“Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.” (Jeremiah 33:3, KJV)
“Are you feeling okay, Bryan?”
A question I was constantly asked. I know I wasn’t myself. I was put through the wringer for a time during my journey with esophageal cancer, and I know I didn’t look myself then either.
Back in 2001, I had approximately 50% of my stomach removed, 7 inches of esophagus, 2 lymph nodes, and 15% of the duodenum removed. That year I completed 25 rounds of chemo and 21 radiation treatments.
By the next year, however, I was in remission. I had healed from my surgeries, and gone back to work cancer free. My time with God would ebb and flow, even though He was constantly pulling me in, hemming me close to His side. I would break a few strands and go live my life for awhile, then I’d come back running into His arms. And you know what? He always held me there.
Innately, I knew no matter how hard I tried to turn away that I was loved. Chosen. Safe.
In prison, it was easier to walk with Him, to listen to His voice because the temptations that were always so enticing weren’t readily available. It was hard to stay strong in the midst of temptations every time I got out.
None of this had ever been the forging and molding I had in mind. But I wasn’t alone and I felt God’s strength in the valley during that time. It felt like a fusing the Blacksmith had performed, a melding together of two substances: the person I was and the person I would become.
It’s hard to believe, but I did another stint in prison after being in remission. I racked up a couple DUI’s and they placed me back in for 16 months. It felt so long. But it was another time of growth for me; learning scriptures and meeting various brothers in the faith.
I got out on December 31, 2003 and came home to my mama’s house. I hadn’t been home more than a couple of hours when I felt sick. As I ran to the bathroom, I vomited blood and had a seizure which caused me to black out for several seconds.
In the ER, I was told there was another tumor.
It was the next day before the oncologist told me the tumor was located in the scar tissue of the previous surgical site in my small intestine. Anxiety made an appearance but disappeared quickly because before I knew it, they removed the tumor and gave me the best news I’d heard in a long time:
“Mr. Morrison, the margins are clear. The tumor has been removed and there’s no spread.”
I was completely overcome with praise to the Lord for His miraculous and divine intervention in my life. Cancer twice and the Lord healed me from it both times! The gratitude that swarmed my soul in the following days when I went home without any follow-up chemo or radiation appointments was unparalleled.
The next several years unfolded in a haze. There was a strong pull and tug in my knowledge of what to do and my inability to do it. Mountain tops and valleys, the old patterns returning, but fading.
I married a woman named Tina in 2004 who was in the military, and we lived on base in Georgia for awhile. I was sober and going to church with her. The next year I began doing crack again when the temptation was strongly presented to me, and I followed it with cheating on her. I stole her credit card one night and assaulted her mom trying to make my way out to visit a dope dealer. We were on base when it happened, which is a federal offense, and was put back in prison. This time it was a felony for assault resulting in serious bodily injury, as my mother in law’s leg was broken in 2 places.
While in prison, I repented to the core of my soul and wanted nothing more than to live for Christ when I got out. I felt desperate for Him.
All my life had been such a back and forth from my end, but never His end. He just kept pulling me right back in.
I began praying for God to reveal my spiritual gifts that He had given me for His kingdom, so I could live in a different way. I prayed hard and got specific. I had read about Gideon and I laid on my bunk one night whispering, “God please answer this prayer and reveal my spiritual gifts to me. I pray you won’t be mad at me, but would you reveal it through the mail? Because then I will know it’s from you, since I never get any mail around here. I want to truly know it’s from You and not my doing.”
It was a special prayer, a feeling of closeness to God, and I expected much in those first couple of days following my words to Him. When nothing transpired, I was disappointed but kept it in my prayers as I continued to seek confirmation on what my gifts were.
Three weeks later, I got a letter from a Christian brother who had transferred to a prison site in Pennsylvania, which excited and surprised me at the same time. It was great to hear from him and I could feel his encouragement leaping off the page at me, urging me to stay strong in the scriptures and to focus on the Lord.
Then, in the last paragraph of that letter he said, “Bryan I believe you have the gift of teaching. I wish you well, brother.”
My whole body felt shaken from the prompting in my spirit and I literally closed my eyes as I said, Thank You for answering my prayer.
Two days passed and I received another letter, wildly surprising me. I had been doing an outside bible study and asking doctrinal questions through the mail. Since it was an outside study, there was no return address, so I won’t know this side of heaven who wrote these words as plain as day:
“Bryan, I understand you have been concerned about this question and I am glad you asked. The thing is, I believe you’ve answered your own question in the letter you sent, by the way you asked it. This is a gift you have, the gift of discernment.”
Discernment and teaching go hand in hand, I gathered.
The letter continued, but I crumpled it to my chest and breathed another thank you. God, all I want to do when I get out is teach your word. Just to go to work and teach your word every day and then go home. That’s my goal.
Tina and I divorced in 2007, but still kept ties due to the ease of finances with her deployment and my imprisonment. During my stay in prison, I had grown so deeply in Him. I felt grounded and certain in my steps with Him, and began to soak up all the theology I could.
It has never ceased to amaze me that during my hardest times of imprisonment- my Jonah experience in the belly of the whale, the depth of the valley- that is where I grew closest to God.
In spite of me, He was always growing me in the desert of my life.
In June of 2009, I got out of prison. I met with Tina’s mom who forgave me for the assault in a beautiful display of grace unlike anything I’d ever experienced. She taught me a life lesson I’d never forget. Although I had plans to start right away, my ability to make it to bible college didn’t happen as planned. Shortly after my release, I met back up with Tina during a brief fling, but then I became wrapped back into a life of drugs. She left and I never saw her again.
Later that year in December, I was caught with a DUI. Since it happened while I was on federal probation, I had to do fed and state charges. Another 21 months in prison.
That time was scary and unpredictable. I was first sent to a rough place where violence permeated the atmosphere. I prayed for the Lord to get me out. I knew my life had to change.
When I served my term and was released nearly 2 years later, I moved in with my mom and started looking for work and a church home. I visited a few churches but didn’t settle on anything, and was invited to King’s Church one afternoon during a random visit to the bank. I had some trouble with my debit card and a man named Tom fixed it for me, chatted awhile, and invited me to visit.
I went the following Sunday and visited the Williams class with Tom. I struck up conversation with a guy named John and we became fast friends. I felt excitement in my soul about coming back. It wasn’t long until I was coming to King’s Church every Sunday and hanging out with John and his family on my downtime. For work, I had started my own cleaning company and picked up a few side jobs by word of mouth.
John was full of wisdom and I gleaned all I could. His relationship with the Lord was something to behold. One afternoon I said to him, “John, the Lord is really working in you. I just want to let you know that I can see what a life transformed in Him looks like.”
He nodded, appreciative, and then spoke deliberately, “And Bryan, I can see what a life transformed in Christ looks like through you, too.
Those words washed over my soul. It was true. Christ had transformed me.
Celebrate Recovery was a program I became actively involved in as I dedicated my time becoming sober. Church became home for me. I focused on learning and making plans for bible college so I could follow in my plan to teach God’s word.
In 2012, I stepped into the parking lot of the Christian university where I had once broken into cars that fateful night as a 16 year old.
I applied there with hopes of being accepted to their Biblical Studies program, but was unable to afford it. One night at Celebrate Recovery, I spoke up about my disappointment and a man named Chris met me afterwards. “I know of another college where you can get an Associate’s Degree in Biblical studies.”
Fall of 2012, I started Providence Bible College about 30 minutes away for my Associate’s Degree. I was where I belonged. I finished out that year excelling in my program and ending my time at Celebrate Recovery completely sober. The Williams class at King’s Church had been a God-send and lifted me up regularly. My friendship with John was a gift the Lord provided in such a crucial moment of my life.
In May of 2013, I volunteered at the homeless shelter downtown and that’s when I met her.
“Excuse me, are you from King’s Church?” A friend of hers asked me politely while I was putting on gloves to help in the kitchen. I glanced over a few times and we locked eyes twice. She was beautiful with a sincere smile, dark hair, dark eyes. I gave her friend my name and let them know that yes, I was indeed from King’s Church.
I had been volunteering at the homeless shelter for a couple of months but had never met Sophia before. King’s Church was large and we weren’t in the same circles yet, but apparently we were in similar areas of service.
My next volunteer month, I sauntered over to Sophia and her friend Lianne, and struck up a polite conversation since we would be serving hot meals together. Sophia was quiet, with an inner strength I couldn’t put my finger on. I found out through our niceties that she was from the Philippines but the conversation felt too short. I decided to give her my business card for my cleaning services.
You know, in case she ever needed anything.
The day after our next volunteer session together in late July, I had a phone call around 9pm. Who in the world?
It was her. “Hi Bryan, it’s Sophia, how are you?”
My heart started pounding. I pulled over into a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, so I could concentrate and think clearly. “Well hey! I am doing good, hope you are.”
She cleared her throat. “Listen I have a question for you.” We both paused a few seconds. “I just wanted to ask if you are still collecting metal for salvage?”
“It just so happens that I am. Why do you ask?” I was trying to quickly figure out how to keep her on the phone.
“Great. I have a bucket here and I thought about you so I just wanted to give it to you if you were still collecting.” She was cool as a cucumber.
This was it. I felt it in the pit of my stomach, all the way to my palms. Go for it. “Okay thanks. So, now I have a question for you.” The pause lingered a little too long for my liking, but I swallowed and went on with it. “Well, I don’t know how to say it.” We both laughed.
“Just say it,” she coaxed easily. We had another laugh and I finally spit it out.
“Do you want to go out to lunch?” I felt myself smiling and happy I’d taken the chance.
I could nearly hear her smile over the phone, but she replied, “Well, call me back again and we’ll see.”
Those days are etched in my memory like the smell of honeysuckle on a warm summer day, or the feeling of the ocean breeze hitting your face while your feet are sunk deep in the cool sand.
The types of feelings you never quite get over.
We began dating after a fun lunch at Jersey Mikes the next week, and we fell in love easily and quickly, as if we’d known each other our entire lives.
We dated for 31 days when I felt the itch to make it permanent. We were older and had already talked about marriage and our future together. Neither of us were in the business of wasting each other’s time. We’d talked about pasts, clearly loving each other regardless.
One evening we were at her kitchen table in the house she shared with her mother, where we’d been talking for hours. It was always difficult to leave, which was what I needed to do since it was nearing midnight.
But that necklace in my pocket just wouldn’t let me go.
I’d wanted to propose but I didn’t want to ask empty handed. I was still working hard, but didn’t have the money saved yet for a ring. Instead, I found a beautiful cross necklace with a heart in the center that looked almost melded together. So symbolic of our love centering around Christ. As soon as I saw it, I thought Sophia. She was my blessing, my heart in the middle of this beautiful transformation God had designed in my life.
I got down on my knee, watched her place her hand over her mouth in surprise, and asked her to marry me.
She said yes.
Bryan’s story has been an honor for me to share here. I first met Bryan at church when he taught one of our Sunday morning lessons. I sit under his teaching any chance I get. He became a rock for my family during a deep time of sorrow, and we couldn’t be more blessed to have him in our lives. His past is an open book and doesn’t define him. He has been transformed and is moving into the call that’s been placed on his life. The way God worked in his past has been the very definition of a Blacksmith molding and shaping, refining through fire, and creating new out of something that seemed impossible.
I am thankful to now have a front row seat of how God is continuing to hem him in, closer to His heart. Bryan has recently graduated with his Bachelor’s in Biblical Studies from the very university he committed a parking lot crime in. He is a faithful student, excelling in his program and is working hard towards that prayer he whispered in his cell in 2006: “I just want to teach your Word..”
The Lord worked a true miracle with getting him in the University and paving his way for the gifts that He’d given him all along. Bryan now works full time on staff and will be starting his Master’s degree in a few weeks. He and Sophia continue to serve in various areas, bringing encouragement to hearts and stomping down any preconceived notions of what God can do with a life.
Do you know the God of healing? The God of restoration? The God of power and strength to remove barriers and tear down walls in the absolute hardest parts of your life?
Last in the Series.