February 1974, 41 years ago, I opened the greatest gift I’ve ever received.
It was a cold January night and to tell you the truth, I never saw it coming. Stars glinted against the clear coal-colored sky. My friend and I were tooling to my house for the evening, she in her green Ghia and I in my white Nova. How could there possibly be ice on the ground on such a beautiful night? The idea never entered my 18-year-old mind.
Well, the Nova hit a patch of ice and went spinning. As the world twirled around me, my friend and I played a dark game of bumper cars. The Nova finally stopped on top of a side rail. It perched in a precarious position, ready to topple over at any minute. The Ghia landed in a ditch. The Connecticut State police arrived. Our parents showed up. No one was hurt and thank God we actually had no drugs in or on our bodies. My friend went home to her house and I to mine.
Within a matter of seconds, I was car-less and trapped in very rural Connecticut.
School was still on winter break. I was stuck out in the middle of nowhere and bored silly. It was half a mile from the main road just to get to our house and a 20-minute drive on that main road to get to any road that went anywhere near a destination I’d want to go. So it didn’t take much thought when my sister called to say Robbie, a guy who worked in their bookstore, a cute guy who worked in the store, wanted to take me to the Burning Bush on Friday night. I had no idea what the Burning Bush was, but since it was near the University of Connecticut, how bad could it be?
Now my sister and her family had “got religion” and “born again” at an Episcopal Church in California. It didn’t have much effect on me until they decided to return east. And actually, I’d been too busy finishing high school and starting college to care.
I was raised Greek Orthodox which was literally “all Greek “and incense to me. That wasn’t so strange because growing up my best friends were Catholic and church was all Latin to them. Their service was shorter but I didn’t have to endure CCD, the Catholic Church’s education program. We all had to fast during Lent. Everybody on our street went to church back then whether we liked it or not.
For some reason, as I waited for Friday and freedom, the only Bible verse I knew rambled through my head. We’d lived in Nebraska for a while when I was little and I was allowed to attend Vacation Bible School, something my 8-year-old heart longed to do because of the neat Popsicle stick crafts advertised in the church window. We glued stick boats and memorized John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The verse wound its way through my thoughts and wouldn’t go away.
Friday night and freedom arrived. I gussied up in my best pair of tattered jeans. Robbie arrived and we sped off into the night. The Bush turned out to be a campus coffeehouse. It was a dark night outside but inside, the lights burned bright. Hippies were everywhere and some people were playing guitars up front.
I decided that if I could endure a 2-hour service chanted totally in Greek, I could survive the night. The musicians played Christian folk songs, something I’d never heard. Everyone sang and clapped and laughed. I’d never seen such a joyful group of people.
Finally, the room grew quiet and we all bowed our heads. I wasn’t thinking any life changing thoughts. I had no premonition that a major turn in my life was about to happen. I was just sitting there marking time and sort of listening to the curly haired guy who was up front talking. He shared that I didn’t have to feel alone anymore and that dark emptiness inside that I’d lived with all my life would go away all by having a relationship with Jesus Christ.
I’d attended church all my life, but never heard Christianity was anything more than a religion, one choice out of many. When the man asked who would like to meet this Jesus, my arm, much to my amazement, shot up and I went down front to pray. Everyone was excited for me and I felt happy, but that was that. The date was over and I went home, never to hear from Robbie again.
It’s dark in the country when you turn out the light. There were no streetlights or neighbor’s lights or store lights. The dark engulfed me, but somehow, against the blackness of my room, I felt all lit up. That place inside of me that had hurt so bad for so many years was gone. It was filled with warm light and a sense of being truly loved.
It’s Valentine’s Day. The time of year we think about giving and receiving gifts of love. For God so loved the world that he gave mankind, all of us, the greatest gift of all over 2000 years ago. All we have to do is open it. I pray that if you’ve never said “hey” to Jesus that you take a minute and talk to him. Nothing big, no fancy words. Just tell him you’d like to see if he’s for real. You won’t regret opening this gift of love one minute.