I felt Jesus inside of me, let him in finally, saw him seated before me holding my cheeks in both of his hands.
My life changed.
After years of struggle.
And the most interesting part is that I never thought it could. I never imagined I would be able to experience Jesus. I can recall all the bits and pieces of instances where I was almost studying it. From asking a college friend about “feeling God,” in himself over Mexican food, to ignorantly leafing through a bible in a hotel room in Paso Robles, to sitting among a group of women and longing for their conviction.
It happened unexpectedly, in the Redwoods. On a church retreat.
I volunteered to drive. The girl assigned to my car picked another friend to go with, so it would just be me and this guy I had never met for about a hundred miles. We met in the church parking lot. To my surprise, I felt immensely comfortable with the kind bearded man in the passenger seat of my SUV. Almost as though I had known him for a while. By the time we hit Occidental our conversation moved beyond sports and college and movies and life transitions. Like wading into a pool and stopping just below chest level, we settled into discussing Jesus. I briefly touched on my expectations for the weekend and the goal of vulnerability and breaking down walls with others and with Jesus. He told me about how he is mediating on seminary and has been away from community for a while. I thought of our vast differences, his Christian education and longtime friends; the routine of youth group and board games-my shaky foundation and stumbling in and out of instances of religion. And how it all felt okay.
Upon arrival we walked through the parking lot pausing every few minutes to laugh and smile at one another about how beautiful it all was. The map made the grounds look larger than they actually were. We found pine knot village and the pool. After a few laps around complete with banter we sat in silence and wondered when the rest of the group would show up. My new friend, commented, “Well, hopefully everyone is as awesome as us,” and we both laughed.
Eventually others arrived and they were awesome. And I eased in to getting to know them. A little over 40 people were there. I put myself out there slowly, trying new board games, introducing myself, watching those who’ve known one another for a while, wanting to move away from this divided feeling inside. The first night, nothing went as scheduled and at 10:00 p.m. we listened, all eyes deliriously glued to Matt Olsen, our guest speaker. We were told to expect a journey into being aware and to pray that our eyes, hearts, and minds are open to the lord. He mentioned that when you are engaged in the presence of the Lord you are transformed, something I had heard but always doubted, but I wanted to be different. I cried again at the tension I felt during worship, shed tears in public, sobbed in the bathroom. But this time, a girl with long auburn hair was there as well, washing her hands, she offered, “I know you don’t know me, but if you want to talk…” I gave a small smile and continued to strong arm the efforts of closeness.
But inside, I was ready to be engaged, I still wanted to be different. I was there to be uncomfortable. That night, I wrote to myself, challenged myself further, in decided chicken scratch, “burn it down. Burn it all down emily. Start fresh. Take the opportunity. Be the kind of follower you want to be.”
We were given an exercise to do that night. Something quick but powerful and a way to begin to reflect on God by leading with levels of gratitude. (where did I see God today? Where did I miss God? Daily successes and failures-other’s successes and failures. What do I need to change?) I was surprised by how easy it was, when you sit and think to recall where you saw God. I further challenged myself to push the vulnerability another step and to confide in those who helped reveal God to me, even if only for a moment.
The next morning started slowly. I dressed and walked to the main office for coffee. Stopped on the walk back to sit in a tree stump and write. I continued to feel small shifts occur inside of me.
I sat with new people during breakfast. Chapel began with worship, I felt moved by songs I’d never heard. I felt present. Our speaker was well rested. He told a story about the spiritually empty and how they didn’t even know they were dying inside and simultaneously didn’t even realize that despite the lack, Jesus was always still there. My jaw burned and I wiped my cheek at the thought of how I had thrown my heart around in the past two years.
He invited us to engage in breath prayer, he explained the history of it as I positioned myself against a side wall. I was baffled by how easy it was to breathe, prepared by years of martial arts and instances of meditation. “Breathe in Jesus,” my chest rose, “breathe out your sin,” I began to sob, envisioning different memories. I breathed in Jesus and my body shook as I exhaled sharp smoke, clinging to others, and days spent in an empty haze-I inhaled Jesus, and cried as I exhaled rage, and fear and a patchy memory of an inebriated walk home. I inhaled Jesus, again and again feeling so moved that I could make room for him, I continued to exhale the broken parts of me, the people I’ve been. The walls crumbled, my insecurities filled the air, I felt open and small and sorry. I continued to breathe still guided by Matt’s voice. He instructed us to begin to envision Jesus, and when you do to say something. I exhaled deeper and he came into view, I saw him seated before me, I inhaled and felt God inside of me, I exhaled and cried more and all I could think was, “I’m sorry,” as I felt him holding my face. Matt eased us out of the experience. I kept my eyes closed still breathing, still crying. People began to stir slowly. When I did open my eyes I felt overcome and as though I might puke. I sat dazed, starring off as people moved about. I wasn’t ready to do anything but sit and feel.
I spent the rest of the day in a dream. Letting Jesus in allowed me to let others in. Over lunch I told Naomi that she was one of my successes and how I saw God in her passion. In the afternoon from the perfect tranquility of the pool, I told Eric that I felt God in his open hearted kindness and how much it helped. I asked Mel about her roots. Told Schizelle about feeling not good enough. I watched people play. Asked Shannon about her family. In the evening, I talked to Rachel about books as I ate a s’more. I realized that I never wanted to leave this state of happiness. This feeling of being accepted. The blissful realization that you can let other people in.