My Story

I was born in Olympia, Washington. I was one month premature due to my mother’s alcohol and drug abuse. The doctors told her I would probably be developmentally disabled and not gain the strength to lift my head. My mother left my father before I was born and until recently, I had never met him. I grew up in a broken home that flirted once or twice with nominal Christianity, but, just as the Parable of the Sower demonstrates, my “faith” did not take root and ultimately led me to atheism and hedonism. I grew up an avid lover of science and logic, and my “intellectual” skepticism and over-reliance on reason made me prideful and rebellious.

As a child, I was abused physically, mentally and emotionally. I lived in a constant state of fear. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, which consisted mostly of night terrors, and a hair-trigger fight-or-flight response that haunted everyday situations. Abuse tarnished my concept of the word father, and gave me a very dark subconscious image of my Heavenly Father: angry and distant; a Father who would hurt you for no reason and then tell you it was your fault. Later in life, I became wild and rebellious to the extreme. Unjustified abuse gave me a lack of respect for authority that I still struggle with a little today. When I was a teenager, my mother’s job took her away for the whole summer and that meant no one was around. I often hitchhiked great distances alone, to different parts of the Columbia Gorge, a very rugged and desolate place.

I started experimenting with marijuana and meth, and eventually became addicted to heroin. I would do almost anything for a “fix”. When you run out of heroin, its physical withdrawal symptoms are quite painful. It seems as though you might die and everything takes on the importance of survival. I did not see things as a sane person does; people were like paychecks waiting to be cashed. My “friends” were like wolves in a pack: we ran together, but would turn on each other if we were desperate enough. I was “functional” in that I worked a steady job and was a reliable employee. I wasn’t out on the streets or anything, yet my life was a mess. On a fairly regular basis I found myself falsifying deposits at the bank by putting empty envelopes in the ATM. It was habit borne of desperation; a way of getting a temporary loan for the price of an overdraft fee to get me through the week. This eventually cost me my bank account, but it bought me some time on the ticking time bomb of addiction. My financial problems were nothing compared to the spiritual bankruptcy in my life. I had no hope for a future. I was numb, living in a fog, and I hated myself. I chased after emptiness at every turn and somehow seemed surprised and frustrated by the fruits of my labors.

I knew this lifestyle was destructive and evil. I started looking for a way out. I began going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but I could not seem to stay clean for long. I would show up to a meeting high, or leave immediately afterward to find more drugs. I constantly lied about how long I had been clean, trying to “fake it till you make it.” One time I went two weeks clean, but when I relapsed I overdosed on heroin. I faded out and it seemed as though I kept forgetting to breathe. I would wake up from time to time and gasp for air. I was scared and helpless. On the brink of death–or so it seemed–I called out to God to save me. I was shocked that my first response to this situation was to pray despite my self professed atheism and anger at “religion” in general. The same God I had denied existed for most of my life became my One Hope.

That night I accepted God’s mercy but He was a stranger to me. When I asked God to save me I just meant help to make it through the night, but I vowed to be drug-free and not die in a gutter somewhere. My parents dragged me to church on Sundays, but I felt out of place. I continued to go because I felt it was a safe place to kill time. I had no reason to look over my shoulder, and had a fresh start of sorts. As I warmed a pew for a while and stayed clean, the first verses of the Bible I truly believed was from Romans 7, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh, for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of good is not. For the good I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil thing I do not wish… Wretched man that I am. Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” I identified with the slavery of sin, and this inability to do what I knew in my heart was right. God helped me to find a better way, one that didn’t end in jails, institutions or death. He began to help me do what I could not do for myself, but it would take me four years to want to truly begin to follow Christ. God still had a lot of pruning to do: pride, selfishness, anger, lust and sexual sin ran my life.

Through a program called the Alpha Course, I started seeking God’s will for my life, and I got to know Him better. I began to ask deep questions and wonder if there was more to life than judging success and failure by whether I stayed clean or not. As I began to wake up and see things with spiritual eyes, I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I sure knew I hadn’t found it yet.

There was an Alpha retreat at Silver Falls State Park that focused on teaching about the Holy Spirit, whom I considered an almost total stranger. At the end, I asked my pastor Roger and his wife Cathy to pray with me that the Holy Spirit would be my counselor and come into my life for real. They prayed over me and it seemed as though my whole mind lit up. All the dark corners were visible at once, and I knew God saw everything. I felt convicted, forgiven, and washed clean, all at once. I received the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit. My heart burned within me with new hope, new purpose, and new freedom. I knew that when I went back to the place I lived, and the woman who lived with me there, that it was not my home anymore and I could never be the same. I knew I was meant for more than this life I had chosen for myself. I gave up on these “dead branches” of behavior that were stealing from my spirit. Turning my back, God gave me the strength to walk away from a familiar life built on shifting sands.

God has shown me the truth of His Word, and that faith is trusting God. He has shown me that the path of obedience is narrow, and it is like swimming against the current of the world. He has revealed His upside down Kingdom values: to be the greatest, you must be the least. He taught me everything that is real about real love, and to take up my cross and follow Him.

After my spirit filled encounter at the Alpha Course, I came back as a group leader and watched God touch the lives of others in a similar way. God put me in touch with a troubled teen, and opened my eyes to mentoring relationships and youth ministry. I felt God calling me to leave my career as a construction foreman—and the bonds of materialism—to move to Kansas and go to Barclay College to be a youth pastor.

I served as a youth pastor for four years, but soon after I arrived at Bible college, I received a call to pastoral ministry in general, not just to the youth I had originally envisioned. While becoming a pastor was pretty well outside the scope of anything I would have wanted for myself, God has given me a heart for outreach, visitation ministry, and eventually even preaching—which I dreaded the most.

Following Christ has been the most radical adventure of my life. He has brought me from the brink of death to life in all its fullness. He has called me out of the darkness toward Heaven’s blinding light and even used me to help others find this path. To be like Christ is to be ruled by love, and to reach out to our broken world. To be a broken vessel leaking love, and asking to be filled again and again. Jesus has changed my heart from ashes to new life, and prevailed against my strong will with His mercy and grace. I spent my life searching for something I did not have eyes to see, but now I do. And the path I took makes it all the sweeter. I would not change one thing about the journey.

I like to sum up the ways God has been forming me by saying “God has been creating in me the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar and the zeal of a missionary

The Heart of a Pastor

I love preaching, teaching and discipleship. I care for the spiritual needs of those around me and equipping people for the shared work of ministry. I was originally drawn to ministry when I met a troubled teen and started bowling with him and taking him to youth group. I volunteered at Youth Yearly Meeting where I met Liz, my lovely wife. Soon after I got married, I felt God tugging on my heart to go to Bible college in Kansas. I didn’t want to go. I was pretty happy with living in Silverton and teaching Sunday school and volunteering at youth group, and to be honest I was pretty materialistic. I had a construction job that paid quite well and I didn’t trust that God would take care of me and my wife on a youth pastor’s meager salary, but He did. I mean come on, who leaves a high paying job while being groomed for leadership, to go into debt for something that pays less than half of what they made before? Me I guess, and someday I will do it all over again, hopefully sometime soon. I went out to Kansas for a “desert experience” at Barclay College trusting God, eventually. I became a youth pastor and loved it, but soon switched my major to pastoral ministry. Though it it a scary and humbling decision, I was sure that God was calling me to make it. God met me in that place and confirmed my calling in ways I never would have imagined, bringing many people to guide me through initial confusion. My heart’s desire now is to follow the Lord and serve his people.

The Mind of a Scholar

I am passionate about research and study… about learning and sharing that learning with others. The ministry is full of people who used to know Hebrew and Greek, but I know I will spend my life studying the Bible in its original languages; It is a life goal for me to read the Bible in its entirety in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, which I have already begun. I hope to someday even move beyond that to reading digitized versions of the oldest manuscripts as well. I have recently been working on manuscripts from the Ethiopic Christian tradition for one of my classes at Fox. I have done some groundbreaking work in Ethiopic paleography, and am fascinated by Ethiopian book culture and studying how God’s word has been transmitted through human history. I am the kind of guy who has the dead sea scrolls right next to Thomas Kelly on my nightstand if that means anything to you, if it doesn’t… then the short version is I am kind of nerdy.

The Zeal of a Missionary

I know personally the slavery of sin and God’s power to change lives. God has given me compassion for those outside the church, and I know how skeptics, atheists, and agnostics think because I have been all three. I have been a part of a lot of different groups, educated and uneducated, young and old. I am just as comfortable in the city as in the country, in an academic setting as an AA meeting. I have done outreach at mental institutions, and nursing homes, youth and young adult, and recovery ministries. I am not interested in attracting people from the church down the road, but in helping God make new Christians, and God has often put me in places to share my story with others. You know, your typical atheist to pastor, dropout to scholar, fatherless to father because of God kind of story. A story which just keeps going by the way, I recently tracked down my biological father and we have Skyped a couple times now and talk on the phone often (he lives in San Diego). I am hoping to get the chance to help lead him to the Lord, though for now at least he seems to be more of a fan of Buddha…

The Journey Now…

God has pruned my life with a chainsaw, and now it bears fruit. I have now been clean and sober for over 12 years, and Christ has stretched and reformed me in His likeness along the path He has called me to walk. I am still searching and discerning the place (or places) God has for me to serve Him in the role of pastor or released minister. I feel that God is asking me to trust Him again in this next step of my journey toward graduate work. Though I am still a rough and peculiar disciple, He will continually and faithfully prune me to suit His purposes, even if I am not cut from the stock of the stereotypical “pastor guy.” I am now on a journey of discipleship and service in the Kingdom of God. I have been reconnected with my biological father, and am now experiencing fatherhood myself and it as an awesome and holy calling I love more than I ever would have imagined. Today I am working on a Masters degree at Fox, and may one day do postgraduate work in Old Testament, a part of the Bible I have really grown to love. I never really thought I would live this long, or enjoy life in all its fullness. My life has been transformed and through God’s grace many cycles and chains have fallen at my feet. I don’t fully understand God’s plan for my life, but I know it will likely be very hard but unbelievably good. As the adventure continues, I am sure there will be plenty to write about along the way. Thanks for hearing me out!



10 responses to “My Story

  • Mariellen Gilpin

    Hi James, I have a similar story, only it was mental illness that turned me in desperation to God. Whatever I’m supposed to do to follow your blog, please sign me up! Blessings, Mariellen Gilpin (I edit a newsletter for Quakers who have mystical experiences, called “What Canst Thou Say?”)

    • jtower11

      Hi Mariellen!
      I would love to hear your story! One way to follow my blog is through email. There is a follow this blog button you could click on the righthand side column. You could also follow it through Facebook if you hit the “like button” also on the righthand side, It is above the section with all the faces. Another way to do this would to go to my facebook page if I can be of any more assistance let me know. Thank you for the encouraging words!

    • jtower11

      Your publication looks very interesting! I will be slowly wading through the sample issue. Very cool.

  • Janis

    We here at Woodland Friends Church hope to get to meet you soon. Blessings!

    • jtower11

      Thanks Janis. I hope for the same opportunity. It seems you have read my story, would you tell me a little about yours? feel free to send it via email if you don’t want it here for the world to see. Did you grow up in Woodland?

  • Jaymi Garrison

    I’ve just stumbled upon your page because I have been trying to find answers to the dream I had several days ago. I believe God spoke to me about my Inner Light in it. Ever since I have been on a quest for knowledge related to the message. He said, “Remember the Hill of Light.” And I instantly knew that within me, all along I knew, was God and I remembered to shine.
    I came upon your page and find you to be a great writer and have learned that Quakers or Friends draw a lot of parallels in their beliefs with mine. Sorry if I’m not so elegant in my use of words but I jist want to thank you.

  • Jaymi Garrison

    Sure. What do you do when meet with opposition to your experiences?
    Also, how do you know that you’re not crazy after feeling closer to God through experiences, such as dreams?
    I’ve researched so much but I still feel like my mind might just be warped.
    I am super confused because earlier I was so sure about my faith… now, after discussions with my significant other, I’m not so sure. I just don’t know what to do with my beliefs.

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