Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble, and you will find rest for your souls. – Matthew 11:28-29
I grew up outside of the church, for the most part. My parents did send me to an Anglican church when I was very small, but I hated it and have only a few vague memories of a Sunday school class. My Dad was raised strict Catholic, but stopped going as soon as he could get away with it. I felt no attraction to church whatsoever, but was always intrigued by the person of Jesus.
I was always fascinated by the supernatural, and seemed to have an awareness of it from a young age. I remember my parents taking me to a drive-in theater to see a Dracula movie. I would not sleep in my own room that night. I was sure Dracula was outside of my window, even though we lived three stories up. I made my Dad drive to my grandfather’s house the next day to get a crucifix to put on my bedroom wall. That would keep the vampires away. My Dad was quite a storyteller and used to tell me he was from another planet and that his “people” would come back for him one day and that I would have to choose whether I wanted to stay on earth or go to his planet. These kind of stories definitely developed my imagination.
I grew up in a poor neighborhood, although I didn’t think of it as poor at the time. I did all the typical Canadian things like playing street hockey almost every day after school. When I became a teenager I began drinking and experimenting with drugs, and doing all the things lost people do to try to find themselves. I was shopping around for a lifestyle that would work for me. I had a lot of friends in high school and attended a lot of parties.
I met the girl who is now my wife (Colleen) in my last year of high school, and was having such a full social life that I didn’t pay much attention to classes. I had to go back and upgrade some classes to get into college.
Once in university I took classes much more seriously and did well. I also began partying even harder. The weekend began stretching out to include Thursday and Sunday night. Eventually Colleen and I moved in together. I was the life of the party on the outside, but inside I began having panic attacks that became more and more frequent. She taught aerobics classes and was very good at it. She quickly became a manager. When she was invited to the Women’s Christian Club to speak on the importance of exercise, she took the invitation because she figured it would be good for business. There was a woman pastor who talked after her about spiritual things, using the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. Colleen was sitting at the head table and began to cry and didn’t know why. Later of course, she would realize she had been under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. She was the woman at the well. She came home and said: “We’ve got to get married.” I loved her, but didn’t really believe in bourgeois traditions like marriage at the time. I told her I’d have to think about it, and then went out for a cigarette. I came back in and said: “Okay, let’s do it.”
I got my BA and we got married in May of that year. In September I went to a university in another city about an hour away for my master’s program. I roomed with my best friend at the time, Gary, through the week and I came home on the weekends. I didn’t know that a pastor’s wife named Charlene had been witnessing to Colleen and invited her to church. I was okay with her going to church as long as it didn’t affect our lifestyle in any way. One weekend I came home and Colleen announced that she had become a Christian, and that she would not be drinking or partying anymore. I was not happy. We began a rocky period in our relationship. I was going to bars and she was going to church. I was having more frequent panic attacks.
Then one Friday night at midnight Gary called and said he had just become a Christian as well. I thought the world was going crazy. The next Friday night I was getting ready to go clubbing with some friends and Colleen was going to a church service. I was watching a talk show on local cable TV and there was a man on who said he was a pastor. He had a stand-up comic kind of delivery was very funny. Colleen was in another room so I yelled to her: “If you were going to see a pastor like this, I would go with you!” She poked her head in the room said: “That’s the pastor I am going to see tonight… and you are coming with me!” I reluctantly called my friends to tell them I could not go to the club because I was going to church.
What happened that next is the classic story. I walked into the school auditorium where this new church (now King’s Church) was meeting. I was very skeptical, and felt culturally disconnected from such a bourgeoisie crowd. The music sounded like it was from another time or planet. But when the speaker got up and began talking, everything that he said made sense to me. His name was Jimmy Johnson and he was from California. He was as funny and engaging as he had been on local talk show and somehow he made the Bible seem relevant to real life. He spoke out of that passage where Jesus says: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 28) I was definitely looking for peace and rest from the night terrors I had been experiencing.
At the end he invited people to come forward to pray. I had never been to an evangelical church or seen an altar call before, but I went forward and had a powerful experience with Jesus. I was the only one to step out. When I knelt at the front, suddenly the God who was just a far away, admirable idea became a very close and personal presence. I had a very powerful experience with God and could not speak for at least an hour afterward. People were coming up to congratulate me on my decision and I was literally speechless. My voice did not return until we got back to the apartment.
Once Colleen fell asleep, I remember watching some late night TV and smoking a cigarette, feeling like the whole world was new. I wondered if this “presence” in my life would stay forever or be gone when I woke up in the morning. That night I had a dream where God came into my room and I fell facedown on the floor. In the dream, the whole room filled with a light so bright that I could not look at it. When I woke up from that dream I knew that my life would never be the same again. And to be honest, that presence has never left.
We began attending church and devouring the Bible. A couple of months later I finished my master’s degree in literature and creative writing. Bethany Bible College was looking for an English professor, and despite the fact that I was only 24 years old and a new Christian with no church background, the Lord opened the door for me to teach there.
I have been teaching ever since. God eventually opened the door for me to move out of general kind of classes and into more direct ministerial kind of opportunities. I have literally been all over the world speaking and serving God in all kinds of missional ministry. Colleen and I have been married for nearly forty years and we have four daughters and seven grandkids. All of them are serving Jesus in various parts of the world. It is amazing what can happen when God breaks into a family line. We have definitely been blessed. There is no limit to what God can do with us when we surrender to His will.
Mike MacNeil is a professor and director of the Praxis program at Kingswood University. His book, Jesus Kicks: And Other Stories I Can’t Tell in Church, is full of inspiring and incredible stories of the power of God to use His people in unlikely circumstances.
You can find more people sharing the reason for the hope that they have here: Why Believe?