When I was studying in Arkansas, several of my friends moved to Oklahoma to study at the University of Tulsa. They told me about many people that they got to know at the campus, and one of those people is my friend, Chris Small. By the time I came to serve at TU, Chris had already graduated, but somehow we’ve struck up a friendship that I’m very thankful for even if we’ve never shared a season together. There’s much I respect about Chris in his faith, character, and our few times together. This is his story.
Chris grew up in a Christian home. “I was raised like most other kids in stable Christian homes. I was taught there were good things I was supposed to do, I said I ‘wanted to ask Jesus in my heart’ at 5 years old - I even read my Bible pretty consistently. But I didn’t understand a purpose for it. I kept on trying to do all the right things hoping that it would pay off, that it would impress people, but by high school I was deeply dissatisfied. It really wasn’t working anymore. I was focusing on my mistakes, all the things I did wrong, and trying to fix myself without any help. It came to a point when I was hanging out with some Christian friends. We were talking about what God was doing in our lives, and I realized I didn’t know what he was doing. I never saw answered prayer, and I didn’t know God. I wanted that to change, and I asked God to change it.”
Time went on for Chris trying to see that change. “I had some setbacks in high school, and I would ask, ‘Why did things turn out the wrong way?’ One thing was that I worked so hard at training for basketball, but I was so afraid in a game that I couldn’t even play comfortably. Here I am, working hard for this thing, and yet I was so afraid of what people would think of me that I couldn’t even play with my team. It was really frustrating. So, I kept asking God what was going on. I didn’t understand it. That summer, one of my friends from basketball invited me to go with his family to spend a weekend at a lake. And it was out there with open water and beautiful scenery that I finally said, ‘You know, I’ve wanted all these answers, but I think God’s been waiting for me just to spend time with Him’.”
The next week, Chris ended up going to a church camp. “I’ve been to church camps before, I didn’t think anything would be different, but this was. God met me there, and He changed my focus. My focus wasn’t any longer on just impressing people or just trying to do the right things. My focus was on connecting with Him. There was a point at which I said to God a prayer out of the Bible, ‘Search me Oh God, and know my heart.’ The fact that I said, ‘I want to be open to You, God,’ was a significant change. I did just a lot of hiding before that. I wasn’t comfortable with anyone knowing what all my life was about. One of the nights at the church camp, there was a girl who was sharing what the word ‘surrender’ meant to her, and it was a picture for her of coming to King Jesus, and holding out her dreams and everything she wanted out of life and saying, ‘I trust you with this.’ And I realized that’s what I had been looking for. I needed and wanted to trust someone who could handle everything that goes on in life. In a way, I could see God doing surgery, removing my heart and giving me a new one. “The old has gone and the new has come.” It had been replaced. Instead of wanting to hide, I wanted to share. I think it surprised me. So, I did just that. I started telling people that God had changed my life. I started with a couple of camp leaders there, and then it moved to telling my family. My family was absolutely shocked to see the attitude change in me in the following year.”
Chris points to friendship as a major contributor to his change. “My family was really strict and focused on obedience while growing up. There wasn’t as much focus on enjoying each other and everything God has gives us. This developed fear in me that people wouldn’t like me if I didn’t do everything right. It made it hard to have friends, and it made me lonely. When I did find friends, it was because I could see that they were living the way I wanted to live – open and not afraid. It was their friendship that brought me to God.”
When Chris came to TU, he met his best friend and former roommate, who continued that change. “It was being friends with him and others that continued to grow me. Every time I’ve been in a new location or new situation, I’ve known that I need to keep finding people that stimulate, encourage, and accept me. During my sophomore year, I studied abroad in Spain. The best time I spent was with the local church there. It was the same situation when I had an internship in Shreveport, Louisiana. And now, I’m in Tyler, Texas. I still point to the friends that I have as the greatest source of encouraging me in life.”
Chris realized that seeing people share their lives showed that they had a love he didn’t. “At every point it wasn’t me doing something on my own, but it was learning something through someone else. I love building community. Now that I’m out on my own, I try to build community where I can. That especially means building unity among every different type of Christian as well as building bridges between different groups of people.”
These friends showed Chris a new love, but he discovered only God could give it to him. “People can only do so much. Jesus was open to every type of person, died for their mistakes, and rose again, even though he knew he would be rejected. When I spend time with God, He gives me Jesus’ same openness, and it becomes a joy where it would normally be a bitter struggle.”
My friend, Chris, started off as a guy afraid to show himself to people, hiding who he was so that people might accept him. Now because of Christ and his community of friendships, he has no need to be ashamed about who he is, what his mistakes are, and he can proudly show the work of God that has gone on in his life. The Apostle Paul says, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” And this is the life of Chris Small to show the work of Christ in his life and show that victory with boldness.