We grew up with a small family in San Jose, California. Our parents were business owners and took my brother and I to Sunday service every week but that was the extent of our involvement with the church. One day, when I was 7 and my brother was 9, my parents announced that we would be selling the house and the business and moving to Florida, to be closer to family. They bought a motor home and told us that we would take off for an adventure through the US after school let out for the summer. We made it to our first state, Oregon, when my parents took us out on a lake in a canoe and made the true announcement: they were getting a divorce. What happened next was quick; they tossed the "adventure" plan and made a B-Line to Florida. It took three days.
During the next 8 years, a nasty custody battle ensued and my parents went to war with each other, placing us in the front lines of the battleground. My brother and I clung to my father for safety and security, creating a pact as the "Laughlin boys". My relationship with my mother deteriorated almost immediately after she remarried and I found myself unnecessarily fearful to be anywhere around her or my step-father. Fear and anxiety became a normal part of life. We still went to church on Sundays but it felt very religious and I despised the whole thing. Our pastor and the church leaders were all very nice and loving people, but something always felt out of place. The one respite we had was the summer camp where we went as a youth group at the church. Even though I was not a Christian, there was something very noticeably different about that one week each year.
Eventually the dust of the divorce settled and I graduated from high school, moving away from home to attend university at the age of 17. During the first two years I began to experience what life was like without the restrictions or protection of home. I joined a fraternity and dove head-first into a mind numbing party lifestyle. We would look for any and every opportunity to get completely wasted. A variety of drugs, alcohol, and women were a normal part of the weekdays as well as the weekends. I was even selling drugs to keep up with the lifestyle I was living. My grades suffered, and my relationships with friends and family suffered even more, but the party never stopped.
That first year at university I flunked all of my spring classes – with the exception of one teacher who showed me mercy by giving me a final mark of an A, the score I received on my mid-term exam, despite not having attended another class after that.
That same spring I was arrested for two misdemeanors: possession of marijuana and underage possession of liquor. The charges were dropped following my participation in a pre-trial program. After receiving counsel from our fraternity advisor, I returned to university for a summer session, passing all my classes. Externally I was back on track, but in my heart was a growing void.
I quickly fell back into my former ways. There was an emptiness inside that no drug or sexual endeavor could fill – but that didn't stop me from trying. The more I tried to numb it, the bigger the void grew. I tried everything: sobriety, relationships, meditation, life-style changes, motivational books, then new drugs, then the next thing – anything that might numb or dull that empty pain in my chest. I would stay up late into the night, whether or not we went out to party. I could not find rest. The only respite came after passing out. When I was awake, it would all begin again. I was losing hope that my life would ever change.
After another failed semester, I came home for winter break. My dad found out about my grades and gave me two options: move home and find full time work, or go back to university without any financial support. It was a horrifying choice. I spent the next week in an even deeper depression.
One day during the break, something happened. It was like scales had been removed from my eyes and a lightbulb went on. What was all this for? What was life about? All the pain, all the loneliness, all the discomfort, for what? I sat on my bed and realized all of that came from trying to fill a void that only God could fill. My dad walked past my room and noticed me sitting there quite dazed. He came in and asked what was wrong and I remember so vividly how my throat closed off as I choked to tell him how badly I knew I had messed up. He asked me, very directly, what I was going to do about it. By some miracle, and the words came through the tears, I said I would start to put God first. Then I fell on the floor and just cried. He just sat there with me and held me for a long time.
I went back to university and got a job selling shoes at a department store. I finally bought a bible and was determined to find out who God really was and what He wanted from me. I spent hundreds of hours reading and researching that book and all the things I was reading in it. I would read other religious texts as well, but there was this amazing sense of peace I had when reading the bible. After some time, a coworker of mine invited me to church. For a long time I thought no way. I was curious but still had reservations about anything remotely religious. One day, after many invitations, I finally accepted.
The first Sunday I was blown away by the music and the speaking. The next week I was excited to go back. The pastor spoke that morning about grace in a way I had never heard before - He called it that unearned, undeserved, unmerited love and favor of God. My heart was burning as he spoke. Previously I had read about grace but until this message I had never really understood it. After he finished, he challenged anyone who did not know Jesus to come forward. There were 700 people in the church and no man on earth could have got me to stand and come forward, but I found myself walking down from the balcony shaking violently with tears. Suddenly the weight of all the depression and anxiety was lifted, and I felt like something washed over me. The void disappeared and has never come back.
The pastor smiled warmly at me as I stood there. I shook and cried. I had never experienced something like what I was experiencing in that moment. He introduced me to another man who counseled with me in the church office. He explained salvation and prayed with me and answered my many questions. The next week, on my way home from work, as I was singing and praising God in my vehicle, I was baptized in the Holy Spirit. Again I felt something indescribable encompass my whole body. I had never experienced anything like it before - it was the cleanest and purest joy I had ever felt until that moment in my life.
That was when God showed me something. He showed me the fullness of what I had never found on my own. What I had been chasing with sex, drugs, and parties was the very thing I was missing out on: God Himself. Since those days, God has spoken to me in many different ways. Strangers would come and encourage me about very specific things. His peace has never left and I have never felt forsaken.
A year and a half later I finished with university and moved home, where God mended my broken relationship with my mom. He sent Vinesong to my church where Pastor John recognized that God was calling me to Vinesong.
I cannot boast of my love for God, but I will boast of His love for me. Jesus brought me out of darkness, and into His beautiful light. He loved me while I was still running from Him. He reconciled my sin and paid my debt. He calls me His own. Through no work or merit of my own, He raised me from a deathly place and restored life in me. He gives me peace through each day, patience during difficult times, and grace when I fall short of doing the right thing. He has fulfilled the desire of my heart by sending me to Vinesong, a team that is more like a family, to tell the world what Jesus has done for me - and what He will do for them. I can only give God the glory for what He has done.