It’s strange what sparks a memory.
The other day I came across the photo above on Pinterest, which brought me back to a bridge I crossed at the age of 16, in the winter of 2000.
I was dating this guy, Dan, who was a Christian. Not Catholic Christian like I was- Protestant Christian. I began attending his church out of intellectual curiosity, and because I liked him and wanted to know what made him tick.
I attended church growing up, but was mostly bored by it. After my first communion, when I was 8 years old, I told my mother that I didn’t want to go to CCD (the Catholic version of Sunday school) anymore. I was surprised when she simply said, “Okay.” At that time she seemed disenchanted with the church of her youth and didn’t understand why, for instance, you’d have to confess your sins to a priest instead of just confessing them directly to God.
Anyway, Dan’s church was hosting this retreat for high school students somewhere in the New Hampshire woods in the winter of 2000. I decided to go on it with Dan and a few other friends from school. It was something to do, and perhaps Dan and I could steal some alone time while on the retreat.
Half of the retreat was listening to a speaker talk about God and Jesus and half of it was fun, wholesome activities for teenagers. I wasn’t interested in wholesome activities at that time.
I didn’t quite understand Protestantism. It was unceremonious, the music sounded so modern and campy, and overall it was a little too touchy-feely for me. Protestants seemed to bring this relationship with God, which I felt should have been intimate, completely out into the open. Their emotions were laid bare in front of everyone during worship time at church and it seemed so… vulnerable.
During the speaking sessions at the retreat, led by a pastor from Texas, I distinctly remember discreetly popping my birth control pills and craving a cigarette or a drink. I felt antsy. Protestants made me nervous. Or maybe it was just the people from this church. They were so damn NICE. “What do they want from me?” I wondered. “They just want to convert me so they can feel better about themselves,” I surmised. But they weren’t especially pushy about sharing their beliefs, not like the Jehovah’s Witnesses that would knock on our door at times.
One morning on the retreat Dan and I got up early and took a walk in the woods. It had just snowed, and it was freezing, but the sun was out. We passed a lake that was frozen over. We continued on a walking trail until we came upon a bridge that looked just like the one in the photo above. I wanted to stop to rest and look upon the stream below the bridge. I brushed some snow off the bridge with my glove, and when it fell, it glittered in the sunlight shining through the forest trees.
I remember laughing. It felt magical, the way that snow glittered in the sun. I asked Dan if he saw it. He said yes. I brushed more snow off of the bridge and kept laughing when it turned to glitter. I felt like I was inside a damn Thomas Kinkade painting.
Then I looked up at the sun streaming through the trees. There was a light breeze which made some of the snow fall from the branches and turn to glitter in the sunlight. It was almost as if someone was there and was making this happen just for me. The stream was gurgling peacefully underneath the bridge. Other than that, there wasn’t a sound and we were surrounded by empty woods.
It was one of the most beautiful and peaceful moments of my life.
“What if I said that I think God is here?” I asked Dan. “Would that make me a heathen?”
“He is here,” he said plainly. “And no.”
That evening during the regularly scheduled speaking session, while everyone’s eyes were closed, the speaker asked people to raise their hands if they were interested in accepting the Lord Jesus Christ into their hearts. He must have made a compelling case that evening, because I remember tears streaming down my face.
Yes, I wanted the Lord. But I was scared of what that meant, like changing my personality. Being NICE just to be nice, not because I wanted something or was trying to manipulate someone. Being nice didn’t work for me in the past. People just took advantage of me. I didn’t want that to happen again. I didn’t want to be VULNERABLE.
Then the speaker asked everyone with their hands raised to come to the front of the room. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to, but I had already raised my hand and I know he saw it. I felt a little pressured, but I went to the front of the room anyway, along with a group of about 10 other teenagers.
Everyone was looking at me now and I didn’t like it. Everyone was praying for me and the other teenagers and I wasn’t quite sure how that made me feel. After the session, people came up to me to congratulate me for being saved and to hug me. I didn’t like people I didn’t know hugging me, but I remained graceful about it. I was also thankful that people cared so much, but it made me feel uncomfortable for whatever reason.
It didn’t feel PERSONAL.
What I felt in the woods was personal. And I believe it was God. More God than the speaking sessions and kumbaya (Not like they were bad things, but the didn’t reach me in the same way- I believe God connects with us in ways that make sense to us).
That day in the woods was the first time I truly recognized God’s presence- His joy, His wonder, His love for mankind. I told Dan this, and he confirmed that what I felt in the woods was God. He also relayed a scripture to me to help me make some sense of what I felt:
“Then He said, ‘Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” 1 Kings 19:11-12 (NKJV)
Thus began my 14-year journey to get to know the Lord and have a relationship with Him. It’s been a roller coaster ride of spiritual highs and lows, with me denying Him and then asking Him back into my life, with struggling to forgive and come to terms with my past, with good and bad churches and church members, and with wonderful blessings- all part of His intricate plan for my life.
Like many relationships we have in life, it hasn’t been easy. It takes work. But looking back on the last 14 years, it has been worth it. And while I’m not the person I wish to be yet, I’m getting closer. It has taken more time than I originally thought.
And through everything, God has been there. Even when I’ve denied Him and even when He has been silent (that happens sometimes). He has been watching over me. He has been PRESENT.
Just like He was when I crossed that bridge in the Winter of 2000.