I still remember when God became real to me. I couldn’t have been much older than 8. My brother was still playing basketball at our local primary (k-2) school. We got the news that one of the high schoolers from our church had been seriously injured in a freak snow skiing accident. I can still remember the emotional storm that overtook my home as we received the news. I remember Dad traveling all the way up to West Virginia to be with the young man and his family. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
You see, my Dad loves teaching. Back then he really liked the high schoolers. They aren’t so curmudgeonly as the adults, but they weren’t so nascent as the middle schoolers. Dad often taught the high schoolers at church, spending the time to teach them how to drive, how to cook, camp and how to think about God in ways that would open them up from the tired dogmatics that never seem interesting to a teenager. He had worked with this group for almost 4 years now and had really gotten to know them. In some ways, Dad directed some of the high schoolers from more dangerous paths.
But my Dad is a doubter. In his younger years, the highly analytical side of him did not allow for the miraculous or if there were miracles we, humans, certainly had nothing to do with it. God had set out the rules to play the game of life. It only made sense to follow the rules. After all, most of the Bible speaks about the blessings that you will receive if you follow the rules. Those blessings are a huge motivator for many people, especially the analytical.
This is how a had grown up knowing God, in this same analytical fashion. It was still how a viewed God until much later in life. A friendly God had never really hit me until my early 20s.
It was the mid to late 1990s. A normal winter day saw some friends head up to the closest good slopes in West Virginia. Tennessee has some slopes, but I don’t know that anyone would call them good for anything other than beginners. That’s when Dad gets the call that one of them has been injured. I remember that it didn’t seem serious at first, but Dad decided to head up with the young man’s father just to be there and check everything out. Dad was working for US Surgical at the time, so he knew how to talk to doctors to get the information a family actually needs. What should have been routine repairs though just never seemed to work out. Of course, the group would pray and the injuries would improve, but there always seemed to be something holding back the full recovery.
Enter my experience
Now, as an 8ish-year-old who was highly unaware of the world around him, it took quite a bit for me to sense and understand emotion and the importance of a moment. I knew the young man wasn’t doing well. I knew he was popular and successful at school. But, when our church hosted a prayer night for him, I didn’t expect to see so many high schoolers in our church’s gym.
They prayed for hours.
I can still remember walking in those doors and seeing a double circle of high school students pouring the hearts out to God to save a young man’s life. Even today when I walk through those same days, I half expect to see that same double ring of people. I didn’t even recognize most of them. They were from all over town. At that moment I understood that God was real. He wasn’t a fantasy or a fiction. He wasn’t someone far away. God was here and present among us.
My mom, who had thought I would just hunker down for a few minutes then get bored, had to come to get me nearly an hour later. An hour of prayer is a long time for most people, its an eternity for an 8-year-old. I remember her telling me she was proud of me which I still think is odd. Why would you not pray for someone when it was clear that the God was present? As a parent, I now realize that she probably had to chase my little brother (a 5ish year old) around, and she might have missed the moment. All I knew was that God was real and he was a lot bigger than our church. The students from all over town and from a variety of denominations demonstrated that plainly enough for even an 8-year-old.
God is present
This is one of the earliest stories of my faith, an unanswered prayer. Pain and heartache are sometimes the ways we most encounter God because they draw us into a community. After all, Jesus says “whenever two or more are gathered I am with them.” Gathered, that’s what it felt like on that night of prayer. Young people were gathering to seek out God and beseech the Lord for a friend, a loved one, or a family member. One of my earliest memories of God is the community that we are constantly called to. The prayer for the young man’s life fell silent, but I have to wonder if the prayer of that same young man shouts today by drawing together a community that might have never done so otherwise.
His memory certainly drives my faith today. It has given my father a powerful testimony about the power of prayer. He was there in the hospital for the whole week. God is always up to something. I have had a fairly smooth life. When I think about my blessings, I think about those who have suffered. Then I move to alleviate that suffering with my blessings. Perhaps, that is what we are meant to do. Instead of using our blessings as a shield from pain or a justification for why we are righteous, we should lean into the pain by being present just like God was that night about 20 years ago.
When did you realize God was real? What was that experience like? Please share your faith in the comments below or feel free to let me know on Twitter, Facebook or email.
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