She came out of the water, dripping and happy, and I couldn't believe that I got to witness this cousin of mine, this cousin I hadn't seen for years until recently, soaked through to the soul from the waters of baptism.
I barely remember Carmen as a child, our two families having little to draw us together except blood, and that running thin because of religious differences. Her mom and my dad, sister and brother raised in the same house, had chosen different paths. Her mom walking in the tradition of her parents; my dad walking away from the restrictions, the deceptions.
Now, Carmen joined my dad, our aunt and uncle, her sister and brother-in-law, even her own husband in breaking free from the religion that had kept them all from the truth of Jesus for so long. She talked about what it meant to know about God but to not know him.
Before this I had the Bible, and I thought I was a Christian. I was very proud of my Bible knowledge. I felt proud that I was in an elite group, of the only True Christians on earth, as Jehovah’s Witnesses taught me. At the same time I was full of despair because I could never be sure if I was accepted by God.
We were told that we might not make it through the Great Tribulation. The admonishment to do more, more, more and to make kingdom preaching a priority made me feel guilty and ashamed of myself anytime I did anything else. I had young kids and health problems and was judged harshly. I had no friends. I slipped into depression, too ashamed to try to approach God in prayer at all. I felt that I didn’t deserve his help. I needed to try harder. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be loved at all.
Tears pooled in my eyes as Carmen read verse after verse from God's truth, truth that was lost on her until recently. Her testimony of faith was honest, and her commitment to Jesus is costly. Many of her family members - our family members - are still in the organization and will likely never talk to her again; her old friends have all walked away from her.
I sat as a witness that day to this remarkable transformation of grace, but I also felt acutely aware of how easy it is for any of us to be deceived. The people in that church, friends and neighbors chasing after wealth and pleasure, my own heart beating in my chest: we all can believe fervently that we know the truth, that we are right. But then Jesus . . .
I believed in the Bible, but that did not save me. I believed in the historicity of Jesus Christ, but that did not save me. I called on Jesus that day and I had no other religion to go to. I called on the Lord that day because I knew that He could save me, I knew that I needed Him to save me. And I trust Him above all others. Only He can guide me. Religious leaders, words on a page, my own understanding of things, cannot guide me, Carmen explained in her testimony.
After the church service, several of us went back to Carmen's house, sharing a meal together as a true family. The house was full; there were kids watching cartoons; the adults clustered, a few in each room. As we sat and talked, I thought about the beauty of Mark 10:29-30 being lived out right there for Carmen over cold cut sandwiches.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life."
I drove home that day happy and hopeful and amazed at the lengths God will go to to save just one - each one.