Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8-9
I fell in love with Jesus at Bible Camp when I was twelve.
I knew Him already. As long as I could remember. A little girl, singing in choirs, sitting next to my Daddy’s pinching fingers in a wooden church pew. He’d lost most of four fingers on his right hand in a factory press, making what was left perfect for getting a pigtailed toddler to quiet down for Pastor’s sermon. Not that he was unkind. My daddy or the pastor. Dad was a gentle man, and quiet, with the nicest blue eyes. My earliest recollection of the robed preacher who stood before us on Sunday mornings, was that he must look a little like God.
I knew what Jesus looked like. His picture hung in a Sunday School classroom, eyes sparkling, hugging children. Today we’d talk about how the artist must not have done his homework, didn’t take into account where those kids grew up, or Jesus either. Skin tones and sparkling eyes all the wrong colors. An unfortunate miss. And yet, what sticks with me is the love.
We were Lutheran. Baptized as infants, confirmed as teens. Vacation Bible school on folding chairs in a cool church basement every summer in between. We’d drink Kool-Aid out of Dixie cups, and watch filmstrips featuring woodland creatures retelling the parables of Jesus. Earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. I memorized liturgy and hymns on Sunday mornings, singing with gusto. My mom likes to tell the story about Amy Paulson standing next to me in Children’s Choir, fingers in her ears, looking at me when the song concluded, “You’z mixed me all up!”
By the time I was a fourth-grader, my legalistic tendencies had started taking some of the joy out of the singing. My public-school teacher was a guitar-playing Christian, and a man, and I loved him. He told us regularly he prayed for us. Taught us gospel tunes and folk ditties, accompanied by his oh-so-cool strings. And then one day Mr. Gilson introduced us innocent scholars to the unthinkable. Rock-and-Roll. Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog. GASP. I know. I’ll never forget. Fighting tears and trying not to think about how my Christian hero was singing the devil’s music. A couple of years later, Miss Amy Paulson, still outspoken, labeled me a Puritan, referencing my religious convictions.
And so the summer after the sixth grade when Mom signed me up to go to Lake Beauty Bible Camp with my Covenant friends—I already knew all about Jesus. I’d been a truly devoted follower from the womb, seemed like. But at camp, I fell in love.
Years later I would attend a Baptist college, and a handful of Evangelical churches. I’d be re-baptized in a lake in Illinois. And eventually I’d work on a church staff, teaching baptism classes myself. Time and again I’d be called on to give account of my own faith story. My Salvation Testimony. And I’d tell it this way. The summer I was twelve, I fell in love. No altar call. No sinner’s prayer. But something significant in the heart of a girl who knew and loved Jesus.
I’ve walked in this love all these years. As a teen, defending my faith in spite of a wee bit of persecution. As a young mom, leading my littles to trust in Jesus. With my husband, pursuing lives devoted to Christ. And then, in my 30’s—a transformation. Something happened. A lifetime of striving replaced by the most breathtaking grace. Which seemed like a mystery, after so many years of loving Him.
I’m in my fifties now, with adult children, learning to love and be loved in another season. This summer, speaking to kids at a Bible camp. Like coming full circle. Sharing my story. “I loved everything about camp that summer. I loved the people and the singing and the games and the crafts and the swimming and the smell of the pine trees. But mostly I loved Jesus.”
I was twelve years old when I fell in love…