I wondered how much to tell you of my life before I came to Apollo Bay and later saved, one being very much part of the other. When I first began giving my testimony a few months after ‘the event’ I would edit out some of the juicier details of my past life, specifically things that either caused me shame or were not appropriate for that particular audience.
Now, some six months after giving my testimony for the first time I have lost the sense of shame, it is one of the amazing freedoms that coming to Christ offers, you literally are born again, cleansed, freed from your past. With the shame released as I began to write my testimony I felt prompted to go into the tabloid details of a life based on a deep dislike of myself and the usual destructive and addictive behavior that seems to characterizes those of us in that space.
It would make quite salacious reading but I don’t think it would add anything to the amazing journey nor to its incredible beginnings. So, sorry but I have decided to omit the juicy bits and just let you know that it was not a good place to be and if left unchecked I was heading to, at the very least repetitions of past mistakes and, at the worst, self destruction. If you need to know, ask me and I might tell you but my past is gone now and feels like it belongs to a different man.
Forget the former things;
Do not dwell in the past.
See I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not
I am making way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
Isaiah 43 18-19
One Saturday mid August 2007 I decided to get up early and drive down to the coast to clear my head, I felt that I needed to get away from the city and see the ocean. Victoria has some particularly beautiful coastlines, particularly the Great Ocean Road which I was driving on. I stopped off at a small town called Apollo Bay to get some lunch and whilst eating an omelet in a café I noticed an advertisement in the local news paper requiring the services of a bartender. The ad bought back memories of how happy I was bartending at university and I began toying with the fantasy of living a simple life in this small town working in the local pub.
The thought would not leave me alone, all weekend it kept on nagging at me, I dreamed about it, thought about it some more and the following Monday called the pub and told them I would like the job. I contacted a real estate agent in town, rented a small house near the beach and told my boss I was quitting. It was that easy. I threw a party for some friends, packed my stuff and made the move.
Things moved along quite nicely the job in the pub was great, if you want to get to know people in a town quickly work in the local pub. But drinking was still the main activity in my life and I was finding it hard to control working in the pub so when the local video store owner asked if I would like a change of scene I jumped at the chance and quit drinking. Working in the store meant that I now got to know everyone else in town as well and my circle of friends kept on growing.
So some time in February 2008, I have quit drinking, smoking and I am getting quite fit, attending circuit classes 3 times a week and running along the beach when I get the chance. Things are pretty good and the story could end here, but here is exactly where it begins.
A woman called Emily came into the video shop and grinned at me and said hello and asked if I remembered her, I did not and she told me she had seen me at a circuit class. We chatted a while and got on well, so I went straight into heat seeking mode and asked her out, we set a date to go swimming together the following Sunday. I’m back! Six months or more without female company, the longest I had gone in my life since I was 17 years old and I was back, fit, healthy and tanned, Boo Yah! Make way the ego has landed.
I spend the morning hanging with friends and think it would look pretty cool to be swimming in the ocean when Emily turns up, so I get in and swim whilst watching out for her arrival, figure I would let her see me walking out of the ocean, give her a good look. This might sound a little amusing, but these were the exact thoughts I was thinking.
After swimming a while we lay down on the beach and sun bake, making small talk, etc and Emily starts telling me how the most important thing in her life is Jesus. Ah! I get it this was a set up, I knew what was happening here, I had been targeted for saving. My ego took a swan dive; this was not about me at all but about scalps. So be it, I have my standard get out of jail free card for these situations, “the way I see it Emily, there is a god, a higher power, he created everything, and my way of worshiping him is to be creative, it is what he would want” A short silence ensues and we get back to small talk.
Not five minutes pass and a woman approaches us and says hello. Now I can see a little tract peeking out of her sarong, and I can see quite clearly that it is religious. It’s a conspiracy! She starts talking to Emily and I explaining she is a missionary on holiday and thought we might like to talk to her. Emily of course, glad for some decent conversation no doubt, and glad to talk about something important to her as well starts chatting away. I give my view of god and keep on relaxing in the sun, thinking that by engaging a little on this god stuff might keep me in with a chance with Emily after all.
The missionary asks if we can pray together, ooops. Now all the beach, and remember this is a small town, I know most people here, are going to see me pray here on the beach, but I feel a little bad here saying no so, ok, I can face a little teasing from others, lets do it. We hold hands and I am getting a little more than embarrassed now and I figure, relax, your sunbaking that’s all, just tune them out as they pray, all you have to do is lie here and take in the sun.
What happened next blew my mind. The missionary went quiet for about 2 minutes, silent prayer I thought, see not too bad. And then she started to talk to God about me, in detail, issues with my father, issues with myself, issues I had had with religion, not just on a superficial level but accurate stuff that I had not told Emily or anyone else in Apollo Bay and some stuff that I had not told anyone. The emotions that come pouring out of me are emotions that I had buried deep, way deep, horrible feelings of abandonment, worthlessness, shame. So much noise, and then the rest comes gurgling up, stuff the missionary is not even talking about, my mind goes fuzzy and I can barely here the words now. She is talking about stuff that I had to ask Emily to remember afterwards for me because things got pretty weird.
I asked to be excused immediately after the missionary had finished praying, said thanks, it was intense and I had to be alone for a while. I walked out into the ocean, my insides screaming, my head spinning in overdrive, screeching, my skin is prickling I am pouring with sweat. Its sunburn, it has to be heat stoke, this is nuts. And as soon as the water is deep enough I throw myself into the water. As you will know when you do this the majority of noise stops and you just get a feint humming in your ears. Everything went still, the cool water relieved my burning and more importantly my mind just stopped, everything went perfectly still and peaceful as I held myself underwater and there, right then God spoke to me, not quietly but in a clear loud voice. “This can be your life, let go now, let go of everything and this can be your life”.
I shot out of that water like I had been electrocuted, what! What! WHAT! But the feeling was still there, let go, let go, let it go Mark, trust me, let it go. I was dumbfounded, all I could do was swim, I swam out trying to clear my head, get some sort of foothold on reality here. Funnily as I swam I felt so safe, so protected, I felt I could swim out for miles and no harm would come to me, and then as if catching myself drifting off into fantasy again I turned round and swam back to shore. I had more of a grip now and things were almost back to normal, how normal given that God just spoke to me is a different matter, but at least I was back in control.
The missionary had moved on now and I sat with Emily and told her I did not want to talk about anything much about the prayers and religion and would she mind if we moved onto something else, that I would process this and maybe we could talk tomorrow.
Not long afterward, Emily’s son Ory turned up and we all went for pizza, sitting outside and enjoying the sunset. Later I went home. I cannot remember how well or not I slept that night, nothing really dramatic happened for the rest of the evening but the next day I got up early before the tourist hit the beach and went for a walk.
After a mile or so I sat and figured I had nothing to lose saying ‘God, if that was you yesterday I think you might need to talk to me again’. To be honest with you I was not expecting anything as I had pretty much rationalized the whole thing away. Most guys have issues with their fathers, religion, self. I was sun burnt, suffering sun stroke, I wanted it to be real, I wanted peace so I made it up subconsciously in order to make myself feel better.
I sat there waiting for God to speak to me. Asking him to reaffirm what happened yesterday as some part of me was desperate for this to be real, needed the peace so much.
After a few minutes a sense of peace and love settled itself into my core, it is hard to describe to someone who has not felt the presence of God and no words are needed to express it to someone who has. I have heard it best described as a ‘velvet peace’ and it is unmistakable for anything else in the human experience. Any one can have it but you have to feel it to understand how it feels. This is not the time or the place to go into how you can have it, most Christians reading this will understand how and when this happens, when the Holy Spirit comes but for non Christians reading this, this experience is real, its genuine and when it first happens to you it will change your life completely and forever.
God began talking again; he asked three things of me, pretty big things, things that I am still working at. One, he said ‘I am Love, I love everyone, saved and unsaved alike you are all my children, love me Mark, that is the easy part, but in loving me you must by definition love everybody’. Two, ‘Let go, let go of all your plans, all of them, stay here in Apollo Bay, stay still’. Three, ‘study, like you never have before’. And that word for word is what he said. He keeps on having to remind me all the time, all the time, I get corrected sometimes by Him directly, sometimes through others and sometimes because I beg for help.
So I stay, I study and I love, it is not easy, I get challenges on all three all the time, letting go is so hard, not thinking about what I will be doing for God in 3, 5, 10 years time is hard, loving the difficult to love and not loving the easy to love in the wrong ways is tough at times and staying put, for a man who has never lived in the same place for more that 3 years is hard. God still speaks to me, when He needs to, when He needs to help me or guide me or correct my course, and my life is so different from anything I have ever known. I like myself, I forgive myself, I have come to understand that I don’t need to earn love from others. They will either love me unconditionally or they won’t love me at all. This has meant that my relationships with others and myself have started to become real; they are no longer based on need, dependency and want.
My old self is still here, I still make mistakes and get a little lost in it all sometimes, only to come back stronger for the experience, but the old self is like an ice sculpture that is melting away inside me, leaving so much more room, so much more, and the space feels great, I feel free in it, I can stretch, grow, wonder around, sit quietly in different corners of myself and enjoy the view, the quiet, the peace.
There is more, a lot more to this story, constant wonders that God performs in my and my friends lives, slips back, strides forwards and at times massive downloads of stuff that God just downloads, that you become aware of that never occurred to you before. But again this is neither the place nor the time. I do what I am asked to do, currently that is running a men’s group, which is doing very well and is blessed, studying the Bible, and serving the Church where I am asked to. My life is miraculous, every day a wonderful blessing and it’s real, 100% real and I thank God for interceding the way he did as I did not earn this, it was given to me by His grace, it was not merited, not deserved, I have everything I need and I got it given to me, for free. That is incredibly humbling.