Another voice, crying in the wilderness. Not a prophet, but telling the truth.
The Passion of Southern Christians https://nyti.ms/2nWpqzx
Another voice, crying in the wilderness. Not a prophet, but telling the truth.
The Passion of Southern Christians https://nyti.ms/2nWpqzx
In the world of management theory, there is an axiom known as the Peter Principle, which essentially states, “Within any organization, an individual will rise to his or her level of incompetence, and then fail.” This is usually interpreted to mean that once a person begins receiving recognition and promotions based upon their abilities, they will continue doing the same thing until it stops being effective, with “fail” here meaning an end to advancement. At this point three options exist: become satisfied at their current plateau; develop new abilities in order to advance again; or leave and start over in a new organization, in hopes of a better result. (One could remain in that place and pursue a different career path, but that is still starting over.) Each of these options has merit, and it is up to the individual to decide which is in his overall best interest. Making that decision wisely, however, requires an accurate and honest assessment of the reason for the “failure”, and this is often a very difficult thing to do. An incorrect assessment will often place the blame for failure on others instead of ourselves, and lead to a cycle of new beginnings and poor endings…wash, rinse and repeat.
According to the doctrines of Alcoholics Anonymous (among others), the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result each time; by that definition I was insane for much of my adult life. By 2005, I had changed jobs six times, looking for the company that would appreciate my abilities while ignoring the fact that I didn’t follow rules very well (pro tip – no such company exists). My personal life traveled a similar arc, as I consistently dishonored my commitment to the woman who had stood by me for more than ten years, waiting for me to tie up the loose ends of my previous relationship and finally marry her. I had also (behind her back, two years previously) resumed using cocaine, coming up with a variety of excuses to “explain” my irritability, poor sleeping and eating, and disappearing money. She cannot be blamed for not catching on, because 1) addicts are astoundingly good liars; and 2) the easiest person to lie to is the one who wants to believe you. Eventually, things spiraled completely beyond my control, and I came home one night to her waiting to confront me. She said she had two questions, the first one being, “Can you look me in the eye and tell me the truth?” I already knew the second question, so I answered both with one sentence – “Yes, I am using coke again; in fact I’m high right now.” Of course, she was expecting that, and informed me that she was taking the kids and going to her mother’s house; she would expect an answer as to what I planned to do by the next day…and then she left.
That may have been the longest night of my life. I sat in a chair for hours, trying to figure out how I had gotten to this point, and what I was going to do next, but nothing made any sense…in my worldview I could blame no one but myself, and therefore I would have to be the one to fix it; but if I knew the solution, wouldn’t that have prevented me from being broken in the first place? What was I supposed to do?
I can only describe what happened next as a vision. You may or may not believe that, but for me no other description will suffice. There, in my living room, appeared a simple wooden door, with a plain brass knob. From beneath the door shone a warm, peaceful, inviting light – a stark contrast to the lonely darkness that surrounded me. I intuitively understood that I was being given a choice – stay where I was, and keep everything I had: an empty home, a shattered marriage, children who no longer respected the man I had become; or open that door and step into the light of love and forgiveness, of new possibilities. Only one condition needed to be met: I had to relinquish control of my life, and allow someone better qualified than myself to take the reins. So, I did the only thing I could do – I surrendered. I dropped to my knees on the floor, and spoke directly to God as I understood him for perhaps the first time in my life; I told Him, “I give up. I do not know what You want me to do, but nothing I have done is working, and I’m out of options, so whatever it is, I’m all in.” There was more, but that one sentence was the essence of what my heart cried out – and afterwards, I found the strength to pick up the phone and call the number for Cocaine Anonymous, and to say the words aloud: “Hello, my name is Nick, and I think I am an addict…I want to quit, but I don’t know how…can you help me?” The man I talked to located a group in my area that was holding a meeting the next day, and then stayed on the phone with me, sharing his experiences with the program during the years he had been sober. He encouraged me to invite my wife to attend the meeting with me, and to make my family a part of my process, but I should wait until she called me…he said I needed to sleep on this decision and be sure that I really meant it before I told someone else, because my credibility had been severely damaged already, and one more broken promise was the last thing I needed on my scorecard at that moment. I hung up the phone, prayed again to God thanking Him for helping me make the call and asking for the strength to actually go to the meeting. Then I laid down and slept the best night’s rest I had had in years, looking forward to the morning.
In my next post I will share how that first prayer of surrender led to a fundamental shift in how I viewed life, the universe, and everything…and how I viewed myself, as well. I hope you will continue with me, and if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to share them…it means a lot to know that what I write makes an impact in another’s life. See you then!
A brief summary of what has gone before: I grew up in a family that neither attended church nor saw any reason to do so, and they passed that on to me. My first interaction with organized religion was being taken to a revival meeting (maybe I should say, being snuck into one) at the age of ten to be baptized, because my dad felt he needed to insure I would be on the right side when Jesus came back for His people – a fairly common concern in America in the late 70’s, I must admit. Under those circumstances, I made what I felt to be a sincere profession of faith and was thereby “saved” for all eternity. Secure in that knowledge, and with no one even trying to tell me any differently, I proceeded living any way I wanted to, guided by a vague sense of “morality” that only required me to be a generally nice person and not intentionally hurt anybody. I had adopted a rigid sense of personal responsibility for the outcomes of my life, with no one to blame but myself if things went badly, and no one to credit but me if they went well.
As you may imagine, things went badly. I lied to people and manipulated them with no remorse when it appeared to serve my own interests; I drank, used drugs, was sexually active at an early age. I married very young, was unfaithful to my wife, neglected my children when those responsibilities interfered with my “freedom”, and later divorced that wife. I got into trouble with the law and spent some time in time in jail; this of course derailed a promising career in engineering. (People generally won’t hire felons for positions of responsibility, who knew?) Through all of this, I never once considered turning to God for help, or thought that I needed Him; after all, He had already done His part: He had made me to be successful, with talents and abilities that only needed to be applied, and He had sent Jesus to be my “get-out-of-hell-for-free card”; if I was a failure, then it was obviously my own fault, and therefore up to me to fix myself and live up to my potential. Once I had learned to act right, God would begin to bless me again – I expected that He would keep me alive so I would have an opportunity to improve, but otherwise I was on my own. It would take both a national tragedy and a personal one to teach me how untrue that was.
By 2001 I had settled into a fairly stable relationship with the woman who would become my current wife (we were not married yet, though we presented ourselves as such; while I had separated from my first wife several years before, I had never “gotten around to” filing the divorce) and was beginning to prosper in my career in commercial construction. One morning in September, I had just gotten back to the hotel room (the project required us to work at night so the store could remain open for business during the day) and flipped on the TV to CNN while I did paperwork and called the office before heading to bed. I glanced up briefly to listen to reporters talking about an accident involving an airplane which had struck one of the buildings at the World Trade Center, and then sat in stunned disbelief as a commercial airliner flew directly into the South Tower. I knew instantly that this was no accident, and that everything was about to change. I had no idea how true that would turn out to be, or on how many levels.
The first change was a decision to walk away from a growing habit of cocaine abuse which Karen and I had shared for about five years; like most people, we started off with small amounts used only infrequently, and like most people it grew into a regular part of our lives – a line item on the weekly budget alongside the groceries and utility bills. (We would never admit it, of course, but by then we were high-functioning addicts – far from bottoming out, but addicts nonetheless.) In spite of this, we were able to make a clean break, and walk away; the biggest difference was the manner in which we did so. My wife has always been a woman of strong faith, and in her time of need she turned to the Lord, in prayer and repentance, and leaned upon Him to see her out of the darkness. I, on the other hand, maintained steadfast confidence in my own abilities and willpower – all it required to quit, was to decide to quit, and then follow through on that choice. The idea that I could not change on my own never occurred to me, and certainly I didn’t need God to help me – once again, I was still alive and rational, so His part was done and the rest was on me.
One cost of that decision, however, was that I needed to change jobs, as one of my main suppliers worked in the office there and had developed a scheme to embezzle funds from the company, funneling them to workers who would trade the cash for drugs. (Karen never knew about this separate pipeline I had developed, I was much farther into my addiction than she was.) As long as I was getting high, this didn’t bother me; once I stopped I had to get away or risk being ensnared when the truth finally came out – it always does, eventually. So I moved on, found another job, and I didn’t get caught – you will see those words again, many times before we are through.
I’m going to break here; the next chapter of my tale is a story I have shared in other places and other times, but it always takes a toll on me to relate. In effect, it’s the story of how I died and was born again, in the most Biblical sense of those words. I know it seems like I’m dragging this out; maybe I am, just a little, but I promise in the next installment I will push through to the end and get us up to current times. Thank you for your patient endurance, O Constant Reader…I believe you will be rewarded.
First things first – despite the scene I described in my last post, I need to make it abundantly clear that my father was not a terrible person. No one knew at the time that the radical mood swings and terrifying episodes of rage and violence he suffered were a result of an undiagnosed medical condition: acute-response reactive hypoglycemia. It wasn’t until I was in middle school and he was in his 40’s that our family doctor suggested he be tested, and the results confirmed it. Once we knew what was happening, and he made the necessary lifestyle and dietary changes, the transformation was incredible. The discovery probably saved both his life and mine, as the condition is hereditary and I was already exhibiting many of the same behaviors as I passed through puberty. Bottom line, he was not entirely in his right mind during these episodes, and cannot be held responsible for them. He was still a stubborn man with a sharp tongue when he let it loose, but I loved my dad, and even though he has passed on, I still do. I wanted to dispel any negative impression I may have given…I believe he loved me more than any other thing in his entire life, and he did the very best job he could to take care of me and show that love every day. In the end, isn’t that all that really matters?
You might believe that it would not be possible to grow up in the South without having some type of church experience as a basic tenet of life. That may be true in smaller cities and towns, but I was born and raised in Houston, Texas…a city that saw explosive growth beginning in the early 80’s as manufacturing jobs began disappearing nationwide and people came looking for the energy sector jobs that dominated the economy following the oil crises of the late 70’s. This massive influx of people from all over the country – indeed, all over the world – served to dilute the traditional Southern religious values, replacing them with an early form of multiculturalism. In practical terms, this meant that I came of age knowing hardly anyone who regularly attended church, or at least not that they talked about. (My friend Eddie with the “weird” Jehovah’s Witness parents was a rare exception, but nobody took them seriously, including Eddie.) Another influence, as I mentioned before, was my dad’s disdain of organized religion – though I wonder if he had any experiences other than what he saw on television as he was flipping channels while waiting for the football game to come on. Of course, the child learns first what the parent teaches, so in general I viewed “the church” with skepticism at best…and I saw no reason to go looking for any other perspective. Further clouding the issue were the lifestyles on display around me in the aftermath of the turbulent times America had gone through – divorce was commonplace; sexuality of all types and varieties were out in the open; drug use was becoming more accepted, even applauded; the entire concept of “vice” had seemingly vanished, so what was the need of “virtue”? After all, I had already been “saved”, so what else did I need to know? I could have my cake and eat it too, eternity was in the bag.
Public education did nothing to change my impressions. History classes spoke briefly about religious persecution, but only in carefully vetted little snippets: the Crusades were about Christians driving out the Muslim hordes from the Holy Land; the Pilgrims fled to the shores of North America to preserve their right to worship God instead of a king; Hitler was a psychopath with a mission to eradicate the Jews (good thing the British and the Americans were here to save them and create the nation of Israel for them, and then keep on saving them from those terrible Arabs). So far as I could see, “religion” was just a convenient excuse for one group of people to hate another group of people, and I felt no desire to learn more about or to be any part of that. Besides, I was too busy getting drunk, getting high and chasing girls to give God a second thought – remember, I had money in the bank…I was “saved”!
On to college, where a major in the physical sciences brought me into contact with self-described and vocal atheists for the first time; this forced to be examine what I believed and why I believed it. I found myself willing to accept the biblical creation story more or less at face value, mostly because no other explanation for the universe appeared to make sense – given a choice between: a) multiple random occurrences coming together in precisely the right order at just the right time; or b) some type of higher force guiding that process toward an intended conclusion, I went with the latter. I also felt it would be intellectually dishonest to claim one portion of the Bible as an accurate source of information while dismissing the rest – in for a dime, in for a dollar – and while there were huge swaths of Scripture I had never bothered to read, and others I had read but did not understand, I had mastered the art of compartmentalization well enough for this not to hinder my faith in the slightest. In fact, I wore my ignorance as a badge of pride – after all, was it not the very definition of “faith” to believe in things you could not prove? So I continued to believe I was a “Christian”, and a pretty good one at that – I never tried to hurt anyone, and I was generally nice to people (sometimes even the ones I didn’t like), and once in a while would do something to help another person when I didn’t have to…what more could anyone ask of me? My philosophy of life came down to two basic ideas: 1) God is all-powerful, so everything that ever happens is His will and I can’t change it; and 2) God is all-knowing, so there’s no need to seek Him out, He will come to me if He wants something from me. That left me free to operate as I saw fit, and brothers and sisters, did I ever!!
We’ll pick it up from there next post. I had not intended this to be a biography; I merely wished to present some context for what I actually want to talk about. But the story takes the teller where it wants to go, not the other way around; the trick is to listen and watch as it happens. See you soon!
It’s going to take more than one post to describe all the events that shaped my current views, as is only fitting – no one is born knowing all that they will ever know, and life is an on-going process of learning. I hope you can bear with me…it will move along fairly quickly after this one, I promise.
I have been a Christian, at least nominally, for the majority of my life. My dad’s parents were Hispanic and Roman Catholic, but I never saw them attend a Mass other than a few funerals. When I was a kid, my dad rarely talked about religion, but growing up as an only child in a single-working-parent home, I watched a lot of TV and so gleaned a pop culture understanding of who God was (all-powerful, all-knowing, created everything, lived in Heaven), the nature of Heaven and Hell (one was a pretty place in the sky where good people went, the other a fire-and-brimstone torture pit for sinners), and the Bible (book of stories that listed the rules which determined where you went after death). Dad himself expressed an open derision of organized religion, especially the televangelists who popped up all over TV in the 70’s; he called it a hustle that was all about the money. Nobody ever asked me if I had any questions or tried to explain anything, and I was ok with that – I had the impression that all kids went to Heaven anyway because they didn’t know any better, and that worked for me. (Oh, the blessed innocence of youth!)
Somewhere around 1978, when I was 10 years old, one of Dad’s co-workers began witnessing to him, using Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth books. Dad’s takeaway from that was that the End Times were upon us, and we needed to make sure we were “right with God”. He learned that a large, non-denominational church on our side of town would be having a big revival meeting, and took me with him to be baptized. In typical fashion, he managed to arrive late enough to avoid “all the bull” (in his words, the “singing/talking/begging part”), came in through a side door, and put us directly in the line headed up to the stage, where assistant pastors were baptizing folks as quickly as they could do it – there were hundreds of people, but we moved right along! When it was my turn, they man asked me who I was, and I gave him my first name. (Hold that thought – this will come up again in a moment.) Then he asked me if I believed that Jesus had died for my sins, and did I want to be forgiven? It sounded reasonable to me – I was 10 years old – so I said yes, got dunked, and Dad hustled us off the stage to a changing area to get dried off, into fresh clothes, and out the door before anyone could speak to us. The instant we got into the truck, he turned on me with fury blazing in his eyes, screaming that I should have given my full name when asked, and that if I was going to be ashamed of who I was, he was going to be ashamed of me. (My dad was often furious at me for no discernable reason, so while I was scared, it wasn’t anything I had never seen before) Then we went home, and that was it. Oh, he bought a Bible, which laid on the dining room table, open to Matthew 6, The Lord’s Prayer. Every morning, as we left for day care and work, we would recite it together – unless he was running late, then we would get it done as soon as we got home that evening. I never saw him read that Bible, or any other; nor did we ever attend a church service or discuss religion in any way at all until I was in my 40’s. (In all fairness, after his death I found that Bible filled with highlighting, and scribbled notes in the margins, and slips of paper with cross-references and questions throughout, mostly in the New Testament; but during my childhood it never moved from that spot on the table, or had a mark in it.) I also saw absolutely no change in the way he spoke, acted, or treated other people – it was as if he had simply checked off a necessary task and went back to business as usual. This was my introduction to Christianity. I truly believed that, because I was sincere in my heart up on that stage – I meant it when I said that I believed Jesus died for me, and I wanted to be forgiven – that I was saved and would be going to Heaven when I died. I would hazard a guess that an awful lot of people shared that experience with me, and I would further hazard that many still do; it would certainly explain the behavior of many who call themselves “Christians” but carry themselves through life as though there were in fact no consequences, secure in their eternal reward…I certainly did for far too long.
Nothing really changed for me until decades later, when God invaded my life in a manner I could not rationalize my way out of. We’ll pick up the tale next time – trust me, it gets a whole lot better. Come and see.
It occurred to me that it’s been nearly four years since I posted here regularly, so perhaps I owe any new readers (as well as my previous audience, if any of you are still here) a brief overview of where I went and what I was doing during that interval. If this is not of interest, feel free to move on to something else, I won’t mind at all.
I had been a member of a small Southern Baptist church for several years; we began suffering from transition woes in 2012-13. I served as acting pastor and full-time preacher for several months, until we voted to merge with the Spanish church who rented our facilities on our off-times, and “their” pastor became “our” pastor. I had hoped to continue in my role, understandably to a lesser degree, and had in fact been promised as much during discussions leading up to the vote. When it came to actual practice, however, I found myself replaced by his staff; if I am to be honest, it wounded my pride and my sense of self-worth to be told I wasn’t needed any more. It didn’t help when the new pastor began going back on many other things he had promised, changing the focus and direction of the church in ways that I could not support, and it didn’t take long for us to simply stop going. My wife and I visited a few other churches, looking for a “new home”, but that too dwindled away. I was so busy with work and my new infatuation with running, and it was easy to fall away from corporate worship and church activities.
I maintained my writing on a different blog, focused on my training and experiences as I prepared to run my first marathon, but Christian ministry never left my thoughts. I continued to serve with Kairos Prison Ministry, and at a Christian halfway house where I had helped begin a weekly prayer-and-share meeting, but I wanted more…I wanted to be a pastor and/or preacher. I enrolled in an online seminary program, and prayed for an opportunity to put my gifts to use; as it turns out, I was totally unprepared for that prayer to be answered…God has a habit of calling us on our bullshit, doesn’t He? Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it!
One of my partners in the new prayer-and-share called me one night, and offered me the position of administrator/pastor at a different halfway house in Conroe, where the need was great. The position included my wife, free room and board on-site, and sufficient salary for normal expenses…but did not include health insurance. This was just as Karen was finishing radiation treatment for breast cancer (she had already finished chemo) but we had ongoing prescription expenses and aftercare to deal with; we also still faced (though we did not know it at the time) genetic testing and a complete hysterectomy to head off the near certainty of ovarian/uterine cancer in the future. In any case, after painful deliberation and prayer, we elected to pass on this opportunity, with me remaining at my job and retaining the all-important health insurance.
I cannot second-guess that decision now; I am distant enough to have forgotten the emotions of the moment. It was not long after, however, that I began to feel guilty for trusting in the job and the insurance, and NOT trusting in the Lord too provide for all our needs; I felt I had disqualified myself for service due to a lack of faith. I allowed this guilt to pollute my relationship with God, to come between me and Him in a way that prevented me from doing anything else. I stopped seeking opportunities to serve, to stop looking for a new church home…to just stop. And that state of affairs pretty much remained since then..
I lost the job about two years later, and with it the insurance and financial security. Karen had achieved full remission, but we were no longer able to afford the medications recommended for breast-cancer survivors. In fact, even with the ACA, we have been uninsured since then, and I give full credit to God’s grace and faithfulness that she has remained healthy nonetheless. The guilt has faded, but not the desire to serve, somewhere, somehow…I only needed to find a trigger. I did, finally, but it took several parts to come together to make the whole.
Next post, I will talk about how those parts and pieces came together, and how I learned to recognize the voice of the Spirit, quietly but steadily urging me back into relationship and back into service. In doing so, I hope that I encourage at least one person out there-some man or woman who has been listening to their doubts more than to God. If you are that person, I pray that you will find your trigger, that you will realize that being done with God does not mean that He is done with you. I pray that you will read my story all the way through, and recognize that if He can love me enough to wait for me, He can love you enough as well.
It’s the truth, I promise…come and see.
The article from National Review I just posted, touches directly on the heart of the struggle I have been wrestling with for years now. I dropped out of politics during President Obama’s re-election campaign, when I was struck by the level of vitriol and outright hatred against him displayed by otherwise reasonable and loving members of the congregation of the small Southern Baptist church we were members of at the time. I was teaching adult Sunday school and filling the pulpit on occasion, and I attempted to use these opportunities to point out just how in-Christian this behavior was; I was rewarded with blank looks at best, and with flat rebukes that I didn’t understand how destructive “that man” was to the American values which they claimed could only be upheld by the Republican Party. I simply could not argue, because I could not even discern what color the sky was in the world they were living in.
I find myself in that same mindset again, as I watch news coverage of Congressional hearings, juxtaposed with footage of rallies with the very people most at risk wildly cheering for a man who is lying to their faces. I do not pretend to know all the facts, or have all the answers, but I feel I am being compelled by a growing pressure from the Holy Spirit to USE the gifts I have been given to once again attempt to persuade people to hear the Word of God first, then find elected officials willing to act accordingly…I may not succeed any better this time than before, but I cannot simply sit here and do nothing.
Pray for me, friends, I need it.
This post was inspired by my friend Shaun Johnson, who is creator and admin of the Facebook group A Running Cause. He created this group as a way for runners to connect with others who share passionate reasons for why we run. Each week, Shaun invites group members to send in photos, comments, or links to blog posts on specific topics; previous themes include the view out the door when we start a run; our favorite “urban jungle” to run in; and even the classic “How many pairs of shoes do you own?” This week’s challenge posed the question, “When you aren’t running, what ARE you doing?”; my answer: sometimes I go to prison!
I have written before about my faith; simply put, I follow the calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and to do His work on earth as I await His return. There are many…
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It has been quite some time since I posted…I found myself questioning WHY I was doing what I did, and realized I needed to step away from “ministry” for a season; this post from my other blog sums up much of what I have been doing. I submit for your amusement, and to ask for your help as I transition back into a more active role in the Kingdom (more to come on that very soon!) Thanks for your continuing support!
Happy New Year everyone, and happy anniversary to this blog! We’ve come a long way together…me, my writing, and most of all YOU, my faithful friends and followers. I wasn’t sure about doing a recap – everyone does that, and I hate to be boring – but at last I decided to jump on the bandwagon and post my “year-in-review”, along with a look ahead at what I hope 2014 has in store; perhaps it will inspire another person to take a leap of faith, and that would make this entirely worth the effort! So grab yourself a fresh cup of coffee, tea, or even a bit of that hair-o’ the-dog, if it suits you, and let’s get all reminiscent, shall we?
2013 was my first year as a runner; I officially began on New Year’s Eve 2012, just to kick-start my resolve. I had little more than a vague…
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