At nine, I was on the front row of the balcony in a Baptist church attending a revival. The program was in my hands being folded into a paper airplane that I planned to launch out over the congregation when they stood to sing at the end of the service. Two friends were next to me giggling with anticipation as the thought of that paper airplane soaring over the1500 people on the first floor filled their heads.
All of a sudden, the words of the evangelist captured my attention! It was as if no one else was in the church and he was speaking directly to me. He said something like,
“You’re lost and going to hell and you can’t save yourself by being a good boy. You need a Savior and his name is Jesus! He died for you, paying the penalty for your sins, and if you trust Him right now to forgive you He will and take you to heaven to be with Him when you die.”
Right where I sat, at that very moment, with tears of joy welling up in my eyes, I put my faith and trust in Jesus Christ as my Savior, dropped the paper airplane on the floor and slipped out of the pew, leaving my friends perplexed and confused, to find my parents downstairs and tell them what just happened.
Baptized two weeks later, I was now excited about going to church! I was there three times a week, twice on Sunday and Wednesday night, going to Sunday School, memorizing my verses for our class’s “Sword Drills”, even joined the youth choir and ended up playing Jesus in an Easter play.
I was taught in more ways than you can imagine that, “Blessing follows Obedience” and that, “God helps those who help themselves.”
They taught that if I obeyed my parents, did my chores with a good attitude and did what my teachers told me to do, then God would bless me.
They convinced me that if I disciplined myself to stay away from the “filthy five” of some churches, or the “nasty nine” of other churches and stayed clear of the “dirty dozen” in our church, then God would bless me.
By “doing the do’s” and “not doing the don’ts” God would not punish me but, in fact, bless me.
“Blessing” meant to me, “Lord, keep me safe!” It was as simple as that because, as a nine year old boy who had good parents that provided my food, shelter and clothing and my basic emotional need for love, my greater needs were met. So, as a boy involved in “extreme sports”, always “pressing the envelope” in water skiing, hunting, fishing, camping, swimming, football, baseball and tennis, my prayer to God, over and over again, for years, was, “Lord, You are supernatural, so keep me safe from all accidents, evil and harm!”
Well, over the next five years, a series of bad things happened to me:
Got a lot of stitches and broke a few bones.
Got pushed into a Spanish Bayonet bush creating excruciating pain and had to have long, deeply embedded needles pulled out of my arms and legs.
One night, I was thrown off a pier at a beach in Florida! My hand slid down the wood and across sharp barnacles that cut my hand into ribbons. Left by my “friends”, I swam to shore, bleeding, imagining some shark attacking me.
A hit-and-run driver killed my pet dog, Pokie, on its first birthday. I found it bleeding to death, picked it up, ran to my mother who took me, covered in blood, and my little innocent dog to the Vet where she was pronounced dead on arrival.
Pokie’s death broke my heart! I remember praying at this point, “If You’re not going to protect me, at least You could have protected her. What did she ever do to deserve this?”
My mother woke up one morning paralyzed from the waist down from what was later diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis. Told by the doctors that it was brought on by stress, I blamed myself for her paralysis because I was the greatest source of stress in my mother’s life by insisting on taking risks and living life “on the edge”.
I yelled at God and demanded,
“If You don’t make my mother walk again, I’ll never serve You!” Miraculously, God answered that prayer, but it did not address or remove the deep-rooted disappointment, hurt and resentment growing in my heart toward Him.
Then, at 14, at the height of my career in swimming, with 7 state records and times fast enough to break the national record for breaststroke, consumed by the dream of swimming for “gold” at the Olympics, I was struck by an automobile. While crossing the street at dusk, a little Volkswagen Beetle hit me, breaking bones, bruising my body and putting me in the hospital.
This accident literally crushed my dream and was the “last straw” in my relationship with God.
I was obeying and God’s blessing did not follow!
By all I was taught, I was living up to my side of the deal by being a good boy and obeying all the rules and God, as Sovereign, All-powerful and Loving, was not doing His part by simply keeping me safe!
While in that hospital bed, my resentment toward God, that had been growing over the last 5 years of undeserved pain and suffering, burst into hatred.
I yelled out loud, “God, I hate You! Get out of my life and leave me alone!”
I told Him, in so many ways, that I was finished with Him and His deal! I told Him I wanted no part of being a Christian and having to live up to a set of rules and moral standards, hoping you would “bless” me if I did!
From now on, I told Him I was going to do all the don’ts just to spite Him and show how disappointed I was in Him and how much I hated Him.
From 14 to 20 years of age, for seven incredibly self-destructive, rebellious years, I sinned in God’s face! Every sober moment, which weren’t many, I was under constant conviction, feeling my guilt and incredible misery.
My misery was God’s Spirit convicting me of my sin!
I would scream at God and tell Him,
“Get out of my life, leave me alone! You are the one who is making me miserable when all I want to do is be happy, do what my friends do and enjoy life like them!”
The trail I blazed through high school and college was radically bad and not worth mentioning here, being already familiar to most of you either through your own personal experience or hearing about people destroying their lives through the media.
After getting into a lot of trouble with the police, humiliating my parents and bringing public disgrace to our family’s upstanding reputation, I planned to commit suicide through an overdose of hallucinogenic drugs.
One night, at the peak of my despair, laid out on the floor of my apartment, physically exhausted, emotionally raw and my brain a “basket case”, I cried out to God one last time,
“God, I know I am going to heaven when I die, but what about this life! What provision have You made for me to live! I tried it Your way! I tried it my way! I don’t know how to live! If you don’t come into my brain and think for me, make my hands do what they are suppose to do and take my feet where they are suppose to go, then I am going to kill myself tonight! Take over my life like that demon did to the girl in the movie “The Exorcist” or I’m going to take my own life!” With my cheek in a puddle of tears, burdened excessively, beyond my strength, with the sentence of death within me, I fell asleep right there on the floor.
After a few hours I woke up and all the rebellion was gone!
In my heart it was as if God was speaking, “Finally, you quit, you surrendered, you died!”
All my resentment and hatred toward God had vanished! I rolled over and started smiling because I felt so calm, so liberated. The very presence of God was in the room and I felt an overwhelming peace, His peace, within me.
A sensation like electricity, or like adrenaline, was rushing through my body and simultaneous feelings of fear and ecstasy from being in His presence were flowing through my heart and mind. I felt joy flooding me, a flat out tingling sensation of exhilaration that far exceeded anything alcohol or drugs ever gave me.
Feeling God’s love and His very presence was the most powerful experience I had ever had! I lay there never wanting this amazing experience to end!
Then, this thought captured my mind; that I had, in very real sense, “died”, not physically, but psychologically, and God had invaded my being, raising me from the “dead”, and had answered my prayer for Him to take total control of me!
He had taken over my mind, will and emotions!
He had become my very life! And all I had to do, from then on, was to keep on experiencing Him and He would make me say, do and go; that He would work supernaturally through me, empowering me to live life, satisfying and fulfilling me while I did nothing but experience His presence and enjoy His love.
This experience awakened a hungry heart in me for more and more of Jesus Christ; “to know Him, the power of His resurrection, the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death”(Phil. 3:10).
My hunger for Him drove me to read and consume the Bible.
I began to see all over His Word what the “real deal” was, rather than what I was taught the deal was; that is, “Blessing follows obedience”.
When I shared my story and what I was learning from the Bible that confirmed and corroborated what had happened to me, I was challenged and put down by church leaders and Bible teachers. They said to believe in a theology of “Let go and let God” was erroneous, nothing more that a philosophical and psychological “cop out” that would wreck my life and mislead others.
My family was worried that I had finally “flipped out” and was losing it mentally. My mother asked me to tell her what had happened to me when she saw such a dramatic change in my countenance and personality.
I said to her, “ If I tell you, you are not going to believe it.”
As she was snapping beans into a colander, she said,
“Sit down here and try me!”
After I told her, she got up, hugged my neck and said,
”Now Gary, you’re scaring me, you’ve got to stop talking like this. Everything will be alright.”
My mother thought, at that point, I was on my way to a mental institution.
I told her, “You see, I knew you wouldn’t believe it, but, believe me now when I tell you I have never been better, you’ll see!”
These reactions motivated me even more to know for sure I was embracing Truth and not my own subjective misconceptions about God and how to live life. So, I began to study, reading early 20th century classic Christian literature, going back into the 1800’s, tracking on back through the Protestant Reformation to the early church fathers, like St. Augustine.
Then, I went to seminary, majoring in Greek and Hebrew, in a continued effort to focus on objective truth over against what I was told by the religious crowd was only my own subjective, “delusionary” thinking.
This quest for truth ultimately led me to build a library of over 1000 theological books. Godly men and women, scholars, ministers and missionaries throughout the history of the Church, though in the minority, spoke and wrote of suffering, brokenness, surrender and experiencing Christ as Life. They clearly expounded the Bible and shared their testimonies confirming the truth of what God revealed to me. But, most importantly, I saw the truth for myself all over the pages of Scripture.
I found out that Jesus Christ, experienced as The Bread of Heaven, the One we should partake of everyday to sustain us, as food sustains the body, is the way God designed life to be lived!
He wants us to experience His Son as the resurrected, indwelling Lord Jesus, mystically, moment-by-moment, manifesting Himself through our mortal bodies and unique personalities!
Through total surrender, He wanted me to experience my union with Jesus Christ in death, burial and resurrection, living life, not by me trying my best (“by works through human effort” as I have come to say), but by Him living through me as a “new creation” in Christ, living life the same way I was initially saved, “by grace through faith” (Eph 2:8 & Col 2:6).
I pray and hope, you too, will join the quest for truth and end up experiencing Jesus Christ as the Truth; for He Himself said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life…”