Seminarian overcomes homelessness en route to salvation

Communications Staff — December 5, 2003

This morning Jennifer Lyell drove to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in her Hyundai Accent.

But five years ago she was living in the backseat of that same car, and seminary was the last place she expected to drive it.

Today Lyell is preparing for a career in Christian ministry. But her path to ministry, which included homelessness, desperation and conversion at a Billy Graham crusade, is far different from most seminarians.

By age 19, Lyell had risen to an upper management position in a major theater company. She soon discovered that success did not necessarily lead to contentment.

“I was still very young. I had a lot of power. I was making good money,” she said. “And yet I was still pretty miserable. And that pretty much crashed my entire worldview because those were the things that I thought led to happiness. So recognizing that they didn’t … I was just kind of confused and couldn’t see the point.”

Frustrated with life, Lyell quit her job. Without any money for housing, a 20-year-old Lyell was forced to live in her car.

“I lived in my car for about six months, and during that time it was kind of like everything that I had always put around me, or had managed to control, in order to convince myself that I had ultimate control had fallen away. So I recognized that I didn’t [have control], and that left me really wondering who did and whose responsibility that control was,” she said.

Sleeping in summer heat of more than 100 degrees and bathing in gas station restrooms, Lyell grew bitter and blamed God for her circumstances.

“I was sleeping in the car one night, woke up, turned on the radio and heard, ‘It’s 2:12 A.M. and 105 degrees outside,’” Lyell said. “And I can remember laying back down in my seat and speaking to God and saying, ‘I don’t know what You’re doing up there,’ basically just cursing God and shaking my fist in His face and saying, ‘You’ve done this to me,’ when in reality I had done it to myself.”

After six months of living in her car, Lyell saved enough money to rent an apartment, but she remained bitter at God.

That’s when things began to change. Two weeks after moving into her new apartment Lyell heard that Billy Graham was preaching a crusade in St. Louis, near her hometown of Marion, Ill. She decided to attend the crusade but had no intention of committing her life to Christ.

When Graham finished preaching one night, the crowed began to sing the worship chorus, which was Rich Mullins’ song, “Awesome God.”

“I wasn’t feeling convicted at all at that point,” Lyell remembered. “They started singing ‘Awesome God,’ and I hadn’t heard it before and I didn’t know the words … so I was struggling to figure out all the words. I could figure out, ‘from heaven above, with wisdom, power and love,’ because it rhymed. But I couldn’t get the verb, ‘reigns.’”

Lyell listened to the song several times before she finally discerned what the crowd was saying.

“I know the nanosecond I was saved because when I heard the word, ‘reigns,’ … it hit me. I remember having a visual of myself laying in my car physically shaking my fist at God and just feeling like I was turned inside out, feeling unbelievably overwhelming remorse that I had blamed this awesome God for the choices I had made in rebellion against Him,” she said.

At that moment, Lyell remembers committing her life to Christ and promising to obey Him.

“It’s like all of the Bible and all of the theology that I had sat and heard my whole life had never sunk in,” Lyell said. “But in that moment, all of it came together because in that moment I recognized that even though I had gone forward in church four years before and was dunked in water … I wasn’t a Christian.”

The Sunday following her commitment to Christ, Lyell returned to the church she had attended as a child and made a public profession of faith. Within weeks she was baptized and began to grow in her relationship with God.

“Now everything about my life is different,” she said. “… I don’t know an aspect of my life that isn’t different. That’s just the truth.”

As Lyell reflected on her salvation experience, she developed a burden to share the good news of Christ with others and even began to participate in world missions.

“I started reading everything on missions that I could. It was such an odd thing to me that I had grown up in this country where I had sat in church from when I was six to when I was 16 and heard someone preach every single Sunday. … [I] recognize all the intricacies that God used [in my life] and recognize that there are a lot of places in the world where those things don’t exist for Him to use,” she said.

So Lyell began to take action based on her passion for world missions. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University, she enrolled at Southern Seminary to prepare for a career in ministry. She is schedule to graduate with her master of divinity in May 2005.

In the immediate future, she plans either to enter the mission field or earn a Ph.D.

Lyell said she thanks God daily for the miracle he worked in her life, but she warns other Christians not to glorify sensational testimonies. Consistent faithfulness is far more desirable, she said.

“I’ve experienced things that a lot of people haven’t experienced,” Lyell said. “But I want to recognize that those experiences were the result of sin. And I don’t want those to be glorified because that’s certainly not the way it’s supposed to be.

“And I certainly hope that if I were to get married and have children that my children would not come to faith in Christ in the same way that I did. And I think as a church, sometimes we have a tendency to focus on sensational stories and neglect the consistent faithfulness.”

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