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EPISODE 65: From Millionaire to Minister

Stu Fuhlendorf

Former atheist Stu Fuhlendorf felt no need for God, achieving high level of success and power in the business world.  However, his achievements were tainted by emptiness and addiction which helped him become open to his need for God.

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Transcript


Hello and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist or skeptic but who became a Christian against all odds. You can hear more of these stories at our Side B Stories website at sidebstories.com. We welcome your comments on these stories on our Side B Stories Facebook page or directly through our email at [email protected].

We are, for the most part, led by our desires, often driven by what we want more than what is good or honest, more than what is rational or truly beneficial. We are all seeking after something, something we think will satisfy our souls. But sometimes, as we yearn to be masters of our own fate, as we work hard towards achieving success and status, power and prestige, we only rise to the top to find ourselves empty, unhappy, and dissatisfied. We begin by asking questions: What was it all for? Is this all there is? We may also find ourselves having made many compromises along the way, stumbling into bad choices, vices, and addictions. Was it worth the cost? Our desires may lead us to build a house of cards which may reach the pinnacle, only to fall and reveal that it was built on temporary and shifting sand, leading to all kinds of personal devastation. Jesus once asked a heart-piercing question: What good is it for a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul?

In our story today, Stu was a staunch atheist who didn't need God to get what he wanted in life. He was the very portrait of worldly success, a Wall Street multimillionaire who had taken three companies public by the age of 40 and then lost it all and found something much better and more satisfying than he once dreamed possible. I hope you'll come and listen to his story and hear about his dramatic transformation.

Welcome to Side B Stories, Stu. It's so great to have you with me today.

Great to be here.

Wonderful. As we're getting started, I'd love for the listeners to know a little bit about you, who you are and where you live, and a little bit about yourself. Could you get us started that way?

Sure. Stu Fuhlendorf, as you mentioned, Jana. I live in Colorado, and I'm a Colorado native, though I have spent many years outside of Colorado with my wife in the business world, and now I am a full-time minister, in ministry. I am a senior pastor at a church in Littleton, Colorado. I spent time in business, have a business degree, an M Div from Denver Seminary. And yeah, I have a story where God got a hold of me when I was 43 and totally changed my course. I'm also doing some interesting things in modern day technology. We'll be looking at how to use upcoming technology for kids and the kingdom. So I'm working on some of that as well as part of my ministry. So, yeah. Happy to be here.

Wow, that sounds fascinating. Let's start at the very beginning. Tell me, Stu, where were you born? Where did you grow up? Tell me about your home, your culture. Was there God in any of that environment at all?

I'm a fourth-generation Coloradoan, kind of a small town, country boy. I was born out in Akron, Colorado, which is on the prairie of northeastern Colorado, and my parents were high school sweethearts in a town named Yuma, Colorado, which is way out on the northeastern plains. So I grew up mainly a small town country boy, moved into a larger town when I was younger. And, yeah, I did not grow up in a house that was really a Christian household. I don't even know if I could call them seeker friendly. I mean, there were times where I remember my grandparents got into being Jehovah's Witness, and I went around hanging out Watchtowers at one point. There was a lot of New Age spirituality talk, but generally it wasn't a Christian household. I mean, it was spiritual at some point because every household is spiritual. It's just what spiritual means, right?

Right.

But it wasn't a Christian household, and that’s how I grew up. My parents had a relatively normal, seemingly normal relationship, though, when I was 14, they got divorced. I found out my father was having an affair with another woman, and it decimated our family. And from that point forward, life took a different turn. But that's kind of how it went for me until I was about 14. A fairly normal, non-Christian family that was functioning until my mom found out that my father was having an affair with another woman.

Wow. Yeah, I'm sure that must have been very devastating. So just to clarify, then, in those first 14 years, there were, I guess, some elements of spirituality, I guess no church going. Were there any Christian friends in your world at all? Any dots on the landscape, Christmas and Easter service, or anything like that?

Well, I had extended family that would call themselves Christian, and I'm sure some of them were. I was not aware of what Christian ever meant at the time, again because I didn't go to church, never went to Sunday school, was never really introduced to anything outside of New Age spirituality and Jehovah's Witness stuff. So, yeah, I would say it was really a pluralist, non-believing household.

Okay, okay. It was basically a non issue that would surface on occasion in some odd forms.

Yeah, correct, and it's probably some of the sins and brokenness that were going on in my family that kept even my father, particularly my father, from even exploring it, because I'm sure his conscience was bothering him at some level. By the way, I have a great relationship with my dad now. He's been baptized, and we can talk about all that later.

But yeah, there was none of that, and when they got divorced at 14, it really broke my mom's heart, and she ended up being married six more times in my life. But from the age of 14 on, there was so much brokenness that I really turned to myself. I really turned a semblance of self sufficiency, in my own efforts to really comfort myself, if you will.

Right, right. Yeah, it can be very devastating when your parents separate. And did you live with your father or your mother? Because I know sometimes, yeah, the relationship with your father sometimes can impact the way that you see God or not.

Yeah. I lived with my mom, and after they had been divorced for a couple of years, there was actually a very short period of time where they tried to reconcile. It was horrible, actually. I was a sophomore in high school then, and when my father moved out for the final time, it was a very dramatic moment in my life. And in fact, my mom was devastated, my dad was moving out, and there was an event—I have a book that I wrote that I talk about that event, but yeah, it had a big impact in my life, even when they tried to reconcile but didn't go well.

So in your teenage years, obviously, God doesn't seem to be any part of the picture. Were you intentionally thinking enough about spirituality or religion enough to reject it? Or was it something that you never thought about much?

I ended up rejecting God later. I was an arguing atheist in my thirties, but at that point, I was ambivalent about any higher power, if you will, and really turned to myself. So I guess you could say I was my own god. I was on the throne. It was me who I turned to, and it seemed like I was the only one that I could depend on in my life of the people, places, and things. And I think that's fairly common often with young people when their parents get divorced, they can often act out in a very unhealthy way, and I did later, but I really turned to myself and my own accomplishments and my own self sufficiency.

Okay, so you just turned kind of to go in your own lane, as it were. What did you think, or did you even think, about religion or religious people? What did you consider religion to be at that point if it wasn't real or true?

Yeah, I just thought it was people who needed a crutch. I wasn't critical at that point in my life. Now, later, I got critical, and I was becoming an arguing atheist, embracing Christopher Hitchens and people like that in my thirties. But I just thought that they were people who were leaning on a crutch in their own insecurities, and that's how I felt about them.

It was all the more reason for you to be self sufficient, right? That you didn’t need that.

That’s right.

Congratulations!

Yeah, thank you. And I actually met her at a nightclub in downtown Denver, which was apropos. My wife grew up Roman Catholic and didn't have a relationship with the Lord, and I grew up nothing, and so I remember drinking Jack Daniels, and I met her at Basins Up Bar with the Freddie Hinchy band playing in Denver some 37 years ago. So, yeah, that's where I met my wife, in downtown Denver at the time.

And so you were married, and you had a wonderful life without God, it sounds like. That God just wasn't a part of the picture, nor did you want Him to be.

Correct and really was not part of Trish's life as well. So when I met her, it was about four months later—I mean I literally fell in love with her the first time I saw her. And it was about four months later I proposed to her. It wasn't really a proposal. It was really more me assuming the close and saying, “So when are we getting married?” You know, it is what it is. And then she said, “Oh, I don't know. When do you want to get married?” And I'm like I never got a yes or a no answer, so I guess that was good salesmanship.

I guess so.

And then we were married eleven months after we met, and, yeah, our life started from that point forward. Neither one of us Christians, and both of us set off. My wife at the time was an aerospace engineer for a company in Denver, Martin Marietta. And I was a school teacher and was working at a bar in the evenings. and I went to business school at the University of San Diego, which I'm sure I would not have been able to get into University of San Diego now, but that was 35 years ago. And so, yeah, that's where I went. And Trish worked, and I got my MBA at the University of San Diego.

Right. And then you had a pretty successful business career, it sounds like.

I did. Again, I think part of the story is that, as Trish was working and in San Diego, I was going to school and partying a lot and was able to get through, and then we both kind of went back to work in aerospace. I was a financial manager, and she was an engineer, and I hated it, and I wanted to do more entrepreneurial work. So it was actually in 1991 that Colorado got legalized gambling. It's a long time ago, the towns of Black Hawk, Cripple Creek, and all that in Colorado. And so I left my job in aerospace and went up and sat at casinos that were being built in Blackhawk Colorado, until I got a job at the Rolling In Casino as a controller, in the gambling industry. And that's part of my story as well.

Oh, okay. So that's an interesting industry.

I would put it right up there with being in strip clubs, owning a strip club, you know? But yeah, it was interesting all right. I met some unbelievable characters. Lots of late nights, lots of drinking, lots of gambling, and yeah, it was part of my life, though, that put being in business on my resume at a leadership position that led to where I would go in the future. But, yeah, and at the time—again, this was the early nineties. Trish was not a Christian. We got married in the Roman Catholic Church. Neither one of us were believers. And, yeah, we were really pursuing other idols of the world, and one of them was career and strengthening our balance sheet.

was this kind of life satisfying? It sounds like you were on a track towards, again, self sufficiency, drive, ambition, just accomplishing your goals.

Well, I mean, it was a great place to drink, and it was a great place to hang out, and I got to learn a lot about being a controller and a financial leader. But no, it wore me out, because I got tired of seeing people popping their Social Security checks into slot machines and stuff. But it was at that point forward that I had an opportunity to move to another company and get into the technology industry, which is really where I spent the rest of my career until becoming a pastor. And so, yeah, at that point forward, I applied for another job out of the gambling industry, and it was in technology, and for whatever reason, at the age of actually 29, they hired me as their chief financial officer at the company.

Wow! So that's quite a lot of responsibility for such a young man, but you must have been pretty good at what you were doing.

I was completely out of my league. I didn't know what I was doing. In fact, I remember—I don't know why they hired me, but it was a company called EFTC in Colorado, and this was 1992. And I remember coming home for the first couple of years and telling Trish, “I am out of my league. The water is above my head.” But I hung in there and kept at it. And, by 1994, we were able to take the company public. And so I was a 31-year-old CFO going through an initial public offering of a technology company. Yeah. And we were able to take it public, and it was a successful IPO. And that kind of got my career going in technology.

Oh, that’s impressive!

But what was great about EFTC when I was hired in 1992 is that the CEO, the founder, and other executives in the company were heavy drinkers, and so I fit right in. And so we would actually go to the bar late at night. And my son was born in 1990 and my daughter in 1992, so I'm a father of young children, and we would literally write business plans on the back of cocktail napkins until about 10:00. So I fit right in. These guys were drinkers. And it was a dynamic time in technology because the internet hadn't even really started until about ‘94. So, again, it was a very dynamic time period to be in technology. But yes, I was drinking a lot.

Yeah. So earlier, when I asked you what your thoughts were about God, and you had mentioned that you really didn't become or identify as an atheist until your thirties, it sounds like we're kind of getting there in your life. I suppose the more success that you've had in your personal life, or at least your business life… were there any thoughts of God in the picture there? Or you were just pushing farther away towards self sufficiency?

Well, no, there were thoughts of God, and my god was my green brand-new Jaguar car that I bought from England and my house that I bought on the golf course and the mahogany bar that I built in my basement of my new house. Oh, I had gods, all right. But those were my gods, and I was getting everything that I wanted.

And then, by the time the mid nineties rolled around, we got a new CEO, and we actually, in 1996, were named the number one public company in Colorado by The Denver Post, based on various… Yeah. So there's success there, but it was actually…. Well, 1996-97 is where my wife became a Christian. She went to a church in Denver and went in and talked to a pastor, Pastor Ken Williams, and asked him a bunch of questions.

if you are, it seems like, sitting pretty in a sense, you created huge financial stability. You had everything the world had to offer. Why would your wife, at that point, when you had everything, go to talk to a pastor?

I think our marriage was not good, for one thing. Again, I was spending 80 hours a week at work. I was drinking a lot. She could sense that I was becoming more and more argumentative in terms of just… and angry because I was getting what I thought I wanted and I wasn't satisfied. And so it was creating stress on our relationship.

And what happened with her is she had actually [lost] a book. She was out on a boat, and another woman gave her another book to read, and she read this book, Left Behind. Regardless of what your eschatological points of view are from a theological perspective. And she said, “I'm a Roman Catholic, and I'm going to get left behind.” It's kind of how she felt. So that's what drove her to go in and talk to Pastor Ken. And she's got her own long story. She's part of all this as well.

And so when she went in and talked to him about it, she was feeling discontent in her marriage and discontent about not having a relationship, and again, made in the imago Dei, she was yearning for a relationship with God. And Ken asked her to go to a women's retreat, and it was actually at that women's retreat that weekend that she was saved and gave her life to the Lord. God picked her up out of the miry depths, and yeah, she fell in love with Jesus. And so that was like 1997. And so, from that point forward, it was about another nine years of being unequally yoked with a pagan atheist husband, which was a very difficult time period for us.

Yeah. I would imagine. How did you respond when she came home from that women's retreat, having accepted Jesus in her life?

She was very secretive at first, and then I thought she was a wackadoo and a Bible thumper and a Jesus freak. And I told her so. And so she would read the Bible, and when I would walk in, she would kind of cover up the Bible. And if you know the story a little bit about The Case for Christ with Lee Strobel and his wife at all, we have a very similar story, where his wife had a huge impact on Lee. And it's ironic that, many years later, Lee Strobel and I actually preached an evangelism series at a big megachurch in Denver together. But it was that kind of a story, where my wife would keep her faith private as much as she could, though I could see she was changing. She was becoming happier, more content, more joyful, and meanwhile, the more and more stuff I got, the more and more stuff I bought, the more and more I wanted to drink and fill the empty hole in my heart, and I wasn't happy, even though I was getting everything I thought I wanted.

It sounded like you were a little antagonistic about it, but was she just quiet about it? Did she try to reach out to you with Christ?

Oh, boy, did she! She would leave books around the house that … she actually thought she was being tactful, but with Christian messages. I remember one book, it was a guy that was saved in a cave. There were all kinds of things that she would do to try to get me to consider my faith. She would ask me to go to church. I’d say no. She would ask me to go to her community group or life group from her church, and I said no. And so, yeah, she was always praying for me. She's better at telling the story than I am.

And when her theology strengthened, she realized that salvation is from the Lord, and that ultimately it's His call, and all she could do is really not necessarily be focused on her happiness, but she was really focused on growing in holiness while her husband was angry about her faith. And so that's the period that we were in, and so again, by the year 2000, kind of Y2K, our company had grown to about 1400 employees, and we had nine facilities around the country, and I was on the board of directors with people like Dick Montford, who owns the Colorado Rockies, and Robert McNamara. And I was discontent. I wasn't happy. And I had some millions of dollars and wasn't happy. And Ecclesiastes, right? The book of Ecclesiastes, vanity of vanities.

And so I got called by a headhunter and decided to take a technology job in Seattle, Washington. And that's what I did in 2000. So my kids were still fairly young, and I took the job, and then I moved out there for about six months to Seattle from Denver while Trish stayed through the school year.

So you had also mentioned… There's one thing if you decide not to believe in God, that it's for weak people who need a crutch. It's another thing to kind of ground your atheism, that, “This is why I believe it's true.” You had mentioned something about reading Christopher Hitchens

Do you think that that affected your anti-Christian sentiment at all? Or did you feel like you had good reasons to believe that there wasn't a God.  I mean, when you're dealing in real-life issues with your spouse, who has a strong belief, and you have a strong anti belief, I just wonder how that was being fed, if at all.

Yeah. Oh, no, I think that Hitchens and Harris and those guys were—Bertrand Russell—helping me rationalize the fact that I didn't want to get off my throne. And atheism is a really difficult religion, and I think what's interesting is atheism is actually easy to argue against.

And so, yeah, I really embraced atheism because it was easier to keep me on the throne and make me the god. But it's a very, very difficult religion to rationalize, all the way back to the beginning of creation, right? And all of that. But when you really get to the point of ex nihilo and who creates what, and there being one I Am, and how there has to be a beginning of all things, atheism has no answers. And so it's a very difficult religion. But, yeah, I was being fed by those guys and was not ambivalent about it until I was saved.

Yeah. It sounds like the stronger she was becoming, the stronger you were becoming in an antipathy… well, in an anti-God kind of way.

Yeah. That's true. And again, you never know the stones that are being planted in somebody's shoe. I was arguing, but I was seeing my wife's life transform, where literally, she was able to accept things I was unable to accept. She was able to be surrendered at a level I was totally unable to even understand. She had a joy and happiness and contentment in her life regardless of what we had, whether I had a lot or I lost things, that her whole identity wasn't residing in those things like mine was, my identity was. So there's no doubt that her faith had an impact on me at some point, because later on, like in the early 2000s, when we went to Seattle, she finally asked me to go to church, and I actually finally did. And I was like, “What is she seeing here?”

Oh, okay.

So yeah. But I have no doubt that her faith had an impact on me.

Right. So observing her embodied Christlike living, I guess, or joy or contentment despite the circumstances, softened you towards at least being willing to consider stepping foot in a church. So I wonder what that experience must have been like for you.

Yeah. So she first asked me to go to her community group, so we were in Seattle at a well-known church there that Trish just loved. And she's like, “I know that this guy, the preacher, you’d love what he has to say.” And I'm not going. So finally she was like, “Well, would you at least come to a community group, a life group, where there are these 18 people?” and I'm like, “Okay, I'll go.” So I went and liked them. I'm like, “Hey, these people are cool.” I don't know if I've been around a lot of professing Christians in my life, but there were older truck drivers and younger college students, and these people all loved each other. And I found out later they were really evangelizing to me, though I didn't recognize it at the time. But they were definitely loving on me and had a sense of wisdom, particularly the older truck driver, that I'd never been around before.

So it was a completely probably disarming experience, then. Again, just softening you to what it is that they possibly had that you did not. Is that-

Yeah, I think so. And again, it was the way God was wooing me. So then later, when Trish was like, well, if you like the community groups…. We had a foreign exchange student, and this is 2003, staying with us from Syria. He was a Christian from Syria. He's now a doctor in Syria. And he went to this church, too. And Trish said, “Hey, you’ve got to come to this church and listen to the pastor,” again she said, and Sammy, the guy from Syria who was getting to know me, the young man said, “Yeah. Stu, I think you'd really like him.” So finally I said yes.

And so, yeah, I went to church in 2003. I'd been to church before and hated it. I hated the whole… most of them were… I thought the messages were weak. I thought that all I could hear about is how God loved me and loved me, like, “Is this all there is to this?” and really drove me away. It was shallow. You know, I look back now and yes, indeed, it was shallow. It was nonsense. But on this particular time, he was preaching through a doctrine series, and his message was on predestination. And people talk about seeker friendly. I have no idea what seeker friendly means, but it just knocked my socks off, and at the end of the message, he was one of these kind of fire and brimstone preachers. He looked at me, and he said, “For all you middle-aged men,” and remember, I'm 40 years old at the time, 41. He said, “For all you middle-aged men who think that God isn't in control and that God isn't sovereign in these matters from the foundation of the world, you're not God.” And he just started barking. “You’re not God. You're not God.” And I remember sitting there thinking, “Oh, really? I thought I was God.” And I felt really angry at him and then I could not wait to go back to church the next week.

You couldn't wait to go back?

Right, right. That's pretty much how it works, right? Convict, correct, edify, and encourage. And so for me, the convicting and correcting part was an incredibly important aspect of my Christian walk. Anybody who thinks it's all about somebody getting up there smiling and saying they love you, I can attest to you that, for many people, men and women, that doesn't do it because it's not compelling and it's not preaching the entirety of the gospel. So that's what happened with me.

Yeah. This was challenging enough to you on a personal level. It was substantive. It was more than what you'd experienced in the past. So it drew you back in. Wow!

Yeah.

So you kept going? Or what happened?

Yeah, I wouldn't go every Sunday, but I would keep going, and I'd never heard anybody preach like this before. What it really was was the entirety of the gospel. It was expository preaching of books, of going passage by passage, or verses by verses through books of the bible, where it wasn't topical. It was hitting all the hard issues. And expository exegetical preaching. And I'd never been to a church—I'd only been to church a few times anyway—where it was that compelling and the messaging was that good. So, yeah, I went to church quite a bit for the next few years, and I found my heart softening. And though I was still an arguing atheist, I found that people were able to argue my position, against my position, in a way that was completely effective, and I realized how sort of feckless and moronic a lot of my views were becoming. But I still would not call myself a Christian at all.

So it wasn't until 2006 that I was saved, but Trish was seeing some encouragement. In fact, one time I was sitting next to her at a stop sign, and I said, “You know, I feel my heart softening,” and she didn't even respond, because she knew if she responded too positively, it would turn me off. But yeah, I could feel my heart starting to soften.

And then what happened?

So my story is that I went to work for a company in Seattle in 2004 named Isilon Systems, which was going to become a big hitting technology company, and it was. And in 2006, the company was going through an initial public offering. So it was the third company that I had taken through an IPO, an initial public offering, as a chief financial officer. And it was actually on that roadshow in 2006 that I was saved. And so if you'd like to hear that story, I'm happy to share it with you.

Absolutely! Sure.

Okay. So what happens with IPOs is the companies go out and they sell shares to institutions, and then the company goes public, and it's a big event in the company's history. It takes about two weeks. You're flying all over the world, having eight, ten meetings a day. It's called a roadshow. So about halfway through the roadshow, we were in London, and we were with the investment bankers from Morgan Stanley and others, and the CEO was with me, Steve Goldman and myself. And so we went out to an Indian food place. My usual. I probably drank a bottle. I was about 310 pounds at the time, and I drank a bottle of wine by myself. I was a functional alcoholic, and all the rest of it, and we were walking down Market Street in

London, in Soho, and one of the investment bankers said, “See, look up in that window, there's a yellow star? That's where Marx wrote his manifesto to the Labor Party,” and one of the people in the group said, “Well, Marx had one thing right.” I’ve always found this ironic, because we're taking a company public, where it's going to be worth a billion dollars. And one of the guys said, “Marx had one thing right, that religion is the opiate of the masses,” and everybody kind of chuckled and said, “That's right,” and I said, “Yeah, that's right,” as well.

Well, we went back to the Savoy Hotel, where we were staying in London, and somebody asked me if I wanted to go to the bar to have a drink. And I said, “No, not tonight.” So I went up to the room at the Savoy Hotel, and what hit me was—and it's obviously the Holy Spirit—but what hit me was, “The opioid of the masses. Is that true?” And then I thought, “What would the world be like without Jesus?” That's what hit me. And I thought, “Yes,” and of course it's just like yesterday for me. It was December 7, 2006, and it was, “Yes, the world is broken. Yes, I've heard this concept of depravity. Yes, there's sin all over the place, but what would the world be like without Jesus?” And I just felt, you know, very punctiliar. The wave came over me. Started sobbing, pools of snot and tears, and was saved, and I so basically wept that whole night in the hotel room kind of on my back and on my stomach on the floor, and saying, “Lord, I can't believe what a rebel I've been. I've had this all wrong.” And yeah, I came to Christ that night. And really didn't get any sleep at all. And I felt joy, but I also feel like, “Oh boy, what is this going to mean?” And that was it.

So the next day I got up, and we had ten meetings in London. During the lunch meetings, where we have all these people out in the conference room and I'm presenting, and one of our shareholders actually is one of our board members from Atlas Ventures, Barry Fidelman—he was Jewish—came up to me and said, “Stu, are you okay? You seem different.” And I said, “Yeah, I'm okay. I’m okay.” And I was okay, but I was different. And so, yeah, that's my story of salvation. We got through the IPO, was priced at a level, and then became the hottest flying tech IPO in five years in America. And then we flew back on a private G10 plane. I drank about four or five double gins on the rocks, and we went to an IPO party, and I got up and gave a big roaring speech, and got so drunk at the party that Trish got disgusted and had to drive me home after the IPO private party. So that's what happened.

Okay. That's not your typical salvation story, right? So you get saved, and then you go get drunk.

Oh, no. Well, no. I hear stories like that all the time. In fact, most of the stories that I hear, and I'm actually giving my testimony tonight at our church, is you'll hear occasionally people say, “Oh, I was saved, and I never wanted to drink again,” or use cocaine, and they'll flutter off the stage. Most of the salvations I'm aware of, particularly when it's later in life or kind of after being a kid, are, “I get saved,” and for about the next three years, your life gets wrecked and fired, and gold gets purified, and it reminds me of the Apostle Paul going into the desert after the scales falling off his eyes, of spending three years in Saudi Arabia to be trained to be the apostle. I think most… Now it does happen where people could say, like, “Oh, my life got great.” The vast majority of people that I run into in pastoring and in salvations after they're twenty-something years old, when they get saved, it is, “Pick up your cross, follow me, and understand that it’s in the fire that God will make the gold.” And that's exactly what happened with me.

Yeah, yeah. He’s definitely a refining fire, especially when you surrender your life to Him, which is what becoming a believer means. Like you say, it's the fullness of the gospel. It's not just a “Pass go, and everything is free and easy.” It's a difficult road. I'd like for you to take a moment—I know you're a pastor, but you've mentioned something prior, that this was not a shallow kind of gospel, and the word gospel, some people may not be familiar with. But I'm curious, what do you mean by this robust, full, kind of hard sense to the gospel?

Yeah. The Apostle Paul said, “Woe is me if I do not preach the entirety of the gospel.” The gospel: To understand the good news, you have to understand the bad news. And so it's an imperative aspect of the light shining into the darkness for people to know what the darkness is, so that the robustness of the light can shine through in such a robust way. So the gospel really entails an understanding of how decrepit, how depraved, and how broken we really are as people, and how God's grace and mercy moves into the lives of wholly unrighteous people. “No one's righteous, no not one.” No one seeks for God, and that He moves into that space, and then, when we understand the darkness of what we're truly born into, then the magnificence of the grace and mercy and receiving that undeserving gift of faith that only God gives can really move in.

So I think one of the issues we were seeing in the American church, not at all churches, but many of them, is we love to talk about the light, but we don't teach the darkness, so people understand what the light is even shining into, that there is heaven, that there is hell, that there isn't door number three. And that the reason why the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ at the cross and why He took our sins on is because our condition is so bad and sin is so serious as a cosmic treason that Jesus and God Himself had to come and sacrifice Himself into that condition. And when we understand that, then the thankfulness and the gratitude of who we are as people and in our own salvation and what God has done for us shines through in such a magnificent way. That’s the entirety of the gospel, that Jesus rose again after three days. He took on the sins of the world, right? And He then rose after three days. He showed Himself to hundreds, and then He ascended to intercede for us, and that He is going to come again, and this next time, it's not going to be a baby in arms. It’s going to be Jesus coming again to make all things right. And that's, at least, in a very succinct way, the fullness of the Gospel.

Yeah. It strikes me that, when you were a young man, you didn't feel the need for God. You were enough. You were self sufficient. But yet it's at the moment that… I love the words that you said, that God was wooing you, and that at the moment of salvation, it was the movement of the Holy Spirit, which again, as a former atheist, that's a very different conception of reality. The reality of God moving in and changing you at that moment where you fell down on the floor like a baby and surrendered to His reality.

Jana, the thing I realized, and you made the comment I didn't see a need for God. I look back now and see that I did have a need for God, but the gods that I was worshiping were destroying me. So I believe deeply, like in the first and second commandment of the two commandments, Martin Luther said, if we would just follow, “You shall make no other god, and you shall not worship them,” that our lives, we wouldn't even need the rest of the law.

So though I didn't recognize that I needed God, we all are made to worship. We're all made in the imago Dei, and the issue is that we all worship something. And for me, the worship was myself, the worship was booze, the worship was money, the worship was career, the worship was being a helicopter dad for my son. I had all kinds of gods. The problem is that they're all false idols, and there's only one that won't let you down, and it's Jesus.

So I can't honestly look back now and say, “I didn't really see that I had a need for God.” Oh, I saw I had a need for God. The problem is that I filled up that empty hole in my heart with everything except for the true Lord, which is what addiction or alcoholism or drug addiction, or sin in general is, which is filling that empty hole in our heart with something that's counterfeit. And once we understand that, we can get healthier and get sober and understand that there's only one worth worshiping.

That's right, and so once you finally gave your life to Christ, then you said… I love the way that you brought forward that it's not just a bed of roses. It's not like everything is hunky dory after you accept Christ. The light is shining in the darkness, and there's a lot that has to be weeded out, right? Not to be saved, but because He cares enough for you to kind of restore all of the darkness or expunge it or change you or transform you. Talk us through that aspect after you became saved, and then you got drunk at the party, and Trish drove you home, and she was a little bit disgusted.

I went back to work the next week with millions of dollars on the balance sheet and remember looking out the office window in Seattle at the killer whales thinking, “I do not want to do this anymore,” and actually feeling somewhat guilty about it. Well, what happened over the next three years, between 2007 and 2010, is it was like mole heads at a carnival game and whacking them with a mallet for the next three years. I got fired. I got sued. I took all of our money and stock options and bought a wine distributorship, which wasn’t the wisest thing to do as an alcoholic. I bought land. The 2008 recession, into ‘09, hit, lost everything, and literally lost my reputation, lost my money, lost everything.

And there was a point where I was sitting on the edge of the bed, not being able to stay sober in 2009, and Trish had her arm around me saying, “You’re going to die if you keep going,” and I said, “That sounds like a great alternative.” And so, by 2010, things kind of hit the floor. I was falling more and more in love with Jesus, but my life was becoming harder and harder, and I was finding myself more and more dependent on the only One that could get me through a hard time period, though I had had so much and was saved at the very peak of my career. And so kind of the last thing that happened is, as I was being sued and losing everything and all the rest of it is I went on about a five-day bender, with Trish on vacation in Colorado while I was in Seattle. And when she got back, I was almost dead. I was drinking, drank for the whole five days. She had somebody come over and try to get me. I told them to get lost. And so she took me to the hospital, and I blew about 0.4, which 0.45 is death, and looked at her and said, “I need to get help.” And I also told her, I said, “I cannot glorify God and be a drunk, and I need help.”

And so that was where life started to change, because alcohol was destroying me. And it was just an outcome. My health was bad, all the rest of this. So we called around, and two days later, I got into rehab, and I spent 28 days in alcohol rehab. And it was the greatest 28 days. I couldn't believe I could actually get through 28 days sober. And when I checked in, they said, “You can't have your Bible,” because it was a secular rehab, and I said, “No Bible, no me,” and they said, “Okay, you can have your Bible.”

And after about five days of detox and all the rest of that, then every 5:30 in the morning, I got up. I was reading my Bible. I had people starting to join me. So there were 90 people in the rehab, and I had this young woman—what was her name? Janie, I think. Came up, and she was a nurse, and she was hooked on opioids. And she said, “I noticed you're studying the Bible.” I said yeah. She said, “Can you tell me about this Jesus guy?” And I'm thinking, “I'm just in here trying to get sober, but yeah, you can join me,” and then a couple of others. Well, Trish started showing up after a week to the family Sunday, and I told her, I said, “There aren’t any Bibles in here, but I got a bunch of people joining me.” So I said, “Next time you show up, can you bring Bibles, and we can smuggle them into rehab?” So she's like, “Absolutely!”

So the next week, for the next three weeks, she would bring Bibles on Sunday to the family day, and we would smuggle Bibles into rehab.

That’s great! That’s so great!

It's a true story. So at the end, I had 19 people out of the 90 joining me for Bible study, out of the 90, and I was on fire, and I thought, “I am never going to drink again. This is awesome!” And I got out of rehab, and within a week, I was drinking again. And it was because we owned the… I was just trying to get my feet on the ground. I'd never been to an AA meeting. I'd never been to Celebrate Recovery. I'd never done any of that. But it was devastating. We owned a wine distributorship, so I called my business partner and I said, “I have $1.8 million in this, and I'm walking away from it. I cannot be in the wine business and be sober.” And he got mad, and I walked away. And then it was December, I can't remember, December 3, 2010, I had my last drink.

Okay.

And so that's been what? Twelve and a half years now.

That’s wonderful! Yeah! So obviously you left the wine business, you left business, and you were getting on fire for Jesus and telling everybody about Jesus and studying the Word. So what happened there? Because obviously, you're sitting as a pastor in a church. So how did that transition happen?

So in 2010, after I got sober, and then early 2011, I was getting sued by the Securities Exchange Commission, but I was on fire for the Lord. And it was coming to an end. And I looked at Trish, and I said, “I can tell God's hand is in this, and this isn't going away. I'd like to go to seminary.” And so I was 48. And I said, I want to go back and go to seminary full time. And she just gave me a big kiss and a big hug and said, “Of course.” And so, yeah, we left Seattle. I applied at different seminaries. We ended up coming back to Colorado. I went to Denver Seminary. She got a job with K-Love doing fundraising and stuff, which is a music station, and I went to seminary and fell in love with church. Fell in love. I was in the office in 2012 and was in an office with a member of a faculty, and I was in tears saying, “I can't believe this, but it feels like God is calling me to be a pastor,” and he literally—Brian Gray. He literally said, “Stu, I've been talking to the faculty, and we believe that is exactly your calling, which is to go lead churches.” And so that was it. And so 2012, as I was getting through seminary the next couple of years, I got my first vocational pastor's job for $8.50 an hour. It was awesome.

Get paid the big bucks! Yeah.

Yeah. It was awesome. I couldn't believe that people were actually even getting paid to do it. Then, as I got older and got more into church leadership, I was like, “Okay, now I know why people are getting paid.” But anyway, at the time, and yeah, fell in love with becoming a pastor, and by 2013 was on church staff. By 2014, I was preaching at a church with about 10,000 members. By 2015, I really felt a call to church plant but didn't know—or take over a smaller church. So we had this wild notion of leaving that higher paid job and getting back and holding our hands out and saying, “Okay, Lord, what will You have for us?” In 2016, I became senior pastor of a church that was a church plant with forty people, and I’ve been doing that now for the last seven years, and now we have hundreds of people.

And now I'm starting to move towards…. I've been doing some work, and I'm going to be moving out of doing weekly pastoral work, though I’m going to stay as an elder and teaching and preaching elder. And I'm going to be getting into working with a company that is getting into the Web3 metaverse technology for the kingdom. It's a company called Lifeverse that is going to be getting into creating a Christian platform, getting back and using all that technology expertise that I had to create a Christian platform through the next generation of technology. And so I'm going to stay on as an elder and keep preaching, turn my church over to somebody down the road, and work full time as an executive at Lifeverse as we build a Christian Web3 metaverse platform. So that’s where I am.

Wow! That's exciting. I presume, based upon your history, the kind of pastoring you do is pretty substantive, I would imagine. 

Our church is very transparent. Yes, our church is very transparent. It's also the kind of preaching that is, I think, bold but expository and truthful, and people's lives are being changed, and we've had many, many people baptized, and yeah, God is good.

Wonderful! And this is maybe an obvious question, but considering that for the first forty years of your life, you tried to be your own god and you worshiped false gods, idols that were not the true or the real God, and that you weren't finding that substantive meaning and purpose and identity and everything that maybe your soul was longing for, you just didn't know where to look. It's like looking for love in all the wrong places. As a Christian, as a mature man of God, have you found that the God that you worship is deeply satisfying? I mean, are you contented in this? I mean, obviously you're on mission. It's obvious to me that you have a lot going on. But in terms of…. You remember when you were watching Trish, and she was more joyful, more contented, more peace filled. Life made sense, and have you found that kind of life that seemed to elude you in the first years, when you were looking for it everywhere else?

Yeah. The thing that keeps me going in ministry and the love that I have in life is driven by the fact that I have a deep and joyful relationship with Christ. And I tell our congregation, as an example, that I'm not a pastor because I love them. I'm a pastor because I love Jesus. And I love them because Christ loved us first. And if it wasn't for that, I couldn’t do this for two weeks, because most of the people in my congregation drive me crazy, like I drive them crazy. But because I love God so much and I have an understanding of what He’s done for us and me, I am able to take the things of this world and still have joy in my life, knowing that the kingdom is the already, but it's not yet. It’s not yet. I mean, you don't have to be out there long to know that this is a broken and sinful world, but the glimpses of the kingdom are all over the place, and there's something much greater than this coming, and it gives me joy every day.

That's amazing. As we're wrapping up your story, let's turn the page for just a moment. I know that there are curious skeptics who are potentially considering the possibility of God. They're finding that life on their own is not bringing them satisfaction like they had hoped. What word would you offer to someone who might be listening, curious, perhaps open?

Well, they're exactly where they need to be. It's actually in those feelings of discontentment about pursuing the things of this world, regardless of whether they're green jaguars or houses on the golf course or careers and strong balance sheets and millions of dollars or even just being homeless, that joy and contentment doesn't come from circumstance or the things that we own. In fact, if anything, in America, things that we own can actually pull us away from God. The thing that really gives us contentment and joy and true satisfaction is a relationship with Jesus and to know that Jesus died for you, that Jesus is still alive, and that Jesus will come again and that what we experience in this world, yes, there's always going to be an element of discontentment, because true shalom doesn't really come until we're actually in full relationship, in vertical relationship with Jesus Christ.

Yeah. I love that. He brings shalom into chaos, right? Order into disorder.

Amen.

Yeah. Peace where it wasn't before. So for those Christians like your wife Trish, who was looking at you, longing for you to know the Lord, because she knew what that meant for you, and for her as well. How would you encourage us as Christians to engage with those who are resistant, who are pushing back, who think they have the answers?

Pray for them and know that it's a great opportunity to be working, as Trish would say, on your holiness instead of necessarily your happiness. And the great thing that is an important recognition is that salvation comes from the Lord. It's God's call, and we pray for people, we love them, and we try to say the right things, though we often don't. But when the rubber meets the road, as people, we have no control over somebody's salvation. It all comes from God. And so we have to pray that God would move in, and in the meantime, grow in holiness.

Yeah, yeah. And patience, it sounds like. Just like Trish… I'm just amazed with her. I know you said she was kind of putting hints around the house, but she was also patient, right? Very patient. She stayed with you. She loved you through all of that. And that is commendable. I think there's something to be said for leaning into relationship, even when it's hard.

Yeah. And Trish will tell you she gives God all the glory for that, that she would not have been able to be patient without God allowing her to be, so.

Yeah. But she also embodied the beauty of Christ, though. What a life in Christ looked like. And I think that that’s an amazing thing. Like you said, it helped soften you towards the possibility of God, and so I'm thankful to her for that.

So as we're winding up, Stu, anything else you that think we might have missed, whether it’s your story or any last word, or anything you'd like to say?

Oh, yeah. Let me say two things: One is, if you want to read my story, the book Wall Street to the Well, you can get on Amazon and other things, Wall Street to the Well.

Okay.

And yes, and the company that I'm doing work with and am really pouring my life into, along with doing ministry work at church, is Lifeverse, so if you think of metaverse, like meta, like what Facebook is doing. Meta actually means death. And we see that a lot with our kids that are getting into the next wave of technologies and video games and things like that. But that's where the kids are going. So what Lifeverse is doing is, instead of deathverse, it's the Lifeverse, getting into the metaverse, for children and for adults, to create a Christian platform by which they can learn and grow and be part of Christian community. That's what we're doing.

That's fantastic! And is there any accessibility to that right now? Or is it just in the development stage at the moment?

Yeah, the website's up, and the development is going on. In the next few months, it will be going live. So yes.

Okay. Great!

Lifeverse.

Okay. Well, we'll put that in the episode notes, along with the name of your book.

Okay. Excellent. Yeah. Wonderful, Stu. Thank you so much. Your story is rich and I think can relate to so many people today who, again, are just looking for love and look for meaning and purpose and fulfillment in all the wrong places. And you've been there, to the pinnacle, really, of what the world has to offer but came up empty and that you found it in Christ. And you're such a beautiful ambassador for him now. So thankful for your story.

Thank you, Jana. God bless you.

Well, bless you and all the work that you're doing. Thanks so much.

Thanks for tuning into Side B Stories to hear Stu's story. You can find out more about his book Wall Street to the Well: A Story of Transformation from Fortune to Faith, as well as other information about him, in the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our website at www.sidebstories.com or through our email at [email protected].

Also, if you're a skeptic or atheist who would like to connect with a former atheist with questions, we'd also love to hear from you, and we'll get you connected. I hope you enjoyed Side B Stories podcast, that you'll follow, rate, review, and share this with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we'll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.


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