The Year I lost My Identity, Father, & Marriage

I was standing outside of Evergreen Ford in Issaquah, WA in January of 2017. It was dark as I shivered and looked up at the snow and rain streaking in front of the huge lights. I was directly under one of those gas heaters pretending to be waiting on someone to buy a car. I was likely the worst car salesman in the state of Washington. Wait, you thought I was a radio “star” in Seattle? So we need to backup.

I was part of Fitz in The Morning in Seattle from (I believe) January 3rd of 2006 until the fall of 2015. At that point my contract was coming up for renewal with 100.7 The Wolf. I was severely underpaid for the position I held and the ratings we had as a show. I did some quick research, and determined the salary I would need in order to purchase the average price home in the Pacific Northwest. I then asked for that salary. Sounds fair right? Well, they did not see it that way.

In return, I was offered a $1,000 a year raise, but they were removing all endorsement and talent fees. In other words, if I made an appearance at a grand opening of a T-Mobile store, instead of paying me a few hundred dollars for the appearance they would put that in their pocket. Instead of paying me the $500 a month for endorsing a business on the radio…they put that money in their pocket. Are you picking up what I’m throwing down? It was a pay cut!

Now, before you think I’m slamming my former management…I am not, because it is their business to run. Honestly, I don’t think they thought I would “walk.” Regardless, I took a stand for myself and said I would not accept their offer, and they never came back with a counter offer. So eventually, I walked out the door, but now I’m going to tell you something very few people know!

One of the reasons I had the “balls” to walk is because I was already having discussions with KIMPS, which was the only other country radio station in Seattle. They were talking to my agent and it was basically a done deal.

I will never forget getting the call from my agent. I was sitting nervously in one of those cool hipster cafes in Seattle waiting. The phone rang and I looked at my wife as if to get permission to answer. My heart exploded when she said, “They want you and the salary will be close to $200,000 a year.” After 20 years of grinding it was finally my time! Not so fast, it would not be long until I got another call.

The operations manager contacted my agent to let her know that he didn’t know why, but there was a hiring freeze with CBS Radio, and there would be no deal. And a few months later we discovered that the same company who owns 100.7 The Wolf in Seattle purchased KMPS. Ever heard the expression, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch?”

So if you’ve read the previous blog posts then you now know that at this point I was no longer a pastor. In fact, I had totally walked away from my faith. I wouldn’t say I was an agnostic, but my life was no different than someone who did not believe in God. So, you talk about an identity crisis!

I was passionate about being a pastor, and that title and life was gone. Secondly, I enjoyed being on the radio, and that was gone! And for the next year I would spiral downward into a depression that would come to it’s peak in October of 2016. At that point, my wife told me she wanted a divorce. And then shortly after that father passed away. And so there I was, selling cars for the incredible folks at Evergreen Ford, and selling insurance for an amazing family owned agency in Bellevue, WA. I was new to both so I wasn’t making enough money for a divorce! In fact, when I met with a divorce attorney she told me to go back and tell my wife that we were too broke to get divorced! However, we moved forward with the hell that is called divorce.

And that brings us back to me standing under the heater as the rain, sleet, and snow peppered my face. At that moment, I looked up and said, “God, I can’t take anymore. I need your help.” And what would happen in the next 24 hours would be incredible. I’ll share that in the next post.

Love ya,

Tony

Where is God when Shit Happens?

In my last blog post I told you about my father’s response to the question, “Why do you believe in God?” Despite his father being brutally murdered in 1969, my father said that he simply believed in God, because of all that He had done in his life. And before I humbly help you navigate that belief let me tell you about my amazing mother Carol. Both my parents have passed, but as you’ll see their lessons continue to lead me.

My mother was born in Richwood, West Virginia (pop 1,661). She was of Irish and Scottish decent. Her father’s family dropped the O from O’Williams when coming to America. And if my recollection is correct, her mothers family dropped the O in O’Cochran. And despite being raised in a Catholic community her family navigated to the Baptist Church.

I heard my mother curse once my entire life. It was when my dad decided to play with his new electric car windows while she had her head out the window. It was new to cars of that time period, and he got confused and nearly decapitated her! As I watched my mother in the guillotine of the Ford Granada I heard her scream, “Well shit Bill!” My sister and I looked at each other speechless, and I briefly stopped breathing! Now that I’ve shared one of the funniest memories…let me share one that still breaks my heart.

I was around 15 years old when I came home from school to find my mother in tears. She was holding what appeared to be a handkerchief. I would later find out it had been anointed with oil by the deacons of the church who had prayed over my sister. The Bible teaches about the pastor and elders (deacons) coming together and praying over someone who is sick while putting oil on their forehead (sometimes using a cloth). My sister was diagnosed with the adult form of rheumatoid arthritis at 15 years of age, but at this time she was in her early 20s and in terrible pain. She would eventually have artificial joints put in several places in her body. And it has even impacted her lungs and heart. And trust me when I say, she was the good child! I was the definition of a prodigal son.

I honestly believe that only a mother can fully understand the pain my mother was in at that time. Yes, as fathers we grieve greatly when our children suffer, but there is nothing like a mother’s love. And on that day my mom was hurting for her “baby” and even asked me to join her in praying. I can remember feeling a little angry with God at that moment. And weeks later would express that to my mother. Why would God allow my sister to suffer? I asked that with more than a little bitterness. And this is when I would get my first lesson in free will.

I have always struggled with why bad things happen to very good people. And my mother and father’s lessons on free will took about 40 years to kick in! If you scroll back to the very first blog you’ll be reminded that after being a pastor I had a huge crisis of faith. And I began to ponder three theories about God:

  • God has the power to change things but chooses not to do so.
  • God doesn’t have the power to change things, and we are all on our own.
  • There is no God

Now, this is where I need to be very clear in stating I am not a Bible scholar, or any form of authority in your life. And so here is what I arrived at after much deep thought. First, God may have gone to the extreme when giving us free will. Meaning, He is all powerful, but chooses not to exercise that power in many situations. In my opinion, He got the world spinning and it is up to us…all of us to make good choices. I am not saying He doesn’t guide and direct, but ultimately we make the choices.

The part that still upsets me is that there are people who make choices that royally screw us. Sometimes it wreaks havoc on entire cities or countries! Don’t like that theory? Me either, but there is a very “in your face” Bible verse that essentially says, Who is to say the potter doesn’t have control of the clay? In other words, God made the rules because He is the potter of this big spinning ball of clay (Tony Russell Paraphrase).

Think about it, are you divorced? Have you ever had your heart broken? Did you ever get bullied? Did you ever get unjustly fired from a job? And what about sexual or physical abuse? Who made those decisions? Not God, someone exercised their free will, and you were unjustly hurt. So, why do people like my parents go through horrific times in their life, and yet believe in God? And how can they call God “good” when such horrible things happen?

The answer to the difficult question is simply put. It is because of what God did in their life to get them through those horrific times. I think Jesus and Buddha both said, “Shit happens.” Don’t be offended, even my mother used that word. Life is full of pain. As I write this my heart feels like it is breaking in half. It isn’t the first time, and unfortunately won’t likely be the last. At the end of the day we all have two choices when “shit happens” and that is…we can blame God or we can call out to Him. Well honestly, I now do both! He is graceful.

During my divorce in 2017 I thought I was going to die from the pain. The darkness was so deep and thick there were moments I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. I will never forget the night I moved out of our home. It was shortly after my 50th birthday on January 3rd (feel free to put my birthday on your calendar).

It was winter in the Pacific Northwest with the rain rapidly pounding on the roof of my car. It was as if it was in perfect rhythm with my heart that was pounding in my chest! I sat in my car struggling to drive away from the home where I once lived. I remember literally thinking it was all a bad dream, but I never woke up.

As I started the car and began to slowly pull away the light from the windows seemed to burn a hole in my chest as I began to cry uncontrollably. The pain was unbearable. I was a broken man in many ways, but I was about to cry out to God and see Him shine a light into my darkest moment. I’ll share that moment with you in the next post, but I’m not leaving you with nothing to hold onto!

One of my favorite verses says, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalms 34:18). It doesn’t say He caused or even allowed you or I to be “crushed.” It doesn’t answer the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people.” It does say something very powerful! God will be close to us, and not only that, He will save us! My next post will demonstrate that for you as I share the protestant version of a Hail Mary! I literally said a prayer with only 4 words, but it had a powerful return!

I love you,

Tony

Please subscribe by entering your email above to the left, and consider going back and reading the first few posts to catch up. Thank you for allowing me to share my story, and I hope you’ll share this post with others.

The Murder of 1969

I can remember my father buying me a CB radio for my bedroom! We called them CB base stations! I was just a child and thought my base station meant that I would be able to talk to the world! It was actually more like a 50 mile radius due to the hilly terrain of West Virginia. I then quickly built my own studio…I established my home base with maps, charts, and a list of definitions for the codes and lingo. From Cow’s Creek to Frazier’s Bottom, West Virginia the hills were alive with:

Breaker breaker channel 11 this is the Jackrabbit…you there Tree-Stump? Come on back Gigglin Chick. I’m 10-10 listenin in!

Wait, did I say I broadcasted from a studio? It was actually a corner of my closet. It wasn’t even a walk-in closet. My chubby butt had trouble shutting the closet door, but I was talking to the world! Actually, I was talking to my friends Kevin, Dickie, and Dennis whose homes were so close we could’ve just yelled from our windows, but little did I know this would be the beginning of a long career of broadcasting to millions. And again, that may be an exaggeration. I have been blessed to be on the radio in the major markets of Dallas/Ft Worth, Miami, Seattle, and Portland, OR.

So as you can see, from the time I was a child I’ve wanted to share my thoughts with the world! And as far back as I can remember I’ve known about Jesus, and very interested in all things God and Bible. I also had questions…lots of questions! And fortunately for my dad I fired away when he would come in to pray with me each night.

I once asked my father a very complex question, and his very simple answer would honestly come back to me almost 35 years later, and be pivotal in my road back home to my faith. The question was, “Why do you believe in God?” Before I give you his answer, let me give you some background on Billy Ray Russell.

My father was raised in the coal mines of West Virginia. Places we referred to as “the holler.” Meaning, to get there you took a road between two mountains that lead to somewhere no one should live! He once showed me a picture of himself as a little boy, and I asked if that was a barn behind him? He simply laughed and said, “No that was our home.”

My father was nicknamed “Wild Bill” in his youth, because he loved to drink and apparently drove like he was a stunt double for the Dukes of Hazard. Despite his poverty and tendency to make poor choices he was highly intelligent. He was even double promoted, and had a gift for math. This would one day lead to him being a bank president before having obtained a college degree!

My mother once told me that Wild Bill would sneak and drink “a little” before I was born. His preference was vodka, which he would hide in a JAR under his seat. Mom discovered that stash and he found other ways to hide his alcoholism. Mom always wanted him to go to church with her, but he never did until one night…one Sunday night when she was sick he went alone!

In the Baptist church they did what was called an altar call at the end of the service. This is when the reverend tries to close the deal! He will ask if anyone would like to come forward and accept Christ as their “personal savior.” As the story is told, my dad didn’t wait for the pastor to go into his sales pitch. As soon as the pastor finished praying my dad just walked up and stood in front of him. The pastor of the small Baptist church in St. Albans, West Virginia didn’t even get to have the pianist throw down some “Just as I am” or “Old Rugged Cross!” He looked at my father and asked, “Bill do you want to get saved” and my father shook his head yes. Some of his friends made a bet as to how long it would last. Whoever bet on eternity won. However, an unspeakable tragedy was about ready strike the Russell family in December of 1969.

His parents were able to work very hard and save enough money to open a general store in the small town of Marmet (population 1,473). My grandfather Henry may have had an 8th grade education, but my grandmother Ada was the entrepreneur and brains of the operation. At 4’ 11” she some how figured out a way to run things at home and the store! It was likely due to her being very intelligent despite only having a 6th or 7th grade education.

The store was connected to their home, and one night two young men broke in, robbed them, and attempted to beat them too death. My grandmother survived with massive head injuries, had to learn to speak and walk again, and my grandfather did not survive. You can only imagine the crime scene, which from my understanding…was seen by my father and his 3 older siblings.

Now, I want you to picture yourself living that nightmare as we move toward my father answering the question, “Why do you believe in God?” I was just a baby and therefore don’t remember the darkness that fell over my family. I was able to read some of the court documents when I as a young man, and I began crying at the graphic details from the trial. The two convicted men admitted to premeditated murder, and even stated my grandfather begged for his life.

I am not trying to sensationalize this tragedy, but please picture hearing that about your own father. I want us to do our best to feel the pain my father must have endured. I want you to sense what my father experienced, because when I asked him why he believed in God his answer was, “Because of what He has done in my life.”

If you read that and respectfully shook your head at my father’s answer then I get it. Stories like his are what fueled my departure from following God. I got to a point where I would read tragic stories about school shootings, childhood cancer, or other tragedies and ask, “Where is this God we are told is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent?” And the answer I would get from the faithful was always the same two words that made me want to scream! Free will.

If you’ve made it this far its a miracle based on research! So let’s take a break, and I’ll start working on the next blog post where we will look at free will, and I’ll introduce you to a Saint who Billy Ray also credited for changing his life. My mother Carol Rae Russell.

Yep, we are southerners…the middle name has to be Ray or Rae right? Not so fast, I’ll also tell you about my sister Diane Michelle who was diagnosed with an adult form of rheumatoid arthritis at 15 years of age. She was the good kid in the family, and yet she has been in pain for 45 years. And as you have guessed, that drove a wedge between me and God, but as you learn more about momma Russell it’ll helps us answer the question, “Why do you believe in God?” Spoiler alert, free will sucks, but we’ll do our best to tackle it.

I love ya,

Tony

The Journey Far from Home

It was a typical day in the foothills of the Cascades with cloudy skies, a slight mist, and just enough wind to make for another challenging run. I had downloaded an audio book by some guy named Christopher Hitchens, and the title alone made me very uncomfortable. I can remember thinking, “Well if God is paying attention I might just get struck by lightening.” And despite having been a pastor for several years, and a professed Christian since I was 6 years-old…I honestly wasn’t sure God was paying attention. In fact, I was beginning to completely question His existence as I pushed the start button and began listening to “God is NOT Great.”

Tears fill my eyes as I end that last paragraph sipping rye whiskey in a bar that is loudly playing Mumford and Sons . I am no longer a Baptist so I’m allowed to drink in public, but the tears are because it was such a dark time in my life. For those of you who don’t know me I should give you a little background.

As you’ve likely guessed, I was not your typical pastor in many ways, but the one thing that made me unique is that I was on one of the top rated morning radio shows in Seattle. Our bigger than life host (The Fitz) often referred to me on the show as Pastor Tony. And at the time I was married with three beautiful children, and working for a local church as an associate pastor. I truly did my best to live out my faith on and off of the radio. I loved Jesus with all my heart, and believed He offered people peace, hope, and unconditional love.

The morning show was (in my opinion) truly incredible, and well put together by the host. Fitz was a young man transitioning from the party days of his youth to a responsible father and husband, and put the H in ADHD! Our original cohost was a talented Seattle radio legend near the end of her radio career. She was a self proclaimed cannabis loving hippy who proudly leaned as far left as she could get! And there I was, in midlife trying to figure out how to pay my bills, and spread the “good word.” It was the best sitcom on radio!

As I said, during my time on Seattle radio I was an associate pastor to a congregation of amazing people that I grew to love. They were kind to me and treated my family extremely well. I hoped to spend the rest of my life ministering in the Snoqualmie Valley, but over time I had a major problem with the leadership. So I resigned from the church. At that point I did something I would soon regret…I agreed to an exit interview with the board of directors.

My masters degree is in clinical psychology so I was once a licensed mental health counselor. I think I’m fairly good at spotting someone who is narcissistic. And as I made my exit…I made that unofficial diagnosis of my boss. I would then learn I was not the first to recognize his lack of integrity, and the staff had been “turned over” approximately 4 times in a 6 year period. Meaning, I was one of many to leave the staff, but rather than the board removing the leader (who was the problem) they would allow some amazing people to leave the church very wounded. And that was the beginning of the road very far from home.

Your first thought may be, I knew it! He was just bitter and resentful at the church, and took it out on God! Maybe, but it was more than that for me. The Bible (scripture) has very clear guidelines for who should be in leadership of a church, and if a person consistently falls outside of those guidelines they are to be removed from leadership. So rather than get angry with the board of directors (which had been hand picked by the pastor) I actually began to ask myself some pointed questions. Questions that weren’t rooted in anger or resentment. I just thought maybe…just maybe I had been too serious or even “religious” in how I viewed the church and Bible. And my mind began to race with judgmental questions like:

  • Do Christians really care what the Bible has to say?
  • Is the Bible really the inspired word of God?
  • What is church? Is it a business? A club that meets on Sundays?

Please understand I was not asking myself rhetorical questions. I was about to embark on a journey to find the answers. And one of the first steps was to begin reading books, blogs, and articles written by people who believed the Bible was no more than a book on the shelf, and God was NOT great. In fact, He did not exist!

As I write this I realize I may have to take you back even farther in my journey during the next post. So get ready to feel like my therapist, but sadly you won’t make $150 an hour! As we move forward my goal will not be to convince you that God is real, the Bible is inspired, or you need to turn to Jesus! I honestly don’t believe I have the power to do so. I simply want to share my story.

I will address where I am now with those pointed questions. And I feel as though I should end this post by letting you know that I love the church, and hope you have found a place to examine your faith and connect to others. A place where the leaders have integrity, and you are constantly encouraged to live life to the fullest.

Please subscribe to the blog so that you can follow me a little farther into the darkness before we head back home! I hope that my story will encourage you to ask the tough questions, and to reach out to a God that I believe is very real and loves you deeply…even when you question His existence.

Love you,

Tony

P.S. Most posts will not be this long

The Road Back Home

I’m thankful that you are taking the time to read some of my thoughts, and advice based on many years of mistakes and yes, a little education. I am a former licensed counselor and pastor. I now make my living as a radio personality and by running an insurance company.  Being a counselor or pastor hasn’t stopped me from experiencing all the challenges life brings! In midlife I began questioning everything from my self-worth to my spiritual beliefs. And if that wasn’t enough, surprise! I found myself getting divorced after almost 20 years of marriage

This would lead to a journey that many of you have also traveled.  And the journey of divorce, heart ache, midlife, loss of income, and the list goes on…can be one of great darkness, which is heighted by anxiety, depression, and soul searching. This blog is for everyone, and not just those of faith. However, God has always been a huge part of my story. I personally believe that nearly all of us will at least think about God or a god during the challenging times of our journey. And it is usually during those difficult moments (as people of faith) that we feel as though He has abandoned us. If you don’t believe in God, it may simply confirm your lack of belief. Strangely, I connect with both the believer and the non-believer.

One part of my journey (which I would like to share with you in future posts) included a decision to go from pastor to agnostic.  And I realize that last sentence “rocks” people of faith, and especially those Christians who know me personally. So, please join me as I share my journey, and spoiler alert…please understand I don’t believe I ever truly left God.  Well actually, I don’t believe He ever left me.

Take a moment to subscribe to my blog, and again remember this is for everyone! If you are an atheist or agnostic, I would love to have your thoughts if you follow along. I understand why you don’t believe…I truly do. It was just a path that I was unable to continue, and I’ll share why along the way. And have no worries, my goal is not to convert anyone, because I don’t believe I have that power.

Honestly, the people I will primarily focus on will be those in emotional pain.  You are near and dear to my heart, and my greatest desire in life is to bring light into your darkness.

You are dearly loved,

Tony

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