From my earliest days, I have been part of a Presbyterian church. Much of my extended family was actively involved in the life and ministry of that church. Although the congregation of my youth was biblically grounded, it was not especially remarkable compared to other churches in the community.
About the time I turned twelve, our congregation called a new, young pastor who proved important in preparing the ground for my coming to know Jesus. “Mac,” as he was known to everyone, walked with a large group of us teens in communicants’ class, youth group, and mission trips, grounding us in Scripture and opening us up in experiences of ministry and mission. In retrospect, I can recognize that period of my life as a crucial time of loosening and preparing the soil of my heart. I remember several experiences from those years in which I was intensely aware of the near presence of God. Nevertheless, in spite of the good biblical grounding and the experiential encounters with God, my conversion to Christ did not, I think, take place in those years. My teenage years were a time in which God was preparing the soil of my heart.
After high school, I went off to study at the University of Pittsburgh. That transition marked an exciting and distinct break with my previous life. I quickly came to the conclusion that the “religion” of my family was just that – my family’s “religion” not mine. I decided that I did not believe it and wanted nothing to do with it. At the same time, God arranged to place me with a passionately committed Christian roommate, who immediately set to work to convert me. Despite my efforts to keep my roommate’s faith-sharing at arm’s length, I found myself, through my roommate, being drawn into a tentative relationship with an exceptional college ministry based in the Presbyterian church across the street from my college dorm.
When God had all the pieces in place, he pressed the matter home on me. I remember sitting, deep in the night, listening to some pounding rock music from my stereo headphones, and looking out my window at the dark city streets. I remember becoming aware of a distinct mental image (a vision?) of myself on the edge of a sweeping, barren cliff. Off in front of me was a vast, dark, bottomless, empty abyss. I did not so much hear a voice as become aware that I was being spoken to by God, who said, “So, you don’t want me in your life? Look! This is life without me.” The abyss!
The barrenness of life without God bore down upon me with terrible force, and then it was that God began in earnest to draw me to himself. Though I cannot point to a precise day or moment, in the month or so following my “abyss” experience, I
came to know that I knew God and that he knew me; I came to know that God had laid claim to me, and that I had relinquished myself into his hands.
During those years in college, I was disciple up in the faith by several skillful and gifted pastors and older brothers and sisters in the faith. As I watched them and experienced God’s working in my own life through them, I began to realize that God was showing me his calling on my own life.
I have grown and developed in my own gifting and calling through the subsequent years. I have on occasion resisted God’s calling and sought to escape it. But inexorably the Holy Spirit has guided, empowered me, has disciplined and corrected me, and continued to move me in the path that he laid out for me from these earliest years.