What captivated me initially and keeps me listening is his story.
Mike grew up in the Southern Baptist evangelical church a staunch Christian and in his adult years, married and a father, served as a deacon in his church. When his parents’ marriage fell apart his faith wasn’t too far behind. He began studying the Bible furiously and found his faith crumbling faster and faster. It wasn’t too long before he was an out-and-out atheist, though he kept that a secret from his closest friends and family for as long as he could.
A few years later, the story goes, he had a miraculous encounter with God which ignited his faith in a new way. And now he’s a voice (among many of a growing crowd) for the spiritually frustrated and homeless. It says as much on the Liturgists website.
In April 2014 I was four months out from my divorce. I had been down this road of doubt before and always found myself back in the faith, but this time was different.
It’s funny, but I think all my major catalysts for times of doubt were failed significant relationships. The first time was when my first ever girlfriend dumped me, blaming (from my perspective) God for it. That was the summer of 1998, when I graduated from high school and was getting ready to go to East Carolina University. Three years earlier I had my first real experience with God, where eternity met the there and then, and had been on fire for Jesus ever since.
Well, it was starting to fade by end of senior year, and then going to a “secular” school – outside of home, family and my Christian bubble for the first time – I found myself questioning a great many things.
And so the cycle of doubt-faith-doubt-faith began for me. And again, each period of doubt followed the failed attempt at a significant romantic relationship.
That cycle more or less broke when I went into therapy nearly 10 years later. Well, I don’t know if it broke so much as it evolved. Instead of trying to control everything and be a good Christian boy I started just letting things happen.
Almost another 10 years later I finally got my first shot at marriage, that sacred, holy institution of the Western Church (WC); what the Catholic Church calls a sacrament (and the term Protestant churches appropriate in their search for deeper meaning and depth in their faith to fill the void left by condemning and abandoning all Catholic tradition).
So there was a lot riding on this.
I did everything to the best of my ability – being patient, loving, kind; doing things dictated by the Western Church such as asking my ex to not have any male Facebook friends I wasn’t friends with (that went over SUPER well) and other things along those lines. Being a long-distance marriage didn’t help (I was stationed in a place she wasn’t able to live), but following the prescriptive dictates of the WC didn’t help much either, except to quicken the inevitable, perhaps.
And so I entered another phase of doubt – this time not so much toward God, but toward my understanding of Him as propagated by the WC. However, without that institution I was so accustomed to since birth, I found myself with more and more questions.
When I found out he was writing a book about his experience I was super excited and volunteered to be an advanced reader and reviewer. And so my review of the book will be up some time this week.
However, I strongly encourage you to check it out yourself – shucks, it comes out TOMORROW* (9/13). Check out the linked websites above, listen to his podcasts, listen to the oft-mentioned You Made It Weird episode! It’s great! It changed my life and I’m super duper excited to bring this review to you soon.
We shouldn’t live in the past, but by all means we should be connected with it.
Tuesday morning I went into the gym for my daily Fit By First workout. It involved jumping jacks, situps/crunches, planks, and other things.
I took my place in front of the mirror.
I shook and shimmied involuntarily as I put my body through the paces.
And I watched.
Never have I seen me in such a state.
I’ve weighed this amount before, but I’ve never put myself in front of a full-body mirror and tried doing full-body exercises.
A few years ago that would have been mortifying. Now it’s…well, while I’m not satisfied with my metabolic status quo I realize it’s not going to change overnight and I’m not going to lose anything of value while I’m in it.
According to the Navy, for my height I’m about 30 pounds out of regulations. I think it’s fair to say it’s not all muscle; it’s not even 50% muscle, I think. I’d say it’s probably more significant than I think, but nowhere near what I’d want it to be. Well, maybe near; I’m not obese, but I am rambling, so to the point:
A lot of change has been going on in my life.
I became a father this year. I went back to school. I’m getting out of the Navy after five years of service. Jenn and I moved and she went back to work. I have to drive Stormy to his grandparents at 0530 every morning (If we leave on time) and be back at Manoa in time for my 0730 class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I’m writing a book and getting coached in how to publicize it and sell pre-orders to get it published by Inkshares. I’m working on a prospective project for my side business. I get 4-6 hours of sleep most nights.
And while I don’t want to stay 30 lbs out of regs – even after I separate – I’m not super-ashamed because look at my life.
Crazy? Frenetic? Hectic? Abso-toot-ly.
But then tonight, after Jenn finished feeding Stormy – his last before bed – I was carrying him, gently burping him, and he had his head on my shoulder, facing toward me, but eyes shut tight, breathing deep, falling deeper into sleep.
Skinny Cliff would kill for such moments.
I thought back to when Jenn first told me her pee test popped positive; when we got our first ultrasound of him; the first time we saw his little body developing and he had limbs and as soon as the camera was on him he stretched out all the way, all of a sudden – a real live critter, just starting out; strong heartbeat, good vitals, our future son.
And that connection, that memory of the not too distant past (though it feels like a world away) flooded me with appreciation and emotion for this moment tonight.
I thanked God for this life, portly though I may currently be, and I’m just…happy. I’m content. I prefer the abilities of skinny Cliff and am working to get back to that, but to keep my spirit. Same body, a little leaner; same spirit, always growing.
Most days when I’m driving in and out of Manoa Valley, I see this guy walking, sometimes jogging alongside the road. He looks like a local guy, flattop haircut, smart moustache, always wearing the same outfit: black shorts, black shirt and a long-sleeved white-shirt under the black; white socks, black shoes. Most of the time he’s stretching his arms out, like he’s keeping them prepped, warm, ready for action.
And he always has this stern look on his face; and he seems very alert, conscious of everything that’s going on. He seems like the kind of guy you wouldn’t mess with.
I first started running again on July 4th. I wondered if I would run into this guy and what I would do…
Turns out he and I did cross paths; we nodded somberly at each other and instantly I felt this connection, this sense of well-being.
This is the guardian of Manoa.
Now, I’m sure he’s just a man trying to make his way from day-to-day like everyone else. But just seeing him out most days, on patrol, eyes always looking around, I can’t help but imagine that if any danger or threat were to come to this valley, he’d be there.
Four years ago to the day my life was about to change in ways I never imagined.
I boarded the plane in Baltimore, had a six hour delay in Chicago, and at 11ish PM Friday, July 13, 2012, I set foot in Honolulu for the first time in 23 years.
When I was eight years old my family spent our summer vacation here for just shy of two weeks, I think. We landed in Honolulu, spent the night here, then flew to Maui the next day for a few days, then to the Big Island for a few days, then back to Oahu for the last few days before heading back East.
I have a handful of solid memories but mostly just impressions from that trip:
Marveling at the lava flow on Big Island.
Running around a golf course at midnight on Maui and helping bullfrogs learn to fly.
Sparrows flying into the rooftop restaurant on Oahu.
Being afraid that the roof of any of the inter-island Aloha airline planes we rode would come off like it did a few months before.
Chewing sugarcane for the first time.
Watching my first Indiana Jones movie – The Last Crusade – at a drive-in movie theater.
Marveling at the hula ladies…
Even then I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something magical about this place.
Twenty-seven years later, after four years of living here I still can’t.
The Aloha Spirit.
The verdant landscape.
The very earth itself brimming with life and vitality.
There’s just something magical, mystical; old yet fresh about this place.
While I’m not a fan of the population density on Oahu, I always feel like I’m back home whenever I return from a trip somewhere else (with the exception of The Big Island – I always feel like I’m going back home whenever I visit there).
Four years ago today, I had no idea what I was getting myself into; what with my assignment at a joint command, my first duty station usually reserved for no lower than E-5s, maybe an E-4 soon to be promoted, yet there I was, an E-3.
And little did I know how much of the world I was about to see.
I thought boot camp and “A” School busted open my worldview…
Cumulatively six months in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
A month and some change in Europe and then a couple months on a couple glaciers.
I feel as though I’ve certainly aged, but I also feel as though I’ve gotten a little younger somehow…
Started making real-life grown-up decisions on my own, being as far away as one can be from friends and family before you start going back around.
Knowing what I know now there are some things I wouldn’t have done, but I don’t really regret anything. It all goes into that worldview I was talking about before.
I’ve learned not to grasp things too tightly for too long, so I’ve learned to cherish the present moments even more.
Entering the service and giving up many freedoms have helped me appreciate and value freedom even more; I feel more a free man than I ever have.
I met my wife and my kid was born here.
Where will I be in four more years? No clue.
Probably still around. Maybe about to head elsewhere; who knows?
Until then I just keep doing what I do everyday: take it one day at a time.
The news started breaking as I was heading to bed after 0200.
“Mass Shooting in Orlando – 20 Dead, 20 Injured”
All I could think was, “Shit…here we go again.”
By the time I woke up this morning it was 50 confirmed dead.
Fifty souls lost at a night club in Orlando, Florida.
Gun crowd says there should be more guns in the hands of citizens to fend off such attacks.
Gun control crowd says the laws need to be tighter.
Some say it’s (radical) Islam which is to blame.
Some blame the President for making our country more friendly to terror – er…Muslims.
Some say it’s God’s judgement.
Some say it’s just a super fucked up thing to happen.
As mass shootings increase in frequency; as hatred continues to grow in strength and manifest in vile groups such as ISIS, the KKK, human traffickers, and politicians; as acts of terror become the new normal…I gotta confess, I’m not entirely surprised.
Always saddened and disappointed with humanity, but not shocked and certainly not surprised. Before things get better, they’re going to get worse.
There are moments of reflection where I sit back and wonder why on earth I colluded with another human to bring a new human into the world. There are moments where I reconsider and doubt the wisdom of my career choice in pursuing content creation (filmmaking, writing, etc); shouldn’t I be doing something important with my time instead of dreaming up frivolous stories for entertainment? The Titanic is sinking and I’m auditioning for the band?
Entertaining is all I’ve ever really felt good about being good at.
When you can laugh, think of a joke, sing a song, or just be creative in even the darkest of circumstances fear is castrated, terror is mortified, brokenness is restored.
And when you can get other suckers to laugh, think, sing, create with you, then the doom of doom is even more pronounced.
Besides, the boat is sinking; ain’t nothing changing that fact.
Now, the more we laugh and sing and dance gaily about our merry lives, the more darkness there is that conspires against us, seeking to snuff out the delight of life bringing only ruin and misery to nature’s existence.
Why do I continue on in traditions such as celebrating Christmas and Easter; or praying before meals, especially with Jenny?
Why do I pray for her and our son?
The fire I once possessed has long since gone out. Perhaps for longer than I realize.
My first real positive experience with Jesus was LIFE ’95 during Jacob Aranza’s sermon. I google him now and there’s some serious stuff not of a positive nature out there. I suppose that’s to be expected.
Anyway, it was toward the end, during the altar call-type thing, that I first felt forgiven. It was the first time I felt that any evil things I had done didn’t matter in terms of who I was as a human being.
Following that experience, I tried to get the most out of every time of worship. Anytime there was singing to God I tried my hardest to commune with the Almighty. Sometimes there was success, but most of the time, I suspect, it was emotional responses.
And actually, I suppose that’s what it was at the LIFE event: an intense emotional response. A response to some serious truth, but an emotional response nonetheless.
In his book No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton says that if one is in step with the Spirit one doesn’t feel it. Illustrating the point with a marching formation, he points out that when troops are marching in step together they don’t come into contact with each other, thus not feeling each other. It’s when you get out of step that you feel it; that is to say, how one feels is not necessarily a good indicator of one’s relationship.
One thing I can say though, is the LIFE event changed how I experienced thunderstorms. I believed (and perhaps still do (we don’t get many thunderstorms where I live nowadays)) that God is closest to our plane of existence in thunderstorms. I mean, the idea is he’s omnipresent, but maybe within the cumulonimbus formations, the membrane between realities is stretched a little thinner. Just the power and might of the rushing wind, the flashing lightning bolts and explosive thunder…
Saying all that to say, I went from having a mortal fear of thunderstorms to eagerly looking forward to them. To this day I still have what some may consider an unhealthy desire to personally witness a tornado.
That fire I spoke of earlier…
At its core I think it’s a good thing. However, I took it, in response to the aforementioned emotional response, and figured I owed God something. Like, I needed to pay Him back or something for the wonderful way He made me feel.
And then, over time, it turned into the feeling a junkie gets when he does all the drugs to try and replicate that one feeling he had, the first time he smoked a joint or shot up. No matter what I did or tried, I couldn’t get that exact feeling back.
And there was that whole issue when my first girlfriend put it on God to break us up because, I reckon, she was afraid of hurting my feelings or something. I was angry, upset, pissed off at the Almighty. After that great thing He had done at LIFE, and all I had done in those few intervening years before high school graduation, how could He pull this shit? I was a vocal witness for Christ; I got into debates and discussions about faith; I wore provocative Christian t-shirts that spurred conversations; I listened to nothing but Contemporary Christian Music, taking in the Word of Life through modern music styles to help edify my soul and remember doctrine more easily (I think I still know the full rap by DC Talk for Jesus is Just Alright).
All that – all that – and He ostensibly took away the most precious relationship to me up to that point in my life.
Of course, from what I learned at church and in books is that I was guilty of idolatry, putting my ex up on a pedestal, wanting her more than I wanted God. Close friends and family warned me about balance (which made more sense). But what was the death stroke was the shame my sexual desire was shrouded in. I didn’t give up my virginity until after that experience, but my innocence was already taken from me at a very early age. And someone who should have protected me and helped me heal, instead swept it under the rug; it was never to be spoken of; it didn’t happen. It was a shameful thing to have happened and to bring it up was to only bring on more shame…so it was never spoken of until my mid-20s, in therapy.
That shame came from a faith rooted in fear, not love. It was the faith instilled in me, even when I had that life-changing experience.
I guess therapy was when I had the next real Jesus Experience.
Not to retread, but it was there I learned that I was enough. I came to see that I am lovable as I am. That’s what Jesus – or unconditional – love is all about. And as such, it’s a love with no demands or expectations. There’s nothing to pay back, there’s nothing to do in return.
Of course, there’s reciprocity. When someone loves you, you want to love them back. The root of desiring to repay, I think, springs from a guilty conscience. That mentality doesn’t believe one is worthy of that love; and maybe one isn’t (from a certain point of view), but one has it, and it wouldn’t be so freely given if the giver didn’t think the receiver was enough.
Reciprocity is different than paying back. You don’t have the compulsion to repay, but someone makes you feel good (i.e.: loved) and you want to make them feel the same way. What’s scary is that this principle is also at the root of vengeance.
So anyway – we’ve got LIFE ’95; therapy; when would be the next Jesus experience…?
I think it would actually be…meeting Jenny.
When Jesus was on earth, He was all about upending the System, bringing new light to old wisdom and new life to old souls. I was caught up thinking that marriage – finding a mate – was supposed to be a certain way. “Equally yoked” was a buzzword concept thrown around a lot in my formative spiritual years and, as such, was ingrained in my membrain (I know that’s not how you spell it).
As my first attempt at marriage fizzled, I put myself back out there. In spite of all relationship failures up to that point (and they are legion), and in spite of that ultimate relational fail, I was bound, determined, and sure that true love was out there waiting for me.
However, as fast and hard as I tried to run from the old way of thinking, “equally yoked” still prefaced every prospect. There was a lady or two I met who met the conventional meaning of being equally yoked but many more (with whom I felt more compatible) who did not; Jenn was among them.
And this wasn’t the first time this had happened.
When I was in college I dated a young lady who wasn’t conventionally equally yoked, yet upon reflection the relationship had the potential to be one of the best I ever had. But because of that conventional belief, I ended it. At the heart of it I was a coward and didn’t know what I had. Twelve, thirteen years later I resolved that if I ever found myself in that position again to not just abandon it, but to hang on as long as I could.
Though I am a quick study, I’m a slow learner. After a few dates with Jenn I knew in my gut that she was the one, yet convention still called…as well as fear of happiness. I called it off; but she didn’t. She still liked me and when I went off to Germany for a few weeks we stayed in contact.
It was one afternoon, after traipsing through the beautiful countryside, and then seeing a picture in ein alten Frau’s living room of two horses: a mare and a stallion standing together, looking into the distance…weird, I know, but it was in that picture – let’s say the spirit of the picture – that I saw us.
As soon as I could I skyped her and told her I loved her and that I wanted to be with her.
And then with her, it’s just been one Jesus experience after another. We take turns in pissing each other off, or disappointing each other to varying degrees, but everything is overshadowed by our love for each other. Most of the time we’re making each other smile and/or laugh.
And inherent in love, I believe, is commitment, faithfulness, and trustworthiness (to name a few). Such things I lacked in myself for a very long time because I couldn’t ascribe them to myself; I didn’t think I was worthy or sufficient.
But then learning that I am, I’ve slowly been able to develop these traits and cultivate them more and more, and thus, love more freely. Not perfectly, mind you; and I still screw it up more times than I get it right, but I’d like to think that now the majority of my actions come from a place of love instead of fear.
Now more than ever with Stormy in the picture – managing the love streams between child and spouse.
These have been my Jesus experiences so far – experiences of unconditional, unbridled love and self-realization. I reckon it’s facilitating such experiences for others by being an honest, loving human being that Jesus is getting at when He talks about the Great Commission. Not making a sales pitch for hellfire insurance, or getting people into the “feel-good-about-yourself-club” and making them follow a bunch of rules; but rather showing love, dignity, and respect to everyone; and insofar as we’re able, to aid them toward self-realization so that they know they, too, are worthy and sufficient, and that that’s something that’s worth keeping going in this broke-up, busted-ass world.
Her first book, When We Were On Fire, especially resonated because I felt as though I was reading my own personal history of growing up as an ON FIRE FOR CHRIST teenage crusader; that is, were I a female and had I grown up in the Midwest instead of being a dude growing up in North Carolina.
I grew up going to church every Sunday. Once I hit youth group age Wednesday nights were thrown into the mix. The more I started learning about God, the more I became afraid of him.
I distinctly remember in the summer of ’93, we were having a rash of thunderstorms and tornadoes tearing up the piedmont. Whenever a severe storm or tornado warning was issued for our area, I’d go outside and walk into the middle of our neighborhood circle and bargain with God to just hit me and leave my family’s home – and the neighbors’ – alone. My conscience was just so saturated with guilt and fear, and for some reason I’ve always associated weather conditions with God’s immediate presence, that I was sure in those thunderstorms he was gunning for me.
A couple years later I attended my church denomination’s tri-annual youth conference, LIFE ’95. In one of the last large meetings I felt God’s love for the first time. It was the first time I felt no judgment; only love, forgiveness, and as if an enormous weight I didn’t even know was there was suddenly lifted from my soul.
Fast-forward eleven years…I’m in therapy to try and hash out some detectable, but indiscernible emotional issues.
I had been through the height of the True Love Waits movement in which the lesson I took away from it was that my natural, budding, sexual urges were sinful – or could lead to sin. After all, just thinking about having sex was a sin (often citing, and I believe misusing Matthew 5:28).
Within those four years I experienced a few significant firsts: disillusionment with the Church; abandoning God; sex; grace in a new way; severe self-loathing.
You see, I could have chosen to remain in a Christian bubble, similar to what I had at home, but I decided against that.
And then I moved back home.
It wasn’t long before I found myself cycling between backsliding believer and Bible-thumping asshole.
The jobs I worked at got me further into the real world with the people who I worked alongside and there was more dissonance I felt between being told I should spread God’s good news of unconditional love and yet remain separate from the sinfulness of wicked sinners – especially homosexuals. Shoot, the guy I could most relate to at my first job out of college was gay*. When I worked at a Barnes & Noble café a few years later, one of the shift leads was gay and we’d always, well (heh, heh) have a gay** old time singing showtunes and such toward the ends of our shifts.
As a young adult, the deeper I’d get into the Western Church Machine, the more I found myself despondent, despairing, and ultimately depressed. I couldn’t do anything right. Anything I would do right wouldn’t be me, because God gets all the glory. The only thing I could take credit for was everything I did wrong, and everything I’d do wrong would keep me from knowing God, so just try/pray/read your Bible harder, harder, harder.
Not exactly grace.
So yeah, therapy. First time I was ever told all that was bullshit and that I’m enough as I am. The kernel was planted in my spirit, and has been budding more and more in the last few years, that I will never arrive and be who I was meant to be. I arrived in July of 1980, in all my perfectly flawed glory, and the Darkness got to work (as is wont to happen to all of us who breathe, eat, and shit). But the Light – the Light has always been there, too. And always will be.
I was in therapy for three years, read a bunch of books (I recommend The Ragamuffin Gospel and No Man Is An Island), and went on to make the same damn mistakes…but this time with tools and strategies – a humble way of saying, “the beginning of wisdom” – to augment the ever-present Light and deal with the never-leaving Darkness.
What really helped put things in perspective was my first marriage. Yeah, Jenn’s my second marriage.
That first time out was my last time trying to do things by the book. At the expense of my identity and who I am, I tried following the teachings put out by modern evangelicals instead of trusting my gut. The result was one week of attempted happiness followed quickly by about five months of agony.
Granted, I probably shouldn’t have rushed into it the way I did, but I was sure that if I followed the modern teachings rooted in ancient wisdom everything would turn out okay.
And this is a very generalized telling of the story in extremely broad strokes, but it’s the essence of my experience and how I processed it. It was enough to get me to abandon the system and just go after some freakin’ happiness.
And here I am. Maybe you’ve seen the previous posts in this blog, maybe you haven’t (I’d recommend it for context), but I’m happier and more content with this life than I ever have been.
I still believe in God and Jesus, but I’m finding a need for some serious rethinking on concepts and doctrine; the true depths of mercy, grace, sin, and love.
So, I don’t know what follow-ups to this post will look like, but the door is opened now.
And does any of this resonate with you? Just curious…
*adjective, gayer, gayest.
of, relating to, or exhibiting sexual desire or behavior directed towarda person or persons of one’s own sex; homosexual:
a gay couple.
Older Use. having or showing a merry, lively mood:
gay spirits; gay music.
Older Use. bright or showy:
gay colors; gay ornaments.
Older Use. given to or abounding in social or other pleasures: