I used to be a heavy drug and alcohol user. I was set free from that – instantaneously – one day in 1971.
I grew up in a Christian family and was raised in a church. I believed in God and Jesus, but in a shallow way. Had you asked me, “Do you believe in God and Jesus?” I would have answered “Yes.” But had you asked me further, “Why do you believe?” I’d have had no answer. Truthfully, “church” was boring to me, and Jesus was boring, and God was mostly if not entirely irrelevant to me. My life consisted of sports and the guitar. I played baseball and basketball in high school at Rockford (Illinois) East High, and have been playing the guitar since age 5. These were the thing that captured me, even more than girls! Besides, I was one of those kids who was shy, and just assumed any girl would tell me “no” to a request to go out with them.
My parents and friends viewed me (I think) as a “good” kid. As a matter of fact, from birth to age 18, I never even tried smoking a cigarette, my virgin lips had never tasted alcohol (except the little bit of wine every month at my Lutheran church’s communion service), and I’d never come close to having sex with a girl. Upon graduating from high school all this changed.
I became an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University. I had no idea why I was in college except that “everyone went to college.” That, I think, was the root problem in my life. Like most people my age I was struggling with my identity. In high school I had a small degree of popularity because I played sports. Sports gave a rhythm to my existence and a reason to be. But at the university I was “just another student.” I was not good enough to play sports in college. With this taken away I was, experientially, identity-less, and clueless to it.
One night at NIU I said “sure” to a student in my dorm who asked if I wanted to drink with him and some other guys. On that night I also smoked my first cigarette – a Camel non-filter! I desperately needed to belong, and these students became my new tribe. And I got initiated to our fundamental tribal objective, which was to hunt for sexual adventures with girls, whom we viewed mostly as objects for our pleasure. To my surprise, after two years of this, I began to find all these things vacuous and unsatisfying. I didn’t know it, but I was experiencing what the French philosopher Pascal identified as the “God-shaped abyss” that exists in every human heart.
So I began experimenting with drugs. I went into the military and did more drugs. I got out of the military and started all over in college, now doing drugs nearly every day. I was starting a lot of days with drugs for breakfast. One night my drug-using roommate, whose nickname was Biff, told me that he had invited a college campus pastor to our apartment. Biff asked if I wanted to meet with this guy, and I said sure, it should be fun. Biff and I came up with a big question which had the power of reducing this pastor to confusion and turn him into an object of ridicule. I really enjoyed the thought of making a fool of this man.
When the campus minister showed up I remember thinking, “This guy’s not a pastor. He doesn’t look like one to me!” He was in his twenties, and had graduated from a university in California where he played Division I football. He was bigger, stronger, and better-looking than either Biff or I. He was also polite, even kind, and seemed genuinely to enjoy the opportunity to talk with us.
And then – I will never forget this moment – we asked him “The Question.” I don’t even remember what it was, but I do remember what happened after we asked it. The pastor said, in a rare exhibition of truthfulness, “I don’t know the answer to that question.” I felt stunned, and robbed. I wanted to debate. I wanted to see this guy squirm and try to wiggle and argue his way out of this thing. I wanted to do drugs with Biff afterwards and laugh at our brilliance and his stupidity. I didn’t realize it at the time, but through the pastor’s honesty God had opened a crack in the door to my heart. I was vulnerable to what he said next: “But I do believe there is a God and that God loves you.”
After hearing those words I stopped doing drugs forever. At that point I knew something in a visceral, existential way. I knew – experientially – primally and indubitably – that God did exist and that God did love me. I knew – Calvin would say beause of the sensus divinitatis within us – that Jesus was real and that he had come to rescue and deliver me, and to give my life meaning and purpose. The great philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls this “properly basic belief,” and relates it to the Judeo-Christian belief that God has created us in his image, and that’s the root truth of our being.
I wrestled with this experience for two days. Then, on a Sunday in the Spring of 1971, walking on the campus of Northern Illinois University, I prayed, and told Jesus I wanted to know him and give my life to him. Now, thirty-six years later, I spend my life, imperfectly I am sure, pursuing this Jesus who forever changed my life. In my Ph.D program at Northwestern University I did one of my doctoral qualifying exams on “Christology,” which is the study of Christ. For the past two years I have been devotionally reading and reading the four original Jesus-documents – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And every Sunday morning I speak to my church family about the new things I am learning about this Jesus. I see my entire existence being whittled down to this one thing.
Empirically, I don’t doubt that the very point of decision resulted in immediate freedom from my drug and alcohol abuse. I have come to experience what C.S. Lewis called the “logic of personal relationships.” This is important to me, because I’ve studied philosophical logic and teach it at Monroe County Community College. I believe that experience, not theory, breeds conviction. When a person has a revolutionary encounter like I had, it is impossible to go back to the old ways.
It takes some eye-opening paradigm-shifting revelation to see this. It‘s the “I was blind, but now I see” thing. Jesus is God the Son. He is the bread of life. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the alpha, the omega, the hope of this world and the world to come. And Jesus is “Savior.” More personally, Jesus is my Savior. It’s set me on a life-journey to discover this Real Jesus. That’s the kind of thing I’m going to blog about. And I’m looking for the presence of the Real Jesus, right here, in Monroe