My Testimony of God's Grace in my Life
by Joseph W.
Jesus entered into my life as he embraced me in his wonderful love 25 years ago. This awesome love instantly reoriented my thoughts and actions. Yet slowly over the next several years I would allow fear to erase most traces of this new life. Eventually my disorientation in trying to measure up to others' expectations would lead to rejection, bitter resentments, depression and finally to alcoholism and atheism. After many years I again know the Loving God I first encountered.
I was born into a very traditional Roman Catholic family and educated in Catholic schools. About all that I could grasp about God was that he was distant and angry at me for my many sins. Only in the season of Christmas could I feel good about God because an infant in swaddling clothes did not threaten me. The rest of religion was an obligation I had to perform in order to avoid punishment.
I first encountered the love of Jesus at a Catholic Charismatic Prayer Group that I began attending during my first semester as student at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That particular prayer group was not at first very concerned with either Catholic theology or Protestant doctrine. In fact, the name of the group, the Community of God's Love, pretty much summed up all we were concerned with for the first 3 years of my "Born Again" Christian experience. I had many wonderful experiences of Jesus in those first 3 years as prayer, fellowship and praise became daily parts of my life.
My "First Love" experiences had a profound change in my world view and how I treated others with the Faith, Hope and Love that I had found in manifested to me through Jesus. My Jerusalem Bible was alive with scriptures that ministered the life and joy of the Holy Spirit.
Then in my 4th year all it started to come apart. I was not aware that slowly other seeds had been sown into our group. The group slowly began to adopt certain protestant beliefs concerning a god of wrath and anger. This new god, though I did not realize it at that time, was radically different from the one I had encountered. This "new" Jesus was not concerned with grace and mercy through love. He preferred judgment and punishment and, most of all, FEAR. My Jerusalem bible was replaced with a jazzy Protestant version. I started becoming less loving and more fearful. I now had to prove myself acceptable to a god whose standard I could never obtain. Fear and doubt clouded my mind as never before.
The more I tried to become a Protestant the worse I became and I began to secretly slip off and drink. Mentally I began to believe that I was "chock full of demons" and after much mental flagellation I would be forgiven and delivered so I would redouble my efforts to win the lost to my cause. I became driven to evangelize the world for a mad god who had no problem damning the entire world to an eternal prison more horrible than Hitler, Stalin or Mao could I ever image to imitate.
I joined a branch of a small authoritarian charismatic church and then moved with them to join the main and large authoritarian church in Dallas, Texas. Among other curious beliefs, that church had taught me that the religious prohibition of alcohol practiced in many charismatic churches was religious and unspiritual. They encouraged their members to drink to prove how spiritual they were. I excelled at that type of spirituality and got drunk several times. Another curious practice was the belief in auricular confession to your home pastor. Three years later my pastor point blank told me that I was "a failure as a Christian" probably because I kept confessing my failings. I packed up my car and ran away.
My alcoholism got a gigantic start after I left the church as I basically stayed drunk for 3 months waiting for god to kill me and toss me into hell. An old friend from the former God's Love prayer group came to me and encouraged me to move to Reserve, Louisiana (near New Orleans) and attend a church where most of our old group members had ended up. So in 1981 I found myself in another controlling charismatic church. But thankfully they did not believe in auricular confession and because they "publicly" preached prohibition I did get experience drunkenness for over 5 years.
However my depression deepened and my sense of dread continued to increase even though I was not drinking. And my anger multiplied. I became their boldest and loudest street preacher. Abortion clinics shook with my condemnations and I even ventured onto Bourbon Street. Somehow I learned to project my voice so effectively that I could out shout anything except a good megaphone. Again my preaching existed to placate my guilt over my supposed battles with demons. I came close several times to mental break down. I fasted one time for 10 days to prove my dedication to the cause. I was the true believer of all true believers, but I was still empty.
In 1985 I returned to college to complete my bachelors degree. After that I had the notion that if I obtained a Masters degree in Library Science I would certainly have no trouble obtaining placement as a missionary. In truth it was just another geographic cure that I sought. I became the loudest hell-fire preacher on the LSU campus. I could and did out shout all the other self-styled campus preachers who all respected me for my boldness and "scriptural" knowledge. My ego was exalted yet I was still in daily mental torment because of the fear I felt towards god and my fear of every demon I could imagine, and I could imagine a lot of them being out to get me.
I was going to graduate in May of 1986 with my bachelors degree so I started the process of applying to graduate school for Library Science. I was shocked and horrified when I discovered that LSU's graduate school was not very interested in my application. LSU would only offer me conditional admission and would not promise me student employment. I simply couldn't afford school on this basis. I was a well-respected Christian on the LSU campus (in my own mind) and I had a following of other students who recognized me as their witnessing leader! My apple cart was upset concerning my plans for LSU but then I was accepted by Library School at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They offered me full admission and gave me student assistantship with a waver of out-of-state fees. This meant moving to a city I knew nothing about.
I moved to Hattiesburg in August of 1986. I tried attending a small Assembly of God church. They were a friendly group of glowing Christians but they were beneath my own charismatic prejudice because they were a small congregation who couldn't afford to fix the roof of their own church. I started attending another large and impressive charismatic church which after several months "disfellowshipped" my closest friend in that church. He was an extremely kind man who had started his own evangelistic organization but it was not "submitted" to their ministry. I followed my friend to another charismatic church but was not pleased with it either but I attended it until the end of my second semester.
I had first encountered the philosophy known as Five Point Calvinism in my last semester at LSU . One of my classmates and my major professor were both committed Calvinists. After many struggles I eventually concluded that they were correct. Beginning with my 3rd semester in Library School I started attending a PCA Presbyterian Church. At about the same time I decided that it was OK to drink again. My flair for preaching diminished as my flair for drinking increased. I began to live a complete double life. Drinking with select library friends and going to church with other ones. Somehow I managed to keep the two sets of friends separate. I am sure now that both sets suspected me of two-faced behavior but at the time it did not occur to me that any of my "Christian" friends knew about my "Drinking" buddies or vise-versa. I managed to get so drunk during some of these bouts that I couldn't walk without falling down. I spent many mornings hung over from the night before. In spite of the frequency of my drinking I still managed to graduate in December of 1988 and that same month I accepted a position at the Georgia Tech Library in Atlanta, Georgia.
I have few fond memories of Atlanta, Georgia however the progression of my alcoholism got much worse. I stopped going to bars and concentrated only on liquor stores. Over the course of the two and a half years I stopped paying most of my bills so I could drink more. At first I had a beautifully unfurnished apartment without any furniture because I spent the money on booze rather than furniture. I slept on an inflatable boat until I discovered a discarded mattress on the side of the road and dragged it home. I eventually moved into one of Atlanta's worst drug dominated neighborhoods because I could afford the low rent of a non-air-conditioned apartment.
Still I kept trying different churches looking for something to fix me. I first I attended Mt. Paran Church of God and kept drinking. Then I went to 1st Baptist Church of Atlanta and kept drinking. Then I went to an Evangelical Anglican Church and kept on drinking. At work I drank Brandy out of medicine bottles. Finally after two and a half years Georgia Tech decided not to renew my contract.
It took me about 2 months to find another job in a public library in LaPlace, Louisiana . Again I was living near New Orleans and in the same Parish (Louisiana doesn't have counties) that I had lived in previously. Now my drinking escalated more. By this time I had become an atheist and had given up on religion. I even cursed a sunset to prove that it could not cause me to have a "worshipful feeling". I often drank until I passed out. I bought a 16 by 7 foot trailer for $600 that had no legal title, a leaky roof, a broken toilet, and smelled of sewer gas. Once my trailer became so jammed with beer cans I realized that I had a problem. The problem was the beer cans which I finally cleaned up after tripping over them for several weeks. My solution was to go out and buy my booze in bottles because I would throw them away more frequently. After several bad bouts of Delirium Tremens (DT's) and extensive problems with my vision (seeing multiple images) I ended up finally in Alcoholics Anonymous angry because my best friend had quit working.
I do not remember paying a lot of attention to those nice AA people for the first year. It took me that long to finally admit that I was an alcoholic! It took another year before I started to feel anything except anger and resentment. I resented going to meetings where persons I considered uneducated were suppose to be teaching me something about how to live. My vanity was such that I often went to meetings because I felt I could show them something but in reality I went because I feared being alone. Only AA had the courage to tell me to keep coming back. Everybody else had told me to stay away.
Slowly, I was able to start approaching the notion of a God again even though I did not understand God. It seems that I had hundreds of mental prejudices towards any faith, even in a generic god. I had such pronounced and deep resentments towards any Christian version of a God that I instantly resorted to profanity to those who held such beliefs.
One day my AA sponsor asked me to write down all the times in my past life where God had been positive towards me and where god had been negative towards me. My sponsor then told me to destroy the negative list because they were all lies and start believing that the God on the positive list was my God.
What was on my list? First I felt safe remembering the notion of an infant
God come to save mankind that I remembered from those crush scenes of my
childhood. Next, I knew that the God I had first met at old God's Love Prayer
Group loved me. He had never condemned me and in fact I had felt surrounded
by His love and presence I had felt that
love and experienced God's joy and peace those first 3 years of my Christian life. It took me a few more years to again identify Jesus as my "AA higher power" and as part of my understanding of God. This awareness of Jesus' love and care for me has continued to grow. By the grace of God through Jesus, I can say today that I am a Recovered Alcoholic who hasn't had a drink in almost 8 years. February 4, 2001 will be my 8th AA birthday.
It may shock you to hear that I do believe in HELL because I've been there. It was not a hell of eternal torment but rather a hell of my own making because of the fear, the depression, and the resentment that I had embraced and then chased and drowned with alcohol. I experienced this temporal hell because I had let myself be lured away from my first love to follow "another Christ" other than the one who had so lovingly embraced me back in 1974.
I still feel more safe inside the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous than I do any Charismatic Church I've attended in the last year. My AA sponsor once said that "Fear is a corroding and evil thread" and there is no such thing as good fear because there is no such thing as a corroding and evil thing that was good for you."
I have attempted to reconnect to the Church world not to join their Churches but to attempt to bring the message of Jesus to them. No, I haven't lead with my chin. In other words I haven't spoken of eternal matters with those I've started to meet with. I have focused rather on day to day living in Jesus. I have focused on sharing about the redemption rather than trying to get them to understand what I believe concerning the restoration of all things. AA taught me how to overcome resentments and fears and how to make restitution for the actual harm I did to others. AA has earned all of this from Christianity - the real version, that is. I have seen in these short 8 years more miracles of real conversion in AA than I ever witnessed in the church world.
It is my hope and the focus of my faith that the Lord Jesus can use me as an instrument to share some of this with the church world and that I can share with my AA friends the love, joy, peace and happiness of who Jesus is. Today I know that the Community of God's Love is not just that old prayer group; that community is the Body of Christ.
The Jesus I met 25 years ago did not change. He did not abandon me even when I chose to follow after false Christs and alcohol. Today I am a testimony of His redemption and like all those born again, not of the mind of man but the will of God, I am part of the first fruits of His Eternal Restoration of All Things (the kingdom of God in Churchspeak or Church English)
My reason for withholding my last name is simple. In this testimony I have identified that I am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is one of our spiritual principles in AA that we do not use our last names in any public media. Since Tentmaker is an organization it falls within the scope of a public group. Before I would feel comfortable about using my last name in this testimony I would have to remove the references to my participation in Alcoholics Anonymous.