Faith is rarely acquired all at once, but instead in small fragments. Faith, as I have found, cannot probably be formed with a person shields themselves from the pain of this world. It is that brokenness – that fragmentation – that God uses to form a faith he can use.
I was born in Hamilton, Ontario. Thankfully, I was raised in a Christian home for the early years of my life. My father, a truck driver for Dofasco, was the son of a Baptist pastor, as my grandfather was a Dutch Baptist immigrant, who became a pastor in the Hamilton area. I remember saying the sinner’s prayer when I very little one night with my father. I recall doing so because I was jealous of how my brother did so the night before – and I wanted what my older brother had! I was fairly well grounded in the Scriptures at a young age as I was given the opportunity to attend a Christian private school till grade six and attended youth group and bible camp until going away to college.
I remember one odd miracle growing up. When I was in kindergarten, my hand was covered in warts. My mother had a similar problem. Oddly, she and I both had warts going up our arms. My mom took us to doctors trying different things to prevent it. However, stubborn as they are, nothing worked. However, one morning, as I came up for breakfast, my mom looked at me and said, “Spencer look at your arm.” I did and was surprised to find no warts. They were all gone. My mom showed me her arm, again not a single wart. Astonished, she said, “We prayed about this last night in Bible study. I went to bed with warts, and woke up with them gone.” I don’t presume to base me faith on an event like this (it has always seemed like an odd miracle, but there are many like it in the Bible), however it did at the time lead me to see at an early age the spiritual all around me.
The Sense of Eternity
One odd yet formative experience in my story was when I was seven. My great aunt passed away, whom I really did not know well, but I inherited an ornate marquetry chest from, built by my great-great uncle. At the time it was the most beautiful and costly thing I owned. Now, one night the notion of eternity struck me. I do not remember why, but the notion came to my young mind. It was more than the mere notion – more tangible. It was like a sense of eternity. It occurred to me that one day even something as beautiful as this chest could be nothing more than dust and vapor. It kept bothering me and in fact it frightened me. I told my father about it, whom I can only imagine was a bit puzzled; assured me that as we follow Jesus, every detail of our lives, no matter how small, has eternal value. Since then, the question of what I was going to do with my life that would have eternal value was always with me.
Difficult Teen Years
Sadly childhood bliss and naivety left as my parents divorced, rather messily, when I was in grade seven. After the divorce my father did not come around much. I later found out it was because my mother was unfaithful to him and he was hurt and frustrated. She told him they were separating in order to get back together and reconcile, but in fact, this was a pretense so that she could pursue another relationship while the divorce eventually went through. He confessed later that he became depressed, but we were able to reconcile through my high school and college years.
Through this, my early teen years were often quite alone as I was often teased or simply did not fit in at school. Since we switched schools after my parents’ divorce from a Christian private school, I was teased as the sheltered kid in public elementary school. I recall being very quiet. In hindsight I think I was unable to process the pain of what was happening to my parents. I was also 5’ 11’’ by grade seven, which meant I was very good at sports, and that made some of the tough kids really hate me. So, a tall, lanky, passive, introverted, nerdy kid made an obvious target for bullying. I remember receiving a petition signed from my classmates that they all hated me and wanted me to die. I remember the guys putting the girls up to asking me out, then reneging and mocking me. Many days I would go home, close the door to my room and cry, wanting it all to end. I don’t recall ever thinking to myself to take my life, but I did want my life to end. I did not believe in fighting people, and I remember having the idea that God had more for my life. I loved going to our church’s youth group at Stoney Creek Alliance Church, where pastor Cal Stafford was my youth pastor. He had a way of encouraging people without even knowing what they were going through.
My family chose to send my brother, sister and I to the Catholic high school, Cardinal Newman, rather than the public high school, which most of the kids from my school went. My parents did not know about the bullying, but it was a nice fresh start for me. I was able to develop a close circle of friends, several I have to this day. Having been bullied and teased, I concluded I never wanted to be like that. I would practice the principle that it is preferable to befriend people different from myself. I considered it worthwhile to sit with people that did not have anyone to sit with at lunch.
Oddly enough, in Grade 11, my high school Catholic religion teacher, Ms. Tessier, a former nun, encouraged me to read my Bible more. This was funny: she picked up that since I had gone to Sunday school, I had a lot of Bible knowledge that no one else had. She asked me, “Do you read the Bible?” I replied, “No, but I basically know what its all about.” She smirked (as I do now, having completed a decade of theological studies) and encouraged me to read it every night.
So, that night, I sat on my bed, wondering what part of the Bible to read. I cracked it open to Romans, probably because I thought the Roman Empire was neat. I remember being amazed at how the pages spoke to me that night. I took a highlighter, and highlighted all the passages that spoke to me. However by the end, I basically highlighted 90% of the book, which kind of defeated the purpose.
That year, upon my religion teacher’s encouragement, I practiced Lent, giving up television and video games, all while deciding to read Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. It was during this time that I felt called into the ministry. The next year, I formed a small Bible study with Ms. Tessier’s help. Ms. Tessier had aspirations of me becoming a catholic and going on to be a priest, but I declined. I decided to go to Heritage College, the denominational school of the Baptist church I was attending at the time with my father.
Seeing the Light of God’s Smile
In high school I developed a strong perfectionism in my Christian walk. I figured that if you have faith, you must obviously be able to get rid of every sin in your life – you just need enough faith. Of course, I could not, and this bothered me. I was overwhelmed with self-hatred for all my flaws. I began to beat myself up about not having enough faith. I wondered whether I was even saved. If I did not have enough faith – something I thought you simply have by God’s gift or you don’t – and I was saved through faith, could I not have enough faith to be saved? One night I was so overcome that I sat on my bed angry. At that point I had a kind of vision. I saw myself trapped in a small cell, but the door flung open, leading up a staircase into light. A blue light, wrapped in a kind of cloud, descended and came around me. I sensed from the soft light that this was God’s smile on my life, meeting me in my poverty of spirit and was pleased with my sincerity. The light dissolved before my eyes and I found myself across the room lying on the floor. I sat up in awe of what just happened. I felt assured in a new way that God loves all sinful people. God wants sincere and authentic attempts to follow him, not perfection.
Now, in grade nine my mother quickly remarried a man that I could only sense at the time had something off about him. I recall telling my mother that I opposed their marriage, and she did not listen. The man, named Dave, ended up being abusive. He threatened to beat her and my sister, and would constantly remind my mom that “You’re just a stupid woman.” He had a very bigoted faith where he believed women were inferior.
When I was in grade 11, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her husband proceeded to drain the family bank accounts, because he was expecting my mother to die and did not want to “waste” money on any extra care. My mother’s cancer went into remission, and they separated in a messy divorce, fighting for years over the business that they co-owned.
I recall in college, coming home and getting in the heated argument where my mother told Dave that she wanted a divorce and he needed to go. I broke up the fight before it escalated, and took my step-father aside, restraining my own anger, and persuaded him he needed to leave. He accepted. At the time, theologically, I know I did not believe in divorce, always hoping for resolution, but I also felt there was simply no other productive option.
They still couldn’t get a divorce because they owned a business together, and Dave made the work atmosphere so unproductive that it was affecting both of their livelihoods. So, at one point members of my family met to discuss what do about it. One of them, I believe it was my mother’s boyfriend at the time, put it on the table that he, proverbially, “knew a guy” that could have Dave “taken care of” for 10 000 dollars. It was also stated by another that a divorce could cost 50 000 dollars: “What is the point of wasting money on a person that doesn’t deserve to live?” I chimed in: “Because we are all made in the image of God, regardless of whether we think a person deserves to live or not!” Ashamed my mother’s boyfriend backed down and thanked me after for preventing him from doing something he might have regretted.
Police got involved in several occasions over the next few months over petty fighting about their business. My mother, however, was a very intelligent woman, and eventually figured out a legal technicality that succeeded in shutting him out of their business. My grandfather, who was ill, owned the building their business was operating in. However, he signed landlord authority over to me, and, one day while my mother and Dave were at her lawyer (which was about 45 minutes away), I changed the locks and posted eviction notices, saying that Dave was no longer allowed on the premise. When Dave figured out what my mom was doing, that he had been lured away, he rushed back to try to take anything from the property of value, not realizing I had changed the locks. I sat in the dark office waiting and heard him come, rip off the sign, try his key, furiously bang and curse, and left. I breathed a sign of relief, but then heard a drill on the lock. I called the police, and they arrived just as he wedged the door open, surprised to find me inside. He turned to run, and the cops caught him, went through all the legalities, and told him to leave. After that, my mom came into the office smiling – a moment I have never been more proud of her – and turned to me and said, “Not bad for a stupid woman, eh?”
At the time, we attended a church plant in Stoney Creek, New Hope Community Church, which was very supportive to our family. I was hired there to work over a summer, and the pastor there, Don Craw, was one of my first mentors in ministry. However, my mother left the church, seeing organized religion as too repressive and judgmental to her (a conclusion I always thought was unwarranted given how supportive the church had been). Also it seemed as though her fight with cancer had caused her mental health to decline. After the separation, my mother became extremely erratic. She became very promiscuous, and dated several men at one time to get money out of them. One of her boyfriends got her associated with New Age groups like the Unity Church. At one point after visiting a fortuneteller, she was convinced that her and her current lover were lost lovers from a previous life and that my older brother was their forbidden love child. Her actions caused a lot of disappointment from the rest of the family, as well as a rift between her and myself. As a young man, it was incredibly difficult to see the woman that first brought me to church end up abandoning it for irrational and morally content-less spirituality. During this time my siblings also left the church. So, I was left with the challenge of re-bringing the Gospel to my own home.