God and I met on the roof of the ‘680 Hotel’ in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. And God revealed a powerful, life-changing truth, which I am compelled to share.
Overlooking the African city, I prayed up toward the heavens, standing next to the giant neon sign. I was surrounded by bats and moths circling around the top of the building, dancing in the bright light. The sign proclaimed “680” in huge numbers about 15 feet high. The neon blared out a gharish light that I think I recall was pale blue.
The mission trip to Africa from Washington, D.C. was low-budget, of course. So we had young people sharing two or three or four to a hotel room. (I think the hotel has been refurbished. It was low-rent then.) Most people raised “support” by convincing many Christians and friends to each donate a little money toward the total trip’s budget. I failed at that. But my grandfather provided the funds for me to have the experience.
For me to really, seriously pray, I need to pray out loud as much as possible, talking face to face with God like a real person. So – troubled with agony in my soul – I went searching through the hotel for a place to be alone. I tried the top of the stairwell. Then I noticed that the door to the roof was unlocked.
I went on this mission trip partly to help Peter Wambua start a campus outreach ministry. Peter was a friend from our church. He was finally going home after graduating from college. But I also went on the mission trip because visiting preachers kept saying “Go on a mission trip! You will be totally changed!” And I knew I needed to be changed.
I was born again on May 6, 1985, in Lee Grady’s living room in Gainesville, Florida. His wife sealed the deal. Deborah concluded for her husband by explaining how you can either get into a swimming pool slowly, inch by inch, or you can jump in. So I jumped. I was baptized on May 12, 1985 by Bob Weiner. I was filled with the Holy Spirit as I came up out of the water. I could “see” very clearly in my heart a brilliant, glowing light shaped like a person coming down upon me and filling me.
But six years later, I was disappointed. I was still me. I was counting on God to change me from whom I’d been. I saw some improvement. But not nearly enough. I wanted to be made new. Most of all, I felt the importance of serving God by sharing the gospel or other forms of ministry. At that, I felt useless.
Each day, we spread out across the university campus and surrounding apartment areas to share the gospel, lead people to Christ, and invite them to the new church. I was terrible at it.
Back home, I never did anything much spiritual, either. I was a sound engineer running the mixer board controlling all the sound for the entire service once a month. I led a “crew” team every other week moving the sound system out of storage and setting up all of the hotel auditorium in preparation for the church service and putting it all away afterwards. Still, I had nothing to show in spiritual ministry results.
But in Kenya, I had flown at great expense across the planet and had only a short window in which to make a difference. It was tearing me apart inside. What a waste to fly around the world and accomplish nothing. I was relieved when we discovered that the portable sound system we had brought needed a massive 220 volt to 110 volt transformer, and I could go searching throughout Nairobi for an electronics store with an important mission I could complete.
Night after night during the two-week mission trip, I would slip away and walk out on the dirty roof. I prayed for God to change me, to help me be useful in spiritual ministry. I agonized over why it was taking so long. But God did not answer those prayers. Not yet. There was something much more important God was trying to do first.
Finally, a revelation hit me like a thunder clap. I suddenly saw things from a new direction. God spoke to me and asked the core questions: Why was I so desperate to change? Why did I feel the need to be useful? Why was I so worried about being productive in spiritual ministry? Why was it bothering me so much? There was no doubt God could make me better in so many ways. But why was it agitating me so much?
Finally, I crumpled up and bent over. God showed me the answer with perfect clarity, as if I could see the idea as a vision with my eyes.
I was still trying to pay God back. I had never truly grasped that God had wiped away my sins. Completely, totally. My sins were gone. In my thinking, I wasn’t forgiven. I had just been granted more time. I felt like God had given me an extension on my debt.
But the problem was, I could see that I was making very little progress. At this rate, I would never be able to pay God back for my sins and wrongs and the trouble I had caused to others. It was tearing me up inside because I was trying to work off my debt, instead of just accepting that my debt was forgiven. And it was obvious that I would never catch up.
But in that moment, God showed me that I didn’t have to pay God back. What’s more, it was unthinkable that anyone ever could. It was an impossible task.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I was taught the gospel correctly. But unable to fully wrap my head around the enormity of my sin in God’s eyes, I just imagined subconsciously that someday I would be able to do something for God that would make up for all my faults and burden on the planet and to other people. That somehow God and I would be “even.” To acknowledge how great a debt God had wiped away was to face up to how deeply in God’s debt I had been.
Quite obviously, I must urge each person to consider this for themselves: Have you truly been forgiven? Have you actually accepted that reality? Or are you still trying to pay God back? Has your debt to God been erased or merely renegotiated with new deadlines? God wouldn’t let me succeed until first He dealt with why I was trying to succeed. God wanted me first to understand what my efforts meant in my relationship to Him.
Now, of course, a person can only be born again once. Sometimes it takes more faith to sit in your chair and not respond to an altar call, Nevertheless, I felt like if it were possible to get born again again, for me that happened among the bats and the neon sign on the roof of the 680 Hotel.
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.