I’m Eamonn Cottrell, and this is how I’ve been living deeply.
“I was miserable, couldn’t sleep, and felt like I had the flu. I was 19 years old, and I had just woken up in the last place I ever dreamed I would visit: an addiction rehab facility in the middle of nowhere, Mississippi. The hardest part, as I got cleaned up, was being stuck with myself and asking- How did a church kid like me get here? I was home schooled through fifth grade, so my social network was my neighborhood and CSPC. My biggest memories were around my middle school years in the mid-90s. I remember being really close with some of the church middle school leaders then- they were really impactful; second only to my parents, I guess, and I probably listened to them more because they WEREN’T my parents! Damon Kelly led our small group Bible study. We’d play football or frisbee pre-game, then roll inside and study the Word. One of the specifics I remember was from Philippians, which we were studying. Damon had us look for instances of this acronym: PIIP, which was basically the apostle Paul saying, ‘Put it into practice.’ Paul was making the point, ‘I’ve taught you these things, now go put skin on it. Go out and live the truth.’ So that’s something from my time in the youth ministry that’s stuck with me. I didn’t go to a ton of retreats, but when I did go, they were meaningful. I was getting a small taste of what Christian community could be. But then my story took a detour. I got into drugs and alcohol in late high school and early college- gradually at first. I fell away from my family and the Church. I’d started rebelling my sophomore and junior years of high school, and that led pretty swiftly into a full-blown addiction. I spent a year at Pellissippi State flunking out of classes for the first time in my life. Things were sliding downhill, and I had a moment of clarity where it was very evident my life was going in a direction I didn’t want, so I asked my parents for help. They’d researched and felt good about a rehab center in Jackson, Mississippi, so they got me a plane ticket and flew me down there in November 2002 (I’ve been sober ever since).
The addiction had begun as a curiosity. Then you add rebellion, then you throw in the teenage angst that everybody’s got to go through in whatever way, then a little bit of experimentation, and from there things obviously just got totally off track. I’m a very introverted person by nature and high school was a very difficult time for me- I just didn’t know how to be around people. Enter alcohol, and suddenly, I felt like I had a shortcut. Do that for a couple years with a 17- or 18-year-old brain that’s not fully developed and you get hooked real quick. It offers false hope, but just ends up hurting in the end. The rehab worked- I sobered up and left the center within a few weeks but ended up staying in Jackson 15 years. For the first year or two, some of my rebellion and angst stuck around (combined with guilt for having screwed up so badly)- not in a destructive a manner, but I definitely didn’t go right back to church. I was still trying to scratch an itch that’s really a spiritual deficit. I dabbled in church a few times -I always knew I’d go back, but it took a while. I’d found community in Alcoholics Anonymous, and I began substituting its program of action for finding a church home. Ironic since much of the roots of AA are derived from the books of James, Matthew and I Corinthians 13. My now-wife and I began to seek God through church at the same time- we were both kind of getting back inside the church doors when we started dating about 12 years ago. She really, for the first time, came to the faith as I was coming back to it. She grew up in the Catholic Church but checked out as soon as she wasn’t required to go. It was a part of early life for her, but very different from my upbringing. I had a lot of head knowledge and theology that was imprinted on me from growing up at CSPC, and it was neat for me to see a zeal in her for learning this stuff the first time and discovering a personal relationship with Jesus, which she didn’t really get during her brief experience in the Catholic Church.
We moved back to Knoxville in the spring of 2017. Neither of us had extended family in Jackson, we both loved Tennessee, and my job allows me to work remotely, so the intention was to raise our kids with at least one set of grandparents right down the street. We didn’t start by going back to CSPC- my wife wanted a bit of a different feel at the time. The church we ended up at was very good, but then, for whatever reason, we said, ‘You know, let’s go check out Cedar Springs.’ This was right before John Wood formally left as senior pastor; probably late 2017 or early 2018. I’ve always been in love with CSPC and wanted to go back, and this time she fell in love with it too. We’ve been there ever since. It’s awesome being back- it’s more meaningful than ever to me. Every time I walk down the hallways, I see faces of people I would pass when I was half their height and they were telling me to stop grabbing donuts out of their classrooms! We have four kids now, ages three months to six years old. One of the reasons we ended up at CSPC was the structure and care that obviously goes into the children’s programs, from the wee little babies all the way to the middle and high school years, which were so formative for me. My hope is that I speak truth to our children here at the house, where they need it the most, and that it just keeps getting reinforced at CSPC like it was for me. We’re so blessed to be able to know that the programs, logistically, are run well because it’s a big church with strong resources. But also, theologically and spiritually, people are loving on the kids. I can see that when I’m dropping them off and picking them up. I’m enjoying interactions with the helpers and leaders I’m getting to know, as well as the ones I already know.
For anyone coming back to the faith, I have some encouragement in a phrase I’ll borrow from one of my friends: He describes it as ‘being born again… again.’ I think God uses even those years when I was running -either away outright, or at least not toward Him- to help others (I’ve had the privilege of leading substance abuse recovery meetings at the church) and continues to use those as a foundation for building up my own faith to be even stronger. I often remind myself that I just don’t know exactly how He’ll use it all. I have a bent toward being overly critical of my past choices, but they brought me to where I am, and I love where I am. I have this sensation of, ‘Man, I’m so glad God didn’t give up on me.’ Even in the years when I was running from Him, I believe He still had me, still had a plan, and now still has a plan for me going forward. And that’s awesome. My upbringing at CSPC -all the leaders who invested in me- gave me the foundation I’d ultimately come back to. Because they were in my life, I knew the truth: that only knowing God and embracing Him through a serious faith could fill the spiritual hole in my gut. It just took me a while to come back and seek it. That’s why I’d tell anyone wondering if youth ministry makes a difference… to stop wondering. CSPC grounded me in theology and spiritual disciplines, and that was crucial. But I didn’t pursue deep involvement in Christian community, which was a factor in my wandering. I don’t want my own kids to miss that. From what I’ve seen in my time back, I believe the CSPC youth ministry will expose our kids to a sturdy faith and deep community, for which I’m thankful. When I was little, I saw community because my parents went to the Seekers’ class (I knew right where it was upstairs because that room was where the donuts were!). They knew people from that class for two or three decades, so I saw from a distance what community was, but I didn’t really experience it. I finally started to experience it in the recovery world. And I’m now experiencing it the way I’ve been looking for- at this giant church, but in small pockets. It feels like home.”