by John Ellis
I wish that I could say that it was smooth sailing after my conversion. Like for many new Christians, it wasn’t. Sanctification is an ongoing process that won’t be completed until Believers reach the next life. It’s often colloquially referred to as Christian growth. And my first few years as a Christian had quite a few growing pains, to say the least.
But God is good and does not abandon His children, no matter how stubborn and sinful His children prove themselves to be.
After calling my parents the morning of July 7, 2004 and telling them that I was now a Christian, I called Christine. For reasons that I no longer understand, I thought that she would be happy about my salvation. I was wrong.
In hysterics, she kept screaming over and over “You don’t have the right!”
After I hung up, stung by her words that had been peppered with profanity, I remembered that a few years earlier I had convinced her that there is no God. She had converted to atheism at my prodding. That realization left me distraught and feeling overwhelmed with guilt.
About a week later, the pastor of the church wisely counseled me that it was prideful to be unwilling to forgive myself for what God has forgiven me. That was sage counsel as I worked through sin issues and consequences of past choices over the next few years. In fact, that is counsel that I will probably never allow to wander too far from my mind. At times, prompted by memories of past sins, I occasionally struggle with a deep shame that threatens to turn to sinful despair. Thankfully, by God’s grace, those moments are few and far between and the majority of the time when thinking about my past I am awed by God’s great love for me and overwhelmed with thankful praise for His pursuit of such a sinner.
However, during the summer of 2004, as a new Christian, I had much to learn. Sadly, I entered my new life in Christ believing that I already knew everything there was to know about being a Christian. Over the coming weeks, months, and years, my pride, in conjunction with the rebellion that remained in my heart, caused me to scoff at much of the godly advice and wisdom I received.
However, on July 7, 2004, I was excited to begin my new life as a Christian and wanted to get things started on the right foot.
Growing up in the independent fundamentalist Baptist movement, I had been taught that alcohol was absolutely verboten for Christians. So, that Wednesday, I quit my bartending job. That freed me up to attend that evening’s prayer service at the church that a mere three days earlier I had smugly believed I would never again attend.
I arrived just as the service was beginning and quietly took a seat towards the back of the sanctuary.
As the prayer time began, the pastor asked if anyone had anything that the church could pray about or praise God for. I raised my hand.
As the pastor called my name, everyone turned to look at me.
There is a good chance that my parents (or my brother) had already let the cat out of the bag, I don’t remember hearing one way or the other. Regardless, as I told everyone what had happened, that I was now placing my faith in Jesus, “amens” rang out, people began crying, and several of the church members gave me hugs.
And that moment burrowed deeply into my pride and my actor’s desire to be center stage.
As odd (or hypocritical) as this may sound since I just wrote an entire series about myself, I’m always a little reticent to share my story. For some good reasons and some bad reasons, we tend to emphasize the more dramatic conversion stories. Doing so runs the risk of downplaying the graciousness and mercy of God in the salvation of those who quietly repent of “undramatic” rebellion and place their faith in Jesus. The salvation of all sinners is a merciful miracle that should cause our hearts to resound with praise for our Heavenly Father.
But I get it. I do understand from a human standpoint why stories like mine tend to generate more interest than other people’s conversion stories. And, so, I don’t blame those dear Christians who smothered me with attention that Wednesday night and through the following months. In fact, I praise God for them. They had been praying for me for a few years and invested time, energy, and love into me. They were genuinely happy that I was now a Christian.
Except, the last thing I needed as a brand-new Christian, especially a brand-new Christian who loved being on stage, was to be the center of attention.
I want to be sensitive about how I describe the missteps made by that church. I dearly love those people, am thankful for their ministry in my life, and miss them. God used them in my life in a lot of good ways. They loved me, gave me places to live for free, provided me with employment, and encouraged me to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ. But, in their exuberance and excitement over a lost sheep being brought into the fold, I think that they forgot that I was a new Christian with quite a bit of sinful baggage.
A week and a half later, a middle-aged couple approached me after the morning worship service, told me how they had been praying for me, and how excited they were that I was now a Christian. They then told me that they wanted to help me get to know people in the church, and that they were going to throw a party in my honor at their house that coming Friday. “Who would you like us to invite?” they kindly asked.
I listed off all the single young women in the church.
And, so, that Friday I found myself at this middle-aged couple’s house with seven young women, all in their twenties, and two single dudes. I never asked the couple why they invited two people who weren’t on my list. Maybe they thought I had simply overlooked them or was unaware of their existence when they had approached me about the party. Or, maybe they realized that my suggested list was not born out of wisdom nor the desire for holiness.
As far as I was concerned, the party was successful. Less than a month later, the Christian school’s first grade teacher and I were officially dating. By God’s grace, we will have been married thirteen years this coming June.
At times, it’s hard to hold the tension for how incredibly thankful I am for my wife with the understanding that we should not have been dating. I mean, in 2018, I’m glad that we’ve been married for almost thirteen years. But, if I could travel back in time to 2004, I would counsel myself that I should not be dating anyone. In 2004, I should have been focusing on learning who God is and what it means to be a Christian.
However, the church, at least many people in the church, were overjoyed that we were dating. In fact, we were encouraged to date.
Before twelve months had passed since I had become a Christian, I went through church discipline, got married, and moved to South Carolina because my new wife no longer had a job.
I told you that my first few years as a Christian were bumpy.
By God’s grace, after moving to Greenville, we began attending a new church plant out of Heritage Bible Church. The pastor and I had known each other since middle school, his brother having married my sister.
During one of our first conversations that summer, I happily informed Brad about how excited Danita and I were to be able to use our many gifts and talents in the church. Listing off the variety of ways that we were able and willing to serve, I expressed my gratitude for being able to help get this church plant off the ground.
Looking me straight in the eyes, Brad responded, “John, I’m thankful that you’re willing to serve, but I think that you should just sit back and listen for a while. You should focus on learning who God is.”
Man, that made me furious.
“How dare he rebuff our offer of service!” I fumed to my wife later.
Turns out, he was right. In fact, over the next eight years I learned that whenever Brad or one of the other Elders said something that made me angry, they were always right, and I was always wrong.
I’m somewhat hesitant to share this next anecdote because I’m assuming that upon the insertion of the “C” word, I may lose some readers. However, my fear of man doesn’t alter the fact that what happened is important to what God was doing in my heart and life.
Even though I considered myself a committed Christian, the truth is I wasn’t. Things like rarely reading my Bible and praying, hiding my smoking from my wife, and even occasionally still smoking weed reveal that I was an immature Believer who was still living mostly for myself. I also rarely, if ever, listened to Brad when he preached. So, when my dad called me to tell me that I needed to find a new church because “Brad’s a Calvinist,” I scoffed and told my dad that he was mistaken.
Calvinism was rarely discussed at my dad’s church while I was growing up or at the Christian school I attended. All I knew about Calvinism in 2005 is that it was bad, taught that people are puppets without any agency, and undermined the Great Commission. I liked Brad, and even though I never really listened to his sermons, I thought he was a good preacher. In my mind, there was no way that Brad could be a Calvinist.
Much to my surprise, when I told my sister that our dad had accused Brad of being a Calvinist, she sounded somewhat confused at my denseness as she said, “But he is.”
Two things happened almost concurrently – I began listening to Brad’s sermons and my dad sent me a copy of Dave Hunt’s book What Love Is This?.” That meant that as I began to realize that Brad was indeed a Calvinist, I was also “learning” about how evil Calvinism is.
“I think we might need to find a new church,” I gravely told my wife. “Brad’s a Calvinist and Calvinism is a heresy.”
Thankfully, I began to feel a little guilty about condemning Calvinism without actually having read any primary sources. So, I bought a copy of Calvin’s Institutes.
Assuming that I would find that John Calvin took Bible verses out of context and twisted them to his own evil ends, I sat down with the Bible and Calvin’s Institutes and began reading, checking Calvin’s many, many, many Bible references along the way.
Anyone who has ever read Calvin’s Institutes knows that there is a lot of systematic theology in the books before he gets to predestination. Ironically, for really the first time in my life I was studying robust theology (at least, paying attention to the robust theology in front of me), all while looking for a reason to leave my church. To my dismay, I discovered that Calvin did not take the Bible out of context.
Besides possibly stirring up debates about Calvinism, the importance of that anecdote to the story of God’s work in my heart and life is that my mom was dying of cancer while I was reading the Institutes. I was confronted with the full sovereignty of God while watching my mom die. In my pain and rebellion, my anger against God returned.
During the late spring of 2006, I sent Brad and the other Elders at our church an email saying that if this is who God is, I didn’t want to be a Christian anymore. I couldn’t accept that a loving, sovereign God could kill someone who had spent her life telling kids about Jesus. It felt like a betrayal and a pulling back of the curtain to reveal that God was who I had believed Him to be before I had become a Christian – a malevolent dictator who delights in causing suffering.
Thankfully, and by God’s grace, our church family refused to just let me walk away.
I didn’t share with my wife my doubts and struggles. Afraid that she would take our daughter and leave me if she found out that I no longer wanted to have anything to do with God, I manufactured reasons for why we were not attending church.
Years after the fact, my wife and I discussed that time and it was only then that I was confronted with how miserably I failed her as a new husband. She was in a new town all alone. Thanks to my failing to lead properly, her job and career as a Christian school teacher had been upended. My insane work schedule meant that we saw each other maybe for 30 to 45 minutes a day most days. And then, out of the blue, I pulled her away from our church at the point when she was only beginning to form relationships with the other women in the church. For several months, she felt all alone, hurting, and confused as to why I had changed so much so quickly. To top it off, she was a new mother of a very independent baby.
To her credit, and by God’s grace, she never contemplated leaving me and she prayed constantly for me as she sought ways to get me to open up and share with her my struggles. When I watch the young couples in our church grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ as they joyfully throw themselves into serving God and their church family, I am deeply sorry that because of my sin and pride I stole that joy from my bride.
Over the course of those first eight months of 2006, we did visit other churches from time to time. My work schedule made for a ready-made excuse for why our church attendance was spotty. By then, I had several teaching contracts and shows. My theatre career was my idol, and I was committed to it above all else.
As I mentioned, our church was not satisfied with simply letting us walk away.
To my annoyance, I frequently received emails from church members expressing concern and letting me know that they were praying for me. After the fact, I learned that far more people were praying for us than I was aware of at the time.
Men from the church pestered me to get coffee until I would say yes. By God’s grace, one of the married couples in the church seemingly adopted us and ingratiated themselves into our lives, even though, at the time, I wanted nothing to do with that church. The husband, a biology professor at BJU, is one of the most intelligent men I have ever met, and one of the best listeners. He had been included in my email stating that if this was who God was, I was done.
His wife is one of the kindest and gentlest women I have ever met, and her love for Jesus is as evident as water is wet. She reminds me much of my mom. On top of all the other ways that God used them in our lives, that couple taught my wife and I what Christian hospitality looks like and feels like.
They would frequently invite us to their house for dinner. Their warmth and love remind me of Aesop’s Fable about the wager between the North Wind and the Sun.
As a man walked below them, the two argued over who could get the man to take his coat off the quickest. The North Wind went first, and with all his might, blew and blew. The man gripped his coat tighter and tighter around him. After a while, the Sun said, “My turn.”
He then came out and warmly shone down on the man. The man took his coat off.
During the dinners (and this continued the entire eight years that we lived in Greenville), something would happen. I would begin to talk. Unloading my heart, I would confess many of doubts and struggles to Dr. Gray. He would sit and listen, mostly in silence.
There is a sternness about him that is intimidating (not to mention that he’s obviously smarter than anyone else in the room), but there is also a genuine kindness and concern that compels people to seek his counsel, even if, ironically, they don’t want it. I didn’t want it, but that didn’t stop me from opening up to him.
He always seemed to know the exact right time to finally speak. And when he did, I would sit there and fume. Mostly at myself for having told him far more than I had intended (before those dinners, I would remind myself to keep my mouth shut – my reminders never worked). But I would also become upset because no matter how much I disagreed with what he said, it was impossible to refute his words. And his words stuck in my mind, as did he and his wife’s unwavering love for me and my young family.
God also used our pastor in my life. He was one of the men who refused to simply let me walk away. We spent many hours over coffee. I would tell him all the ways that the Bible proved itself to be untrustworthy. Taking his cue from 1 Peter 3:15, he would graciously listen and then answer my questions and challenges, encouraging me to submit to God. This went on for several months, as I became angrier at God after each visit with my dying mother.
One summer morning, while sitting in a Port City Java, Brad had had enough with my stubborn rebellion. The time began with our usual routine, my brusque challenges to Christianity and his gracious pleas for me to submit to the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, that morning didn’t end in the usual way.
I don’t think that he likes it when I tell this story, but I’m eternally grateful for his words and actions that morning. It was exactly what I needed to hear and how I needed to hear it. With his hand coming forcibly down on the table, Brad raised his voice and sternly said, “I’m done arguing with you, John. Your problem is your pride and your refusal to submit to God! No matter how well your questions are answered, unless you’re willing to submit to God, nothing is going to change.”
Later at home, as I often did, I fumed to Danita about Brad.
“Pastors shouldn’t talk to people that way,” I whined. However, I was unable to scrub his true words out of my brain.
As grateful as I am to God for how he used people like the Gray’s and Brad in my life during that time, the steadfastness of my mom’s faith as she faced her own mortality was the largest obstacle that my doubt was unable to climb over.
Over the course of the final nine months of her life, we were able to spend quite a bit of time with my mom (thanks in part to the financial generosity of the church I was trying to leave). Each time we would visit my mom, I would return home upset.
The car rides back to Greenville were the closest I got to telling Danita what I was feeling and thinking. Lashing out, I would weep as I confessed to my wife that I didn’t understand why God didn’t heal my mom.
My own feelings stood in stark contrast to what I observed of my mom, though.
Her wry smile, made slightly crooked by the Bell’s Palsy she had suffered in her youth, rarely left her face. Her gentle spirit was evident as she focused her attention and energy that she didn’t have on her grandkids. And to the end, she never stopped talking about her Heavenly Father.
For the life of me, I could not understand how she could face her own death with such calm and joy. I was furious and scared, but she seemed at complete peace in the hands of her Savior.
A couple of years after she died, I found a journal that she had kept during that time. At points in it, she confessed her doubts and fears as she faced death. Yet, at the end of each of those entries, she included a prayer praising God for His goodness, confessing her struggles, and asking for faith.
I am thankful that I found that journal. Not only is it a window into my mom’s mind and heart, it’s also a testament to how a struggling Christian should faithfully respond to fear and doubt. That summer, though, it was her seemingly unwavering joy and faith in God that the Holy Spirit used to continue to make me more like Jesus.
(A few years ago, I wrote about my mom’s life and death. You can read that by clicking here.)
That August, as it became apparent that my mom didn’t have much longer to live, I begin praying and seeking God in the midst of my fear. Unlike when I repented of my sins and placed my faith in Jesus, I don’t remember the exact date when this happened, but at some point, during the last couple of weeks of August of 2006, God’s sovereignty was revealed to me as a gift and a blessing. I was confronted with how much I was filled with pride and the desire to still rule my life. Turns out, Brad had been right.
For years, I used to tell people that August 2006 was when I truly became a child of God. As important as that season was to my sanctification, I no longer believe that I wasn’t already a Christian at that point. Looking back at the time between July 2004 and August 2006, there was obvious growth and a change in my heart. My fear and anger at God was different than my previous fears and anger. While sinful, it was the fear and anger of an immature child and not that of an outsider.
Beginning that August, and continuing after my mom died, my wife and I began faithfully attending our church, by God’s grace. At points, I would cringe at things said in the sermons and among God’s people in that church. Still an immature Christian, and still an immature Christian who believed that he was a mature Christian having learned the “final lesson” about God that summer, I felt called to help enlighten my church family about the evils of legalistic fundamentalism.
They were loving and patient during the times that I would wax eloquent about how fundamentalism was a heresy, Republicans contradicted Jesus at every point (during that time, I discovered Sojourners and Jim Wallis), and how we needed to contextualize the gospel and focus on relationships and mercy ministries and not so much on individual soul salvation.
My theatre career was also continuing to progress. Many of the errors I still clung to were reinforced by my fellow theatre artists. Determined to prove that I was not that kind of Christian, you know, a BJU kind of Christian, I would frequently initiate conversations about how Christianity isn’t really how it’s portrayed by many Christians. My co-workers would chime in with their agreement, as I would argue that Republicans were antithetical to Christianity. When professing Christians would confide in me their confusion over things like abortion and homosexuality, I would “knowingly” introduce them to the notion that we need to be careful about being dogmatic. Explaining that the Bible requires a lot of contextualization and that it’s dangerous to draw one-to-one comparisons between the teachings of the Bible and today, I would urge them to focus on God’s mercy and love.
But even my progressive Christianity took a back seat to my theatre career. All important, my life and my family’s life revolved around my career, and almost every decision I made was run through the rubric of how it would affect my theatre career. And most of my close relationships were with unbelieving actors and directors.
In His love and mercy, the Holy Spirit continued to confront my heart through Brad’s faithful preaching of God’s Word and the love and fellowship of our church family. Not to mention my continued conversations with Dr. Gray.
Whenever I read personal stories about how churches treated the author poorly and ungraciously over different political beliefs or even different understandings about the Bible, I can’t relate. Even going back to that fundamentalist church in California, never once have I experienced anything but love and grace in response to my beliefs (for the record, my beliefs have changed quite a bit over the years). That being said, the brothers and sisters in Christ whom the Holy Spirit placed in my life didn’t shy away from gently and graciously pushing back at appropriate times and encouraging me to continue to study the Bible.
Along with the continued ministry in my heart by our church, God also graciously altered the course of my theatre career.
During the spring of 2007, I was in a production of Romeo & Juliet at the theatre where I was the Director of Education. One of the actors in one of the small roles had decided to start his own theatre company. He was tired of the politics and of not ever being cast in the roles his talent deserved. Convinced that there was a cabal of theatre artists who determined who would get work and who wouldn’t, he ginned himself up to fight the man.
Prior to the show, I had never heard of this dude. Didn’t know he existed. And, bluntly, based on his work in Romeo & Juliet, it was obvious to me why he was rarely cast. But I didn’t tell him that, not at first, at any rate.
Our stations were next to each other in the dressing room, and as it often works in theatre, as soon as he figured out that I was part of the theatre community establishment, he began working his newly found contact. Talking my ear off about his prodigious talents and his frustrations with the politics that rules the local theatre community with an iron fist, he told me about his plans to start his own theatre and asked my advice.
I wanted to tell him to shelve the goal and sign up for the adult acting classes I taught. Wanting to keep peace within the cast, though, I mostly kept my mouth shut and offered generic advice. One thing that I did caution him about was his plan to deliberately provoke the Metropolitan Art Council. The tagline for his new theatre was going to be “All the Art, None of the Council.”
The MAC is the umbrella organization that holds the purse strings to the tax dollars provided by unwitting tax payers. Deciding which art’s organization deserved and needed funds the most, MAC decides who gets what. At the time, I was on MAC’s direct pay role as the lead facilitator in the theatre immersion part of an Art’s Integration Program for Title 1 schools. In fact, out of all my contracts, my contract with MAC was the most lucrative.
Anyway, I told this guy that even if everything he said was true, the last thing he wanted to do was to pick a fight with MAC. I explained that he would be forcing whatever allies he had in the theatre community to side with MAC. No one (including myself), would be willing to jeopardize their income to take a stand with him.
A couple of weeks later, after wrapping up my final teaching sessions, I turned my phone back on. It started buzzing with notifications as soon as it had powered up and didn’t stop until I had reached my car.
Sitting in the front seat, I began listening to the many voice mails left by my boss at MAC and various theatre directors from the area. The voice mail left by my boss at MAC was angry. He demanded to know why I had betrayed him. The other voice mails went back and forth from confused to slightly perturbed as to why I would involve myself with a project of this nature. At the time, I had no idea what project I was supposedly involved with. One voice mail was from my boss at the theatre where I worked as the Director of Education. He urged me to come see him.
He explained that my boss at MAC had called him and demanded to know why I had partnered with this new theatre venture with the tagline “All of the Art, None of the Council.” My level-headed boss tried to assure my angry boss that he was mistaken, that there was no way that I was involved.
Later that evening, the actor behind the whole thing slowly approached me in the dressing room and said that he needed to apologize. He told me that the director of MAC had come into the Starbucks where he worked, saw his new theatre’s poster on the wall, and asked him about it. He told him that it was a new theatre venture that he was starting with John Ellis.
“I shouldn’t have told him that, I know,” he confessed. “But he caught me off guard and I didn’t know what to say.”
Angrily, I unloaded on him. By that point, after several uncomfortable phone calls, it was apparent that my livelihood was at stake. I told him that he had no idea what he had done and encouraged him to steer clear of me during the rest of the show’s run.
Needless to say, because my boss at MAC refused to believe me, I became toxic within the theatre community and lost almost all of my contracts. Already barely scraping by, my family lost almost all our source of income. I didn’t know what to do.
My wife and I decided that we should move back to California. From the standpoint of my career, that made the most sense. By the time summer had rolled around, we had sold almost all of our furniture, reserved a U-Haul to take the rest of our stuff cross-country, and began to make specific plans to move.
After I told Dr. Gray that we needed to tell he and his wife something, they invited us over to dinner. Per usual, as I began telling him about our decision, I ended up telling him way more than I intended. He sat and listened.
After I was finished, or, rather, after he Jedi mind-tricked me into spilling all my guts against my will, he quietly said but without any trace of doubt, “You’re making a mistake,” and then proceeded to tell us why.
Leaving their house that night, I fumed to my wife, “What gives him the right to meddle in our life?”
Well, and I don’t remember if it was that night or at some point over the next few days, Dr. Gray invited me to attend a seminar that the BJU science department was holding that summer.
By the time the seminar began, the Holy Spirit had convicted both me and my wife about the foolishness of our decision to move to California. So, mostly furniture-less, we prayerfully committed to throwing ourselves into our church family. That still left the question of my now flailing career.
On the lone day that I attended the seminar, the speaker talked about the Creation Mandate. I don’t remember his name, but he spoke about how conservative Christians had done a poor job of integrating the Fall into education. Giving examples, he explained how much of the art produced by conservative Christians was anemic and unhelpful because it glossed over the Fall. As he talked, the wheels in my head began turning.
During a break, I approached him and told him that I was a theatre artist. Explaining to him that I was not a fan of much of so-called Christian art (I’m still not a fan), I expressed the desire to learn more about how I should integrate the Creation Mandate into my art. He encouraged me to enroll at BJU.
As I thought about it, his suggestion made sense. My wife and I had decided that God wanted us to stay in Greenville, yet my career was in shambles. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I knew that delivering pizzas wasn’t a good long-term solution to providing for my family, and I still loved theatre.
Talking it over with my wife, we decided that the best way forward was for me to finish my undergrad at BJU and then earn my MFA. That would open doors for me to work as a theatre professor in a college. So, I enrolled at BJU.
Maybe one day, I’ll write about how God used those two years at BJU in my sanctification (they ended up being a rough two years), but, for now, I think it will suffice to say that I can look back over my life and see a steady growth in my love for God and the desire to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ connected to my decision to return to BJU.
In His kindness, God knew that I needed to be removed from the secular theatre environment. Besides theatre being an idol in my heart, my wrong thinking and my sin issues were almost constantly reinforced by my co-workers. I needed to be confronted by committed followers of Jesus about what it means and looks like to be a child of God. I also needed to begin to forge my primary relationships within my church family.
Looking back over my life, the hand of God is evident. His love and mercy never left me, and in His kindness, He consistently sent faithful Christians into my life to confront me with my need to submit to Him through faith in Jesus. And while, from a human standpoint, there are many things that I would do differently, I praise God and am thankful for how He worked in my heart and life to call me to Himself. And I continue to marvel at His goodness as He continues to make me more like Jesus for His glory.
During my almost forty-three years on this planet, it seems like I’ve lived at least three different lives. By God’s grace, my past lives are so incongruent with my current life as to seem at times to have been dreams. I pray that whenever anyone reads about or sees the difference in my life now from where I used to be, they will marvel at the goodness of God.
Sola De Gloria