by John Ellis
My first day in California was spent exploring Antioch, the bedroom community of San Francisco where my brother lived. As I drove around, stopping from time to time to explore parks and shopping districts, many of the people looked plastic to me and much of the town appeared meticulously molded in a Stepford Wives kind of way. 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. 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.
That evening, after finding a waterfront park in downtown Antioch, I sat on a bench and called Christine. She took my confession about my lagging optimism 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. I soothed her anger by telling her that I wanted her to move out West to be with me. She was from California, so it made sense, and she agreed.
With the incentive of her joining me in a few months, we used the phone call to figure out a game plan. My three top priorities were scheduling auditions in San Francisco, finding a “day job” as a bartender, and finding somewhere other than my brother’s house to live.
While on the phone with her, I noticed a seafood restaurant called Humphrey’s on the Delta and made a mental note to fill out a job application in the near future.
I had brought enough weed with me to last a couple of weeks, and, frankly, my supply is what really determined my motivation to find a job. As long as I was stocked, employment in a restaurant did not seem as crucial. Not because of the money, but because of the access to more marijuana. Restaurants are staffed with people who can hook you up. While a paycheck was important, it ranked below scoring more weed.
Unaware of it at the time, my decisions had begun to revolve around getting high. God’s timing is sovereignly impeccable, and I shudder to think about the trajectory I was on. My lack of motivation had yet to completely undermine my theatre career, though (although it eventually would have). The next day I began reaching out to area theatres in search of auditions.
Before moving, I had already secured a spot in the area’s unified auditions that were scheduled for that fall. Unified auditions allow theatres to spread out the hassle of first-round auditions. Instead of each theatre in an area going through the trouble of scheduling and vetting resumes for each individual show, the area’s umbrella theatre organization holds a large multi-day audition. Utilizing the unified audition, theatres schedule their season’s call-backs and, at times, even cast shows. In the past, I had signed contracts after unified auditions and I had landed call-backs that led to contracts. I knew that most theatres worth their salt wouldn’t be holding open auditions that summer, and that my theatre career was probably on hold until that fall. But it was worth a shot, and it paid off. By the beginning of the next week, I had booked two auditions at Equity theatres (union houses). Having checked off one of my priorities, I could relax so long as my weed held out.
That first Sunday, I attended the morning worship service at my brother’s church. At the time, I told myself that it was solely for some companionship and free food; I knew that someone was bound to take me out to lunch. And I was right.
Knowing I was in town, the church members were happy to see me. I don’t know what their expectations were, and I don’t know if they were surprised to see me or not. I’m assuming my phone call at the end of the previous summer had given them hope. I do know that as I walked into the church, I silently scoffed at what I assumed was their belief that my heart was softening.
After church, I was taken out to lunch by a small group of church members. I enjoyed being the center of the attention, but parted ways looking forward to the day when I wouldn’t need them for companionship (or free food). I assumed that day would be soon.
Most of that next week was spent exploring the Bay area, going to the movies, and sitting on the back patio of my brother’s house getting high. Since I was alone, I became my conversation partner while high. Or, rather, I would imagine having conversations with people from my past. My oldest sister became my most frequent imaginary conversation partner. For the record, during those conversations, I never actually believed the people were there, I just needed a foil.
High and alone, I insisted to my sister that I had escaped, that I was finally on the cusp of leaving my fundamentalist past once and for all. 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, tired and too high to think straight, I would fall asleep, disturbed and lonely.
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.
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 perfect 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.
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. 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, no matter how hard I tried to quiet those thoughts.
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.
Towards the end of that week, I began searching for a bartending job in earnest. On 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 a repeat of the previous week – exploring during the day 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 my 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. I was hoping that I would be able to move within a week or two.
It was well after midnight by the time I got home, 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 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, 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 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.
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.
As troubled as I had been by my thoughts during the previous two weeks’ worth of lonely 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. 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. Of course, 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 much less 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 testimony 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. But 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?
Before I relate this next part, I want to add a brief disclaimer – please don’t assume my theology based off what I’m about to write. I’m simply telling what happened, what I thought and felt. The following paragraph does not reflect my theology.
Early Wednesday morning, 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 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.
Terrified, I screamed, “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!”
Whenever I look back on what happened next, my dry, rational, Reformed brain cringes a little; but it happened.
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.