Welcome to part two of the Henleys’ stories! Russell is an A-grade husband, father, and friend. He’s an extender of grace and instigator of intentional interactions. He knows no stranger and is someone who is kind enough to offer expectant prayer on the spot. His story is a testament to the life-changing power of the Gospel when it is lived out by the Church the way God intended. This transcript is laded with life-changing terms such as “grace,” “love,” “reconciled,” “perspective,” “relationship,” “forgiveness,” and so many more. Russell would never say the good things you see in him today are from his own doing, but only from a God who shows His people unconditional love, acceptance, and creative pursuit. As a big fan of little Oliver Henley and Baby Henley #2, it’s impactful for me to see how their mother and father’s transformation and continued obedience to God has already changed the course of their lives forever. Russell and Kandace are championing an understanding that God is enough.
April 2, 2017
RUSSELL: I was born into a Christian family. I was in church every time the doors would open. Anytime there was a mid-week service or a revival – we were there. Every service. I was born in Texas where my grandpa was actually our pastor at the time. We were very involved in church. I was baptized when I was six, I think. I had no idea what that meant – I just knew it was something you were supposed to do as a Christian and I wanted to do the right thing.
I grew up in a church where the Holy Spirit was talked about frequently, but the way I understood what was being said was that I had to earn access to the Holy Spirit. I don’t think that’s what they were saying, but that’s the way I received it. I saw it as an impossible task because I knew at some point I would fail. I just knew I would never “get there.”
In my early teen years I saw a few things in my church that I wasn’t very impressed with. I know, now, that my attitude wasn’t right but there were a handful of experiences that put a bad taste in my mouth for church in general, but I still stayed involved.
When I was 17, I started going to a youth group in Nevada (Missouri). We went to an Acquire the Fire conference in Tulsa and I had a powerful encounter with God there. I don’t think I still don’t think I understood a lot about it, but at that point, in those services, I felt like God’s presence was real and that He was trying to reach out to me in a sense. After that, I started getting really involved in the youth group and helped with the music every week. On a few occasions, the youth pastor and his wife weren’t there on Sunday nights and I actually led the teaching. I was helping out with the youth group and another service on Sunday mornings at a different church. At some point in this season, I started experimenting with alcohol. It quickly got to the point where I just felt like such a hypocrite being in those positions and knowing: Last night, I was drunk, but this morning, I’m up here leading worship. There were other people who were on the worship team that were at those parties too and that bothered me. That’s when I decided: I’m not going to do this if there’s nothing to it. I’m not going to be a part of this. Right when I was going through those thoughts about whether or not I should be a part of it, I went on a police ride-along and we found a guy who committed suicide. It was the most evil thing I’d ever seen. It was horrific. As I was dealing with this idea that there wasn’t really anything to Christianity anyway, I saw true evil and I could not process that properly, so I started drinking heavily.
We moved to Joplin shortly after that. Right away, the people I happened to meet were involved in all kinds of drug abuse. I didn’t seek them out, those were just the people I happened to meet. I was blown away by how honest they were. If they didn’t like someone else, they were blunt about it to their face. I thought: I actually respect that! I’ve heard people talk bad behind each others’ backs, but whenever they come around, they’re like, “Oh yeah, it’s so great to see you.” So, I ended up getting really involved with that crowd. It started with smoking weed. After a few months of fairly regular use, I had the opportunity to try a substance called molly. That was a crazy experience. I really enjoyed it, so I tried it again the next weekend. And then the next. Soon that substance had a hold on me. That was pretty much what I lived for. I worked through the week to get to the weekend so I could be up all weekend chasing the feeling I got the first time I tried it. (Never again did it feel the same.) That’s who I was at the time. It took over so much that really close friends started confronting me. My friend, Parker, actually came to me and said, “I can’t see you do this to yourself and keep coming around. I can’t watch you do this to yourself.” It was so important to me and I thought I needed it at the time in order to function normally. I actually had it on the table with a straw in my hand and was like, “Well, I’m about to get high so if you don’t want to see me do it, you’re going to have to leave.” It got to a point where I didn’t care if it cost relationships or affected friendships. I never saw my family. I worked with my dad, but I couldn’t stand to be around him. I really couldn’t stand to be around anyone who wasn’t into the same lifestyle I was pursuing.
Kandace and I met a few months before my abuse got real bad. I knew there was something different about her. I actually told Parker the night she and I met, “There’s something different about this girl. I want to get to know her more.” She came to me one day a couple months after Parker and I had stopped seeing each other and she said the same thing, “If you don’t stop, I can’t be around you.” At that, I took what I had and flushed it. Never used molly again. Of course, I ended up filling its void with other things.
Really bad drug abuse continued for a couple of years. That was my identity. I was pretty content with it. Really … up until the last couple months of it, I never felt the need for something more. I felt like as long as I wasn’t sober, I’ll be alright. I would numb myself to reality for a while and think ” I’ll deal with it later.” I never really had a desire for anything more.
Kandace and I started dating. That was still our lifestyle. She wasn’t into any narcotics but would go get drunk every night and I would stay home and get high on whatever I could get my hands on. I always felt like I could still drive and I would pick her up at the end of the night. We didn’t talk, we didn’t try to get to know each other at all. We were just good friends living together. That was pretty much it. There was no desire for anything more serious.
I don’t remember feeling like what I was doing was shallow until I went to a friend’s house. Actually, he was a friend I was buying weed from at the time. He had a daughter and was engaged to her mom, but their relationship was falling apart very quickly. So he started looking for something more meaningful. He had been raised in church, so he started looking back to that. He was reading through “Crazy Love” [by Francis Chan] and I remember: I went over that day and something was different about him. At some point in the conversation he started talking about how he had never realized the truth of the gospel. He said, “I never realized how much God actually loves me.” I could tell he was genuinely wrestling with a major change of perspective. I remember just sitting there, sharing a joint while he was sharing this with me for the couple of hours I was over there. When I got ready to leave, he was like, “Hey, can we pray together?” And I was kind of thrown off by that. I was like, “Man, we are really high right now, but I guess if you want to … sure.” So, we were standing in his kitchen and he put his hand on my shoulder and I just kept my eyes open and watched him. It was really weird to me. I was just thinking, Surely this isn’t okay. He just started pouring his heart out to God and talking about how he was thankful for my friendship and the fact that we could have the conversation we had just had. He was like, “I’ll just be honest, God. I feel like my life is very empty right now.” When he said that, I started thinking: “Mine kind of is, too. I mean, I’ve got my weed, this is my plan for the weekend. What else is there?” So, I was kind of tormented while he was praying. He prayed for quite awhile. I just found myself lost inside my own head and something about that moment…God started in and was like, “Hey, he’s getting it. I want you to get it, too. It’s not just him I’m after. I’m after your heart. Why don’t you just let me in?” I didn’t like that because I just felt like I was unlovable because of the way I had been treating others. I didn’t really feel worthy of it. The kind of love that my friend had just been talking about, I didn’t feel worthy of that at all, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling of God being right over my shoulder being like, “Please just come back.” I remember: I left his house and pulled up to a stop sign about a block away and then I noticed I was crying. Not sobbing, but tears were just running down my face. I felt broken. I was like, “Okay, God. I think You are really trying to talk to me. I have no idea why, but I’m listening and I’m going to try to change, I guess.”
Just a couple days later, I reached out to Parker and I apologized for treating his friendship like it was nothing to me. I understood that what he had said and done, he did out of love. He showed such Grace and forgiveness, it was as if we had never lost contact. At his suggestion, I went to College Heights for the first time. For a few weeks, I would intentionally come in late and leave early. One morning, Dave Mehrens noticed me and introduced himself. He showed genuine interest in me which blew me away. I haven’t been attending this church and there’s a guy who says he’s an elder at the church and he’s like, “I want to get to know you. I’ve never seen you before. I want to know your story.” That kind of threw me off. I went home thinking, That’s just kind of weird. There’s an older leader in the church that says he’s genuinely interested me. Yeah, right. It was still on my mind all week, so I called him and we got together. At the end of our first conversation, I asked if we could start meeting weekly and he agreed, happily. I was still using a few substances, that didn’t stop for a while. I was honest with him about it. I just told him, “Yeah, I’m still smoking weed. I’m still taking Xanax. I don’t feel the need not to … ” He was never condemning or impatient or angry about it. The fact that he could hear me saying that kind of stuff and still love me…blew me away. I was thinking, Why aren’t you telling me I’m going to hell right now? It was different. I started trying to find out who God really was because I saw the way Dave was living it out and I had never seen that before. If that’s really what it’s supposed to look like – that’s attractive. I really like that. I got into the Word and tried to talk to God as much as I could – driving to work, while I was at work, on my way home from work, and when I was alone at home waiting for Kandace to get home from work. I started going on long board rides to try to keep my head clear because I felt that there was more of a visible presence of God when I was clear-headed and that was really nice. I started to enjoy that more than being high, but I was still using a few things here and there.
The last time I did any kind of hard drugs, it had been a couple of months, and a good friend of mine let me try something I’d never tried before. I remember sitting in the guest bedroom at our house and feeling so broken. So I started praying, “I don’t know why I feel so guilty. Is this not supposed to be a part of who I am anymore?” I had felt for so long like I needed these things, but in that moment God just gave me peace. He was like, “You don’t need that. You can just let it go.” The next thing I knew, I was on the phone with my grandpa. I don’t remember calling him, but I remember at some point in the conversation thinking, He knows I’m high – and that bothered me. I was just telling him, “I don’t feel like I need this stuff anymore. Something really profound happened today and I feel like God is enough for me. I don’t need this.” He’s like, “That’s really good. Why don’t you call me tomorrow and we can continue this conversation.” That was very wise of him because I was in no condition to have a serious conversation. So, I called him the next day and told him, “I’ve decided to follow Jesus and I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know what all I’m going to have to give up, but I feel pretty empty. Yesterday, I felt very empty and I don’t want that anymore.”
Then, everything else happened quickly. I moved out of the house Kandace and I had shared since 2 weeks after we had started dating. I felt strongly that by being sexually involved I wasn’t honoring her the way I needed to. That decision was terrifying because I didn’t know how she would handle it. I think she mentioned that it took me making a lot of changes for her to want to make any changes. So I didn’t know if she would think I was trying to break up with her. I actually went and made a down payment on a ring and told her, “I want to marry you. I’m paying for a ring, but I’m also moving out.” (laughs) That was kind of a weird conversation to have. That was difficult for both of us. I remember driving away from our house that night (the first night I moved out) and I was just crying. I was just like, “God, why do I have to do this?” By the time I got to the house I moved into – it was just a couple minutes away – that peace that I couldn’t explain was back. So I was like, Okay … I’ve just got to do this. It sucked really bad, but I was able to and God helped me be able to drive away every night, well most nights. Despite our best intentions, there were a few nights that I ended up staying there. It was just a couple weeks before we were married that we found out we were pregnant. So, I didn’t leave again. We didn’t sleep in bed together, but I would sleep on the couch. I just didn’t feel right leaving her alone at night knowing she was carrying my baby.
Slowly over time, more and more things that I was choosing to do just weren’t lining up with what Jesus was like so I thought, Okay, well…that’s got to go. Several days, maybe weeks, I would take a few hours at a time. I would wake up craving something, and pray for help to get through it. A few hours later, it would happen again. There were times where I felt I had total victory and total defeat in the same hour. I learned to invite God’s presence into those moments. The power that came with His presence started to become a very real thing to me. I started realizing that He is enough and that I don’t need all these things I’ve been convincing myself is necessary. Even after getting to that point, it seemed like slow process-at times- because those desires were still there for things. I just leaned on Him to get me through. Each time I felt I “beat” a craving, I knew it was going to come back the next day, but I had brought that on myself. I understood it was not Him testing me, that it was just my flesh crying out for what I craved for so long.
I’ve reconciled with my family. It took a while of being sober and really showing up to family events and following through on my word. It took, “Yeah, I’ll come over for family dinner” and actually showing up. I never doubted my family loved me, I just didn’t feel deserving of it anymore. I think I needed to prove to myself, not to them, that I could be consistent in maintaining a relationship with them.
One really big thing God has done since I’ve decided to follow Jesus was a miraculous healing in my stomach. I started having issues through high school. I would get sick occasionally and not be able to eat for a few days or even a couple weeks at a time. When I started doing some really hard drugs, I think it re-irritated it and made it a lot worse. Even about two years after I got clean, it got to a point that every Friday – it was like clockwork – I would get so sick I couldn’t move. I would just throw up stomach acid and anything I had eaten all week. I couldn’t digest food properly, we had no idea what was wrong with me. After a couple months of that, Kandace convinced me to go to the doctor. I went on a Tuesday. They did x-rays and the doctor showed me there was something very large in my stomach. He said, “We’re pretty sure it’s an ulcer, but we’re going to do some more blood work. We’re going to do a scope to make sure it’s not cancerous because that thing’s huge.” (That may not be verbatim what he said, but he indicated it looked potentially serious.) I was kind of relieved to know they had found something, but I was still pretty nervous about it. Wednesday night, I went to church and told some guys I was meeting with what had been found. They all knew that I had been getting sick a lot. One of my friends that was there said, “I really feel like the Lord wants to heal you tonight. If you’d let me pray for you, I feel like He’s wanting to do something about it.” So they gathered around me, laid hands on me, and prayed. After that, I felt physically different. I mean, I can’t say I felt something shrink in my stomach or anything, but I felt physically … very different after we got done praying. It was like my body was a Holy Spirit hot spot. The presence of God was so strong in that moment. I looked at my friend, Chris (the one who prayed), and said, “I think that did it. I really believed something changed. I don’t know what it was, but we’ll find out tomorrow, I guess.” The anxiousness and nervousness disappeared. They did the scope the next day. The doctor knew my drug abuse history and he was blown away by what they found. “Your stomach is perfectly healthy. I can’t believe it’s in as good of shape as it is given everything you’ve done to yourself. Even the color and the consistency of the stomach lining are perfect.” I kind of chuckled and was like, “Well, people are praying for me.” For me, that was just a moment of … Wow, God is good. He’s real. That was my first encounter with, what you would call, the supernatural aspect of God.
TAYLOR: How has becoming a dad helped you understand God more?
RUSSELL: No change.
TAYLOR: Nuh-uh. Really?
RUSSELL: (laughs) Nah, I’m kidding. In the first few days of having Oliver around, I would look at him and think, He’s so perfect. I love him so much. God was really speaking to me in those first few weeks. I would think something was so profound and original about the way I felt toward Oliver and God would speak to my heart, “That’s how I feel about you.”
There were so many moments in those first few weeks where I was like, Wow, if you really love me this much…this is incredible. After a while, Oliver would choose to disobey and we had to start disciplining him. We would tell him not to do something and he would do it and it would break my heart. I was like, “Man, now I have to punish you. I don’t want to, but you need to understand that’s not right.” God would speak to me through those circumstances as well. I started to understand that just as I had to be a dad to Oliver and correct him when he was out of line, God did the same with me. But He was always so patient and gracious in those times.
It blows me away to think that God loves with perfect love and perfect patience because even as much as I love my son…I can lose patience with him sometimes. Although, in those moments, it doesn’t line up with who I’m supposed to be, not just as a dad, but as a Christ-follower. Okay, I’m not supposed to be losing my patience like that. It’s a pretty constant thing, really – God using that little guy to show me who He is and so much about who I should be. There have been times with other people that I’ve got a little bitterness starting to build up and then Oliver will do something that’s kind of comparable to what this other person did, but I’m able to let it go (snaps) like that. Then, I realize I should let that extend to other people as well. Let that grace and patience and forgiveness not just show up in your home, but let those extend to other people who need them badly.