“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”
– Isaiah 43:19
It was a balmy summer night in 1998 when God found me.
He had tried once before, sending me proverbial flowers and chocolates by way of introduction. A few years before, as I listened to a somewhat formulaic version of Graham Kendrick’s well-worn 1970’s Christian pop standard, “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” the thought entered my mind that the idea of God was real and perhaps there was something to this Christianity thing that I had been immersed in for all my life. But it could also have been the electric guitar, which was to me at the time quite possibly the coolest thing ever.
But I was a naïve, misguided junior high youth back then. Tonight was different. Now I was a ninth grader attending my first high school church retreat, with some more experience under my belt and a more mature, nuanced understanding of the mysteries of this world and the next.
It actually started a few days before on a cool afternoon, the first session of the retreat, and I sat comfortably in a balcony seat of Anderson Chapel at North Park University, not knowing exactly what to expect. The pastor began strumming his guitar. The chorus began slowly and softly, starting with the shrill, accented voice of the pastor. But as the throng of youth joined, the crescendo of voices and echoed in the chambers powerfully.
Over the mountains and the sea, Your River runs with love for me
And I will open up my heart and let the Healer set me free
At the time, I would not have been able to explain the theological significance of those lyrics or describe the religious meaning behind our activities, but something in that moment made my soul snap. Perhaps it was the beautiful mingling of voices. Perhaps it was first taste of spiritual independence I was experiencing with my friends. But for that brief moment, I knew I was in heaven. I trembled and tears ran down my cheeks. I remember leaving that afternoon with a curious sense of awe and fear, not sure what I would experience as the week transpired.
A few nights later, on that particularly balmy summer evening, I heard a pastor tell a story about a disobedient son. A son who dishonors, insults and betrays his loving, wealthy father, snatches his share of the inheritance and sets out for a distant land. After squandering all that he had, he returned home destitute and alone, hoping for at best a position as a servant in his father’s household. But, the pastor explained, that was not the fate of the son. The fate of this particularly rebellious son was to experience the grace and forgiveness of his father, to be welcomed back with open arms, a robe, a ring and a great feast.
I had heard the story of the prodigal son many times before and would hear it hundreds of time after. Yet in that moment the indelible picture of a father was seared into my mind’s eye. I imagined a refined, proper man, not unlike my father, sprinting along a dirt road with abandon. His robe flapped wildly in the air, revealing his embarrassingly red long johns. His brow narrowed on its target with fierce tenacity. His eyes were wide with fear and longing. His mouth rested comfortably as if relieved.
I did not need the pastor or anyone to spell it out. I knew who this man was. I knew to whom He was running. Jesus saw me at a distance and was running to me, as if He would lose me if He hesitated for even second. Yet I wasn’t planning going anywhere. Not anymore. Lost in my emotions, I did not realize that the pastor had begun another song:
Father I can’t explain this kind of love, this kind of grace
I know, I still break your heart and yet you run to welcome me
And as I joined the band in that song, for the first time, my 14-year-old heart, mind and soul believed every word. God finally caught up to me. I didn’t do anything. He ran to me.
I wept uncontrollably. And this time not just tears, but mucus and drool flowed like a river. It was the most disgusting, beautiful picture, perhaps the similarly conflicted aesthetics of a delivery room. There was a man immediately next to me who seemed to be responded in a similar way, mucus and all. We turned towards each other and instinctually embraced and wept together as if we planned the whole thing in advance. I never saw him again but for a moment we were long-lost brothers.
On that balmy night in the summer of 1998, God found me, made me His own and called me His son.
Sure, there would be questions and doubts. Doubts regarding science, evolution, ethics. Questions of why bad things happen to good people. Anguish filled evenings where my heart would cry, “Why? How could? When?”
There would also be joys and discoveries. Discoveries of the intricacies of the Gospel – God’s salvation plan from the beginning of history culminating in the person of Jesus Christ and His life, death and resurrection for the sins of mankind. Joys of prayer – early morning Sunday prayers with my youth pastor and Sunday school teacher, late night prayers in the dusty sanctuary of my basement. Joys of community – I experienced the power of friendship to draw me closer to Christ and His kingdom.
But tonight wasn’t about doubts, questions, joys or discoveries, but about a son reunited with his long-lost Dad. I can still picture myself, a pudgy and idealistic ninth grader who had no clue what he had just gotten himself into, kneeling in a quiet corner of that auditorium until the early morning hours, drenched in tears, sweat and gratitude.
And as I look back on the years since that blessed evening—years of pain, years of plenty, years of joy, years of trial, years of ignorance, years of epiphany—I think Dad wasn’t just satisfied with having me be His son, a confused and high-strung son though I might be. He had a job for me. The Bible says that we were created in Him to do good works, which He prepared in advance for us to do. I found out rather quickly that one of the joys of being reuniting with your heavenly Father is that everyday is “Take your son to work” day. Each new day is another opportunity to see what God is doing and to join into His divine, salvific work.
Three years later, while praying in a big, booming stone church in Los Angeles, I heard the voice of God call me to serve Him in full-time ministry. Don’t ask me how I knew it was God, I still couldn’t tell you exactly how it happened. In some ways it was audible, in other ways it was an emotional impression, and in other ways, it was an instinct, the same gut feeling you get you’ve been driving around lost for hours and finally find a landmark you recognize. I knew that God was calling me into ministry, a lifetime of vocational service to His people. It is as real as the existence of gravity—in the same way I know a rock will fall if you drop it, I know that I am called to ministry.
I treasure that night, the experience of God’s limitless pleasure and His invitation to ministry. I carry it around in my heart like a precious diamond ring.
Which brings me to today, sitting in my lonely office on a quiet autumn night in Evanston. After three years of full-time ministry, filled with personal and professional victories and defeats, I have a persistent feeling that God will never leave me or forsake me. He found me, He shaped and He brought me where I am today. My life, my hopes, my dreams are all shaped around this beautiful God.
I am a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. My calling is to minister to college students and empower them to be bold witnesses for Jesus, the running Father, who desperately wants to welcome every student back home.
There is a popular reality show in Korea that helps Korean adoptees from all over the world search for their biological parents in Korea. If the match is found, the reunion takes place live on the show. It is usually an emotional mess, complete with video montages and pretty piano music. But such a show doesn’t need any contrived melodrama; the premise in and of itself packs an emotional punch. At its core is what every person longs for: a connection (or re-connection) with those with whom we have the most basic and essential human bond, our parents.
And so it is with our heavenly Father. My ministry is actually quite similar to this Korean reality show (usually sans the video montages and pretty piano music). I help people search for their long-lost heavenly Father. It is a blissfully significant task, walking with students as they study the Gospels, ask tough questions, engage in Christian community and ultimately discover that its not really them who’s searching for God, but vice versa.
And the reunion is quite a sight to behold. No amount of pretty piano music can add or take away from the magnitude. Watching students give their lives to Christ on balmy nights, frigid days, mild afternoons and everything in between has been one of the supreme joys of my life, next to meeting Him for myself of course.
Yet the truly dumbfounding thing about this enterprise is that if you think about it, God doesn’t really need my help. He is the running Father, after all. I’ve started to wonder if this really is really for my benefit, as if God was saying, “Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matthew 25:21).”
From the first day He found me, God has been running after me. Running after me to show me His love, forgiveness and compassion. Running after me to show me the wonders of being part of a new Kingdom, one He is establishing here on earth. Running after me to show me that no matter what happens in this life, He is sovereign and in control.
I am trying my best, by His love and grace, to run after Him.