Leaving Christianity: How an Old Man Saved My Faith
When I was in 10th grade the Power Team came to my church. They were a group of powerlifting Christians who went around from mega-church to mega-church lifting weights and smashing bricks in order to bring “glory to Jesus.” I was excited to see them “perform/preach,” but I was most excited that my friends and I got to work out with the Power Team at Gold’s Gym one day between their nightly sessions. One of the members, Eddie “The Gripper” Dalcour, gave me some tips on which whey protein to drink after workouts. The highlight of the week came that night when Eddie, “The Gripper,” ripped not one but two phonebooks in half and everyone said, “Wow! How amazing.” Of course, the theme verse of the Power Team was Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
This world of white, suburban, prosperity gospel lite, Ronald Reagan loving, evangelicalism was the world I grew up in. I could do anything through Christ who gave me strength. I knew I could do anything because God knew the plans that He had for me and they were to prosper me and not to harm me; they were to give me a hope and a future. And even if something bad did happen I knew that God worked all things together for good for those who loved Him and for those who were called according to His purpose.
What I wanted to do most at that time was play college football for a big SEC school. My dad had played college football for Auburn University, and he was my hero. I wanted to be just like him. He hadn’t just been a great athlete, either. He was a great dad, a great husband and a great man, and he was the pastor of our church. The church had grown rapidly under his leadership, and it seemed like he had been able to do “all things through Christ.” He really didn’t have any weaknesses. So that is what I was going to do – I was going to be just like him. I was going to trust God, get tips from “The Gripper,” work hard, and I was confident that good things would happen and that one day I would be able to play college football in order to follow in my dad’s footsteps.
Between 10th and 11th grade I got a lot faster, bigger and stronger, and my dream of playing college football was beginning to become a reality. I played tight end on offense and middle linebacker on defense, and seven games into my junior season I was leading the whole city of Huntsville, Alabama in tackles. Schools from all over the country started calling and sending letters. In the eighth game of the season I was chasing down a running back on a regular pitch play and in the midst of the tackle I tore my right ACL and some meniscus cartilage in that knee. It was a big blow, but I knew the Lord had good plans for me. My faith was strong, and I knew God was going to use this bad thing for good. I had surgery on that knee, repairing the ACL and cartilage, and I immediately got back to work. Only this time I was working even harder than I had before. Fortunately, there was enough game film and enough on the stat sheet to keep the recruiting buzz high. Letters poured in that spring and schools began inviting me to visit them during spring games and to attend their summer camps. My rehab was going great, and I was bigger and stronger than ever. My dream of playing football in the SEC was becoming a reality.
But that May another blow came. I was lifting weights one day and felt a strange sensation in my head, a “release” of pressure, as I was trying to push out one more rep. I asked my coach if you could tear an artery in your brain and he told me, “That’s called an aneurism and if that would have happened you would be dead.” For the next few days I had a major headache but wasn’t dead so I just toughened up and went on with my life. Two days later, on a Friday, I was back in the weight room. After my first exercise I blacked out and was overcome with pain from my head. After this my coach told me to go home and to see a doctor. That day I went to my primary care doctor who immediately encouraged me to go and see a neurologist who did some tests and told me to come back on Monday for an MRI. I got a lot of rest that weekend and was really feeling better by Monday. I went in for the MRI, excited to get it done, finish up the day at school and join my friends that afternoon for an end of school year pool party over at Katie Flynn’s house. As I was leaving the doctor’s office they told me to come back at 2 p.m. to get the results. This would make me a little late for the pool party but I hoped it wouldn’t take too long.
When I went back to the doctor’s office I learned that it wouldn’t be a short trip. The doctor had called both of my parents and told us we had to immediately go to the hospital for one more test. The doctor saw something abnormal in the MRI. By this time I really was feeling fine – five days after the initial head pain – and I was a little annoyed that they were being so cautious. We went to Huntsville Hospital and, after a painstakingly long arteriogram, the doctors came out shaking their heads saying, “We can’t believe you walked in here today.” They explained that I had a 2.5 inch tear in the basil artery of my brain. Arteries have two layers and somehow the interior layer of the artery had torn and the exterior layer was still intact. At first I had no idea what this meant and my first question was, “When can I start training for football again?” One of the doctors told me that I would never play football again, and that he was worried I could have a full-blown aneurism or stroke. He told me I had to immediately go on blood thinners and that I couldn’t strain myself in any way. No walking faster than three miles per hour, no lifting more than ten pounds and certainly no football.
Obviously I was devastated. Those were the worst words that I ever heard, but I was a part of a loving community and somehow my faith was strong. I believed that “all things worked together for good” and I believed that “God had plans to prosper me and not to harm me, plans to give me a hope and a future.” My coaches, friends and family members were incredibly supportive and kind to me during this season, and I persisted on. I also learned a lot about prayer during this time as it seems like everyone that I came in contact with that summer was praying for me.
Mine was such a rare case that the doctors didn’t really know what would happen, so the following September I went back to the doctor to get another opinion and to see if the tear had progressed. They did another arteriogram and this time the doctors came out with huge smiles. My head was okay, there was no tear – whatever had happened was gone. I don’t know exactly what happened that summer, but I walked out of that doctor’s office believing that God had answered prayers and had given me a clean bill of health. I was going to be able to live a healthy and normal life.
Even though I was healthy, that injury ended my football dreams. All of the schools that had been recruiting me stopped the recruiting process when they heard about my head injury, and because of the injury I wasn’t able to finish the rehab on my knee. I was also in really bad shape. When you are used to eating 5,000 calories a day and then you suddenly stop all activity, it’s not a good combination. But I was grateful. One dream had died, but I knew others would come.
In fact, the following spring I was able to get back in shape, and I was thinking about walking on to play football at Auburn. My strength was back and my speed was slowly coming back. But then, in a simple game of Ultimate Frisbee after church one Sunday, I tore my ACL again in the same knee. I was even wearing my brace which actually made the tear worse. I knew what happened as soon as it happened because it was the same pain I had felt 18 months before, but I didn’t have the heart to tell my parents because I was just about to go on a graduation trip to Colorado. So, I hid the swelling and pushed through it. A few weeks later I graduated high school and went out to Colorado for a week of mountain biking, rock climbing, river rafting and mountaineering.
It was a great trip, but on the last day I called home and got the sense from my mom that something was wrong at the house. After I pressed her she finally put my father on the phone. Now remember, my dad was my hero; he led me to Christ, he discipled me, he was my pastor and model in all things. But on the phone that night he admitted to me that for the past several months he had been having an affair and that he was going to have to resign from the church. In that moment it would have been easier if someone would have told me that he was dead. I was so crushed, so hurt. He was the greatest guy I knew and now he had done this evil thing to my mother, to his church, to us and to God. That night in Colorado was one of the worst and longest of my life. My family was in worse shape than my torn up knee, but somehow my faith survived. Somehow I kept believing that God had good plans for me, that God would work out all things together for good.
Even though my football dreams had been taken away and my family was collapsing, I went off to Auburn University with a sense of hope. God was going to do something through this. I had been the SGA president of my high school and I thought, “I will run for SGA president at Auburn and make an impact on this campus for the Lord that way.” If playing football or being a preacher’s kid wasn’t a secure platform, maybe campus involvement was. So I joined a fraternity and a bunch of campus groups. Everything was looking up. My parents were working things out, my dad who was repentant eventually able to pastor another church, I had another knee surgery to fix things, and it seemed that all of this was God’s plan.
My junior year rolled around, and I announced that I was running for SGA president and I had a great little team of frat guys and sorority girls to help me. Well, on the last to announce your candidacy a guy named Jonathan McConnell announced he was also running for SGA president. McConnell hadn’t been involved in SGA so I really never saw this coming. At first I remember thinking, “Oh this guy is a no name on campus. He will be easy to beat,” until I realized that his dad was the president of the Republican Party in the state of Alabama. His dad had helped the governor at the time, Bob Riley, get elected just a few years before. Coincidentally, Jonathan (the son) ran for US Senate last year (2016) and made it an interesting race against longstanding Alabama senator Richard Shelby. By this point you might have guessed, as sophisticated as my team of frat guys and sorority girls were, our little campaign had nothing on McConnell’s, and I lost. But my faith was strong! I believed that God knew the plans He had for me and that He was going to give me a hope and a future. I knew all things work together for good for those who love God and who are called according to His purpose.
So I went on with my life. That summer I met a girl and we started dating. I remember thinking maybe this is what the Lord had in mind; maybe all of this happened so that I could get connected with this great girl; maybe this is the plan He had for me? But about halfway through the next school year she broke up with me. And in the spring of my senior year of college, as I was facing graduation not really knowing where my life was going and having had so many of my plans spoiled, my faith that had once been so secure began to shake. I remember praying, “I thought you had good plans for me? I thought you were supposed to prosper me? I thought you weren’t going to harm me? I thought all things were supposed to work for good? Well none of this feels good.” For the first time in my life God felt far from me. It seemed like I was laying my heart out on the line every time and coming up empty handed. I didn’t vocally reject Christianity or turn to drugs and alcohol or take up yoga, but I did just kind of feel numb to the things of God. If He was so good and so kind, why, despite my greatest efforts and consistent faith, was nothing working out? I was the kid who always kept his nose clean, had his act together and tried to do the right thing. Why wasn’t I “prospering?”
During that same spring semester in Auburn I met an old pastor named Peter Doyle. He was retired, but he really enjoyed hanging out at coffee shops with college students and talking to them about Jesus. A buddy of mine and I started meeting with him and, as the Lord would have it, my attendance was a lot more consistent than my friend’s. It was on these days, when it was just Dr. Doyle and me, that I would tell him about my hurt and even about my numbing faith. All he did in these moments was continue to teach me about Jesus. We were studying 1 John together, but Dr. Doyle just used this a spring board to the whole Bible. Through the weeks of meeting for coffee or burritos that spring, Dr. Doyle helped me see that my dreams were too small and my horizons too short. I had small dreams – playing college football and winning the SGA president. Dr. Doyle helped me believe that God had dreams for me that were so much greater. He really did have good plans for me, and He really was going to work out all of these things for good, but none of that may happen in this life. As we studied the Bible together I realized that sometimes followers of God get notoriety and riches, but a lot of times they get dragged outside of the city and are stoned to death. As we studied God’s Word together I started to really believe that things seem so hard in this world because none of us were meant for this world. My dreams had been too small and my horizons were way too short. God was and is working out all things together for good but it may take me another 10,000 years to understand all of that.
I’m grateful for Christianity, I’m grateful for the church I grew up in, I am grateful for Christian music and good sermons, and good books and all that Christianity has produced. But that spring a shift happened in my life, while I believe I was a Christian before, that spring I looked less to Christianity as something that would serve my dreams and desires for my life and I started looking more toward Christ, I started to see his power, and goodness, and beauty more and more and that he really was the same yesterday today and forever no matter what was going on in my life. That spring I took a step away from following Christianity and a step towards following Christ. I wish I could tell you that since that time that faith has been simple and that fighting sin and doubt have been easy, but that is not the case. I can tell you, though, since that time I really have grown more and more to understand the story that God is trying to tell, and it is not my story, it’s His story. I guess I could have told you that before that spring in Auburn, but it took disappointment and pain for me to really understand it. Since then my life has been full of some pain, but to be honest, it has been full of a lot of joy, and the Lord has given me kind gifts. I have an amazing wife and three beautiful children and, since the fall of that year that I met with Dr. Doyle (2004), I have been pastoring churches, a job that brings me so much joy.
This Sunday, I am leading the effort to start a church in Atlanta, and I guess the only thing I can say about it is that I have learned there is nothing in me that is worthy or qualified to start a church. The story of this church, Christ Covenant, is Jesus’ story to write and it may be a story that people look at in 10 years and say, “Wow, how amazing!” or it may be something that people look at and say, “What a joke. I knew they shouldn’t have hired Jason Dees to be their pastor,” but either way I believe that through it all God really is going to work out something in this effort that is beautiful and glorious, and I pray that He will be pleased even though I may not understand it all for another 10,000 years.