(This short series previewing my upcoming book talks about how God changed the trajectory of my life during my college years. The first entry is Your “Success” – NOT God’s Plan? (my story).
It was clear the tectonic plates of my Christianity were shifting. Jesus was moving me from a paradigm of performance to a paradigm of pursuit and being.
This realization would grow and receive a giant exclamation point the following summer. I don’t know if anything could have prepared me for what I experienced at the Ramp, a radical ministry in an otherwise unassuming corner of rural Alabama.
First: an observation: American evangelical Christianity hasn’t historically emphasized pilgrimages. It’s a practice as distant from the minds of young Christians as the far-off places that men in shaved heads and sandals visit. But the Ramp somehow felt like a pilgrimage.
Even a year before, I had still been going to a mainline denominational church, so the change of pace was stark. Barely one year out of high school, I stepped into the high ceiling lobby of the building re-purposed for youth revival. I felt suddenly gripped. I went slowly. How much of it was nervous anticipation based on the reputation that preceded it, and how much of it was the tangible fear of the Lord in the atmosphere?
I’m pretty sure when I went to the bathroom, I overheard someone speaking in tongues at a urinal. This wasn’t Kansas anymore. It might as well have been the moon.
Inside the auditorium, 800 youth from around the southeast sat on the floor. Chairs were only for youth leaders and those who were elderly. There was a giant R hanging in the back with jagged edges. You could see the rivets and bolts in it. The wood looked hand-carved. In the same way, God was about to hand-carve something into my life.
The music was thumping my rib cage. Or was it the pounding of so many young feet jumping up and down and dancing?
I’ve never been in an environment before where devotion to God could be described as something raw. Despite the numerous youth conferences I had attended in middle and high school, I’m not sure I had ever seen so many people emanating the abandon with which I imagined king David dancing when the Ark of the Covenant was returned. I had seen youth act wild many times, this was one of the first times I had seen the Spirit of God be wild.
The still small voice that we know Elijah’s life was defined by happened in the midst of an earthquake and a tornado, and so it was with me. As cymbals crashed and voices shouted the name of Jesus, whisper came into my soul, and it was a whisper that stopped me in my tracks. I took out a small spiral notebook.
“Let’s be friends,” God said.
I paused. The meaning sank in. “Okay,” was my simple reply.
Sure, I had made Jesus my Lord, but he was not my friend. I had made Jesus my Savior, but he was not my friend. I had given him my work, my first fruits, in my determination, but I had not given him my leisure. It was a compartmentalized Christianity, and my boxes were about to be broken by John 15:15.
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
Did he ever want a thing from us except our love? By then, I had heard the voice of the Holy Spirit prompting me countless times to go witness to a person or tell someone about Jesus, but that summer of was the first time the Lord ever tenderly asked me to be his friend. There were depths of partnership with the Lord that I had yet to discover, even as I still served him, yet from delight and not mere duty.
The next day, the 800 youths and the conference leaders went down to Williams Creek. It was a baptism for hundreds and hundreds of young people, but it wasn’t the baptism of salvation. The majority of us had already been saved. It was, as they described it, the baptism of John, the baptism of leaving behind old mindsets and preparing for the new thing God wanted to do.
It was a baptism of repentance.
I still remember the feeling of the mud at the bottom of the creek. It was cold and squishy, a disgusting place. Still, even in the murky water, I felt a piercing clarity. I purposefully wore my cargo pants with my pocket journal in it. Yes, the water soaked and saturated the entire diary. The ink blurred and ran. It’s difficult to make out anything written in the journal before that day. I’m glad.
The drama team there, known as Chosen, was made up of interns and the young adults that helped lead the ministry. They lip-synced and danced to a song I had never heard before, something about blowing a trumpet in Zion. Those in masks depicted youths bound in demonic activity, then they were violently set free by the voice of the Lord.
After the altar call, the stage in the sanctuary was littered with items of surrender. Young men and women laid everything up there: bags of dope, keys, iPods, and more. I left my college ID card there in an act of surrender regarding my educational path.
Featured image from Chattanooga Times Free Press.