason to remember February 15, since it was the anniversary of one of the most important things to happen to me.
I turned nineteen and a half years old on a Thursday, and the day started out pretty lousy. I worked part time as a tutor for the Learning Skills Center on campus, where I would meet with small groups of students taking beginning math classes. I was tutoring precalculus this morning, and none of the students in the group could figure out my explanations of how to prove trigonometric identities. Proofs came naturally to me, and I had been studying the process of how to write a proof in my Abstract Mathematics class, but this did not work for precalculus students. After that, I walked around the Memorial Union and the Quad looking for a friend to have lunch with. Finding none, I ate alone outside, where it was sunny but cold.
My only class on Thursdays was physics lab, in the early afternoon. After lunch, I walked from the Quad to the laboratory classroom in Ross Hall; the walk was about the length of four city blocks. The weekend started to feel close on a Thursday, and I had Monday off for Presidents’ Day, but I was not looking forward to this weekend. At this point in my life, a three-day weekend just meant three lonely days of moping around the apartment alone, trying to pick up girls in a chat room whom I would never meet, who may not even be real girls.
That week, I had really been missing the life I had last year in the dorm. I had tons of new friends last year, and when I felt lonely and bored, I could just walk around the building and see who else was around. That was a little more creepy to do in an apartment complex where I lived alone and knew few people. Thirteen friends from my dorm lived less than half a mile from my apartment, and I went to visit them sometimes, but this was more difficult when they were not right in my building. Living alone, I avoided roommate drama but missed out on all the socializing. Soon the time would come to make housing plans for the 1996-97 school year, and I really hoped that I would be able to find an awesome group of roommates. Maybe some of my new friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.
The JCF large group meeting on Friday nights had become the highlight of my weekend most of the time, but the group was not meeting this week. The staff all had to go to some kind of retreat, which for me meant no hearing a talk about the Bible, and no hanging out with friends afterward. JCF is a chapter of a national organization called Intervarsity; the chapters are led by staff members whose salaries are paid by raising monthly contributions from supporters and churches, much like how missionaries are paid. I did not know all of that in 1996, though. I just knew that there were four adults in their 20s out of school who led the group: a married couple named Dave and Janet McAllen, and two single women named Cheryl and Maggie.
Most importantly in my young man mind, though, no JCF meant no chance to talk to Haley Channing, the sweet girl with the beautiful blue eyes whom I had met a few weeks earlier. Last Friday at JCF, Haley left early, so all I got to say to her was hi. I felt completely inept at interacting with girls, especially ones I found attractive. I did hear someone say that, since there was no JCF this week, people would be meeting for a time of worship and prayer at someone’s house instead. I was not sure if I was going to go; I did not know those people.
I still felt grumpy and frustrated when I left my physics lab. I had no more classes, so I walked back toward the Memorial Union and the bus stop on the other side, cutting through the side of the building where the Coffee House was. As I walked through, I looked around at the people sitting at tables, and I spotted Janet McAllen from JCF staff with a blonde girl I did not recognize. Janet waved, so I walked over to say hi.
“Hi, Greg,” Janet said, smiling. “How are you? Want to sit down?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Do you know Mary?” she asked, gesturing toward the other girl.
“Hi, I’m Mary,” the other girl said.
“Nice to meet you,” I replied. “I’m Greg.”
“How’s your day going?” Janet asked.
“Honestly, not too well.”
“I’m just feeling discouraged,” I said. “I’m lonely. I wish I knew how to have a social life.”
“Do you have roommates? Do you have a group of friends? I’ve seen you sitting with people at large group. Liz and Ramon, Pete, Sarah, Taylor, those people.”
“They were all in my dorm last year. I still hang out with them sometimes. They all live not too far from me, in north Jeromeville. But I live by myself. By the time I figured out people were making plans for this year, everyone I knew already had roommates lined up.”
“That’s tough. Hopefully you’ll figure something out for next year.”
“Yeah. I’ve always had a hard time making friends. I was teased and bullied all through elementary school. I kept to myself a lot in high school. And I’ve never had a girlfriend.”
“Do you know Jesus?” Janet asked me. I thought that was an odd question. I had never been asked this before.
“What do you mean, exactly?” I replied. “I know Jesus is the Son of God, and he came to earth, and he was crucified and rose from the dead.”
“But do you have a relationship with Jesus?”
Here we go. Another thing where Catholics and Protestants were different, and I was not in the mood to be told how wrong I was. I simply answered, “I don’t know.”
“May I explain what that means?”
Janet pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a horizontal line about halfway down and an inch or so across, then drew a line downward at right angles to the first line. She drew the mirror image of this on the other side of the paper, then drew a stick figure on top of each side, so that they appeared to be facing each other with a chasm between them. She wrote “Us” on one side and “God” on the other. “God created Adam and Eve, and they disobeyed him. Sin entered into the world, and sin brings death.” Janet wrote “Death” at the bottom of the chasm. “So because of sin, humans are separated from God. We can’t cross over this chasm to God’s side because of sin. Our sin separates us from God and his holiness, and since everyone has sinned, nothing we can do on our own can bring us back to God.”
I had never heard sin explained that way before. I had been to Reconciliation a few times back home, and once last year with Father Bill at the Newman Center. I always thought of it as a pardoning for sins and a promise to do something good to make up for it. But Janet was saying something different. I had never studied the theology behind the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, so I did not know if these two views contradicted each other.
Next, Janet drew a large cross in the middle of the chasm, with the horizontal part of the cross connecting the two sides of the chasm. “But Jesus came to Earth to make a way, a bridge across this chasm. Jesus was the Son of God, born without sin, and he took our sin to the cross and died in our place. And now, because Jesus died on the cross, we have a way back to God. Jesus conquered death and rose from the dead. And he offers that gift of eternal life to all who come to him. If you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you will be saved from sin and have eternal life with God.”
“Hmm,” I said. “I’ve never heard it explained that way. What do you mean, ‘accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior?’”
“That means you believe that Jesus died to save you from your sins, and rose from the dead, to give you eternal life with God. And he is the Lord of your life, and you will live the rest of your life for Him. Do you want that?”
I always thought I believed in Jesus, but apparently I had gaps in my understanding of what that really meant. I knew this was right, though. Everything I had learned from JCF over the last four months had convinced me more and more that following Jesus was the right way. And I had seen God’s love for his people manifested in the way that my Christian friends, old and new, treated me and others with love.
“Yes,” I said.
“And do you believe that you are a sinner, separated from God, and Jesus is the way to eternal life?”
“Can you pray with me? Is that okay? Tell God what you just told me.”
“Yes,” I said, bowing my head. Janet bowed her head as well. “Jesus,” I said, “I am a sinner. And you are the only way to eternal life. I believe that you are the Lord and Savior, and I pray that you will guide me and give me hope. I thank you for all the new Christian friends you have put in my life.”
“Father, God,” Janet said after a pause, “I thank you that you have brought Greg into your family. I thank you so much, Father, for our new brother in Christ. I thank you that the angels are rejoicing that Greg has found his way home. I pray that he will stay strong and live his life for you. Fill him with the Holy Spirit. Lead him in the way he should go. And transform his heart to make him more like you every day. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”
I looked up. Janet was smiling. “Welcome to the body of Christ,” she said. “Congratulations!”
“Yes,” Mary said. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward because I had forgotten that Mary had been sitting there this whole time.
“There’s no large group tomorrow, but the guys who live at 1640 Valdez are hosting a worship and prayer night. Are you going to go?”
“I heard about that. I wasn’t sure if I was going, but if there is no large group, I won’t be doing anything else tomorrow night. So I’ll probably be there.”
“I think it’ll be good for you. Also, are you in a Bible study yet?”
“No. Not yet.”
“I don’t have it with me, but I’ll get you the list of off-campus Bible studies. You said you live in north Jeromeville? I know one of the guys from the house where the worship night is, Shawn, he leads a Bible study that meets not too far from you. Maybe talk to him tomorrow.”
“Do you have a Bible?”
“Yeah. A few weeks ago, I hung out with Eddie and Xander and Kristina and Haley and Kelly after JCF. Kristina gave me an extra Bible she had.”
“Good! I want you to look these up when you get a chance.” Janet wrote three Bible verses on the paper that she had drawn on earlier and handed it to me. I put the paper in my backpack. “Are you going to be okay?” Janet asked.
“Yes, I am.” I smiled.
“Do you need to get home?”
I looked at my watch; I missed my bus by a long shot. Another bus was probably there now, getting ready to leave in a few minutes. “I probably should,” I said. “But thank you for sharing and listening.”
“You’re welcome. Jesus said to share the good news, after all.”
“Enjoy your retreat this weekend.”
“I will! I’ll see you next week!”
As I walked toward the bus, went home, and made dinner, something felt different. Jesus had called me away from the pity party I had been throwing myself that morning. He had something better for me, a life of peace and hope. When I got home, while my frozen chicken pot pie was in the oven, I looked up the Bible verses that Janet had told me to read.
Romans 8:15-16 “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
Romans 5:5 “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
John 7:37-38 “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’”
This was me. I had the Spirit of sonship. I was God’s child. I came to Jesus today and experienced the streams of living water. And the Holy Spirit brought hope which did not disappoint. I taped Janet’s drawing to the wall behind my desk, the wall that I stared at for much of the time that I was in the apartment, so that I would be able to look at it and remember what it meant to be a child of God.
The next night, I drove to the address of the worship and prayer night. I was pretty sure that this was the same house where the ill-fated car rally a few months ago had ended, so I had been here before. But tonight I had arrived late, on purpose, because I did not know what to expect and I was nervous about being alone in a room full of people I did not know well.
I knocked on the door, and someone on the inside opened it. It was dark inside, and around forty people were packed into the living room, on every available couch and chair and on the floor. I recognized many familiar faces from JCF as I quietly tiptoed to a spot on the floor big enough for me to sit. Sarah Winters and Krista Curtis, who lived downstairs from me in the dorm last year, were sitting nearby, and they immediately came over to me when they saw me walk in. “Congratulations,” Sarah said, giving me a big lingering hug.
“I’m excited for you!” Krista added.
I was a little confused at first, but I figured they must have found out about my decision for Jesus yesterday. “Thank you,” I said, smiling.
The three of us sat singing along with the worship team as they played and sang a song called “Shine Jesus Shine.” I had heard this song at JCF large group before, and I liked it. “Shine, Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory,” I sang along. “Blaze, Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire.” That was where I was tonight. The Holy Spirit was setting my heart on fire as I began my new life as a Christian, living for Jesus.
We continued singing for a couple hours, until well after nine o’clock, pausing after every few songs to pray silently. Sometimes people prayed out loud, and during one of the pauses, we were instructed to pray with the people sitting near us. Sarah and Krista prayed for my walk with Jesus, that I would continue to follow him and grow closer to him every day.
After the music and prayer ended, I stood up. Liz Williams and Ramon Quintero, who were also in my dorm last year, approached me. Liz smiled excitedly and said, “Hey, Greg. Janet told me about yesterday.”
“It seems like a lot of people heard about that,” I said, chuckling and blushing a little.
“Earlier this week, I was hanging out with Sarah, and we were talking about how you’d been getting more involved with JCF. Sarah said that she thought you were close to really coming to know Jesus, and that after that you would just be on fire for Jesus.”
“I know. That’s how I feel tonight.”
“Are you involved with a Bible study yet?”
“No, but Janet emailed me a list of all the off campus Bible studies.”
“You should come with us to ours. Shawn and Lillian are the leaders. That’s Shawn, this is his house,” Liz said, gesturing toward an Asian guy with an athletic build. “Lillian isn’t here tonight.”
“I will,” I said. “Janet mentioned Shawn’s group yesterday when she asked if I was in a Bible study. And now you mentioned it. Sounds like God is telling me to go there.”
Eddie Baker, one of the guys who had originally invited me to hang out the night Kristina gave me her extra Bible, walked up to greet me next. “Greg,” he said, pulling me into a hug. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” I said, wondering just how many people knew.
“How are you?”
“I’m feeling much better, just about life in general.”
“That’s Jesus. He changes your life.”
“I need to go talk to some people, but I just wanted to say hi. Have a great weekend!”
I drove home later that night feeling encouraged and excited. It no longer mattered that my upcoming three-day weekend would be lonely and boring, because I had Jesus, and Jesus brought hope and peace. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit; that was in one of the verses that Janet gave me to read.
Janet told me a few weeks later that Mary, the other girl who had been at the table in the Coffee House when I made my decision for Jesus, was someone who had come to JCF with a friend, and Janet and Mary had been intentionally meeting to talk about Jesus. Seeing me make a decision for Jesus was exactly the kind of thing that Mary needed. I do not know what happened to Mary; I only met her once or twice more that year.
To this day, I wonder if Janet made a mistake with the verses she wrote on that drawing. Romans 5:6, the verse after the one about hope, says “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” That seems like a much more appropriate, and commonly used, verse for a new Christian learning about God’s grace and the significance of Jesus dying on the cross. But even if Janet wrote the wrong verse number, God made no mistakes; he knew that that verse about hope was what I needed on that long, lonely Presidents’ Day weekend in 1996. That was the first verse that I memorized.
In those first days after I made a decision for Jesus, I wondered if this would create tension with my Catholic relatives on my mom’s side. Mom herself would probably be fine with it; she always respected the beliefs of Christians we knew who were not Catholic. And I was not personally worried, because Catholics and other Christians follow the same Jesus, and the things we have in common are so much more important than the things that the different branches of Christianity fight about. I had no plans to stop attending Mass at the Newman Center. (I did eventually leave the Newman Center, but that is a story for another time.)
I spent most of the rest of the weekend relaxing, studying, running errands, and doing housework. The only time I saw people the rest of that weekend was at Mass on Sunday, and just like at the worship night at Shawn’s house on Friday, the words of the songs all seemed more meaningful now. Sure, I did not know what the future held. I might fail out of school, I might not be successful in the working world, and I might never get a chance to get to know Haley or ask her out. But even if all of that happened, I still had Jesus, and that meant I always had hope.