Sunday, July 23, 2006

From Dark to Light, A Personal Story

Below is a testimony I gave in church this morning, as mentioned in my previous post:

When I began to think and pray about the story I wanted to tell about one way that God brought me out of the darkness and into the light, a piece of the Hebrew scriptures came to mind. I pictured the Isrealites wondering through the wilderness, with Egypt in their dust and the promised land before them. I thought of the holiness of the tabernacle and how the social organization of the community was based on that. The “uclean”, those with leprosy or physical deformities for example, were always left on the outside of the camp. I thought of that social organization because, in that situation, when remembering back to my childhood, and in some ways a bit more recently, I could identify with the leapors who were cast out from the community.

As a kid I was the one who got picked on. Now, we all get picked on as kids, and I think we all generally get over it pretty much by the time we are in college. I’d say in that sense my story isn’t that much different from any one else’s. But I think, for me at least, such a starting point in life starts a train of history that takes on new masks over time. It might still be present later on even though you have healthy friendships and are no longer the guy who gets picked on.

As a kid, for me, it was REALLY bad. In some sense I was actually like those unclean Isrealites not allowed inside the camp. I was born with cleft lip and palette, leaving my lip scarred and deformed, and also my nose a bit crooked and funny looking. Both of those features for me were more noticeable when I was a kid than now, partially simply because now I have a mustache. Also partially because I’ve had some reconstructive surgery on my nose to help alleviate medical problems that came as a result of my deformities. As a kid I was also the short little runt who had to struggle mightily in every way just to be able to participate in all the things kids do. And some things I just couldn’t do. I couldn’t throw a football as far, for example. I certainly didn’t have the power to hit a baseball as far or throw it as hard, even though in little league I wanted to be a pitcher.

Now, so far you might think that my being cast out could have just been a misconception that I was making up in my head. I assure you, that was not it. I have plenty of memories of very hurtful things done to me by the kids in the neighborhood, whether intentionally hurtful or not. I do remember that, in general, I was the butt of all the jokes, some of which were more hurtful than others. One less intentionally hurtful thing I remember was one cold winter morning when a couple of older neighborhood bullies ran around the bus stop handing off to each other with me chasing them futily my funny-looking Redskins floppy toboggan with a fuzzy ball on the end. An example of a particularly scarring incident was when one of the kids in the neighborhood, the other short guy (but not as short as me) when we got off the bus followed me home wanting to fight me. And I assure you, it wasn’t because of anything I had said. Looking back on it, I now realize it was a power trip on his part. But at the time I did not understand that, and the lesson I came away with is that the world is an unpredictable monster out to eat me, hurt me, scratch me, and beat me down - all randomly and for no reason as if that was just the world’s purpose.

Around the time of the beginning of college is when I had the reconstructive surgery on my nose. Wrapped up in the same surgery was my jaw getting broken in four places and put back together with four metal plates and sixteen metal screws. Such things for me by that time weren’t so abnormal, and I was in Intensive Care for four days. Soon after that, when I went into the doctor for my checkup, he told me that he could “make my nose more symmetrical if I wanted”. By this point in my life, my answer to that was a hearty no. I wore my crooked nose and scarred lip like a badge of honor. I felt like I had been through a rough battle and come through standing, alive and but covered in blood. I think of the scene in Braveheart when the smaller, dirtier, under-fed, less-equipped army of Scotts unexpectedly defeated the great and vast English army. William Wallace is left standing tall, sword in the air, breathing heavily, yelling victory. More importantly, I think of the wounds of Christ on the cross. The blood runs down the wood of the cross, pours off of its edge and covers me as I sit at its foot.

This past year during our church’s intensive and community-centered leadership training, which we call “E4” (based on Ephesians 4: 11-16), during which time we focus as much on building healthy relationships as studying the Word, I came to realize that the train-wreck of my history was in fact still present in my life. Not so much in terms of my own not being accepted by my peers. I was no longer the butt of the jokes. I was no longer the short little runt. OK, not as much. And I certainly didn’t any longer experience so many of the hurtful things that filled my childhood. But what I discovered in prayer and community with God is that that train of pain had lead to my being an ass hole. Essentially judgemental, angry, bitter, isolated and alone, essentially. It was in the light of God’s love and community that God brought these painful parts of myself to the light, as gently asked me to begin correcting them.

One especially powerful time of this past year in E4 was at a weekend-long retreat with a famous speaker named Brennan Manning (author who wrote The Ragamuffin Gospel). He made it clear that he was not there to speak to anyone who had any illusions about themselves or God. He was there to speak to the tired, the weary, the broken-hearted and the down-trodden. I thought, “Hey, that’s me”! And sure enough, that weekend, I was swept away. I remember certain things. I remember Brennan’s YELLING “GOD CANNOT STOP LOVING YOU.” “God’s love is not like your mother’s or your father’s love. God’s love does not stop. It is not conditional in any way. If God were to stop loving you, He would not be God.” “Come now my love, my lovely one come. For you the time of winter has passed. The time of spring has come. Come now my love, my lovely one come.” Not only was the entirety of my being, my heart, my mind, my spirit, my head, my eyelids, my fingernails and my shaking knees, SWEPT AWAY by the love of God that weekend, but I experienced a sense and practice of community that rivals any other time in my life.

I came away from that weekend in full realization that everything that I do is a part of who I am, and God’s love overwhelmes and overtakes every aspect of my being. I came away from that weekend inspired by the Holy Spirit to be more open, vulnerable and loving. I came away from that weekend a little bit less of an ass hole, inspired to be less judgemental, less mean-spirited, less shelfish, and generally more caring and accepting of others. I came away more inspired to accept others into my camp. Not to judge as a reaction to my being judged or criticized, but, like God, to be unable to stop loving.

Interesting life so far -- sounds like it's taken some more positive turns. That was a long time to wait for that surgery. I wonder: do you have a lot of people tell you about their own problems, physical or otherwise, because they figure you can relate? My mother was a quadriplegic, and she tutored kids in our home part-time. Most of the kids felt more accepted by my mother than anybody else because they figured she could relate. You refer to masks fairly often in various contexts, which makes sense to me. I'm glad you're achieving reconciliation about it all. This blog has all sorts of interesting stuff hidden away in it.

Yes, many posotive turns, for sure. Some negative, as well, I'd say. Working through all of that.

But to be clear, the surgery to which I refer in the post is not the original one to correct my cleft lip and pallette. That/those were done when I was a little baby. The one involving my nose being straightened a bit was just one surgery along the way. In fact the nose thing was very secondary to the primary thrust of that surgery.

Anyway, interesting that you mother was a quadriplegic. She must have been interesting. But, I'm no psychotherapist or anything. But I do have people tell me that they feel safe around me. I'm pretty good at relating to people. Rather, I should say, it's easier for me, I'd say, because of what I've been through. Some people do end up talking to me about their problems, but its usually not random folk or anything, but people I know pretty well.

And the mask thing comes out of my being an architect. From tree to handrail, stone mountain to stone temple...its still the same tree or mountain, sort of. And the handrail or temple retains memory of what's behind it. As well there is the idea that we are all actors, that a human is not a transcendent, autonomous, free-standing self.
Yes, I think having gone through certain difficulties makes you more aware that what you see first are the masks. They tend to be very realistic and lifelike, I find.

Developmental psych contends that we develop self-image largely through reflections of others' images of us, which seems like an unfair arrangement. Remarkably enough, a lot of competent and attractive people really do feel pretty good about themselves. Maybe that's why they often don't understand certain things about other people.

The relating of masks to architecture is fascinating. We have a lot of masks decorating one of our walls, but I don't often think about what they're made of. Also, I tend to think about man-made stuff as more real than the raw materials. Probably because I don't build things.

Speaking of masks, Carnaval starts today around here. Kids dress up for Mardi Gras, go to school in masks and costumes.
The masks also interestingly tend to be godlike. Although all masks in reality don't represent gods, the way I see it. But no ancient pagan would have seen it that way when David wouldn't even name their gods.

As for developmental psych., I've studied Lacan A BIT (not much) lately, interestingly. You mentioned beautiful people feeling good about themselves, but there are also beautiful rich people who go through life feelinkg quite low. I think too those who feel so good have a surprise or two coming for them - and not just about OTHER people.

And this architecture keeps me from fixing my mind on the obvious things/ways that are in my face. Obviously, though, what appears has to be important as an architect.

So you're from N.O.? You know the power of the Southern Live Oak.

From when I moved from VA and my old life to Los Angeles:

"Between the ocean and the moon spring the seraphim.
Angelic fluids are floating along in the desert…
Blood brimming in unseen hearts -
The depths of a blue-green leaf, bursting from the rock."

And I meant to ask, where in VA is your wife from?
Jason -

I like the angelic fluids. We live in southern France, a Catholic country where Mardi Gras is a national holiday. Nice, just up the coast from us, has the big public celebration -- parades, floats, concerts, tourists, etc. But every town has its own celebration.

My wife is from Rustburg, a little town south of Lynchburg. She went to Randolph-Macon Woman's College, recently renamed Randolph College because it's going coed next year. We met in grad school at UVA. And you?

Oh daahh, I knew you lived in France. You had mentioned as much a number of times on the churchandpomo blog. How long have you lived in France, and what on earth are you doing there?

And technically we are rivals, and I'm supposed to hate you. I went to Va masters schooling yet. I grew up in Chesapeake, in Hampton Roads, near VA Beach/Norfolk.
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