Recently, I was talking to my mom and describing to her my upcoming trip to Zambia, Africa and all our team would be doing while we're there -- teaching African pastors about the role of the church in the community, both the Biblical basis for that role and practical ways of achieving it. As we talked, and I grew increasingly excited (as I do) about God's extreme blessings; she, on the other hand, grew silent. This has been happening a lot lately with many different people I've talked to. When I finally took a breath and listened she said: "Did something happen?" What she meant was, how exactly did you become this crazy, devoted-to-God person? She asked whether I just started reading some things, going to church, and talking to others -- a slow, intellectual process. Or, did something happen? Was there a conversion experience? A triggering event?
When she asked this, I realized I hadn't told her "my story." I hadn't told her the story God gave me to spread far and wide in the world to the skeptics and cynics. So, I smiled to myself and said to her: "Yes, something happened." And, actually, it happened in two parts. This is part 1:
I tried a case with three of my law-firm partners in October 2008 in Delaware. Two of them attended Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. These are lawyers and friends I admire very much for their legal skill. And, they are good men too. So, when they started talking about their pastor and this message and that message, my ears perked up and I wondered how two smart people went to church (I was a most extreme skeptic and cynic, mind you, thus, my mom's question, "did something happen?"). I didn't pay too much attention to what they said. We finished the trial and all went home. After a trial, there is always a period I would call a valley. One goes from an extreme high of activity and emotion to no activity and a sort of depression. Ask any trial lawyer, it's universal. Anyway, when I returned, I was in this post-trial valley, depression sort of state. I decided to check out Willow on the internet. I looked up the website, researched its pastor, listened to a couple of the messages that were posted on-line. Then, on Sunday, November 16th, I decided I would go to church. Me. I was going to church. Turns out this was a decision that changed my life and eternity forever.
Before November 2008, I usually spent my Sundays reading and watching football. This particular Sunday, though, I was going to church. When I arrived, people in red shirts welcomed me. This seemed pretty standard. This church undoubtedly had lots of people coming for the first time. The inside was airy, escalators were 30 or 40 feet inside the entrance and led to the second level. I figured I might as well get an up-close look if I’m serious about this. And apparently I was. So, I walked into the main level seating area. I found my way to the tenth row from the front, left of the stage. Music greeted me. Everyone was standing and clapping to the beat. Some people swayed. I stood with them and mumbled the words to the songs, which, thankfully, for the rookies, were displayed on large screens throughout the auditorium.
So far so good. This was different than anything I’d experienced in church before, but I was still feeling like an outsider, like I was experimenting with something new. Some announcements were made. I don’t remember them now. And then a young dark-haired man with an Australian accent and jeans came on stage with a small, almost invisible microphone attached to his head. I noticed it, of course, they weren’t going to slip anything by me. I needed to know how everything worked to make sure I wasn’t getting fooled into anything. Whether I liked this place was going to be my choice. The name of the message was “When God Whispers: Whispers of Conviction.” Sitting here today, I have no idea what the pastor, Darren Whitehead, said that day. I recall a reference to the Bible, but not the specific reference. I remember that, generally, he talked about how God speaks to us.
About three or four minutes into the message, my eyes started to water. But not just water like when you turn a corner in the Chicago wind and get blasted with cold air. I had that feeling in the back of my throat, that swelling when you’re about to start crying. And then tears ran down my cheeks. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t actually feeling anything in my heart. I wasn’t feeling sad, or happy, or overwhelmed, or angry, or really anything. I still had my head about me. Well, sort of. Something was happening deep inside me and I could not identify it. There were no words for it. I wasn’t sobbing. My chest was not heaving. Simple, quiet tears ran down and landed on my jeans and my hands. I was smiling.
After Darren finished his message that day at Willow Creek, I sat down and watched as the auditorium emptied. Tears ran down my face. I thought over and over to myself: “What just happened?” My hands shook. My heart raced. I was full.
Then, I had an overwhelming need. I needed to tell someone what had happened. This was not normal. I had to tell someone. Bill Hybels stood near the stage as the congregation filtered out. He was the only person in the room I “knew” because, of course, you know people you see on the internet. (No?) Well, I caught Bill before he walked out, introduced myself, and told him it was my first time at the church. He asked what I thought and all I could muster was: “I don’t know. I’m still processing it. All I can say is that I cried through the entire service and I never want to leave.”
He smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Sounds like today was your day.” What he said took no explanation. I knew exactly what he meant and in my heart knew that he was right. I did eventually leave the auditorium, but didn't want to. I thought they might kick me out if I stayed as long as I wanted -- forever. Somehow I knew I was in the presence of God and I knew it was where I belonged. Turns out, this was only the beginning.
I have since learned that the Scripture Darren taught that day in November 2008 was John 16:12-15. God knew I'd be in church that day:
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.”