I grew up in a family where not a single person was a follower of Jesus. Not my parents. Not my step-parents. None of my aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins. No one in my family was a follower of Jesus.
When I was in the seventh grade my grandfather on my mother’s side died. There was a little Baptist church down the road from my Granny and her neighbors recommended that the pastor from that church do the funeral. He was a professor at a local seminary who loved to preach and he loved his people.
He had begun to visit my Granny shortly after the funeral and within a few months had led her to Christ. My Granny had prayed for her family.
Now my mother would feel guilty for not having her children in church from time to time; usually after I had done something she deemed particularly bad, or after something like my sister’s first words, “damn flies.” After one such occurence we would attend the local United Methodist Church for three weeks in a row until the urgency of our trespasses had wore off. Then we’d slip back into our routine, showing up only for services on Christmas and Easter.
I remember my dad on one Easter morning looking out at some men playing golf and commenting with disdain: “Who doesn’t go to church on Easter?” The answer to that question was my biological dad and stepmom. All that to say: We had very little Christian upbringing.
A caring school friend
When I became a senior in high school my best friend, Gary Rhom, who loved to party and chase after the girls with me, had an encounter with Jesus at a YoungLife retreat. Out of nowhere, it seemed, he went on the straight and narrow. After Gary’s weekly twisting of my arm to go to YoungLife club, I finally decided to go up to our school’s YoungLife leader, Kitt Sublett, who had the thickest Coke bottle glasses you’ve ever seen, and ask him what he had done to freak out my friend about God.
Kitt looked at me and said, “Do you really want to know?” and I said, “Yes,” and then he said, “Call me up tomorrow and we’ll catch a sandwich at Schlotzsky’s.”
The next day I went and strong-armed another good friend, Frankie Sanford, to go along with me. We asked Kitt every question that our unbelieving hearts found so critical — What about the pygmies in Africa? What about dinosaurs? What about evolution? — and Kitt gave us honest answers that I could tell he genuinely believed. This was enough to get my curiosity up so when he said, “Where do we go from here?” I was open to continuing the dialogue.
Kitt started a small Bible Study for Gary, Frankie and me. We called it the Coca-Cola club because Kitt bought the Cokes that came in the little glass bottles.
For nine weeks we studied the Bible. Kit taught us about God’s good creation, about the fall and the problem of sin. Then we looked at Jesus his life, teachings and miracles. He showed us prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament and how they were fulfilled in the New Testament. When he showed me Isaiah 53 I freaked out. That passage was written hundreds of years before Jesus walked the planet and yet was so clearly about him. It seemed like overwhelming proof to me that Jesus was who He claimed to be. During that study, my mind came to believe that Jesus was Lord. But God wanted all of me, not just my mind.
Downward party life
Now during these nine weeks, God was at work in my life. You see I had sort of a deist’s view of God. I believed there was a God. I just believed he wasn’t personal and He did not care about me, that He had got everything going and He was kinda watching the show. Well as we began studying the Bible I began reading the New Testament on my own and Jesus was anything but impersonal. In Jesus I was confronted with a God who loved each person individually, who’d entered humanity to redeem and fix what was broken about it.
I began to look at my friendships and see that all centered around getting drunk and partying. I knew that in a few short months I’d be leaving home and going to college and was wondering: Is this all there is? Am I going to be spending the rest of my life trying to get the beautiful sexy wife, accumulate the most stuff, so that I can make my life the biggest party that I can? Is this really the meaning of life? Or is there something that I’m seeing in Jesus, something about his self-giving, self-sacrificing love that points to the fact that real life, the good life is found somewhere in a completely different direction?
These questions came to head on the evening of April 16, 1987.
One of my good friends Gregg Gambel and I had gone to a party together. I had ridden with him and I put my keys in his glove compartment (these were the days of skin-tight Levi’s and your keys looked pretty stupid sticking out of your pocket). At the party there were a bunch of kids from another school. My girlfriend was there, too. I was a pretty horrible boyfriend. It was hard to find space for anyone other than my ego, so we were constantly fighting.
We had had a talk the day before about how we felt our relationship was too physical and we were going to try to figure out how to be friends on top of being boyfriend and girlfriend.
Anyway, we arrived at the party and I came up to her to say hi. She did not give me the greeting that I felt like I deserved (you know fawning, gushing, pseudo-worship) and so I churned up the party so all the attention could center around me.
I got together a group of people and we started playing a drinking game, Quarters, and before long I was drunk. I looked over at my girlfriend and she was talking with a guy I couldn’t stand.
I started thinking how much I’d like to punch him. Instead, I took a walk. Frankie, my good buddy, lived a few streets over so I decided to walk to his house. It took me about an hour to find it, two streets over. When I got to Frankie’s I asked him to take me home. He said he couldn’t because he was ill. So started out to find my way back to the party.
Recognizing an empty heart
During this walk I begin to talk with God. I’m telling him how empty I am. I tell him what a mess I’ve made out of my life. I finally make it back to the house where the party was, but when I get there everyone is gone.
The party has moved locations and the buddy with whom I had come has disappeared with my keys. The next morning is Easter Sunday. I’m thinking, “Great! The one Sunday we are going to be in church and I’m going to be coming home way late, drunk off my butt.”
I start walking home. I’m talking with God asking him if there is a better way to do life. Finally I sit down on the sidewalk and I make a bargain with God. “God if you will get me out of this mess, I will give my life to you hook, line and sinker.”
No sooner does this prayer come out of my mouth than another friend, home from college for Easter weekend, drives by. He stops. “Jeff, what are you doing sitting on that sidewalk?” I say, “I’m drunk and lost. Will you take me home?”
On the drive home we stop at a gas station. I see the buddy with whom I had come to the party in the street. I hang out the window and wave my arms, yelling. Gregg sees drives over. I hop in his car, arrive home wiht my keys and go to my room, no questions asked.
The Spirit’s address to my heart
In church our pastor is preaching on the power of the resurrection. God’s Spirit speaks to me. He says, “I upheld my end of the bargain; Jeff, are you going to uphold yours?” I begin to think that is going to mean some dramatic changes.
I will have to change my lifestyle. It might mean my friendships will have to change. What will this mean for my girlfriend? Then I start to think my experiences were just a series of coincidences. I hear God speak again. This is your opportunity, Jeff; if you don’t move now, it won’t come around again for a long time. At that moment I come to realize that the God I had always thought was impersonal and distant is as close as some drunk kid’s prayer in the back of a neighborhood.
So, considering the power of the resurrection I surrender my heart to Jesus.
Many thought that was just a phase; that in a few months I’d grow out of this Jesus thing. But 25 years later I know it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Now, I understand that any choice I’ve made to be faithful to Jesus has been a good one and any choice I’ve made to do life my own way has been a bad one.
I guess Granny’s prayers were packing some power.
Rev. Jeff Anderle is senior pastor at Chattanooga’s Vineyard Fellowship church that meets at Tyner Middle Academy. “We believe that the whole world is under the domination of Satan and that all people are sinners by nature and choice. All people therefore are under God’s just judgment. Through the preaching of the Good News of Jesus and the Kingdom of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, God regenerates, justifies, adopts and sanctifies through Jesus by the Spirit all who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. By this they are released from Satan’s domain and enter into God’s kingdom reign.” Rev. Anderle writes a blog.