Monday, November 15, 2010

Jilting Jeremiah: The Consequence of Context -- Chapter 6

Aimless, frame-less, never blameless
Declaring self but feeling nameless
Wandering, watching, reaching, aching
What plans today are we forsaking?

Questions, answers, wants and needs
Paths and trails and doors and deeds
Cleared or opened . . . closed or blocked
Perhaps because we never knocked.

-- Thom Hunter

"I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." -- Jeremiah 29:11

Barely more than 36 hours into the great unraveling, Lisa made tea.  After all, the pastor was coming.

When in self-induced trouble, the Bible verses that come to my mind are not the ones that bubble up on joyous days.  As I stood at the window watching for Pastor ---- to pass in front of the house, park in the driveway, travel the sidewalk and pause before pushing the doorbell, I found myself pondering the applicability of the verses in Matthew 18 where we're told to forgive seven times seventy times.  I grappled for verses of grace, stories of stones being dropped, examples of mercy.  I wanted hope, but anticipated doom.

I had learned long ago that smiles and handshakes are most-often just part of getting to the business at hand.  Pastor ---- went through those motions and soon we sat, brief prayer followed by a long sigh and an uncomfortable 15 seconds of silence before he turned on his digital recorder and began to ask his questions.  This would be a conversation of consequence, filled with devilish details of my previous day's dance along the edge of disaster.  Slowly and methodically I told Pastor ---- the story of how the unremarkable errand had led to the innocent car-to-car conversation in the park which eroded into the inappropriate expression of sexual banter and suggestion, exploding into an against-the-car pat-down search in handcuffs and 12 hours of jail and 24 hours of self-judgment . . . preparation for the external waves of judgment to come.  I told him everything my rattled mind could remember.

Pastor ---- clicked off the recorder.  It was his time to sigh and say, "Well, brother . . ." leaving his sentence as open-ended as the deepest well I had ever known.

And then there's context.

The reality is that while things may happen in real time, and words be spoken in a particular moment, we analyze them in context with the actions, reactions, events, declarations and decisions that precede.  Just as I would often explain my adult sexual brokenness in the context of unresolved issues of a dark past, I knew that the events of April 30 and the now-recorded words of May 1, would be measured in context with earlier slips into the abyss.  Today's truth would be watered down and dissolved in previous days' deceptions.

My "thanks for coming by," felt more like "nice to have known you;" his "goodnight" more like "goodbye." And that's the unintended consequence of context.

Pastor ---- was diligent.  He reviewed my remarks; he drove to Oklahoma City to view the scant police record and verify the charge:  "engaging in an act of lewdness in public."  He consulted with his deacons and his mentors.  Six days later, I received this e-mail from Pastor ----.

May 7, 2009


The leadership, consisting of the Pastor and Deacons, have met several times and had many extended discussions about the recent events, as well as the entire history of your ongoing struggles.  After examining the evidence thoroughly and carefully, we have come to the unanimous conclusion that you are not walking out your repentance as you claim to be and that your recent arrest and charge on April 30 is the final proof that you are continuing in a lifestyle of homosexual sin, as well as continuing to intentionally deceive your wife, your church and others about that lifestyle.  We are agreed that there is now no choice but to comply with the commands of Scripture in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 to remove you from the fellowship and membership of ----- ---- Baptist Church.

This has been a heartbreaking process for all of us.  We were devastated to hear of your arrest because we have prayed and labored for nearly two years now to help you be free of this sinful domination.  There has been sorrow in all of our hearts about your family and the consequences this has for your marriage, your job and your children.  We are still praying that God will radically transform your heart and bear the fruit of true repentance in your life.  We will also be praying for your family as they suffer the inevitable consequences.

On Sunday, May 17 at 7:00 pm, we will hold an official business meeting of the church for the purpose of hearing testimony and voting on your removal from membership.  You will be given an opportunity to speak in your defense before the church at that time if you so desire.  You also are welcome to speak privately with the leadership at any time prior to this meeting if you have testimony or evidence that would prove your innocence in these matters, particularly regarding your arrest.  We will be meeting on Saturday, May 9 at 7:00 pm at ----’s house for this purpose, as well as to pray.  Please let us know if you intend to speak to us on Saturday and of your intentions to be present and/or speak to the church on Sunday night, the 17.

We have earnestly studied, prayed and discussed this matter almost incessantly since last Friday, May 1, when we were first made aware of the situation.  I hope you understand our sincere desire to see you liberated from sin and free in the power of Christ.  Even in this difficult and final stage of church discipline, we are praying for a spiritual breakthrough that leads to true repentance and brings lasting fruit.

Your Pastor and Deacons

"Spiritual breakthroughs" are not always well-aligned with human hopes.  "True repentance" is not easily measured with human hands.  "Lasting fruit" may be slow to ripen in human lives.   But God -- who is love -- is patient and kind, all-seeing and all-knowing.  I understand -- in the context of human reaction -- why God says His burden is easy and His yoke is light.

I did have one more conversation with Pastor ---- to help determine whether there was any hope in my attendance at the May 9 and May 17 meetings.  Unfortunately, the powerful verbal semantics of "engaging" would overpower any explanation I could offer.  The very word indicates action and it was clear to Pastor ---- that if I had not been "engaging" in some lewd act, the ticket would have been written in some other way.  Unless I could prove I was not "engaging," there was no need to meet; fate sealed.  While the newspaper called the charge "alleged," and the lawyer, plea and court action would determine my fate elsewhere, the word "engaging" written by an officer's hand on a little pink ticket warranted turning me over for the destruction of my flesh by my local church.  I had engaged in conversation, nothing else, but case closed, as far as Pastor ---- was concerned.

Another consequence of context: once a liar, always a liar?  While I had admitted to having engaged in sexual activity with men in the past, I had also lied -- out of fear and for regard of self-preservation --  about having done so in the past.  In Pastor ----'s mind, the deceptive-protective me was dominant to the truthful-humble me that was developing cautiously through the ongoing practice of repentance, an ongoing practice that had found itself challenged full-force by the powerful pull of an unwanted sexual addiction.

In earlier conversations, months before the arrest, Lisa and I both had asked Pastor ---- and the chairman of the deacons, who had become a personal friend, if we could share about my struggles with other members of the church, believing that more transparency would mean greater accountability as I sought to walk away from the temptations that had plagued me for so many years.  The answer from both was that the church members were not at a point where they could handle that kind of information and it would be better to keep it among ourselves.  In retrospect, I wish I had spoken out, regardless of the pastor's timidity.  My wife and I would have benefited from the support of other Christian couples. I believe every church should equip itself to address the sins of its members . . . no matter what sin it might be . . . and help them find freedom.

On the night of May 17, I sat at home while my wife attended the evening service at ----- ---- Baptist Church where Pastor ---- laid out the charges and presented his evidence and the church voted my removal as my wife sat in silence beside Stephen Black, director of First Stone Ministries, who was there to witness and to comfort.  Pastor ---- had urged Lisa to attend, telling her his presentation would be compelling and provide new information that would open her eyes.  He was unable, however, to close her heart.  My children -- grown, and members of another church -- had been invited to the closed church meeting as well.

I have forgiven Pastor ---- for being hasty, for not probing deeper for the truth beyond a pink piece of paper, for perhaps being swayed by a mentor, and even for proceeding in a prideful, boastful way by proclaiming that night, in front of my wife and children, that his church would now flourish from the rooting out of a sinful member.  One less man to pastor.  And soon, one less woman.  My courageous wife, who felt God leading her to continue attending ---- ---- Baptist Church in the weeks following my removal, was soon told by Pastor ---- that she needed to leave, to ease the discomfort among the members that her presence was causing.  "You're a nice lady," he told Lisa, "But we just don't want you here anymore."  His words shocked her.  She believed she was only doing what God wanted her to do; the sorrow was slow to fade.

I see now that God was in the process of removing more of the thorns that have always plagued the progress of the plans He has for me.  Pulling out thorns is painful.  In a span of 16 days -- from arrest to removal -- I lost the anchor the local church provides, the ear of a pastor, the friendship of the members and the fellowship of the brothers.  It was getting very quiet, with some of the greatest battles yet ahead.

Besides Pastor ---- and Stephen, I had written one more e-mail on May 1.  It went to my boss, the Oklahoma president of AT&T, someone I worked closely with as his chief of staff.

It wouldn't take long for him to respond.

The mid '60s

Affliction and addiction have more in common than just the fact they make good rhyming words in poems.  Both come upon you subtly and cling tenaciously; both ebb and flow, come and go; fool you into thinking at times they have departed completely and then, peeking around some corner in the shadows, jump at every opportunity to re-state the power they have over you.

My stepfather, Michael was an addicted affliction.  He lurked pretty much around every corner and was adept at creating opportunity.  Fleeing from him was really the only option, hoping his debilitating addiction to alcohol and self would slow down the determined affliction he was to our family.  Generally we would sneak away under the cover of one of his stupors, hitting the highway while he was hitting the bottle, or while he was hitting the floor after hitting the bottle.  He was sneaky and sleazy, but he had his predictable points.

It was such a down-the-interstate sneak-away that led us to Lewisville, Texas, the home of The Fighting Farmers -- yep, that's the high school football team -- and not much else in those days.  A sleepy little town north of
Dallas. I'm not sure why we ended up in Lewisville, except perhaps the possibility that cheap apartments were cheaper there.  Maybe we thought if we crammed ourselves into a little apartment, which itself was crammed into a paved plot between a Minyard's grocery store and a respectable housing addition, Michael (A&A -- addiction and affliction) would not find us.  I cannot imagine the mountains of macaroni my mother bought at Minyard's on her single-mom salary.

I was entering that age when material things matter; mansions come to mind, so I hoped no one else would find us either.  We were not coming up in the world.  Still, there was something oddly comforting about living a lifestyle that allowed for a constant do-over, a new beginning always on the horizon, albeit the route always seemed to be across broken-glass, hot asphalt and jarring potholes, like the parking lots that were often just inches out our front door, a convenience when you have a drunk in the family.

I left
Houston with Jesus and glasses.  I was different now . . . over it.  "It" being the rejection I had felt during the years since my parents' divorce.  "It" being memories of perverted pain in the hands of pedophile.  "It" being Michael.  All gone.  Boxed up.  Done.  I could barely quote John 3:16 . . . but I was sure that in the short time I had known Jesus, He had taken care of  "it" all.  I was good.  None of that stuff mattered any more.  New place; new me.

Oh, child.

My "I'm an island" stance among the high-rises and highways of
Houston dissolved in the fuzzy welcomeness of little town Lewisville.  At this point in life, I had learned that the best thing to do when you come into a new place is make the best of it because it will not last and you will move on.  Remain untouched; leave unscathed. But, in Lewisville, I learned that measuring growth is more than making lines on a wall to mark the height one's head from the floor.  I learned that even good and right caring is painful.  I witnessed personal sacrifice . . . and I think I may well have come to the point of truly loving my mother, releasing her from the blame I had piled on her for what others had done.

And I met Jon.  Jon David.  Of course, I also met Paul and Timothy and Phillip and Mark.  These were not biblical characters, but the "perfect family" that lived on the other side of the fence that separated us apartment dwellers from the neighborhood.  I needed a friend and Jon's charismatic, energetic, ever-exploring, constantly-dreaming personality was the spark I needed to uncover the parts of me I had buried inside in my zeal for self-preservation.  His sincere interest in me made it impossible to hide. 

Jon was a preacher's kid and I quickly became a preacher's-kid-sidekick, though I could tell early on that his Dad knew a heathen had invaded the gates.  I reached for the bread before bowing in prayer.  I was dismal at Saturday night Bible sword drills, struggling at first to even find Matthew, much less Zephaniah.  Longing for  Jon's approval, I memorized the location of the books of the Bible and eventually did
Liberty Baptist Church proud at the regional youth meetings.  And it didn't take long before I was bowing with the best of them at all times appropriate.

Twelve-year-olds don't have the privilege of retrospection.  I did not realize that I was, in a sense, carrying a crush for Jon, not in a sexualized way, but in a way where someone broken looks longingly at someone whole, believing that through mimicry he can minimize the impact of brokenness, or that through that person's acceptance and approval, the brokenness will disappear.  In this childhood relationship, I was experiencing what would be replicated through many years of seeking completion.  And Jon, so comfortable even at that age with being admired, accepted it.

To me, Jon's life was perfect.  A mom who sold Mary Kay Cosmetics  . . . and a dad who stood in the pulpit, four brothers, a house.  Jon even had a man's job, working as a butcher's assistant in a shop downtown.  I would walk several miles each Saturday to have a barbecue sandwich, just to spend time with Jon in the bloody spectacle of the meat shop.  I admired his already big hands, scarred from near-misses with the massive knives.  I was not aware in those days of the dangers of making someone an idol.

Indeed, in 7th grade, with the two of us being arguably the most popular boys in school -- I was aware my popularity depended on his proximity -- we ran for class president against each other.  The thought of him losing was more painful to me than the prospect of me winning was pleasurable.  I bowed out and even went so far as to break school rules, tossing in the air in the crowded between-class hallways hand-made campaign sheets marked "Vote for Jon," with a piece of forbidden bubble gum attached with a staple.  He won.

I ignored or minimized the rougher side of his perfect reality.  His father's weekday temper, always tamed by Sunday, but released with frequency at Jon for insufficient performance at chores, or for an inappropriate slip of the tongue, or an insolent response, often leading to a front-yard yelling match, his dad throwing things at him as he ran down the street and telling me to get out of the neighborhood.  I'm not sure which bothered Jon the most:  the high-speed level of the violent eruptions or the speed of the ensuing calm that followed with the absence of any real comfort or clarification.  It was more confusing for Jon than for me. I boiled it down:  "At least you have a dad."

It would take years for me to fully understand Jon's influence on my life, as, of course, we moved away from
Lewisville far too soon.  Still, we would be friends for several more years, even after I left Lewisville, making it perhaps the first sustained relationship of my life.  Through that, I would realize that people like Jon, who grew up under a rigid set of rules and a tight guiding hand with great expectations, suffer in ways that differ from someone like me, too free and void of much expectation at all.  The pressure of great expectations can exact a tragic toll, as time would tell for Jon.

I believe, in
Lewisville, my mother helped us reclaim a bit of the dignity that had disintegrated on the dingy streets of Houston.  She was a different mother without my stepfather, though stressed by working two jobs and still coming up too short on the due dates.  Mother was still a connection to the possibility of normalcy; nothing and no one else had been there for the duration of my whole life to that point.  And really, no one was as oddly normal for the '60s as my mom.

Whether it was Christmas or a crisis . . . which in our state of being could be wound around each other . . . she was consistent in her efforts to breathe pride into our lives, albeit in her own remarkable way.

Christmas first.

All of my life, the announcement of the coming of Christmas came right after Thanksgiving when Mother would put the Bing Crosby and Perry Como albums on the hi-fi and crank them up while dusting and rearranging the furniture for the tree.  The dusty old boxes would come out from closets and from under beds.  Bing would sing "White Christmas" a thousand times in vain, wherever we were in
Texas in our short-sleeves, vainly looking at the sky. 

Lewisville, though, even Bing was having trouble bringing the Christmas spirit into the Hunter house . . . that shabby little Minyards-shadowed apartment. 

"Mom," I whined in chorus with my sisters and my brother.  "It's only four days 'till Christmas and we're the only people in the entire world who don't have a Christmas tree."  Never mind that the absence of a tree left no place for all the presents that were surely hidden . . . somewhere.

"We'll get one tonight when I get home from work," Mother sighed.  I remember thinking how heavy a sigh it was.

After school that day, we sat in the living room watching TV on our old black-and-white until the taxi pulled up and Mother was home from work.  We rushed her.  She was barely in the door when we pulled her back out into the night and across the alley to Minyards to get our tree.  Our $7 tree.

I had never seen a crooked tree.

"We'll make it work," Mother said, all smiles as she put the ever-encouraging Bing on the hi-fi and hot dogs on the stove so we could eat and decorate at the same time.

We set it up.  It fell over. 
We put a string around it and thumbtacked it to the wall.  It fell over.

To a Perry Como serenade, Mother got some nails from a kitchen drawer and with not the slightest hesitation hammered the tree directly to the floor through the worn carpet and into the wood below.  I couldn't speak, but just sat and basked in her victory.

We decorated and decorated . . . lights . . . ornaments . . . icicles.  In awe, we turned off the ceiling light and viewed the beauty of the makeover of the crooked $7 tree.  She was right.  We had made it work.

We stood back, hot chocolate in hand, and admired the tree from every angle.  First came the muted but growing creaking sound . . . then the slow-motion but clearly-progressive tilt as the back of the stand lifted off the floor and followed the angle of the crooked bend in the tree.  Gracefully, like a ballerina taking a bow, the tree moved from perpendicular to parallel, sending fragments of Christmas past flying and shattering on the floor as it kissed the coffee table.

Well, Christmas is a crisis when a tired mother has been scorned and is $7 lighter in the wallet.  In the wink of an eye, Mother unplugged the lights, jerked the stand, bent nails and all, out of the floor, reaching through one of the many bare spots to grab the tree by the trunk.  Mother headed out the door, across the parking lot, down the alley and straight for Minyards, icicles swirling, light cords dangling and dragging through the dry leaves littering the cluttered street gutters.

"Mother," I shrieked.  "Please don't do this!  It doesn't matter."

Apparently, it did.

I remember thinking that every one of my classmates, or at least Jon and his brothers, would be in the checkout line, pointing at the crazy woman doing a Grinch number with the ugliest tree in town.  There are some blessings to growing up in the days before everyone automatically dialed 911.

All the stress and strain of a long year came flowing out as Mother tried to explain, through mascara-dingy tears, that her children would not have a Christmas tree this year and it was all Minyard's fault because they were pawning off defective trees for an outrageous $7.  The store went on automatic pilot as every checker in the place paused to see what the boss would do for this poor, hysterical lady and her stunned children who were hiding behind the line of carts, outside the possible line of fire.  The store manager paused only briefly, realized all were unarmed, smiled and stepped forward to reclaim the tree.

Our new tree -- with a wonderfully-straight trunk and gleaming new decorations -- was beautiful.  Not a bare spot, not a crook, not a tilt. And the box of Christmas candy, offered free and in true Christmas spirit by the teary-eyed checkers themselves, was the best we'd ever had.  We finished the glorious tree with tinseled icicles -- one at a time, of course -- and I sat beneath the tree and celebrated one of my own traditions, finger-swinging from one icicle to the next, from branch to branch, perfecting a Tarzan yell while my sisters rolled their eyes.  Christmas would not crash after all.

My big Christmas gift that year.  Chinese checkers.  Not really.  What I really received was a bit of joy that had been missing for too long . . . and the clear sense of being loved.  I realized that night that my mother would go through anything, including public humiliation, to meet my needs and demonstrate the resiliency and faithfulness of her love. 

Sadly, I would put that resiliency and determination to greater tests.

Our time in
Lewisville was more than just finding a buddy on the other side of a fence and a tree that refused to fall, but those experiences stand out because they provide reminders for me that stability can be discovered in the midst of chaos.  We all need to catalog times when we are loved and accepted beyond our merit, so we can use them to prop ourselves up when we are leaning and about to crash.

In the context of the complete journey,
Lewisville was a relevant rest stop along the road.

1 comment:

  1. Thom,

    I am really surprised at the reaction you received from ----- ---- Baptist Church where Pastor ----. I feel sorry and sad for the folks still attending the church and being lead astray form biblical teaching. I my book the church SHOULD stand and support the recovering person and defend him/her from all of satins forces. Did he EVER read that part of forgiving seven times seventy?

    Such a continuing story of your life and some parts still parallel mine, but not being kicked out of the church I just kept all my SSA to myself, I really can't figure out how I escaped being pointed out as being a fag, queer or what ever other names happen to be popular at the time in either HS, Air Force or life since.