As I was growing up, I am quite sure that I first saw the beauty of Jesus in my parents, who in different ways pointed me to my Father in heaven. But I didn’t make that connection until later. The first person whose life I directly connected to the beauty of Jesus was a Young Life leader in high school. His name was John Smith.
My high school in Tampa, Florida, had little in the way of Christian witness until John came from Atlanta with a few recent college grads to start a Young Life ministry. I first met him at a Monday night Young Life club meeting about three months after his arrival. I’m not sure why I said yes to a friend’s invitation to that meeting—in those days I called myself an agnostic and had no interest in anything religious. But this John Smith character immediately got my attention.
He was rather slight of build, with some sort of impediment in one arm, but rumor had it that in high school he had set a national record in the long jump. But more intriguing to me was that he was said to be an “ordained minister.”
He certainly was unlike any minister I had known. There was nothing particularly “religious” about him. He had a beard and wore jeans (which was much more remarkable in those days!), and he had a striking resemblance to the comedian George Carlin. And like George Carlin, he was really funny. I didn’t think ministers could be funny, and I had never associated religion with fun.
But most of all, I was puzzled by the way John seemed to live in the presence of God. He didn’t make a show of his faith, but it was real, as if he had a personal relationship with this man Jesus. He acted like Jesus is someone who’s alive and is someone you could talk to, and he would listen. His Christian faith wasn’t some compartment of his life; it was a natural, almost casual, part of everything he did. I had never seen that before.
I was at a stage in life when I was starting to think about my future. I was asking myself what I would need to achieve to be successful. What would a “good life” look like? Would academic accomplishment do it? What about athletic glory? John and these Young Life guys didn’t seem to have a lot of what the world called success, but they had a sense of contentment and purpose, and an inner joy, that I found appealing. I wanted to know what they had that I lacked.
Love of Christ
From that first night, John Smith showed me the love of Christ. He immediately took an interest in me. He invited me to play frisbee golf, to hang out at the house where the Young Life guys lived, and to come to a weekend camp. I hesitated to go at first—I was new to the group and didn’t know many people. “But you know me!” he insisted, and I went.
And during the next five months I felt my heart slowly warm to the things of God. For the first time, I began to take this man Jesus seriously, as John recounted the Gospel stories in a way that made them come alive. I realized that if this Jesus really is who he said he was, he would be the answer to my most pressing questions. He would open the door to the life I was made for. At my second Young Life camp, at the end of my junior year in high school, in faith I made a commitment to Christ. My life has never been the same.
In many ways, John was an ordinary man (his name was “John Smith,” after all—and he later married a woman named “Dolly Pure”!), but his effect on me was extraordinary. God used him to bring me to faith, as through him I was drawn to the beauty of Jesus Christ.
You can read previous installments in this series.