The year that I was a senior, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship had a large class of freshmen who had been very active in the group. Also, many of the students in the class above me did not graduate in four years and were still involved in JCF as fifth-year students. The group was the largest that it had been in the time I had been involved; its Friday night large group meetings were almost completely filling 170 Evans, a lecture hall with two hundred seats.
October 31 was a Friday that year, but there was no large group meeting, because it was the weekend of the annual Fall Conference. Not everyone who came on a typical Friday had the money and free time for a weekend retreat, but around seventy people from JCF attended Fall Conference that year. JCF was a chapter of Intervarsity, a nondenominational Christian ministry with chapters at colleges and universities across the United States and a few other countries. This Fall Conference was a regional retreat, attended by students from Intervarsity chapters at six different schools around the area. The University of Jeromeville had the largest chapter out of all of them. Last year, about half of the students at Fall Conference came from UJ.
Those of us who were going met at four o’clock in a parking lot on campus to carpool for the hundred-mile trip north to the retreat center at Muddy Springs. Tim Walton, a freshman with thick black glasses, approached me as I walked from my car to where the rest of the people were. He was with another freshman, a tall, sandy-haired guy whom I had met a couple of times whom I knew only as “3.” “Hey, Greg,” Tim said. “We’re in your car.”
“Cool,” I replied. “Who has the list?”
“Dave and Janet.”
I walked over toward Dave and Janet McAllen, the couple who worked full time as staff for JCF. Janet held a clipboard and made a checkmark next to my name. I looked to see whose names were next to mine. Melinda Schmidt, Autumn Davies, Tim Walton, 3. Even the carpool list just called him 3. “Autumn isn’t here yet,” Janet said. “Do you need the directions?”
“I remember how to get there,” I said.
I saw Melinda in the distance; I walked off to tell her that I had arrived. She carried her bag to my car, where Tim and 3 stood waiting for me to unlock it so they could put their things in the back. Autumn arrived about five minutes later; after she loaded her bags, the five of us got in the car and headed north on Highway 117.
The North Valley was a productive agricultural region, with a variety of crops grown. Highway 117 narrowed to one lane in each direction north of Woodville, passing through various fields, pastures, and orchards. This was a lonely stretch of road, with only one town of around a thousand people in the thirty-mile stretch between Woodville and the point where Highway 117 ended and merged with Highway 9.
“Can I put this in?” Melinda asked, holding up a tape. “It’s a mixtape of Christian music.”
“Sure,” I replied. Melinda put her tape into my car stereo; the first song was “Liquid” by Jars of Clay. I knew that one.
“Did you guys do anything for Halloween?” Autumn asked.
“I was at the Halloween party at the De Anza house,” I said. “They had it last night, since most of them are on this retreat. Tim and 3 were there too.”
“How was that? I wanted to go!”
“It was fun.”
“I wanted to go too,” Melinda added. “I had a midterm today that I needed to study for.”
“What did you dress as?” Autumn asked.
“I just wore this old 70s-looking jacket that I borrowed it from the lost and found at church. Xander had a great costume. He dressed as a hillbilly, with overalls, and a cowboy hat, and a piece of straw in his mouth. And he had a real missing tooth.”
“What? Missing tooth?”
“Yeah. Apparently he really is missing a tooth. He normally wears a bridge, and he took it out for his costume.”
“Wow,” Autumn said. “That’s dedication.”
“Lots of good costumes. Sam Hoffman was Austin Powers. And Ramon was Michael Jackson. He even went to campus in costume today. Did you see him in the parking lot?”
“He’s still in costume, with the red jacket and the glove, and he made his hair more curly than usual.”
“He pulled it off really well,” Tim said.
At its north end, Highway 117 merged into Highway 9 just south of Mecklenburg, a medium-sized city about the size of Jeromeville. From there, we drove north through various fruit and nut orchards and a few small towns. Melinda’s tape ran out, and Tim put on a tape with some really weird songs on it. He said it was from some TV show on a channel I didn’t get.
“You’ve never seen that show?” Tim asked, incredulously.
“I don’t have cable,” I explained. “None of us really watch TV all that much. And the cable provider where I grew up doesn’t have a whole lot of channels compared to most places.”
Around quarter to six, we arrived in Bidwell, a city of about ninety thousand and home to one of this state’s oldest public universities. My dad had spent his early childhood in Bidwell, and I still had relatives in the area that I had grown up visiting around twice per year. I had applied to Bidwell State, and was accepted, but Jeromeville is a more prestigious university, and they offered me a scholarship for my grades. I turned off of Highway 9 at the exit leading to Muddy Springs. There was a Wendy’s just off of that exit where most of the carpools coming from Jeromeville stopped to eat. The five of us sat at a table together, watching people from JCF who arrived before us leave and watching others arrive after us.
“I’ve never asked,” Autumn asked 3 at one point. “Why do they call you ‘3?’” I was glad Autumn asked, because I had been wondering the same thing since I met 3 a few weeks ago, and I thought asking would be too awkward.
“My real name is Robert A. Silver III,” 3 explained. “Because I’m The Third, my family just started calling me ‘3’ when I was a kid. Some people who are The Third go by ‘Trey,’ but my dad just thought ‘3’ sounded better.”
“That’s a great nickname.”
“So is anyone hoping to learn anything specific at this conference?” Melinda asked. “God spoke to me so much on the China trip over the summer. I can’t want to do something like that again next summer.”
“What was this China trip?” 3 asked. Melinda explained that twelve students from JCF went on a mission trip to China over the summer as part of a large group of hundreds of students from various Intervarsity chapters around the US. 3 was a freshman, so he would not have been around last year when they were preparing for the trip.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Just whatever God wants to teach me, I guess.”
After we arrived at Fall Conference, nine miles past Wendy’s into the foothills outside of Bidwell, all six schools had a worship session led by JCF’s worship team. A group of students, also from Jeromeville, performed a skit about a freshman experiencing Jesus for the first time. In between scenes from a day in the student’s life, Ramon danced in his Michael Jackson costume and sang a song called “Freshman,” to the tune of “Thriller.” Liz Williams, actually a senior, played the freshman, and from the way she and Ramon behaved after the skit finished, it quickly became apparent to me that they were back together. Liz and Ramon had been a couple from about a month into freshman year until the start of junior year, when they had an amicable breakup. To this day, I do not know exactly how or when they got back together, or why. I’m always out of the loop of other people’s relationships, even though I had known Liz and Ramon as long as they had known each other, and three years later I would eventually attend their wedding.
The head staff from Capital State’s Intervarsity chapter, a man in his thirties named Stan, led the teaching that weekend. He spoke on Genesis chapter 32, in which God wrestles with Jacob and gives him the name Israel, meaning “he struggles with God.” Jacob later would go on to be the ancestor of God’s chosen people, the twelve tribes of Israel. I was tired, so I went to bed fairly soon after Stan’s talk Friday night. Stan continued his teaching Saturday morning, and after that session, we all received a handout, with instructions to find a quiet place and spend some time with God. The handout listed verses to read and related questions to answer.
It was a cool morning; I put on a sweatshirt and walked around outside. A large ninety-year-old building dominated the retreat center; it had been built as a hotel, the centerpiece of a mountain getaway resort. It was later sold to a Christian organization, who now used the first floor as the lobby, cafeteria, and a meeting room, and the rest as a dormitory. The paved road ended at the parking lot for the retreat center; I noticed a dirt road continuing deeper into the hills which I had never noticed before. I walked in that direction, carrying my Bible.
The last four miles of the drive to Muddy Springs followed a canyon into the hills, and this dirt road continued to follow the small stream that formed the canyon. Oaks grew in the valley, at least in the areas that had not been claimed for agriculture, and pines grew in the mountains; Muddy Springs was in the transition area where both grew on the surrounding grassy hills. The hills were brown; it had not rained in at least six months. In this part of the world, October typically felt like a milder version of summer, with sunny and pleasant days, but today was the first of November, and right around the time the calendar changed, the weather usually did too. The rain had not returned yet, but the sky was gray and dreary, and the leaves on the oaks were becoming more brown and more sparse. I found a large rock with a flat enough top to sit on, overlooking the canyon and the ridge beyond.
I read from the handout. Pray that God will open your eyes and ears to His presence in your life, I read. I did this. I followed the succeeding prompts on the page, thinking about how I might be wrestling with God at the moment. I prayed about my struggles with being outside the cliques. I prayed that I would meet a nice Christian girlfriend soon, and I prayed for patience until that happened. I continued reading the paper; it said to listen quietly until I heard God speak. I closed my eyes and bowed my head. After hearing nothing, I opened my eyes and looked around. I stared at the hills around me, at the gray sky, at the trees. I bowed my head and closed my eyes again. Still nothing.
The schedule for the day had allotted an hour for us to wrestle with God outside that morning, and by the end of that hour, I was frustrated. God had not even shown up to wrestle with me. Did that mean I won by forfeit? That was not the point; it felt more discouraging than anything, like I was not important enough for God to speak to. I looked at my watch; it was almost time for lunch. I started walking back to the building, defeated, and I sat and ate alone.
“Hey, Greg,” Eddie Baker said, approaching me. He had just finished eating with others, and he was walking toward the exit with Tabitha, his girlfriend. “What’s up?”
“I’m just kind of discouraged. I feel like God isn’t speaking to me, like he did to Jacob, or like all the stories I hear from all of you guys. Like maybe I’m not a real Christian. Or not a good enough one.”
“That’s not true!” Eddie replied. “Look at how much you’ve grown the last two years. You’ve helped out with things around here. And now you’re working with junior high kids at church. It takes a lot of faith to commit to something like that.”
“God speaks to everyone in his own way and his own timing,” Tabitha added. “Don’t think of yourself as less than others because you don’t hear from him in the same way.”
“I guess,” I replied.
“I’ve been where you are, and so have a lot of us,” Eddie explained. “This is the way that God wrestles with us sometimes. Just keep listening for his voice.”
“And when you feel like you’re not good enough?” Tabitha said. “That’s not God’s voice. That’s Satan trying to distract you.”
“I know,” I said.
“Can I pray for you?” Eddie asked.
“Father God,” Eddie began as we bowed our heads, “I pray for Greg, that you will speak to him, in a way that he will hear your voice clearly. I pray that he will shake off all of this discouragement, and know that it is not from you. I pray that you will give him a new name and a new identity, so that he will know his identity in you, as your beloved child. I thank you for bringing him here to Muddy Springs, and I pray that when we go back to Jeromeville, Greg will return with a renewed sense of faith and identity in you. Amen.”
“Amen,” I said, looking up. “Thanks.”
We had the afternoon free, so I went back to my room. Kieran Ziegler was my roommate for the weekend. “I love that story about Jacob wrestling with God,” Kieran said. “Because I can tell people that wrestling is the only sport mentioned in the Bible.”
“Oh yeah,” I said, chuckling. Kieran was on the UJ wrestling team; of course he would notice this.
“Brent is gonna get some people to play Ultimate. You wanna come?”
“I need a nap,” I said. “Maybe if you’re still playing when I wake up. Or when I give up on trying to fall asleep.”
“No problem. I’ll see you around.”
I closed my eyes after Kieran left, but I did not sleep. I could not shake these thoughts of not being good enough. I still felt left out of the cliques within JCF. I wished I had been asked to live at the house on De Anza Drive, with Eddie and Xander and Ramon and Jason and John and Lars. All the cool things in my social circle happened around those guys, like the Halloween party Thursday night. I kept hearing people tell stories about God working in their lives, like when Melinda and Eddie and Tabitha and a bunch of others went on the China trip last summer. Some people have said that they sometimes hear God speak audibly, and some of my friends came from the kind of Christian traditions that spoke in tongues. Many of my friends have led others to faith; Eddie did that with his freshman dorm roommate, Raphael. But not me. I was not good at talking about Jesus or my faith with others, and that would probably make me ineffective on a mission trip to another country. I had heard a speaker once highlight the importance of supporting missionaries behind the scenes, and I was all for that. I gave money to friends’ mission trips, and to my church, which supported missionaries. That role was more suited to me. But it also made me feel like I was missing out on all the cool experiences.
I went outside after about forty-five minutes of not sleeping. The Ultimate Frisbee game was still going on, but with no flat grassy field at Muddy Springs, they played on a paved basketball court, which did not exactly seem safe. I watched the game with a few other people who were just hanging out and watching.
At the evening session, Stan from Cap State told stories from the Bible about other people whose names and identities God changed, besides Jacob. Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho who helped the Israelite spies, whose family God saved from Jericho’s coming destruction. The invalid at the pool of Bethesda, whom Jesus healed. And Abram, Jacob’s grandfather. Long before God wrestled with Jacob, he changed Abram’s name to Abraham, to indicate that Abraham, an old man with a barren wife, would become the father of a great nation. I read all of these stories again later that night before I went to bed, trying to keep these Bible stories on my mind to avoid another descent into discouraging thoughts.
When I woke up, the sky was sunny and clear. It was still cold, but the dreary gray had departed. My mind was also becoming sunny and clear as I kept thinking about last night, particularly about the man whom Jesus healed at the pool of Bethesda. I read his story, chapter 5 of the Gospel of John, again that morning, and something stood out to me. I knew in my head that God was not ignoring me when he remained silent, but it seemed much more real now.
The conference center gave out name tags in plastic cases to all attendees. I removed my name tag from the plastic case and turned it backward, so that the blank back of the card showed, then I put it back in the case and attached it to my shirt with the built-in safety pin.
The students from all six schools gathered in the main hall, in a separate building from the old hotel, for worship that morning. Before Stan gave his final message, Janet McAllen got up and invited anyone who so desired to share something that we learned this weekend. “Tell us your name, what school you’re from, and anything that God spoke to you this weekend,” she said. I raised my hand, and she called on me first.
“Hi,” I said, standing up. This was it, the moment I got to share my sudden idea. I pointed to my blank name tag and said, “I don’t have a name, because God is going to give me a new one.” I smiled, and everyone clapped for me. I was not doing this for applause, though. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not really hearing from God the same way everyone else does,” I continued. “But that doesn’t mean that God has given up on me. The man by the pool at Bethesda waited thirty-eight years to meet Jesus. God could have healed him earlier, but he waited until the time was right for the man to meet Jesus face to face. The man didn’t know that. We don’t always understand God’s timing. But I’m going to keep listening, and following, and God will answer all these questions I have in his own time.”
I sat down again. A few other people stood up and shared what they learned. After one final message from Stan, we all went to lunch, then we began packing for the return trip. No one played music on the trip home, because everyone was tired. Autumn slept most of the way home, and 3 nodded off for a bit too. I was okay with that.
And I was also okay with not being in all the cliques, and I was okay with not having a girlfriend. At least I was trying to be okay. All of those names that had been stuck in my head for years, outcast, loser, forever alone, and all the horrible names my classmates in elementary school had called me, those were not God’s name for me. God had already changed my name. I was his beloved child, I was forgiven, I was saved, and I was living his will for my life. Sure, I would suffer setbacks, and life would not always go the way I wanted it to, but that was because my vision was short sighted. God had a better long-term plan for me, and ultimately, if I was living out God’s will in my life, nothing could stop me.
Readers: Have you ever felt like you were wrestling with God, or just struggling in general with something you believe in? Tell me about it in the comments, if it’s not too personal.