One fateful evening in 1988, I was working the prep line in a popular, high-volume restaurant in Albuquerque. For some reason that I cannot remember, I was in a particularly foul mood. One of the waitresses, who always seemed bubbling over with joyful exuberance needed some food item from me. I had to ask,
“How is it that you are always so happy?”
I should have known better. Her reply:
“It’s because I have Jesus in my life.”
Damn. Me and my big mouth. And as trite and childish as that answer seems to me now, at the time it made perfect sense. I was still a Christian. I was the Prodigal Son. I was ready to return home to my Father.
She attended a church that I had never heard of before, a place called Calvary Chapel, and she invited me to go on Sunday Evening. It was just a mile or two from the restaurant I worked at, so I hitched a ride with her. I was a little nervous. I had not been to church in over six years.
The building that the congregation met in was huge, and I quickly learned that it was a newly purchased and renovated indoor soccer arena. The pastor could not have been much older than myself - a young, tall, slender, handsome man named Skip Heitzig. I was struck by his boyish charm and obvious charisma. He looked less like the Pentecostal preachers of my youth, Grandpa Wagner and Pastor Jack, and more like a California surfer dude who just wanted to catch some sweet waves. I noticed that Pastor Skip favored casual wear over jacket and tie. He bore no resemblance to the stuffy Baptist ministers I knew in high school. The several hundred people in attendance were all dressed casually. Some of the younger men had long hair, beards and tattoos, and probably all the women wore pants. This brand of Christianity certainly did not follow the Biblical standards of dress that my old Baptist School did. The congregation and pastoral staff seemed to have no care about our outward appearance. These people bore more resemblance to the Jesus-hippies that wandered in and out of San Ysidro when I was a boy. Well, at least modern, spiffed up versions of Jesus-hippies. I felt more comfortable. I would not be harassed for my long hair or beard.
Pastor Skip’s sermon was very different from anything I had ever heard. He had no pulpit. No notes. He simply walked alone out on stage, sat on a stool, opened his Bible to the Book of Acts Chapter 13, and spent the next hour reading and commenting. There was no single subject or theme to his sermon. He was simply going through the Book of Acts, verse by verse by verse. He had been doing this during the Sunday Evening services for several months previous, and would continue for several months more, slowly commenting over every single verse of the Book of Acts, until the book was complete. Even though he was discussing Acts of the Apostles, he would frequently refer back to the Old Testament, from obscure passages in neglected books like Habakkuk and Malachi. He seemed to be doing what I had seen no other preacher or pastor do. He appeared to me to be taking a complete and systematic reading of the Holy Scriptures. He was doing what my childhood friend E---- once told me I had to do, treating the entirety of the Bible as an integrated whole, and an answer book and guide to every facet of my life.
Pastor Skip’s style was easy. He spoke calmly, unlike the ranting of Grandpa Wagner and the forced exuberance of Pastor Jack. He used pop-culture references to illustrate his points, including Star Trek, something unheard of in my legalistic past. He was funny, smart, good-looking and incredibly charismatic. This was not at all the Christianity that I had known up to this point.
The whole experience was very inviting. It spoke to me. It beckoned me to return. Jesus had shed his old, dirty, musty, unfashionable garments, took a bath, and put on new, clean and fresh clothes. I recognized Jesus again. He was the new Jesus for the 1980s.
I returned the next Sunday Evening by myself. The congregation was so large that I did not see the waitress that I went with the week previous. It did not matter. When the final worship song was over, the service was ended and the crowd was mingling about, I walked to the front of the auditorium to the stage. I kneeled. I knew what I had to do.
A very young assistant pastor put his hand on my back and kneeled with me. “Do you need prayer?”
“I need to give my life to Jesus.” I was already crying.
The young assistant led me to a small meeting room behind the stage. There were a few other people in there, praying quietly over private matters. I got on the floor, crouched on my knees rested my face in my hands and sobbed. I was curled over so that my face nearly touched the floor in front of me. I began crying like I had never cried before.
I don’t remember if I said anything in particular to the young assistant. I just remember crying. My face hurt. My red eyes swelled. My tear-drenched hands smeared through my wet hair. My nose was clogged with snot. I thought of all the years of rejection, abuse and heartbreak over my short life. I remembered that I had left Jesus when I needed him the most. I thought of all the trouble I had recently gotten into with the law, with my few friends and with my mom. I knew that I was miserable and that I was trying to solve my problems through running, hiding, running again, and pretending after each move that this time, THIS TIME, my problems would vanish, and my life would mend itself. In my foolishness, I was running from God. I could not hide. God wanted me home, and I needed to meet Him there.
I hated my worthless life of tragic failure. I hated my wretched self. But I wanted, so desperately, to love again. To live again. To finally do what was right, and to know how to do what was right. I repented of my pitiful, hopeless life. I repented of all the stupid, selfish, childish things that I had done up to that point. I wanted to turn my life around. I wanted to be good. I knew that to be happy, to be moral and to find some purpose in my life, I had to accept Jesus into my heart, and allow Him to perform radical surgery on my Spirit. I remembered what my step-dad Michael Wagner learned in AA when he was trying to quit drinking. Like him, I had to admit that I was powerless, that I had no good thing in myself, and the only thing that could possibly give my meaningless life hope was my Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Please Lord Jesus! Take me just as I am! I give my whole life to You!”
I remember the assistant leading me through some sort of Sinner’s Prayer. The only thing I remember about that whole episode was that I was crying so much that my words were barely intelligible to the assistant. I remember that he wanted me to repeat the prayer after him, and that I was having trouble saying it. I KNEW deep inside what I had to say, so I was barely paying attention to him.
“Say this – Dear Jesus, I repent of my Sins”
*sob* *cry* *sob* *sob*
“Jesus! Say ‘Jesus’”
“Say ‘JESUS’! Are you having trouble saying that word? JESUS!”
So I collected myself enough to repeat his incantation. “Jesus, I repent of my Sins”
“Oh, good. You said it.” It was only later that I understood what was going on. The assistant thought I might be possessed by demons, and they were holding my tongue and preventing me from speaking the name of the Deity. The reality was that I was just choking and crying too much. What a marvelously medieval idea! This kid believed that an evil creature was somehow keeping me from invoking a Deity with a benevolent magic word. Amazing. That evening, in admitting that I was powerless and desiring to live virtuously, I entered into another world of invisible powers, creatures, forces and agendas. I was swept into the Real World, where our physical reality is a mere shadow for the true actions of the Spiritual Realm. It was a world that I would be forced to believe in if I wanted to repent of my miserable life, and change myself for the better.
And this was all true. My repentance was genuine. I wanted to follow Jesus because all my life I had been taught that this was the only way to have genuine happiness and fulfillment in life. I did not convert for fear of Hell or for any coercive pressures from my peers. I simply wanted a real life. I wanted to do good to my neighbor and to feel the sense of peace and contentment that I had never before really known. I wanted to turn my life over to Jesus, and allow Him to make me a new creature. So I prayed to Jesus for the first time in years, curled up on the floor in a near fetal position, and cried the pain and hurt away. The emotive force of handing my life over to a Deity for His control and will was unbelievably powerful. It is a moment I don't think I will ever forget.
“We have a new Brother in the Lord!” A smattering of applause and congratulations from the small number of people in the prayer room followed.
“Actually, I am a Christian. I just fell away for a long time.”
“Welcome home, Brother.”
I peddled back to my apartment wondering what to do next. All I knew was that, for the first time in years I felt guiltless. I felt forgiven. I felt clean. I could not sleep that evening. I knew my life would never again be the same.
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