I met Jesus when he stood beside a cute guitar player while the aroma of grilled hamburgers filled the air. I must confess that the boy with the Gibson could have drawn me to his chest and I might not have been pulled towards the man from Nazareth. I was sixteen, it was the summer of 1977, and romance was a constant in my fantasies. Plus, I have always felt a little weak at the knees for boys strumming guitars and singing mellow songs, especially if they happen to catch me looking their way and flash a smile.
On that Saturday, Chad’s tenor tone led the church group of teens in songs about God’s love, steadfastness, and forgiveness. As we sang in the back yard, evening settled over us. When the cicadas started to hum along, I felt it. Another voice was breaking in over the Alabama breeze: I couldn’t deny it. It was real, just as real as the girl in the cut-off denim shorts standing next to Chad.
Soon the guitar strumming stopped, and the singing ceased. Chad placed his guitar on the grass and asked us to all join hands in a circle. I hoped that my hands wouldn’t feel sweaty.
Chad closed his blue eyes and thanked God for being in our midst. He thanked Jesus for dying on the cross for our sins and for feeding us with love and hope.
Perhaps it was Chad’s voice, perhaps it was because the hamburgers had tasted so juicy and American when we’d sat around the picnic table an hour earlier, but there was an undeniable peace that blew over me. There was also an incredible gentleness, like the whole back yard had been sprayed with fabric softener.
The group dispersed after a few more prayers and songs. I stayed as I’d been invited to spend the night at the hostess’s house. Kathy was a small girl with a southern accent, someone I’d just met that afternoon. Since my parents were the missionaries from Japan, invited to speak and preach at a Montgomery church during the weekend, someone had asked if I’d like to be with others my age instead of going to the adult group where my parents were. This is how things work in the missionary church world—kids get pawned off all the time and often have no idea what they are getting involved with.
As Kathy and I got ready for bed and talked—she about Jesus, I, asking questions about Chad—the presence of someone else (unseen, but definitely felt) prevailed. The air—or was it simply an emotion? —whatever it was, was both captivating and comforting.
It will be gone by morning, just like Chad will be gone from my life.
I was used to jumping into things and hopeful that they would fulfill me. It seemed I had done a lot of that over the last year. Leslie, a friend at my international high school in Japan, had met up with a band at a disco in Osaka and I had gone with her one night and gotten involved with a much-older-than-me DJ. Leslie and I got back to the dormitory past curfew and when confronted, I’d lied about why we were late. The dorm parents grounded me, and wrote a letter to my parents about my unacceptable behavior. Leslie was grounded, too. Both of us had been grounded before. If I got one more offensive mark against me, then I’d be kicked out of the dormitory.
When I woke the next morning to a hot and humid Southern Sunday at Kathy’s house, she was already awake. I slipped into the bathroom to wash up and get dressed. Kathy’s mom greeted me in the kitchen where she stood in a terrycloth bathrobe over a griddle and poured pancake batter.
The house seemed to hum, and it wasn’t just the Kenmore fridge with the built-in water and ice dispenser. The sound was soft and real and spread over me and through me. If an X-ray were taken of my heart, the technicians would study the results and come up with this word: tranquility.
My spirit—something that I wasn’t even aware I had up until this morning—was at ease. I was a Sakura tree along a blue mountain backdrop, each petal, coated with soft peace. I spoke to Jesus in my thoughts. “Hello,” I said. By this time, I knew that the peace I felt belonged to Jesus. “You’re still here. I’m beginning to think you might be real.” Jesus, whom I had ignored in the past, was coming alive to me.
Later that morning, I was reunited with my parents and younger brother Vince at a large Presbyterian church in Montgomery where Dad preached at the 11 AM service. The next day we left Alabama for Georgia. We were on our way to the home of fellow Southern Presbyterian missionaries; the Moores were also in America for what we called a furlough.
“You’re still with me,” I whispered as my brother slept and Mom and Dad talked in the car’s front seats about missions and wondered what certain friends of theirs were doing that summer in Japan. “I’m sort of perplexed. I thought you were only friends with old adults, missionaries, and nerds,” I confessed.
As the miles were lapped up by time, doubt snuck into my mind. I’d been taught by my parents about this son of God, and I knew the heroic Bible stories about Abraham, Daniel, and Moses at the parting of the Red Sea. But what would Jesus want with me? “You’re not going to leave me when we get to the Moores’, are you?” I asked.
Meeting Jesus for the first time makes you feel incredibly dirty, like you forgot to bathe. Or maybe you thought you had because every day of your life, until you reach out to him, you’ve pretended that you felt clean. But face-to-face with him, you wished you had sat in the tub longer, scrubbed behind the ears, and not used the generic bar of soap.
On the trip to Atlanta with Jesus next to me, I was covered in this thick film of putrid wrong. As a teen I knew how to feel grungy. I’d had plenty of opportunity to deal with oily skin, zits, and stringy hair. This was worse than feeling like that, worse than sitting in class in a dress and realizing I had neglected to shave a patch of hair on my calve. Coming out of the shower at Kathy’s that morning, I had smelled clean. But now that I was in the sunlight of Jesus, I could see that I was actually sweaty, smelly, and as if I had forgotten to wash.
All my dirt was exposed in the light. And oh, the guilt! It was like I’d been dipped in it. No, not just dipped, but battered like tempura, and submerged into a pot of hot oil to fry. I thought of the nights of sneaking out of the dorm and dancing in the arms of the DJ at the disco. I was reminded of the time I was nine and stole candy from the local corner store after Annie Moore taught me how easy it was to do, and then she ratted on me to Mom. As they say in the South, I was a mess.
When we arrived at the Moores’, there was another surprise. Annie told me she’d met Jesus at her church youth group. Annie and I talked after dinner and into the early morning hours. I conveyed my shame and she explained, “All of us need God’s forgiveness through Jesus. Not one of us is without fault.” She said that we were like beggars looking for bread and were instructed to share it with each other when we found it. I conjured up an image of a woman in rags eating out of a dumpster, and being ecstatic when she came across a loaf of bread to fill her belly and those of her hungry buddies. I’d heard Jesus called the Bread of Life, and around 3 AM that morning it made sense as to why he is the answer to the woes of mankind.
Each morning after that, the fear that Jesus was going to leave me grew fainter. I had friends in the past who had ditched me; many who promised to stay in touch, didn’t. Jesus stayed.
Back in Japan, I dusted off my Bible and read that Jesus said, “I’m with you always” (Matthew 28:20).
The summer of 1977, when I was introduced to the living Jesus, was over four decades ago and yet the truth remains today—Jesus never leaves, never abandons. Jesus Christ, Savior and giver of Perfect Peace, is for always.
Alice J. Wisler is the author of six novels including Rain Song (Bethany House, 2008), and a devotional about grief and loss. She lives and writes in Durham, NC.