Standing outside of the vomitorium (yes, that is what the indoor stadium at University of Illinois is called) leaning against a cold concrete wall, I felt like I was in a daze by what I heard and saw that night of the Urbana missions convention in 2000. With snow swirling around me as busses pulled up to collect conference attendees and shuttle them back to the dormitories I caught a whiff of tobacco from nearby. “Hey” I wandered up to the hippie guy who had lit up “can I bum one of those?” “Sure, no problem” he answered as he handed me a cigarette and lit it for me, cupped hands to shield the wind. I walked back to the concrete wall, inhaled and thought about what I had just experienced that evening in the session.
Steve Hayner then president of InterVarsity Christian fellowship/USA had given an address to me and 20,000 other students to give our lives for the gospel, to enter into suffering and to reach all of God’s people. I was struck by how a man with such positional power in an organization could exhibit so much humility. Though he was on stage and I was a face in the crowd, his message and posture demonstrated something I don’t think I had ever seen presidents of anything display- humility, strength and a willingness to be uncomfortable. Where did that kind of humility come from? To live a life where the goal is to serve not to be served as Jesus did. After his message, Steve was joined on stage by the worship team and other speakers to celebrate what God was doing among us. Though he couldn’t keep the beat and looked especially dorky dancing next to Brenda Salter McNeil- a gifted and smooth African American speaker, it didn’t deter my admiration for how I saw Jesus present in his life.
I looked at the glowing red end of the cigarette and watched as other students passed by me. I wondered- were they having the same kind of “whoaaaaa, I need a cigarette because that was so intense” moment? My friend Sarah from MSU found me at our bus stop and blurted out with widened eyes- “are you SMOKING? at a MISSIONS CONFERENCE?” I suddenly became aware that smoking a cigarette might not be the natural first choice for most people after having a significant spiritual moment. “uhhhh, yeah. That was an intense session.” I took another drag before I stubbed it out and looked her in the eye just to prove that her astonishment wasn’t reason enough for me to stop. I was such a licentious punk back then.
Our bus pulled up and we filed to the back slumping into the vinyl seats, unwinding our scarves from our necks. I began to share with Sarah about what God was doing in my life- that I too wanted the same kind of courage, grace and humility that I saw Steve Hayner display that night. Sarah shared with me what God had been doing in her life through the seminars she attended on prayer, missions and cross-cultural ministry. The whole bus was having these kinds of conversations and there was a Holy electricity among us that God was changing our lives and dangerously shifting our plans to be more aligned with his. Though I didn’t smoke another cigarette at Urbana (because they’re gross, will kill you and turn your teeth yellow) I had many more “whoaaaaaa” moments through the years. I led my first Bible study at Urbana 2000 and saw how God used scripture in small groups to help each one of us respond to the big and small things he was calling us to. I saw women lead in ways I had never seen before. I had the best New Years eve of my life standing next to the man who would become my husband (yes, you could meet your spouse at Urbana!) singing and dancing with 20,000 other people who were taking steps forward to join Jesus in his call on their lives and desire to change the world.
Tomorrow is the early bird deadline for Urbana when the low! low! price is $339 for five days that will change your life. Register, get your friends to sign up, have an amazing road trip you won’t forget and see what kinds of risky business Jesus is inviting you into.