The view from the top of the mountain in New Mexico was enchanting. I could almost see the Texas border as the sun set on the wooden cross. I was 15 and finally old enough to go to the annual youth retreat sponsored by my Protestant church in El Paso. The crackle of the campfire, the smell of the marshmallows toasting and the cool breeze of early March kept us near the fire.
We sang and sang and prayed and prayed. Then the youth minister directed us to spread out into the trees and think about our relationship with God. As I walk through the woods, I quietly sang the words William Young Fullerton wrote to the tune of Danny Boy, “I Cannot Tell.” I found a grassy spot and sat down under a tree. The verses relate Jesus’ birth and death for our salvation, and the jubilation of his returning as the savior of the world. The second verse says:
I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the Cross was broken,
The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the broken-hearted,
And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
For yet the Savior, Savior of the world, is here.
For the first time, I recognized that the stirrings within me signaled the presence of Jesus living in my heart. Speechless, I stopped singing my favorite hymn to focus on him. He gently made known his life in me through the gift of unexplainable joy that rose from deep within me and filled me up.
At that moment I knew God was real and loved me personally as my savior.
God-moment of joy
My response? I was overwhelmed with love for Jesus and committed my life to him. It was a life-changing God-moment of joy for me.
What was I to do with this captivating joy?
I returned to the campfire holding in my heart this glorious secret between Jesus and me. When the youth minister asked us to share what we had experienced, no one said a word. Not even me. I sat very still, my eyes down, waiting for the rush of emotion coloring my face to subside. My immature, shy 15-year-old self kept silent at the most important moment of my spiritual life. Not because I didn’t believe my experience of Jesus’ love was real but because I wasn’t ready to share it.
A secret kept
I kept the joy of Jesus inside me where I knew it was safe and real and would remain our secret. I thought that if I shared this tender relationship, it might dissipate. Besides, like the hymn implies, I couldn’t explain why Jesus came to earth, why he suffered and died for us or how he will return in glory. I couldn’t explain the magnitude of what Jesus meant to me any more than I could explain the grandeur of the mountains around us.
When I returned from the retreat, Mother asked if I enjoyed it. I smiled and told her I really did. Then went to my room to be alone.
I didn’t share the joy of that God-moment with her or anyone for decades. That moment with Jesus, and so many since, has brought me such overpowering joy that I sought solitude to keep that secret joy within me. Our spirituality is intimate and personal; it’s supposed to be private, right?
Always be ready
As I grew up in the Lord and other people shared their God-moments of conversion with me, I realized I was wrong. Yes, spirituality is personal, but it’s not private. My “I Cannot Tell” chant is now “Always be ready.” In 1 Peter 3:15, St. Peter opens a whole new viewpoint for hesitators like me, and perhaps you, when he writes,
Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you a reason for your hope. (1 Peter 3:15)
This scripture helped me take baby steps to share my first moment of conversion with one or two people close to me, then a share group. Now I collect conversion stories on my blog and tell my story to Catholic groups and conferences to help others share their faith stories.
We safely can take baby steps with those close to us, perhaps like the youth minister and my mother, that sense that joy alive in our hearts. They don’t push us to confess our conversion because they love and respect us. But they know. And they would love to know more. They want to listen to our story and find that joy we try to hide. It’s okay to share with your family.
Then look around and follow the lead of others who quietly or boldly take every opportunity to share the joy of Jesus that overflows from within their hearts. That joy is Jesus, the Word of Life that exists from the beginning and into eternity – and lives in our hearts.
But this I know
As the hymn asserts, I cannot tell the experience of Jesus on earth, how or why he lived and died the way he did. But this I know, he heals my broken heart, forgives my sin, calms my fear, lifts me up because he is here with me now and always.
Before my birth, God inspired Fullerton to pen these words that still resonate in my heart today. He had no idea how the hymn would impact my life and that of thousands, perhaps millions of Christians around the world. God inspired St. Peter to write the “Always be ready” scripture that encourages me to evangelize. He knew and provided these gifts well before he opened my heart to accept them.
In the same way, the Holy Spirit prepares us to share our stories by reminding us of poignant moments he has indelibly marked in our souls that can touch the hearts of others. Simultaneously, he is preparing the hearts of those we will encounter today, tomorrow and next year.
Prompted by the Holy Spirit, we take baby steps in sharing a little of our story, confident that God uses them however he wills. Our unique story may be their “I Cannot Tell” song or “Always be ready” scripture or unforgettable story that sparks them to nurture the life of God stirring within them. Our baby step of witnessing may prompt their giant step toward God.
Our joy comes in the telling and the confidence that we are planting or watering a seed of faith.
What God-moment changed your life? How can you share it with someone close to you?
(© 2017 Nancy HC Ward)