The Christian faith has long been the foundation of my family. On my father’s side there is a long list of missionaries and pastors who directly influenced the home I was raised in. My mother’s side of the family was represented by a large number of churchgoers, but a smaller number of born again Christians. My father’s father was a Baptist Minister through the 1960s, 70s and 80s. He was the lead pastor at First Avenue Baptist Church in Chula Vista, California until his death in 1987. As the second son of a Baptist minister, my father was raised in an atmosphere of strong Christian values as well as a thorough understanding of the power and presence of Holy Spirit. The First Avenue Baptist Church that my grandfather led was well acquainted with the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit and the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ on Calvary. These experiences followed my father into the house I was raised in. My father began every day with a family devotional time/breakfast where my sister and I were taught the values of the Christian faith as well as encouraged to believe God, investing our trust and hopes in the power of the Gospel to guide us, transform us and use us for the greater good of God and his will. Although my personal encounter with Jesus did not occur until my mid-twenties, I was always aware of the power of God and the sweetness of the fruit of the Spirit present in my parents’ marriage and their approach to our house and the way they raised my sister and me. They were the anchor that kept me steady in the face of encroaching temptations to flee God during my teens and twenties. Their example gave me reason to seek God on my own as I left the care of my parents in adulthood. Beyond reason, they gave me hope that the promises of radical character transformation in the image of Christ were not only necessary but possible. The truths of the Gospel I found in childhood formed the foundation of Christ on which I now stand.
However, that foundation went unfinished in my life for many years. Being raised by two devout and committed Christians gave me a false sense of entitlement when it came to God. In my mind, I was born into a family already blessed by God and that included me, no matter what I did with my personal life. I was in because my parents were already in. I had inherited faith. Then, in my early twenties, during a Sunday mass, I looked around the sanctuary at people worshipping with a sincerity that I knew deep down I lacked. Being an adult and under no obligation to attend church with my parents, I told my parents that attending church without a personal faith of my own was foolish and useless. However, in witnessing my parents’ devotion and sincerity to Jesus, I felt that perhaps the story was real, but maybe I just didn’t get it yet.
So, I remembered Matthew 7:7-8. And I started asking questions, searching for God in a different church every Sunday, no matter the distance, and knocking relentlessly to a God who should answer if he truly existed. After several months I had an experience at a church that was unlike any church service I had attended before. During a sermon on Hosea, I felt the entire congregation suddenly disappear. All that was left was the pastor, the word of God and me. I had never felt directly addressed in Church before that. It was terrifying and comforting at the same time. It was the first time that I felt God addressing me personally and not us collectively.
Sadly, that experience faded— or more appropriately, I traded it for something I felt like I needed more. I met a girl and my dream to marry before turning 25 was immediately given life that I had until that moment presumed dead. I fell headfirst into a relationship that in so many ways opposed the life God wanted me to lead. But I knew better. Marriage was what would satisfy my life, and he would be welcome to tag along. He’s a good God; he had to understand, right?
Fast forward two years, and I was living in Southern California with my fiancé, away from my family and alienated from them personally and spiritually. My character had changed into a pushy, rude and selfish man who shocked my parents and left them praying for a miracle. Their prayers were answered one day when I came to the apartment to find my fiancé packing up my belongings notifying me that the marriage was off, the love was gone and had been for quite some time and that I had two hours to vacate the premises because the lease was in her name and she had plans for a party that night. In one blow, my dream plan to become a high school History teacher, married young and poised to teach overseas in international schools was interrupted by reality. I had no job, no fiancé, no home, no money and no one.
By God’s grace I was homeless in the one part of the country that housed the majority of both my parent’s families. I drove straight for my father’s sister’s house about one hour away toward San Diego. What began at that moment, and lasted for the following three weeks, was the clearing of debris from the personal wreck that I caused, and the loving, outstretched arm of God in the form of numerous people I didn’t know personally, but that my parents knew from my grandfather’s church. Over the three weeks God showed me how my hunger to please myself was slowly destroying the good things he created for me, including myself, and how without his saving grace in the form of rejection and emptiness I would have destroyed everything.
During the three weeks God’s servants spoke to me in a way that was direct to the point of being offensive, but anointed by the Holy Spirit and therefore the most loving words i’d heard. They were offering me life. They were my rehabilitation team. I had no right to refuse, object or disagree. I had nearly killed myself spiritually and they were bringing me back to health. Toward the end of the three weeks, I had a vision in broad daylight. In the vision I found myself in an empty white room. Across from me was a man in white clothes, but for some reason his face was obstructed and I couldn’t see who he was. Out of the silence, he told me to remove my shirt and throw it to his side of the room. Similar demands followed until I was completely naked. After a few moments he began to throw me different articles of clothing. These were unlike any clothes I’d ever seen before. They were the purest white I’d ever seen and their fit to my body was as if they had been made specifically for my measurements. After clothing myself entirely in the outfit he threw to me he said one short sentence. He said, “Never take them off.” This vision occurred before I had read the following scriptures, which I was to read two years later in South Korea:
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
4 And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” 5 And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by.
After that experience I was driving, heading north toward Los Angeles, the radio on though I wasn’t really listening to anything. Suddenly the music just started to sound like noise, so I turned the radio off entirely. Out of nowhere I felt the urge to pray. Praying was something I rarely did and never felt comfortable with. I never saw the point, and I never quite knew to whom I was really speaking. It all seemed pretty ridiculous to me. But suddenly I wanted to. Suddenly I felt like I needed to. Then out of my mouth came a word that I never thought I would use in a prayer (in the event that I ever chose to pray). I said, “Father.” Until this point I always felt uncomfortable hearing other Christians referring to God as their father. In my mind I already had a Father and his name was Stephen. It felt wrong to rob my dad of that title and it felt sacrilegious to refer to God, the creator, in such an informal way. (Sacrilegious coming from a guy who clearly had no idea about anything God whatsoever.) But out it came. And this time it felt right. It felt like the only word that at that moment could represent what I felt.
In that moment I prayed for the first time, and I gave God full rights to my life. I told him that I didn’t want to have control over my life anymore since I’d seen what I was capable of doing in the position of complete control. I told him that my life was his completely and that I would listen from that point forward.
As I continue to grow, not only as a Christian bearing the name of my Lord and Savior, but as a disciple called to walk in the footprints of Christ, these influences inform my call to preach the word of God and share those truths from my childhood, now matured, with others around the world.