In the fall of 1997, Cheryl and I were busy raising four kids, and I was busy trying to make a name for myself as a sportscaster on the national level. In all honesty, the latter is what was driving my very existence. My identity was tied more to that career quest than my status as a husband and father. I was raised Catholic and drifted away from anything church or God related when I went off to college. Sunday mornings were designed to sleep in, not to set an alarm clock so I could hit the 9:00 mass.
Knowing that background, fast-forward twenty years or so. It’s 1997, and Cheryl and I have this great family, a beautiful home, and good jobs, and in our minds, God has had nothing to do with it. We had tried a couple churches along the way, but nothing long term, and had gone back to our norm of leisurely Sunday mornings. But many of our kids’ friends were going to church every Sunday, and they were asking Eric and Maggie why they didn’t go to church. Eric and Maggie in turn asked us, and we really didn’t have an answer. So Cheryl and I had this fairly deep discussion and decided it might be good if the kids had some consistent exposure to this whole “spiritual thing” and we would scout out a few potential landing spots.
One of those was a church called Crossroads. It was a nondenominational, Bible-based church we had driven past a million times, sometimes wondering aloud, “What is that place with the blue roof?”
On one Sunday afternoon, the parking lot virtually empty, I stopped by to see if a door was open, hoping maybe I could grab some printed information and take it home. Turns out there was a church member there that day, and he explained that Crossroads was just about ten years old. I had no idea when I stood there chatting with this stranger that over the next twenty years this Crossroads would change locations again and again to bigger, more accommodating spaces, would change its name to 12 Stone, and would serve upward of twenty-five thousand people every weekend. All I knew right then was that this little place with the blue roof had a service for adults and a separate one for the kids at the same time. This sounded like it might be worth a try.
The first service we attended was unlike anything either of us had ever experienced. Let’s just say my comfort level was not exactly high. There were no suits and ties. There were jeans. And there was no priest. There was this guy, Kevin Myers. He was the most gifted communicator and teacher I had ever heard, and it appeared he knew the Bible back and forth.
Kevin posed a couple questions that day. “Who’s the provider in your family?” and “What are you pursuing, happiness or wholeness?” Well, I had this. (1) I’m the provider, and (2) happiness. Over the next few weeks, we explored these questions at Crossroads, and long story short, a light just seemed to go on for me. I was living such a me-centered existence that naturally I viewed myself as the provider, and I was all about the next thing that would make me happy. Now here I was taking notes about God the provider and this Jesus, who came to serve, not to be served, and how happiness is okay, but wholeness is what it’s all about. And the only way to be the husband and father I need to be is to have a heavenly Father who’s directing my steps. After about a month, I cornered Kevin after a service.
“Hey, do you wanna grab lunch one of these days? I don’t know how to put this exactly, but God’s messin’ with me.”
“I’d love to. How about Wednesday?”
Wednesday, December 10, 1997, became my “spiritual birthday,” the day Kevin and I sat at an O’Charley’s restaurant in Lawrenceville, Georgia, talking about where I had been in my life, where I saw myself going, and this kind of gnawing feeling that there had to be more to my existence than my job. He said four words I still remember. “You’re a prayer away.” So that’s what we did. Prayed to turn a me-centered life into a Christ-centered life. Took about twenty seconds to say a prayer that changed me for eternity.
Now I just had to live it out.
Here’s a story you may find amusing. The 1998 PGA Championship was going to be played in Seattle at Sahalee Country Club, and so several weeks before, media day was held. I had been a new Christian for about six months and had a peaceful, uneasy feeling in some ways when it came to going public with my faith.
There were days when I’d be walking into a Family Christian Store to buy some music or a book and would actually break into a sweat thinking somebody was going to recognize me and ask me what I was doing there or, heaven forbid, quiz me on something biblical. One day I bought one of those Christian fish symbols to put on my bumper and then stood in the parking lot for ten minutes getting up the nerve to stick it on.
So back to Sahalee. I was standing in my hotel room that morning getting ready to head to the golf course with my buddies from Turner, and I decided this was the day I would wear a WWJD (What would Jesus do?) bracelet. The fish on my bumper hadn’t raised any questions, so now I would take the next step. I took the elevator to the lobby, saw my co-workers, and promptly took the elevator back up to my room and took off the bracelet. Then I put it back on. I took the elevator back downstairs and joined up with my buddies, and off we went. During the course of the day, anytime I’d be talking to somebody I would be watching their eyes to see if they were noticing what was on my wrist. During those hours on the golf course, it hit me. Here I was, having made a decision to put an end to a me-centered life, and all I had been doing all day was thinking about . . . me. You could have hit me right between the eyes with a four iron and it wouldn’t have had the impact of that simple realization.
This life was not going to be about what I wore or what I put on my bumper. It was going to be about the way I lived each and every day. And the only way to live a life of faith was to be in tune with the Holy Spirit.
Cheryl turned her life over too, though it took longer than it did for me. Cheryl’s a deep thinker. She accepts very little at face value, and when it came to this matter of faith, she wanted proof. I made a decision for Christ knowing I still had a ton to learn, while my wife wanted to learn as much as she could before making any kind of commitment.
There were passages in the Bible she could not agree with, and there were stories she could not believe. Kevin made regular visits to our house after December 10 to walk us through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and in the course of those kitchen table discussions, there were moments of clear realization and outright skepticism.
While Cheryl could appreciate the step I had taken, she wasn’t there yet. I’m trying to clean up my language, trying to set aside time to get into the Bible, stopping by a Family Christian Store to buy Steven Curtis Chapman CDs and a fish for the back of my car, and she’s looking at me and asking, “Are you the same guy I married fifteen years ago?” Kevin was in the middle of this, providing not only biblical perspective but also commonsense talk about life—our lives.
“Look at where you’ve been—these adoptions, the way you care for this special-needs child,” Kevin would say. “I’m telling you, your lives reflect the love of Jesus Christ more than the lives of so many people who have identified as Christians their entire lives. Let’s not get hung up on labels. Let’s just get intentional about your faith. Even though you weren’t paying any attention to God, he was paying attention to you. How’d you wind up at that particular orphanage in Romania, Cheryl? Ernie, why’d you immediately say, ‘Bring him home’ when your wife described this kid’s condition? Did those things just randomly happen, or was this the work of a Creator who orchestrates life in ways we can’t begin to understand? That’s how the Holy Spirit works, guys—gives you just a nudge, Cheryl, and says, ‘That’s the boy . . . the one with the blond hair . . . the one who can’t walk or talk. . . that’s the one.’ That’s the Holy Spirit who whispers in your ear, Ernie, ‘Bring him home’ at the very moment your wife is asking for an answer over a static-filled phone line from Romania. Now if your answer to those questions is that it just somehow happened, we need to go back to square one. But if you believe there’s a grand design being played out before our very eyes, then let’s press on.”
And we did. And we agreed to disagree on some things, but on others there was firm common ground that steadied us, like the belief that this life isn’t all there is. That this family we have on earth, which includes a Romanian orphan with a fatal disease, will someday be reunited in heaven. It was that eternal perspective that for Cheryl trumped all those things she was struggling to wrap her head around. Her spiritual birthday was March 25, 1998.
So now Kevin and I were sitting in a local Starbucks talking about how having a doctor speak one particular c word can pretty much knock your world off its axis, and was it okay that I wanted to punch God right in the nose? We began to unpack what I said I believed. Was this diagnosis going to shake my faith to its core, or was my faith going to carry me through this trial? Did I truly believe what the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, that in all things God works for the good of those who believe?
“In times like this, you have a couple options,” Kevin told me. “You can turn on God, or you can turn to God.”
Kevin pulled a pen from his pocket, grabbed a light brown Starbucks napkin, and wrote down one word.
“EJ, this whole thing is about this: trust.” He held up the napkin to show me and then went back to writing.
“Is it going to be trust with a question mark? Is it going to be ‘I’ll trust God if the next test comes back the way I want it to’? Or is it going to be trust. Period. You trusted him with your life six years ago. It’s easy to trust him when things are going great and you’re being blessed with good things left and right. How does that trust feel right now, while you’re looking up from this valley you’ve never been in?”
That’s why to this day, whenever I send an email, my signature at the bottom of the message looks like this:
Ernie Johnson Jr.
Trust God . . . Period.
“Unscripted,” Baker Publishing