“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 NASB)
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.” (Philippians 4: 4-5 NASB)
I’m going to get pretty personal here, so if that’s not your cup of tea, I won’t blame you for skipping this one. Anyways, here we go.
Nine years ago I was sitting in the food court of a mall in Sanford, Florida. My fiance was working at a store in the mall, and sometimes I’d take a break from the job search and go hang out at the mall and the nearby bookstore while she worked, just to get out of the house. A couple of months earlier I had quit my job here in Utah, left my family and friends behind, and only packed what I could fit in two suitcases and moved to Florida via airplane. Ostensibly I was doing this to be with the woman who I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I was wrong about that on many, many levels.
I sat in that food court, an empty cup of coffee sitting in front me, and sighed. I had just finished talking to my mom on the phone, getting all the updates about my family and friends. I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but I was miserable. In the spring of 2007 I had graduated with a degree in forensic science from a very well respected program. The previous summer I had completed an internship at a local crime scene investigation unit with flying colors. If there was one thing Florida had in abundance, it was crime. This was the same town that in the near future would host the Trayvon Martin incident, and the murder of my wife’s aunt on her own doorstep. I figured with my excellent academic career and my internship experience I could get a job in no time.
Well, I was wrong about that too. I had put in applications all over central Florida and was working my way into northern Florida. I had only gotten one interview despite several promising leads. We were living with my fiance’s family and she was working two jobs, without complaint, while I looked for my big break that I was sure was coming.
It was not. I didn’t know that then, but I was starting to suspect it. Doubt was steadily creeping in and robbing me of the confidence that I had in my plan and my ability to execute that plan. I kept trying to tell myself that this was all the right way to go, but it never had been. I had the first of several panic attacks after my family had dropped me off at the airport to fly to Florida. I’ve never said this to anyone else, but those same feelings of panic were assaulting me on those days at the mall food court as well, I managed to keep them from breaking through, mostly, by focusing on my upcoming wedding and our honeymoon to the Bahamas.
But I was far from happy, and not even close to content. I was born, raised, and lived my entire life in Utah. I was used to the majestic Wasatch mountains right out my back door, my family cabin, spin fishing on a river on my grandfather’s farm, and four distinct seasons. But I despised Utah, at least I thought I did. I was a young, brash liberal in a very conservative state. I detested the conservative political scene. I had dumped religion on the dung heap, despite the fact that I had wanted to be a pastor at one point. I certainly had no use for the Latter Day Saint culture in Utah, and every time an LDS person opened their mouth around me (which happens frequently in Utah) I felt that they were trying to “shove their religion down my throat.” Of course, they weren’t, and I was just being a judgmental jerk. In short I was full of myself, overconfident, and very angry. I wanted out of Utah. I figured that would solve all my problems. My best friend, Rick, warned me and told me he doubted that would be the case. I should have listened to him, and others.
I was not made for Florida. They have two seasons: Hot and Muggy, and Not so hot, but still muggy. The beach, which was my fiance’s second home, held no allure for me, a mountain raised former scout. I got into the water once at New Smyrna Beach and looked out to see a shape floating in the water a ways off. I asked my fiance what it was. She rather casually told me that it was a shark. “Jaws” immediately started playing in my head, and I never went back into the ocean again after our honeymoon.
Other things made me uncomfortable as well. People think that Utah is racist because of all the white folks around. That’s really not true. The LDS community really respects everybody (even though they have their bad apples, but we all do). I had heard the “N word” maybe 4 or 5 times in my entire life, but now all of the sudden people all around me were using it. A few people in our lives tossed it about quite liberally and people would kick around the joke “I think black people are great. Everybody should own one!” Then one day as I was walking our dog I happened across an African American man with his dog. I smiled and waved. He looked at me and then crossed to the other side of the street. I didn’t get it. Welcome to the south, Yankee boy (which my fiance’s family like to remind me that I was).
Some months after we were married I got a job interview back here in Utah. I flew home for it, and just being back was a breath of fresh air. Rick took me down to see the new Real Salt Lake soccer stadium that was being built. I looked on the mountains again, this time with a deep appreciation. I didn’t get the job, but my new wife and I decided to move back here and give it a shot.
I had many more interviews, but nothing ever came through. I got a job back working for the company I had worked for before, and my wife got a job working at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I was convinced (still) that I was on the right path, but eventually I realized that my wife was as miserable here as I was in Florida. Plus, in hindsight I see that pulling her out of her family support so soon after a tragic death in her family wasn’t the right move. Eventually she went back to Florida to seek a job, with the understanding that once she got one, I would come back down there. If she didn’t, she would come back here after three months.
None of that ever happened, and it’s a good thing. I would have been even more miserable. My wife’s family was already viewing me differently since we’d tried my plan twice and it didn’t work. Eventually, it all fell apart, and she asked for a divorce. I was reluctant to do that. When I took my vows I meant them, but there was nothing left to save.
Needless to say I got even more angry. I hated myself and pretty much everyone around me. I had failed at finding a job in two different states. I had failed at being able to provide for myself and my wife. I had failed at marriage. I was an utter failure and instead of being sad, I got angry, very angry. I took over the job vacated by my wife and that was rocky at first. My family barely tolerated me, my coworkers walked on tip toes around me, and I exiled myself from all my friends.
Then one day I came across a book called “A New Kind of Christianity,” by Brian McLaren. I considered myself an atheist at the time, but read it anyway. As I’ve said on this blog before, McLaren’s writings showed me that there was a way to be genuinely Christian without being judgmental, without being overly hard on yourself, and actually without voting Republican! I was skeptical at first, but my mind was opened. I talked to God for the first time in years.
Not long after this, my parents invited me to the United Methodist Church that they attend to hear their new pastor, Rev. Gary Haddock. I had gone to church on Christmas once, but hadn’t heard him speak. They asked me to give him a chance. I did. Without knowing a thing about me or where I was coming from he stopped that Sunday morning and gave me a huge hug. I kept going back, and he kept giving me hugs! During this time I also came face to face with the life and teachings of John Wesley. Finally I felt that I had come across genuine Christianity, not perfect, but genuine.
I was on the right road, but I didn’t know it yet. Right about the same time we hired what I thought was a rather shy young lady at work named Mattie. We hit it off right away, and really for one of the first times in my life, I found somebody outside of my family or my friend Rick that was really interested in me as a person and what I had to say. Mattie encouraged me every time I saw her. She opened her heart and her ears to me in a way that I didn’t know was possible outside of the love of Christ himself. Over the next couple of years we became great friends and I was able to cast my burdens onto her seemingly huge shoulders. I was also able to help her through some things as well, and hopefully gave her the same opportunity she gave me. She’s down in Texas now, but remains one of the most special people in my life and I thank God for her.
I also thank God for Sara. Sara was another one of my coworkers and then a manager. I’m pretty sure she’s a saint. Much like Mattie she let me unload quite a bit when I needed it, which was often. Sara also brought me face to face with the stereotypes and anger that I held about LDS people. Even though I had discarded most of those old views as I embraced Wesleyan thinking, getting to know her helped me to realize what a jerk I was in my younger years. I needed that, I needed to be able to admit that. She’s gone through some tough times as well, and I hope that I was able to, again, be the comfort for her as she was to me.
Meeting these people: Pastor Gary, Mattie, and Sara as well as the support from those who had always been there for me: My family and my friend Rick, helped me to do something. They helped me to surrender. I finally was able to look my own shortcomings in the eye, not as a way to beat myself up, but to realize that I can’t do any of this on my own. I had been so caught up in MY PLAN and MY ABILITIES that I failed to realize the important truth that I had always been taught in church: “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28). I had not grounded myself in this being, and as the old parable says, I was the fool who built his house upon the sand (Matthew 7:26).
I gave up, and I gave into Christ, which is to give into love and grace. Once I did this, I was slowly able to surrender all that hate, all that frustration, and all of that anger as well (not that they don’t flare up from time to time). As I go further into what God has in store I look at the times that I’ve described in this entry as a time in the wilderness, or perhaps like the times Paul was tested in prison. Though not in physical prison, I was in a prison created by my own arrogance and anger. Thus, Paul’s writings in Philippians (cited above) mean a lot to me. I am not a failure. I am a work in progress, and God’s not going to stop until the day of Christ. I trust Him to complete it, and submit to doing my part to make it happen. After all, I gave up on Jesus once, but he never gave up on me, nor will he!
I know it’s not going to be all easy sailing from here on in. In fact, I realize that having tough times is part of the deal and there’s not always an answer for them. There’s still a divorce to finish. There’s still work to be done in securing my future, but God is there, as are my family and friends.
So today I sat at a blood pressure machine. I take a blood pressure medicine and an anxiety medication (both of which I’m sure have been instrumental in all of this as well). When the test was done I looked down and saw 117/63. Wow. I hadn’t had readings that low in forever! Also, I really want to go on a trip that Pastor Gary is leading to Italy next fall, and I’m going to work to make that happen! Plus lately everyone has been very encouraging to me as I seek to possibly enter the ministry.
This afternoon, in one of my more wistful moments, I allowed myself a dream for the first time in forever. I pictured myself on a boat in Venice, which was great, and maybe, just maybe even sharing that moment with someone who is special to me. I have no clue if any of that would ever work out, but I haven’t even allowed myself those lighthearted feelings since I sat alone at a table at a mall food court in Sanford, Florida, nine years ago.
Nine years ago I was entering a deep despair that would last nearly a decade. Now I’m here, allowing myself to dream again. Maybe, just maybe a year from now I’ll be in Rome, Lord willing.
From Florida, to Utah, to Rome and back again? Who says you can’t go home?