My early family life made me question whether I had a purpose at all. I wondered why I was alive. I thought about killing myself often, and my mood was flat and depressed.
As a teenager, I was headed south. I wanted to believe in God, but I had been told many times that God was out to get me, and my image of him was distorted by false language that made his nature murky and frightening. One afternoon when I was 13, I was feeling desperate and alone. My parents had separated, and my mother had whisked my sister and me across the country to a new school in the middle of the year.
Without the fragments of my father's love and concern, I was in a deep depression. I was failing science in an unfamiliar school. I was convinced I was fat and ugly. And I had just found out that my parents had given my dog away. I loved that sheltie, and the rage and sorrow that welled up in me after overhearing the news (no one told me directly) took the last teaspoon of pluck out of me. Sitting on the couch in the living room I began to cry. This in itself was not unusual, but this time I couldn't stop. It was as if I was being sucked down into an abyss. I was out of strength and didn't have one bit of tenacity left.
The truth is that so often when we are at our lowest ebb, when we have nothing left, it seems to oil the hinges for the door of God's presence to swing magnificently wide, allowing us to experience the reality of God's presence in a whole new way. For me, in that moment on the couch, the song "Amazing Grace" crackling out over the radio, sung by the old-time voice of George Beverly Shea, oiled those hinges. What I experienced as I only half-listened to the familiar hymn hit me broadside. It pulled me up and caught me by surprise. It stopped my tears, but then started them again for an entirely different reason. I was overcome with the presence of Jesus.
As I sat there, I was flooded with a delighted, almost chuckling love that rippled through my being like a river. Wave after wave of it poured through me; I couldn't stop it. I had the sense that the joy and warmth and aliveness was endless and that I was eternally held in that reality. This was not the God I knew, the one who was distant, disapproving and coercive, the one who chewed people up and spit them out. This was a God who longed to be in relationship with me. I had the sense that I was known, that my name was acknowledged, that this Someone who knew me (did I dare call this One by that awful name—God?), had allowed my life to have meaning. I wasn't a forgotten bit of froth tossed up by a wave and left to evaporate on the sand. In the loving gaze of this Someone, I was an eternal being who was infinitely more important and valuable than I had ever believed.
That night I stayed up all night and read Scripture. The words jumped off the page and walked around with new life. I was transfixed by the fact that as I read the Bible I no longer felt condemned but outrageously and fervently cared for. This was a love that any human love I had experienced up to that point couldn't even begin to approach. Even at 48 years old, when I go back to that moment, it defines who God is for me.
I told this story once in a sermon and was jolted by the responses of the people after the service. I must have heard similar accounts at least ten times over the course of three services that morning. With tears in their eyes, people said things like, "I know what you mean. When I was very young I had an experience of Jesus' love, and I've never forgotten it. Life has been hard, but I keep remembering Jesus' love—the way I experienced him back then." The magnificence of Jesus' presence is unforgettable. It touches everything we long for as humans. You don't forget Jesus' presence. You can't.