The No, and the Yes, and the Wonderful-Terrible Love of God

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
                             — John Donne

* * *

Well. The time has come for me to tell the story, to describe what has happened this week. To try and explain where I am. To help my friends and colleagues and those who care about me make sense of things. To help me make sense of things.

For the last almost six years, I have been studying to be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I was called to this church after 15 years of being Muslim, after encountering God in the fear and terror of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and meeting the wonderful people of Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Virginia, who helped me understand the God I met was the risen and crucified one, Jesus. The program is supposed to last only four years, but I am so very special that my time took six years.

But seminary study is not all there is. Each of the geographical entities of the ELCA has what are called candidacy committees, boards of pastors and lay people who evaluate potential future pastors. This candidacy process has three formal steps: entrance, endorsement (to go on internship), and approval (for ordination). As I said, I am special, and my process has been lengthy and difficult. I had to be endorsed twice (because my first internship failed).

For the last two months, I have been at the approval stage. The first time I met with my candidacy committee (which is in Washington DC, where my home church is), they postponed approving me because of what they claimed was contradicting information. They agreed to meet again to discuss me on February 7. Which was Tuesday. And they did.

They did not approve me. Their stated reason is that I do not possess the social skills necessary for effective pastoral ministry. I believe they are wrong, and that they do not know me well enough — they have never really made the effort — to make that judgment, but it is the final judgment of the committee. It will not change in the near future. If ever. For a time, a few hours Tuesday afternoon, I thought about writing an angry screed against the folks of the Metro Washington DC Synodical candidacy committee. But a screed is not in me. Not now. Perhaps not ever.

(UPDATE: I should note, I suppose, that my candidacy committee did not approve me despite an unconditional recommendation for approval from both the seminary and my second internship supervisor.)

Now, I need to tell you a story. The story of the story of my life. (That looks strange on the face of it. Just go with me.)

The story I had used to tell me who I was, what the world meant, to show me where I fit in the scheme of things, begins even before I have any conscious memories. My mother told once that when I was very, very young, I came to her and asked: “Why doesn’t my daddy love me?” That is where my story begins. It was added to some more by my father, who became incredibly physically violent when I was six and seven. (His violence would last on and off until I was 15.) It was added to when I was nine, when we arrived in Southern California and I began school at Citrus Elementary in Upland. Where the kids bullied me incessantly from the moment I arrived, belittling me, threatening me, tormenting me. The teachers were no help. It was as if the kids ran Citrus Elementary.

And then I entered the fifth grade. It was hell. Because the teacher joined in with the kids in belittling me, threatening me, bullying me. If you’ve not been told by a teacher, in front of God an everyone, that you are stupid, that she will fail you and make you repeat the fifth grade, you have no idea what it is to be reduced to utter and complete nothing.

Because of my father’s violence, which alternated with indifference, I was scared of boys. Terrified of them. So scared that I was actually unable to go into a restroom. So — and this is possibly the hardest and most embarrassing thing I’ve ever said publicly — I peed my pants a lot. It started, I think, when I was at La Mesa Elementary in Monterey (where my father was at his most violent), was lessened somewhat at R.O. Nelson Elementary in Newport News, Virginia (I actually had some very protective friends who, while they would talk about it and even laugh — I eventually deciphered their code — they never made fun of me for it). But like everything else in my life at the time, at Citrus it was out of control. It was just one more thing everyone could bully and make fun of me about. Which they did. And it did not help that the preferred way of dealing with the problem, on the part of teachers (and earlier, by my parents), was to try and humiliate me out of the habit.

I don’t remember many adults being terribly compassionate. Or willing to take much time to get to know me. In fact — and here’s a horrible story — the most positive adult attention I remember from that time was a creepy man who hung around the General Dynamics sports complex (where my dad played softball) and liked to pull up my shirt rub my stomach with his hands, telling me all the time how pretty I was. That’s all he did, and there but for the grace of God nothing worse ever happened to me. But it’s a horrible thing to consider — at 10, I was perfect pedophile bait.

I do not know if I can communicate the extent to which I felt alone and abandoned when I was 10 years old. I had one friend, Marck Weiss, who had it at least as bad as I did. I survived the fifth grade almost entirely because of Marck, and I cannot thank him enough for being human in the midst of inhumanity. But also I did so because one day I decided that if lonely, unhappy, and despair were all I were going to feel, then they wouldn’t hurt. Because they hurt, it meant there was something else to feel — something that was not hurt. I had no idea when that would be. But I would live to get there. I would wake up and live through the nightmare — and it was a nightmare — to get to whatever the absence of in my life then promised me would be in the future.

To survive, I looked inward. I developed my intellect, I read books, and my mother helped with all this (in part, I think, because I was her intellectual companion in my parent’s less-than-pleasant marriage). The world around me was either utterly indifferent to my existence or relentless cruel to me. It was not a place where I was cared for or about. The adults had all the power, could make their decisions, were never accountable, and I never mattered. I was at best a tolerated nuisance. I internalized this understanding of who I was. I was and am exceptionally bright — often times I was the smartest person in the room. That was almost never a good thing. (What I loved most about my two years at Georgetown is, for the first time in my life, I was not. You cannot know how wonderful that was if you’ve never had your intellect be just one more thing people hold against you and torment you about.)

Things would get better after fifth grade, especially when I arrived at Upland Junior High School. Most of my tormentors were not there (I do not know why), and tired of taking the abuse, I started fighting back. I got suspended for fighting a few times, but once I started fighting, I stopped peeing my pants almost immediately. High school was a little better — I was bullied some as a freshman, but mostly after that it was all about not being included. Not belonging.

Along the way, I found myself looking for surrogate daddies to fill that hole. William Turner, a shop teacher and the man who ran the Upland High School auditorium, first filled that role. I think he understood what I needed and he provided it. He taught me how to work, helped me develop a sense of personal honor. I first figured out I had this daddy hunger at San Francisco State, when I had to puzzle through why I wanted more than I was getting in a relationship with one of my journalism professors. After that, ever conscious of this, I always carefully watched and evaluated the emotional nature of my relationship with male supervisors. I couldn’t help wanting to bond, but I could watch it and keep tabs on it, so it didn’t go out of control.

And Jennifer taught me how to love. Hers was the first real nurturing, unconditional love I’ve ever gotten. I know about God’s love from her.

But mostly the story I have told about myself since is a sad and angry one. The world is an unsafe place for me. People are mean and cruel. If they aren’t now, they could be. People with power will never use it in my favor, and they will always use it against me. The great question of my life was: “Will anyone ever love and want me?”

So, I arrive at LSTC six years ago in this condition as an adult who’d had something of a career as a journalist. I wouldn’t call myself a roaring success, but I wasn’t a staggering failure either. For two years, I’d been at church where almost immediately, people came up to me and said: “You should be a pastor.” It was an overwhelming experience, living in a mental world of no one wanting me and finding myself in a world where it was beginning to seem like people most certainly did.

Because the amazing thing about Lutherans is that they actually do care about each other. To a certain extent, I think they take that for granted. Because of that, life in the seminary community here pushed all my buttons. My desire to be nurtured and cared for, especially my daddy hunger? David Miller, Kurt Hendel and even Pastor Craig Mueller set that off. (Mueller, strangely, reminds me of my mother.) After my first internship went kablooey, I found myself looking back and finding in Rosanne Swanson and Sister Barbara Sheehan mommy figures as well — something I did not know I was even looking for. The lost little boy that was me was wandering around, amazed and transfixed in this world of really compassionate and caring grown-ups, and asking: “Will you care for me? Will you protect me?”

My first internship was at a small church in Wisconsin. I picked the supervisor because 1) we seemed to gel theologically and 2) he was young (nine years younger than me) and so I wasn’t gonna have daddy issues with him. It was not a wise choice — he was not up to the task of supervising an intern and he certainly wasn’t up to the task of supervising me. Jennifer and I found a congregation that while not quite knowing what to do with me (because no one really does at first), they opened to us and cared for us. It was overwhelming because, for Jennifer and me, it was so unexpected. One woman in the congregation essentially inserted herself into our lives as a kind-of mom. I knew about my daddy hunger, but I had no idea that I was open to being mommed. It was too much. I hugged her. She did not want to be hugged. She never told me. No one ever told me. And that’s why my first internship ended. Almost three years ago.

The abrupt ending of my first internship, without any warning, was my worst adult nightmare. In that moment, I ceased being 41 years old and reverted to being 10. No one wanted us. The adults were all mean. Decisions were made capriciously. No one talked to me or even asked me what had gone on. It didn’t help we faced homelessness as a result because we had nowhere to go. Everything I ever feared about the world, had worked hard to make sure would never happen again, I was facing. Living in. Every button I had was pushed. It was horrific.

And I wanted to run. I tried. (I had tried to run away and never go back to school when I was 11, but I got caught.) I flung several dozen resumes in the general direction of Washington, D.C., and if someone had bit, I’d of gone. But in the back of my soul was the notion: “Charles, you would only be running from yourself. And you’ll be back here in a few years anyway, since this is what you are called to do. So stay. However hard it will be, stay.” So, I did. I did what was asked of me by the school and by my candidacy committee.

But mostly, I stayed. I faced the mean grown-ups and slowly, ever-so-slowly, told my story and they got to know me. And I got to know them. It took a lot of courage. On the other hand, waking up and going to Citrus Elementary School every day of the 5th grade took far more courage than that.

And so I began to truly comprehend what it meant to live in the midst of people who cared — who cared about me. People for whom I could care. People who actually seemed to mean it when they said they would take the time to get to know me. I will not say it was easy, as I was having to learn a whole bunch of things people normally learn in their teens and then not under harsh lighting and constant adjudication with the threat of final judgment. But I was learning, and I learn quick. The hunger to be cared for began to dissipate as I came to know that I was, in fact, cared for. The compassion and empathy I have always had — things not valued among the people I grew up with — were not just useful here, but important. Even essential. I was beginning to become the person God had made me to be. It was grueling. But it was also the most amazing and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

So now we are here, and I stand amidst the wreckage of, well, something. In the midst of my candidacy committee’s no — a no I fully expected — something amazing happened. It’s why I hope you’ve read this far.

I was oddly at some kind of peace with their decision. Not because I thought it was right, but because I knew it was not the final answer. And not because I trust some kind of appeals process (there really isn’t one), but because I trust God. A day later, on Wednesday, I was talking with Jennifer, trying to explain to her why I was okay with what happened (because she wasn’t), when it finally came to me in words:

This experience is pushing none of my buttons. It isn’t even trying. I’m not sure it could if it wanted to.

Loneliness, abandonment, not being wanted, cruel uncaring grown-ups making horrible decisions about me, being treated as problem to be gotten rid of rather than a person — none of those things were going off inside. I mean none of them. There was almost no emotional resonance at all. I was feeling none of the things I had grown accustomed to or expecting to feel. This experience was residing someplace completely new. And as I pondered that reality, it really hit me:

My present and my future are no longer in thrall to my past. My past no longer determines the meaning of the now. It no longer has any say on what my future means. My past is no longer writing my story. It is no longer telling me what my life means.

I was free. I was free. In a way I had never understood freedom before. It was a strange, and overwhelming place to be. I spent much of Wednesday and Thursday being almost stupidly giddy because of this. If you found that odd when meeting me, now you know why. There was an intense half hour Wednesday afternoon when I just had to sit with the deep sense there was something inside of me, something that wasn’t me, handling my soul. Washing it, maybe. It was odd, overwhelming, overpowering.

I understood that I now lived in a world where people loved, cared for and wanted me. That great question was answered. With a “yes.”

And that would be enough if it weren’t for what followed. Because since Wednesday, I feel like I’m living in a field of charged particles that keep flowing through me. I have trouble sleeping, but not out of worry. I have been living in a kind-of high. Because there’s too much energy in me right now.

Here, I need to explain my difficult relationship with forgiveness. As an act of will, I have been unable to forgive. Emotionally, it was a matter of justice and fairness for me — if I forgave all those kids at Citrus Elementary School, the teachers, then what they did would stand. I held out for some kind of cosmic justice, some hope that if I just held onto it, it could be undone. Because it wasn’t right, what they did, and if I let go I’d have to admit on some level they’d won and I didn’t want that. I wanted to win, to have the final say. I want you to appreciate this reasoning. I don’t care whether it makes any sense to you. It made sense to me. It was why I had a hard time conceiving of forgiveness in a world where the wrong done to me was allowed to stand. Even if that wrong was done by people now ghosts in a place that has long ceased to exist.

Plus, I found I was unable to forgive myself for being the person the world would do to what it did.

So… Friday, I worked at the library in the early afternoon. It was snowing as I came out, and I went out into the courtyard and stood in the snow, arms open, face up to the sky, letting the snow and the wind pour over me, around me, into me. I started walking toward my apartment. And then it happened. It was a well, a flood, a shaking, and suddenly, I found the words of forgiveness in my heart, in my mind, on my lips. I said names, names I have carried with me for 34 years. I spoke them. I forgave them. I did it several times. Each name. I meant it.

And then I told each one of those people: “I am no longer carrying you with me. From now on, you walk. You are on your own.”

I now know what forgiveness is. To forgive someone is to take from them the power to write your story, to tell you what your life means. To be forgiven by God is to become part of the redeeming story of God and God’s people. To know that hope and life are bigger than fear and death. And to have that very real story become your own.

I am in a very strange and wonderful place right now. For the first time in my life, my story is my own. The past is a book that has been shut and put away. Nothing is reaching back to touch it, push it, make sense of the now in the then. I have something of a blank page to work on. But I also have no map. The scenery no longer makes sense. The terrain is strange. I do not know quite where I am. I have no idea where I am going. And none of this was gentle, which is why I have put the Donne poem in front of this essay. Friday afternoon left me exhausted, spent, like I had been ripped open from the inside.

What the committee decided was wrong. Worse, it was a mistake. But for the first time in my life, I find myself knowing that it was not the cosmic wrong, not the latest version of some primordial wrong that I have lived with for so long. I’m also willing to accept a somewhat disturbing possibility — that their decision was absolutely the right decision for absolutely the wrong reason. I would not have been battered by God these last three days had it not been for their “no.” In their “no,” I’ve gotten more “yes” from God then I possibly could have imagined. In fact, it can stop now. Because I need to recover some. For the last few days, I have not belonged entirely to me. And that, brothers and sisters, is deeply unsettling.

It’s hard for me to think right now about my call. I know I am called to preach and teach the gospel, and proclaim God’s presence and promise among God’s people in the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. I even suspect I am still called to this among Lutherans — people who cared for me and about me in a way no one has outside the Saudi student community at the Muslim Student Association masjid in Columbus, Ohio, did in the early 1990s. If I had to choose right now, I’d choose to be a mystic living in a cave, simply because that’s what I feel God’s been doing to me for the last few days. Or a crazy, itinerant holy man who prophesies and blesses. But I don’t get to choose. God does. And God has chosen for me to be in this strange, in-between place right now.

More than anything, I feel reborn. Like I have born from above. This wonderful-terrible love of God has worked its way in me, has had its way with me, has ravished me, has left me hurting and exhausted. (Let that be something of a warning to all you who yearn for such things but have not had them.) I am at the beginning of something. I do not know where I am going. It’s almost like I do not have a past anymore. (Or better, I now have a future than can tell me what the past means!) But I have a present, and a future, a new story written in and by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I have sisters and brothers in faith and call to help walk with me and help me discover what a life lived in faith and hope really looks like.

So, now that I’ve left my ghosts by the side of the road, walk with me. Let us walk, and write, and tell our stories, together.

2 thoughts on “The No, and the Yes, and the Wonderful-Terrible Love of God

  1. My experience of worship this morning was so much the richer and deeper because of having witnessed your resurrection. I wept as the cross came through the assembly at the gathering song, in thanksgiving for the witness of your life among us.

  2. Your misconception about forgiveness makes perfect sense to me. It is one I lived with for a long time: that forgiving is excusing. Actually, it’s the opposite: the offenses can’t be excused. If they could, there would be no need for forgiveness. I can firmly say that wrong remains wrong, without letting the offenders live in my head, while I wait for them to pay an unpayable debt by giving back the parts of my life they took from me. When you find yourself among those who welcome you, I hope you know now that you’re not in the only place where you’re cared for, and you need not be afraid.

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