Feature

You Can Call Me AL

A New Song

By

In the first of a new semi-regular feature, You Can Call Me AL, managing editor Melinda Smith Lane talked to Tim Agnello, pastor of the Alliance Church in Stockton, California, about his remarkable story of redemption and restoration.

AL: Tell us about your background.
TA: I was adopted as a baby and raised in a Christian home. I had a loving family and a very good upbringing. But when I got to be a teenager, I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I rebelled, got involved with the wrong people and all the wrong things. At 16 years old, I was heavily involved with drugs and alcohol.

AL: How did you get involved in music?
TA: In seventh grade my friend got a guitar for his birthday. Over at his house, I started messing around with it and found that I could play by ear the music I was listening to on the radio. I was hooked. I took guitar lessons for a year and a half, got in a band and learned on my own from then on out.

AL: Then you helped form a thrash metal band called Exodus?
TA: I played in a couple of bands prior to Exodus, trying to be cool. But at age 16, I hooked up with a drummer, and we started playing together in our high school jazz band room just for fun. I started writing some songs and hooked up with some other guys to form Exodus. We became popular in the high schools and in the nightclubs of the San Francisco Bay Area. Exodus has now become known worldwide.

AL: One of the members was Kirk Hammett, who later left and joined Metallica. So it was a pretty wild scene for awhile there?
TA: Absolutely. Anything you can think of, that’s what we did and more.

AL: What did your parents think?
TA: My parents were always concerned with my dark side. I would come in and out of the house in my late teens and beyond, staying here and there. I was really hard to wrangle. They were always loving and gracious and always counseled me well. They certainly didn’t condone my behavior. As I look back on how my parents handled this situation, I see genuine love, genuine grace and faithfulness to their faith. My shenanigans never upset their apple cart.

AL: You left the band in 1980, and in 1994 you felt you had to go to rehab. How did that come about?
TA: As an older teenager, I left the band. My drug addiction and alcoholism were skyrocketing and actually became more important than music, more important than anything—a complete bondage. I moved to New York City for awhile, where I played in a couple of bands, managed some bands and was a writer for a rock magazine. So I thought I had it all: a backstage pass to every club in NYC, a lot of open doors and opportunities. And yet my alcoholism still superseded all those things, and I tanked again. I came back to California, and it just kept getting worse.

I told myself there would be things I would never do. I remember being 20 and thinking I wouldn’t be doing this [partying] at 25—I would be over it. Twenty-five came and went. Then 30 came and went. I told myself I would never be a loser and put needles in my arms, but then I started shooting speed and heroin.

It got really bad. And I thought I was gonna die. I burned all my bridges and lost all my jobs. My parents looked at me as I was losing another house and job and said, “Tim, you can’t come back here; we aren’t going to bail you out this time. If you die, you die.” And that started waking me up.

But a defining moment came. Are you ready for the defining moment?

AL: OK, yeah.
TA: One night I was feeling exceptionally hopeless, and I was at a party where people were shooting speed in one of my arms and heroin in the other while I was drinking a bottle of whiskey. I was just trying to escape the despair and emptiness in me. And I got so wacked out that they put me in the basement and left me alone.

I remember having demons in my head—they were ripping under my skin in my skull. I could see dark flashes across the ceiling, and it felt like someone was raking a knife through my brain. I was writhing in pain. I was lashing out at them, trying to beat them away, but they were inside my head and wouldn’t go away.

I cried out to God, because there had been times over the previous 16 years of mayhem that I had asked God to help me, but I hadn’t done a lot to help myself. But this time, I said, “God, just kill me. Just take me right now. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t quit my addictions. Just kill me.”

Time went on into the night, and I didn’t die. I became more and more frustrated. I said, “God, let me go to sleep—put me to sleep—and when I wake up, I will do something about my life.” And the next thing I knew, I woke up a day and a half later.

I crawled out of the basement, through the back door and up the hill to my car. I drove to my parents’ house, and my mom opened the door, looked at me—that night, before I fell asleep, I had been throwing up on myself and it was awful—and she said, “Oh, Timmy.”

I walked in, and she looked at me with this blank, matter-of-fact face. She wasn’t emotional, like the “mom face”; she just looked right at me, stone-cold serious, and said, “I have backed you up on every cockamamie scheme you’ve ever concocted to try and fix your life, and every one of them has failed. What are you going to do?”

And at that moment I said the most life-changing, three-most-important words I had ever said in my entire life. I said, “I don’t know.”

Until that point, I always had the answer. The moment I said “I don’t know,” it was like the universe caved in around me; the sky was falling, stars were pouring out of space and this life of lies and denial caved in around me. I felt it; I saw it; it was incredibly real.

I actually fell to my knees on the living room floor, and I saw myself for the first time for who I was and where I was in life. I was so overwhelmed with reality and guilt that I couldn’t look up past my mom’s shoes. She said, “If you are ready, we know someone who will come and talk to you about his own life experiences, and he knows of someplace you can go. Are you ready?”

I said yes. Soon thereafter, I put myself in rehab for a year. The night before I went in, I couldn’t sleep. I was entirely freaked out and was on the driveway at my parent’s house, bawling my eyes out. I said, “Lord, I am scared. If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what will happen. I have no more options. God, you gotta make this work; God, you gotta make this work. What do I need to do? What do I need to do?”

And it was like a neon sign came across my vision that said, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” [1 John 1:9].

Right there on my knees I said, “God, please forgive me; fix my life.” I realize now that to get me back on track, the Holy Spirit brought to my remembrance in that moment the verse I had learned as a child.

In rehab my life started turning around, and if you had good behavior, they would let you out on Sunday, but you had to be back by curfew. I decided to go to the church [C&MA] where I grew up, where the members had been praying for me for 16 years. My dad was an elder and my mom was a Bible study teacher there, so I went to her class. As I was studying, the Holy Spirit brought to my memory all the things I was taught as a kid. The verse in Joel [2:25] came to mind, and I realized that God was beginning to repair the damage in my life and started replacing those years that my addiction had eaten.

A couple of months into rehab, I was talking to one of the guys and broke out in laughter—deep laughter from the tummy. And that was new to me. I recognized at that moment that I had partied all my life but never had that deep joy—and that opened up my eyes. I began to experience a well-being that I didn’t even know existed in the human experience. I was completely blown away by the reality of who God is. And I hung onto Him.

AL: How did you get into ministry?
TA: After I got out of rehab, I began a Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered 12-step group at our church. It grew from one small group to five groups, and people from other churches in the East Bay came to be trained. Our pastor, Rev. Neal Doty, said he saw God’s hand on my life and asked if he could mentor me.

AL: How do you bring everything that happened to you into your ministry?
TA: As I was beginning ministry, at NorthShore Community Alliance Church [Richmond, Calif.], I talked of a God who is not theological and informative but who is intimate and transformational. I spoke of the reality that all of us need recovery from something and that God desires to help us grow through those things. I was honest about my stuff, which gave others the permission and freedom to be honest about their stuff. I talked about the God of second chances and who is close to the brokenhearted—the God who meets us in our time of need.

AL: Tell us about your church. What does your congregation look like?
TA: Multicultural, multigenerational. We have English, Spanish, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Hmong, Khmer and Filipino. We have many languages, but one heart. We are living out Christ’s call to make disciples of all nations. We are focused on raising up the next generation amid multiple cultures. It’s like a mosaic. Right now, God’s hand is on our people in a very powerful way, and I am amazed at the changed lives and all those who are coming to Christ.

AL: How does deeper life teaching play into your preaching now?
TA: I preach life-change—not only to get rid of all that hinders an intimate walk with God but to reach for your fullest potential in Jesus Christ. We believe in living a balanced Christian life. We are committed to worshiping God with surrendered lives and being intentional in all that we do. We strive to exhibit the character of Christ to our community and to serve each other in practical ways.

For me, when there is talk about the deeper life, it sometimes casts this thought of “going deep into theology.” And I see the deeper life as a hand-in-hand walk with the Creator of the universe and marveling at His character and love and then giving that away to other people. We can know all the bells and whistles, but if we don’t have a deep trust in God’s provision, a quiet confidence in His power and a loving disposition toward others, we aren’t deep at all.

AL: It goes back to what you said earlier, that God is not “theological and informative but intimate and transformational,” and all of us need recovery from something. That’s what people need to hear and are longing for. Have you seen that in your ministry?
TA: Yes, we are seeing people come out of Buddhism and Shamanism and embracing the God of love and acceptance. We have a large number of young people who are coming to Christ and inviting their friends, and our veteran Christians are not focused on themselves or what they want but focused on the next generation. They understand that true maturity is deferring their wants so that others might find Christ. Our people recognize it’s not about their own personal preferences, and I am very proud of them.

Before your call this morning, I prayed many times that God would speak His words through me for this interview and that I would say only what He wants said for His purposes. Thank you for the opportunity to proclaim the goodness of Jesus Christ.

AL: It’s very encouraging, very much about the faithfulness of God. Do you have a life verse?
TA: Absolutely. My life verse is Matthew 6:33: “‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.’” The more you grab for the things of this world, the less you come away with. But when you reach out for Jesus Christ, you get it all and then some!

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