This morning I participated in the graveside service of a spiritual giant in my life. Virginia Ahlquist was a member at Riverview for decades and had a significant impact in my life. In fact, as I said at her funeral service, of all the people in my life who have had an impact on me spiritually, Virginia would be high on my top 10 list. No, we didn't have a special or even particularly close relationship, although I've known her all my life. And no, I can't point to one single event or or dramatic experience in which Virginia was the difference maker or proclaimed to me some deep spiritual revelation. Rather, it was in the ordinary ways that she served God that had such a monumental impact on my life and, I believe, my eternal destiny.
Although I grew up in the church and made a public profession of faith at the age of nine, I don't believe I actually came to genuine faith until later in my teenage years. I can't pinpoint the day or time of my conversion as some people can. Instead, I can point you to a season in my life in which I believe God saved me. It wasn't dramatic, and there weren't any bright lights or voices from heaven. It was a process over a long period of time. But that process actually began much earlier in my life.
I grew up at Riverview, and as such, I still go to church with people who taught my Sunday School classes when I was a child. Virginia was one of those teachers - a fact that she reminded me of almost every week she was at church during my tenure as Senior Pastor. Each week I shake hands with people as they exited the sanctuary, and whenever it was Virginia's turn to shake hands, she'd do so, look at me, and say, "My little first grader!" She said this because I was one of her first grade Sunday School students (or maybe it was kindergarten - or both! I don't recall). I think it was special for her to see one of her old Sunday School students serve as the pastor of her church, and it was special to me to serve one of my old Sunday School teachers from 30 years ago.
And that's mostly it. Like I said, Virginia's influence in my life - from an outsider's perspective - would have seemed rather minimal. Sure, she was my Sunday School teacher as a child, but we never had an exceptionally close relationship. The reason I mark her as having such a monumental impact on my spiritual life is that it was the biblical foundation laid by her and others when I was young that God ultimately used to bring me to faith.
Even though I grew up in the church, I was rebellious, and I was really good at hiding it. I'd put on one face for church, and another face for other interactions. Most people thought I was a good kid, and I suppose that by some metrics I was. But I, like most, had periods of deep rebellion. And regardless of how things looked on the outside, on the inside I was lost. I was at enmity with God. I was bound for hell.
But in the midst of rebellious activity that I set my hand to before my conversion, there was always an inner voice that was appealing to the biblical foundation that had been laid in my childhood. The Spirit used what so many faithful volunteers and teachers had put into my mind to convict me that what I was doing was wrong, that I knew better, and most importantly, I knew the truth: that I needed a Savior who could save me from my sin. When I eventually listened to that conviction and began to act upon it, it was the biblical foundation that Virginia and others had laid that God used to bring me to salvation. Where would I be had Virginia not invested in teaching me the foundations of the Christian faith so many years ago? God only knows.
For this reason, I rank Virginia rather highly on my top 10 list of people who have had a significant spiritual impact on my life. I'm sure that when Virginia said "Yes" to being a volunteer first grade Sunday School teacher, she probably had no conception of the monumental and eternity altering impact it would have on the young children she would be teaching. Rather, she probably thought that it was something simple that she could do to use her time and talents to serve the Lord and glorify God. But that's the point: God takes our simple acts of obedience (like teaching first grade Sunday School) and magnifies them into salvation-building events that change the course of eternity. I praise God for the life and ministry of Virginia Ahlquist. We don't often think of first grade Sunday School teachers as being world-changers, but Virginia certainly was.
The testimony of Virginia's simple acts of obedience provide all of us with a wonderful example to follow. God doesn't need us to be dynamic preachers, to have international appeal or reach, to have limitless funding for ministry initiatives, or anything else. All he needs is for us to say "Yes" when he calls us to do something. The reality is that God probably won't call you to some dynamic international preaching ministry that will affect the hearts of millions. But God probably will call you to do something small, something simple, and something ordinary. And if you will say "Yes," to that small thing, God can and will do amazing things with your willingness to obey.
In what small way could God use your obedience to potentially change the eternity of someone else? Maybe, like Virginia, you could teach a Sunday School class. Providentially, Virginia's husband, Al, who passed away several years ago, also occupies a spot on my top 10 list. He was never a Sunday School teacher of mine, but when I was a teenager he offered to simply hang out with a group of boys from our youth group once a week during the school year. Those times spent with him were deeply impactful to me. And all we did was hang out.
I don't know if I'm on anyone's top 10 list the way that Virginia is on mine. I hope I am, but not for any vainglorious reason. Rather, I want to be found faithful in the little things. I want to be used by God to be a part of his eternity-shaping work in this world. I know that I serve a great and powerful God who can do remarkable things with my ordinary obedience. My prayer is that God would lead each of us to say "Yes" to the simple and ordinary acts of obedience. If we do that, God can use us to change the world.