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: Relationships, new drugs, even motivational books – anything that might numb that empty pain in my chest. I would stay up late into the night, whether or not we went out to party. Rest only came after passing out.
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 the deepest depression thus far.
One day during the break, something clicked. It was like scales had been removed from my eyes and a lightbulb went on. I could finally see that I wasn’t right with God. All the pain, all the loneliness and discomfort came from trying to fill a void that only God could fill. That day my dad walked past my room and noticed me sitting there in a daze. He came in and asked what was wrong. I remember so vividly how my throat closed off and 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. Somehow the words came and I told him that I was going to put God first. The next thing I knew I was on the floor just crying. He just sat there with me and held me for what seemed like a couple of hours.
I returned 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 what was in that book. There was this amazing sense of peace I had when reading it. After some time, a coworker of mine invited me to church. I was curious but still had reservations about anything remotely religious. After a few more invitations I finally accepted.
The first Sunday I was blown away by the music and the teaching and decided to go back. The next week I was excited to go back. The pastor spoke that morning about something called grace – that unearned, undeserved, unconditional love of God. My heart was burning as he spoke. I had read a lot about it but never quite understood it until that moment. After he finished, he challenged anyone who did not know Jesus as their savior 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 something wash over me. The void disappeared and has never come back.
The pastor smiled warmly at me as I shook and cried. He introduced me to another man who counseled with me in the church office. He explained salvation to me and prayed with me and answered 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 wash over my whole body, but this was something different and indescribable. I had never experienced anything like it before – it was the cleanest and purest joy I had ever felt.
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.