"Lord, You have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or You brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting You are God." Psalm 90:1-2 NIV
"God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand. I'm an open book to You; even from a distance, You know what I'm thinking. You know when I leave and when I get back; I'm never out of Your sight. You know everything I'm going to say before I start the first sentence. I look behind me and You're there, then up ahead and You're there, too - Your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful - I can't take it all in!" Psalm 139:1-6 MSG
As I was preparing to write a series of articles on "salvation" over the next few weeks, I got to thinking about various aspects of my own personal history with God. One morning, I read Psalm 139 (quoted in part above and below this posting) five or six times, deeply aware of how God is always working in our lives - even when we don't know Him at all; and, as we do come to know Him better, He is always present with us, affecting our lives in so many ways we don't fully understand or appreciate at the time. Later that day, a minister friend who had been praying for me said she felt the Lord told her to read me Psalm 139 - I showed her that I had already marked it with the ribbon in my own Bible that very morning!
What stands out to me in Psalm 139 is how thoroughly God knows us, pursues us, and loves us - before conception and beyond the grave. He sees the end from the beginning, knows us better than we know ourselves, and is always with us, although we may not always be aware of His Presence or how He is working in our lives. Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." [John 14:6] In Acts 4:12 we read, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under Heaven given to men by which we must be saved." Yet the process by which each of us comes to know Him, and the path we walk with Him in life, is as unique and special as each individual person. I thought it might be fun, as an introduction to the topic of salvation, to share some of my personal testimony - my own history of relationship with God. (I'm 52 years old, so this may take several weeks!)
Before I begin, I want to say clearly that what follows is a selective description of my own memories in relation to the development of my faith in Jesus Christ. I would like to acknowledge in advance that I believe every person in my life - parents, teachers, and spiritual leaders in a variety of church settings - did their best to contribute to my spiritual development whatever good things they knew or believed. I hope that none of what I have written about my own journey of coming to know the Lord will be taken as a personal criticism or theological condemnation of any specific individuals or groups. It is a very subjective and limited account of my own experience, as I understood it while I was growing up and at the time of this writing.
I was born Georgina Anne Zadravec at 6:51 p.m. EST on October 19, 1957, in Washington, D.C. My mother was British-Canadian, and I was named after her mother, Georgina Elson of Vancouver, B.C. My father was the first U.S.-born son of Slovenian immigrants who had settled in Connecticut. Both of my parents were practicing Catholics, so I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through 9th grade, and received the Roman Catholic sacraments from infant baptism through confirmation at age 12. Our family went to Mass every Sunday in Blessed Sacrament parish where I grew up about a mile north of D.C. in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
I took my faith seriously as a little girl. My First Communion photo (above) says a lot about my life at age 7 - skinned knees, blooming azalea bushes, paint peeling on the window boxes, and an uncomfortably ill-fitting white dress. As a Catholic, I tried hard to be a good little girl - sometimes. I loved the Stations of the Cross, which reminded me of how Jesus suffered on our behalf. These were carved in wood and hung above each of the confessional booths along the walls of the church, where I waited in line on Saturday afternoons to tell the priest behind the screen whatever sins I'd committed during the week: lying about stealing a piece of bread from the kitchen before dinner, feeling angry at my mother for catching me, or quarreling with my five younger siblings.
I walked solemnly to the altar at the front of the church to say my "penance" (a number of Our Father's, Hail Mary's, etc. prescribed by the priest in the confessional booth), kneeling before statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Although "the Holy Family" seemed very far away (in the sky, among the clouds, where I pictured Heaven), I felt a glimmer of hope during those quiet moments at church that perhaps my obedience and devotion might somehow bring their touch of peace and love to my family at home. I hummed a favorite hymn, "O Lord I Am Not Worthy," which strikes me now as sort of a sad dirge for a little girl to be singing to herself while walking home alone on a Saturday afternoon.
I was trying really hard to be a "good girl" even as a "bad girl" seemed to be growing on the inside of me at the same time. The struggle intensified as I longed to be accepted and make friends at school, where cutting up in class earned me a little bit of popularity in the 5th grade, only to be sabotaged by my 6th grade teacher who admired my schoolwork and read my book reports in front of the class, earning me the wrath of the other students. I changed schools in 7th grade to a smaller private Catholic school attached to an all-girls college prep and junior college. There I met some kindred souls - a small class of delightfully mischievous, intelligent and creative young ladies (some of whom are dear friends to this day) - with whom I was able to enjoy tormenting our teachers at the same time as I excelled in English, Algebra, History, French, and several years of Latin (LOL!) before my rebellious streak was exposed by the prep school principal (a harsh nun), who suggested at the end of 9th grade that I didn't belong at a school which expected strict obedience to narrow religious rules... and I agreed with her!
My last happy memories of Blessed Sacrament parish centered around a group of families who participated in a weekly "Folk Mass." Influenced by the charismatic renewal movement in the 1960's, a more contemporary service was offered in the school auditorium, with worship on guitars instead of organ music. My mother sang and I learned to play the guitar - we hung out with other families at music practices, picnics in the park, parties and meals at one another's homes. It's the closest thing to a "happy family" atmosphere that I can remember, and although God was still a very vague concept to me, I knew He was somehow involved.
Through this group, I met some young people who invited me to a prayer meeting held in various homes on Monday nights. They called themselves "charismatic" and actually read the Bible, which most of the Catholics I knew in those days didn't do. One Sunday, they invited me to go with them to a "Pentecostal" service, where they said there might be people who could speak supernaturally in languages they had never learned, like in the Book of Acts - my friends had never experienced this, and I thought it sounded amazing. I said to myself, "If that ever happens to me, then I'll know there is a God!" But we arrived late and the door was closed - the service was packed, with no way to get in - so we turned around and went home.
I bought a Jerusalem Bible, and began to read it in my room. I was reading the gospel of John, chapter 1, when suddenly the Word became so alive to me, I actually felt for a moment as if the printed words moved on the page. I ran downstairs to tell my mother, "Mom! it's real! the Bible is real! God is real!" She was busy cooking dinner and not at all excited by my discovery. "All right," she said, sounding a little irritated. "Let's just don't become fanatic about it..." I understood clearly in that moment that she thought religion was OK if it kept you in order, but not if it made you jump around enthusiastically with a Bible in your hand.
It didn't take long for that moment of discouragement to tip the balance away from Christ for that season of my life. You see, I was a teenager - a teenager wants nothing more than to be accepted. I had already noticed that those Monday night young people were "different" from other teenagers, and even from other people in our church. At first, I liked that they seemed to know God and have some idea what the Bible really meant; but very quickly I figured out that committing to this kind of Christian faith would make me "different," too. I wasn't sure I wanted that; that moment in the kitchen with my mother made it very clear to me that there would be a price to pay for real personal faith... and I wasn't ready to pay it.
Jesus said, "Anyone who comes to Me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters - yes, even one's own self! - can't be My disciple. Anyone who won't shoulder his own cross and follow behind Me can't be My disciple. Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn't first sit down and figure the cost so you'll know if you can complete it?" [Luke 14:26-28 MSG] Then He called the crowd to Him along with His disciples and said: "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me and for the gospel will save it." [Mark 8:34-35 NIV]
I'll jump ahead and mention here that after I "got saved" in a Pentecostal church about 12 years later, I wrote a letter to one of those "Monday night teenagers" and set off ripples of rejoicing among several of them who had prayed for me during the years that followed. Next week, I'll tell you more about how important those prayers may have been... (To Be Continued)
"Oh yes, You shaped me first inside, then out; You formed me in my mother's womb. I thank You, High God - You're breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration - what a creation! You know me inside and out, You know every bone in my body; You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. Like an open book, You watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before You, The days of my life all prepared before I'd even lived one day." Psalm 139:13-16 MSG