Kneeling at her bedside after three years of family strife, my mother surrendered me in prayer to Jesus. While she was still there, the phone rang. I had just been arrested for smoking hash in the drive-through of a bank while the driver was trying to cash a stolen check. I was getting high while committing bank fraud. That’s how out-of-my-mind stupid I was at age 16.
My mother was relieved—not because of the arrest, but because she finally knew where I was. I hadn’t called home in days. It was 1980 and the off-season in my seaside hometown of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. Some friends and I were at a deserted motel on a drug binge. When it was time to rustle up funds to keep the party going, I’d followed a guy through the window of a senior citizen’s house. There was nothing else worth stealing, so we took the checkbook.
After being arrested I moved back home, but other drama followed until I landed in a juvenile shelter. Free of the drugs and relationships that had clouded my thinking, I realized my life was going nowhere fast. After a month at the shelter, I went to stay with a family who offered transitional housing to wayward teenagers through a 4-H program.
Pat and Carl were born-again Christians. In court, I had complained that my mother and stepfather were trying to “shove Christianity down my throat.” Now it seemed like I couldn’t get away from Christians. But there was no tension with my hosts. Compared to the faith that had transformed my home life after my father died and my mother married into a Baptist family, Pat and Carl’s piety was laid-back.
They didn’t go to church much, but were so moved by the ministry of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker that eventually Carl went to work for the Bakkers’ Praise the Lord ministry. Their Christianity didn’t seem inordinately focused on rules and right doctrine like some of the Baptists I knew. Theirs was an eclectic approach that provided me a fresh lens through which to consider the gospel.
After a couple weeks, I returned home and began pursuing a future without drugs. On a subsequent visit, I found myself kneeling in prayer on the opposite side of the coffee table from Pat while the Bakkers preached on TV. Pat raised her hand toward me and began praying. Though she never touched me, I was thrown backwards into the couch by an invisible force. With tears streaming down my face, I raised myself up and surrendered my life to Jesus. I would no longer live for myself. Instead I would devote myself to following him.
Driving home, I wondered why I didn’t feel much different. The Holy Spirit had simply startled me into acknowledging that I had reached the end of myself.
A Horrible Pit
Some folks in my tiny hometown were skeptical. Could the wild child really have been born again? In my senior year of high school, I became a model student as well as a compulsive perfectionist. I had been really “bad,” so now I would be really “good.”
The first Christian book I read was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, a worthy place to start for someone who is not a perfectionist. But for me, it inspired failed two-hour prayer sessions before school, misguided evangelism attempts, and excessive judgment of my parents’ and my own faults.