As I have mentioned in my previous writings, the goal of me sharing my thoughts and feelings is with an eye towards finding my vision for the path I am meant to take in my life. Certainly there are some things which are a given at this time. I will continue to be the best father I can for my children and the best husband that I can be for my wife. But in searching for where or what else I am called to be or do, the future is unknown. I don’t necessarily have any ideas of grandeur or great purpose, but rather finding where God is leading me and what plans he has laid before me.
“Study the past if you would define the future” – Confucius
So… In order for me to understand where God is directing my life, I feel I have to know and understand some of the things from my past that have gotten me to where I am today.
Growing up in and around the city of New Orleans (which is predominantly Roman Catholic), I was of course born and raised in a family where both of my parents where brought up in the Catholic Church. My Grandmother on my mom’s side of the family worked as a librarian at St. Maurice church and catholic school, where all 10 of her children attended. My sister I believe went to school there for 3 years and somehow I only ended up going there for first grade. They probably kicked me out for walking the halls of a Catholic school, singing “I’m just a sweet transvestite! (RE: my previous post titled, Simple Things.)
Like a lot of Catholic families, we seemed to usually only attend church for Easter and Christmas services, and other sporadic times throughout the year. We were by no means regular church goers, although I did attend CCD classes at St. Mark’s church in Chalmette and received my first communion there. As I started to get older and question my own faith and beliefs, I never truly felt like I belonged there and truly felt like an outsider just going through the motions. I am in no way trying to put down or bad mouth the Catholic religion, but it was very clear to me that it was not where I was meant to be.
When I was about 16 years old, my best friend Rob, invited me to an event at the small Methodist church where he and his family attended. Twice a year, they would have a fund raiser where they sold chicken dinners in the community. Rob would always complain about having to get up so early and how working the grill would leave him with all the hair singed from his arms. After mocking his complaints, he dared me to come and help him out so I could see for myself. The “grill” I spoke of was actually a pit built of cinder blocks that was about 20 foot long with these huge metal frames that were used to cook and flip the chickens. It was a two person job just to flip the metal frames housing the cooking chicken and he and I were “the flippers.”
It was on this day that I truly believe the footpath to my relationship with God was laid before me. The whole time he and I were slaving away over the grueling heat of the grill, inhaling smoke and sweating like pigs, I repeatedly had members of the church thanking me for my contribution, telling me how glad they were to meet me and showing me a love that I had never experienced before in a church setting. From then on, I began attending church service regularly with him and his family and also got involved with the youth group. For the first time in my life, I felt like God was working in my life and truly accepted Jesus Christ as my savior.
It was at youth group that God provided me an angel to guide me on my spiritual journey and help me through a difficult part of my life. At this time, my parents had already been divorced for a few years. My dad had remarried and moved to California and quite honestly I was a confused and scared teenager who needed a guiding hand in my life. Mrs. Lillian, the volunteer youth group leader, was a voice of reason in all of the confusion, fear and turmoil I was experiencing. Her compassion and care was nothing less than a mother would provide for her own child and she was almost like a 2nd mom to me. I will forever be grateful to her for the impact that she had on my life!
In 1993 when I moved Virginia, I was too naive to understand that God was bigger than the church. Because I didn’t think I could ever find or replace the church family that I’d left behind in Louisiana, I turned my back on all that I had learned in the years before and put a self-imposed ban on my relationship with God. It wasn’t that I had necessarily lost my faith or changed what I believed in, but for years I didn’t attend church and was at a spiritual stand-still. This continued until I met the 2nd person that God placed in my life to get me back on my path to him… my wife.
In the beginning of our relationship, my wife was attending college out of state and we had to endure the trials of a long distance relationship. She attended worship regularly on Sundays at the Lutheran church on campus and on the weekends when I was there to visit, I’d go with her. This was my foot-hole back into attending church. Now, even from the very beginning it always amazed me how comfortable she was in her faith was and how easy it was for her. Even during the time I was regularly involved in the church, I don’t think my faith was ever easy. She truly inspired me, because I wanted that for myself!
After Jelise and I were married, we started looking for a church to attend in our home town. We ended up deciding on the huge Methodist church where her mom attended. Given that the youth group had such a large impact on my life when I was younger, I felt compelled to now return the favor by volunteering my time with youth group as well. The church had a youth pastor on the staff and she was more than welcome to have the help. As I look back, those were some of the best times of my life and I still keep in touch with many of those kids today. The problem however was that I really don’t think I was secure enough or wise enough in my own faith to really be leading them. I’ve never been much of a bible reader, so my knowledge of the written Word was poor. I also think that too many times, I was too interested in looking “cool” in the eyes of the youth that I made some poor decisions when it came to being a mentor.
After 3 years, we moved away and started going to the Lutheran church that Jelise grew up in. However the results were pretty much the same as before. I was still actively involved in the youth group and loved working with the junior high kids, but don’t know that I always had my sight set on what was truly important. My work with the youth group was more important to me than actually attending church and although I don’t regret it, I think that I was hurting myself because I wasn’t nurturing my own faith or relationship with God. Another move, another church, but otherwise things were still pretty much the same. Only this time, when we arrived there was no youth group and I was thrust into the role of managing the whole thing which is a role I wasn’t ready for. I managed the best I could for a couple of years and finally felt as though I was growing again in my faith. In addition to being the youth leader, my status as a stay-at-home dad allowed me to take on a part time job in the church’s daycare. This however, became the downfall of my relationship with the church. Because of a personal vendetta and the actions of one particular family I was cursed out, threatened and forced to quit my position. All the while the church leaders stood by idly and watched the events unfold with not a single care for one of its members. It was enough to make my wife and I walk away from the church where our twins were baptized.
Somewhere in the midst of all these years, I started to understand that the problem I had was that I was forming a relationship with the church itself and not focusing enough on nurturing my relationship with God. That’s not to say that I think churches are a bad thing. I think it’s important to have people who share your beliefs to help you grow and walk together with. I think where most churches fail however is that they are too focused on the silly traditions of man-made rules in their religion and are far to exclusionary towards people of other denominations, even if their core beliefs are not that different. One of my favorite sayings is that “Spiritual people inspire me, religious people frighten me.”
For just about over a year now, we have been attending a new church in the Winchester area, Grace Community. Given our previous experiences in the Methodist and Lutheran churches, the first time we attended service at Grace was a little bit of a culture shock. Could a church service really be this simple? Gone were the traditional hymns… the rigid yet unspoken dress code… the stand up, sit down, kneel routines… the ritualistic prayers like the apostle’s creed, the Lord’s prayer, etc… Instead, the service consisted of a few songs by an amazing praise band, some announcements of what’s going on in the church and then a sermon from the pastor that more closely resembles a bible study of God’s word and how it applies in our lives, than the normal boring drawn out messages that I’m used to hearing. It’s so simple, yet so profound!
We’ve started getting more involved in the church, both of us leading children’s service one a month and also forming friendships though small groups. Once again, I feel like God is working in my life and opening my eyes to bring me back into the fold of his flock. This was never more evident than in what took place about three weeks ago.
I had awoken very early one morning, around 4am, while the rest of the house was asleep. Struggling with the thoughts in my head, demons that have haunted my life to far too long, I began to pray for guidance. What happened next really shook me to the core. I heard a voice in my head, clear as if audibly spoken, telling me “Tell him it hurts my heart when you tell me no.” Only this wasn’t the voice of God, but something much more sinister and evil. My words here really cannot do justice in describing the fear and terror or the magnitude of what I was experiencing. I was trembling in fear, begging God to protect me and show me the way. Needing someone to speak to about what had happened, I woke my wife and broke down in tears while sharing the details of my story. Not sure if she would think I was going crazy for hearing voices I my head, she instead held me close with a gentle touch and told me that she had been praying for me a lot recently to be called to seek His guidance in the struggles that have been affecting my life and then prayed together with me.
As mentioned in my previous post, I have been spending less time focused on trivial things which have little meaning in my life. Although not every night, most nights I have been taking 45 minutes or so after getting the kids in bed and spending that time in my bible instead of immediately turning on the television and slipping into a vegetative state of numbness. For no reason known to me other than coincidence, I have been reading the book of Job, when last night I stumbled across these verses:
“But I tell you; in this you are not right, for God is greater than any mortal. Why do you complain to him that he responds to no one’s words? For God does speak – now one way, now another- though no one perceives it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they slumber in their beds, he may speak in their ears and terrify them with warnings, to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride, to preserve them from the pit , their lives from perishing by the sword.”
Job 33: 13-18
Ever since that morning, I have so many questions floating around in my head about what happened. Was it really the voice of God that I heard but choose to believe it was otherwise due to my own moral feelings of inadequacy? Or was God allowing Satan to speak to me directly to stir my soul and show me the error of my ways? Reading that passage last night, it was clear to me that my choice of bible stories was no coincidence. God was giving me a not so subtle reminder, to keep on the path that he has set before me. The last thing I told my wife after we prayed that morning, is that I had lyric from a song stuck in my head, that kept repeating over and over… “Where do I go from here Lord?”
“Just Follow Me!”