Therefore, do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but is now made manifest by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1:8-10)
In 1990, when I was 21 years old, I began getting my hair cut by Rick. He was this tall, bulky, motorcycle-gang-looking guy who worked alone in his studio. An entire wall – from the floor to the top of the ceiling – was covered with Christian bumper stickers. You would sit there during your haircut with all of these witty sayings staring you in the face. Things like, “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter.”
As he cut my hair, Rick would monologue about the exploits he used to have with women in the back room of his salon in the days when he was still a heathen sinner. Embarrassed by his stories, and wanting to change the subject, I once asked him, “Soooo, Rick, what’s the deal with all of these bumper stickers?”
It worked. He began to talk about something completely different.
He explained that the wall of bumper stickers was there to proclaim the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to earth for a reason, Rick said. He died on the cross and rose from the dead to offer salvation: something I could accept or reject.
Rick opened a door, and asked me to walk through. He made it clear that I had a decision to make: was I willing to believe in the gospel?
I was a Roman Catholic. My Mom was Italian; all four of her grandparents were born in Italy. (Irish Catholics may be devout, but Italian Catholics are proud.) I didn’t see any need to believe in this message because I was already on good terms with God.
Plus, my favorite grandmother had recently passed away; she didn’t believe in this gospel, so if I did I would have to forsake the chance of ever seeing her again. In fact, I would have to forsake all of my family and friends!
No, it was impossible; I could not believe.
“I’m sorry, Rick, but there is no way I can believe what you are telling me. If I did, then I’d be admitting that everyone I love is going to hell.”
Rick replied, “You can only make the decision to save yourself, Lisa; you can’t save anyone else.”
That seemed logical. I thought to myself, “What if this is true? Am I going to reject Jesus Christ, am I going to reject heaven, just because everyone else does?”
I grew up in South Florida surrounded by Catholics and Jews; I had barely any prior experience with Christianity. Rick was the first person to ever preach the gospel to me, and his message was in total opposition to my own beliefs.
The way I imagined God was that He created the heavens and the earth, and then withdrew into His isolated heavenly realm to watch us all from above. Left on our own, we had obviously messed things up; we had generated a problematic world of pollution and poverty. I figured that God was disappointed, but as a good and loving Father, He forgave us for our mistakes. I certainly didn’t believe in hell, or even in the existence of evil. As God’s children, we were basically good at heart. Everything would be okay in the end since we would all end up in heaven living together happily ever after.
My false ideas about God and heaven were challenged by three special people that God used to call me to the Savior: Molly, Willie and Byron.
Molly was the first Christian I ever met. It was 1989, when I was a junior at FSU. She became my closest friend that year, but her closest friend was Jesus. Her obvious relationship with Jesus Christ was strange and intriguing to me.
Before long I met a flaming Pentecostal named Willie.
Willie was a blind man working on his Master’s degree in Theology. I was hired by FSU’s Department of Blind Student Services to type his papers as he dictated them to me. We developed a father-daughter friendship, and it became his personal mission to save me. He insisted that I ask Jesus into my heart.
I was like, “Sure, no problem.”
So I got into the habit of asking Jesus into my heart every morning. In the morning Jesus came in (I assumed), but by the evening, it was quite obvious that He was gone.
Willie gave me my first Bible. It was a tiny green Gideon’s pocket Bible, and he suggested that I begin with the Psalms and Proverbs.
Like an obedient child, I said again, “Sure, no problem.”
I noticed that Proverbs divided people into groups: the ‘foolish and the wise,’ ‘the wicked and the righteous.’ This was a brand-new idea to me, because I had always imagined that God saw all of us as equals.
A verse from the Psalms said: “Lord, cleanse me from my hidden faults.”
This one jumped out at me. What hidden faults?
In my astonishment I asked God, “What does this mean? Do I have any hidden faults that I need to be cleansed from?”
It had never crossed my mind that God saw me as a person with faults. All of my mother’s hard work was in vain: although she brought us to Confession every few weeks in order to get forgiven by the priest, I had never personally embraced the Catholic teaching on venial and mortal sins.
Consequently, seeing this verse in the book of Psalms about having “hidden faults” made a pretty big impression on me.
While working at the Department of Blind Student Services I went through an atheist phase. I felt uncomfortable and unsettled living this way. And three months later, God used Willie Davis, the blind man, to share a Bible verse with me that helped me see clearly.
I was back to believing in God.
In the summer of 1990, I worked at FSU as an Orientation Leader with this boy named Byron. Whenever we had a free moment, Byron would preach to us that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins.
Meanwhile, God had begun to answer my prayer from the Psalms, “reveal to me my hidden faults.” Byron’s preaching, therefore, was getting through my thick skull.
I returned to Tallahassee for my senior year of college deeply humiliated by a series of personal failures. I often prayed for death. I lived as a hermit for many months, brooding over my misery.
However, my feelings of hopelessness diminished with time, and I eventually decided to stop blaming everyone else for my problems. I resolved to accept responsibility for myself. As I began my last semester of college, I reentered society.
I was intrigued one morning by a newspaper article about New Age philosophy. It described how the power that moves an ocean wave is the same force that gives flight to a butterfly. I did something unusual and cut out the article for safekeeping.
Butterflies were on my mind, so when I saw a yellow one the next day while on a solitary walk, I intently observed him. He was the picture of happiness. He flew around performing all sorts of loops and rolls, truly delighting in the joy of flight.
Turning towards home, I walked slowly in order to keep an eye on him, eventually realizing that the butterfly was following me. He followed me all the way across campus, along my course home. Twenty minutes later he was still behind me! Past the library, I crossed a two-lane street; however, the butterfly refused to cross.
“C’mon little guy! Come on over! . . . No? . . . All righty then.”
I walked back over to his side of the street. He then led me in a direction that was perpendicular to my intended course.
We walked past two student dormitories – Landis Hall and Broward Hall – then arrived together at a spot on the edge of campus where, across the street, stood three buildings: on the left was a bar named “The Phyrst,” in the middle was a candy store named “The Sweet Shop,” and to the right was a United Methodist Church that was basically an outreach ministry to the college students.
The yellow butterfly then flew across the street. I followed. He flew to the right, towards the church. There was a sign on the lawn in front indicating that tomorrow’s service was at 10:00 am. The butterfly flew diagonally across the church’s sign. He then, literally, disappeared from sight.
I stood there on the church’s front lawn waiting for him to reappear. I waited for minutes, looking and searching, but he was gone. I got the message, though. The following morning, I was in church promptly at 10:00 am.
When my Italian mother later found out that I was attending a Protestant church, she did not take it lightly. She was upset and angry, and argued vehemently that the Catholic Church is the only true church.
“It is only at Mass that you can receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist,” she said.
“What? …Wait, you actually believe that, Mom?”
“Yes,” she answered, “I have faith.”
I was sorry to be letting her down, but I liked this church and the new ‘crowd’ that accepted me. Plus, it was an eye-opening cultural experience to observe the guilt issues of these Christians. I had never seen anything like this before in my life. After a Saturday night of drinking and revelry at some fraternity party, they were plagued with sorrow on Sunday morning – often tearfully answering the ‘altar call’ at the end of the service in order to rededicate themselves to the Lord.
I was witnessing first-hand the cycle of “repentance, obedience, failure; repentance, obedience, failure,” that defines the life of many evangelical Christians.
It was at this time that I began to get my hair cut by Rick. He was known as the best hairdresser on campus and a master of ‘big hair,’ a popular style on the East Coast in those days. When you left his salon, your hair would be poufed out to five times its original volume.
On the day that Rick preached the gospel to me, the blinders on my eyes were pulled back ever so slightly; God gave me a glimpse of my unbelief: an important reality to accept. Though I rejected God’s offer of salvation that day, He did not give up on me. I don’t think He ever gives up on anyone.
Rick the hairdresser gave me two cassette tapes of sermons by his pastor at Calvary Chapel Tallahassee. I listened to those messages over and over again during those last months of my senior year, and I even went to Ricks’ church a couple of times. Since I’d soon be graduating, he encouraged me to check out Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale.
I graduated in May of 1991, then moved back into my parents’ home in South Florida so that I could be with my sister, who had also recently moved back home. After a summer of heavy partying, we were both ready for a change. She enrolled in Nursing School, and I turned my course towards Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale (CCFL).
I decided that I belonged there. God had clearly revealed to me my hidden faults, and I believed that going to church would help me to improve. I still didn’t believe a word of that “you gotta saved and born-again” stuff, though.
One of the worship leaders there at CCFL reminded me of my mom. They looked so much alike that, from a distance, I could imagine my mother as the one on stage singing about Jesus! It was an incredible sight!
Introducing myself to her after the service, I related this to her and said how delightful this was for me in light of the fact that my mother was not even saved. A few others were standing near us and this lady announced, “C’mon guys, we need to pray for her mother’s salvation!” We gathered in a circle, and as we grasped hands to pray I told them, “Actually… I’m not saved either.” So, the group prayed for my salvation as well as my mom’s.
Several Sundays later, September 1, 1991, Bob Coy taught on the first of the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Though I had never committed adultery or murder, I had clearly disobeyed the First Commandment. God alone is the one to be worshiped, and did I worship Him? No. My whole life revolved around me. I worshipped myself! The weight of my sin and guilt grew heavier and heavier with each moment, for “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23)
Realizing that my sin deserved punishment, I was prepared to accept the gospel (the word gospel means good news or glad tidings). Paul says in Romans that the gospel “is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.” God brought salvation to me that morning.
God removed the blinders on my eyes so I could ‘see’ the choice I had to make: on my left was Jesus Christ and His offer to me of eternal life, and on my right, was an eternal hell. I understood that I justly deserved to go to hell, and that God would not have been unfair to send me there. Which would I choose?
Part 2 out of 3 continued here.