Cliff jumping and Gospel Living

When I was in college (and for a year and a half after I graduated) I was part of the coolest campus ministry ever. Each weekend we spent our time hiking, rock-climbing, camping, exploring and cliff jumping the hills and dells of rugged northern Arizona. Under the incredible leadership of our campus pastor and his wife, somehow, each of these adventures led us on an even greater adventure for the soul. Every Friday night about 70 students gathered together in an Engineering building and sat at the feet of a man profoundly gifted to preach the Word of God and our hearts were gripped, forever changed. We learned that the single greatest use of our time is with people; that the heart of God is ever and always for relationships. We learned to give up our small (worldly) ambitions and to dream crazy God-sized dreams. Instead of a life spent in pursuit of self-comfort, self-pleasure, and self-centeredness we were encouraged to pour ourselves out in radical devotion to a King most High. As Phil and I sat there, young, but truly white hot in love with Jesus we decided we were all in. Although we both were doing well as pilots and Aeronautical Science majors, we decided to start dreaming and pursuing a life totally set-apart for Christ. And that is what drew us to each other.

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Phil in Zion National Park
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Phil and I hiking in Sedona with some friends just one month before he asked me to be his girl.

But, back to cliff jumping. You have to understand that my alma mater was 85% male and at a school full of pilots, engineers, NASA interns, and (yes) rocket scientists there were some pretty tough girls on campus too. As for me, I was never that tough. Athletic? Sure. Tomboyish? Not really. I mean, I grew up water skiing and camping so I’m in to all that but if you put me on a co-ed basketball team and you actually care about winning, I’m probably going to disappoint you. So, whenever we went hiking to some really great river or waterfall or creek and it was time to cliff jump it kinda… took me a minute. I wasn’t one of those girls who would just jump. I had to think about it. I had to wrestle with it. I had to decide if it was too high or too much or if I was just going to go for it. But here’s the thing: whenever I did go for it, I loved it! I never once regretted jumping. On several occasions though, when I didn’t jump, I lost sleep over it. I felt like I missed out. Like I missed my chance to feel an awesome thrill and to plunge feet-first into cool refreshing I’m-so-totally-alive-right-now bliss. Nice guys, thoughtful guys, would try to encourage me that I could do it. Nicer even more chivalrous guys would try to assure me that I didn’t have to jump. But, at the end of the day, I knew it was just me against me and that the choice to jump and feel the thrill was something only I could do for myself.

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Phil and I and our college friends hiking and cliff jumping in Havasaupai Falls. Phil is on the far right, arms outstretched and I’m the girl beside him. Circa 2003

Well, here we are, ten years, a long and winding road, and almost four kids later and I’m still married to my best friend from college. Phil and I are so much in love and so much alike it’s uncanny and uncommon. And we just spent our first month of our first term on a little island in Indonesia, our first field assignment and holy moly kind kitties is it harder than I ever saw coming. And I’m struggling. And I’m unsure. I’m scared. And all I want more than anything else in the world is for my campus pastor to come over here and put his hand on my shoulder and look me in the eyes and remind me what I’m made for.

And it’s been like that for about a month now. That wrestling within myself standing at the cliff’s edge of a brand new ministry. And I wonder, Can I do this? Can I live here? Can I love these precious people as Christ would have me?

And, then, just today I heard a song that said it all. I love worship ardently. I know when I worship God it changes me from the inside like almost nothing else. And this morning, when I heard this song, it was JUST LIKE hearing the voice of my campus pastor. A voice that God uses over and over in my life to set my heart right.

Now or Never

By The Willis Clan

© The Willis Clan

This is the time for us to start

Writing our History

This is the time we stand apart

We’re breaking free

We’re walking away from what we know

Taking a chance on where we wanna go

Maybe it’s hard for us to see

Everything we someday want to be

There’s no surrender

We’re never turning back

We will remember

Everything we have

There’s no more waiting on forever

It’s now or never

This is time we say goodbye

To all of our present fears

Here in this place we somehow find, yea they disappear

Just give your everything

This is what you’re made for

We can conquer anything

We’re walking away from what we know

Taking a chance on where we wanna go

Maybe it’s hard for us to see

Everything we someday want to be

There’s no surrender

We’re never turning back

We will remember

Everything we have

There’s no more waiting on forever

It’s now or never

Right there, in those lyrics are years worth of sermons I’ve heard at the feet of my campus pastor – the man who knows and loves us more than almost anyone we’ve ever encountered. And I hear the whisper of God’s Spirit reminding us that WE ARE more than conquerors in Christ. That in Him we CAN do anything. That in this place of abiding in Christ, perfect Love does indeed cast out fear and that yes, Jess, it’s now or never. Even though life on this island and in this context looks down right terrifying, it’s time to take the plunge. I’ve never regretted a time I’ve jumped. I’ve only ever regretted the times I’ve let fear and self-doubt get the best of me and held me back.

So, (shoulder shrug) here goes nothing!

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Some of those precious college friends, many of whom today are our biggest supporters in ministry. And right in the midst of us is our campus pastor, a man who has faithfully served the campus of Embry-Riddle for more than 15 years.
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On either side of Phil is Kevin and Kim MacFee, our campus pastors and life-long friends. And the rest of these guys, whelp, we’d take a bullet for them!
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5 thoughts on “Cliff jumping and Gospel Living

  1. Jess, what a great story God has written and continues to write with the Vana’s. I am praying for you and I know you will jump!

  2. What a privilege it has been to be part of your lives. Jess, you were the first person to pray for me & I will always remember that. God Bless you both and your precious. Family. Thank you for sharing yourselves with us, love Deb & Robbie

  3. Thanks for sharing your heart. Praying for you all in this journey. A God-directed journey. The battles are real, but OUR God is too, and greater than all the obstacles we face. I too find in Him everything I need to stand and keep walking; finding in Him alone all I need. Thankful for His life in me. Our journeys are different, but we have the same great and awesome God. Love you guys. 👀😊

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