I’m sure you’ve gone through periods in your life where you had a song on “repeat.” And it wasn’t necessarily because listening to the music made your feel good.
In my previous post, I wrote of feeling unmasked, disturbed by my failure and phoniness. Eight months later, in the fall of 2014, in addition to trying to cope with bankruptcy, I was working a lot of overtime hours. I was getting worn down as I prepared for a long trip to see my parents, who were both undergoing severe health problems. I felt no firm ground beneath my feet.
In late October that year, as the weather cooled, a song by John Mark McMillan arrested my attention. So, every time I drove my dark blue Ranger pick-up for the next few weeks, it was on repeat. He sang of being chased and overtaken:
In the chorus, McMillan refers to his pursuer as someone who “keeps coming on, like Napoleon” to take away his throne. I, too, felt my initiative was being taken from me, that I needed to cry “uncle” and come to terms with my helplessness. Somehow, part of me sensed that I might find some kind of peace by surrendering.
McMillan ends by speaking softly under the guitar mix, hinting that this overthrow of himself was ultimately for good:
I played the song repeatedly, even though it was kind of haunting. I began to sense I had a problem way more significant than financial bankruptcy. I felt that I’d been on the run my whole life, like a fugitive. Avoiding something, but not sure what.
I became aware that I was profoundly self-protective, that I was obsessively committed to being in control–and terrified by the thought of losing control.
I had for decades imagined with pride that I embraced God’s loving and wise control. But my circumstances exposed my deep aversion to being known and helped. As much as I fear being vulnerable before people, I was even more afraid of transparency toward God.
I went on in a fog about my story for another two years. But a crack was developing in my all-or-nothing story. Reconnecting with an old friend was the beginning of my story revision.
I stood nervously at the Grandview Theater and Drafthouse, waiting for Andy, contemplating the ridiculous number of craft beers on tap. Andy and I were college roommates at Ohio State over thirty years ago. Memories of those days flooded in. One was of the day John Lennon was shot in December of 1980. Andy was visibly shaken, his voice quivering as he walked in the rooming house waving the front page of the newspaper. The rest of us watching laughed, thinking he was too dramatic.
Andy and I had not connected in over thirty years. He sought me out earlier in the week, saying I had been on his mind. I was nervous because I knew he had earned a doctorate in linguistics and traveled the world with his family. I felt rather unaccomplished by comparison. Actually, I was worse than unaccomplished. I was a failure. And I knew I needed to reveal that, not posture.
Andy entered the Drafthouse, and my spirit warmed when his eyes locked with mine. I guess I felt like I mattered and wasn’t being judged—something I hadn’t felt in a long time. We hugged and ordered beers. We sat down, and I looked him over. He had aged some but was vibrant. He had gained no weight since college. His voice was higher pitched than I remembered it, and I wondered if all men’s voices evolve this way. Has mine?
My beer, a local draft called “Truth,” loosened me up. Stories flowed back and forth about the course of our lives. Many of these were sweet, but some tightened my body to tell. I narrated a chain of upheavals that had sifted me, a satchel of traumas just below the surface. I told him about my recent bankruptcy, the years of spending and avoidance that led to it, and the embarrassment of telling my kids I couldn’t manage my money. And there was the further shame of resigning from my pastoral position.
My eyes watered, and my voice dried out as I tried to describe the realization that I had lived dishonestly to avoid dishonor. I was an exposed hider. I told Andy further of my decision to leave the church I had been with for over thirty years.
I told him I felt cursed by God. I feared thinking for myself. I lost myself. Inwardly I was in agony, but I could not lament openly to Andy for fear of radiating self-pity.
After patiently listening and treating me with dignity, Andy said he saw strength in the choices I recently made and remarked, “God has been so faithful to us over the years.” The comment jarred me. Was he spouting a cliché? Was he even listening?
Coming into our talk, I felt I was on my own, dangling in the wind. Shame was chasing me. Anxious fears of the future were rolling over me like waves. Would I fail again financially? Could I build new friendships? Would I ever be useful to people? Would I be able to handle aging?
Inside I was thinking, “Yea, Andy, God has been faithful to you! But I’ve blown it.” My reaction surprised me because I had not admitted my cynicism to myself. I had theoretical faith and practical atheism.
It dawned on me that Andy did hear me. He noticed me and felt my agony. But he didn’t assign the failure to my life that I did. I had a distorted narrative.
My sense of identity was shaped by, “I have succeeded at this,” or “I have failed at that.” I was stuck in a story about my own faithfulness (or lack thereof) to God. I vacillated between pride and despair. I was either self-righteous or self-loathing. And my pride made me susceptible to shame. But I was largely unaware that I had constructed a story of my life. I effortlessly interpreted the failures and setbacks as confirmation that I was being punished.
I had to work through my resistance to the word “faithful.” Sure, it is used in a sentimental way, like a refrigerator magnet. It helped me to think instead of the word “loyal.” God would stay with me, not abandon me. But he is not in my debt nor does he have to show himself to me on my terms.
Andy’s comment was a seed that, in the months and years that followed, slowly sprouted, budded, and burgeoned into a new and animating interpretation of my life.
But sometimes, like a winter morning, my mind goes dark. The distorted narrative comes back to accuse. When that happens, I reflect further on my story. Many times I write my way out of the darkness.
The encounter with Andy became a narrative shift. It helps me be defiant against despair. Gradually, I came to see that the real and comprehensive story of my life is not about heroically pursuing God. Nor is it about being a failure in his sight. My story is that God has passionately pursued me in my shame. I call it a beautiful intrusion because it disrupted my schemes for arrogant self-glory and opened my eyes to his more lovely calligraphy.
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