A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 18 “Saved by Grace”

abandoned church

(The previous chapters can be found by clicking on A Godless Fundamentalist under Topics on the right hand side of this page. To receive email notifications whenever subsequent chapters are published, hit the follow button.)

by John Ellis

Minus a rudely interrupted nap under a tree at a rest area in Nebraska, a couple hours of fitful sleep later that night while parked at a Laramie truck stop, and a pause just west of Salt Lake City to help a group of fellow travelers panhandle for gas money, I drove straight from Bloomington, IN, to Antioch, CA; a journey of nearly 2,300 miles.[1] While foolish and dangerous to drive that far on such little sleep, I didn’t have much of a choice. The delay caused by my decision to stay and live with my grandmother meant that by the time I changed my mind back, I had a little over 48 hours to make it to my brother’s house before he and his family flew to South Carolina. Not surprisingly, my memory of driving between Sacramento and Antioch is quite hazy. I do remember being mesmerized by the headlights of approaching cars glaring off the marsh as I barreled down HWY 160 and realizing that I was only half conscious. It was only God’s grace that I survived the final leg of my trip, much less found my brother’s house in the dark. But I made it.

Waking up well into the next day’s afternoon, my brother and his family were already gone. It was too late to begin a job search, so I did the next best thing – I explored Antioch. As I drove around, stopping from time to time to walk through parks and shopping districts, many of the people looked plastic to me and much of the town appeared meticulously molded in a way to appeal to the worst instincts of consumerism. By the end of that first day, I was somewhat disillusioned, and decided that I needed to move to the city at the first opportunity, completely suppressing my disillusion created by my visit the previous summer. Since San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the country in which to live, moving there required more money than I possessed. While poking around the bedroom community, I made mental notes of restaurants that appeared to hold potential for employment. One such restaurant was Humphrey’s on the Delta, a popular seafood restaurant named after the famous humpback whale who swam some sixty miles up the delta and had to be rescued in 1985. After briefly popping in for a drink and a look around, I took advantage of the series of walkways along the edge of the river.

It was a nice Northern California June evening. Pausing at a bench for a cigarette, I called Christine. I shared with her my general dislike of the East Bay (at least, the very tiny portion of the East Bay I had seen). While talking to her, I developed a theory based on my very limited experience with California. In my lonely mind, I began to conclude that California is where art comes to die. “Think about what happens to many of the great filmmakers and actors,” I urged. “As a general rule, their best work was prior to becoming famous and moving to Los Angeles.”

Now, for one thing, and to be clear, that’s not really true. For another thing, I was a good 350 miles from L.A. My uninformed theory aside, what I was really confessing was my loneliness and doubts. For her part, Christine took my veiled confession as a signal to try and convince me to move back East. We argued as I insisted that she didn’t understand that there was nothing for me back East, an assertion that she didn’t appreciate for obvious reasons. I soothed her anger, though, by telling her that I hadn’t really left her because I wanted her to move to California to be with me. Like our final time together prior to my move, she expressed the desire to join me in California after graduation the next school year, allowing the possibility to continue to stand.

Later that evening, sitting on my brother’s back patio while smoking weed, I felt strangely unsettled. Strangely, because unlike my years-long angst and despair, this feeling was wrapped with a sense of eerie calm. Listening to the traffic from the highway running alongside the neighborhood and staring at the broad, cloudless California Delta sky, the ambient noises and backdrop that seemed both imminent to my existence and yet having nothing to do with me at the same time prompted me to wonder, “Why am I here?”

Chalk it up to me being high; chalk it up to my heart’s stirrings prompted by the Holy Spirit. Whatever. But that question was not fueled by my usual navel-gazing. I legitimately did not know why I was there, as in, Antioch, CA. I knew the reasons why I said I was there. But I also knew those reasons kept changing; the one constant, it seemed, was my end point of moving to California. Now that I had reached that endpoint, what came next? For the first time, I felt like an actor in a play that was being written by someone else. After having dutifully quoted my lines and followed the stage directions, it seemed like I had nothing to do but sit in the greenroom and wait for the playwright to hand me the next page of the script. Why was I here? What comes next?

Going to bed slightly puzzled, I went to sleep with a sense of expectation growing in me.

In many ways my situation paralleled living at my parent’s house in late 2002 and early 2003. Unlike my time back in Pensacola, though, I wasn’t overwhelmed with despair. One thing was exactly the same; I needed a job.

And, so, over the next two weeks, my days were spent looking for a job. My evenings were spent getting high. I only had so much money and so much weed. The solution to replenishing both was the same – employment as a bartender or waiter. Sundays were spent going to my brother’s church.

Now, to be honest, I no longer believe the reason I told myself for why I was attending services at that church. At the time, I told myself (and genuinely believed, to be clear) that I was lonely and that the nice people at my brother’s church would take me out to eat, which they graciously did. For my part, I was more than happy to pay the price of hanging out with Christians if it meant free meals at restaurants. It didn’t hurt that I didn’t mind their company. In fact, if I had been willing to be honest with myself, I would’ve had to admit that I actually enjoyed their company. Hindsight, though, has the benefit of much clearer vision, and at the time I justified my growing anticipation for church and the subsequent conversations over lunch as a product of my loneliness.

My evenings on the back patio were also undergoing a change. At first, they were fairly tranquil. I’d get high, listen to music, and fall asleep, usually waking up sometime in the early a.m. just long enough to drag myself off the patio and to bed. By my second week there, that tranquility began to give way to imaginary conversations, mainly with my oldest sister Jennifer.

During my goodbye confession with her a few weeks earlier, the one we both believed was the last time we’d see each other, she had gently confronted me with the gospel and several apologetic arguments. I countered with my standard rebuttals of the problem of evil, it’s unjust for God to punish us for acting on the instincts he gave us, etc. Obviously, neither of us ceded any ground and we parted, both in tears. Now, though, after getting high, her voice and arguments came roaring back in my head.

One of the odd things, or, more specifically, one of the contradictory things was that while those imaginary conversations increasingly troubled me, I looked forward to them, at first. And I also began to wish that my sister was sitting there with me and not just in my head.

Among other things we “discussed,” I insisted to Jennifer that I had escaped, that I had finally left our oppressive fundamentalist Christian past once and for all. What’s more, having weathered the worst that God could throw at me over the last year and a half, I had figured out His game and, so, could finally best Him. I pleaded with her to understand and not to hate me.

In my mind, she would offer me rebuttals and Christian apologetics, but I would bat them down. Over and over she would tell me that God loves me and that through Jesus He had provided a way to be saved from my sins and be reconciled to Him. “But I don’t want to be saved from my sins,” I would protest. “I’m free and you’re not.”

Eventually, too tired and high to think straight, I would fall asleep.

That scene repeated itself each night. Sometimes, I would search out a Bible to find “proof-texts” to prove my sister wrong. One night, while flipping through the Bible, I became stuck on Colossians 1:13-14 – “He had delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Regardless of how much I hated God or how much I believed Him to be a moral monster, it was impossible for me to deny that I lived in darkness. Over the previous year and a half, I had experienced violence in my heart and actions that scared me, emotional pain that I couldn’t understand, loneliness that was physically painful, and had watched my idol’s hands and head be cut off.

Colossians 3:12-15 didn’t help matters either – “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.”

A few verses earlier in chapter 3, the Apostle Paul admonishes Believers to, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry (3:5).”

It was hard to scoff at those “repressive rules” of Paul when just a few verses later I was confronted with a picture of what I was most decidedly not – kind, humble, meek, patient, and characterized by love. Character traits that are undeniably desirable, no matter a person’s view of God. Regardless of what I thought about God and Christianity in general, it was impossible to deny that I had lived an almost completely self-centered life up to that point. In my wake, I left behind a trail of people whom I had used and abandoned and hurt. My past was filled with broken relationships because of my actions. Over the last several months, I had engaged in activities that even unbelievers recognize as despicable. Reading verses 12 through 15 of Colossians 3, I was confronted with the fact that no matter how enlightened I believed myself to be, I was a horrible human being.

As I angrily read and reread Colossians over the next few days and nights, voices began to join that of my sister’s. The words of my old BJU dorm supervisor who had warned me over a decade earlier that pursuing this life would only bring misery grew louder. Remembering the concern for me evinced by my old boss at the Bill Rice Ranch, even as I betrayed him, was a painful reminder that in the intervening years I had seldom experienced that kind of love and grace, much less ever given it. That unwanted stranger in Denver. Others, including youth pastors, teachers, and college professors, haunted me. And, of course, my mom’s words and the knowledge that she was praying for me rarely left my thoughts during those evenings on my brother’s back patio, and I began to want to quiet those thoughts. But no matter how hard I tried to quiet those thoughts, they wouldn’t leave me alone.

It became harder and harder to fall asleep each night, but I dug in. There was no way I was submitting to God and giving up my freedom. Besides, I didn’t believe that He was who He said He was.

On June 28, a Monday, Humphrey’s called me in for an interview. I got the job and was scheduled to begin my training that Thursday evening. The rest of the week was spent exploring during the day, using up my dwindling bank account in the knowledge that I would soon be making money, and getting high at night, at which time I would continue my fight against Christianity.

By the end of my first training shift, I knew that I had found the right job. The managers seemed laid back, the customers friendly and seemingly generous tippers, and my new co-workers easy to get along with. In fact, by the end of that first shift I had found a room to rent.

One of the servers had an empty room in her house that she was looking to rent. I told her that I was housesitting for my brother, but that I would move in as soon as possible since my “housesitting” was more him being nice to me than him needing me to stay there. She told me to give her a week and she’d have the room ready for me.

It was well after midnight by the time I got home that Thursday, and I was too tired to do anything but fall asleep. The next evening, I returned to Humphrey’s for my second of three training shifts. Once again, the night went great and by the time I was sent home the manager commented that I was ready to work on my own but since I had already been scheduled for another training shift on Sunday, my first real shift would have to wait until the next week. I was fine with that.

That Sunday, my final training shift, was July 4, 2004. I woke up and headed to my brother’s church. I fully expected that to be the last Sunday that I would ever darken that church’s door. Truth be told, the only reason I was going that day (or so I believed) was because they were having a dinner-on-the-grounds after the worship service. I contemplated just showing up for the lunch but decided against it. As I ate my food, I believed that I would never need to see these people or suffer through another sermon again since I had a job, new friends, and place to live. I no longer needed that church.

It’s funny how the light of day causes us to forget the turmoil of the night.

Driving away from the church, I breathed a sigh of relief. “Done,” I thought.

After the restaurant closed that night following a busy July 4th crowd gathered to eat and watch the fireworks display over the delta, I sat with a fellow bartender on the deck that overlooked the river. He shared his weed with me, and we smoked, drank beer, and talked until early in the morning. Before leaving, I told him that my supply was running low and he promised to have a quarter bag for me when I returned on Wednesday for my next shift.

What more could I want? A good bartending job, a room to rent, easy access to drugs, Christine possibly joining me in a couple of months, and auditions coming up. After a year and a half of turmoil, I believed that I had finally orchestrated my life to a point where I could finally begin to move forward again. I now knew why I was there and what came next.

The next day, with nothing to do, I drove into Berkeley. After walking around for a couple of hours, I ate dinner and returned home. Like the previous two weeks, I rolled myself two joints, packed a bowl, and settled in on the back patio to get high and fall asleep, hoping against hope that my evenings would cease to be disturbed by thoughts about God and Christianity.

However, as troubled as my thoughts had become over the course of the previous two weeks’ nights, that Monday night and early Tuesday morning proved to be a gradual yet steady increase of thoughts about people from my past, my sins, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. My discomfort was ramped up against my wishes. Since I was no longer able to comfort myself with the belief that God does not exist, I was left to come to terms with my standing before Him.

While accepting that He existed, I considered Him a moral monster who ordered and delighted in the genocide of whole people groups. Steering into the apparent contradictions of the Bible, I scoffed at how gullible Christians were to believe that the Bible could be trusted. “After all,” I thought, “God doesn’t want us to know what He’s really like; He’s lying to us.”

I also believed that He toyed with humans by giving them instincts and then punishing them for acting on those instincts. Except the thing I couldn’t escape was that as I looked back on my own life, I had to honestly admit that many of my choices and actions were purely self-serving while others around me, mainly Christians, demonstrated love and selflessness to me while I hurt them. The contrast was painfully obvious, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it no matter how hard I tried to dismiss the thought.

Most importantly, all the teaching about Jesus drilled into me by my parents, teachers, and other Christians throughout my life made it difficult to hold tightly to my belief that God’s a moral and capricious monster. The gospel of Jesus Christ was a rock that my doubts and anger kept crashing against that night and into the next night.

By Tuesday night, I was fed up and determined to shut my thoughts up once and for all. Except my desires apparently weren’t taken into consideration. No matter what I did, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jesus. With the words of Colossians banging in my head, I turned the TV on, attempted to read a book, and smoked more weed. All to no avail. All I could think about was that no matter who God was or what I thought about Him, I knew that I was a disgusting sinner and that Jesus had come to earth to die for the sins of those who put their faith in him.

But how could I submit to a God whom I didn’t trust?

Early Wednesday morning, around 3am, tired, distraught, and unable to get high enough to quiet my disturbing questions, the thought stuck in my brain that God and Satan were holding a sort of cosmic game of tug-of-war over my soul. At some point in my past, I had heard what I now know is the misguided and erroneous teaching that there comes a time when Jesus stops knocking on the door of your heart; that there will come a moment when the gospel call is no longer held out to you and you are eternally lost. I believed that I had reached that point. That now was the time to make a decision, and that whatever I decided would be final.[2]

Terrified, I wept “But I don’t believe that You are who You say You are! What am I supposed to do? If you want me to believe, You’re going to have to reveal Yourself to me!”

Be careful what you pray.

I cannot explain what happened next, but in the very next instance it was like a light was turned on in my mind and I recognized God as the Sovereign Creator of the Universe and I realized the awfulness of my sin before His eternal holiness. I knew that I stood guilty before my Creator and worthy of eternal condemnation. Thankfully, because of the faithfulness of my parents and others, I knew the solution.

Dropping to my knees, I repented of my sins and placed my faith in Jesus Christ.

Still on my knees, I began pouring my heart out to my Heavenly Father. Unburdening myself after decades of rebellion, I availed myself of the unfettered access to the Throne of Grace. And for the first time in years, when I went to bed, I went to sleep peacefully. As Paul wrote, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”

The next morning, I excitedly called my parents and told them what had happened. In reply, my decidedly staid and non-Charismatic mom said, “I knew this was why the Holy Spirit was taking you to California.”

As we hung up, my mom said, “I love you John, and I’m praying for you.”

For the first time in my life, those words filled me with joy and thankfulness.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Even though I pointed out that the sign said that I could sleep at the rest area for up to three hours, the state trooper, whose hard kick to my ribs had rudely woken me, curtly responded that the sign did not apply to me.

[2] Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was conflating aspects of Manicheanism with the pietistic, hyper-individualistic Arminianism I had been taught growing up. God works in mysterious ways.

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