Monday, June 16, 2014

A Fundamentalist's Conversion

Catch up with the series here.

I made two stops before driving to San Francisco. At both stops, I almost decided not to move to California.   

My first stop was Milledgeville, GA, a small town south-east of Atlanta, and pretty much the opposite direction from where I was actually headed; I wanted to see Christine one last time. By June of 2004, she had moved into a house in her college town. Although I had stopped pretending to her that she and I were exclusive, she still claimed to love me. That week was rough. She cried a lot; I got high a lot. Although I wasn’t having any fun, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. That’s how my two day stop stretched into a week. One morning, we ate breakfast at a small café and bookstore in the small downtown area of Milledgeville. It was the sort of café that two liberal pagans[1] love. The kind of myopic place for people that fail not only to empathize with people and positions that disagree with them, but also fail to realize that the world is larger than their own specific ideologies allow room for. Anyway, we complimented the proprietor on her café, and had the obligatory liberal conversation about the variety of ways that the United States demonstrates its collective patheticness; and, how important cafes like this one are, especially in the hated South. Mission work is important, after all. The proprietor told us that unfortunately she was being forced to sell the place[2]. We expressed our condolences, and took our vegetarian breakfasts[3] to a table sitting on the sidewalk. 
While eating, Christine put down her fork and said, “I want to buy it and have you run it for me.”

Now, I never fully understood her relationship with her divorced parents; and, I never got a handle on her financial situation. She hadn’t had a job the entire time I knew her[4], but always had plenty of money. I knew her dad was paying her rent, and had just purchased her a brand new car. But, I highly doubted that she had the means to purchase a café on a whim; then again, I didn’t necessarily know that she didn’t, either. So, being intrigued by the offer, I asked. She reassured me that her dad would buy it for her. I had my doubts, but up to that point, her dad had yet to refuse her anything that she wanted, and I had no clue what he did for a living, much less how much money he had. So, with more than a touch of skepticism, I discussed the possibility with her. She was excited, and her excitement was contagious. I began to believe that I could be happy if, like she suggested, I moved in with her. The reality of whether or not she could actually buy the café didn’t really matter; for me, the possibility of Christine being my home became the important thing.

The next day, I stood on the back deck of her house, and smoked weed. In fact, she and I had just had an argument about the fact that I smoked weed. To her credit, she realized that smoking weed had begun to dull my formerly dogged pursuit of theatre. She begged me to stop, but told me that she would love me even if I didn’t stop. When I walked back inside, Christine was standing in the living room completely nude. She draped herself around my neck and sobbed “I love you” over and over. I stood there with my arms tightly by my side, feeling nothing. I marveled at that. How could I not want this beautiful naked girl who was willing to overlook my flaws? Why was the pull of Californian so much stronger for me than she was? I didn’t understand it. Right here was everything that I had always believed that I wanted - a beautiful girl who wanted me, a place to live close enough to a fairly large and good theatre market that I had already found a measure of success in[5], and freedom. It confused me, but I couldn’t deny it; I needed to get to California.

The next morning I got in my car and left Christine. She cried and begged me not to go. That was the last time I saw her.

Pretty much retracing the route of my Pilgrimage, I drove from Georgia to Bloomington, Indiana. My parents were there this time. 

I stayed with my Grandmother, who was beginning to get to the point where she could no longer care for herself. While I was in Bloomington, my mom and my aunt had several discussions about potential courses of action in regards to caring for their mother. During the first couple of days that I was there, the seed with the idea to move in with my Grandmother, help with her care, and enroll at IU began to sprout in my mind.

I assumed that my parents would think that it was a great idea. I assumed that they believed that moving to California was a very bad idea for me. Both assumptions proved to be faulty. When I suggested the possibility of staying in Bloomington to help care for my Grandmother, my mom was very appreciative but hesitant. At the time, I assumed that her hesitation was due to the fact that the level of care needed may be beyond my very limited ability. I got that, and I explained to her that I could simply be a stop gap until she and my aunt came up with a better plan. She thanked me, and told me that she would think about it.

One of the privileges that aunts have is being able to be indulgent where parents can’t. So, when I told my aunt about my plan (it had become entrenched as a plan in my mind at this point), she was supportive of me like she’s always been. I doubt that she believed that I could be much help where my Grandmother was concerned, but she realized that I was lost, hurting, and needed a home. I’m eternally thankful for her unconditional love and support. But, I’m also eternally thankful that my parents disagreed with my aunt. After thinking about it for less than half of day, my mom told me that she believed that I should move to California. But, both my parents and my aunt left the decision up to me. That may sound odd, since I was almost thirty years old, but it was their mom’s house that I would be moving into.

My parents didn’t put the hard sell on me to go to California, although, they shocked me when they told me that they believed that I should go to California. When they told me that, I thought, “What are they thinking? Don’t they realize that once I’m out there, I’m gone?” You see, at that point, my reason for moving to California was no longer about that church, but was about things like the theatre opportunities in San Francisco and the drug culture of Northern California. In fact, I was a little offended that my parents wanted me to move to California. My reasons for staying in Bloomington were good and made sense. Besides helping out with my Grandmother, going back to school was a good thing. Plus, I had just under three thousand dollars to my name, and it was going to take over a thousand of that to get to a place where I had no job waiting for me. My parents were not swayed by my responsible and good reasons. My mom told me, “It will be good for you to move to California.”

I went to my aunt, expecting her to contradict my mom and tell me that I should stay. She didn’t. She said, “If you choose to stay, that will be great. If you choose to go, that will be fine, too.” I decided to stay.

That evening, I went with my aunt and cousin to Fazoli’s. I walked into the restaurant feeling relieved and good about my decision. While in the Fazoli’s bathroom, I, for some reason, began to question my decision. It didn’t make any sense to me, because staying in Bloomington was the wise and responsible thing to do, and, I liked Bloomington, but in that Fazoli’s bathroom I realized that for whatever reason I needed to go to San Francisco. At that point, the problem became an issue of driving across the country before my brother and his wife left for the East Coast for the summer. The original plan was for me to house-sit for them while they were gone, but I needed to get there before they left. They were leaving on Friday, and it was Tuesday evening. In other words, I was going to have to drive straight through.

I told my aunt that I was sorry, but that I had to go. She hugged me and told me that she loved me and to be safe. I quickly drove to my Grandmother’s house and hurriedly told my surprised and weirdly happy parents. I threw my stuff into my car, and told them goodbye. My mom, with tears in hers eyes, told me that I was making the right decision. She gave me a big hug and told me that she loved me very much and was praying for me. I was in too big of a hurry to be annoyed.

I only vaguely remember pulling into my brother’s driveway. In fact, from a gas station just north of Lodi off of I5 until my brother’s house, I remember very little. Not because it was too long ago, and my memory has faded. But, because I had just driven almost 2,300 miles in two and a half days, and the next day I couldn’t remember driving from Lodi to Antioch, much less remember it ten years later[6].

By the time I woke up on Friday afternoon, my brother and his family were gone. Besides the fact that I was still exhausted from my drive, Friday afternoon/evening is not a good time to fill out job applications in restaurants and bars. So, I went to a movie. In fact, being exhausted, going to movies is pretty much all I did until Sunday.

I went to my brother’s church that Sunday, but that was only because I was lonely and was counting on free meals. The church members graciously and eagerly supplied my need for companionship and free food. To my discredit, I didn’t intend to be friends with these weird Christians for long. But, until I had a job and my own friends, they would do.

The last week of June, a little over a week later, I got a job as a bartender at Humphry’s on the Delta – a seafood restaurant in Antioch. I quickly made friends, and, like pretty much all restaurants, found a connection for weed and other things. I even found a place to live. A waitress had an extra room to rent in her house. On July 4th, a Sunday, I went back to the church for what I believed would be the last time. Having just started working, I was almost out of money. The church was having lunch on the grounds after the service; one final free meal before I shrugged them off.

That evening I went to work happy and content. Life was finally looking back up. I was in California; I had a good job and had some auditions scheduled in The City; and, I had a place to live that also came with a potential hookup in the form of the waitress. After the restaurant closed that night, I sat on the outside deck with some of my new co-workers and shared their weed and camaraderie. I returned to my brother’s house looking forward to the next two days. I wasn’t scheduled to work again until Wednesday, and intended to do nothing until then except smoke up the rest of my weed stash. I didn’t have the money to go anywhere or do anything, and I would be using my tips to buy a quarter bag from one of the line cooks on Wednesday. So, two days of no worries and no responsibility.

I ended up getting kind of bored on Monday, so I drove to Berkeley on Monday evening. I sold some cd’s at Amoeba Records in order to buy dinner. After walking around Berkeley for a while, I returned to my brother’s house in Antioch. Taking my cd player onto the back patio, I rolled a joint, and prepared to relax until I fell asleep.

Everything was going fine, except, since I was stoned and by myself, I began to have a conversation in my head with my oldest sister. This was normal. I like to talk when I’m not stoned, and, until I get sleepy, being stoned makes me even more talkative. So, whenever I was high by myself, it was normal for me to have conversations in my head with people[7]. For some reason, my oldest sister was my most frequent imaginary conversation partner. Anyway, since the last conversation that I had had with my sister involved her attempting to convince me that God was who He said He was and that He loved me, the conversation in my head turned to God.

I don’t remember all of the specifics about the conversation (I was stoned, after all), but I remember that the conversation became increasingly uncomfortable for me. I couldn’t get away from the thought that if there was a God, it was patently absurd for me to think that I could question Him, much less best Him. I was keenly aware of my flaws, my incredible selfishness, and my sins. I kept going back to the thought that if there was a God, and at that point I believed that God did indeed exist, I needed to reevaluate my relationship with Him. But, I didn’t want to do that. My life had just gotten back on track. I went inside and turned the TV on.

My brother didn’t have cable, and so I didn’t have many choices of what to watch. It wouldn’t have mattered, because nothing that I watched silenced my questions and thoughts. Troubled, I went to bed.

The next morning, I woke up with the same thoughts in my head. With no money, and having used up most of my gas to drive to Berkeley the evening before, I was trapped. I began smoking weed shortly after lunch, but it didn’t help. I paced the small house, arguing with myself. All the usual arguments raised their hands to be called on, but this time the thought that God possibly transcended my questions kept sitting them back down. As the day turned into evening, I was screaming inside. I began to plead with God to leave me alone. What right did He have? I was finally happy; I didn’t need Him; and, I definitely didn’t want Him!

What happened that night doesn’t make any sense to me. In fact, in my current, at times dry and overly intellectual Reformed tradition, I’m somewhat embarrassed to talk about it, but it happened. So, be that as it may …

At some point that Tuesday night, I was reminded of something that I was taught during my childhood – something about there being a final time that God will deal with you. You’re last chance, so to speak. I’m not saying that it’s true, but it’s what came to my mind. And, I got it in my mind that this was it. This was the moment of decision for me, and that I would have no other chances. And that thought scared me. Confused, scared, and with tears streaming down my face I thought about how much my mom loved Jesus and about how much she loved me. And I thought, “If my mom loves me so much, no matter what I do, what does that say about Jesus?” I got on my knees and clinging to the couch cushions, I screamed at God, “I don’t get it. I can’t see it. If you are who you say you are, please show me.” And in that moment, it made sense to me. I understood that my sin was an affront to a Holy God and that I was currently under His righteous judgment. I understood that even while I hated Him, He still loved me and that was why Jesus came and died on the cross and was raised again. I understood that it was for my many sins that He was wounded, for my overt blasphemy that He was bruised, and for my terrible treatment of His image bearers that He was crucified. How could I, the chiefest among sinners, question Him? And, so, I begged for forgiveness; and, I submitted myself to King Jesus.

Addendum: This isn't, by any means, the end of the story (for one thing, I'm not dead). I had, and will continue to have until King Jesus returns, many struggles - especially over the next three years. But, from that moment on, my life began to be characterized by my identity in Christ. And, my Father has continued to prove that no matter how often I resist the Holy Spirit, His relationship with me is grounded in the reality that I am now in Christ. I will continue to write about how the Holy Spirit has and continues to sanctify me for the glory of God., but this post is the end of a larger project that I am working on. Thank you for reading.

[1] Although, at the time, I’m not sure if “liberal” was a good adjective for me. “Burgeoning nihilist” would be better.
[2] Note the use of the word “forced.” People not wanting your fairly traded coffee and hand-woven/made dream catchers is often construed as violent subjugation in that world.
[3] At that point, I was back to eating seafood and chicken, but I hadn’t told Christine that.
[4] Unless interning at the theatre where I was working counts.
[5] Atlanta, in case you were wondering.
[6] That 2,300 mile drive was one of the most weirdly eventful two and a half days of my life. But, as interesting as that trip was, it doesn’t serve this post. Maybe I’ll write an addendum post solely about that trip.
[7] Not in a schizophrenic way; I knew that it was in my head. 

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