The air was warm. The sky veiled by a thin sheet of summer clouds. Dozens of people gathered at the local pool. The din of splashing, chattering and crying echoed off the concrete. Bare feet pattered the perimeter of the swimming pool; moms dipped baby toes; kids laughed at stray splashes. The smell of chlorine hung heavy.
Sam stood off to the side. His t-shirt dry. He waited to baptize his four kids. His oldest was 11. His youngest, seven. Nearby, his newborn baby was cradled in his wife’s arms.
Sam waded into the pool and stood by his children. One by one, he held their hands as they were lowered and raised; coming up clean. Embracing his eldest in a water-soaked hug, they were the picture of the sweetest truth: I am making all things new.
Two years ago, these children were without a present father figure. His wife was a single mother. Sam was divorced, his own story marred by betrayal and loss. But today the scene was altogether different. Jesus intertwined all the broken pieces to bring a family together that would have never existed otherwise.
Two weeks after baptizing the children that now call him “dad”, he would tell his whole story.
It would only take an hour.
Sam sat in a bright room. He shifted his weight from one leg to the other. He tucked his head down. The interview began and the energy in the room tilted; the exhumation of his old life underway.
“You said you started following Jesus in 2004. Is that right?”
A chair creaked. An air conditioner kicked on.
“That’s right,” Sam nodded.
Another shift in weight.
“Why?” The question sounded like a thud in the bottom of a trash can.
“Oh man, I don’t know necessarily. I was in Florida hanging out with a bunch of my friends, going from club to club. I was $39,000 in debt from partying. I had a slew of friends around me, but all we did was party.”
His eyes were clear, steady. His voice even.
Dressed in a backwards hat and t-shirt, Sam didn’t look like a typical late-thirties pastor. His tattoos were typographical clues of where he’d been. One read, “Neapolis”, meaning New City and the other, “I Am New”: both pointing to a resurgence of soul, a rebuilding of broken things.
Sam adjusted his dark-rimmed glasses.
“There was this last stint during Spring Break in Panama City. We partied and drank every night. I felt physically and emotionally sick. I was driving back from Florida to Maryland where my family lived. I was 24 years old and I just prayed, ‘Hey God, I want to give you all of me. I don’t know where to start or what that looks like, but would you connect me to the right people and go from there?’”
With alcohol still in his system, Sam’s clunky, hungover prayer was a castling move; a protective plea that would awaken all the other dusty pieces of his life towards a different King. The game had changed.
“Once I got to Virginia, I stopped at Liberty University where I had attended a semester. I partied that night and then drove to Maryland and kept partying.”
The change didn’t look like much. At first.
Sam was gripping the steering wheel of a van filled with Baltimore and D.C. juvenile delinquents. He had taken a job with a local Christian organization and one of the requirements was to take the kids to church and back, every Sunday.
The van lurched at each stop light. Raucous noise bellowed from the back. They pulled into the church and Sam made sure they all got out, sat down and were ready to listen. Before long, Sam was drawn to the sermon, and he heard something he’d never heard before.
“It wasn’t just grace without a backbone," he said, "It wasn’t, ‘Your party life sounds okay, come on Sunday morning with a hangover, that’s fine.’ And it also wasn’t just rigid truth that was man-made law, like ‘God says this, therefore, do it’. It was this weird mixture that only God has in John 1:14, ‘And the word became flesh and lived amongst us, and he was God...full of grace and truth.’”
Sam was raised in a first-generation Christian family. His father was a reformed hippie who was passionate about planting churches, but leaned toward legalism. As a result, there was a strict undercurrent of moralism and rules that ran through his family.
“I was always a rebellious boy anyway. I ran pretty hard. Whatever authority said, I would do the opposite. My heart was already jacked up, then add a ton of legalism on top of that. My dad was a very present, awesome dad, but I had to go to church. As the pastor’s son I had to be on this certain level.”
The specifics of his upbringing also caused a chasm between him and an adaptation of a personal faith. “It was like women can’t wear pants. You can’t have TVs. No Christmas trees. Don’t swim with your shirt off. KJV Bible only. I hated it.”
The off-putting ideologies put miles between him and the Jesus that showed up in that inner city service. With a crew of hardened youth as his witnesses he began to weep. “I am not a crier to this day. I was so drawn to the grace and truth. I went upfront for the altar call and after that, nothing was even close to the same in my life.”
In the outcropping of owning his faith for the first time, there was one thing that had to change: the nature of the relationship with his live-in girlfriend.
Sam met his girlfriend at a bar. He was drunk. She was beautiful. Their conversation was stimulating. Things moved fast.
“We basically had been bunking up together for a long time. But after that church service with the juvenile delinquents, we began checking out churches together. She was reading through the Bible and a lot of different ideologies. So we started checking out Jesus together. Shortly after, we stopped living together. We got baptized together, hand in hand. A month later we got married. It was quick.”
That quickness was then thrown into real life rhythms: jobs, school schedules, bills, date nights, Sunday morning services, alarm clocks and monotony.
Two years later, Sam stood at the stove. A John Piper sermon blasting from the speakers. He was in his second year at Moody Bible College and was deeply entrenched in his studies. His wife walked in and set her purse on the counter. Sam looked over his shoulder, eager to unpack the sermon. His newfound intensity for theology on full display.
She bristled. “Can we just talk about my day?”
Sam put down the spatula.
“What’s the most important thing in the world? Isn’t it the mission of God and who God is? That’s what it’s all about.”
She stared back at him blankly.
It would be one of many conversations that Sam would have with his wife about belief and God and salvation and faith. Some of which would only become stumbling blocks in the deconstruction of his wife’s beliefs.
His wife was an intelligent woman with a dark past and broken family life. Sam admitted that he’d done a poor job at fostering a friendship with her. That truth wrapped up in his obsession with theology, led them to a hard place. His thoughts were fueled by school and ministry and hers were wandering further and further away from Sam and their marriage.
She stopped going to church. Sam still went and worked in ministry. She went back to college and found a new group of friends. “They accepted her, valued her, listened to her and so she was all in,” Sam explained.
At home, they would get into theological throw downs. Each holding a steely-grip on their differing views concerning complementarian roles and God’s sovereignty in salvation. Their fights would eventually spin closed, “Sam, you’re not loving me in the way that I feel loved.’”
Before long, Sam caught his wife in a string of lies and found she had slept with another man. Several of them, in fact.
“That started to break down a lot of barriers. Blinders I had, I would say. Everything I had done up to that point had a lot of sincerity behind it. I desired her best. I knew that if she believed in God that it was truly the best for her. I thought everything I was doing was good for her.”
There was an urgency in allowing his heart to be reshaped; to make the needed space for his love of theology and his wife’s unbelief—even in the wake of her infidelity. “I became a lot less intense and listened more. I became more intentional of just being with her, but I think it was too late at that point.”
Sam stood in front of the bathroom mirror. He fidgeted with his glasses. He ran his fingers through his hair. He walked to the closet to grab his work shirt. He rifled through the hangers.
Nope. Not that one. Not that one.
Wait. Hold up.
Who’s shirt is this? And this one? Who’s this one belong to? Please, no. Not again.
Sam felt a punch in his gut. Over the course of his young marriage, his wife had been unfaithful. Repeatedly. Each week it seemed Sam would uncover another layer of his wife’s betrayal. The lies built upon one another–the mistrust a thick wall between them.
Sam would forgive her again. He would catch her in a lie again. Convince her that he still loved her, again. She was the prodigal daughter being pursued; over and over.
“I was sharing the gospel with people all the time. We even would have people come stay with us off the street. But when the gospel becomes something beyond evangelism or service, and you have to live it out...that’s a totally different level that I’d never experienced.”
But even in trying to love his wandering wife well, Sam’s heart was weary.
“I was so beat up. When you’re pursuing the person who’s doing the hardest things that have ever, ever been done to you, you no longer just believe certain things, now you’re living certain things. You’re knowing Jesus on a deeper level. Pain has a unique ability to reshape. You can either run away or you can run towards God. Thankfully, in this case, I ran towards God and began to be reshaped according to who he was and what he desired of me.”
Eventually, over the course of time and his persistence in pursuit, Sam’s wife moved away from feeling like Sam’s belief in God was rigid and controlling. Sam had reason to hope.
“Sam, you’re the only one who's showing me what Jesus looks like.”
He sat there motionless, but overflowing with emotion. Her words were so sweet to his broken spirit.
He leaned in and spoke the words of forgiveness again, “I’ll never be the guy who walks out. Just not going to do it. Nothing that you can do can change that.”
She pushed back, slightly.
“Something’s broken inside of me and I don’t know what it is.”
He rested his arms on his knees. His eyes were tired. His heart tightly bound by so many lies it bled. He waited until she locked eyes with him.
“If you’re in, you know that’s what I want. Nothing else in the world I want. But if you’re out, you have to let me know. You can’t keep dragging me along.” The emotion caught in his throat. “There’s three different dudes’ shirts in our closet. Just be honest with me. I am not going to leave you. I hope that’s obvious by now.”
She broke his gaze and studied the floor.
“I still don’t know what I want. I don’t know if you and me, if we’re compatible. Maybe we don’t believe the same things, so how would this work?”
The conversation ended like so many before them. And then a short while later, he found out that his wife was pregnant.
The baby wasn’t his.
Sam’s phone blurted out a loud ring. He answered it.
“Can you come over?” The pause held long.
The way it was phrased left a rock in the pit of Sam’s stomach.
He didn’t hesitate.
Sam entered the room. It was eerily still with tension. And yet, a whirlwind of unspoken words and devastating choices ricocheted off the walls. His wife sat next to mutual friends of theirs, a grave expression on her face. Her coloring gray.
The woman next to his wife explained the truth. His wife was pregnant. The baby was another man’s.
“It came in sideways,” Sam explained. “I knew she was committing adultery. I knew she was running around getting drunk, late at night. I just didn’t know she was pregnant. I could tell she was waiting for it to happen. ‘Like, is this it? Are you going to leave me now?’ She had been asking me for months and months, ‘Just divorce me. You have every right Biblically.’ But when I first started following Jesus, one of the first things he put in my heart was adoption for kids.”
Sam pushed back against the numbness. There wasn’t time to process the pain.
Instead, the words out of his mouth were, “You know that I wanted to adopt right?”
Bella was a beautiful little girl. Two years old, with wide eyes and a warm heart.
Sam spent more time with her those first two years than anyone else in her life; even her mother. He held her hand to cross the street. He told her the story of the “Bella” tattoo on his chest, "Your name is written on my chest with ink that leaks into my veins and connects you to my heart."
Bella’s mom, however, still grappled with the gift of another father for her daughter; even if it was technically her husband.
Sam held the phone to his ear. It was hot. Or maybe he was. The fear of losing Bella burning a hole right through him.
“Sam, I don’t know what to do with this. I grew up in a mixed family. A bunch of dads and a bunch of other kids,” she said. “It didn’t work. I hated it. I don’t want to raise her in that same environment.”
“I understand what you’re saying,’ Sam complied. ‘But can I just see her once a month then?”
A slow, lingering pause. “Ok.”
Sam knew what was happening. He was slowly being pushed out. He wasn’t going to go without a fight. It was too hard to accept. Bella’s name had truly leaked into his veins; coursing through his body, feeding his heartbeat.
Before long another new boyfriend entered the picture, and the process of Sam being edged out accelerated. “This new guy came in really strong, he was like ‘I don’t want you around, you don’t need to be around Bella anymore either. Move on.’”
The nature of the friendly conversations he had been having with his wife were changing too. The word divorce started coming up. She began to only see one way to solve the pursuit problem of Sam in her life.
And then the day finally came.
There was a knock on Sam’s door. A man stood there with a large envelope. He was asked to sign for it.
The divorce papers sat in his hand like a ton of bricks.
“I knew that it was coming. It didn’t surprise me at all,” Sam stated plainly.
The long road towards restoration in his marriage had ended, and not in the way that he had been praying for. But God was still at work, even in the undone details of his drawn-out divorce.
Sam was hunched over his Bible. He ran his finger down the onion-skin page of Psalm 37; a familiar crinkle and hush.
Trust in the Lord and do good. Befriend faithfulness.
Again. He had to read it again.
Trust in the Lord and do good. Befriend faithfulness.
Faithfulness. That word. It ripped right through him. During the eight years of his marriage, he had not experienced faithfulness from his wife. But Jesus, he had been faithful. Sam gripped the Bible with white knuckles. He identified deeply with the author’s state. David’s life was being destroyed, and yet he chose to delight in the Lord.
He ran his finger down the passage again. A consistent message jumped off the page.
Fear not. Fear not. Fear not.
His chest seized. His mind and spirit connected to the strength of the Lord. He took a deep breath and continued to read the passage over and over. Every day. His life depended on it.
After Sam’s divorce, it was a dark time. And yet, God didn’t leave him to walk it out alone. “People throughout the whole U.S., people in my city of Chicago at the time, were praying and supporting me. God was using them and Psalm 37 to keep me sane.”
He decided to follow in the Psalmists footsteps and “do good” by way of pursuing a friendship with Bella’s biological father: the man who had been a large source of pain for Sam.
“It was nuts. I really wanted to get to know him. I had forgiven my ex-wife 100% at this point, and so I’m trying to live out scripture, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ and ‘If at all possible be at peace with all men.’ I reached out to him like 10 times over the course of a couple of years. He never responded.”
All the while, Sam was planting seeds of love and forgiveness.
And then one day out of the blue, Bella’s father responded. A simple text message asking to meet at a city park.
Sam had no idea it would be one of the last times he would ever see Bella. He also didn’t know he would share the gospel with the man who had conceived a child with his wife.
It had been a month since Sam last saw Bella.
She stood in front of him, holding hands with her biological dad. Bella looked from her father’s face to Sam’s–her mind processing the roles each held. Her two dads, hanging out together. A smile.
Within minutes, Bella was off to the playground.
The two dads sat next to each other. It was an odd pairing. A grace-glued moment.
“Sam, I want to ask forgiveness.”
Sam nodded emphatically. “Hey man, I commit adultery against God every day. So absolutely–you know that I forgive you. I’ve already told you that. I forgive you completely.”
Sam’s ex-wife had been cheating on Bella’s biological dad too. There were two broken hearts in that park, both by the hands of a very hurt woman who was burying her brokenness in the same patterns of betrayal.
Bella’s dad shook his head and looked at Sam in bewilderment. “How do you forgive, Sam? I don’t get it. How do you not want the worst thing for her? Because I want her to feel the pain I feel right now of being betrayed.”
Sam took a deep breath. And shared the gospel.
From the outside, Bella’s father was someone who had it all together. He was a well-off doctor, and someone who Sam described as “not needing Jesus often.” But here in the middle of a city park, it was clear that Sam’s ex-wife had led this man to the point where he could no longer claim control. And in that space between self-sufficiency and utter self-despair, there was room for Jesus.
The time grew small and Bella needed to go home. But before she did, Bella’s father asked one last question, “Sam, can you connect me with a local church where I can begin to find out more about God?”
Back in the interview room, the light had changed. The room was hot and glowing; the day’s end trying to eke out the last few hours of sunlight.
Sam had run the gamut of emotions.
“After my wife divorced me, I had lots of people who had been alongside me. I had three different networks and churches come to me and offer me a job. I took a job with a local church and was the single pastor in his 30s. It was a good season, but weird too.”
He folded and unfolded his hands. The tattoo on his ring finger became visible. The geometric symbol for “home” pointed to a greater story; a season full of restoration and healing.
“When I met Jesus back in my twenties, God gave me a love for people with difficult backstories immediately. There’s this part of me that was always like, ‘How do I love the person who is broken, or who’s an outsider, or doesn’t get accepted at the table?’ I’ve always had that.”
So when a photo of Astaire, a young Canadian woman who had four kids, popped up on his Instagram feed, he was instantly intrigued. They shared mutual friends and so he sent her a message.
“Can you tell me your story? I Iove a good story.”
Astaire admitted that her story was long, but that she was open and honest about it. Sam was more than ready to listen.
They spent two-and-a-half months getting to know each other over the phone. “She was clearly a daughter of God, and was okay raising her kids by herself the rest of her life if that was what Jesus was asking her to do. And so we were friendship building. That had never happened with a girl before, it was all physical and not story.”
This girl was so different that Sam reached out to some ministry connections he had in New York City asking if they would host each of them separately so they could meet in person. They spent a week exploring the city together, “Every morning I would take the train, pick her up and we’d go out for coffee, go out to eat and then I’d drop her back off.”
With the week’s end falling near the fourth of July, they sat together under the fireworks display.
A loud bang and shimmer set across the night sky.
Sam stole a glance at Astaire. She was beautiful. But even more so, she was in love with Jesus. His heart broke open at the idea of having a partner in faith and life.
He turned to her, “I want us to be a thing. What do you think?”
Another bang, shimmer and silence.
In her quiet way, she nodded. “Yes.”
Sam wanted this “thing” wholeheartedly; this beautiful collaboration of brokenness and pain and children and future plans and rebuilding. He could feel the rusty hinges of an old life being torn off and replaced by Jesus-centered anchor points.
Their long distance relationship put in the mileage from Chicago to Edmonton and ultimately, Seattle. After a small wedding and a long immigration process, Astaire discovered she was pregnant. Sam went from a single man to becoming a father of five kids.
“Looking back, I never would have written my story. But it's a much better story. I have been blessed beyond anything I could’ve imagined. We’ve almost been married two years now, and I can clearly see this big circle. My desires to have a family, my desire to adopt. My desire for the fatherless. And when we had our newest baby, I saw it even clearer.”
He looked up, and squared his jaw. His joy undeniable, his pain indisputable.
“I may have lost two loves, but God didn't waste my pain. He used it to teach me the depths of the gospel, to mature me, to expose unseen idols and to love those far from God. Ultimately, yes, I lost two loves, but He gave me six more.”
The air was warm. The sky veiled by a thin sheet of summer clouds.
Sam waded into the pool and stood by his children. One by one, he held their hands as they were raised; coming up clean. Embracing his eldest in a water-soaked hug, they were the picture of the sweetest truth: I am making all things new.