There is nothing special about the water. It’s just water. But it means so much more. It represents life change. It represents a celebration of the freedom I have found in Jesus Christ.
I was baptized 15 years ago when I made a decision to put my faith in Jesus, and Jesus alone. It wasn’t a celebration. Nobody was throwing a party. More importantly than any of that, I allowed the world to get between me and living in the freedom of Jesus. Over the years, I have grown less dependent on Jesus and more self-reliant. I have replaced a love for Jesus with a love for self.
A few months ago, my pastor and I sat down to talk. His brutal and loving honesty forced me to look in the mirror. It forced me to dive hard into the Word of God and remember what my Heavenly Father sent His one and only Son to do for me. It drove me to my knees.
I am still in that journey of redemption. But as I came to the end of myself, I knew I had nowhere to go but back to God. When I finally figured out that I couldn’t save myself from the mess I am, I jumped back into my relationship with Jesus Christ. I learned to lean into Jesus and to trust the same God who created the entire universe with my shame, guilt, fears and pain.
I learned it was okay to not be okay. I learned that nobody is perfect so its okay that I’m not either. I learned that authenticity is a breeding ground for community. I learned that finding my purpose in a relationship with Jesus first, others second will always be more fulfilling. I came to know and understand that God made me in His image and that I am not a mistake. I learned that resting in who I am in Jesus Christ is so much more liberating than seeking my validation from other people. I learned that replacing a virtual community of social media and texting with a physical community of real live relationships and interactions was exactly what God intended for us.
I learned that being vulnerable isn’t easy, but it matters. It matters in relationships and for transforming my pain. I learned to rest in the fact that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I learned that my Heavenly Father will never leave or forsake me. I learned that people will inevitably disappoint but the Son of God never will. I learned that leading a life in pursuit of courage will always make the darkness tremble.
I learned that I can be strong for only so long. I learned that my Bible must be more important than my biceps. I learned that my “heart made of steel” wasn’t nearly as impressive as being real and raw. I learned that while being logistical in ministry is my strength, being relational is so much more fun. I learned that balance is key to living a happy, healthy life. I learned who my people are.
I am the only child of a single mother.
I don’t know who my biological father is. My adoptive father left after less than a year.
I was born with a rare medical condition called Marshall Syndrome, which is basically deficiency of bone growth. I have had 15 major surgeries – 13 of them were before I was 13. As a kid, there were countless limitations and prognosis. I outlived every single one of them.
First grade is when I learned I was different from the other kids. I had thick rubber glasses and hearing aids. My face was flatter than my classmates’ faces. My speech impediment was weird.
In the seventh grade, my mom got married again and we moved back to Tennessee. I spent the next six years imprisoned in the pain and shame of living with a raging, abusive alcoholic and crack addict. I suffered verbal, emotional, mental and physical abuse. Over time, I shut down emotionally. My feelings never mattered. I began to only know myself by the labels put on me – worthless, lazy, dumb, ugly, frustrating, useless and the list goes on and on. My only defense – my own strength.
I began to struggle with suicide thoughts in high school, and honestly still struggled with the very simple question of whether it would matter if I wasn’t here anymore multiple times throughout my life.
In the tenth grade, my friends started a school wide campaign to call me “7-Eleven.” It means I look like I walked out of a 7-Eleven and got my face clipped by a truck. I never let it bother me. I said it was stupid. I made jokes about it. To this day, people still call me that. I buried that pain.
I graduated high school with honors and headed to my top-tier Southern Baptist university. It was the best and worst decision of my life. I did a lot of things right. And I did a lot of things wrong. I sabotagoed almost every great thing I had going for me. My desperate need for attention took me down a road of destruction and deception. It ended horribly. I’m still living with the consequences of some of my mistakes. Essentially, I put God in that one pocket of my backpack I never opened. I just did what I wanted and then instead of trusting God in moments of uncertainty, I relied on myself.
I was hurt by some ministry leaders and pastors in high school and college. I was pretty done with church as a whole by the time I was 19. About 2 years later, I was introduced to Cross Point Bellevue at their Easter 2011 services. I liked the worship experience but was determined to not get involved, not meet anyone and certainly not trust anyone.
About three years ago, I was diagnosed with Keratitis, which is severe chronic dry eyes. It dramatically changed my life and while it is manageable now, I know my condition is and always will be the thorn in my side to remind me to rely on God.
When I was 23, my mom met and married the love of her life….and the dad I always dreamed of. Seven months after I met him and 57 days after the wedding, he crashed and died in his ultralight plane in Lebanon, Tennessee.
My relationship with God was in shambles. I was angry at God. I was done. Trusting God again was never going to happen. The God of my Bible was not the God of my reality. All He was doing was playing games with my life. He clearly did not have my best interest at heart. The only fragment of a Christian community I had was a very irregular attendance record at Cross Point Bellevue.
It took 8 months before I would even entertain giving God another chance. I attended church from time to time but it wasn’t home. It wasn’t family. It was out of a childhood-instilled obligation to at least look like I was a Christian. I lacked purpose. Community was nonexistent. But if I was going to spend my Sunday mornings anywhere, it would only be at Cross Point. I liked the experience.
Years after I swore off church and 8 months after I swore off God, the kids director at Cross Point Bellevue showed up in my life. She invited me into ministry with her. I had no reason to say no to her. The following Sunday, I began to serve for her as a small group leader. Six months later, I began to serve in student ministry and in guest experience. I found people who did ministry a different way. I found purpose in the details.
I still lacked authentic community. I still found myself lost and looking for the vision God placed on my heart, not just Cross Point’s. I sought out advice. I was challenged to be more relational in ministry. And to find the vision God has placed on my heart for my life. A few months later, I found myself taking a tour of all the different Cross Point locations. I was looking for something more, something different. I was lonely and looking for community. And Jesus Christ.
In October 2016, I visited Cross Point Mt. Juliet for the first time. The church was meeting in an elementary school, which meant setting up and tearing down every Sunday. Mobile church was a logistical ministry lover’s dream. But there was something else. There was this tug in my heart to be a part of the foundation of a church that will influence people for years to come. After much prayer and wise counsel, I officially moved to CPMJ in early November.
It was a different culture. Nobody knew me. I had to rebuild trust. And I’m still building it. But something incredible has transpired in the last few months. As I have become more self-aware and learned to lean into Jesus more, I have found an irresistible joy. I have found FREEDOM in the finished work of Jesus Christ. I have found WORTH in who God says He created me to be, not what others think about me.
Pain still happens. Life is still difficult at times. People still disappoint. I still make mistakes. But guess what? If God is for me, then what could stand against? I am a child of God. I am no longer slave to fear.
I didn’t tell many people about my plans to be baptized yesterday. It was not intended to
be a performance for others, but rather a very intimate moment between me and God. Unlike so many other things I have done in my life, I was doing this for me. I did my own study of the scriptures and after I made a decision I was comfortable with, I talked to my pastor about it.
I didn’t sleep the night before. I was so incredibly excited and anxious. I was like a little kid on Christmas Eve. The sun was rising on my way to church yesterday morning and it was beautiful. I was in awe of God. I prayed for the day. I prayed for each location campus pastor and each person getting baptized. I prayed for each and every person who stepped into a Cross Point location yesterday. I prayed that my baptism would be all it was supposed to be. I prayed that God would be glorified above all else.
My anxiety created some clumsiness yesterday morning. I fell down some stairs with two signs in my hands. I ran into some things. I dropped things. It wasn’t nerves. It was pure excitement.
About an hour before our first service, I changed clothes. I took my hat off to reveal the scars on my head I am usually so careful to hide. It was the first time CPMJ had seen me without my hat on. That’s when the words “I’m proud of you.” started to ring in my ears. And each time I heard them, it was as if God Himself was whispering in my ear how beautiful I was.
I attended service with my Bible in hand. Pastor Kyle preached an amazing message about
moving forward. As he taught on Moses and the Red Sea, he shared his perspective on the Israelites. He talked about taking a step into that water before God even parted the sea. He talked about the many faces of the 600,000 Israelites. There had to have been the over-zealous people, the single moms and widows, the God-fearing dads, the teenagers, the single adults. There had to have been a variety of different life experiences and walks with God.
Sitting in the third row at my church home, I closed my eyes and said, “Heavenly Father, I trust you. I trust you enough to take a step in my walk with you. I remember the things you have brought me out of. I remember the victory you have claimed in my life. I remember the fact that you sent Your Son to die on a cross for me. God, I’m ready. Let’s do this thing.”
I got up and left the room to prepare for the single greatest moment of my life. People were cheering. I had hugs and high-fives. All I really remember is God whispering in my ear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” All He has ever asked of me is to trust Him. Yesterday morning, I was able to finally fall back in the arms of Jesus and experience the rest and freedom I have so desperately been searching for.
I went first. I was so excited and ready. Standing at the top of the stairs was exhilarating. Volunteers were talking to me. I have no idea what they were saying. My pastor and I met backstage and he walked me out. It was symbolic of the journey he has helped walk alongside of me for in the last few months.
He helped me get in and told me to do everything I had already been told but didn’t listen to. “Sit down. Move forward. Are you ready? Felicia, hold your nose.” Oh yeah…that’s important. Ha!
And in a completely surreal moment of faith in the God of the universe, I was baptized.
There were cheers. People clapped. Photos were taken. I don’t even know. All I remember was feeling like the weight of the world has been taken off me. It all flashed before my eyes. It took me a second but I raised my arms and declared, “YES!” I remember the cheers and claps. All I heard was God whispering in my ear, “Hey, these people are celebrating you. They’re praising Me on behalf of your decision to rest in Me. And they don’t even know your story. They just love you because you are made in My image.”
I hugged Kyle. He not only knew my story, but he knew exactly how much that moment represented for me on a very personal level. Because before he was my pastor, he was my friend. I got out and made my way through a cheer tunnel backstage. Cheers, high fives, hugs, fist bumps, pictures. Lots of excitement. They weren’t cheering for my ability to hold my breath under water. They were celebrating life change. They were celebrating an outward expression of an inward reality. And none of them knew my story.
I quickly changed and spent the rest of the day celebrating with so many people. People I knew. People I didn’t know. I loved getting to celebrate with my CPMJ family. The fact that I kept it a surprise from most of my friends and didn’t have an entorage served the incredible blessed purpose that I got to celebrate with new friends and family.
At one point, I was walking through the lobby and heard my name. It was Hannah. Hannah
is a dedicated kids ministry volunteer at our church. She consistently pours into our kids and loves helping our kids director set the table for volunteers. She and I also have a personal connection through Bucky, the Dad I only had for 7 months. She asked me if she could pray with me. And she did. Right in the middle of the lobby. It was incredibly special.
Fellow volunteers grabbed me as I walked by just to hug me and tell me how proud of me they were. Staff showed me love all day long. As the news spread via social media, the texts poured in. People as far as Thailand were cheering with me.
I love the freedom I have found in who I am in Jesus Christ. I love that I finally see worth when I see myself in the mirror. I love that the same God I was done with just three years ago said, “That’s okay. I’m not done with you.” He never left or forsook me. Just as the prodigal son returned home to his father’s home, my Heavenly Father welcomed me back into His arms with a party. He invited the most amazing people on the planet to be in that building at 85 Athens Drive yesterday morning. Months ago, He began to do a work in my heart and strategically placed people in my life and me in the places I would be challenged to grow deeper with Him.
If you were a part of celebrating the greatest day of my life, you’re family. Thank you. Thank you for loving a girl you didn’t even know. Thank you for your continued investment in the things of God. The best is yet to come.