As I deliberated on who’s story I wanted to share for Easter, I was forced to take a step back and remember what the day signifies. Easter, also referred to as Resurrection Sunday, commemorates the resurrection of Jesus, according to the New Testament. While I am not religious, I can certainly appreciate the many aspects of religion that bring others peace and joy.
Growing up, I would see my cousins for the main three holidays – Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. While we built lasting memories and have several pictures of us in bad outfits to prove it, I must admit, I always thought my cousin Zach just had it all figured out. He was very religious and he would be the first to tell you; he would often try and flaunt his religion… because really, he didn’t have it all figured out. So, as I went through my internal Rolodex, it took me about two seconds for my cousin’s name to sound off in my head. I knew I had to interview him for the Easter blog. Let me set the stage for you… He’s leaving work and I’m getting home from the gym – clearly we connected before… pandemic which must not be named. We planned it at 6:10, to give us a little time to settle in and really devote our full attention to one another. Outside of seeing videos of him on Facebook, I hadn’t heard his voice in a long time. “Hey, Devon! What’s going on?” I immediately smiled and felt a sense of calm. We’re family, I was reminded. We should make time for each other. Once we exchanged pleasantries, we were both reminded of other responsibilities waiting for our conclusion, so we got right to it. Zach grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and holidays on that side of the family were often very centered around Jesus.
Zach explained how religious his mom was (and still is) which is naturally what propelled him to be so engaged in the Church community. He and his brother, Stephen, really took to it, but he explains, “I just may be more extroverted as a person which is why others may perceive me as ‘more’ religious.” I agree – I certainly saw it that way growing up. He explains that religion was never forced, though; it was the core of who he knew he wanted to be and felt so much love from the people and relationships forged year after year.
“While your beliefs have always seemed so solid, I’m curious if you ever wavered. Was there ever a period in your life where you questioned God?” I swear, I could hear him smile through the phone, like he had been gearing up to answer this exact question. “Yes, actually. For a long time, I was religious but really had no relationship with Jesus. I had morals but I didn’t have much more than that. I felt God’s call to give Him my life, but I was very resistant for a number of reasons. My parents split when I was nine or ten which was very painful and confusing. Not just because divorce held a negative connotation, but because I had witnessed consistent domestic violence,” he paused as I felt him recollect his past before continuing. “I was home-schooled but we would meet other families at the park… I was so angry and hurting in those younger years, and became a bully towards some of the other kids in our home-school group the year of the divorce, which pains me. It was so confusing as a child to watch my parents fight and divide and I was so lost. If I were to see those kids today, as an adult, I would weep and apologize for those actions.”
Not to interject a professional opinion here, because I’m not a psychologist or clinician, but at such a young age, it’s very, very clear to see why someone would be a bully – they’re regurgitating what they see at home day to day. Sure, that doesn’t dismiss anyone treating another person like they’re less than, but it does give some context… even as adults, many people don’t have the tools they need to swim through the muck of what has consumed them and come out the other side. But, I digress. Zach told me about a man he met his freshman year of high school named Stan Sisson, who he’s sure came into his life at just the right time. He was a a powerful man full of love, and became the father figure Zach so desperately craved. “He helped me navigate all the pain I had towards my dad, he helped me stay grounded and he helped me navigate my freshman year of high school; he taught me what it meant to follow Jesus and know His words. Stan later became the best man at my wedding. In high school, the more I grew in knowledge of God, the more arrogant I became. As much as I talked the religious talk, I was wrestling within the end of my Junior year with a desire to chase girls and become a star athlete. I played baseball and basketball and was actually planning to play at the collegiate level… But God had other plans.” This interview was going as smoothly as pass down a water slide – I just let him flow and typed frantically. Thank goodness my words per minute is at like 80. The big brown fox jumped over the lazy dog… I think that’s the sentence that encompasses the full alphabet? Anyway – on, we continue. “One night my junior year before a baseball game, I wrote in my journal, ‘I haven’t been honest with myself. I long for a close knit friendship with God, but I barely talk to Him. I think God’s trying to get my attention,’ and then I was off to my game. I was off to become the big shot star athlete because I thought it would fulfill me. The Friday night lights were beaming down and I closed the game with a sliding catch to get the out and seal our win. I felt on top of the world for all the reasons that weren’t actually true to who I was.” This is the part of the story that, if it were a movie, you’d see the main character in his car after the big win… the music would be slow and there wouldn’t be any at all, and you’d clench your stomach because you knew something horrible was about to happen. Well, you would be right… he was in his car for about five minutes before he was hit. The car was totaled and he was immediately taken to the hospital. He would be put in a medically induced coma on full life support for 3 days sustaining a moderate traumatic brain injury among other severe injuries. This put Zach in Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and Speech Therapy for 7 months, 5 days a week! Therapy continued from his junior year through the first half of his senior year of high school. “I know it might sound absurd to some people who aren’t religious, and may be even some who are, but I truly believe God spared me from going down the wrong path by humbling me completely. I was able to heal physically and emotionally and forge a deeper relationship with God as I mediated on His words.” I asked him about his calling, as I knew he was always destined to be a Pastor. He told me he has not formally went to school to follow that path, nor taken official steps to make that calling a reality. He told me he’d seen plenty of spiritual leaders let the power overtake them and hurt many; he did not want to be another causality in the road to spiritual enlightenment.
“I have been on a journey of mentoring people for about ten years now, though. I’ve questioned whether I’ll ever occupationally be a Pastor. However, recently I’ve felt so unsettled with where I’m at. I have engaged in personal development groups and sharpened my leadership skills, but I always felt something was missing. Truthfully, the “hustle” to become more left me hungry and restless. For me, I find peace and strength in silent solitude as I seek Jesus, but I’ve found our generation is so obsessed with the hustle. It often leaves them feeling inadequate and unsatisfied because it is missing the Source of life.” I interjected to talk about Kobe Bryant as his passing had just come to be. We talked about Kobe’s athleticism and his business acumen, and how he was (seemingly) on a path that fully aligned with who he was, and that that’s the key. “Before I start my journey into spiritual leadership, I think it’s important I first pursue to heal from the wounds and traumas I have been through in life. I can’t give what I have not first revived. I think one of the reasons many pastors go down the wrong path and hurt others is because they have not dealt with or faced their own trauma and pain. There’s so much dysfunction and chaos with spiritual leaders in America because they never received healing before tried to give it away.” Now, this is the part of the story where you might think an upswing should happen, right? Where I write about how Zach dealt with his pain fully… well, some cuts are very deep. Especially those we haven’t covered yet. In 2017 my cousin’s wife had to have an emergency C-section at 25 weeks and 5 days io her pregnancy. She had identical twin girls weighing in at 1 pound (Mercy) and 1 pound, 3 ounces (Emery), and this begun their journey in the NICU. Because the girls were extremely premature, their lungs had not fully developed and they were put on life support with heavy oxygen help. ￼The days turned into weeks, which turned into months as Emery and Mercy fought for life with mom and dad by their sides. Doctors said there was a slim chance they both would make it, and it turns out they were at least partially right. After 58 days of fighting for life, Zach and his wife, Kimberly, lost their daughter Mercy.
I asked him about his head space on the day they lost Mercy and he explained the vision Kimberly had. “We took Mercy outside for the very first time as the sun was setting and there was a warm light filing a place called the Healing Garden at St. Joes. After Mercy breathed her last breath, Kimberly saw her with curly locks of hair at about age 3 turn and wave as she walked into the sunset. She was home with Jesus and out of all of her intense pain, in perfect comfort. This brought us a moment of peace through the tremendous heart ache.” “Even with all of this, Zach, you really never questioned God in your life?” I must’ve sounded baffled. “Well,” he started, “my papa Stan reminded me that I did struggle with my faith before this loss. I felt entitled, thinking that God owed me a good life because of my moral living. I turned angry and bitter. At the beginning of my marriage, I let vengeance build in my heart towards someone that physically assaulted my wife before our marriage which naturally pushed her away. I was selfish, I was judging, but after living in anger, it broke me. I came to my face before God in my brokenness and cried out for Him to forgive me… to forgive me for letting vengeance consume me! He gave me a new start and I came to realize that my suffering can be a microphone and I can show others what hope and faith looks like. Faith truly is liberating.”
Zach is so eloquent with his words, I don’t even need to prompt him to give me his insights or beliefs. “I would like to tie this all together back into Easter and say that no matter how dark the circumstances look, regardless if all hope seems lost, because Jesus rose from the dead there is nothing that comes against me in life that can defeat me! Death is not the end, but rather the pathway to resurrection! I have living hope because Jesus is alive! Because He overcame, I will too because my faith rests in Him.”