For my entire life, as long as I can remember, as my family would move to a new place and start at a new school/church, the teachers and pastors I would meet would often tell me, “Elijah, you have great leadership potential. You are going to do great things.” And, as cool as that sounded, I always hated it. I hated it because I knew it wasn’t a coincidence that every single leader that would arise in my life would confirm it again. And again. I couldn’t run from it if I wanted to. It was spoken over me repeatedly, and the more I heard it preached the more I tried to laugh it off as a silly, motivational speech. After experiencing some heartache growing up - my parents’ divorce and the separation of our family from one home into two - I began to see God move in my life. And, looking back, He was even moving during the times where I just stared at the wall, disappointed that a God that I heard was so loving could allow my life to be this way. Through it all, I can see His master plan unfolding.
As a teenager, beginning just before high school, I became deeply rooted in the hardcore/metal music subculture. If you know anything about this scene, it’s largely characterized by hateful lyrics, themes of rebellion and counter-cultural expression, violence, and a prevalent displeasure for anything related to the Christian faith. And, growing up in churches, I was fairly well-versed on the fundamental claims of Christianity, but it never meant more to me than any other story in a book. I had not yet had that transformational encounter with Yahweh. As I was living a literal hell on earth in just the ninth grade, I was so hungry for a universal truth that would nullify the convictions of my heart and just allow me to live a life of addiction and hatefulness, free from the responsibility to actually do something and be someone significant. After all, to hate everything is surprisingly easy, and under that approach, the course of my life and all it’s “unfairnesses” were everybody else’s fault but my own. To satisfy that hunger for a false sense of comfort, I dug (sometimes deeply) into theories of atheism, studying Big Bang logic, apologists/authors like Christopher Hitchins, and even delved into the Zeitgeist concept of Christian scripture being based on astrology and no real historical events. After doing so for some time, this curiosity for a godless truth consumed me. I would accidentally spend my entire night deep in research, scouring logic on the internet, click after click, in desperate search of that YouTube video that would finally explain it all and relieve me of that inner voice that continued to whisper when I laid my head down at night - “But, what if He’s real? What if you’re wrong?”
One morning as a 16-year-old, much to my surprise, God showed up to tell me He was still there with me - through all of my rebellion, and through all of my efforts to find credible evidence to discredit Him. And, He showed up as my dad. My dad has always been a strong believer, and in some cases, the things he didn't say to me spoke louder than what he did. I remember hearing him early in the mornings when I was homeschooled; while getting ready, he was crying out in the secret place in worship and prayer, and something about that deep down made me feel safe. I was reading the newspaper and having coffee early one morning - it’s all I could do, anyway. I made the decision to drop out of public high school and move in with my dad due to the fear I had about the consequences I could face for continued drug-use. I knew he would be strict on me, and I was so afraid of my own life that I was okay with that. So, when I got there, I lost a lot of privileges. While reading the newspaper, my dad walked in and stood across the kitchen. After allowing the silence to iterate the seriousness of the moment, he began to speak to me:
“Son, I know you’re looking for Truth, and that’s okay. I love you. Just don’t stop looking. Because if you look for Truth, you will find God.”
In the moment, I couldn’t really understand the significance of what my dad said, but it has been something that stayed with me over the years as a very significant part of my love story with God. Instead of being scolded for searching out everything I could to avoid God, I was encouraged to search out everything I could in order to find Him. This was a major paradigm shift for me, a change in thinking that I believe was Yahweh’s first step in softening my hardened heart; just like if you desired to prepare a steak dinner, the first thing you would do is probably take the steak out of the freezer and allow it to thaw out. There’s a change of atmosphere that begins the process. Yahweh didn’t call me into salvation on that day, but he did change the atmosphere of my heart to allow for the preparations necessary for Him to invade what always belonged to Him in the first place.
My heart stayed in search mode through high school and into college. I was a smart kid and good student, making pretty good grades. But, if I were honest with myself, I feel like I knew it was all going downhill, and I would soon reach the lowest point of my life. As a first year college student at the University of Memphis, I finally reached a major breaking point. I met the love of my life, and she was 6 hours away from me. I wasn’t on good terms with much of my family because of poor decisions I made. I didn’t have any money because I chose not to show up to a job I hated. I spent my days asleep in my dorm, and my nights violently moshing at every hardcore gig I could find. I literally could not pretend everything was okay with my life any longer. I felt the weight of the world crashing down on my head, and I had no idea what I needed to do to satisfy the desire in my heart to feel like I was going the right direction. I got so fed up with searching for God in high school that I gave up, and I even began to jokingly take on a satanist label, but mostly just because my immature way of thinking thought it was funny to make Christians uncomfortable. I would drink myself into numbness often and stand on the top floor of my dorm dreaming about what a relief it would be to jump off the top floor and feel my body smash into the pavement. I was so desperate and afraid that one night, I remember calling my mom to tell her that very feeling as I stared out the highest window of our building. I couldn’t walk away from this prison cell I was living in, because that prison cell was my own mind.
After feeling completely lost the first couple of months of 2011 (my second semester of college), I woke up on March 17th, 2011 on a stranger’s floor, after drinking myself senseless all night with friends, and I felt a strange peace about the decision I had just made upon waking up. So I picked up a laptop that was next to me and immediately dropped all of my classes. I was no longer a college student. After getting almost all the way through my first year of college, on a full academic scholarship to the Helen Hardin Honors Program at the University of Memphis, I immediately quit everything in a moment of clarity regarding the direction of my life. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, but I did know I had to start fresh. All I knew to do then was call my mom. She supported my decision, but tried to also help give me some direction.
“What will make you happy, son? You have to figure that out and do it.”
“All I know is that the first thing that comes to mind is Macie. I love her. She makes me happy. So I want to be near her. Let’s just start there.”
I'm grateful that my mom chose to support me in what looked like a bad decision, because looking back - it was the right decision. I've learned a lot about how to parent my children from some things I learned from my parents. Notice at certain trying times in my life I've mentioned above, they both supported me when I needed them most, even if my life didn't look like they had probably hoped and prayed that it would. God still had a plan for me.
So in moving, at the time I didn’t know if it was a move of God on my heart (it totally was), but I felt peace about leaving everything in Memphis, Tennessee, packing everything I had in a cardboard box, loading a Greyhound bus, and moving to the southernmost coast of the United States. All I knew was that I love this girl, and I feel a strange draw in my heart toward her like I’d never felt with anyone else. My mom had a connection at the company she was working at to get me a job as a marketing intern so I could make minimum wage in a job that I had somewhat of an interest. And after several months, I realized I was doing really well. My relationship with this girl was great, I was getting promoted at work, and I was steadily morphing into what society would consider a “nice young man” - which was different for me. However, the further I went up the proverbial totem pole of life, the more I began to think that I had no need for a god. Why cry out to god for stuff when you can just make it happen yourself, right? Well, so I thought…
Cue the lowest night of my existence.
It was June 10th, 2011, when the company I was working for called my mom, my brother (Josiah) and I out to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a company-wide meeting. Our lodging was covered for us, and it was a large, up-scale hotel just east of the city limits on I-10. Since our room was sponsored by the company, we thought we’d bring some friends - in attendance were Macie (my girlfriend), and Phillip Price (my best friend). We all had some liquid courage for dinner that night, and while back in the room, Phillip and I began to spar. This was not unusual for us, as the last two years of our life consisted of avid mixed martial arts training. But this night was different… This night I wasn’t just wrestling with Phillip, I was wrestling with myself. I was wrestling with my heart. I was wrestling with the numbness of my mind toward God. I was wrestling with every frustration that led me to the very place and position I was in. And it had all finally come to a head. Phillip trapped my arm and submitted me with a pretty standard armbar, to which my reply was a cuss word involving the word “god”, often abbreviated “GD”. My brother quickly corrected me by saying, “Watch your mouth, bro.” And, in that moment, something in me snapped. Something in me collapsed. Something in me exploded. Quicker than my brother’s correction could proceed from his lips came my counter,
I screamed at the top of my lungs. I saw the grave disappointment in everyone’s faces. I saw the offense, and I saw their deep shame toward me before darting out the hotel room door and running down to the parking lot in tears. There was now, at this point, no confusion in my mind. I had definitely reached the lowest place in my life. I was lost, and I was hopeless. I was completely desperate for God at the same time that I was completely exhausted by Him. Macie was inexplicably upset with me, and I quickly realized the life I had rebuilt for myself was close to being ripped out from underneath me. Macie spent quite some time later that night telling me how not okay she was with my open discontent for god, and that this could be the very thing that tears us apart. Macie loved God, and though she was living in compromise with me, her heart and mind were made up that He was Who He said He was. After that night had ended, and all apologies had been distributed and accepted by my family and friends accordingly, I remember thinking that there wasn’t anything I could do to shut God out of my life, because it’ll eventually ruin me, but I also felt like there wasn’t anything I could do to expedite God’s evident arrival in my life. And it’s because I was trying to reach God as a concept intellectually, not as a Person supernaturally. I was so done hearing and studying explanations of God that required an experience, but didn’t know that I just needed an experience of God that required an explanation. So, I decided life must go on. I’ll live my life one day at a time, and if and when God decides to show up, I’ll embrace Him and everything will be wonderful. Macie and I continued to live life complacently, occasionally visiting a church with Macie’s family to see if it was the one, but none were. I didn’t call myself an atheist, I just wasn’t a Christian. And this continued for about a year and half before some peculiar things began to unfold…
In January of 2013, I logged into an old email address, unexpectant while looking through the contents of my highschool inbox. I came across a six-month-old email from Mattie that stated he was praying about starting a ministry based in Mobile, Alabama, and was looking for anyone who may feel called to get plugged in. After realizing how close that was to where I was living at the time (just over an hour on I-10), and having dealt with the fact that replying to said email after six months was rather strange, I unknowingly composed a reply email that would change the course of my life. Out of desperation, out of a last ditch effort to see positive change in my spiritual condition, I replied: “I’d like to hear more.”
I’d known Mattie for a few years, having connected with him initially in 2009 after getting drug out to a weekend retreat with a youth group to a ministry called The Ramp in Hamilton, Alabama. Being heavily rooted in the heavy music scene local to Memphis, Tennessee, I recognized him as the frontman for a band I’d only seen one time, For Today. We stayed in touch over the 4 years that followed, texting here and there and chatting briefly when he came through town on tour. I remember feeling embarrassed when Scream The Prayer tour came through Memphis in July of 2010, and after the show, Mattie saw me in the parking lot and ran over to me as I was in a circle with my friends. He ran right up and asked how my walk with God was going. The only problem was that very few of my friends at the time were born-again Christians and that was the least cool thing anyone could ever ask you in front of your friends. After stumbling my through the answer and attempting to re-establish my cool factor for my reputation’s sake, he gave me his number and told me to stay in touch. I always wondered why someone like Mattie would want someone like me to “stay in touch”.
So, when I responded to Mattie’s email to hear more about this ministry idea, we got connected and he asked me immediately to come and hear him speak in Mobile the following weekend. I committed, but the event fell through so he asked for me to come to his house for a meeting to “talk Kingdom”. I was unsaved, lost, and living in sin and Mattie wanted to “talk Kingdom” with me in his living room. “What’s the worst that could happen”, I thought. I told my girlfriend what I was going to do, and having told her a little bit about who he was in the past, she seemed genuinely excited that I was going to have guy time with someone who could have a positive influence on my life. On Friday, January 18th, 2013 I made the drive over to Mattie’s house to hang out, and walked into a really welcoming environment - his wife Candice was there, along with a handful of other people from different backgrounds. We had a great time chatting about a particular situation Mattie was faced with at the time, and got to hear several people share their hearts about their perspective on the issue, including myself. Something strange happened that night, however. After sharing my heart with Mattie about my perspective as a non-Christian and what I thought a good Christian approach should look like, he said something to me I’ll never forget.
“Do you trust me?” I told him I did. “You’re the most religious atheist I’ve ever met.”
He then proceeded to pick apart what I had said prior and make a public spectacle of me in the presence of several strangers. After having done that, he hugged me and told me he loved me before telling me to come to his church the following Sunday to check it out. I remember thinking there is literally no way in hell I would go, but looking back I can see God’s hand on the situation, saying, “No, but there is a way in heaven.” I had a talk with my girlfriend, Macie, upon returning that night all about what happened. I shared my discomfort with her about the way he spoke to me in front of those people, and shared about what they said their church was like. Much to my surprise, it was like she didn’t even hear the part about my offense and was immediately intrigued by the idea of going to visit their church. In fact, she told me we are definitely going to check out Mattie’s church that Sunday.
Despite the hour long drive and fact that we had zero pre-existing knowledge of what the church was really like, we made it to church on January 20th, 2013, and heard Mattie preach a message from Matthew 25 regarding the parable of the talents. He spoke about the treasure in the field, and the man who purchased the entire field, despite all the dirt and mud and junk, just so he could have a chance at the treasure hidden somewhere in that field - the treasure that he knew for a fact was there, but just may require some digging to find it. I remember my heart being overwhelmed with the revelation of God’s heart, and I remember feeling my stomach in my throat as I realized how I had postured myself for so long to push God away and declare his existence a fallacy to justify my sin as a “human nature”. There was no altar call. There was no worship band that played at the end. There were no fancy lights and hype to enhance the effect of church. I was confronted with the simple Truth of the Gospel and there was nowhere else I could run to get away from what faced me that day. Macie and I left a very simple service with a very simple and profound message of Yahweh’s heart for us, and the weight of it began to bear down on us. We drove home for an hour in silence, and finally pulled into a Chinese buffet parking lot to get lunch. We sat in the vehicle silently for a couple minutes before we just began to weep, and as we wept we just began sharing our hearts about how heavy the message was that morning, and about where we really were in relation to where God wanted us to be. And after coming to terms with the condition of our hearts, we prayed a prayer together in my truck - nothing fancy, nothing poetic, no music, and no preacher. We asked God to invade our lives, to change our hearts, and change our lives, to make Himself evident in us so that we could walk out a life pleasing to Him. We began to say the only thing we knew to say, over and over again. We said, “Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.” I remember wanting to continue to say it until it stopped sounding weird coming out of my mouth, as I had only ever used it to cuss. We just cried out to Him for what felt like an hour, and felt the overwhelming presence of the Holy Ghost. On January 20th, 2013, I dedicated my life to the God I knew I disappointed, who I knew I had cursed and rebelled against, who I knew I had rejected - and He received me with open arms. I had taken a thousand steps away as I ran from everything that had to do with Him, and all of it was redeemed with a single step toward Him, in a moment of intimacy with Him. Yahweh reached down into the hell that I was living and pull me out, held me tight, brushed me off, and celebrated with me as I took the first step into true sonship I had ever made.
Following that encounter, Macie and I were completely changed in the way we lived our lives. We both stepped out of a lifestyle of sexual sin, away from the debauchery of alcoholism and drug use, and continued to build on the foundation of the encounter we each had with God that day, walking out our lives as He guided us along this new path of righteousness in His sight. I had been miraculously changed by the Gospel and my life thereafter was never ever the same again.
On January 20th, 2013, I became a new creation in Christ. I got plugged into a body of believers at an ekklesia that has celebrated the glory of Yahweh in me every step of the way. I’ve submitted myself to an amazing man as my spiritual father (Apostle Aaron Smith), who stops at nothing to see me succeed in the purpose for which Yahweh sent me. I have continued to hear His voice and obey His commands, and He has taken me to incredible new heights as I have stayed faithful to honor Him. I have gone from not knowing what in the world I wanted to do with my life to dreaming incredible dreams of the greatness God has for me, and now, my wife (Macie), and have gone from being a lost teenager managing a pizza store several years ago to being positioned as the Director of Awakening Evangelism, with Mattie, my best friend in the world, leading the way. And guess what? We’re still just getting started. We’re still on the forefront of the greatest days we have ever seen.
God has made an incredible example of my life, and I want to encourage you as you have read my story that He can use anyone, anytime, in any place or position, that would answer His call with a very simple, “Yes”.
Here I am, Yahweh. Send me!