“Do exactly what we tell you to do . . . or he will shoot you.”
Maybe it is true -- and who really knows for sure? -- that your whole life flashes before your eyes just before death, preceding the darkness with the bursting brilliance of life, slowing that final moment, expanding the time to wash the brain and heart in memory. Falling of a cliff, sliding beneath the waves, crashing into the barrier wall, or just seeing the faces of the medical team around you slowly fade away as you lay on a table, may bring comforting visions of the beautiful moments of a re-hashed life, filtering out the times of unloveliness, the grey days of loneliness, the harshness of sandpapered relationships that wore you away. I don't know. I do know that death is not the only occasion for the panoramic view of the mixed-up-mess of past, present, future.
Try being arrested, knowing that in that brief moment - with few words spoken -- life is changing. You're not dying, but it is.
“Do exactly what we tell you to do . . . or he will shoot you.”
When I replay those words from my past, it as if I can hear them all again. They are embedded in my memory. Perhaps in time they will fade, as God allows. Or perhaps they will remain in place as a reminder of where I have been . . . where I am now . . . and where I am going because of Him
When I heard the words that past April day, I sat very still and processed them, my heart beating faster with the absorption of each syllable . . . my brain freezing time, searching through each cell for a way out of reality . . . I analyzed them. Where was the emphasis in the phrasing? Was it on "exactly?" Was it on "you?" Or was it really on "will?"
"He will shoot you."
As my life spreadeagled before me, as my brain sifted through all the possibilities -- even the remote one that perhaps I was asleep and dreaming -- I froze, afraid to move, and had the briefest separate thought -- rooted in reality -- that if I refused to do what I was told, I could -- no, would -- be shot and I might die. I would go to glory in a gory blaze of glory. Pay out the life insurance and put a "finished" stamp: on this ragged race. I could just give it all up. Make a run for it and be done.
Until the moment the undercover police officer opened the passenger side door of my car and spoke those words, looking into my eyes while tilting his head toward the officer on the other side of my car to make it clear where the shot would come from, I thought I might escape. My mind was racing, working up the words to talk myself free, searching for a convincing explanation, a plausible way to defuse the accusations I knew were coming. But as my head turned in his direction and I saw the seriousness with which the officer looked straight into my eyes, his convincing tone struck down all hope. I’d better do exactly what “they” told me to do. I had no doubt in his warning.
My life stopped flashing before my eyes and settled in slow motion to just this one moment.
The office had pulled his car up in front of mine only seconds before, blocking me into my parking space. The man, in the pickup parked beside me, with whom I had been talking, had said to me the words that signaled his partners, apparently listening in, to race in.
“I’m an undercover police officer and you are under arrest.”
Me? Under arrest? What an understatement for someone having taken the earth and shaken it.
My quick sunny-day lunch in the park, a convenient spot to pull into while out running errands, had turned into a darkening nightmare, my life careening wildly out of control, at just the point where life had seemed so in control. The quick short-circuit was stunning. Even in the context of personal history, it made no sense, not on this day. Years of struggling, falling, denying, crying, destroying, re-building, ignoring, learning, steadying, slipping, climbing, stumbling, relying on self, then relying on God, descending into darkness, emerging into light, doubting, knowing, renouncing, rejoicing . . . stubbornly resisting . . . slowly changing. Just when the roller-coaster seemed ready to slow and glide into the end gate, the operator – was it God? – pushed the button and I plunged into another round. Why not just unbuckle the seatbelt and once and for all plummet to the ground?
In a matter of minutes, my guard disintegrating through a string of poorly-chosen words -- inappropriate words of response to a flattery I knew to resist -- I had turned my life over to others. Lunch became a lunge into no-where . . . or wherever I was told to go. If that flashing former life was a video, I had just discovered how long it would take to erase it. Five minutes. Five minutes is exactly how long I had been in the park. But how long had I been traveling down the road that took me into that park? While it was just a 20-minute drive from the office . . . my glide into the parking spot of hell was the result of a decades-long road-trip that had brought me to this place.
What might seem to some a brief indiscretion was transforming rapidly into a relentless wrecking ball that would destroy my reputation, end my career, turn away my church, drive a deep wedge between me and my friends, further distance my children, and thrust me into a spotlight I had spent many years and countless energy avoiding. I had endured this spotlight before, but once outside its glare, I had relaxed too much and slipped back into the familiarity of self-dependence. This time it would be worse.
In an instant, my efforts to hide who I have been ended. It was just a random right-turn into a near-empty park. But how random really? That question would soon be in the minds of the many who would hear about about my fall. To some, my struggle with same-sex attraction would be a complete surprise; my arrest in a public park known as a cruising place for homosexuals, an “outing.” To those who already knew about and had skeptically observed my struggle against the temptations of same-sex attraction, this fall would reinforce the belief that homosexuality had a permanent grip on my life and that my professed battle against it was a cover-up.
It would become a cause celebre for the "I told you so" crowd.
Maybe my struggle with same-sex attraction would have ended years ago if I had been honest about it with those around me. Maybe. When I had been confronted by suspicions, I had lied. There must be some mistake, I argued, though the evidence was pretty clear to those who confronted me. I fought hard and I lied as well as I could and was given some passage. Why did I lie? At the time, the choice seemed to be lie or die.
The choices were narrowing further now. Even the opportunity to die was passing me by as I found myself doing what they said. The tension was relaxing; the guns were kept out of sight.
Unwilling to acknowledge to myself that I had battled a sexual addiction through the years, much less share that reality with others, I had opted for deception and the decay it brings into the life of the deceiver, which spills over into the lives of those who want to love him, even as they take moves to convince him of his lies. Caught in a serious offense, I’d deny it, cover it, much like Adam and Eve did when confronted in the garden. My survival instinct would kick in and I would say what was necessary, blame carelessly and proclaim breathlessly my innocence. Not this time. I was fresh out of fig leaves. I find myself envying those sinners who just own up right from the start. Not me. Not if I could escape, buoyed by that inner voice that says so convincingly: "I'll never do this again."
“Put your hands on the steering wheel,” the officer said as he slid into the seat beside me, carelessly tossing my cell phone, newspaper, lunch and everything else from the front seat of my car into the back. “Do you have any weapons in the car? Anything you could use to harm yourself or anyone else?’
“No,” I said. I felt very harmless.
“I want you to slide across and exit your vehicle through the passenger-side door,” he said, before realizing that would mean climbing across a console and gear-shift, which I would have done just to avoid the threatened bullet. I awaited instructions and focused on breathing.
“Alright,” he said. “You can get out on your side, but walk slowly around the front of the car and put your hands behind your back.”
I determined to move slowly though my heart was racing and my mind was way out in front of me, already trying to predict the outcome of my disastrous decision to be there that day, to have that conversation. Why that park? Why that moment? I wanted God to tell me right then and there in very plain English exactly why this was happening to me. Certainly some of it was the result of my own decision-making, but the randomness of it hit me as well. This was not a plan gone wrong; there was no plan. Just a tuna packet and newspaper and a baggy full of Goldfish crackers. And then a rolled-down window through which chaos flew.
Not totally resigned to the futility of my situation, I immediately began to plan my recovery. What will I tell people when they hear about this? Is there a chance no one will ever know, or will the struggles of my hidden life be revealed? Is life as I know it over? I could ask myself all the questions I wanted, but for now, decision-making had moved beyond my control. There were no answers.
I wanted to pray, or cry out to God, or run, or melt into the pavement, or just die. These seemed reasonable choices, but weren’t among the ones being offered. The only prayer I could think of was “Why, God, why?” But why what? Why was I being arrested? I knew the answer to that question. I wanted my life back, though I had not even begun to see how far gone it was.
“Face the side of the car and put your hands on the roof,” the officer said. He spoke in a demanding but casual tone, barely audible over the pounding of my heart and the serious effort my mind was making to blot out my self-implosion. I heard him, but it seemed as if he should be saying it to someone else while I viewed from a recliner with my feet up, waiting for a commercial to cut the tension.
The officer waited for me at the side of the car, where he patted me down, handcuffed me behind my back and told me to get back into my car in the passenger seat for a brief ride that would change my life. My little indiscretion, a letting down of the guard, would become a reckless revelation. My life’s secrets would be spilled out like the belongings on the floorboard of my car. It would be impossible to gather them back up, to reconstruct the pre-park life. Some things are done before you even know you're contemplating them.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked the officers. “You don’t have to do this,” I pleaded. I can't imagine how many times these very officers had heard the pleas of the offenders who want just a chance to take two steps back into the past . . . to scratch a few words from the script.
“Tell it to the judge,” he replied. Despite the matter-of-factness with which they did their job, I could see small glimpses of sympathy, more of the “thank God it’s not me” variety. The resolve with which they worked was evident; this was not going to go well, this revelation.
Growing up I became aware there were things about me that, if revealed, would not be acceptable to the people in my world. Having felt the sting of rejection early on in life, I had learned to hide the parts of my self that scared me, on occasion threatening to claw their way out of the closet. Rather than risk having all of me cast out, I tied the unacceptable into bundles and stuffed them away into the basement of my ever-leery self. Christians don’t have “those kinds” of thoughts and feelings. Christians don’t give in to “those kinds” of temptations. Christians don’t desire “those kinds” of things. I knew that my acceptance of Christ and His salvation as a 12-year-old was real. God would “fix me” in time, I was sure. In the meantime, we would just keep this secret between us.
How can a life so carefully concealed unravel so completely in a matter of minutes? At I was a respected mid-level executive having lunch like millions of others. By 12:40, I was pressed against my car in an empty public park, handcuffed and charged with “Engaging in an act of lewdness in public,” a vague charge that conjures up images of things I had not done but would stand accused of and accountable for. I didn't "engage" in anything. There was no "act." There wasn't even a "public." Just a cop in a pick-up on a routine round-up. A cop who had a way with words and knew which buttons to push.
A married father of five . . . . a Christian . . . I was being accused of coming to the park not to have lunch alone, but in hopes of having sex with the man in the pickup, or someone. I had been in the park just over five minutes. I’d had no intention of engaging in a conversation, much less engaging in lewd conduct.
I had always had good intentions, but it was not what I intended that really mattered; it was what I did. After I had been confronted about my sexual sin, years before this fateful day in the park, I intended to stop giving in to the overpowering temptation. Since it’s never going to happen again, I told myself, why admit it? In that earlier event, faced with the possibility that my life might crumble, my very-strong survival instinct kicked in fast. My career was trending towards success; I was married and had five children to finish raising. Admitting to same-sex attraction . . . admitting to sending e-mails and making phone calls . . . admitting to having actually met and sexually interacted with men, despite the fact I was a married father of five -- seemed like a mountain too high to climb . . . unless I intended to jump off when I reached the top. So, I lied. I believed the lie would buy me time to conquer my problem once-and-for-all, repair all the damage, reconstruct the relationships and carry on with life. I had lied out of fear, but my intentions were good.
I had lied because I believed in time I could reestablish truth and carry on with life. I knew my same-sex attraction was consuming me, distorting my personality, disabling my dreams, increasing distances between me and the ones I loved . . . but, I thought, forced to face it, I can finally defeat it. And I intended to do so. I lied to protect myself, but I also lied to keep the things I thought I might lose, my wife, my sons and my daughter. I lied to others because I believed in myself and my ability to overcome. My "self" let me down. By fleeing the responsibility of my actions, I doomed myself to repeat them.
In the end, I lied even to myself because I wanted to be someone else and not myself. A person who struggles believes the struggle will end before it hurts too many people beyond himself. He may be torn up inside, but the end of the journey seems always in sight. The struggler's energy goes into covering up, recovering from guilt, trying to maintain composure, and sometimes into concocting elaborate lies to buy time to overcome, to claim that elusive victory. Energy that should go into the struggle itself is consumed by the overwhelming labor of deception. The struggler becomes almost double-minded; develops an alter-ego; maintains two existences and worries all the time that one is seeping into the other.
Some see the struggler as using the life he shows – family, church, and career -- to enable the life he hides, a life some think he would prefer if he were not trapped by his past decisions. Decisions like trusting a Savior for salvation, marriage, fatherhood. Decisions rooted in the same soil of hope in which the non-struggler grows: a desire to please God. Those who do not struggle often believe the struggler should just face reality and stop doing what he knows is wrong. They believe it's that simple. I wish it was. I did not choose the hidden life I lived, and during that fateful April lunch encounter, I would have given anything to be someone else, somewhere else, on some other day.
This particular leg of my journey into the darkest pit of my life began innocently enough when I left my office in downtown at to run the errand and go to lunch. I called my wife, Lisa, on my cell phone. This was my daily routine; hop in the car, buy a “Big Gulp,” call my wife; head to a nearby parking lot; eat the lunch I always brought from home; read the paper; go back to work.
Lisa, who was in Precepts Bible Study training at a local church, didn’t answer. When she called me back at , I was driving down the highway approaching an exit onto the street that would take me to the trophy store to drop off a flag for framing. As we talked on the phone, I made a right hand turn into the park to finish our conversation in a nearly-vacant parking lot. One vehicle, a pick-up truck, was parked at the far end of the parking lot. I parked in the center of the lot and Lisa and I continued our conversation, which was, as were most of our lunchtime chats, of no consequence at all.
The entire conversation, according to the phone record, lasted 2 minutes and 46 seconds, about half the time it takes to unravel a life.
“You have a good afternoon in your training and I’ll see you tonight,” I said.
“I love you,” she said.
I set the cell phone down in the passenger seat, unpacked my lunch and unfolded my newspaper. When I looked up, a man in a pickup truck had pulled up beside the passenger window, smiling as he moved his hand in a circular motion, gesturing for me to roll down my window.
He was friendly and personable, and at that point, I should have driven out. Suspended between the instincts of survival and curiosity, I paused and returned the smile. He began what seemed like a very innocent conversation, but I should have known where he was taking it. I resisted the conversation and the direction it was headed, but he was skilled, perceptive and persistent and I allowed it to proceed to an inappropriate point. I never left my car; nor did the undercover officer who was conducting the sting operation leave his. There was never an indication either of us would do so.
Proceeding beyond the beautiful day comments, the man kept prompting me with questions about why I was in the park, to which I replied I had stopped there for lunch on my way to run an errand. I also told him I never come to that park because I work downtown, but just happened to be there that day because of the errand to a trophy shop less than a mile away. He told me he was just there on his lunch break to see “what all was going on today.”
I admit to being flattered that he expressed so much interest and I continued the conversation.
How quickly resolve disappears when the opportunity presents itself to seek secret satisfaction or to hear words that play upon some buried need. A casual play on words moves into the mind and creates powerful images that numb the ability to reason, blotting out all common sense in hopes of satisfying a personal “need” that seems real and reasonable at the time. Resistance dissolves; awareness of the potential costs vanishes. Selfishness takes control. Want becomes the driver. Black and white, right and wrong, leave the scene. Sins we think are buried deep inside show themselves to be barely beneath the surface, easy to arouse. It takes little time to move from where you will never go to being there. A word or two will do.
The man stopped talking and dropped his smile as he signaled his fellow officers who were driving around somewhere else in the park. The time of the arrest was12:40, just barely five minutes after ending the phone conversation with my wife.
I engaged in nothing but conversation, very brief, following his lead. There were no physical acts or contact with anyone nor was an offer ever made to engage in any activity. I was about to understand better than ever that thinking can be as damaging as doing.
After I was handcuffed and frisked, I was driven to a staging area a few blocks away where they were collecting other men who had been arrested in the sting operation. My car was impounded and I was placed temporarily in a police van with two other men whose lives were also falling apart that day. We did not talk, our eyes focused on the floor, our ears on the door.
At the staging area, the officers asked some basic questions and the arresting officer posed with me like I was a trophy fish. After a while, I was driven to the county jail in the backseat of a police cruiser, transferred into the county jail reception area, fingerprinted, booked, tested for tuberculosis, chained to a pipe against a wall and then placed in a holding cell.
“Hey man. What are you in for?” asked the sad-eyed guy sitting with his knees clutched to his chest a few feet down the stainless-steel bench in the holding tank. For the second time that day I was hearing a set of words I never thought would be said to me. And this time, I did what came naturally and seemed prudent: I lied.
“DUI,” I said, feeling ashamed that I was willing to accept one sin over another. I realized I was as judgmental of my condition as my children were, as my church would be, as my employer would be . . . as the sad-eyed man might have been.
“DUI?” he said. “You don’t look like a drunk to me.”
I turned away and leaned against the cold tile wall. Am I ever what I appear to be?
I sat among these men whose lives had merged with mine on this day because of the self-interruption of our own actions and choices. Thieves, “deadbeat dads,” drug dealers, violent offenders ,drunkards and sexual offenders . . . the dregs of our city’s streets, rounded up and held, to be sorted out and placed in little rooms for processing and handling. We had been removed to protect the community. I looked around me at the brokenness and thought of how a graceless God might come in with a broom and sweep us all into some big dustpan, those with sprung sprockets, missing wheels that made them turn in constant ever-closing circles, batteries ebbed, paint peeling, color fading, cracks spreading, wings skewed in wrong directions. As the day went on, I would see the sorting; some would go upstairs; some outside; some would slide further in to the hopelessness, finally becoming almost one with the stainless bench or the concrete floor.
Where was my desk? My Blackberry? My piles of files and projects? My calendar? My keys? My life had been reduced to gray walls and trapped men, all proclaiming innocence; all “wronged.”
I knew that outside that room my life was going on as always, absent me. Nothing was yet amiss. The normal calls of the day were coming in; deadlines were approaching, messages were being left, excuses suggested for my extended lunch absence. My wife was planning dinner. The dogs were wandering the yard and there was rain in the forecast. Only I knew it was crumbling. I would have wept, but not there. Not in that room, not with those men.
Several hours later after mug shots and more processing, I was finally moved to another cell with phones bolted a wall and piles of limp ham sandwiches stacked upon a try. I was given the right to make the proverbial one free phone call. As the hours had passed, I had narrowed down my choices; I had chosen my words. I called my wife.
It would take a long time for me to know what the minutes in the park had done to the years of my life. How a brief conversation through a window can shut down relationships I thought were a permanent part of my life. How a pair of handcuffs and a ride downtown can bring both loss and gain. How dear the depths can be. How dreams and nightmares can run parallel . . . and lead to the same place.
Had we finally come to the end . . . or had we finally come to the beginning?