Coming home from the distant land

My connection to the church I owe to the unconditional love of godly Christian parents and a church family that saw potential that really only God could have revealed.

Just after my 17th birthday, I finally made the decision to be baptized. At my baptism I hoped the anger, questioning, and disquiet would cease—that things would change and I would change. However, within weeks of my baptism, I became further enmeshed with a group of friends that I thought I’d left behind. The bike gang seemed to hold greater appeal than ever. With my last few years in high school still ahead of me, I decided to spend less and less time there, and more and more time with the bikers. I left home regularly, telling my parents that I would never return. Instead of acting with anger, they simply let me know that the door was always open.

I was totally self-centered, angry with everyone without a reason. There was only one person in my life who mattered to me apart from myself, and that was my girlfriend. But I finally broke with her and decided to start a completely new life in another state. I took off with just a few dollars in my pocket, a change of clothes, and a sleeping bag, and headed west with an attitude that said, “Anywhere is better than here!” I had a couple of friends who felt the same way, so they joined me for the adventure.

Tired of sleeping on the ground and hungry as horses, we arrived in Adelaide, 1,200 miles from home. One of the guys tried to contact some friends, only to find that they weren’t home. We decided to visit anyway; it was an easy house to break into. We thought we’d stay until they came home or until one of the neighbors called the police. But the owner of the house was a pastor, and the neighbors must have been used to seeing kids around.

We ate the food in the fridge but couldn’t bring ourselves to sleep in the family’s beds. After a few days of sleeping on the floor, I was ready to try something different. I found an old mattress lying out in the backyard and dragged it inside. It smelled a bit, but at least it would be softer than the floor. When we returned to the house in the early hours of the next morning, I just rolled out the sleeping bag on the mattress and fell into an exhausted sleep. But when I awoke the next morning, I discovered my folly: I was covered with fleas. Obviously some other animal had used the mattress before me! I had bites all over me; I was scratching the skin off my body. There were so many fleas that the floor seemed to move.

Home started to look pretty good, and I decided that it was time to head back. It took me 48 hours of hitchhiking to get there. I was struggling with a savage case of the flu by the time I got home. I was exhausted and hadn’t eaten well for a couple of weeks. Even though I hadn’t slept for a few days, the first thing that I did was to call my girlfriend and ask her whether she’d go out for the night.

“I thought you were never coming back,” she said.

“Well, I’m here. Do you want to go out or not?”

“OK.”

I asked Dad for a loan of the pickup and some cash and headed off to pick up my girl. We went down to a deserted beach and spent hours talking. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, we headed for home. Not long after we had left the beach, I discovered we were nearly out of gas. I stopped the pickup, filled the tank, and then began a desperate search for my wallet. At first I thought it must have fallen down behind the seat or maybe I’d kicked it out on the road somewhere. After an anxious search, I went into the gas station and informed the cashier that I’d lost my wallet.

“I hear that story every night. You stay right there, I’m calling the police,” he said.

I decided I’d punch his lights out and run for it and hope that he wasn’t able to note down the number on my license plate. Then sanity prevailed. I asked, “Why don’t you phone my dad?” He did and was convinced that my father would pay for the gas. His parting shot at me was, “He seems like a decent man. I don’t know where he got you!”

Before the service station attendant could hang up, I grabbed the phone and spoke to my dad with uncharacteristic consideration: “Dad, go to bed. Don’t wait up for me; I’m coming home. I just want to go down to the beach to try and find my wallet.”

As I started the car, I rushed off a simple, unholy prayer, “God, I want the wallet, all right?” There was no “Dear Father” or “Amen,” just a demand. We got back to the beach and began to retrace our steps, eventually arriving at the place where we’d spent most of our time. Running my hand across the sand, I quickly found the wallet. A stroke of luck!

On the way home, I found myself giving in to sleep. Watching the speedometer, mesmerized by it, I caught myself drifting into the curb several times. I begged my girlfriend to talk to me, but by this stage she was exhausted as well, and she lay down across the front seat, her head on my lap, and drifted into deep sleep. I turned the radio up, wound down the window, sang at the top of my lungs, and continued driving—until there was an almighty BANG. When I regained consciousness, I saw sparks dancing across the hood of the car. I looked down and saw my girlfriend covered in blood. The engine had come right through the firewall into the seat, and appeared to have married itself to her body. I couldn’t get out my door, and I couldn’t open hers. So I eventually lay on top of her and kicked and kicked until her window exploded. Wriggling through her window, I fell onto the road. Then I struggled to my feet, grabbed her by the legs, pulled her onto the pavement, and dragged her as far away from the crash sight as possible.

People began to flood out of their houses. There weren’t any lights, only flashlights. I’d struck a power pole and had knocked out the electricity to the whole area. One of the women who came out was someone that I knew, a nurse from the local Adventist hospital. As I lay there on the ground, bleeding from my head, my arms, and my knee, I looked down and began to realize that my girlfriend had not moved since I pulled her free of the wreck. In desperation, I began to ask, “Is Shirley all right?” “Is my girlfriend all right?” I was assured that she was going to be fine. Then the people removed me away from the scene, propped me up against a tree, and told me to stick a thumb in the side of my head and to put pressure on my knee to stop the bleeding; I’d severed arteries in both places. As I watched, someone brought out a blanket and covered the apparently lifeless form of my girlfriend on the ground.

I began to pray for a second time that night—a prayer of absolute desperation. This time it began in the traditional way, “Dear God.…” The desperate realization flooded over me, that I had killed the only person I cared about other than myself. I began to plead with God, but nothing happened. The ambulance arrived, and the attendants loaded Shirley into it and made me sit beside her. In the darkness, my prayer was even more intense. “Dear God, if You’ll do this, then You can have me.” What a great deal I was offering God! Looking back I can hardly believe that He would even be interested. At the end of my prayer, however, I heard a shrill, blood-curdling scream, the type that only girls can make. It made my hair stand on end, but it was beautiful. Although Shirley didn’t regain consciousness at that moment, I knew that she was alive. I rushed off another prayer, “Thanks, Lord.”

When we got to the hospital, the emergency room personnel began to strip away my clothing and shave the hair from the side of my head. I had nearly lost an ear, and my leg was badly damaged. Just before they began the repair work, my father walked in. I wondered who told him where to find me. He asked whether Shirley and I were going to be all right. The surgeons assured him that there seemed to be no life-threatening damage, although she was still not conscious. And then much to my embarrassment, he asked if he could pray. I was so embarrassed, yet as he prayed I felt something changing in me.

Later, I found out what my father had done that night. Usually, when I was out at night, he wouldn’t go to sleep until I arrived home. It meant many sleepless hours. But this night, my dad had gone to sleep. He woke up with a start just after 2 a.m., got down on his knees and for the second time that night prayed for his son who was out there somewhere. He tried to turn on the light and found that there was no electricity, then walked to the kitchen and saw that the electric clock had stopped at the same time that he had awakened. He shook my mother awake, and they headed off to find their son. When he passed his pickup wrapped around the pole just 10 miles from home, he drove straight to the hospital, arriving shortly after we did.

Within a few weeks of the accident, my girlfriend had mostly recovered, with just minor scarring. I was released from hospital a little while later. The experience of this wreck was life-changing for me, but I was not back at church. I had not yet submitted to Jesus as Saviour, and I didn’t recognize Him as Lord. There was still a long way to go.

One Sabbath after I had returned home, the family had gone to church, leaving me an invitation to join them. As I crawled under an old wreck of a car I was repairing, it dawned on me that I hadn’t fulfilled my promise to God. I thought the first step would be to go back to church. I was still angry and didn’t want to go, so I hatched a plan that would ensure the church’s rejection of me. Unwashed, clad in my leathers, black grease through my hair and on my hands, I mounted my motorcycle and roared off to church. I did a couple of wheelies in the parking lot, a few donuts in the dirt. I wanted them to know that I’d arrived. I sauntered into the church, sat down in an empty back seat, and I looked to the front, expecting to see horror and contempt on the faces of the congregation. Instead, I saw tears rolling down my father’s cheeks as he sat at the front next to the preacher.

I expected the head deacon, who had two perfect children, to come over and in a loud voice, tell me to leave the church: “You should know better; your father is the elder. What are you doing in church dressed like that?”

I had a mouth full of venom, a heart full of bile. I was going to spew all over him, and then walk out of the church and say “God, see I tried, but they didn’t want me.” But the deacon didn’t come.

The sermon dragged on. Finally the agony ended, and people began to walk down the aisle. They put their hands on my shoulders and told me how good it was to see me in church. This wasn’t what I expected, it wasn’t what I wanted.

As I walked to the door, I shook hands with my dad. I could see him swallowing hard. He said nothing, but the handshake spoke volumes. I placed my greasy hand in the hand of the pastor, and I could see the start of the reaction I wanted. But he bit his tongue and said nothing.

Then, as I walked down the steps at the front of the church, I saw the deacon coming. He’s kept it ‘til now, I thought. I was sure he was going to hit me, so I decided to hit him first and then run and hope that the motorcycle would start before the rest of the deacons got to me. But instead of a closed fist, he reached out an open hand. And as he pumped my arm, he told me how thrilled he was that I was back at church. No sooner had he let go of my hand than a little man who stood only as high as my chin, threw his arms around me and began to weep, “Welcome home.” He assured me of his prayers and how he had longed for the day that I would come back.

As I stood there, an 18 year old, I felt awkward, embarrassed, but strangely warm. That was my first day back at church, and I have never missed since. It took awhile for God to change my exterior, but His Spirit had really begun to work internally.

It was the unconditional love of my parents and the support of a church that really was family, that understood community and acceptance, which finally broke through my shell of anger and alienation and helped me realize how important I was in the eyes of God.

Barry Gane has spent more than 30 years as youth pastor, teacher, and youth director. He currently directs the Master of Arts in Youth Ministry program at Andrews University. His address: Andrews University; Berrien Springs, Michigan 20904; U.S.A. Email: bgane@andrews.edu. This story is excerpted from the book We Can Keep Them in the Church, compiled by Myrna Tetz and Gary L. Hopkins (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 2004).