"Please God, anything but this."
My whole life I prayed that prayer - until a year ago.
I grew up in a loving family who attended church on a weekly basis. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I ever truly understood or received what was being taught. I loved being part of something bigger than myself, but what I loved were the friends at church, not God.
They say you become like the people around you. And for years, the people around me partied. As I made my way through high school I found drugs, alcohol and girls. I abandoned even the pretense of caring about God and dove fully into the party scene my friends were into. This destructive, yet enticing lifestyle continued into my first years at college, where I failed most of my courses because I spent more time in San Diego and Tijuana than I did doing homework.
A New Scene
Then, out of the blue, I was asked to tour with a Christian college choir and orchestra for a few weeks. I agreed and for the first time found myself surrounded by “real” Christians, people who supported each other, laughed and cried together, and did it all sober. I was hooked. I began attending the school that fall and started to experience what it was like to have Christian community.
This was a community filled not with people who selfishly aimed for their own wants and desires, but with people who constantly pushed me to strive for what is good.
It was the start of a new journey. I began weeding out the dark things in my life, but I still had not fully trusted God. Then came the summer of 2008. My cousin, who was a year younger than me, and who I spent a lot of time with, fell off his skateboard one day, slipped into a coma and died a few days later. I was wrecked. I struggled with depression, totally unable to process my own feelings.
I was supposed to be the responsible older cousin. In high school, when he asked his parents if he could go hang out with friends, their response was always "is Chris going?" If I was, they would let him go, too. But most nights that meant I was taking him to parties and watching him do the same drugs I did.
After he died, I realized I didn't know if he knew God, or trusted in Jesus, and I was crushed by guilt and shame for being a part of that. Since I grew up in church, I knew that Jesus said the only way to heaven was through him.
I just figured I had more time to make sure my cousin knew that too.
A New Relationship
That fall I really came to know Jesus, to believe what I read in the Bible, and to pursue him with my life, thoughts and actions.
But when I graduated college, I found myself once again without any community. For years I had lived with friends who were around every moment of every day but now suddenly, I was on my own. I had started attending Sandals Church, but I wanted to be part of a group of people where I could really belong. However, I had also just started working at a restaurant and my co-workers were the only other group of people I really had around me. I knew I had to choose one or the other: a community of believers or a community of non-believers.
I didn’t want to face the heartbreak I had gone through before, so I made my decision and sent an email to join one of the community groups at Sandals Church.
A New Low
Months went by and no one from the church had responded to my emails, so I slowly became more integrated into the group of friends at work. There I found a group of people to care for and spend time with, but they lived a lifestyle with which I was all too familiar. I remember saying, "sure we can go out, I just won't drink." And soon it became, "ok, just one." Until I found myself falling deeper into that same routine I thought I had left behind.
One drink turned into many, which turned into partying all night, which then turned into hooking up, which finally led right up to the moment I thought I had gotten a girl pregnant.
This was when hit rock bottom. I was terrified and ran to the only place I knew, church. Desperate, I turned to my brother and told him about my failed attempts at finding a community group and how I needed one now more than ever. Immediately, he took me to get signed up and helped get me connected to what has become more of a blessing than I could have ever imagined.
A New Community
After telling myself "just go for a month, and then you can say you tried," I realized how much I really wanted the group to work out. Six months later, I found myself sobbing, staring at my feet, unable to meet anybody's glance as I confessed to this living room full of messed up people the one thing I had never shared before: "I have struggled with same sex attraction my whole life."
Our group is a lot bigger than most, so that meant I had just told almost 30 people what I had only ever discussed with one other person. I told them the one thing I had never wanted anyone to know. I thought for sure they would look at me with disgust, the guys wouldn't give me a hug when they greeted me, and that others would view me as I viewed myself. Less of a man.
Their response, one by one, then as a group, was to get up and wrap me in the biggest, strongest hug they could muster. All of them. Then they sat me down in the middle of the living room and prayed over me. I will never forget that night. It is etched in my memory as the moment God's grace and forgiveness became real. Since then, many others in my group have used that night as a beacon of hope, giving them freedom to share their own dark stories and secrets, being totally open and vulnerable.
A New Life
I could never have asked God for this community, because I could never have understood what it would look like. It is more than church, more than bible study, more than a group of friends. It transcends anything we could ever define because I can tell God has blessed us for choosing to live out our faith in community.
I have grown more in the past two years than I did in the 25 years before and I thank God every day for my community group, because they brought me back to life.