Susie rocked my world. She encapsulated everything I wanted. Smart, fun, deep, caring, with strawberry blonde hair trailing down her back. We met while in high school. One night she showed up while I was playing in our rock band. We talked a bit, but it wasn’t until she came by where I worked and invited me to a party that we got to know one another. After that, I was hooked.

Our relationship became exclusive. Over time we talked about the future, and how we wanted to get married. She wanted kids. How many? I grew up in a small family and said one or two. She wanted a whole football team!

We never did resolve that issue. Though we went to colleges close to one another, one weekend she came home. I had been sensing that something wasn’t right. That Friday night after the movie I told Susie I had something to say. I wanted to ask her to marry me. But she jumped in and said there was something she had to say first. She had met another guy. She wanted to break up with me.

She left early the next day to head back to college. I decided to pursue her, but her mind was set. Susie eventually married that guy. I felt like one of the walking wounded.

Six months later in the college café, I sat down with a couple of guys. Richard was fun, outgoing and carried a Bible. When I saw that, I had steered away from him. Now things in my life were in a different place. Perhaps he sensed I was more open.

Richard said to Art, “Do you think Mark knows?” My friend Art, the guitar player who preferred jam sessions and singing to attending class responded, “No, I don’t think so.”

Richard then said, “Do you think he would like to know?” Art said, “I don’t know, why don’t you ask him?”

So he did. Richard turned to me, and asked, “Would you like to know what we are talking about?” Since it was obvious I was being baited, I said “No.” Well, Richard told me anyway.

Richard shared that God loves us. And in his love for us, God sent his son Jesus. Jesus lived a righteous life, but was killed by religious leaders who were jealous of the following Jesus had.

Richard went on to explain that we all sin—we all do bad things. No argument from me there. I knew my history. He shared that though God loves us; our evil deeds separate us from him. God is just, righteous, and holy. He can’t just turn a blind eye to sin. He has to deal with it. A verse from a book in the bible called Romans puts it this way: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Richard also shared that though Jesus offered up his life as a ransom for us, redeeming us from death, he did not stay dead, but rose back to life three days later. God’s power had raised him to life and God was satisfied with Christ’s payment.

Richard came back to the verse that told about God’s love and shared how we could receive it. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” He explained that the one condition was that we received God’s Son by believing in him. He died for us. Would we believe in him?

I didn’t accept it. But Richard cared enough to drive an hour to pick me up and take me to a college Bible study. I felt so awkward! But they started the meeting with guitars and singing. That helped.

I don’t remember much of what was taught. But I remember the love they had for one another. At my college, the guys were only interested in a girl if she was pretty and dateable. But here at the Christian Ranch Youth meeting (“Ranch” for short), everyone seemed to care about others. You could see it in how they treated one another. For example, one girl tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds. In spite of her size, the guys treated her as well as they treated the beautiful blonde. I thought I knew what love was, but now I was seeing it.

After a month, I had asked questions about being saved. Did I have to be baptized to be saved? No, our works do not save us, only belief in Christ. Other questions followed, but still I had not trusted Christ. Then one day, alone, I knelt and prayed something like this: “God, I don’t understand a lot, but I believe you sent your Son Jesus to save us. I trust in him.”

What happened after that? No rockets went off, but I remember feeling peace and joy. I had been looking for love and got rejection. But now I experienced love from both God and fellow believers. As time passed, I wanted to serve God, not to get something, but to love him back for the grace he had given me.

How about you? Could this be your story too? It can be, if you will trust in Christ for forgiveness of sins.

If you are interested, open a Bible and check out the following verses: John 3:16, John 6:47, Acts 4:12, Romans 3:23, Romans 5:8, Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:8-10.

Epilogue

Some who have read my story have asked, “So, what happened? How did things turn out?”

I did find love, real love. After many years I met and married the one who is now the love of my life. Debbie and I have been married for more than 25 years and have two college-age sons. God filled the void I felt, and has blessed me more with a godly wife than I can tell. We minister together at Oak Hills Church in Argyle, Texas, where I serve as Senior Pastor. Having a life partner in Debbie has blessed the journey and God has brought us joy!

A lot of people think heaven is a reward to be earned, but I discovered it’s a gift to be received. Most people don’t even think about heaven until things start to fall apart on Earth. My world fell apart during the sixties in the border town of McAllen, Texas, where the drugs flowed freely and the parties seemed to never end.

Rebellion was in the air. Authority was to be challenged, not followed. Police were pigs, parents were prigs and we were stoned as we danced to the tunes of Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Jefferson Airplane.

At 16, I ran away from home and hitchhiked to San Francisco, which served as rebellion central for runaway teens who dropped out and doped up. As President Johnson called up more troops for Vietnam, college students burned their draft cards. Our generation would show the world how to “make love, not war.”

My rebellion collided with authority when the Salt Lake City police arrested me for loitering, which was their term for sleeping on a park bench. After a US Marshall escorted me back to Texas, I became the problem that my parents could not solve. Counseling, therapy and moving to Beaumont, Texas to live with my grandmother only fueled my resentment toward all authority and withdrawal from conventional society.

After returning to McAllen, I began to search for answers outside of drugs and parties. I started to read the Bible, but it seemed confusing to me. I visited different churches, but that left me even more confused. My confusion peaked when I visited a church where the preacher said that Christ died for my sins, and if I would make him Lord of my life, God would give me eternal life. When the preacher asked for people to come forward to follow Christ, I responded.

Eternal Life Is A Gift To Be Received, Not A Reward To Be Earned

I thought that going to heaven was a joint venture or partnership. God would do his part by sending his son to die for my sins, and I would do my part by following him. At my baptism, a friend in the audience sensed my confusion. My friend invited me to a youth meeting not associated with that church. At the Christian Youth Ranch in Pharr, Texas, pastor Wally Morillo said something that totally shocked me.

Wally said that eternal life is a gift to be received by faith alone in Christ alone, not a reward to be earned by good works. I objected. I was sure that good works had to play a role in going to heaven.

Then Wally did something I’ll never forget. He opened the Bible to the book of Ephesians and read from chapter 2, verses 8 and 9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

There it was in the Bible. I could hardly believe what I was reading because it was the opposite of what I believed. Going to heaven or being saved is “not of works, lest anyone should boast.” There won’t be anyone in heaven bragging about all the good deeds they did to get there because living with God forever is “not of works.”

Not only is going to heaven “not of works,” Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “it is the gift of God.” I wondered, “How could God possibly allow people to go to heaven freely without doing any good works?”

Wally explained that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he paid for all sins. He said it was Jesus’ work on the cross that made it possible for anyone to go to heaven.

Finally, the light came on. I saw the true meaning of “It is finished,” the words Jesus uttered when he hung on a cross. If Jesus completed the work necessary to pay for all my sins, it would be foolish to think that I could add something by trusting in my good works to get me to heaven.

The most quoted verse in the entire Bible now took on new meaning for me: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). I realized it didn’t say “whoever tries to live a good life,” or “whoever dedicates their life to following Christ.” Jesus said in John 3:16, “whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

A famous theologian once said that believing in Jesus is “the hand of the beggar reaching out to receive the gift.” I understood that believing in Jesus Christ alone and his sacrifice for sins and resurrection from the dead requires humility. By trusting Jesus alone, plus or minus nothing, I realized that in myself I wasn’t qualified to live with God forever. I needed help.

Distinction Between Eternal Salvation and Following Christ As Disciple

For the first time, I saw the difference between becoming a Christian and becoming a disciple of Christ. Becoming a Christian requires trusting in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. Becoming Christ’s disciple requires good works not as a means to enter heaven, but as an expression of thankfulness that I’m going to heaven. There’s a big difference!

Knowing Jesus Christ as my savior has motivated me to do a lot of things I never could have imagined. After being such a poor student in high school, I now had a reason to study. I wanted to know the Bible and to prepare myself to tell others that God is now offering eternal life freely to all who believe in Jesus as their savior.

I graduated from Florida Bible College and then pursued a master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Next, my studies took me to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where I obtained another master’s degree. As someone who never graduated from high school, I have to smile when I think of how much God’s grace has changed my desires.

I’ve seen my journey-of-faith newspaper articles appear in The Washington Post and other major newspapers that received my stories through The New York Times News Service. My newspaper column, Kids Talk About God, has been in syndication since 2000. The children’s website I started, www.KidsTalkAboutGod.org, receives visitors from around the world.

I traveled literally around the world when I produced and directed the Mission Explorers Video Series, which features the adventures of an 11-year-old girl who reports on the activities of missionaries in far away places. Also, I’ve awarded 19 dude ranch family vacations to children who wrote and drew for the online storybook Bible I’m writing, Kids Color Me Bible Gospel of John. More recently, I awarded the 20th dude ranch vacation to the winner of the Rio Grande Valley Children’s Arts Festival.

My latest project is FaithProfiles.org, where Christians can learn to write their testimonies in Journey-of-Faith Writing Workshops. We publish well-written stories on this website and design business cards that point people to these stories. I’m working on this project with my ministry partner and soul mate, Lisa. In 2005, we were married, both of us for the first time. This really is amazing grace, especially for me.

The Power of God’s Unconditional Love

God’s unconditional love has given me a confidence I could never have if my eternal destiny in any way depended on something I could do. I want to serve God and follow Christ not because I’m trying to get into heaven, but because I’m grateful that God has given me eternal life as a free gift.

I’ve experienced the abundant life that Jesus promised to all who follow him. I know that following Christ cannot in any way add to the work that Christ did on the cross to secure my place with him forever. Because God’s love is unconditional, I’m motivated to let him live his life through me. I’m not claiming that I always let God have his way, but I know from the Bible and experience that God’s way is much more fulfilling than my way.

My hope for anyone who takes time to read my story is that you would accept God’s gift of eternal life by believing in Jesus Christ alone as your savior. Enter into an eternal relationship with a loving God who gave his only son so that you might live with him forever and experience peace and joy from knowing his love in a personal way.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

I wanted beauty for ashes (see Isaiah 61:1-3), but I hate waiting. Our instant, high-speed, overnight-results culture has certainly played a role in this. We get impatient waiting one minute for the microwave! But I have had some extra-long waits in my life that could have sent me crashing into despair were it not for God’s love.

Beauty for Ashes: Longing for Transformation

As a child, I was actually more patient than I am now. I never felt beautiful, but I suppose I clung to The Ugly Duckling story. I wore glasses, was a bit pudgy and had bad hair. I even thought my lips were too big. I would look in the mirror and practice holding them in. It was difficult to do that and hold in my stomach simultaneously. When I started wearing makeup, I would cover my lips with foundation and draw them smaller with lipstick. I was just waiting for the morning I’d wake up a swan.

The Art of God’s Love

By the time I was a teen, I had become a Christian. At a Vacation Bible School session when I was a kid, there was a storytelling artist drawing a huge picture with big pastel sticks. It was a beautiful scene, but suddenly he drew a big, ugly, black squiggle in the middle of it, seemingly ruining the picture.

This was where he explained how sin ruined paradise, and ruins our lives. But then, using beautiful colors, he added more, transforming the black squiggle into a gorgeous tree that was the highlight of the whole picture. He told us how God not only forgives our sin through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ, but also redeems it, causing new growth that makes our lives even more beautiful. I understood and believed the gospel (the REAL beauty for ashes story!) at that time, but it would be awhile before I realized all that God gave me when I believed.

Musical Theatre Dreams

While I waited to become beautiful, I went to work on my personality by pursuing my love of musical theatre. Only princesses can afford to be shy, so I studied music, drama and dance in high school and college. It was certainly more rewarding than waiting around to be asked out on a date. After my mom died when I was 19, I drifted away from church. The theatrical scene seemed to fill the void.

I began landing some leading roles in community and semi-professional theatre companies, and the applause from audiences was like a drug to my affection-starved heart. Unfortunately, this also led me to hanging out with drinkers and partiers. Without being in fellowship with other believers, I was too weak to be an influence on my theatrical/party friends, and they ended up influencing me for a time. I even began hatching a plan to move to New York for a stab at Broadway. I worked clerical jobs to save up money.

Lonely and Frustrated

By the time I hit my 20’s, I had slimmed down, gotten contact lenses and was having an occasional good-hair day. But apparently, I was still far from stunning. My dating life was nearly non-existent. Even though the biological clock was not an issue yet, it was quite frustrating. Most of my dates were through personal ads, or because some guy was impressed with my karaoke performance at a yuppie bar.

When I did go on a date, usually there was not a second one. The few times I had a boyfriend, it always either ended or turned platonic within about three weeks. Starved for affection, I would behave too eagerly and scare the guy off. I never came anywhere NEAR getting married. As I approached 30, this began to concern me more. Rejection after rejection eroded my self-esteem to near-zip. I was waiting to be loved. And waiting. And waiting…

Prince Charming and the Biological Clock

My desire to marry grew strong as I approached 40. The biological clock was ticking me off! I bounced back and forth between two extremes. Either I tried too hard to manufacture relationships, or I sat back and waited for God to drop Prince Charming on my doorstep. I was pretty frustrated with God for making me wait so long.

The emotions came to a head one day on a solo bicycle ride when I got a flat tire. I was about two miles from home and the only way to get back was to carry my bicycle and walk. A passing cyclist offered to let me use his cell phone. I thought, it’s not like I have a boyfriend or husband I can call, so I declined. It was getting darker, and the mosquitoes were descending like vultures. I was sure the muggers would soon be coming out, so I thanked the man and continued carrying my bike.

Passers-by just looked at me like I had something growing out of my forehead. Probably a mosquito bite! I plodded onward, praying for protection, strength and enough daylight. By the time it was completely dark, I was back in my neighborhood. I was thankful to be safe, but as my exhaustion started to hit me, I complained to God, crying about my lack of a spouse.

I trudged along with my bike bouncing against my hip and tears streaming down my face. I told Him if I were only married or even dating, there would have been someone to help me. At least I would have had someone to call. I was tired of being strong alone and always having to do everything on my own. I pleaded my own agenda: Why did I have to wait so long? I arrived home exhausted and upset, having forgotten already how God had been with me and answered my prayer on the bike trail.

Here’s the kicker. ALL those things I was waiting for, I already had! From the very moment I had believed that God sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to earth as a human who died for my sins and was resurrected, I had eternal life. I also had a relationship with God, but God was waiting for ME to come closer.

God’s Beauty for My Ashes

God gave me beauty for ashes in the best way – by working it out from the inside. God gave me flawless love. On that bike ride, God had been my protector, my strength and even my healer (the mosquito bite went away!). He was also my provider, having already given me a house, a garden full of flowers, roommates, finances — all things I’d once expected to gain only upon marrying.

As I made little steps of obedience, God worked massive changes in my life. God restrained me from moving to New York, which soon led me to a job in a large church music ministry. That ended up growing and refining my skills and training (both clerical and creative/artistic) in ways I could never have imagined. All of that prepared me for what I’m doing now in my work with two online ministries: KidsTalkAboutGod.org and FaithProfiles.org, which were founded by my husband.

Yes, “husband.” I can use the h-word now. I did finally get married – at age 42! He is a wonderful Christian who genuinely thinks I’m beautiful – because he sees me through God’s eyes. God’s love is the best and He certainly knows what’s best for me. So now I can say that I’m SO glad God made me wait!