Zach Homol stands in my garage, balancing a double-bladed axe on his shoulders and laughing into the glass eye of my camera like he just won the lottery.
The weapon is a fake, blunt on both edges and lighter than a loaf of bread, but what it honors is quite real. It’s one of dozens of trophies Zach has won at dozens of Strongman competitions around the country to test himself against other powerful men.
He can barely hold it, though, not because of the weight but because of his own body; the thick muscles of his back and shoulders were forged for power rather than flexibility, and he needs a few tries before the trophy stays in place long enough for me to capture the pose and moment I’d asked of him.
I’ll make many more requests of Zach over the next four hours: some easy, some awkward and painful, a few messy and strange, and one with a very real chance of serious injury.
All are an effort to deconstruct and honor the faith of the man who’ll spend this day destroying a blank sheet of canvas that is both symbol and tribute, a reminder of what should and shouldn’t consume him.
But first, hell.
It’s 2004 and 12-year-old Zach crouches in terror next to his sister Alexis in her room as the nightmare rages outside her door. Their Mom’s primal shrieks at Dad are worse than ever tonight. Dad screams back at Mom and every wall shakes until his fury crushes all control and decency, and he drives his fingers and palms and fists into Mom's body once more, heaping new bruises and scars onto the old.
Their fight lurches from the threadbare living room into the kitchen, slamming into cabinets that hold no food for yet another night. The money that should have and could have filled shelves and stomachs instead coaxed more poison from another all-too-willing dealer down the street. Whatever pleasure the crack and liquor promised Mom and Dad is gone, replaced by the blind anger of the addict too broke and broken to push away the world anymore.
Lex whispers “I’m terrified” into Zach’s ear. This all she can do. This is all she can say. This is all of what little she has left. She hopes Zach can hold back the darkness for one more night because he is her big brother. Her protector. Her hero. Everything their parents can’t be right now.
Zach’s shaking hands find hers and they huddle against each other. As he holds the most important girl in his world, he prays to God out loud, in a voice only God and Lex can hear. He begs for God’s deliverance, for Mom to survive the night, for safety, for peace, for hope of a new life far away from here. Zach’s prayer is a ragged tumble of fear and trembling, thrown at the feet of the God he hopes is still listening.
That night would be one of the last of its kind any of them would have to endure. Zach’s mom dries out, sobers up, and moves him and Lex into a duplex across town, leaving her husband behind. The violence ends. The cabinets fill. Peace reigns. Mom writes this new chapter with her bare hands holding down three jobs. The exhaustion and temptation never let up, but neither does she. She won’t let anything or anyone destroy the new fences she’s stretched around her children and her new life.
As sure as he is of his own beating heart, Zach knows these are God's impossible answers to his own whispered prayer from the bottom of a pit.
This should be where we learn of Zach’s transformation into a towering pillar of faith, a soldier for Christ, an everyday evangelist. All the evidence bends that way: deliverance should give way to decision, should give way to purpose and mission and meaning and the long joy of a life lived in God’s shadow.
But life is not that simple. Neither is Zach.
He won’t pray to Jesus in the presence of another living soul for another 12 years. His parent’s demons will hunt him down. He will break the heart of a woman 300 miles and over a decade down the road, along with the laws of God and man. He will lose everything until he finally learns to let go of everything he carries.
It’s 2014 and a 6,000-pound block of slate plummets from the darkness above and crashes less than a foot away from where Zach Homol toils. Another 12 inches to the left and the sedan-sized boulder would’ve crushed his skull through his hardhat and splashed his body across the endless black of the cave floor. He gives the deathblow little more than a passing glance, though. This is life - his life - in a West Virginia coal mine, after all.
Every swing of a hammer could bring the walls down. Every rock thrown onto the conveyer could be his last. He is one fire, fall, flood, or explosion away from never seeing daylight again. Even the air is lethal; his body can neither destroy nor remove the coal dust seeping into his lungs with every breath. Suck in enough of it and his lungs will rot, a slow-motion suffocation from which there will be no escape or relief.
He’s known how much this hole wants to kill him since he first fell into it three years ago, but it is all he has. He tried college after graduating high school, desperate to put his three-stoplight hometown in his rearview once and for all, but he flunked out because his studies wilted in the face of a growing love affair with booze and Percocet, and a once-in-a-blue-moon flirtation with cocaine.
He could afford the most and best of each, though; Zach earns $100,000 a year as a miner now, great money for the short time he’ll be able to take a full breath.
He does what you’d expect a rich young single man to do. He buys the big house and the nice car. He gets high and drunk and loud with his buddies on the weekend, hooks up and hangs out, covers himself in tattoos, then buries himself a thousand feet underground 60 hours a week to pay for it.
In between and through it all, as he has ever since he was a scrawny 100-pound high school freshman, he lifts at the local gym for hours at a time, first for size, then for strength. Both come fast. He wants more of both, and gets more of both even faster, swelling his confidence more than he’d ever imagined. He sets out to destroy and rebuild everything hiding under his skin. Every rep and set and personal best become a declaration and demand for more out of himself because he finally believes he is made for, and ready for, more.
He quits mining for good and finds a traveling salesman job in Indianapolis, Indiana. His paycheck is one-third of what it used to be back home, he sleeps in a ramshackle excuse of a one-bedroom apartment on Indy’s east side, but he no longer worries about a mountain trying to murder him. He is building a new life, different than the one he knew and more than what anyone ever thought.
He’s also said farewell to the booze-soaked, pill-encrusted, and coke-dusted partying lifestyle. An occasional drink on the weekend is all he needs now. No cravings. No relapses. No regrets. He simply chose to never live that life again.
Impossible? You’d think so, but this is Zach Homol we’re talking about. He endured a war zone at home as a child, mastered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, packed on over 100 pounds of muscle, made a fortune then walked away from it to make something better on the bad side of a new town. He won’t let his dirty pleasures and expensive indiscretions win. They are just the latest opponents he defeated by sheer force of will because the more he knows he’s meant for keeps driving him further and farther and faster.
More becomes a god to Zach, but the one true God doesn’t. That God is relegated to society’s more convenient caricatures: the all-powerful homeboy cheering Zach on, the socially acceptable symbol he inks onto his chest and back, the divine genie granting his wishes and keeping him safe, the Patron Saint of Suburbia with the cosmic vending machine full of blessings that a few half-hearted prayers and half-remembered Bible verses and half-a-year visits to the local church will unlock.
Yet and still, the real God delivers what only he can - love, and more of it than Zach can comprehend. Zach falls head-over-heels in love with Ashley, the force of nature on the other side of Indy who was supposed to be another one-and-done hookup who he can’t get enough of. And not just her - he also falls for her young son Crew, the carefree boy from her first marriage, with a smile and heart as bright and big as his mom’s.
Zach’s heart is full, his body is full, yet the lure of more still beckons and God is still a supporting character in his story. His notebooks and dreams are stuffed with plans for his most ambitious project yet: opening a gym of his own where he could train and guide everyone from everywhere to find more of everything. So many more want more of what they think Zach has and what Zach thinks he’s found. He’s so close to opening the door and letting it all in. Closer than ever.
This should be where we learn about Zach’s triumphant launch of his gym, about his new life with Ashley and Crew, about the fulfillment of the massive potential he’s cultivated since he breathed his broken prayer to God amidst the chaos so long ago.
But life isn’t that simple. Neither is Zach. Neither is the darkness that hunts him. It wants more, too.
Back in my garage, I ask Zach, “Think about the lowest moments in your life. What words come to mind?”
He stares at the floor. He neither speaks nor moves, but he is no longer here. He’s flung his mind backwards, remembering everything you know about him thus far: the failures, the almost’s and shouldn’t’s, the dark and blurry and missed and lost.
I give him a moment, then hold out a black marker. “Write those words on the canvas,” I ask.
He squats low to comply but discovers the task is harder than it looks. The words he’s looking for are buried deep inside himself, reminders of paths he doesn’t want to walk anymore. Unearthing them will hurt.
Then there is the canvas itself; the coarse, loose fabric resists Zach’s initial casual strokes of the Sharpie. He instead has to pull the canvas taut, press the marker down hard, then make multiple passes over each letter so the ink stands out clearly against the beige surface.
Almost like a tattoo. Exactly like a tattoo.
I ask him what he’s thinking about.
“Ashley. And the gym.”
It’s 2016 and Zach is missing.
It’s the cruelest absence, where the absent chose the abductor. In March of that year, Zach had swung the doors open at Iron Valley Barbell for the first time, the gym he now owns, the gym that now owns him.
He and Ashley are living together - he moved in with her the day he launched IVB - but the gym is his real home. In Zach’s mind, it has to be. 5 tons of weights and machines are expensive toys inside an even more expensive 2700-square-foot rental space unless others are pushing and pulling them about, so he sets out to draw anyone and everyone to IVB by any means necessary.
His pride moves him to pursue more clients and more memberships and more buzz and more success and more money. I've done all the right work and made all the right sacrifices, he rationalizes. Don’t let me come up short now. The mines and youth and partying couldn’t stop me. Don’t let my dream do it. Give me more and I will be happy, secure, free.
And the god of More is only too happy to give Zach what he thinks he wants.
The gym grows. So does Zach’s pride in himself. He rejoices in what he thinks he built. Clients and memberships and buzz and success and money flow into IVB and over the man who thinks he owns it. Hands once covered in black West Virginia coal, laboring for a faceless corporation, are now caked in white weightlifting chalk as he lifts and encourages the men he counts as brothers, an elemental sign of his transformation. He thinks he’ll be happier tomorrow because it will surely have a little more than today.
But the god of More is selfish, greedy, and cruel.
IVB’s success demands 20-hour days, 7 days a week, from Zach. He’s swimming in the deep end of the ocean, trying to breathe life into IVB while keeping his head above water. When he does fall into bed, his sleep is evasive and exhausting. Every other priority Zach had disappears. He misses Crew’s sporting and school events, most family functions, lazy weekends and date nights with Ashley, and meaningful time with what few friends he’s had time to make. He physically fills a seat at the Thanksgiving dinner table and a spot around the tree on Christmas morning, but is attention is clearly and painfully on the gym.
Zach and Ashley’s relationship buckles under the strain. Harsh words and hard looks now rule their time together. Ashley won’t let the man she still loves push her and her son aside, though. We have to fix this, she implores. We need some help, Zach…counseling, something, anything.
His pride stiffens. I’m not the problem, Ash, you are. You don’t appreciate all I’m doing for you and Crew, Ash. You don’t appreciate how hard I’m working. IVB is my dream, my vision, my business, my way of providing for all of you. It is what I’ve wanted for a long time. I can't let anything get in the way now. Around and around they go, neither willing to give an inch.
They spend a Friday and Saturday locked in primal emotional combat, screaming and swearing and slamming doors. No blows are thrown, but both sides are wounded all the same. They wake up one fateful Sunday morning, bleary-eyed and hoarse and exhausted. Both want to stay asleep and hide from the day and each other. Ashley eventually wills herself out of bed and prepares for her familiar Sunday morning destination: worshipping at the big church just up the road.
Her routine in her master bathroom that morning is silent and solitary, like every other Sunday before, just like every Sunday to come, she predicts sadly. Zach has never once accompanied her to church, another fault line that cracked open during last night’s blowup. A cross may be tattooed into Zach's back and chest, but for as little regard as he gives to God daily, his faith is just as skin-deep and unfinished.
She hears shuffling footsteps behind her on the bedroom carpet. She assumes it’s Crew, her constant Sunday companion, coming to check in on her. I hope he still wants to worship when he’s Zach’s age, she wonders, the footfalls growing louder behind her.
She turns to greet her son, only to look directly into Zach’s eyes instead. She braces for the resumption of hostilities but his voice is low and calm for the first time in too long. He returns her gaze and states firmly, finally, “I’m coming with you.”
He doesn’t know what to expect when he walks in with Ashley and Crew. Traders Point Christian Church is the biggest church he’s ever seen, let alone walked into. It’s one of the largest of its kind in the country, orders of magnitude removed from the 15-member church he’d try to stay awake in during Easter and Christmas services as a kid. Nearly every one of the sanctuary’s 2,000 seats are filled by the time Ashley and Zach find two empty ones of their own after escorting Crew to the kid’s section of the campus.
They stand shoulder to shoulder and face the stage. It’s the closest they’d been without screaming at one another in weeks.
The music of the worship team moves over and through both of them, every verse a comfort, every hopeful chorus a reminder of the new life in Jesus that still waits for both of them.
With every note, an unseen weight lifts from Zach's tired and overwhelmed mind. Then, the sermon. Pastor Aaron Brockett's message about the weakness of man, the love of Jesus, the recklessness of grace, and the hope of Heaven shatter pride’s grip around Zach’s heart.
Zach stands with the rest of the assembly as the sermon ends and the music resumes. Stage lights rise and fall but the music goes quiet for Zach. Not because of what is happening on stage, but because of what’s happening right beside him, something he’s never seen before and will never forget.
Ashley is still there, but she is the one who is missing.
Her hands are lifted high over her head in unashamed worship, her voice joining a collective choir so joyful that the walls have to shake. Her eyes are shut but the tears streaming from them are evidence of a beauty only she can see. She is entirely, perfectly, somewhere else. The filth and pressure and pain of this world can’t find her or touch her in this moment. To Zach, she has never looked so beautiful, radiant, and free. To Zach, his own pride and depravity have never been more offensive. To Zach, Jesus has never looked and sounded so real, and so he joins the chorus.
He hums, then sings, then lifts his hands beside Ashley’s as his own praise bursts forth and joins hers in unrestrained joy. He has never done this before, never acted like this around anyone before, never felt this free before, and he does not care because he’s hearing God - the real and eternal one - in full throat everywhere in and around him.
In return, he hears affirmation, not of himself or of his own fleeting ambitions, but of and from the God who has heard his every prayer, deflected every boulder, borne every weight, healed every wound, stopped every addiction, and forgiven every sin, the God of infinite love and justice who, through the saving power of Jesus Christ, annihilates the counterfeit notions peddled by Zach’s god of More.
To this day, neither Zach nor Ashley will be able to tell you exactly why he chose that Sunday to join her at church instead of the dozens of others that came before it. Their previous 24 hours of relentless emotional combat should’ve destroyed what little relationship they had left.
Maybe it was because it was the most improbable Sunday of all, the one at which he was least expected, the hardest one of all. That would make sense, because this is Zach Homol we’re talking about, the man who prefers the hardest road and the highest stakes. Faced with losing the best woman and the greatest loves he’s ever known, maybe this ultimate test finally asked him to lift the heaviest, most vital weights of all - the lives of others above his own.
When the final song ends, they embrace like it’s their first and last time, hearts finally broken, heads finally clear. Ashley whispers “I love you” into Zach’s ear. This is all she can do. This is all she can say. This is everything she will ever need.
Zach’s shaking hands find hers and they huddle against each other. As he holds the most important woman in his world, he prays out loud, in a voice only God and Ashley can hear. He begs for Ashley’s forgiveness, for peace, and for Christ to reign in every corner of his life from that moment forward.
Because a new life with God, in God, and for God is that simple.
“What comes to mind when you think of Jesus?”
This begins my final series of questions for Zach, and the lottery-winner smile splits his face once again.
I press a small can of paint and a paintbrush into Zach’s hands, then tell him to write his answers on the canvas.
The words come first: love and power, appropriate because they’re the two reasons why Jesus hung from, and forever defeated, the exact symbol Zach chose to unite them.
Then, images: a peaceful sunrise over the mountain, a warm house, a full table with Ashley and Crew by his side, the only heaven he’ll ever need in this life.
His last entry on the upper-left of the sheet is interrupted by none other than Crew, bursting into the garage to see what Zach has been doing on the other side of the door. He’s been waiting impatiently in the house with Ashley for the last 20 minutes because I need something from them, too.
I ask Zach to step inside, pass his paint can and brush to Ashley, then hand a thick marker to Crew. I give the same question to both: “What comes to mind when you think of Zach?”
Crew practically attacks the canvas, brandishing his marker like a weapon. He wastes no time tattooing Zach’s part of his heart onto the rough surface, each word an enthusiastic upper-case masterpiece - JOY and STRENGTH and MY PERSON and HAPPY! and CHAMP! and SAVE! and GO ZACH!
Ashley’s list is more restrained but no less heartfelt: light, laugh, home, loves Jesus, saved me, hope, giver. Every word is good fruit grown in the hard and easy seasons she’s spent with the man re-entering the garage.
Zach beams as he reads what his family has said about him in bold red, the same red as his, red like love, red like the most important words ever recorded in the most important book ever written. His eyes water as he realizes that nothing on their side of the canvas has been, nor will ever be, possible without his total surrender to the Savior he honored on his.
Now it’s Ashley’s turn to grin as she wraps her arms around Zach and flashes the engagement ring he surprised her with 6 days earlier. On her hand, the diamond is Zach’s journey made perfect: flawless beauty from poisonous coal, eternal clarity pressed together in the hardest depths and darkest paths.
With a kiss, Zach releases her and braces as Crew confidently launches himself into Zach’s torso because he knows his CHAMP! will never drop him or let him down. They roughhouse for a minute, then I ask Ashley and Crew to step into Zach’s hands and let me take a picture of him holding them up.
I don’t have to ask Zach if he’s physically capable; he can grip twice their collective body weight in one fist. The real challenge is balance, the loss of which will mean a sudden and painful collision with the frigid concrete floor. After a few awkward and hilarious attempts, everyone finds their place and equilibrium long enough for me to capture the moment.
Ashley and Crew step down safely and head home, leaving me and Zach alone in the garage again. I hand him the paint and brush, and make one final request: draw a thick red line through each of the black words he scrawled earlier. He’s been stepping over them for hours today, and for years. Let this final symbolic act neuter them always and in all ways. Let love cover these lies. Let them stay under his feet. Let him walk over them and never to them because the only words that matter are the ones in red ever before him.
As he does, I finally notice what Zach painted in the upper-left of the canvas, the portion he had to finish in a hurry before Crew’s playful assault.
It is a chapter and verse reference from the Bible. A very specific one. And I weep.
Because out of the 31,102 verses that comprise the Christian Bible, he selected one of the passages I’d read over a year ago that inspired me to tell Zach’s story, and others like his, in the first place.
A passage about faith.
A passage about hope.
A passage about the seen and the unseen:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”