What? It’s Been 50 Years Since High School?…Looking Back, And What God Did For Me

This past weekend, I attended my 50-year High School Reunion.

It was a lot of fun seeing folks I hadn’t seen in decades. I was grateful they put our senior photos on our name tags, because I wouldn’t have recognized a lot of my classmates now. We all look a bit different.

It was especially fun seeing some of my friends I was really close to in high school, especially the members of my first two rock bands, The Blades and The Signets, which eventually became Backtrack (a much better name). We laughed when we remembered some of the gigs we played, like one frat party where the people dancing and drinking would accidentally spill beer on me and I’d get shocked when it hit my hands on my electric guitar.

Amazingly, a couple of the guys remembered the first two songs I ever wrote, “As If I Didn’t Know” and “Time Will Tell.” They could even remember the melodies and the words. First, “As If I Didn’t Know”:

You’re whispering in my ear,
What you’re saying makes my insides glow
You’re wishing I’d hold you near
As if I didn’t know.

And “Time Will Tell”:

Time will tell before too long
Whether we are right or wrong
But we’re in love for now
Time will tell.

I know, I know, brilliant. Especially for a 15 year old. Amazing they could remember the words and melodies. That’s the power of music.

We didn’t do any dancing at the reunion. Probably a good thing. A number of us would probably have wound up in the ER with dislocated hips or heart attacks. It was fun, just hanging out and talking with each other. And it was great because there didn’t seem to be any cliques or looking down on each other, like we did in high school. It was just a bunch of old people having fun.

One thing that touched me was when I walked past a display of photos titled, “Gone But Not Forgotten” – people from our class who died in the last 50 years. Out of a class of around 350, 42 people have died. I knew a few who had, but was sadly surprised to see a number I didn’t know had passed away. Which made me think, my photo could be there. Why am I alive? And Why has God let me live all these years? And I was especially moved to think that God invaded my life just a few years after high school and changed me forever. And I wish I could tell all my classmates how he changed me. I hope some will read this.

I was raised by loving parents in Tulsa Oklahoma. My Dad and Mom were solid practicing Catholics. My Dad went to 6:00 Mass every day before he went to work for an oil company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mom and Dad sent us to St. Mary’s elementary school. I had some really nice nuns for teachers and a couple really terrible ones, like Sister Mary Raineldis, who we called Sister Rain-in-the-Face, who would paddle kids with a dictionary. I was an altar boy, got really good grades in school, and my parents had signed me up to go a Jesuit seminary after 8th grade. I was a pretty good boy, except for some of the pranks I would play on my younger sisters and brother.

But everything changed the night of graduation from 8th Grade. The school always gave away Outstanding Student Awards to the boy and girl with the best grade point average. Out of only 8 boys in the class, I had the best average. I had been told that by teachers. But when it came time for the award, they called the name of my good friend Jim. I was devastated. Didn’t know what happened. Well my Mom found out. Jim’s mother was a teacher in the school, and they gave it to Jim because of her, even though my grades were better. My mother was furious, went to the principal, and a week or two later they gave me a trophy with a different title. But Mom was done with the church and the school.

So when my Dad came home one day and said his company offered him a job in their office in Indiana, PA, my Mom said, “We’re moving!” I didn’t want to. Didn’t want to leave all my friends. Didn’t want to move to a town that couldn’t even come up with its own name but stole it from a state. But Mom was adamant. She wanted nothing more to do with that church or the school that cheated me out of a trophy.

So we moved to Indiana, PA. My parents went to the local priest and told them I had been signed up for the seminary, but his advice was, “I would wait until after high school. I think it would be good for him to discover girls. Then see if he still wants to go to the seminary.”

I never went to the seminary. I continued on as a Catholic, though my drift began not long after that. In high school I started smoking, and lying about it to my parents. As I said earlier, joined a rock band. Never drank in high school until graduation night, when some friends and I sneaked off from a party and had a six pack.

But in college the drinking escalated. And eventually I got into drugs. Did a lot of marijuana, and took LSD a couple times. By the time I graduated I was getting drunk pretty much every night. My parents never said anything about it, though I was still living at home. I’m sure they must have heard me come in late every night, but they never confronted me.

I also had a few different girlfriends in college. That didn’t go so well either. Despite having some physical relations, I was so selfish, I was just never really happy in my relationships, though the girls were really sweet girls. I was just too self-absorbed.

After college, I moved to Philadelphia, where I lived in a cockroach infested basement of an old apartment building while working in a cheesy art gallery. My plan was to become an artist, and get my work into galleries. I took my stuff to a few galleries, and got a couple paintings in one, but I was just too undisciplined to make any real progress. Plus I was still getting drunk every night. I still had a girlfriend, who was a wonderful girl, but I was sinking into my sin and selfishness and misery.

I remember one night scouring my apartment to try to find a penny because I was one cent short of having enough to buy a draft at the local bar. I knew that wasn’t good. But I needed a beer. On top of my other misery, I was till trying to live out my Catholic faith. I knew it was wrong to get drunk. So I would go to confession every week. But I couldn’t change my life. Every night I would say the Act of Contrition asking for forgiveness of sins I drifted off to sleep.

I didn’t know it but God had a plan for me. Before I left for Philadelphia, someone had told me I should get a Bible and try to read a small amount every day. He said, “Just read it and do what it says.” So I had bought a paperback bible called “Good News For Modern Man.” I began reading about Jesus. One day in my misery I actually cried out to God and said, “God, if you will help me I will do anything you want.” And the first thought that came to my mind is that God would tell me to be a missionary to Alaska. I thought, “Well, I guess if God told me to do that he would give me what it takes to do it.”

I didn’t see any changes right away, but God was up to something.

My girlfriend was an airline stewardess, and after visiting me one weekend, she called me and said, “Guess what? I was working this flight and there was a guy wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Jesus on it, so I said to him, “Don’t you think you’re being disrespectful by wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Jesus on it? And he started to tell me all about Jesus.” She was definitely excited about Jesus. “Yeah,” I said, “I know all about Jesus. I go to church every Sunday.” And I ended the conversation.

Not long after that I had to move back home to my parents’ home, 23 years old, broke and discouraged. One weekend, when my girlfriend was visiting she opened the newspaper and said, “Hey! Here’s the guy from the plane! The guy with the Jesus t-shirt. He’s going to be speaking at a retreat center 15 minutes from here. We have to go see him!” “Okay,” I said, with about as much enthusiasm as if she said we should eat sardines.

So the next evening my girlfriend, my parents (who had recently started going to a prayer meeting and were probably saved) and I went to a little country church in a place called Brush Valley. I was greeted at the door by an older man who extended his hand and said, “Praise the Lord, brother!” to which I weakly replied, “Uhhh, yeah, praise the Lord.” When they started singing “This is the day, this is the that the Lord has made, that the Lord has made, we will rejoice, we will rejoice and be glad in it, and be glad in it….” and clapping their hands, I didn’t know if I would be able to take this simple repetitive kind of singing. I was used to prog rock like Yes and Kansas and these were like kindergarten songs.

But when the speaker started, the young man who had worn the Jesus t-shirt, he was unlike anyone I had ever heard. He was excited about the Lord. Jesus was real to him. He was an engaging speaker. There was something different about him.

Afterwards, my girlfriend said, “Hey let’s go up and meet him.” So I reluctantly went with her and my mom and dad. The first thing he said to me was, “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?” To which I said, “Well, I guess so, I go to church every Sunday.”

“No,” he said, “Have you ever PERSONALLY asked Jesus into your heart?”

“Well, I guess not,” I said.

“Well why don’t you do that right now?” He said. “I can lead you in a prayer.”

So I did. I asked Jesus into my heart. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I really did want God to help me and change me.

There were no fireworks. No goosebumps. I didn’t feel any different. But I did believe in Jesus. I went home that night and believed that something had happened. Didn’t know what.

But nothing changed immediately. I started going to the prayer meeting my parents attended. But I kept going to the bar every night and getting drunk. No one told me that after I believed in Jesus I should turn from my sins and follow him. No one told me I could be free from the power of sin. So for the next year I was pretty miserable. I’d go to the prayer meeting, then go to the bar. I felt even more guilt than I had before my prayer to receive Jesus.

Then a friend invited me to a Bible study in the basement of a local church. That night the speaker talked about our need to turn from sin. At the end, I stood up with others and committed myself to Jesus to change. Not long after that I read Romans 6, which said:

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set freeb from sin…. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (RO 6.6-7,12-14)

I was one with Christ, and no longer a slave of sin! I didn’t have to sin! I didn’t have to obey sin any more. Sin no longer had dominion over me!

John 3:16 says:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

And Romans 10:13 says,

“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

The good news of Jesus is that he is God, and that he became a man, and lived a sinless life of perfect obedience to his Father. Then he took our sins upon himself, as if he had committed them, and was crucified on a cross and suffered the wrath of God to pay the penalty our sins deserved. Then, after suffering in our place, he died, was buried, then rose from the dead on the third day. Then he appeared to many, then ascended into heaven where he reigns as Lord of Lords. When we believe this good news and call upon him to save us, he forgives our sins and gives us eternal life. We are born again, and joined to Christ.

Then we should begin to follow him as disciples. We should be baptized and turn from sin and begin a life of learning about Jesus and obeying his commands.

Jesus rescued me from my sins. He saved me. I was freshly reminded of his mercies to me at my reunion, especially when I looked at the photos of my classmates who died. I had been with one of them, Gerry, in his last days of battling cancer. He had called upon Jesus to save him, and I had helped baptize him in his bathtub a few short weeks before he died. I know I will see him again someday. I don’t know about the others.

I hope some of my classmates will read this and believe in Jesus. If you are reading this and have never called upon Jesus, I urge you to do that today. Nothing matters more than your eternal salvation. Get a bible and I’d suggest that you start by reading the gospel of John, then read the other gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Then dig into the rest of the New Testament. Try to find a church that believes the good news of Jesus and believes the Bible is the inspired word of God.

If you have any questions, I would be glad to try to answer them. Thanks for reading this!

Mark Altrogge

I’m a pastor at Saving Grace Church in Indiana, PA. I’m married to Kristi, have 5 kids, and a growing number of grandkids. I enjoy songwriting, oil painting and coffee, not necessarily in that order.

18 comments

  • Mark…. what a beautifully written presentation. I am so proud to know you and be your friend and classmate.

  • An amazing testimony Mark. I love how God works in our lives to get us to know him more and more. You have built an incredible ministry over the years that has benefited many. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you Lynne! Yes God certainly works in our lives in many amazing and unexpected ways – thanks for reading and your encouragement!

  • Hi Mark! Wonderful to see you again at the reunion. I have so many fond memories of great times with you and the bands, the music, your creativity… especially one trying to learn quitar from you at my Mother’s house…you were so patient! There are too many great experiences and memories to list. You remember. I reminded you of how your music and art talents have always impressed and stayed with me through all these years – proud to own one of your paintings that came from my mother that I have passed on to my daughter while sharing the stories with the next generation. So happy you could come back and visit with us this past weekend…so great to see you and your Spirit – and thank you for sharing your journey. Your message is powerful and a positive testimony that we are Blessed to be alive. Chris

    • Thank you Chris! It was really great seeing you too! Great traveling down memory lane with you and our classmates. Yes, we are certainly blessed to be alive!

  • Thanks for sharing Mark! Your ministry and music have been such a blessing over the years! –I love your artwork also! My prayer is that your message will touch the hearts of those of our classmates who need the Lord in their lives! Take care! Sorry that we didn’t get to talk more!

  • Thanks for sharing your conversion story- you are a great example of God’s love and mercy as you grew in faith!

  • Mark, when I first heard that you were coming to the reunion I was happy, but not sure why. We didnt know each other in school, and although we are “friends” on Facebook, we have not interacted since graduation. But reading your words today uplifted me and made me realize there are things missing in my life. I will make it a duty to search and learn. Thank you.

    • Hi Barb, this means so much to me that you would “search and learn” – if I can do anything to help or encourage you please let me know!

  • Mark, your story is profound. I am Catholic, and I love my religion. I was saved, spiritually, when I was baptized.
    Jesus has saved me, physically, on a few occasions. I truly have felt His presence in me when I was annointed. Others may disappoint us, and let us down. Jesus never lets us down. Thank you for sharing your heart felt story.. So sorry I couldn’t make it to our reunion. I understand is was a great time, and was enjoyed by all. God bless. Janice Starry

    • Hi Janice, thanks for your comments! Yes you are right, Jesus never lets us down. I’m sorry you weren’t able to make the reunion, but it is so good to hear from you. I pray the Lord will bless you richly!

  • A powerful testimony to the change that Christ brings to a person’s life. Thank you, Mark, for sharing your story. I hope that all who read it will accept Jesus as Savior and allow Him to change their lives as well.

    • Thank you LuAnn! I pray that Jesus would bring all our friends and classmates to know him and love him and experience his love and salvation too!

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