Monsters and Men/Wounded Hearts

When I was a young boy, I played on a baseball team. I must have been around 11 or 12. Our coach was a preacher. He had a son my age that was also on the team. His son and I were friends who ran around the neighborhood together. I knew his family a little. His father was very energetic, very charismatic, and had a sense of humor that made him fun to be around. My friend’s mother was a kind hearted lovely lady. I liked them.

                A night came when my friend and I made plans for me to spend the night at his house. We were 12, of course we made plans. I consulted my assistant, he looked over my appointments, we compared them to my friends’ appointments. We each had nothing going on Saturday, so we decided that was the best day for the occasion.

                There was one dynamic to spending the night at a preacher’s house on Saturday that I did not take into consideration. Preachers get up early on Sunday morning to go to work. If I’m there on Sunday morning, I’m probably going with them. I always found it ironic that the one day most people had off of work, was the one day that preachers DID work… I’m kidding people. That’s a non-Christian kid joke. Laugh. 

                At this point in the story, I’ll point out that while my mother had taken me to church several times, kicking and screaming of course, I did not consider myself a Christian. I didn’t really know anything about Jesus, I had never cracked open a Bible by my own free will, church was nothing more than an obstacle between me and watching cartoons.

                I don’t remember anything about that night. I imagine we had fun and played too long, and stayed up too late like kids do. There was an awkward, brief instruction that my friend’s father gave me. He said something along the lines of “during church service, when I say ‘is there anyone that needs to meet the lord today,’ you come up front.” There was more to it, but that was the gist. As a young boy who wanted nothing to do with church, all I heard was “there is going to be a point in this service that will become very, very awkward for you, you will be dreading it the whole time.” As an adult, I look back and can clearly hear him say “this is a perfect opportunity for me to try and improve my reputation. My entire service will see God working in me to save a young boy, but really, we’ll just rig the show before it begins. It will have devastating effects on you for the rest of your life and would constitute child abuse today, but the greater need for me to impress my church service out-weighs all consequences.”

                I probably don’t have to tell you that this church service didn’t go well. It was a small church. I don’t remember there being more than twenty to thirty people there, probably. It was in a small building. While there, this preacher and I did pray for my grandma because her health was fading. Shortly after this her health improved for a while. My friend and I sat with his mother. We mostly whispered back and forth, and played around, and did whatever we could to kill time. I don’t remember anything else about the service. I remember the preacher’s voice getting louder. He could plainly see that his son and I weren’t paying any attention. I was missing my cue. I had no idea what was going on. I remember not a single word of what the preacher said, but I remember his voice getting louder and louder. Eventually he began yelling, and his face turned red. At one point his wife tried to help me out. She signaled that I was supposed to be going up to the front. At this point, I was afraid to go. The preacher was yelling. He was very intimidating. People were looking all around as if something was supposed to happen. Something WAS supposed to happen. I, a young boy, was supposed to be playing my role in this show, and going up before the entire service, and repent of my sins, admit that Jesus is my savior—even though I had no idea what any of that meant at the time. I was frozen. I sat firmly in my seat and looked at the floor. I was scared. Eventually the preacher moved on. It was over. I missed my cue, but I felt relief.

                We use this practice at Cedar Creek, where my family and I currently attend. At the end of the service, the preacher offers the opportunity for anyone who feels compelled to offer themselves to the lord, or just talk to the preacher or whatever else they intend to do. Typically, this is when people who want to be saved, walk up and confess that they believe in Jesus, and go to be baptized. You do not use this as an avenue to win the favor of your church members, to improve your reputation, to impress people, through basically abusing a child. That’s what I believe he was doing. Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps he was really interested in saving a young boy’s soul and trying to give him a better future, and help direct him down the right path. I doubt it. That doesn’t happen through extreme pressure, behind the backs of a child’s parents, and it typically doesn’t happen in a day. As a preacher, he knew all that. No, I believe he saw me as a freebie, a sure thing, instant ego boost, a desperate attempt at expanding his church. It failed. He was angry.

                Want to know how to give a kid social anxiety, mess his head up a little bit, and contribute to making him socially dysfunctional and broken? Make a lot of friends in your community, become well liked, put yourself in a position where kids are meant to look up to you and see you as a role model, and then tell a young boy that he is going to hell. That’ll do it.

                Baseball wasn’t the same anymore. My friend and I didn’t play much anymore. I don’t think he was allowed to associate with me after that. We didn’t compare schedules ever again. I was the pitcher on our team. The last time I remember ever hearing my coach talk to me was during a game. I was pitching. I wasn’t doing that great. I threw a few wild balls, and I missed a catch which led to a kid running home and scoring a point. My coach came out to the mound. Parents, you know that funny voice you speak in when you are trying to quietly scream at someone? You know… where you clinch your jaw shut and whisper-scream through your teeth? In that voice, with that scrunched up face, he kept repeating “I’m doing this for YOU! I’m doing you a favor!” and moved me to third base. I bawled my eyes out in front of everyone. In my mind, he was a monster after that. That was my last year in baseball. Shortly after that he and his family moved away.

 

                Now if you are someone who is not a Christian, don’t take this story and use it to say “see? Christians are all hypocrites. They’re bad people!” No, Christian people are still people. The bible says several times in different places, the nature of man is to be wicked and evil, the heart is deceitful. Yes, it applies to us Christians as well. We know it, but thanks for the reminder. We don’t instantly become perfect after rising up out of the water of baptism. Maybe this man felt bad after all this. Maybe he was sorry. Maybe he prayed for forgiveness. I don’t know. I hope he eventually realized that it was wrong.

I know I wasn’t the only kid to be mistreated by an adult. Maybe some of you had a similar experience or even worse, but handled it better. I don’t know why this had such a profound effect on me. Maybe it’s partially because he was someone I trusted and looked up to. If he were just some guy I didn’t know I may have just thrown toilet paper all over his yard and called it a day. Whatever the case, it has never been very far from my mind.  If you’ve ever read any of my blogs before, I have referenced this experience several times. I never really thought I’d write about it, but recent events made it inevitable. I wish I could wrap this up with a warm encouraging message right here, but it only gets worse.

The day my wife and I were baptized, I excitedly rattled this story off to my preacher. I was so happy. You see, it is absolutely amazing that even given this experience to struggle with I was able to come to know Jesus. For well over a decade, the typical preacher to me was represented by this guy from my childhood. Preachers were wicked people as far as I was concerned. I simply did not believe that they actually cared about other people. I felt that there had to be something under the surface that normal people didn’t see, something to gain from what they were doing. They didn’t do it out of love. I just didn’t buy that.

 It is with every fiber of my being, that I believe Jesus wants me to know him. It is with every fiber of my being that I believe Jesus can reach a heart, even behind a rough, hateful, distrusting exterior. I sincerely believe that He placed me before the preacher that God had every intention of using to reach me. God knew I would trust this guy. God made him trustworthy. I learned that this guy was honest, and sincere. He never tried to “sell” God to me. He’s my friend. God new it would take a miracle to get me to trust a preacher, and what does God deal in? Oh right, miracles. If I would have gone to any other church, and listened to any other preacher talk about God, I don’t think I’d be a Christian today. It was such a fragile, sensitive, and delicate time for me. It had to be God’s way.

My preacher doesn’t need me to butter his biscuit, and that’s not what I’m trying to do. Although, in the process I learned that there are people on God’s team that are really doing God’s work out of love, as it is meant to be done. My point though, is that God can take what people do out of evil, and use it for good. God does. Not people. My preacher had no idea what he was dealing with when I came to his service, he just did his thing. God knew. God performs miracles people.

There’s more story.  Remember I said it gets worse? So here I am. I’m a Christian now. I’m supposed to love people right? I felt compelled to reach out to my old childhood friend, maybe even see what his dad was doing these days. I didn’t know what I expected to accomplish, but I’d dip my feet in the water. This is the most haunting, troubling experience of my life so far, and I’m taking a huge step here. So what do you do when you want to find someone you haven’t spoken to in fifteen years? That’s right, Facebook. I looked for my old friend on Facebook. I couldn’t find him. I poked around a bit more and stumbled across my old coach’s Facebook account. After digging around a little bit, I learned something disturbing. Well first, I didn’t see much that indicated that he was a preacher anymore. Secondly, I couldn’t find my old friend because he died. Several years ago, while I was absolutely hating this guy for treating me like he did when I was a kid, his oldest son was dying. I felt as if someone with a giant foot kicked me in the chest.

A little bit about myself, this is my blog and I can talk about myself all I want. I have a mind that never stops running away. It’s like having my foot on the gas, all of the time.  It’s never calm. Maybe it’s an attention issue.  I don’t know. Is it A.D.D.? Do I have a condition? I know, I need medication! (kidding again) My mind is like a helium balloon. If I’m not holding on to the string, that is focusing on something, it floats away. I’m typically quiet, not always, but usually not very assertive.  I’m great at being open and social with a very small group of people, like two. Any more than that, and I go totally internal. However, my mind is always going a million miles an hour. I internalize everything. Behind my eyes there is a machine, pistons constantly moving, gears constantly turning, blasting, hydraulics pumping, noise booming, friction, steam, hot oil squirting, parts slamming, heat rising, no off switch, no buttons, just perpetual, loud, motion. Okay, maybe it’s a bit more like a little wheel, spinning and squeaking without a hamster. It’s the same idea. I think this is one of the reasons I can’t sit and watch a television show. Maybe it’s part of the reason I like to write so much. Focusing for me is like turning your ceiling fan on hi and staring at one blade while the whole thing turns.

                Learning about my friend’s death was upsetting. I didn’t handle it well. I had regrets. I was absolutely torn about how to feel. I thought about it constantly. For days, I thought about my friend, and how his father felt. His father… That’s what I got hung up on. You see, I made this guy a monster in my own mind. I spent years, seriously, years, angry. I hated how he used me, how angry he became when things didn’t go as planned. For years, I have hated how much this one experience has affected me, how I’ve carried it with me all this time. I have put so much effort, and time, and energy, into being so angry, and in an instant, a decade and a half of hate turned into remorse. Now I’m mad about being mad. My childhood monster became a man again. He became a sad suffering man who I instantly felt sorry for. The vision in my mind of a cruel beast screaming and snarling at a frightened little boy in a baseball uniform was replaced by a man. A man surrounded by loved ones in black dress attire, crying in front of a casket.

                If you spend so much time thinking about something, and with a mind like mine, it is quite easy to find a way to blame yourself for something. Lord knows I have. Where once there was a mountain of anger, there is now a crater being filled with remorse, regret, wonder, and doubt. As well as shame for having been so angry all these years in the first place. Looking back on the experience as a kid I now wonder, why didn’t I just stand up? I’ve been so self-righteous all these years, what if I was wrong? If I would have stood up, would my friend still be alive? Would his dad still be a preacher? Was he punished for something? Did I have something to do with it? Why is this affecting me all over again? Sometimes I can’t help but to just wish I never went there that morning. I couldn’t get it out of my head that I could have done something fifteen years ago to prevent all this. All I had to do was stand up. I know that makes no sense to you. It haunted me for years and it’s haunting me again.

                Learning all this a few months ago made me go internal. I just went inside for a couple months. All through the Thanksgiving season, through Christmas, it took a little while to be able to come back out again. But I did a lot of thinking. My friend died almost eleven years ago now. I didn’t lose a close family member in this situation, but I have friends who are dealing with loss now. Some friends are dealing with other hardships. The absolute truth is that we all struggle with something. Anyone who thinks they have it all together is lying to themselves. You’ve got something you are fighting with inside. All of us, at church, at work, where ever you go, we all shake hands, and smile, and say “I’m great!” I wonder how often that’s done out of habit. I hope you have a close friend you can go to, or someone willing to listen. I wish I wasn’t too stubborn to talk to a friend. I wish I knew how to start. I guess this is me talking to a friend now. Believe me it’s a sense of relief. Therapeutic even. But even if you have no one, or think you have no one, you can always go to God. I know some believers feel like they’ve heard that a thousand times. It can feel like the default response to a problem. I know not everyone believes it’s the truth, but try it. Really try it. You can pray, you can read the bible, you can go to people who are long time bible believing, Jesus loving followers. He’s there. Sometimes, all you can do is focus on the blessings you have. Just know that you are loved. It’s okay to suffer, we are meant to suffer, but do it in the loving arms of God and his people.  

The honest truth is that it still saddens me to think about my old friend. In the big picture, I know it’s not my fault that he lost his life. God works in mysterious ways that we are not capable of always understanding. I’m sad for my friend, and I’m sad that this man that I made a monster in my mind lost his oldest son. I’m shameful that I never took the time in the past decade to look my friend up. I just sat here hating some poor guy that I should have been loving. Maybe someday I’ll learn how to just love people. Hopefully we all will. Thanks for reading. Forever onward. 

                A friend offered me these words. They helped and encouraged me to write again.   You write like you are everyone’s best friend – so easy to relate to and laugh with. My own daughter, at the ripe age of barely 20,said I, too, overfocus on my past history. It is helping to, every time I get troubled (sometimes five times in ten minutes, it seems), to not say I love you, God, but to focus on God loving me, the way I am, the circumstances be damned! You, too, are a valuable child of God, Dustin, and you are precious with whatever baggage you may have on your mind.

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Coming to Christ: Early Arrival or Fashionably Late?

Hi, my name is Dustin, and I am a Christian. (this is where you all say “welcome Dustin”) I said that as if I were attending a twelve step help group just for the affect. Really, I am a Christian, I believe Jesus Christ died for our sins on the cross, just like the bible says. I believe He is my lord, savior, redeemer, and friend, and that I am absolutely undeserving of that (even if sometimes I don’t act like it). I love my church family. I never knew such a wonderful, totally diverse group of people existed, or that they would let me in their door. I gave this blog the heading, ‘Early Arrival or Fashionably Late’ in reference to the time in a Christian’s life when they became Christian. Some were born into the church. Basically, their parents went to church before they were born, and they have been going ever since. They had an early arrival. Another group came to Christ later in life. They were fashionably late. That’s me. I might even just say I was late as I am often reminded of my lack in a fashion sense.

My church has many from each group. We share a passion for trying to follow the bible and do what Christ commands, and we all struggle with it. We are all sinners. We are all in the same group now regardless of how we got there. Our church family is great. Our church leaders are great, and as a relatively new guy to the church, it is very welcoming and inviting to new people. My wife and I are friends with a particular couple who we get along very well with. We love getting together as often as we can, and we always have great talks. Our kids play together and it is always a great time. This couple has been involved with church all their lives. One occasion, we got together, and my friend and I were talking about our backgrounds and how we ended up at our church. We had completely different stories to tell. It was a very enlightening and enjoyable conversation. It was the conversation that inspired me to write this post.

I wasn’t baptized until I was 27. I’m 29. I’ve got a past that I’m not proud of. I had to make a lot of changes in my life when I finally decided how I wanted to live, and who I had to be thankful to for it. I have a lot of friends that don’t understand that. I had to walk away from some relationships because some people simply wouldn’t accept it. Some of the friends I have kept like to remind me of how I use to be. It isn’t easy to go from that lifestyle to being a Christian. As Christians we all get a lot of criticism and other static from people who think we are wasting our time, but as someone who converted, I get it straight from those I love and have known for years. However difficult it is, it’s a sacrifice I make willingly.

I have only ever really gone to my present church. I went to a few others as a child when my mom tried to get me to go, but I didn’t learn anything there (it wasn’t for a lack of trying on my mother’s part). So basically, I don’t know anything about differences in doctrine, traditions, or denominations other than what I have learned in past year or so, and it is all second hand. I never experienced any of it. My more experienced friend pointed out differences in church practice that I never would have picked up on. In short, there is a bit of guilt I feel there, because of how wild I was once.

When I first started going to Cedar Creek it was mostly because I knew my wife wanted me to. She had been going for a while, so I gave it a shot. I didn’t want to at first. Folks in church always tell new comers to “come as you are” and they really try to make you feel as if your past doesn’t matter, and in my experience it is genuine of them, but it did little to change how I felt. I couldn’t help but to feel like I was just dirtier than everyone else. If these people knew anything I’ve done they wouldn’t let me in, they’d cringe at me. It was a low feeling.

It seems the early arrivers got all this out of the way a long time ago. They went through the awkwardness of being new probably as a child. It all seems to come naturally to them now. For those of us who spent time being without Christ, out in “that world,” this can all be hard to get a handle on. I’d like to describe my experiences when I first started going to church, and how I got to be where I am now.

I remember walking down hallways, dodging glances from people because I just didn’t know how to speak to them. I know lots of cuss words. We aren’t supposed to use them here are we? As long as I’m smiling I don’t really have to say anything right? Smile, nod, praise God. Why is this guy so jolly and happy? Do I have to act like that? Okay, everyone else is shaking hands. I gotta find someone to shake hands with. I had terrible social skills before I was in a foreign environment feeling like an outsider, paranoid everyone was looking at me. All I wanted to do was get out of there.

Once we got into the great room (great room is not the real word for it. I can’t remember what it’s really called because my memory is that terrible, so it’s the great room for all intended purposes) and sat down the focus was off me. Then I could relax a bit. I didn’t mind singing. I will say though, they didn’t teach us how to sing and clap at the same time where I went to school, so I can’t do both.

I had a friend whose dad was a preacher when I was very young and he gave me the willies like you wouldn’t believe. So, I had a hard time trusting preachers from about 7 years old and on. This guy coming on stage now was starting off in the hole as far as I was concerned. But you know, I trusted him, almost right away. I know now that this was God’s working, because that was the make or break point for me. If I had a moment of doubt that this guy was not genuine I probably wouldn’t have come back.  I was able to let my guard down, just a bit, and I found myself really paying attention to what he was saying. I may have been skeptical still, but my mind was open. I felt comfortable, and we kept going back. Months went by.

On June 12th of 2011 (I had that date stamped into my bracelet so that I wouldn’t forget) I was sitting in the chair listening to our preacher. I was sweating and almost shaking I couldn’t look up from the floor. I didn’t see Jesus’ face in the tile, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if I did. I wasn’t even listening to the preacher anymore I just felt conviction. I felt the sting of every sin I ever committed, and I felt like they were all sitting on my back. Now that I look back, maybe that’s why I was so hunched over and couldn’t look up. At the end or the sermon, they started singing and the preacher walked down onto the floor. I looked at my wife and said “stand me up. My legs won’t work.” So she did, and we walked up front. That preacher baptized us that day.

All that awkwardness I felt went away shortly after that. I know some people may be thinking “well sure it went away, you are a member of their group now,” but that’s really not it. I saw how much they really cared about me. People where crying when my wife and I got baptized (well besides us. We were blubbering babies) people that I didn’t even know. They welcomed us and it was amazing. The best part is you get to be yourself. You aren’t a drone that dresses acts and talks like everyone else. They take all sorts. Actually, it’s strange now to think back on how I was afraid of rejection for being strange.  I’ve made many friends there since then, and I could go on forever about how awesome those folks are but I won’t.

Being an early arriver is great. But you know, I’m satisfied with how my story has unfolded so far. I spent a lot of time in the dark, now I know the true value of a flashlight. I think there is a great responsibility that the fashionable late group has been given. We know how bad we need Jesus. We know what life is like with and without Him. We HAVE to be the light of the world because we know the dark firsthand.  And thank God that the amount of sin we carried before doesn’t matter after we are saved.  We are dirty sheets, and he is bleach, the best bleach you could ever get. Better than oxy clean. It doesn’t matter how dirty the sheet is, it is perfectly white again after being bleached. Isaiah 44:22 says about Israel, “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist.” That’s a lot of bleach.

No matter your past or how you came to be a Christian, we are all in the same boat now, and we all need forgiveness, and if you are in Christ you have it and you can take that to the bank (that’s a run on sentence but I’m not changing it). That’s a good check right there. They don’t even need your driver’s license.

I’m thankful for all my “early arrival” friends, and I hope they are thankful for me too. As late bloomers, we can learn a lot from our dark days. More importantly, we can share it. I know not everyone will listen. If any of my old friends read this they will think I’m a raving lunatic. I’m sure they’d have plenty of criticism for me. They’d be laughing at me. I’m alright with that. If I can cast a light into someone else’s darkness because of the darkness I endured, than I thank God for it. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Joshua 24:15