When I was in 3rd grade, I played a significant role in a youth musical at our church. I was several years younger than the rest of the cast, but the part called for a little brother, so they brought me in (if there was an audition process, I can't recall it). I had two solos, scores of lines of dialogue and was in the thick of the action for pretty much the whole program. The first time we performed, I blanked on the first verse of my initial solo. The words were just lost. I stood there, quaking like a rabbit on the highway, knowing the words would not come back to me. So I waited.
I felt that ball of paralysis in my gut, but I was able to sing again when the chorus came. With each word I sung and spoke--remembered--it eased. And by the time we'd finished, I felt no shame at botching a few lines. I was, however, confused, maybe even a little hurt.
"Why did they laugh at me?" I asked my Mom. The script, at one point, called for me to run out the back of the chapel screaming. As I did, I heard laughter behind me.
"They weren't laughing at you, honey," Mom said. "They thought you were cute. You were acting."
I've spent most of my life in fear of being laughed at. I don't ascribe this failing to this event. It's just the way I am. It causes me to shrink from certain situations, to keep my thoughts to myself for fear of saying the wrong words, for seeming foolish or ill-informed. Sometimes, I am able to overcome, when my emotions boil, when the task of holding everything in becomes to great.
I imagine there are those out there who will laugh at me after reading this, think me ignorant.
I have to tell you something.
My parents raised me in the Baptist faith. Southern Baptist, no less. Those of you not well-versed in such matters should know that being a Southern Baptist is a full-time gig. There are services on Sunday morning. Sunday School. Services on Sunday evening. On Wednesdays. Tuesday nights, my Mom worked with senior citizens, often deputizing my sister and I to help out. I was in the children's choir, then the youth choir, with practice multiple times a week. I both attended and taught Vacation Bible School.
To sum up, church and God were a constant presence in my upbringing. I became a Christian at age 6. Yes, age 6. During the benediction, I said to my Mom, "I have to go." She thought I meant the bathroom. I meant the altar.
You can argue a child is in no position to make a conscious decision at that age. I understand that. I also know that moment is as clear to me today as it was 37 years ago. I remember every step I took up that center aisle (and it was a long way, as we were sitting in the back). I see Dr. Morton's face as I approached and him whispering in my ear, asking me if I knew what I was doing. I was adamant. He baptized me soon after and I have perfect clarity of that, as well.
What followed was many years in the ministry. I was proud to serve God. I held a bible study in my backyard for other kids on my street. I relished the once-a-year-occasion when youth got to teach the adults in Sunday School. I went on all the retreats, the summer camps, the snow trips. Our choirs sang at other churches, at campgrounds and rest homes.
One of my soccer teammates' father once said he expected me to become a Pastor. I figured he was probably right.
I haven't written in a while, as you've no doubt noticed (or not; I'm really not that vital). I've carved out a number of excuses. I've not felt like it. I have no time. I don't have anything to say. I'm spending time in other, more worthwhile pursuits, like my new marriage and my golf game.
The truth is, I haven't been able to write. I've tried. Everything comes out unfocused and cliched. My energy for this space sapped. Silence, better than foolishness. Any day.
I came into my teens and, as boys of that age are wont to do, started railing against the rigid aspects of the life I had led to that point. It manifest itself in the usual ways. Disregard for parental control, the need for peer friendships and acceptance, alcohol and then drugs. Church, the cornerstone of my upbringing, became a nuisance. I was 16. I knew everything.
I started to ditch worship service, sitting in a car in the parking lot listening to music or the football game on the radio. I'd go to choir practice and then leave before the evening service. I begged illness on Sunday mornings.
By the time I left home for college, I had no intention of going to church. And I didn't. My commitment was gone. My belief was right behind it.
My second semester in college, I took a class called "Myth and Legend." It examined the "creation myths" of different civilizations. There are similarities among all of these. It was the first time I'd ever questioned the existence of God. It became something of an obsession for me. I was disappointed and angry. Any chance I got, I took religion-centric GE classes. World Religions, Philosophical Approach to Religions, Ancient Israel and, of course, The Bible, a course I figured to ace due to my background, which I did, but only thanks to hyper-diligence as the material was so far beyond what I'd learned in church.
I didn't realize it at the time, but my obsession was a way of seeking. I felt, in a word, betrayed. I looked for proof that God didn't exist, because that would be a way for me to justify my own secular-focused behavior. I tried very hard to succeed at this errand. And I did, in a way. I convinced myself enough so that I could carry on with the direction my life was headed.
Moses killed a guy. Did you know that? Smote (weeeee Biblical word!) a dude, buried him in the desert and fled Egypt, ultimately marrying and becoming a shepherd. It was later that God called to him from the burning bush, called him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. At the bush, Moses held his staff, the tool of the shepherd. God told him to cast it to the ground, where it became a serpent. After coaxing a fleeing Moses to pick up the serpent by the tail, it once again became a staff.
God had taken away a man's livelihood--Moses the sheep herder's staff--and then gave it back to him for greater purpose, to follow His instructions.
It wasn't until X left that I went back to church. The intervening years were chaotic and varied. Many times, I would have characterized my life as happy. I became a Dad, I made lasting friendships with good and genuine people, I found attention and enthusiasm in a number of pursuits. I lived.
Through it all, despite my protestations to the contrary, I held to my belief in God. I prayed, sporadically, but also with purpose, with the knowledge I was being heard. I asked for a great many things. Guidance, health, forgiveness. I meant every word. After "Amen," I went right back to living my life how I wanted.
I never paused long enough to hear Him answer. Eventually, he had to show me.
God doesn't mind making us suffer for Him.
My first time back at church was with my Mom. X was still living with me, but preparing her way out the door. I started crying midway through the service and didn't stop until we left the chapel. I can't even remember what the message was about. I don't even know why I was crying (though my general abject sadness during time in my life is a pretty good guess).
I do know that I left that day knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my troubles were entirely of my own making and that my only way out of that despair was through Him.
I haven't written here because God asked me to write what you are reading now. I didn't want to.
I started going to church regularly, having found a wonderful community near my house. It's called Water of Life and its message is "Passion for God, Compassion for People." It was the third or fourth time I went when I realized the pain I felt was not simply from X's betrayal, but from all those many years I lived in selfish service to my own ego. The myriad things, and people, I sought to fulfill me were never the answer. The nagging desire for meaning was always beyond my reach. The hurt was of my own offing.
The service that day was about regret, debilitating regret, and that once it gets inside of you, when you linger over your past mistakes and let them dictate your future, you are well and truly lost, for those mis-steps can not be corrected, they can only fester and bloom black.
It was a lesson I took to heart. Not an easy one, mind you. I forgave myself, though, as God has forgiven me and I set my heart to begin anew with Him.
Oh, but it's hard. Brand New Struggle. To give it all over to Him.
It's been many months since God asked me to write this for you. I've failed/balked at every turn. Like Moses. God has taken my words away from me, only to give them back if I follow his dictates.
I pray--and listen--more frequently now and it was in the midst of a serious discussion with Him that he told me I had to do this. I was asking for a lot. Emet and I were facing a difficult decision. We wanted answers! We got 'em.
Hers was way easier to do than mine, I assure you.
This makes me very uncomfortable. Most of you reading this have known me for a while and you can count with zero fingers the times I've mentioned my faith. Going to church, yes, but my belief? No, we haven't discussed it. I'm still that 3rd grader that doesn't want to color outside the lines, to be laughed at.
Yet, I can't deny the power I feel when I'm in worship. Every word is so meaningful, so precise and I'm often moved to pure joy. I can't deny any of this any longer. Can't not talk about it.
I was playing golf the other day and got to talking with an out-of-work teacher I'd been paired with. The conversation moved to our children and I asked where his go to school. "Water of Life," he said. I was so excited. I peppered him with questions, finally asking which service he attends. "I don't," he said. "But my wife and kids do."
"You should come," I said, before I even realized the words were out of my mouth. "You should come."
I'm learning. It's no easy thing to give yourself up completely, no simple task to suffer, to admit failure, to know that I, by myself, could not cure that long-festering emptiness that I denied, while also knowing it was always there.
And difficult to do what God asks of you even though you don't want to. So many thoughts and I shudder at my inability to get them all on the page. I didn't want to do this, but even more frightening, I don't want to do it badly. I wonder if it's all here.
And then I wake up in the morning and I write,
When He looks at me, he doesn't see all those years, bleak and without hope, and the crooked paths I wandered and the black stain of sin. God looks at me and he sees His Son, in whose image I am made and forgiven, sees only the perfect, a pure, devoted believer in Him, a simple, but eager man, whose ugliness is covered and whose debt is paid by the blood of the Lamb.
I thank God for reminding me of the words. I thank you for reading them.