To celebrate the release of my new book, I wanted to give a sneak peak by posting the entire first chapter!
To learn more about Never Alone, watch the book trailer, and order your own copy, visit the official Never Alone website as well as the Never Alone Shop for more merchandise such as tattoos, stickers, and apparel.
The first time I saw Redwood National Park, I left with a full-body rash and a new rule against peeing near poison ivy.
It was 2002, and the trip started the way any good high school road trip should start: loading a conversion van at midnight with camping gear, Mountain Dew, and enough beef jerky to feed the International Space Station for a few months.
It ended the way no road trip of any kind should ever end: driving through Death Valley at midnight with poison ivy, which felt like an open oven on my red, oozing, irritated skin. It was gross. And uncomfortable. So gross and uncomfortable, in fact, that I ended up flying home early from Las Vegas and missed the rest of the trip. I was pretty bummed. Pretty itchy and pretty bummed.
It had otherwise been one of those unforgettable, Hollywood-montage-worthy vacations. Picture five teenage boys driving across the country in a vehicle that can only be described as the offspring of a shipping crate and a morbidly obese minivan. Without the modern convenience of Internet radio, we were forced to change the station ever hour or so as we traveled in and out of range, inevitably finding a new signal just in time to hear a new D.J. from Middle Of, Iowa, or Nowhere, Wyoming, talk over the intro to my favorite song.
I remember playing Frisbee with strangers at gas stations. I remember sitting around the campfire and talking about God and sin and girls and our future. We laughed a lot, cried a little, and even prayed for each other as the fire died out and the stars became brighter above us.
Me and the guys. (I’m second from the right).
I remember sleeping in a tent next to the crystal blue waters of Lake Tahoe, surrounded by lush, green mountains. I remember the sun was shining and the air was crisp as we raced down the one-hundred-foot pier in the early morning and plunged into the water, knowing it would be icy but not caring. It was so picturesque—like swimming in a postcard.
But the highlight of that trip, despite the poison ivy, was visiting the redwood forest in Northern California. Being there is like visiting another planet—130,000 acres filled with some of the most incredible beauty on earth. Trees tower above you. Mist crawls through the underbrush. There is a calm, deafening silence there. The kind that makes you hold your breath for fear of ruing the moment.
Not only are they stunningly beautiful, but the redwoods are also fascinating trees. For example, they’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs and once covered millions of miles of our planet. Their bark is fire proof and can be more than a foot thick. They are poisonous to tree pests and resistant to water rot. They’re even resistant to battery acid, though this is perhaps only useful if you’re ever fighting aliens with Sigourney Weaver.
They’re so big, they seem fake. One redwood contains enough lumber to build forty modest-sized homes. They’re longer than three blue whales or ten school buses, and if a single tree was made into wood planks that were laid end to end, it would stretch over a hundred miles—roughly a fourth the length of the state of Florida! They’re so big, each tree requires hundreds of gallons of water a day to stay alive. Hundreds!
Today, we can walk among trees that were alive at the same time Jesus walked the earth. And for that reason alone, standing at the foot of a redwood is humbling. Not in a way that makes you feel insignificant, like outer space or the Grand Canyon. It’s humbling in a way that makes you realize that a three-hundred-foot natural skyscraper was once shorter than a redheaded high schooler with poison ivy. It’s humbling because it’s enormous…and still growing.
One reason that redwoods are so massive and majestic is their root system. They are not like normal trees, which look like mirror images of themselves underground, with an individual root system that goes just about as deep and wide as the tree above. Redwood roots, on the other hand, only go about five or ten feet deep but spread out hundreds of feet in all directions, intertwining and fusing with other roots around them, creating a sturdy foundation for each individual tree and the forest itself.
Growing up, I often felt like a redwood connected to many other root systems. When it came to my faith in God, I didn’t have to work very hard to grow; it just happened naturally within my surroundings. My faith was situational. I didn’t have to search for any kind of “spiritual water” because it was all around me.
I’m one of those people who usually says, “I’ve been a Christian my whole life.” I grew up in a Christian household with Christian parents. I had Christian friends, read Christian books, watched Christian movies, and listened to Christian music – or at least the few good ones we had in the 1990s, like Five Iron Frenzy, Grammatrain, and DC Talk (honorable mentions to MxPx, Switchfoot, and Pedro the Lion).
My family would go to church services twice a week, where I also volunteered in the children’s ministry. I was taught to read my Bible, pray, tithe, and take communion. And I was homeschooled, which meant I even did Christian school curriculum. (By the way, not all homeschooled kids live in their basement and make their own clothes out of wheat. Most of us are pretty normal. We just have the option to do algebra in our pajamas.)
I saw and felt God’s presence through things like singing worship songs or the love I received from my friends. I grew to know Him through reading the Bible, prayer, and hearing teachings about Him. I had an increasing desire to honor God more with my decisions and avoid disobeying Him as best I could.
Things were good. God was good. Life was good. Everything seemed to be clicking. I mean, it wasn’t perfect and there were tough things like breakups and sin struggles and seasons of pain. But overall, life following God felt solid, like it was going to be a firm foundation for the rest of my life.
Until God left me.
Until I couldn’t feel or sense Him anymore.
It was as if, at some point without me noticing, He slipped out of the room. And now He was just… gone.
The foundation that my entire life was built on was suddenly and completely yanked out from under me.
I was a high school student already considering a career as a pastor, and I found myself getting the silent treatment from the Creator of the universe and the God I’d been following for most of my life.
I grew up surrounded by God, people of God, a church devoted to God, even math problems that mentioned God, but suddenly He just packed His bags and said “peace out!”
I felt totally alone. And as it continued, my faith, a faith I’d had for most of my life, slowly started to erode.
I was hurt.
And I didn’t know what to do.
It was like a close relative or friend had just died, and I was left all alone to try and figure out how to deal with it.
As this continued, I went through all the stages of grief, plus like thirty more stages that I didn’t even know existed.
First was denial. I would tell myself, I can still totally feel Him, just not as strong… So I’d fake it by raising my hands at church as if I felt something. Or I’d pray out loud with passion even though I had none. I’d talk to my youth pastor about a powerful, emotional moment during a church service even though it felt a million miles away. Then I’d get home and journal the exact opposite. God, where were you tonight?
Then I just got angry. I mean, come on! I’d literally devoted the majority of my life to God. I went to church, prayed, even volunteered. Now He’s just going to vanish? Who does that?
I’m sure a lot of it was self-pity. Poor little Christian
Dugan, who did almost everything right, was being treated unfairly. But my bitterness was real. This was totally His fault. All I felt like doing was walking out of church for the last time, looking up at the sky and firmly saying, “Screw you, God…if you’re even there!”
I tried bargaining with God: If I prayed for this person or that person or read this many Bible verses each day, then will You come back?
Insecurity set in: Was He mad? Was it something I did? Something I didn’t do?
And doubt took hold: Was He never there in the first place? Had I been duped?
Then I felt lonely. I’d grown up doing life with God, and now he was gone. I think this was the worst pain, because being or even just feeling alone goes against the very way we were created to live. Nothing can cause us more pain or fear than being alone.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” – Genesis 2:18
God made us for relationship with Himself and with other people. We weren’t meant to live life alone. There’s something wrong with loneliness and we sense it in our core. That’s what I felt.
It didn’t get any better from there. It was like I had just gone through a breakup and was watching happy couples holding hands around every corner. Or like I was on a diet and all my friends wanted to go to Five Guys for lunch. Or like my dog had just died and I was watching a commercial with Sarah McLachlan singing about rescuing sad puppies. Or like I had a dairy allergy and was standing around at a free milkshake party. (All true stories, by the way, except for the milkshake party, which sounds like a great idea.)
I would be in a church service among hundreds of people who were clearly feeling, sensing, or experiencing God. They would be raising their hands in worship or quietly praying on their knees. I would watch this and grow more and more confused and angry. Apparently I was the only person God decided to ditch for no reason.
I started to resent my small group. I became bored with the Bible. It was the first time in my life that I wondered if Christianity was even worth my time.
Then I hit the final two stages of grief: depression and acceptance. These two stages blurred together for me. Over the course of a few years, I slipped into something that I can only describe as a spiritual funk. It was a depression that affected every other part of me. Spiritually, physically, and emotionally, I began to disconnect. I wanted nothing to do with God or anything having to do with Him. I accepted that God left me and gave up on figuring out how to get Him back.
All because I couldn’t feel Him. God walked away from me, why shouldn’t I walk away from Him?
I felt like a giant redwood that was suddenly and completely without water. My foundation was gone, my whole reality uprooted. And without this water I’d gotten so used to, my spiritual life began to wither away.
That’s what it feels like when God leaves you.