By Craig and Debbie Altman

January 1977

I was sitting in the Tapper Pub, finishing another beer and feeling a pretty good buzz, when suddenly this presence came over me. I felt like I was the only one in the room. I heard a voice; not an audible voice, but from deep inside my soul. (I know what some of you are thinking: I probably had too much to drink.) But what I sensed was real. This voice said, “You know the truth about who I am and about who you are.” That statement really sobered me up because I knew it was God’s voice. The voice persisted and said, “If you reject the truth, you are rejecting me.” It’s hard to describe the range of emotions and the overwhelming conviction that came over me. I felt like He could see right into my soul.

Let me back up a few years… my mom and dad got divorced when I was 5 years old. My dad loved me, but he wasn’t faithful to my mother. After his marriage to my mom, he was married three more times—twice to the same woman. I was not raised in church or with any understanding of Christianity. I loved my dad, but he was a tough man. He worked as a lineman for TECO and back then, it was a really rough group. This story might give you an idea of the kind of man my dad was.

I was 12 years old and I was mowing yards to earn money.

I went to collect from a client one day, and he said he wasn’t going to pay me because the agreement I had was with his wife and she didn’t live there anymore. I went home and told my dad about it, and he told me to get in the car—we were going to get my money. We pulled into the guy’s driveway and dad told me what to say. I went to the door and knocked. When the man answered, I said, “Do you see that man in the car? He’s my dad and if you don’t give me my $20, he’s going to beat the hell out of you.” I have never seen anyone pull their wallet out so fast! I loved my dad. He taught me how to work hard and to be respectful, but obviously he lacked some other virtues. In many ways my dad was a good man; he just didn’t know God. The only time I heard God’s name was with damn on the end of it. My dad did his best, he just didn’t know any better.

My first experience with Christians was when I was sixteen years old in high school. Some guys came up to me and my friends at lunch time to “share Jesus” with some Gospel tracks. They tried to preach to me, but I shut them down pretty quickly. I tore up their tracks and mocked them. As far as I was concerned, they were just some weird Jesus freaks. Looking back, I know I was trying to impress my friends, and I’m not proud of that moment. I wasn’t a bad guy; just not interested. I loved my life and partying with friends. I remember taking coolers of beer to our party beach (now Sand Key and Clearwater beach) and going to disco clubs—I was “Stayin’ Alive” back in the late 70’s when disco was in! Church and God were not on my radar. I do remember one time on our way to Clearwater Beach, we saw some cute girls in a church parking lot and tried to pick them up. They weren’t into us I guess. That’s the closest I got to a church.

After graduating from high school, I started working in the construction industry as a pipe fitter. I was nineteen years old and I met a girl on Clearwater Beach. We started dating and I was sleeping with her, but after a few months, I ended it. Of course, I was a jerk. I remember that night after breaking up with her, driving back across the Clearwater Bridge feeling a tinge of conviction and guilt. Knowing something wasn’t right I remember praying, “I don’t want to be this way.” I was feeling a lot of emptiness. I guess it wasn’t too sincere a prayer because I continued in my same partying lifestyle, but I knew something was missing. Two months later I was laid off from my construction job and started working at the toy department of Wilson’s department store in Tampa. On my first or second day on the job, I saw this really pretty girl also working there. I went up to her, introduced myself, and asked her what I thought was a very normal question in my world, “Where do you party… which clubs do you like?” She said something that shocked me: “I don’t party or do that stuff—I’m a born again Christian.” I wasn’t sure what that was, but she was cute, so I asked her out. She told me, “No.” Surprised, I asked, “Why not?” She said we didn’t have much in common and that she wanted to date someone who loved God as much as she did. I responded, “I believe in God, what are you talking about?” I persisted and asked her out several more times and she finally said, “Yes.” Well, not exactly… she invited me to go to church with her. The only way I could see her was to go to church. I started going on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, and Wednesday nights too.

I think I was going to church more than most Christians. I was pretending, playing a game; (there are a lot of pretenders in church,) hoping to pull her away from this “Christian thing.” She would give me eight-tracks of Christian music…do you remember eight-tracks?

I remember when I would pick her up for church I would take out my Eagles, Chicago, Journey, Boston, or Led Zeppelin and put hers in, like I had been listening to it all along. I might have been fooling her, but you can’t fool God. He says He knows every hair on our head and every thought in our mind. This girl would write letters to me about her faith and her relationship with God.

I wish I could say they were love letters to me, but really they were letters about how much she loved God. She would even pray with me after dates!

After about three months of this, she confronted me one day and said, “What are you going to do about God? Unless you commit yourself to Him, this relationship can’t go any further.” I laughed to myself, because I didn’t feel like it was much of a relationship! She had told me before she was only going to have sex with her husband because that was how God set it up. She said God was first in her life and if He wasn’t first in my life, she was willing to walk away. This girl was tough—uncompromising in her faith. (We need more courageous, bold Christian singles like her!) This confrontation triggered something in me. I figured I might as well start listening since she wasn’t going to change. So for the first time, I began to listen in church with an open mind and heart.

I began to ask myself big questions: Who was God? Why am I here? What does God think of me? I began to understand why Jesus came and that God wasn’t mad at me. As I listened and also began to read the Bible (I didn’t tell Debbie), I realized I believed in God, but it wasn’t personal. It was a shallow, superficial, selfish kind of belief. You know, “Bless me, but don’t interrupt my life.” I considered myself a decent human being: “I’m a pretty good guy, not like Hitler or Hannibal Lecter.” Deep down if I was totally honest, I knew I had sinned a lot and actually enjoyed most of it. I was having fun living life…why not? What amazed me was even though I was living my life this way, this guy Jesus still loved me. The more I read and listened in church, the more I knew that I knew too much. Truth makes you accountable. While this was going on, I still went out with my friends to the clubs. They would give me a hard time about dating a religious girl—we would all laugh about it.

Then I would get up with a hangover and go to church.

The problem with the truth is that it forces you to make a decision. I believed I was a good person, but my belief was superficial. Claiming to be a good person is very deceiving. People land in one of two groups. The first one thinks “I’m already good enough.” This group of people believes that just trying to be good and doing a few religious things is all you need to get to heaven. The second group lives with a lot of guilt, shame and regret. They say “I am never going to be good enough; God could never love me or forgive me.” Both of these groups are misinformed. Obviously, I was part of the first group. I believed in God, but continued my selfish lifestyle. Looking back and being honest about it, I knew I didn’t know God or follow Him. But Debbie seemed to have a real relationship with Him, like a friend and not just a belief or a set of rules to follow. She wanted to follow Him because she loved Him. I was afraid if I became a Christian maybe I wouldn’t or couldn’t change my lifestyle, and to be honest, I would miss out on a lot of fun. This was causing a lot of indecision and fear. I did not understand the power that God gives you to live a different life when you commit yourself to Him. The Bible says that “any man that is in Christ is a new creation, old things pass away and all things become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Now that you know what I was feeling, thinking and believing, let’s go back to the night at the Tapper Pub. As I said earlier, this voice told me, “If you reject the truth, you are rejecting me, and if you reject me, you will go to hell.” It was said with such compassion and tenderness. What God said doesn’t sound politically correct. God doesn’t care about political correctness. I wish I could take that part of the story out because I know it turns people off, but that’s what I truly heard. I’ll never forget as I drove home that night, I felt I knew the truth for the very first time, the truth of Jesus Christ – how much He really loved me and the sacrifice He was willing to make so I could be forgiven. The Good News of God’s message is that we have all sinned, but God demonstrates His love for us by giving us His Son. The next day was Sunday and at the end of the pastor’s message, I went to the front of the church and in my limited knowledge of God, I surrendered my life to Him. I accepted Jesus as my Savior, and asked Him to forgive me.

Guess what? Nothing happened. I didn’t feel anything. So over the next few days, I questioned what had happened. I figured it couldn’t be that easy, to just say a prayer and expect God to forgive all my sins. But gradually, I was aware of something changing. It was on the inside. Now I realize it was the Holy Spirit that God promises to every believer. He was living in me and opened my eyes to see things differently. I began to read the Bible with greater interest and understanding. After a few weeks, I realized God was changing me from the inside out. I was a new creation in Christ! I wasn’t perfect, but I was leaving some old habits and even stopped drinking and partying because I wanted to. My friends said that I was going through a phase or just doing it for the girl, but I knew something brand new had begun in my life. It wasn’t just religion or a set of rules, but I sensed His presence and leading in my everyday life.

I know some of you are thinking, “It’s just not that simple. I can’t take that step; I have questions: Why is there so much suffering? Why did this happen in my life? Where was God? Why did God abandon me?” I had some of those same doubts and questions. Sometimes we think we have to know all the answers before we believe. But I knew enough about the truth about me, and about God, to take this first step. Several decades later, many of my questions have been answered, but not all of them. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” A relationship with Him is a journey with lots of discovery along the way. You may have been turned off by religion, a hypocrite, a so-called Christian, or a church. But there is one who is faithful and true, who believes in you enough that He was willing to die on a cross so you can be forgiven and free of your past. My prayer is that you will personally discover Jesus and His amazing love and power. Don’t let preconceived ideas or a bad church experience keep you from finding God’s truth and the fulfilling life He offers. He will prove to you that He is God, if you ask Him to.

I am writing this hoping that you will crack open the door of your heart. If something I wrote rings true, seek the truth and you will find it. I am the pastor of Grace Family Church in Tampa, FL. I invite you to visit us and find out a little bit more about my wife and I and our journey of faith. We are a church full of all kinds of people…there are pretenders, hypocrites, seekers, and many who have decided to follow Jesus Christ; not perfectly, but God is transforming our lives. We designed our church for regular people who struggle with doubt, sin, guilt, shame or emptiness. It is casual, diverse and relatable. We believe Grace is a safe place to hear a dangerous message. Also, if you have children, they will love it! We are known for kids dragging their parents to church.

By the way, in 1980 I married that pretty girl Debbie, and we have two children and three grandchildren... so far!

Jesus Christ knows you by name and he’s continuing to pursue you. He is waiting for you.

Craig Altman
Lead Pastor
Grace Family Church
Founded in January 1994

After hearing my story, it may appear that my wife Debbie must have grown up in a strong Christian environment, but that is not so. Read on to hear her very different story from my own...

Debbie's Story

I was born to an unwed mother, spent the first three months of my life in a hospital orphanage, and was then adopted by a family who loved me. I have always been thankful to the mother who gave me life, and the parents who took me in. My religious upbringing consisted of going to a traditional church mostly on Christmas and Easter, and my parents dropping me off to take the appropriate catechism classes to qualify me to participate in First Communion and Confirmation. Unfortunately, these initial experiences with church did more to bring doubt, than faith. To me, the form of worship appeared ritualistic and did not seem to be relevant or meaningful to my life. I thought, “Is this all there is to God?” I felt that if God was real, He would be big and there would be more to a relationship with Him than just doing or repeating the right things at the appropriate times. So…“Maybe He doesn’t exist?” I had never been exposed to a church that communicated God any differently. Consequently, the teen years found me vacillating between agnosticism–doubting God; and atheism. My high school years were characterized by analysis and intellectualism. I could not accept even the basic premise that a God existed that was all-knowing and that cared about our lives... even though that is what I had craved at a young age.

Also, a friend had invited me to church and the message was about “God taking control of your life.” I was actually offended, thinking, “I can control my own life, I don’t need anyone else to control it!” My home life was becoming unstable however, with parents who had been married for nearly 28 years on the verge of divorce, and my mother who although a loving and beautiful person, was succumbing to her alcoholism. On the outside, I was the perfect child. I did everything right. I was in control! I never did drugs, drank or lost my virginity. I graduated Salutatorian of my high school. But within me, there was a growing dissatisfaction, a sense of my own “falling short” or desire for something more. Despite how “together” I looked on the outside, I knew my own thoughts, turmoil and imperfection.

Late in my junior year, I met a girl who was warm and friendly and just seemed so “good!” I was drawn to her, and we ended up being best friends. We loved each other and had great times together until the subject of God came up. She tried to tell me how wonderful God was, and I tried to tell her how naïve and simplistic she was to believe in Him! We would both get frustrated and end up in tears.

My friend would continue to invite me to church, but I refused to go. Finally, a year and a half later, due to an odd circumstance, I reluctantly relented and went. I would not have gone back, but I met her cute and friendly male cousin, and decided I would go back to church… to see him of course! What I heard and read in the Bible over the next few months was that Jesus was a real and intimate God that desired to know me, love me, forgive me; and work in my life to help me be the person I desired to be. I wanted that! At first I hesitated in accepting Him though, because I knew there were some parts of my life that were not perfect, and I did not want to be a hypocrite. But the pastor visited me one day and explained that I did not have to clean myself up, that Jesus loved me as I was, and that He would take care of everything else. I was skeptical, but I hesitantly chose to believe him; and he was right!

It was just a few months after this, that I met Craig...

I was that girl in the toy department...

I have been a Christian now for over forty years, and there are not enough pages to describe how wonderful God is and how He continues to transform my life! I now understand what my friend meant when she shared with me…“Taste and see that the Lord is good!”(Psalm 34:8) He can’t be described…you have to “taste” Him.

One last thought... my intellectual concerns were not tossed aside. Much reconciliation exists between science and the Bible, if you will only take the time to investigate. It is a journey of faith; it may not come all at once. But over the years, the beauty, diversity, complexity and sophistication of all that exists; as well as the experience of a personal God working in my life and the lives of others, has shouted out to me of the reality of a Divine Creator who still loves His creation.

As Craig did, I implore you to come and visit Grace Family Church. It is a place where you can safely listen and evaluate for yourself–at your own pace. No pressure, expectation or obligation. Come and have a little “taste.”

God bless you!
Debbie Altman