A college student shares her journey to the cross.
Spring 2019—The drive
I held those pills in the palm of my hands, too many to count. When I couldn’t swallow them, I pressed a red-handled screwdriver against my chest, but I couldn’t take the pain. It took an hour before my stepmom found me drowning in my tears. But no soothing words could give me the strength to speak.
“Let’s go for a drive,” she eventually said. So we did.
She drove through streets that were unfamiliar to me. We drove alongside a red-brick wall that housed similar buildings. Lit candles filled the windowsills, drawing my eyes through the snow-covered trees that lined the sidewalk. It captured my attention and touched my heart.
I asked, “Wh-what is this place?”
“Oh, that,” my stepmom pointed. “That’s Wisconsin Lutheran College. Maybe you can check it out someday.”
Wide-eyed, I replied, “Yeah, maybe.”
I scheduled a tour within the next few days. I took only a few steps before I knew I had found a home.
Growing up in an Apostolic-Pentecostal church, I walked into Wisconsin Lutheran College (WLC) as a freshman that fall with some objections in mind:
- Lutherans are Catholics.
- Lutheran services are “dead,” passionless.
- Lutherans worship Martin Luther more than they worship God.
Preconceived notions can be dangerous. Maybe just as dangerous as being a young adult who thinks she’s got faith “figured out.” Or as dangerous as passively swallowing all the advice—moral, practical, religious—that you have been spoon-fed your entire life. Where I came from, Lutheranism was practically a heretical and tradition-minded cult of sorts.
WLC has a 12-credit theology requirement, so I would get a chance to learn. Of course, with my luck, my first theology professor was not a professor at all; it was one of WLC’s campus pastors, Greg Lyon.
Fall 2019—My unexpected journey to the cross
I intently watched and listened as Pastor Lyon—I like to call him the Preacher—lectured on 1 Kings. “Elijah journeyed into the wilderness and said, ‘I have had enough, Lord. . . . Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’”
“But catch this,” he raised his finger. “The angel said, ‘Get up and eat,’ so Elijah did.” The Preacher’s voice slowed. Something in the atmosphere weighed heavy on my shoulders. “Then the angel came back, and what did he say?” The Preacher’s voice was softer now. He stood a few desks away, looking directly at me. “‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’”
My first thought was, He knows.
You see, at that time I’d been struggling with an eating disorder: anorexia nervosa. Eating disorders are one of the most dangerous forms of mental illness, specifically because of the damage they can do to one’s vital organs. They’re not always about “fitting the image” or “looking the part”; it’s an “I want to disappear altogether” sort of thing, an “I’m going to treat my body as the worthless object that it is.” One pound lost quickly turns into five, then ten, and so on. Enough is never enough. Despite trying to hide the weight loss under baggy clothes, many could see through my oversized apparel. And if the Preacher looked at me when he said, “Get up and eat,” then he must know.
He didn’t. But after I walked into his office and inquired about the lesson and this mysterious thing called the Trinity, he eventually found out. That discussion led to the beginning of an unexpected journey to the cross.
The moment the Word touched the air—it all became clear to me: I am my parents’ child, but I am God’s first.
Over the next three years, Pastor Lyon and I had several conversations about life, the Scriptures, and this thing called “Lutheranism.” The more involved I got, the more questions I had. Pastor Lyon connected me to Pastor James Hein at St. Marcus in Milwaukee. I’d never wrestled more with the Scriptures than I did while in college.
I quickly learned that my preconceived notions were grossly incorrect. First, you don’t call a “Lutheran” a “Catholic”; that is a big no-no. Second, Lutheran services are not “dead,” or “passionless.” Their worship is alive with the Word of God. The “life” of Lutheran worship is the gospel proclamations that reside on each hymnal’s page. Third, Lutherans don’t worship Martin Luther more than they worship God. In fact, they don’t worship Martin Luther at all. Rather, they agree with Luther, who took the heart of Christianity back to its roots: sola fide, sola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, and soli Deo gloria (faith alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, and to God alone be the glory).
I know: You lifelong Lutherans know this already. But do you know how many people long for the Truth you have?
I thought I knew the capital-T “Truth.” But when my eyes were finally opened, I wondered why the Preacher hadn’t told me sooner. The fact of the matter is that he’d been proclaiming the Truth all along. I was just too blind and stubborn to believe it.
September 2021—Inpatient treatment
But knowing the Truth didn’t end my struggle.
Those pills weighed more in my pocket that Monday morning than they did two years before. Within the next two hours, I stood outside an emergency room with Pastor Lyon and Jackie Kacmarynski (WLC’s director of Health Services). I’d been in this place of fearful anticipation before. One year earlier, I was 30 pounds underweight, headed to a residential eating disorder facility. Now I was on my way to an inpatient facility; that childlike fear still had not subsided.
Sept. 28, 2021—My cross
If there’s one place I don’t like, it’s cafeterias. The long lines, the smell of food, the fact that someone else cooked and is serving the food—all too overwhelming. Let’s not forget the awkward stares from the people around you. But that’s not the worst part. After that, you have to sit down and pretend you want to eat what’s in front of you. The smell of food is making you sick, but you have nothing to throw up, so you think, I better get something in. Your back arches, your shoulders sag, your fingers curl. You pick up your plastic silverware but wait—I need a knife. But your unit can’t have plastic knives because you might use the knives to hurt yourself.
Lunch was a struggle, to say the least. I was in an inpatient unit for depression and SI (suicidal ideation), forgetting that I’d have an eating disorder to deal with on top of it.
“Hey, Tim,” someone shouted from the other end of the cafeteria. A tall, middle-aged man with the biggest smile the world has ever seen came in. Tim worked in the hospital.
“Hey, everybody,” he said in a cheery voice. “How y’all doing today?”
Tim made his way around the lunchroom. I didn’t pay much attention. I just wanted to get out of there. I tossed my garbage in the bin and with my head hung low, I made my way toward the exit.
“Are you okay?” Startled, I stopped. “You look so sad,” Tim said. He bent his knees so that his eyes were level with mine. “Don’t be sad,” he said softly. “You’ve got a life to live. You have a purpose.” His words pushed me off the edge. The water welled in my eyes.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked.
Unable to speak, I nodded my head yes.
“Aw, that’s good, hon,” he said with that warm smile. “Hey,” he wanted my eyes. I looked up for a second. “I know you been through a lot, but don’t give up on God.” My tears fell as fast as they came.
I went to my room, fell on my mattress, curled into a ball, and sobbed.
How do you handle something like that after trying to take your life from God?
I thought, Preacher . . . Brother, I wish you were here with me. I’d have told him, “I had to come to the end of me to start a new beginning in Jesus. You helped me take my eyes off me and place them on the only thing that matters: the cross. I look at how far we’ve come, and I think to myself, We’ve made it. I’ve been denying it too long now; it’s time I carry my cross.”
After a month of hospitalization (one week in an inpatient facility and three weeks in a partial hospitalization program), I returned to campus.
Nov. 7, 2021—Confirmation
Soon I reached the point of my confirmation. “I’d like to invite up two of my friends,” Pastor Hein announced. “Yaz and Pastor Lyon.”
My shaking legs made their way down St. Marcus’ aisle, then up the three wooden steps that led me before the Preacher. My body momentarily faced the congregation, but my eyes refused to look up. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t imagine my disapproving family sitting in the crowd, smiling with pride.
“I included Pastor Lyon because he was absolutely instrumental in Yaz’s faith walk,” Pastor Hein continued.
“Thank you very much,” Pastor Lyon said. I stood in front of him, my back toward the pews. “Dear friend in Christ,” he began. My body swayed to the sound of his voice as I answered with multiple “I dos” and an “I ask God to help me.”
He went on, “We’ve spent a lot of time in God’s Word together. I gave you the option to pick a confirmation verse, and you had me do it.” I jokingly shrugged. Laughter filled the air.
“From Isaiah 43,” the Preacher continued, “ ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’ ”
The moment the Word touched the air—it all became clear to me: I am my parents’ child, but I am God’s first. How bittersweet, to lose what I once was for a greater love that no one else could give.
Today—In my Father’s arms
I’d like to tell you this story has a happy ending. My family and I are still mending some wounds over doctrinal and personal disagreements. There’s more room for growth—mentally, physically, spiritually. But I wouldn’t change one line of my story. Because, despite all I’ve lost, there’s so much more I’ve gained: WLC, a place to call “home,” a family in Christ that I didn’t know I had. Now I have the Truth, a firm foundation to stand upon. Now I know that there’s no place as secure as in the arms of the Father who is faithful to his promises for us, his children.
Author: Yaz Rodriguez
Volume 109, Number 06
Issue: June 2022