I was sitting here today with a little time to kill on my lunch break, and it occurred to me there may be a few people out there reading this who have no idea how I came to faith. The following jumble of words is how it finally happened for me—how I came to faith, and why, after most of my life. It’s a long story, but it’s true, and it’s mine. I don’t expect to convert anyone with my words—because I am just a person with a story, like everyone else. It’s God who convicts, not me.
So here we go. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that it would make more sense for me not to believe than to have faith, considering how my life went prior to my “conversion” to faith. And indeed, I did spend most of life not believing, though with a healthy dose of curiosity.
My childhood was fairly normal, as far as the things I did. I played, I read comics, I spent time with friends. I did well in school, and I did badly in school. There were a few incidents when I was younger where my older brother took out a great deal of his frustration on me, whether or not that frustration had anything to do with me was immaterial. I was there when he felt it, and I suppose working out his issues on his little brother may have offered him relief in some way. I don’t know, I wasn’t privy to his thoughts. The result of his behavior toward me, though, was a tremendously negative self-image, and quite a few scars (on the inside and the out). I learned how to feel and act like a victim, and that was mostly what I did through my childhood and adolescence.
Additionally, my mother began to struggle with cancer when I was around ten, I think, and she had a lot of both victory and defeat in her battle with the disease. Which culminated, of course, with her losing the final battle. Cancer treatment was not in the 1980’s what it is now.
One other thing about my adolescence. That was where I first heard about Jesus, while attending the youth group of a Foursquare church two of my friends attended. The word fell on rocky soil in my case, but I did hear it. And I remembered it.
My dad died from a heart attack when I was 16, and it was shortly after that I left the youth group and never went back. I remember the youth leader wanted me to give a testimony to the church about how Christ had gotten me through the experience. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t feel that he had. After I left the group, I didn’t think about God for a very long time.
When I was 17 and a senior in high school, a very close friend shot himself in the head less than half a mile from my house, and bled to death on a flat spot of dirt, under a pepper tree I could see from my front yard. That was probably one of the worst things I had ever experienced, because one day he was here and the next he was gone. We had no time to prepare for his loss, and had no idea how to deal with it once he was gone. To make matters worse, two of my friends and I saw the immediate aftermath of his death. Not knowing it had been him, we were walking past where it had happened, and no one had thought to clean up the mess. And it was quite a mess.
The next day the space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff, and we found out the kid who’d died on the hillside under the pepper tree was our friend, and for me at least, the wheels came off after that. I didn’t want to hear about God, or anything to do with God. I just wanted to listen to my metal, and hole up in a dark place, both literally and figuratively.
I was young, though, and eventually got most of my life back in time for the remainder of my senior year. I had a girlfriend and I was doing passably at pulling myself up by the bootstraps. I graduated by the skin of my teeth, and proceeded to not think at all what to do with my life.
My mom also finally took her final turn for the worse. I remember the day of my graduation she was lying on a hospital bed in our living room and could not attend the ceremony, which was all I really wanted. Didn’t happen. She was pretty messed up at the time, and in lots of pain. It was only going to get worse.
We had to move from the house I grew up in to an apartment, because treatment and everything else was so expensive. Also, by that time I had stopped getting money from my dad’s social security because I was over 18. We were pretty much broke, and didn’t get that much for the house because of the condition it was in. Mostly, thanks to my brother and his penchant for destruction.
I drove my mom to the hospital for her final visit in February of 1987. She died on the 27th of February, two months shy of my 19th birthday.
I remember her funeral being weird and uncomfortable. The pastor doing the service knew nothing about my mother, and instead talked about Jesus and the path to salvation during the eulogy. I REALLY didn’t want to hear that. It sounded like bull crap to me.
Following that, I went into what was pretty much a tailspin that lasted until the early 1990’s. I tried to fill this yawning void down the center of me with so many things. I became a binge drinker, and a very bad one. I ate like a Roman at a banquet. I looked at pornography. I indulged in several completely empty relationships. I lied, I cheated, and I even stole from a couple of employers. I was a walking disaster. Finally, FINALLY, it began to change for me when I met someone that was a Christian, and a legitimate one. She represented a different Jesus to me than I had ever heard about. My curiosity was piqued, and I once began to try and figure things out. Who was God? Was he real? Was Jesus? What did any of that mean to me?
I had job at a window covering factory at one point, and one time I was working next to a guy when he broke his hand on one of the machines. He came back to work a day or two later, and I remember having this philosophical conversation with him one day (he could still run the machine with one hand in a cast). I told him I didn’t feel God had ever done anything for me except take things and people away. He told me God had done more for me than I knew.
How could these people I knew believe in a God that seemed so…arbitrary? Even cruel sometimes.
I had no idea, so I read things, lots of things. I read apologetic books from people like CS Lewis. I began to read the bible. My curiosity and desire for answers continued to grow, but my faith did not.
In 1996, I met a guy at a Junior College I was attending who was the same age as me, and had gone through many of the same things I had. He even knew one of my good childhood friends (he used to buy drugs from him). This guy I’d met was the first person to ever tell me his testimony, one-on-one, and it was quite a story. He’d been about to lose his family to his drug habit. He’d been in the Army for a while, which was where he met his wife.
He started attending his wife’s church to save his marriage, and it worked. His marriage was saved, and soon after he was as well. He began playing guitar and leading worship, which is what he was doing when I met him. Now he’s pastor of a church in Pittsburgh, PA, in a community called McKees Rocks.
My friendship with this gentleman—and his pastor—was what finally began to work on my heart. The pastor was a man named Tim Wakefield, and he was awesome. I began attending the Sunday evening service, and Tim and my friend always took the time to talk to me after service. They answered the questions I asked, and they prayed for me, which felt a little strange, but somehow also good.
But I still wasn’t ready.
In the Spring of 2000, Tim was riding his motorcycle to Arizona to visit family, when he was killed in a crash. It was a freak thing, and it was horrible, and everyone mourned. There were bikers at his funeral. There were a lot of Navy people. There were people from other churches—all the lives Tim had touched. The small sanctuary was filled and the doors were open. The love for this man oozed out into the parking lot.
A few days after that, I went on a vacation with my friends—my drinking buddies. We each had a thirty pack, and we meant to destroy them. I remember standing on a dock looking over the river at Arizona and thinking about Tim. Thinking about my life. Thinking about my sin. And then awareness of my sin hit me all at once. The consequence of potentially and suddenly dying with that sin still around me took my breath away. I realized, finally, that I needed God.
I needed him desperately. And I could have him through Jesus.
So I literally fell to my knees and I prayed sincerely for the first time in my life. I confessed, for the first time in my life. I asked for the forgiveness only Jesus could give, for the first time in my life.
Nothing physically happened. I was still kneeling on the dock. I still had holes in the knees of my Levis. I was still a sinner, in need of grace.
I realized the difference was that I now had it. It was like peace about my life poured over me like a big jug of cool water. And so it began.
That’s the how of my transition from non-belief to belief in Jesus. There’s a great deal more to the story, but it has to start somewhere, and that’s the beginning of my story.
The “why” is a little bit more complicated, in a sense.
Why do I believe?
I believe because of the life and witness of two really good friends, who were not insane, not hypocrites, and could sincerely and truthfully attest to the presence of Christ in their lives. They were people transformed and I believed them.
I believe because of a dozen or so quiet conversations with an ex-Navy chaplain named Tim.
I believe because God touched my life and gave me hope in my otherwise worthless life. No one could convince me differently.
I believe because shortly after praying at the river, God showed me what I meant to him. He showed me that he saw me, and loved me, and wanted me.
He showed me through a vision, of sorts. I didn’t appear in it, and he didn’t appear in it. Not all of him, anyway.
Imagine a hand in a cone of light, as if from a spotlight. The light is warm and yellow. The hand is extended, palm up. In the palm lies a fresh oyster, still covered in slime and muck. Water pours over the mollusk, cleaning off much of the sediment and grossness.
Another hand enters the picture and it is clearly a hand that has seen many years of hard work. It is covered with calluses and scars from the fingers to the wrist, including two ovular pads of scar tissue at the heel of the palm, matching the one holding the oyster.
The hand holds a small, curved knife, and moves toward the shell. The mollusk is pried open, and the inner parts quickly searched through, revealing a small round object covered in slime. The hand drops the knife and gently wipes away the offending goop, revealing what has been there all along: a pearl of great price.
The pearl shines softly in the scarred hand.
I really believe that was the day my life began. At least, the part that involves Jesus. The part that counts. The part that began to reveal the path set for me, toward a beautiful and strong-willed woman in the Arizona desert.
It wasn’t all easy after that, and I don’t expect it to be in the future. The future I have thanks to the carpenter who had me in mind from the beginning.
I believe because God healed the worst and most broken parts of me, and revealed a strength I never knew I had.