No. 13 – What is Repentance?
I was sitting on the beach in Gulf Shores, AL with a few friends, during our final spring break trip. It was late in the evening, potentially morning, and we were propped up, feet deep in sand, listening to the gulf crash on the shoreline. The conversation flowed with anticipation as each classmate shared the next steps and what was to come of their future. Most were attending rival universities within the boundary lines of Alabama. Some were checking out community colleges nearby, and a few were beginning work right away. One friend spoke of becoming a missionary. She said she had some folks from an organization named “Youth With A Mission (YWAM)” come to her church and speak about their program. In short, you raise money for others to pay for you to be there, go to their school for training to be a missionary, then on to a foreign country for a month, while smuggling in bibles and needed medical supplies. My interest peaked.
I was a terrible student in high school, and pursuing college was not an option. I had no interest of getting a degree, or attending more school, sitting still, books, studying, etc were my worst nightmare. I felt full (overwhelmed) of so much, that there was not a lot of room for much else to come in. But, being a missionary? Traveling to a different country? Smuggling in bibles and medical supplies? Sounds noble.
Through the next several months, I had my launch date and was on my way to YWAM’s Elm Springs, Arkansas base with full expectation of becoming the most whole person I could become. Growing up in the christian faith heavily displays options for how/where to measure your worth and growth. There is an entire language built to keep people separated from their hearts, longings, awareness and growth. I heard about “God’s will” and “His calling (God would never be considered female)” through my life, but joining the mission field added “Spiritual Authority” and any and all things involving “repentance.”
Spiritual authority was defined as the people who had a connection to God in ways that would hold you responsible for what will present the most ideal growth. They demanded respect, and had a place in your life as God’s mouthpiece. The people leading the base were a tight knit family who many, looking back, were also wounded and there to escape not having the tools to address their pain. I had a genuine interest to help a small country who needs medical supplies and bibles, but more importantly to me, was becoming the most sacred, clean, presentable young man I could, all the while, watching the homosexuality in me fade away with my other sins.
There is a reason I was drawn to an environment thats heavily promoting spiritual authority and repentance. It was my next layer/level of my christian faith. It was a level of humility that can only be found by those who forfeit pleasure and pursue nobility in serving others in the name of God.
We had classes everyday, where we started the day with worship music including guitars, drums, and multiple solo performers. I grew up southern baptist, and in Alabama. We sang hymns, and wrote notes in the bulletin. I had not seen whatever this was, and was certain it was meant for progressive places like California. But, I was there to grow, and grow I did. I threw myself into this program, and trusted that when I left here, my secrets will no longer be secrets and I will know life on the other side.
Every week, we had structure. I went to my classes, ate my meals, and did my chores at the same time everyday. My days were full, but also presented opportunity for alone time, time to think. Time to grow. Time to process.
I was processing in a safe environment. I had never had structure like this before, and while I adapted well to the structure, it was also making room for a lot to come to the surface. I was used to chaos. I grew up in a home as the youngest of six kids, and by the time I was 10, I was an uncle. Our house was always loud, and full and unpredictable. At 14, I had my first full time job doing construction work in the summers, and was often on the go. I remained independent. I did not feel trapped on the mission field. but my pain did.
The sexual abuse from my puberty years was putting an extreme pressure on my day to day. My key abuser took me to an older gay couples home on multiple occasions. These men were in their 50’s, and Chuck just short of 40. I was 13. I remember what went on in that room, and writing this now makes my heart thump with rage and sorrow. It was dark, and sick, and poisonous. During my therapy sessions, my throat would tighten, and I would often go blank when discussing details.
These men were sick and used their position to do tremendous harm to a young boy. Their darkness overwhelmed me.
A few weeks before I left for the mission field I saw him. Him, Buddy, the other half of Dwight and Buddy. The men I knew. The men who had the rundown house on Woodley Rd. The men who had access to me at 13, and now I am 17 and looking, staring, helpless, and confused. I am looking at his arms, legs, and face. It was him, but a different version of him, with an IV bag attached to a pole. His nurse is beside him helping him walk, and suddenly, my friend alongside me says “That man has AIDS.” I looked again, at the man who had once put his hands on me in ways that distorted what touch was, and here he was. His cheeks had caved in, his eyes were sunk into their sockets, and his skin had sores on them. He was dying. He was sick. He had aged 40 years in 4. I quickly walked away.
I walked away, but that image of Buddy had just enough room to squeeze in to my very full mind, and when there was silence, or stillness, or structure, it is all I could think about. I would blink and see his IV bag, and hear my friend saying his diagnosis out loud, and I would process what that meant, and how people get AIDS and I would panic because I had heard about how God punishes people who were gay by giving them AIDS. I believed that. I believed 100% that AIDS was a result of being disobedient, and it was that simple. God has a switch and is moody as hell. In one minute, He is loving you because you have told someone about Him and then lead them in a prayer that gave them eternal life, but then you had lacked faith in an area of your life, so God flipped that switch to punish you and teach you a lesson about how powerful He is. That was the message.
I tried to stop thinking about Buddy. I tried to get busier so I didn’t have to think of whether or not he had died, and all the other things that came with it. I was embarrassed that I had been naked in his home, and I was angry that I felt physical pleasure by some of the attention I received, and not willing to let all those thoughts settle because the real thought was crushing my tight brain and my conflicted heart with one question: “Do I have AIDS?”
My dorm was was in the corner of a double wide trailer, and my bottom bunk sat propped against a window overlooking the field we walk across all day, everyday. I felt safe there. I liked my bed, and my soul liked the structure, but the structure was leading way for more of my old thoughts to come about, and I was becoming terrified of what that meant, so one night I began to cry. The cry turned into heartbreak, and the heartbreak hit the anxiety in me. I began feeling separated from my body, and whaled as all the thoughts and secrets and pain erupted in one long, violent moan. My dorm dad appeared (per my roommates request), and was grabbing my shoulders saying “Get dressed and let’s go for a walk.”
I sat on my bed with an anxiety I can only describe as imaginary hands holding your throat by a grip, while shoving your chest. It seemed something was working against me, but if my dorm dad could hold the space, I knew I had to tell someone the truth of what was happening. I could not carry it any longer. The details were too much.
We stood in the classroom where we went to our classes, and I told him. I told him what I knew about Chuck saying he wanted to spend time with me, and one day Chuck taking me to Dwight and Buddy’s house. I told him about every lie that I felt that I had carried and how sorry I was. It was happening. I was having an honest conversation for the first time. I was telling it all.
All the weight of a 13 year old carrying these secrets of this horrendous confusion through 14, and 15, and 16, and 17. Those lies have festered and taken on their own identity, and while I wanted to feel like a strong christian, I felt this was in my way. It was cutting me at the core, and the only way I knew how to share the story was to be honest, because I could not keep these secrets anymore.
My dorm dad was gentle. He was in his forties. Kind. Surprised. I think he was scared. He, my spiritual authority, had just been on the receiving end of all of these secrets. Before him stood an 18 year old boy hurting like hell because he does not get to feel whole because of the fucked up evil acts done to him through puberty. Here before him stood a level of vulnerability and desperation, often lost on many adults. But this young man wanted to rid all the fear and scary stories that flashed in his mind during worship, and haunted him when he tried to pray. He wanted relief and strategy. He was desperate for anything to take the pain away, so he stood. He offered himself, and accepted his authorities solution.
“You need to repent for being involved in homosexuality.”
Those very words. That exact sentence. This message. This worst-case-scenario said to a young man who has just described the sexual abuse that occurred to him, has been told to say “I am sorry, God.”
The result: I repented my ass off. Sexual abuse rearranges your emotions, and its violation tricks your identity to believing you are worthless, so apologizing felt natural. I repented over and over and even admitted to all the other acts of high school sex that occurred after the abuse. I was sorry for it all, and started to feel the weight leaving me. I felt my breath coming back and the oxygen was a gift. As I thought I was becoming a whole person for once, I was willing to say any/everything to have my breath back.
I woke the next morning before sunrise. On limited sleep, I got dressed and walked to the nearby pasture to watch the sun come up. I stood at that sunrise and while the heat hit my face, I noticed how much lighter I felt. I did not care, or have the capacity to care as to why I felt so much better. I started to believe in God more, and believe that He was proud of me. It seemed that enjoyment was because of repentance, but I still loved the idea that God liked when I talked with Him. My faith was evolving, and becoming real…to me. And it was open. It was honest. All my cards were on the table.
The mission field offered me my first plane ride. I flew from Arkansas to Alabama, then on to Chicago, where we then flew to Poland and eventually landed in Belarus. I lived in Belarus for a month, and still laugh at much of the experience with my fellow missionaries. Our team was based in Minsk. My friend Dave and I would sneak up to the floor above us to smoke. Don’t get me wrong, I was on board with serving God, but Marlboro’s were still a part of that journey.” Obviously, this was a huge violation to the organization. Once when Dave and I went up to smoke, one of the ladies who cleaned the hotel stopped our group leader, Mike, and in Russian began to offer suggestions. He stood, blank and could not understand but he sensed she was trying to be hospitable. Mike grabbed the interpreter and asked what she was saying. The interpreter says “Please tell those young men, they do not have to go upstairs to smoke. They can smoke here on this floor. “ What I would give to see this group leaders/spiritual authorities face. Two of his chosen, called men… poisoning their lungs …lungs IN our body…our body, the temple!
Somehow, the group leader was able to find Dave before our next group meeting. We all plop down in a circle in the lobby of our floor for our team meeting. Mike opened the group by sharing that some things had come to his attention that needed to be addressed. He then explained that Dave wanted to share something with the group. Dave speaks up, looks at me, and begins to apologize for smoking and says he is glad he got caught, because it was satan having a hold on him. He explained that his secret sin was stopping him from experiencing God fully. Mike capped off Dave’s apology and turned to me and said “Nate, do you have anything you would like to say?” I sat, paused, and without missing a beat, looked at Dave and said “Dave, I am proud of you, and appreciate your apology.” I smoked that afternoon with a different friend, and I loved it.
I went on to go door to door, knocking and with an interpreter engaged with many folks who had dealt with a level of oppression, hard to find in America. Serge was out of work, and grateful for our time. He had wrestled with depression, and had two kids he felt he was failing. Our timing was ideal. We shared this message of this amazing creator that loves him, and wants to invite him to know eternal life. Serge was on board, so I prayed, and through a different language from my mouth to his ears, his body grew limp, and vulnerable, and strong and celebratory, because…because he had heard someone loves him. Because he had been singled out, and because someone showed up.
We had the “Jesus” film translated into the Belarussian language and twice a week, we packed the local theater showing the movie. I had not seen the movie before, and when it showed Jesus carrying the cross, I cried a bellowing, stomach aching kind of cry, because thinking of someone who does not know me, and loves me, and is willing to die for me, made me feel a love I had not really dreamed about. I was watching it on a screen and it made me fall apart inside, while being filled up with hope.
That night, my roommate Joel asked “Hey, did you hear that lady crying so hard on the back row?” I stared. Unashamed. “That was me.”
After being on the mission field, I flew back to Alabama and found the memories and structure faded. I had moved back to an environment that held my pain, but it was secret pain and no one was talking about any of it. It was expected that I get involved in church right away and get a degree. I wrestled terribly feeling like I made a mistake coming back, but then wasn’t sure what the alternative was? I had no desire to be a missionary full time. As I continued to adjust to real life, the experiences of the mission field became less experiences, and more light memories, but the words remained. I was easily able to adapt to a life where “You need to repent” was a posture built in to my mind. I was smoking pot, drinking, working too much, and dodging church and what I was left with was an action that needed to be undone by me saying I am sorry. That is why I feel bad, right?
Here is the issue with Christian language and living within a specific community where everyone believes the same things. These communities become so specific to rules, and authority, and repentance, that they lose focus on humanity and what I believe is the true heart of God… Peace, healing, unity, unbelievable mercy and celebration over our paths of discovery.
The dorm dad can not be held responsible for his harm. I believe if he knew a different message that would have benefited me, he would have shared that message. He shared what he knew, and I was drawn to this organization and its cult mentality for a reason. I was safe in ridicule. It was what I knew.
So, what happens when you are always failing at christianity, and the shame, and lack of grace comes flooding back with a cyclical motion that feels like it is moving you further and further from God? What happens when repentance is not enough? What happens when I repent so often, that there is barely room to allow my soul to breathe and grow and feel? Here is what happened the day I shared my story with my dorm dad:
Much of me felt relief because the greatest secret I had ever known was out of the darkness and into the light. The relief came from the joy of not having to wake up the next tomorrow and manage secrets that no 13 year old should have ever known. The sunrise hitting my face captivated me, because I was open to know more about the grace flooding my soul. It was a new beginning.
I celebrate that my test results were negative, and again, a new beginning.
Here is where I got stuck: I was taught that I needed to repent to feel relief. So, I did. I was taught that I was responsible for what happened. So, I apologized to God. I was told, to fall on my face acknowledging what I kept secret, and with every bend in my body, I laid it all down. All the while, this message hijacked my ability to address being sexually abused.
I think when God heard me be told “You need to repent,” He felt a just anger of how careless people are with love and vulnerability.
That moment robbed many experiences ahead of me. I have grieved and screamed over one of the most sacred conversations I have shared being turned into a mockery of christian bullshit backed my a legion of people who are terrified to live like Jesus did, because they’re so busy talking about it.
I moved from chapter to chapter carrying repentance as my guide, and that guide became a rule book, and that rule book got longer and longer because I was not addressing the right things.
Many have been harmed in similar and much more painful ways, so the idea of there being a God is not an option. It is easier to proceed than participate in what they feel is the most dangerous group of people having access to their pain.
Here is what I think God wants. I think God wants our pain. I think God wants the scariest shit we can think of, and the stuff that we think would devastate anyone from loving us, and God wants us to come and say “This. This is what is going on in me, and I am scared, and feel alone.” Then, like only God can, He pulls us into His embrace and reminds us that He made us for His pleasure, and when we suffer, He longs to see us set free, and when people have harmed us, He aches and knows what that has done to our human soul, and so He tightens His grip on our bodies, and lays His hand on our backs and says, “rest.”
I have continued to pursue God. For many years it involved the hamster wheel of repentance and thinking if I prayed harder, or read my bible more, that I would be more whole and not feel so anxious. I pushed every limit with my faith and lost years praying the wrong prayer. As, I have shared before, after 13 years of christian counseling, I had a nervous breakdown. My body and brain were no longer willing to work together, and my body, and its trauma had to pay for that. I got honest, fast.
When you are in that kind of pain, you start removing the noise in your life to get by. Christian language and the word “ministry” and “Are you in christian community?” became the most obnoxious words I could hear. I was fighting for my life, and looking for those willing to walk alongside me to find healing.
I found it. I fought, and fought and found it. I found it while living in SoCal on the beach in San Diego at 5 in the morning, when I went to watch a sunrise while walking along the waves, and hearing God’s voice say “For you…this sunset.” And, the time I was overcoming the third year of wrestling with ptsd, and trying to make sense of who I was, and why there was so much pain. Another walk, on that same beach, but this time on a grey, rainy Sunday afternoon, and I was just heavy. I needed the ocean to come get me, or at least play music for me so I could wash away some of my panic and loneliness. I often felt alone in this fight, but on that grey beach day I heard: “I am so proud of you. I am so proud of the way you are fighting for your life.” And…just….like that, I am reminded that God will never lack what I need, but it is necessary to drown out the noise to hear from Him.
Today when I think of where I came from I think of how little I knew about what I was dealing with. I had been taught to question and judge any and all people, things and theories that were not in line with my faith. It felt safe and secure as far as thinking about eternal life, but for every day I committed more to religious rules and less to my health, I loss more life. And then another part of me would appear and show more pain and I finally stopped applying sermons and bible verses to areas of my life that required me to hold my hands open and bare before God and say “I need you here. I need you in this scary place where I feel alone and believe I’m not doing Christianity right.” He pulls my hands into Him, and with His love, and embrace and care, He washes away all the angst religion has put in me.
So, I keep moving towards the voice that affirms me, and tells me how much I am loved. I move further away from the static men who preach from pulpits, and yell with righteousness about hell, sin and of course, repentance. I trust the softness of my heart, and the expansion of my mind to be the very guides that lead toward a better understanding of redemption at its finest, and unconditional love in its purest form.
I no longer choose the southern baptists route of repentance. I no longer have the need for telling God I am sorry for being human. I celebrate the mercy in my mishaps, and recognize the growth needed around those areas. I look at each step and see that without the misstep, I would not know where to redirect. I don’t bow down for learning how to walk a straighter path.
That voice keeps serenading me, and each time He comes to speak, my heart swells a little more and all the pain keeps getting squeezed out and is replaced with love.
I live in constant search of more ocean walks, and more moments with the God who heals, and is the ultimate when it comes to grace, mercy, and love.
Same to you…
Be well! I am fighting for each of you…
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