30 Days

by | May 10, 2024

The following is an excerpt from chapter one of A Row with Two Chairs: Creating a Life Worth Saving

Having worked in the nightclub industry every weekend for ten years, Saturday brought the most fear. I had no idea what people did with themselves on a Saturday night if they were not in a nightclub. It would be my first Saturday not to be in that space, that environment of excess and charade, in all that time, and I was terrified. 

Talking through this with my girlfriend brought about an idea. A church down the street from her house, Destiny Church, had a Saturday night service. Supposedly it was a “pretty cool” church, whatever that meant, and she suggested we go. We weren’t showing up for more than having a safe place to be that night, where drugs would not surround me and where I could quite literally make it through another hour or two of life. 

By this point, all the wounds on my body were scabbing over but were still painful. I was aware of how I appeared and how difficult it still was for me to speak without an odd lisp. To ensure no one would talk to me, I wore oversized, worn motorcycle boots and a beat-up leather jacket that, in my mind, spoke to my toughness. I also wore dark sunglasses and a hat pulled down over my facial wounds. I wanted everyone to know that I was not one of them, and I did not want to partake in the “show.”

 Rising above the parking lot, a massive unfinished building with a gaping open front side sat in darkness, exposed along the street. The construction seemed abandoned, as we’d driven past it countless times and seen no progress. Now, it was lit only by parking lot lights with no sign, no indication of what waited within it. We drove behind the building to find a crowd of cars, obscured by its daunting broken presence. People left their cars and walked to a much smaller building that looked far more alive, illuminated, and welcoming, sitting in the shadow of the abandoned, half-finished construction project. We parked in the ‘guest’ parking and entered the smaller building’s side doors. 

Walking through the glass doors on the side of what we assumed to be Destiny Church, we found a room full of people in leather jackets and motorcycle boots. Comically, we had found a church with a sizeable population of motorcycle enthusiasts, and oddly enough, I looked as if I fit right in. I recall seeing the smiling faces and thinking of how ignorant these people were of the darkness that lived in the world. If they only knew the truth, I thought, they would not be smiling. I know now that this assumption spoke more to my wounds and life than their reality. 

We walked in, avoiding all eye contact, and found a row with only two chairs. It seemed the logical place to sit, where we could avoid everyone else, and I could just get through whatever was coming. 

 The music started, and although they had a band with guitars, a keyboard, and drums, it was still Christian music. It was not a band I would pay to see, but I tolerated it long enough to listen. As the band finished their last song, the pastor—a charismatic, overly excited, blond-haired gentleman in trendy but not overly formal attire—stepped forward. 

“Welcome to Destiny,” he shouted. “Why don’t you shake somebody’s hand before you sit down?”

After he said this, a kind, older gentleman with long, bushy white sideburns walked across the aisle to shake my hand. He was wearing a leather vest, and those sideburns framed silver eyeglasses torn straight from the mid-eighties. Though I had taken my sunglasses off by this time, I still tried to hide in the shadows of my hat. He took my hand, looked me square in the eye, and said, “I’m glad you’re here.” His smile was authentic, his gaze disarming, his welcome genuine. Something about that moment penetrated my shell and lowered my defenses, ultimately causing me to be more open and listen instead of fighting every experience around me. 

 Over the next twenty minutes, I heard the same thing repeatedly: “God is not mad at you; he loves you.” It stuck out to me like a bright light on a dark mountain but did little more than tenderize me for what would come next. “God is not mad at you. He loves you,” the pastor said again as he talked through his message. Opening the Bible to read an excerpt, he said again, “God is not mad at you; he loves you.” 

I didn’t believe it. How could anyone believe something like that when they had done such horrible things to themselves? As if hearing my rebuttal, he said it again: “God is not mad at you. He loves you.” If God were real, he would have to be as disgusted with me as I was with myself; I believed I was a lost cause.  I believed that I was not worth saving.  

Finishing his message, the pastor asked everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads. I knew this was an altar call. I had seen them a few times in person and on TV in the early morning hours when nothing else was on. Being my cynical self, my guard went up. I refused to be harnessed into charlatan antics meant to elicit responses in lemmings. I was no lemming; I knew the tricks; I knew how it worked, and I would not fall for any of it. I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and put my clenched fists into my jacket pockets, ready to fight. 

 In the calmest of voices, the pastor spoke softly into his microphone. “If you’re here tonight and you’re hurting, I want you to know that God loves you. If you’d raise your hand and let me know you hear me, I would like to pray with you.”

 While I was shaking my head, my mind argued back. I may hurt, but I will not raise my hand. It’s a bait and switch, a con. I refuse to be taken up front and embarrassed just by asking for prayer

Almost on cue, the pastor continued, 

“I will not call you up front. I will not embarrass you. I simply want to pray with you.” It was like he and I were having this interpersonal dialogue the entire night. Although he was at least two-hundred feet away, and I only spoke to him through my thoughts, it still seemed personal. 

Over the next few moments, the pastor verbally recognized people raising their hands, “There’s a hand… and another… I see you too. There’s another in the back.” 

My ears heard what he said, but my thoughts went elsewhere. 

I’ve tried everything else, I thought, but I have never tried this. What if I was to give this a shot, try this Christian thing for thirty days? Worst case, it’s all fake, and I live another thirty days. Best case, maybe my life can change. Both are wins. 

The only way I could look myself, my family, or my friends in the eye if I took this step was to vow to do it with total honesty. It meant giving up a life of lies and deceit and embracing authenticity in everything I did. The truth is, I was tired of lying and trying to be all things to all people, and something about this moment gave me the excuse to refuse to lie anymore; it meant an opportunity to start over. 

As I contemplated embracing the moment, my sweaty right fist left the comfort of my jacket pocket, then cautiously flattened as I pondered my next steps. Slowly, I raised it with reluctance and unfounded expectation, lifting it slightly higher each second until I heard the pastor acknowledge a hand I believed to be mine. “I see your hand, thank you.” I immediately put it back down just in case anyone was watching. 

He continued, apparently believing he had collected and acknowledged all raised hands, “Okay, everyone; every head bowed, and every eye closed,” he said with conviction, “I want everyone to say this with me.”

“Heavenly Father, please forgive me.” He paused for the people in the room to repeat what he was saying, and they all did; even I did. The prayer continued, “Cleanse me from all sin, all compromise.” 

Okay, I thought, I am good with this so far, and repeated each of his words. 

“I believe,” he continued, “that Jesus died on the cross. I believe he was raised from the dead.”

While I said the words, I thought, This is where it gets tricky and where I struggle. I don’t believe these things. But I deliberately decided to say the remaining words despite my lack of belief.

 “And I confess Jesus as the Lord of my life,” the pastor continued. “And according to Your word, I am forgiven, I am set free, I am a new creation.”

While I didn’t believe much of what I was saying, I secretly hoped that there would be peace and something magical on the other side of saying it. I guess this, in its way, is belief, or maybe hope? As the ultimate words left my mouth, I braced myself for the supernatural rebirth I had heard about for so much of my life. I wanted to be a new creation. I gritted my teeth, clamped my eyes shut, and waited; it was time to be “born again.” 

Nothing happened. 

I felt nothing. 

No clouds parted, no doves came down, no rousing burst of applause or celebration. I did not feel different, I did not look different, and I had done all the things the pastor had asked. I even said the prayer. My anger started boiling inside when I realized, or fully assumed, that this was just another hoax. 

 The service ended, and everyone was invited to meet the pastor following the service. Angry and feeling that they had misled me, I wanted to call him on his game to expose his fraud. So, I went back to ‘the welcome room’ and waited for my chance to call his bluff. Standing at the end of a line of smiling people making shallow introductions, I waited for the smiling pastor to get to me. I had cuts all over me, mostly scabbed up, and my tongue injury impacted my speech. I was not smiling; I was seething. I was angry and doing my best to appear formidable, hoping no one would see my deep pain and disappointment. 

Standing now, right in front of me, looking through the dark shadow cast over my face by the brim of my cap, the pastor stepped into what must have felt to him like an awkward moment.“Hey, how’s it going?” he asked, in the kindest and friendliest of tones, while he extended his hand to shake mine. 

 Ignoring his hand entirely, I spurted out my truth. “I said your damn prayer,” I proclaimed angrily. “I am not raising my hands or speaking in tongues.” 

The entire room felt like it slowed to a halt, like all of time hinged on this very statement and this pastor’s revelation that I was onto his game, and we all waited to see how he would react. 

In what seemed like slow-motion, his smile went from cautious to overjoyed, and he looked at me with the kindest, most disarming blue eyes, penetrating my dark façade and my ferocity with acceptance and grace. 

“You did? That is awesome!” he proclaimed. He reached up and put his free hand on my shoulder, resting it on the worn leather of my jacket, and raised the other hand to the sky in a sign of celebration, letting out a jubilant “woohoo!” 

“You have just taken the first step in the journey of a lifetime,” he explained, settling my expectation almost organically. “What is your name?” 

“Um, Scott,” I answered, feeling a bit out of sorts by his entire response. 

“Wow, Scott, that is awesome. Now, keep coming back to church, and if you have questions, just ask. We’re here to help. I am thrilled for you, Scott; God is too. Keep coming back!” We said our goodbyes, and I walked to the car with my girlfriend, explaining my frustration and confusion. She wasn’t buying any of it, but something for me changed at that moment. 

Thirty days, I thought as we pulled out of the parking lot, past the exposed skeleton of a massive unfinished building, I can do this for thirty days. I had nowhere else to go. I might as well come back and see what the trial period could do. 

After that, I came back every Thursday and Saturday night, learning about this larger story that was going on around me. I kept asking crazy questions of the pastor, trying to see how what I had experienced might fit within it. My girlfriend eventually quit answering my calls while I investigated and cautiously auditioned a new way of living; she and I were now on different paths. Through it all, as my world dramatically changed, I did my best to hide in the shadows alone, the whole time wondering why I was being given another chance.