It was one of the most honest and vulnerable things I’ve read on Medium. Stories like that are what make Medium so good.
As I read I couldn’t help but dwell on my own faith journey. Tom grew up in the church just like I did.
For whatever reason, I never struggled with doubting God or his existence. I believed he was there even when I didn’t care if he was there.
My struggle was more with the people who claim they’re Christians, and those in Christian leadership. Reading the post, it’s obvious Tom has had his fair share of that too.
But since my journey has been different than Tom’s, my hope is it could be another perspective for anyone wondering about God.
Thanks, Tom, for the inspiration to write all this out.
I don’t have a lot of memories of God and church from my youngest years. But I do remember attending a large church that had some awesome Halloween/harvest parties.
They did a big drama/skit/plaything for kids about Noah’s ark when I was around age 5. There was a large platform on stage that was the entryway to the ark.
One of the leaders asked for kids who wanted to “accept God into their heart” to come up on stage and sit on this door of the ark. I walked up, sat on the ark, and said the prayer they led us through.
I remember being in awe of the bigness of it all. The stage and the lights and all the people.
But I was 5. It very well could have been a small chapel that sat about 200 people. When you’re 5, everything feels huge.
That moment was the beginning of my 30-year up and down walk with God.
Shortly after that, we moved about 2 hours away and quickly found another church in our new city.
My family always went to Sunday morning, often Sunday night, and regularly Wednesday night church. The Wednesday night church for kids was called “Royal Rangers.” It was essentially Boy Scouts for Christians.
We learned how to use a knife and an ax, and build fires, and set up tents and stuff. But we also studied the Bible and gained our badges/pins by memorizing and reciting scripture.
About 3rd and 4th grade, the level of Royal Rangers was called “Buckaroos.” I won “Buckaroo of the Year” two years in a row for my church. I got to go to the men’s retreat with my dad and compete against other Buckaroos.
We were a nice happy church-going family, with church friends, who shared life together and had each other over for dinner, and all that good stuff.
Then we weren’t.
My parents divorced as I was entering my pre-teen years. They tried to make it work and married each other again, only to get an annulment 6 months later.
Approaching puberty and your parents splitting twice in a year is a messy combination. I had so many emotions and feelings and craziness going on inside of me.
Of course, I couldn’t talk to my parents about it. What 6th grader would? But we stopped going to church, and I never really felt I had anyone from there to talk to anyway.
I’m guessing we stopped going because of shame my parents felt. The happy Christian couple couldn’t maintain a happy Christian marriage. But I don’t know. Maybe we got kicked out? It wouldn’t surprise me now looking back.
A couple of years later my mom moved to Central Oregon and I decided to move with her. I was entering 8th grade as the first time in my life being the “new kid.”
I left a junior high with a few hundred kids and landed in a school that was a few hundred kids for both junior high and high school combined.
I struggled to make friends in this small town and be accepted right off the bat, but towards the end of the year I had made the kind of friends that everyone needs. Deep, heart-connected friends that I could share myself with.
A lot of that sharing of life ended up being over alcohol and bong hits.
The Teen Years
My mom gave birth to my youngest brother when I was 15. Naturally, I was tasked with helping when and where I could. I changed diapers, did bottles and food, and babysat.
One of the times she attempted suicide I took care of him for a couple days while she was in the hospital. Luckily I had my license at that point, and my aunt, who lived in the same town, came over to help.
Drugs and alcohol were mostly social for me, but they definitely became an awesome way to numb myself when the need would arise.
My junior year of high school I moved to live with my dad.
Mom had caught me doing drugs and tried to come up with a way to punish me. Moving to Dad’s house was mostly because I thought I’d punish her back. I knew not having me around would hurt her.
By this point, my dad had remarried and was regularly attending church again. This meant I had to attend church once again.
The youth group ended up being pretty fun. They had a coffee counter, so I joined the team and learned to make lattes. Then they found out I could sing and invited me to be on the worship team.
While I never stopped believing in God’s existence over the last several years, not going to church put me in a position of not caring about his existence.
He did his thing and I did mine.
But now that I was back to doing “church stuff” like when I was a kid, and I started caring about what God thought.
At least I started to care what my church leaders made me think what God thought.
I stayed the “good kid” while at my dad’s, but anytime I visited my mom it was back to smoking weed and drinking beer in the woods. The conflict in my conscience became too much and I decided to talk to one of the leaders in my youth group about it.
I was legitimately looking for some help and guidance.
One of the youth interns was just a few years older than me. Having quit drinking and drugs himself only a couple of years ago, it made him easy to talk to and share my struggle.
I didn’t want to live a double-life. It was exhausting.
Lunch with him was encouraging and I felt like I found someone who could walk me through some stuff, who could be a friend and mentor.
Then I got called to meet with the youth pastor. He removed me from the worship team and helping in the coffee shop. That was it.
I later found out he sort of grilled the intern when he got back from lunch with me. The conversation was something like, “What did you talk about? I’m his Youth Pastor, I need to know.”
That was my first run-in with legalism. The rules being followed and a standard being met was more important than people.
Living with my dad wasn’t the greatest anyway. So that was the final straw for me.
I told my dad I was going to visit my mom for the weekend. But when he went to work I left a 5-page letter on the counter, packed all my stuff, and peaced out.
My mom had one stipulation on me moving back in with her. I had to go to church.
I decided to go extreme and go to two churches. Church A was on Sunday morning with Tuesday being a youth night. Church B had Wednesday night gatherings for youth.
The Wednesday group was much bigger, more people, more things to do. Conversely ,Church A’s youth group had about a fifth the amount of kids, and was in a plain room. But it felt more like a close-knit group of friends hanging out.
I joined the worship team in both groups and went back to trying really hard to not do anything “bad” while still hanging out with all the same friends I had.
It didn’t last long…
I sat down to have a meeting with the youth pastor from Church B. Somewhere in the midst of it I confessed to smoking pot.
It just kinda came out.
At this point, I was so tired of my double-life I burst into tears. I was genuinely remorseful and wanted some help. Much of my life I spent trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations, and I couldn’t stand disappointing anyone.
Especially not God, my youth pastor, or the church.
The pastor’s face turned red, and his eyes got huge. It was obvious I pissed him off pretty bad. It felt like I was in trouble with my dad.
After he calmed down he told me I was done being on the worship team for awhile. At this point I had been leading most weeks.
He wanted me to tell the team, which I agreed to do.
It sucked, but I wanted them to hear from me and hear that was sorry. As the leader I certainly didn’t want to let them down, and I knew I needed to set a better example.
The next stipulation was that I stand in front of the entire youth group and tell them about my duplicitous life. After that, we could talk about joining the worship team again.
I thought about the anger I witnessed from my youth pastor, and all the steps he was putting me through.
I realized I was being put through these steps to appease him and his belief that I needed to look a certain way and act a certain way in order for him to put me back in leadership.
Who cares about leadership? I was a teenager that was illegally drinking and doing drugs and ASKED for help. Where was someone that cared about who I was as a person? Where was the help I wanted?
I abandoned Church B and threw myself solely into Church A.
Life After High School
After graduating High School I moved in with a friend. We started selling weed so we could get high for free.
Certainly wasn’t anything big time, and we weren’t really making money. But it was nice to not go into debt to smoke pot anymore. We just smoked our profits.
I worked at Applebee’s during the day, partied at night, and did my church thing on Sundays and Tuesdays at Church A. I was never high or hungover for work or church. Always was my clear-headed “normal” self as I fought to keep my two different lives separate from each other.
Mid-summer I helped lead worship for a week-long church camp for junior high students. It was a blast for a couple days until I sprained the arch of my foot falling down some stairs.
I opted to go home since I could barely walk.
The irony of sitting in my friends room, loading a bowl, and taking water pipe hits while I told him about church camp will never escape me. It was the epitome of my season of life.
As the summer rolled along and moved into fall I really started hating myself. I hated the two lives I had and their conflict with each other. I was never fully me.
My roommate and another friend of ours got into Ecstasy, which I had tried and enjoyed very much. But I didn’t want to do it every night.
This seemed to be about the point things changed.
As they partied harder, stayed up until 4am and slept all day, I found myself leaning more into work and church.
Finally, one night after work, my roommate pulled me outside to talk. He could tell I was distancing myself and he did what good friends do: confronted me.
I told him how much I hated my double-life and I felt stuck between two worlds that I really enjoyed.
My church, the church friends, worship, and God were all awesome. But so was getting high and partying with a different group of friends. They accepted me for me. Not because I had some certain level of morality.
We cried together, smoked some weed together, and went back into the house. I got ready for bed since I had to work in the morning, and he stayed up to party more.
As I laid in bed the room started spinning and I was tripping hard. I worried the weed may have been laced with something.
It wasn’t like I was a lightweight. I had been smoking pot for over 5 years, and we didn’t smoke a ton that night. Something had to be wrong because I was going crazy.
I stumbled out of my bedroom into the living room to see if my friend was feeling the same effects. He was fine.
Crawling back onto my bed I laid there trying to figure out what I was going to do. At this point I was freaking out a bit. Marijuana had never done this to me unless I mixed it with other fun things.
All I could think of was to pray.
“God, if you take this away I will never smoke weed or do drugs again.”
I think I prayed that same prayer while vomiting into a toilet probably a dozen times before. It never stuck.
For some reason, I still don’t know why, it stuck that night. I haven’t smoked or swallowed an illegal substance since October 13, 2001.
That week I moved back into my mom’s house.
She had down-sized since I moved out. Now my bed was in the living room and she wanted me to pay her a couple hundred bucks for rent and food. I was also a 30-minute drive from work.
But I was in a drug-free environment and two minutes away from Church A.
A New View of Church Leaders
Shortly after this I visited a family member that lived a couple hours away and had some beers over the course of my visit. I didn’t get drunk, but I still wasn’t 21 yet.
The youth pastor at Church A, now my only church, heard about it through a mutual connection. He brought it up casually when we were alone in the kitchen at a leader’s meeting.
My first thought was panic, and now another youth pastor is going get angry and remove me from leadership again.
But it didn’t go that way.
He asked me why, and what the point was. Also for me to consider that I was in a leadership position and how that reflected on me, him, and the church. Lastly, he threw in that I was breaking the law, and to keep that in mind.
This may have been the first time in my life that someone in a position of authority in my life talked to me rather than at me. I also wasn’t punished or reprimanded, but more so “coached” in an area.
All my interactions with this youth pastor went the same way. I was talked to and loved as a person first; not held to a list of moral standards.
That’s not to say I wasn’t held accountable for anything. It’s just that who I was as a person was more important than how I behaved.
I volunteered under that youth pastor a couple years until he moved to Southern California for a new job. Then I moved in with him and his family for 6 months, and got a job until college started, which was only 60 miles from him.
About this point it felt like he went from “youth pastor” to “mentor.”
He and his wife mentored me and my girlfriend/fiance/wife. We babysat their 3 daughters regularly and consider them little sisters to this day. They were family.
After a couple years in Southern California, my mentor took a job at a large church just outside of Portland, Oregon. He hired me to be the administrative assistant for the youth department where I got to assist him and 4 other pastors.
My friendship and the leadership of my mentor renewed my faith in church leaders. That relationship, and the leadership at the church I’m now on staff at, showed me people can actually come first in a church setting.
It’s not all about holding a standard of morality, though morals can still be important.
Even though I was in a church I liked, with people I loved, and I felt “close” to God, there still felt like something was missing.
I had encountered great people, and I had “felt” God many times over my years in church. But so much of my faith was, well… just faith.
I read the Bible, prayed, worshipped, was taught by leaders in this faith, but I knew there was more to God than I was experiencing.
Where was the God I read about in the Bible?
Three and a half years into our marriage, and my job at the church, my wife and I decided to attend a week-long marriage training that another church was putting on.
It is typically an 18-week course where couples gather in small groups once a week. But this was an opportunity to do it in 5 days going 9am to 9pm every day. We even had specific things to discuss during meal times, and sometimes homework after we got back to our hotel.
It was intense, but amazing.
We learned several tools we brought home to continue using, dug into our life before meeting each other to discover things from our past that were affecting our marriage, and prayed for each other in ways we had never done before.
But more than all the incredible marriage stuff we learned, we saw and encountered God in a way we never had before.
A Dance and A Diamond
During one of the lessons we were learning a dance. In the midst of that dance a woman had a diamond appear on her shirt sleeve. It wasn’t from any of her jewelry, so she thought maybe it fell off one of her neighbors. It wasn’t any of theirs.
She brought it to the front to have the leaders query the rest of room. There were about 70 of us, none of whom had any missing diamonds.
The couple leading the class told our group that this has happened before, and it was from God. It was the woman’s to keep.
They left the diamond at the front of the room for people to look at. So naturally I had to see this thing on a break.
It was small, but the perfect diamond. I had never seen anything like it.
When the week was over the leaders had several people from their church create a sort of tunnel for us to walk through and get prayed over. It was like a gauntlet you sauntered through while random people put their hands on your shoulders, prayed, and spoke things into your life.
It was a bit weird… But I went through.
I just made my wife go first.
At the end of the prayer gauntlet, a woman stopped my wife and spoke a longer prayer over her. It was much more than the passer-by prayers we were getting in the tunnel of people.
As she was praying my wife went to the floor.
I had seen this on TV, but never witnessed it with my own eyes. And on TV it always seemed like the person praying would push the person’s forehead or something encouraging them to go to the floor.
This lady was barely touching my wife. And it’s my wife! I knew she wasn’t faking anything.
After a couple minutes my wife got up off the floor and was beaming, a smile from ear to ear, and she couldn’t stop jumping up and down.
I had never seen this much joy in her in the 7 years we had known each other.
The same lady prayed over me and nothing to the level of what my wife experienced happened to me.
We then waited in line to get prayed over by the husband and wife who lead the class. After all they had given us that week it was an honor and privilege to have them stick around and pray over every last couple.
My wife and I got a bit chatty with some other people in the room and ended up being last to get prayed for. We told the leaders about our amazing week and some of the things that happened.
I mentioned a few things that were prayed over me throughout the week by various people, and somethings people said about me that stuck out.
On more than one occasion I was told I was “wise beyond my years.” I said I remembered reading about King Solomon when I was 10-years-old, and how he prayed for wisdom. That seemed cool and I decided I would pray the same thing as a kid.
As I’m telling this story the wife leader puts her on me and says, “God is giving you the desires of your youth.”
I hit the floor.
All I know is that no one pushed me, and I was on the ground feeling like light was shooting out of every pore in my skin. Energy was bursting out of me while I lay in a heap on the floor.
I’ve smoked a lot weed in my life, and I’ve dabbled in some psychedelics. NOTHING has ever compared to that feeling of when I was on the floor.
It was incredible.
My wife and I went to the church the following day. They had some rooms open where they pray for people to be healed of sickness and we wanted to check it out.
We were especially interested given the night we had before being prayed over by their church members.
While there, we had a man walk up to us, say something, touch us with one finger, and we hit the floor laughing uncontrollably. Literally five minutes on the carpet, hysterical, tears streaming down our faces, just laughing.
It was like God was tickling the hell out of us, but no one was within two feet of us while we were down.
A Healing I Never Expected
I randomly ran into a friend from college. He was actually at this church on staff.
As a lady walked by us he grabbed her attention. Pulling her into our circle, he pointed at my wife and me saying, “These two are going to pray for you and you’re going to get healed.”
Neither my wife nor I had ever seen someone get healed. We’d prayed for it, but never witnessed it.
The woman had been in several car accidents over the course of her life and was in horrific, chronic pain all the time.
After my wife and I prayed for her for awhile she was literally running laps around the room, dancing, and praising God. Totally healed.
Nothing like that had ever happened in front of me before.
The stories of the diamond, my wife and I going to the ground when prayed for, and seeing the woman healed were just highlights of our week. There’s even more I could go into.
But that week shattered whatever box I had God in.
Growing up in church, hearing all the sermons, reading my Bible, I was always left wondering where the God I was learning about existed. He seemed bigger and more powerful than what I was living with.
That week I got to encounter him.
My faith in God went from simply believing something I read, or was told about by my parents, to something I had a personal experience with.
There was now a tangible experience and encounter with God to marry with the faith I was carrying.
I’ve had some other pretty great run-ins with God since then, but nothing quite like that week. Not yet at least.
Working in a church and meeting so many different people from different walks of life at different places in their faith journey, I’ve wondered why God doesn’t just do to everyone what he did to me and my wife.
Why not just show up, knock people to the ground, let them physically feel your manifested presence, and then they’ll know you exist?
Why did it take 20 years of believing he existed for me to have that experience?
I don’t have any answers to those questions. But I do know others have encountered God the way I have.
I’ve heard their personal stories. Some in a smaller setting like me and my wife, some in large conference-like gatherings, and others just quietly praying alone in their bedroom.
It takes faith. Believing in what you can’t see first.
It takes believing stories like mine can happen, have happened, and believing I’m not crazy.
I’m just a normal dude with a wife and three kids, sitting in a two-bedroom condo, writing my story out at 11:45pm because I was inspired by something I read on Medium.
I promise I’m not nuts.
Regardless of what you think of my story and journey with God, I do know one thing is true.
God loves you.
He will meet you wherever you are at on your journey if you are open to him.
Have faith in that.