At 8 years old, I sat on the edge of my father's hospital bed, doing my best to wrap my mind around the finality of death, as it brutally introduced itself to me. After a 5-year battle with cancer, my dad was dying. He was my hero—my safe place. I thought he was invincible; but there he was, severely emaciated and gasping for his final breaths—a shell of the man he once was. My best friend was dying, and he was leaving behind a young wife, a 2-year-old girl, and a hurt, heartbroken little boy. That night, January 2nd, 1996, started me down a path of brokenness and pain that would last for the next ten years.
For years after my father died, my pain worked itself out in violence and rage. I was quick to violence—both physical and emotional— if things didn't work out the way I hoped, and I hurt many people around me—classmates, friends, or family members. I remember one night in particular, something set me off and I took it out on my mom. I screamed at the top of my lungs, and threw or hit anything I could get my hands on. My mother, in what I think was mostly desperation, grabbed on to me and wrapped me up in her arms. She didn't know it at the time, but she tapped into the heart of God that night. I was furious. I screamed at her to let me go—cursing and threatening her at the top of my lungs. She refused. She held me even tighter; eventually sitting down into a chair in our living room and holding me tightly on her lap.
I did everything I could think of to make her let go—I tried to bite or kick her, I screamed profanities at her, telling that I hated her, and even threatening to take her life. She never wavered. She hugged me even tighter, whispering, "Son, I love you," over and over again. She never argued or bargained with me. She simply held me in her arms, refusing to let me know, and reminding me that, no matter what I did, I was loved. Eventually I fell asleep in her arms, and she carried me to my bedroom and tucked me in to bed for the night.
I don't know that my mom even really remembers this night, and I certainly couldn't have said this to her at the time, but that was the first time in my life I ever really felt loved. My mother was willing to endure my violence and bear my scorn just to make sure I KNEW that she loved me. She showed me that, no matter how badly I messed up, she wasn't going to go anywhere. I've found that, this is what God's love is like. He is not intimidated by our rage or our insecurity. He will not be scared off by any of our feeble tactics. His love is violent and forceful; relentless and patient—it is willing to endure the fire of our fallenness for the chance to show us the glory of His goodness. His love conquers all.
Now, I wish I could say that, after that night, things were never the same again, but that's simply not true. I was still an angry, fearful little boy, coping poorly with the loss of my father. But, as time went on, my fear started putting on different masks. For a while, it paraded as violence and anger, and then it took on the image of social or sexual conquest, seeking to hide behind the affirmation of friends or sexual partners. Sometimes, my fear even came out to play looking a bit like religious zeal or progressive political thought. All of these came from the same place, though, and that place was this: I was afraid to be forgotten. I was terrified that, somehow, I'd live my entire life having made no contribution or impact in the lives of those earound me. I did my best to make a mark, but deep down, I was desperately unsatisfied.
In the fall of 2005, I started attending college. I studied philosophy and world religions. I had no concern with affirming or discrediting this Christianity I'd seen as a child. My concern was with Truth. I wanted to know what the hearts of our philosophers, poets, and prophets had pursued so wildly, and I wanted to find the Truth that had, since the beginning of time, beckoned the hearts of men (even those who question its existence).
After my first year in college, I had the idea to quit my summer job and hitch hike around the United States. It was just a silly idea, but for some reason, the more I thought about it, the more real it became. It felt like, maybe this wasn't just a silly idea—maybe this was destiny. But, to be honest, I didn't even know if I believed in "destiny" at that point in my life. The idea didn't really make any sense. I had a great job and good friends. I had responsibilities and interests there in my city. Logically, there was no reason for me to travel at all, but something inside me was crying out for it.
After a few minutes in that field, the fears, and doubts, and disappointments of my childhood started to return--I tried to valiantly to bury them again, but despite my efforts and expertise in that area, they rose uncontrollably. The confident face I showed to everyone else disappeared, and I collapsed in a heap on the ground, sobbing uncontrollably. For the first time in my life, I confessed my own inadequacy, and allowed myself to be confronted with the truth that, I simply did not know what to do. For the first time, I realized that, truth and logic are not always the same thing. It was at that moment that I did something I never imagined I would do again: I prayed. I said, between heavy, gasping breaths, "God--whoever you are... if you're out there, I need you to show me what to do next. I want to know you, but I'm so afraid. And I need to know that you'll be with me."
I sat there in that field for a few more moments; waiting for something special to happen, I suppose. I don't know exactly what I expected, but I spent some time wrestling with the fact that I had just prayed to a God I didn't even really believe in. Did that even count? If he was out there, would he even pay attention to me? Eventually, I composed myself, picked up my bike, and rode back across town to the building in which I lived.
It was a clear, cool night, so when I arrived, I decided to sit on the steps of my apartment and read a bit before going back inside. I pulled a book out of my bag that I'd been reading for the past few weeks and continued on where I'd left off. After just a few seconds, something happened that I'll never be able to forget. One character in that book said this phrase to another: "Now is the time to wander into homelessness and, leading a holy man's life, to seek the path of enlightenment. For you were destined to enlighten the world."
I don't know really how to explain to you the weight those words carried as my eyes ran across them. It was like I knew, somewhere deeper than knowing, that this was God's well-timed answer to the secret cry of my heart. Just minutes earlier, I had wrestled violently with the thought of leaving my home, and in my desperation, I cried out to this "God." But now, in the orange glow of a street light, on the steps of my apartment building, I had my answer—NOW is the time to "wander into homelessness." NOW is the time to seek the path of enlightenment. And this, not just for enlightenment's sake, but because it is my destiny to, in turn, help bring enlightenment to the world!
At that point, I came to terms with one idea that I'd never really entertained before: God listened when I spoke. So I murmured, "No. No. No.", as tears ran down my quivering cheeks. "I can't..." I continued, feeling that the responsibility of "enlightening the world" (whatever that meant) was definitely far too much for someone like me.
I said to God, "I'm too weak to do anything great for you."
Immediately after those words left my lips, a new thought overwhelmed my mind. I heard, "But my grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness!"
Somehow I knew this was God's voice. I didn't hear it with my ears; I heard it with my heart. It rang with the authority of eternal truth, though I can't say that I'd never heard that phrase before. Months later, I would learn that, that is a phrase spoken by God in the pages of scripture (2 Corinthians 12:9).
I persisted in my excuses; "But I'm so afraid!"
"...But perfect love casts out fear!" He replied. (That's 1 John 4:18.)