Coming To Jesus: Joe Lamay's Conversion Experience1
Coming to Jesus
by Joe Lamay
I was raised as the sixth child of seven in a Roman Catholic family. The smell of my dad’s cologne meant it was Sunday morning and time for church. Though my parents raised us as a religiously observant family, by the time of my senior year in high school, none of my older siblings was attending Mass anymore. Being raised in the culture of my Catholic family meant that, throughout my childhood, I assumed the existence of God and that Jesus Christ was God who became a human being in order to die for sinners. I believed that He was the one and only savior of the world. After all, that is what I was taught. That was my culture. I went to church. I took communion. I made acts of contrition…at least in word, because I did not have any idea what the term meant when I entered the confessional booth as a kid. I thought it was all one word: Aktovcontrision. Yet, I was not a Christian. Of course, I didn’t know I was unsaved. Most of us don’t know we are unsaved until our eyes are opened by the miracle of new birth and we awaken as believers who have a personal, intimate faith in Jesus Christ.
I loved to sin
One thing is for sure: I loved to sin. My life was a pursuit of the natural desires of my flesh. I grew up with two great passions: playing baseball and living to party. The only thing that kept me from smoking dope on any particular day was a baseball practice or game later that evening. Only my desire to perform and excel on the field superseded my desire to get stoned or drunk during most of my high school years.
The latter part of my teenage years was described by the music of my generation and from one of my favorite bands, Pink Floyd:
“So, so you think you can tell heaven from Hell,
blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?...
And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year. Running over the same old ground. What have you found? The same old fears. Wish you were here.”
By the fall of 1980, emptiness and the same old fears were becoming the air I breathed. I fell into my first bout with a sense of profound meaninglessness and mild depression which only marijuana soothed…temporarily. I was a hollow, barren, lost soul trying to numb the pain of reality with that which could never truly satisfy. But the closet of artificial peace was more bearable than the pain and fear of purposelessness.
Hundreds of years ago, the great mathematician Blaise Pascal pinpointed the one main problem of my life when he wrote, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end [goal]…This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” I, like everybody else, was seeking happiness or, to say it in the negative, seeking the absence of pain.
Then in January of 1981, at the age of nineteen, I began to develop an insatiable desire to read the bible. Up to this point in my life, I never had anyone share the Gospel with me nor speak about a personal conversion experience. I know there must have been some “Jesus Freaks” in my high school, but I didn’t know any. So I had no category for a biblical understanding of a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ. I just found myself day after day picking up the family Bible that sat on the coffee table for years but was never opened except to record baptisms, confirmations, and marriages. Knowing nothing about the Bible, I roamed around in what I think was Genesis until I found the red letters in one of the Gospels and realized they represented Jesus’ sayings. I was captivated by the self-authenticating words of Jesus. Then I was overcome by the culmination of his purpose in life, which was to die in the place of sinners in order to bring total and everlasting forgiveness to them.
During these days, it felt as if I were the only person in the world who was obsessed with Jesus and his death on the cross. I was utterly convinced that somehow he was the answer to everything. If someone were spying on me as I sat there on the living room couch reading the Bible, they would have witnessed a calm silence not knowing that inside of me there was a hurricane blowing. The wind of the Spirit was saying, “This is true! This is the answer to the turmoil you have been going through over the last six months. This is the answer to the problem of existence as a finite, sinful, death-doomed nineteen-year-old kid.” While reading one of the Gospels during these early weeks of 1981, I walked into the kitchen and said to my mom, “Why didn’t you ever tell me about Jesus?” I now realize that that was not a statement about my mom, but it was the fruit of seeing the reality of Jesus Christ with the eyes of my heart. The wind blew through my heart as Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8).
I was coming to grips with what Pascal went on to say: “There once was in man a true happiness of which now remains to him only the empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and unchangeable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.” In other words, inside each of us is a God-shaped vacuum. We all come into this world with a longing for joy and meaning and significance that cannot be satisfied by anything other than the presence of God Himself.
I was still a pot-smoking drunk, but something was different. And what was different was that I had a deep affection for Jesus and what he accomplished on the cross 2,000 years ago. It felt that true happiness may actually be attainable, that the person of Jesus may be the one true object that fits this gaping hole inside of me.
This new hunger led me to enroll in a course about the New Testament at the local community college. The class consisted mainly of middle-aged people, along with this nineteen-year-old kid; all of whom were searching for answers. So there I would be on a Wednesday evening, sitting in my car in the college parking lot, smoking a joint as I guzzled another beer. But that did not keep me from looking forward to this three-hour course on the New Testament once a week. During this time, I had no paradigm that said smoking pot or getting drunk was incongruent with reading the Bible and hoping it was true. I was the same guy, hanging out with the same friends, going to the same parties, buying the same quarter-ounce of marijuana a week, and getting drunk on a daily basis. It’s just that now I was blown away with a deep sense that Jesus’ death and resurrection was at the essence of the meaning of life. I would even say to friends, while getting high with them, “Hey, have you ever read the Bible. This Jesus stuff just blows me away. You’ve got to read it.”
Up until this time, late winter to early spring of 1981, I had never taken any hallucigenic drugs because they frightened the heck out of me. But one evening, in March, my marijuana supplier was out of my stuff, but he told me he had some “killer hallucigenic mushrooms.” He finally talked me into trying them. Two hours later, I had an experience like I had never had before. It was really enjoyable. And since I woke up the next morning with everything back to normal, it was not to be feared as I once thought. I could not wait for the next experience. So over the next two months, usually with friends, I dropped acid or ate mushrooms on at least ten different occasions.
And then I experienced a life-altering “nightmare.” While frying on mushrooms with two friends, an irrational and overwhelming fear began to grip me. The thought that I was on the verge of experiencing what was known in the drug culture as a “bad trip” intensified the mental turmoil all the more. As I was on the precipice of losing all sense of reality, my two buddies deserted me out of the fear of catching the panic that was overtaking me. So there I was, standing in the middle of the street on Poinsettia Avenue in Manhattan Beach (some names and places make their indelible mark on our memories) fully conscious and yet I was convinced I had died, my body was lying in some emergency room, my parents were devastated, and I was in hell…though it looked exactly like the trees and houses on Poinsettia Avenue. It is virtually impossible to relate this terror to people who have not had a similar experience. I do not know how long it went on that night and I do not remember getting home, but I found out a few days later that my friend drove me home in my car. When I woke up the next morning, it was as if I knew my life had changed forever. It was not like waking up from an extreme night of alcohol intoxication. It felt like, even though I had come down from the effects of the mushrooms, I would never really move on from that experience.
The terror of that night made me apprehensive to smoke marijuana for fear that it would thrust me back into the same horrifying experience. Over the next few weeks, I would wake up each morning feeling like the night of my bad trip was inches away from leaping on me again. I found myself desperately holding on to some semblance of a normal mental state. After two weeks of no pot smoking (the longest stretch in five years), I headed over to my friend’s house three blocks away to find that one of my high school baseball teammates was in town because he had been suspended by the New York Yankees for (you guessed it) too much partying and curfew breaking. As George and I sat in the living room talking, he began to roll a joint. Eighty percent of me was saying, “Don’t you dare take a hit, Joe.” The other twenty percent was salivating as he reached out with the understood jester, “It’s your turn.” I cautiously reached for the beautiful smelling weed and took it deep down into my lungs again and again over the next few minutes. Then suddenly…Bam! I was right back to where I was the night of my bad trip. The terror of this gripped me so much that I said to myself that I needed to get into my car and drive the three blocks to my house immediately or I would never get home.
This day, which commenced five months of flashbacks, made the night of my bad trip seem like a walk in the park. I was now mentally and emotionally stranded on an island by myself. I was a caged and fearful young man who was losing his grip on reality. Everyday I would be overpowered by foreign thoughts that were trying to convince me that Jesus is not God, who became human in order to die and be raised from the dead for sinners like me.
This was tormenting because deep down I knew that nothing made ultimate sense--and there was no hope--outside of the good news of Jesus Christ being resurrected from the dead.
During the late spring and summer of 1981, I was in a constant battle to keep myself busy, so that I would not have idle time to just think and be drawn away by tormenting thoughts from unseen demonic forces. One day I stopped by the baseball field where I played just one year earlier and I was not able to concentrate on the game because I was overwhelmed with a sense that, “My life is over. I am losing my ability to control my mind. I will never be stable enough to marry and raise a family. I am just waiting to die.”
The one medication I was still on during this lost and fearful summer was alcohol. The fear of what marijuana would do to me weaned me from its use; but vodka and beer calmed me and brought me into daily relief. I was living in a bubble of my own fear and flashbacks. It was my own little secret that I did not know how to communicate to anyone else.
The desperateness I felt at this time led me to knock on the rectory door of my local parish (Saint Anthony’s in El Segundo) to get the priest to bless the cross that hung around my neck. At the same time, I started going back to Mass on Sunday mornings. I would sit in the front row and listen intently during service for the first time in my life. I was hungry to hear any morsel of biblical truth about Jesus. My desperation became so intense that it drove me to attend weekday Masses where I would light candles and pray for myself. I also enrolled in an adult catechism class at my parish. I was hungry for real answers. But outside of Mass and, I realize now, an inept catechism teacher, I had nothing to compare it to. I was like a kid from a third world country who is thrilled to get a tasteless bowl of rice with a cup of water because he does not know what is meant by “a burger with fries and a chocolate shake.”
On my twentieth birthday, September 5, 1981, after a day of drinking a couple of six packs of Budweiser while listening to rock and roll and painting my parents’ house, the next door neighbor, Ammon Trainer, came over to shoot the breeze. He said he wanted to talk about Christianity. It scared me because I thought he was going to try to convince me that Jesus and all that stuff was just a farce. His main message ended up being about the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. I had no idea what he was talking about, but at least I knew he was on the side of Jesus. What a relief! He went on to tell me that his brother Angelo was now a believer in Jesus. Growing up, Angelo had been a close family friend. This was the guy who was also raised in the Roman Catholic Church but became a proclaimed atheist by age eleven. He had become an alcoholic, a drug addict, and had been deeply involved in the occult. He ended up in a drug program and now “he loves Jesus?” This blew my mind! The last person on earth I thought would ever become a Bible-reading, church-going lover of Jesus was Angelo Trainer. But now he believes that a first century traveling preacher was the one predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures. But more than that, he also was convinced that Jesus died for his sins and was physically raised from the dead. He had my attention!
Then six weeks later came one of the most pivotal days of my life. On Sunday, October 18, 1981, while enjoying a few beers and watching a football game on TV, Ammon called me on the phone and asked if I would like to attend the Sunday night church service with Angelo and him. I said, “yes.”
After that night, my life was forever changed. As the service began and the forty or so people stood to lift their hands and sing with all their hearts, I was overcome with a deep hope that maybe there really are people in the world who are as desperate for deliverance as I was. It is hard to express how exhilarating it was to be in that atmosphere of deep heartfelt worship. Of course, I did not know what to call it at the time. Having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I was stunned at a sixty-minute sermon (which felt like three minutes). I cannot remember the content of the message, but I do know I was encountered by God in a powerful way.
At the end of the service, I was inwardly compelled to respond to the altar call. Two pastors laid their hands on me and prayed. There was no drug-induced experience that could come close to the overwhelmingly intoxicating encounter I had with the Spirit of God that night. I left the church grounds in childlike wonder…hoping that if all this was a dream, I would never wake up.
Not only did I wake up the next morning and the next realizing that it was not a dream, but I had made contact with other crazy (or sane) people who also believed that Jesus Christ is the one true God who became human in order to die for hopeless sinners like me. My life was now on a radically different path from which there was no looking back. Meaning and purpose for my life was becoming real.
I bought my first Bible. It was the most valuable possession I owned. I devoured its pages like a starving man at a banquet. I would show up to Sunday morning, and Sunday and Thursday evening services at this little church on Praire Blvd. in Torrance, CA every week. The thrill of sitting in Roger and Joan’s home on Wednesday nights discussing the Bible still gives me chills 29 years later. This was more happiness-producing than any drug I had ever tried. This little community of people would become my church family for the next ten years.
During these first few months of being in a real Christ-centered church community, my love for Jesus and his sacrificial death on the cross revolutionized my life and hope. Through teaching, hanging out with other believers, and feeding on the Bible day in and day out, my mind was being renewed to the truth. The effect of this was that I was slowly gaining control over the horrid panic attacks and flashbacks. Yet there were still times when I would lie in bed at night and suddenly sense the creeping up of another flashback.
No More Flashbacks for Joe
Then, in late November of 1981, at a Thursday night church service, a visiting preacher named Dick Mills was the guest speaker. One of the things he was known for was pointing people out in the congregation and speaking to them what came to his mind…usually with a few scripture quotations. At this time, I had never spoken to a soul about the paralyzing, lonely fear of flashbacks that I had been experiencing over the previous seven months. Dick Mills asked me to stand up. In trepidation, I did. He proceeded to quote a few verses having to do with leaving the past behind. And then he, or should I say a loving heavenly Father, stunned me by saying, “No more flashbacks for Joe!” Then he had the 120 or so people who were there say in unison, “No more flashbacks for Joe, no more flashbacks for Joe, no more flashbacks for Joe!” I slumped into my seat overwhelmed with the tender love and care of God the Father, because this was the one tormenting secret I thought I had to bear all alone. But to realize that God used that gift of the Spirit through some guy who did not know me from a hole-in-the-wall, in order to let me know that He understands everything that I had been going through (and that He would totally deliver me from this mental torment), overwhelmed me with His personal care and love. My hope intensified all the more and my love for God the Father who adopted me through Jesus Christ was more real than I ever imagined it could be.
Assurance of Salvation
The clarity of what I read in the Bible was vivid and self-authenticating to me. I had to be the happiest twenty-year-old kid on earth. All my marbles were banked on the message of Jesus Christ. I had, by the grace of God, come to believe with all my heart that he alone is the savior of lost sinners. It was he who, as the eternal Son of God, became a human being in order to be my sacrifice and take upon himself the just wrath of God against my sin. It was Jesus alone who lived the perfect, sinless life, in order that his righteousness before God would be put to the account of a wretched, God-belittling Joe Lamay. Jesus was the most authentic man of all time. He was brutally tortured on a Roman cross, killed, truly dead, cold and hardened. And then on the third day was physically raised to new bodily life forevermore.
Ephesians 2:1-7 describes what happened to me perfectly:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all [especially Joe Lamay] once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
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