I want to say at the outset that I vacillate between Stages 2 and 3. I have hit significant “walls” now at ages 24 and 34. These walls have a similar pattern: getting caught up in the work of Stage 2 without the intimacy of Stage 3, then burning out and getting discouraged in my spiritual journey. Moving past these walls into Stage 3 has required surrendering my ego and my agenda, and each time I have experienced God’s healing. Every time I hit and then move past a wall, my experience of Stage 3 gets deeper and pushes me toward the sacrifice and obedience of Stage 4. Rather than share my whole story, I’m only going to take you from my childhood into my mid-twenties – into that first wall and what followed.
Stage 1: Come and See
My parents are deeply committed Christians. Each of them grew up going to church, but both had powerful conversion experiences in college, in which they experienced what it’s like to have a personal relationship with Jesus. My father is a retired Presbyterian pastor.
I never consciously responded to the Stage 1 invitation, but my whole childhood was infused with the invitation to “come and see.” Church was part of my weekday life. It was where I went to visit Daddy during the week and where I was loved by a multitude of people – church secretaries, Sunday school teachers, nursery workers, and friends of my parents. Worship services, Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible School, and reading Bible story books all taught me about Jesus.
Stage 2: Come and Follow Me
My parents tell me that when I was four years old, I asked Jesus into my heart. As best as I could understand it, I told Jesus I wanted him to be a part of my life and save me from my sins.
I don’t remember this conversion moment. But, I also don’t remember a time when I didn’t want Jesus to be a part of my life.
Growing up as a Presbyterian, I had ample opportunities to grow in my knowledge of Jesus. Even in the small churches my dad pastored, attending Sunday school was a given. And I really liked learning about faith. I enjoyed learning Bible stories and memorizing Scripture verses.
I still have my student Bible – it has notes scribbled all over it and the binding is breaking. Several times as a child & teenager, I tried reading through the Bible, but I usually lost steam after getting through Genesis. I tried to keep a quiet time, in which I would read my Bible and pray.
I also had ample opportunities as a child and teenager to take part in church activities – weekly worship, church potlucks, youth group, service opportunities, summer camp, and a Christian version of the Scouts called Pioneer Clubs. Church involvement was a given in my family, and I didn’t mind. Church was a safe place, with people who cared about me and whom I loved in return.
It was probably no surprise to anyone that in college I declared a major in religion. My very favorite course was called “An Introduction to the Christian Faith.” It covered major themes and subjects related to following Jesus. The information wasn’t new, but I soaked everything in – I took reams of handwritten notes and loved to study.
And it wasn’t just about study. I sought to live like Jesus – to be a kind and compassionate person of integrity. I knew it was important to serve others, so I volunteered in nursing homes in late high school and throughout college. However, I did not like stepping outside of my comfort zone. Then, the summer before my senior year of college, I heard a clear call from God to “go” outside my comfort zone. I took my first international mission trip as a result. I also decided to spend my first year after college as a Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer and moved to Hollywood to work with an urban ministry.
Stage 2 is a comfortable stage for me. Study fits so well with who I am. I love being productive, doing things for Jesus and for my faith. But I discovered after college that study and serving lose their luster when I am faced with a crisis. And that’s what Hollywood was for me.
Stage 3: Come and Be with Me
I spent three years in Hollywood, living with fellow volunteers working for the Hollywood Urban Project. For so many reasons that I don’t have time to describe, I hit a faith wall there in Hollywood. The challenges of living in this neighborhood wore down my spirit. Plus, the Gospel I had learned so much about in college felt insufficient in the face of the deep pain of poverty ravaging the lives of my neighbors. So what if these people went to Heaven when they died if they had asked Jesus into their hearts? What about their lives today? How in the world could Jesus make a difference?
Thank God, I had several significant mentors my first year in Hollywood. They taught me the importance of self-care – of attending to my emotional, spiritual, and physical health. To be healthy person who engages in mission and ministry, I had to be willing to move into increased intimacy with God and the empowerment that comes from it. I also had to be willing to be vulnerable and so move into the embrace of safe, spiritual friendships.
I remembered that back in high school I had experienced a taste of what it meant to respond to Jesus’ invitation to “come and be with me.” I had gone on my first silent retreat in 12th grade and loved it. So, in Hollywood, I more intentionally incorporated silence and prayer into my life. I read poetry and novels more than nonfiction books about faith; I sought to be with God in places of natural beauty.
And then God worked an unexpected healing in my life. I found out about the opportunity to volunteer for six weeks on the Island of Iona with the Iona Community. Between my second and third year in Hollywood, I spent six weeks in Scotland cleaning toilets, hanging laundry, chopping vegetables, and, in my free time, wandering around this beautiful three-mile-long island. I established great friendships with people from around the world. I participated in morning and evening prayer in the Iona Abbey, and I especially loved the songs we sang.
As I flew back to Hollywood from Scotland, I noticed I had written a prayer by the medieval scholar Thomas à Kempis on the first page of my travel journal. I had underlined, “make clean, make glad, make bright, and make alive my heart.” And I realized that God had done exactly that – without my being conscious of it! I had spent six weeks in the company of God’s people, being with Jesus in ways precious to me (like being in nature and in music), and God had healed me!
It was most clear to me that I had made a shift from Stage 2 into Stage 3 when I began my seminary coursework a few weeks after I returned from Iona. I loved being back in school, but the classes that interested me most were not the classes I so hungrily consumed in college. Bible classes were all right, but the chance to think about urban ministry – and how to do urban ministry in a sustainable way – that was exciting!
I fell into a pattern of spending time with God while I ate my breakfast, sometimes by reading Scripture, other times by reading the words of my favorite spiritual writers. I prayed while I walked to the train station and in my car commuting to school. And, you know what? This heart shift made me a better missionary in my neighborhood. I wasn’t as concerned about outcomes (in producing something) as I was in establishing meaningful, compassionate relationships with the students I mentored. I learned that living like Jesus arises most naturally when we choose to be with Jesus. As we embrace and are empowered by the Holy Spirit, we also engage our world in a deeper and healthier way.