A Mustache for a Methodist

I guess you could say, I’m just a typical Methodist kid at heart. ~ Hugh Hefner

An atheist is a man who watches a Notre Dame – Southern Methodist University game and doesn’t care who wins. ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

God grant that I may never live to be useless! ~ John Wesley

I suppose it was 2008 when I found myself being reintroduced to a 17-year-old I thought I’d finished off many, many years earlier. In the process of that introduction and the subsequent multiple reunions over a period of months brought about by a rather insistent (annoying?) therapist, I found myself being reconciled with that poor, beat-up kid. As it turns out, he’d traveled along on my rocky path through it all and, I realize now, helped keep me alive long enough to remember — and acknowledge — he had actually existed.

What, you’re likely asking yourself, does this have to do with mustaches and Methodists? Excellent question. Allow me to elaborate — eventually.

During the fall of 2008, I was working on reestablishing contact with the aforementioned 17-year-old after the realization I could never really be okay until we made peace. That December, a dear friend suggested that I read Wm. Paul Young’s book The Shack. I agreed because I respect this friend but still had serious doubts about a fiction that had Christian leanings. If you’ve visited this blog before, you’re probably aware that the church and I had parted ways, well, while I still remembered that 17-year-old clearly. Still, at this point in my life, the book pried something open again — wanted or not.

There I was — sitting with a young, admittedly angry guy who remembered an even younger boy who remembered a call. I wasn’t at all certain I wanted to be reminded of that call. Years of alcohol had done little to cover it over, however. Rather, it had only helped anger and disappointment grow. Sadly, as so often happens, the anger and disappointment was turned inward. I am particularly efficient at inflicting emotional pain on myself. I’m still so good at it that I often have no idea I’m doing it. Let’s just say I’m back working on that now.

So it was that I showed up at Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco in February 2009. I didn’t mean to show up, it just sort of happened. And I stuck around (one of my favorite new beginnings stories here: Women in Ministry). Seems the people there saw someone in me I didn’t think actually existed. I was intrigued, though, and decided I must be a better actor than I’d thought. Still, I kinda liked the person others saw. I’m almost convinced at this point that he does exist.

Mustache, Ben? Oh, yes. So a couple of months ago I decided I’d regrow my mustache. Up until the fall of 2008, I’d sported a mustache for most of the previous twenty-five or so years. I arrived on the doorstep of Lake Shore clean shaven — due to meetings with that 17-year-old and the younger boy and wondering what they might have looked like. You know how hard it is to see an 8-year-old looking back at you when you’re a 56-year-old man with a mustache staring in a mirror? The mustache had to go.

A necessary move to the Dallas area a few years ago required a move in churches, also. For over three years, I made that new home Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas. Last year, though, I found myself looking for a new church home closer to where I live in Richardson. You see, having returned to church back in 2009, I’ve found not having a church home is no longer an option for me.

Enter Arapaho United Methodist Church, Richardson, Texas.

Wait, I hear you saying — Methodist? Weren’t we talking about Baptists? Well, yes, we were and how good of you to be paying attention. I was doing what any red-blooded American would do these days — I used Google to search for churches in my area. What I saw on the website for Arapaho UMC intrigued me. Hey, when you’ve been gone from church for forty years, you tend to find yourself a little more open to locating the right place regardless what is says on the sign outside. It’s what I found on the inside that invited me to stay. It was about finding the right fit.

Mustache, Ben? Oh, did I get sidetracked again? Yes, I imagine so. This entire conversation began because it occurred to me that the Baptists in my post-40-year trek had never seen me with a mustache. I like to think about stuff that occurs to me, you see. It also occurred to me that I’ve very much reconciled with that 17-year-old and that he and I sort of prefer me with a mustache.

On February 15, 2015 I became Arapaho UMC’s newest member — complete with mustache. I told some of the people at Arapaho I’d taken so long to join because I hate to rush into things and, besides, some of them looked a little shady to me. Thankfully, they already know me well enough after eleven months to laugh along with me.

Mustaches and Methodists. Does one actually have anything to do with the other except that they both start with an M? I believe they do. It has a lot to do with giving myself permission to find exactly the place that feels right to me. That has a lot to do with God’s grace, I believe. I’ve met some wonderful people in the past few years and I will be eternally grateful to them for helping me see in myself again a kid who heard a call many years ago and for helping me gradually believe he still exists and is here to remind me of that call.

John Wesley (a Methodist without a mustache) said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Yeah, that’s it. That was the call. That is the call.

Mustache or not, Methodist or not, I invite you to pick up Wesley’s call to do all the good you can as long as you ever can.

Second Chances and Beyond

Sometimes there are no second chances; so forgive the past, remember the present, and prepare for the future. It’s the only life you’re given. ~ Unknown

I believe God takes particular care of small children and hopeless drunks. The former because they don’t yet know better, the latter because they probably should have known better but don’t appear to. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not always that I didn’t know better, it’s that addiction is an incredibly strong force to reckon with. I believed I needed to be anesthetized on a very regular basis in order to survive my own past and even my own present. This force includes all kinds of addictions, of course. It’s just that in this society you’re much more likely to get arrested for public drunkenness than for public overeating. Our laws are funny that way. If will power were all we needed to conquer addiction, we’d likely all be sober, thin, and serene. Will power, as it turns out, is of very little use to us. The power to change is what we need and that has little or nothing to do with will power.

So, second chances are important. In fact, sometimes they’re necessary for our survival. In my own case, I’ve recently been given another second chance. Actually, this is more like my 21,535th second chance – thereabouts. It’s said that life offers us a second chance – it’s called tomorrow. Too many times in my life, however, I worked very hard at my attempt not to make it to tomorrow.

Just under four years ago, I found myself in a situation which, by most people’s reckoning, would have been a life-ending event. It certainly seemed that way to me. Every moment of every day was spent in abject terror. Every day found me wondering if that would be the day the other shoe would drop. I have to admit, every day also found me again planning my “escape” — just in case. Life appeared to be over anyway so, finally, why stick around?

Why, you may well ask, do you say things like this, Ben? It’s not that I’m trying to demonstrate that being inside my head isn’t always a pleasant place to be, though that is certainly true. I say them because I want to illustrate my belief that you can recover from the depths of absolute, mind-numbing despair. And not only recover, but thrive. I also want to illustrate that it’s far too easy to put up a front, leaving people with no idea anything is wrong. And if they don’t know a problem exists, there’s no way they can help. At the time, however, I was simply ready to die. It’s an awful place to be, trying to appear as though nothing bad is happening. However, I had learned my lessons well from childhood. A smile and a sunny disposition were part of the mask I’d always worn and I was prepared to wear it again.

A funny thing happened on my way to the gallows, though. A thought fought its way through all that terror. For just a moment, I wondered what it would be like if I decided to refuse to allow the terror to continue to rule my life. Refuse, as in, “I’m not going to take it anymore!” Could I do that? Was I really allowed to do that?

For just a moment, I gave myself permission to remember that I’d lived with this kind terror for most of my life and that this was just the latest frightening incarnation of it. But where does one go to get permission to refuse to be controlled by this kind of terror? I’ve said before that a friend once told me that “no” is a complete sentence. I’ve told you, also, that I was certain he was lying to me. And yet, what if this were true? What if I could say no? Would my world end? Would everyone walk away?

This time, something inside me urged me to go for it. Something inside me said I had nothing left to lose. Something inside me realized I was terrified of confronting all that fear. Something inside me finally decided I’d had enough.

Asking for help is a difficult thing, I think, for us all. I don’t mean asking others to do it for me, but asking them to help me through it. It’s said there are no stupid questions. If that’s so, why does if feel so stupid when I have to ask? Why does it feel so weak? The feelings are valid, but they are feelings nonetheless. If I can recognize the fear as a feeling, I have a chance of remembering that feelings pass and that it’s possible to move beyond them. This was one of those times when I recognized the fear for what it was, though I also knew I would be attempting a bigger step than I’d taken in a long time and that came with its own set of fears.

So, I asked for help. I knew the dangers involved in asking. After all, I’d attempted to deal with my own demons many times in the past. Each attempt had failed in one way or another – some of them in pretty spectacular ways. I was determined this time had to be different if I were to survive. Ever feel like you’re down to your very last second chance? This one felt like it had two — and only two — possible outcomes. Failure would almost certainly result in my own death – at my own hand, if necessary. The other held out the hope of some sort of serenity in my life. It would mean I could finally take the noose out of the trunk of my car. It would not mean nothing bad would happen, only that I’d discover I had the strength to find serenity in the midst of a still-raging storm.

In Matthew 14:28-31, we read, “28 Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’ 29 And He said, ‘Come!’ And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ ”

For all of my life, I’d seen the wind, become frightened, and begun to sink. I was sinking still. Whether or not you believe in miracles, this passage still begs that very important question, “Why did you doubt?” Far from being a reprimand to his disciples, Jesus affirms a critical concept for all of us. Our own self-doubt is usually what cripples us most in life.

Too often, the things we need to do feel a lot like attempting to walk on water. A lack of trust in ourselves translates, sadly, into a distrust of others around us. How can it not? Fear spreads in an ever-widening circle around us until it can be difficult to see any good solution because we’re left to rely on our own ingenuity – ingenuity we’re already in the process of doubting. How can I believe that you have confidence in me when my own head keeps telling me I’m not worthy, not capable? First, I have to find it within myself to begin the process of believing there may be something worthy about me – some part of me that’s better than I think, some part of me that I probably already know is better than I think but can no longer remember. Then, I may be able to accept that you believe good things about me. Each time I choose to believe I’m not as bad as I think I am, I’m better able to remove the blinders and see my own world more clearly.

Some people say doubt is the opposite of faith. I couldn’t disagree more. To me, doubt is the beginning of questioning. Questioning, in turn, offers me the opportunity to reach out to others for answers I may not have or may not remember I have. Reaching out to others opens the possibility that I may ask for and, perhaps even accept, help.

Thomas Merton said, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.” Yeah, easier said than done, Merton! He’s right, though, of course. But, where do I start? I’m pretty sure courage will be the last to show up for this party. However, Ambrose Redmoon said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” Finally, I’d decided something was more important than the fear. It was a beginning.

So, then, which would come first – faith or hope? “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1] Sounds like I was going to have to start with hope. Faith was something I thought I’d discarded long ago. The conviction of things not seen? I definitely couldn’t see how anything positive was going to come out of this situation. But when you’re at the bottom, the only way left to go is up.

In a sermon on faith, Dorisanne Cooper1 said, “You see, whatever you came in here with, it’s enough already – to offer someone hope, to plant a seed of forgiveness, to grab hold of strength to get you through, to hold fear at bay, or even to let it pass you by. In a culture that measures so much by quantity, there’s something about knowing the strength of that little bit that trumps the more, greater, bigger, better we so often seek in faith and everything else. Augustine said, ‘To look for God is to find God.’ Perhaps to live as God calls is to claim faith. With what you’ve got, you can do more than you ever dreamed. And whatever you’ve got? It’s enough, right now.”

I didn’t hear Dorisanne’s words for another two years after all the turmoil began again. And yet, the truth of what she said was already beginning to show itself to me in the act of beginning with a little hope that things might be different if only I could grasp a tiny bit of faith. Not faith that things could change, but that I could change. And that, as it turns out, was enough. It wasn’t that I believed things would turn out exactly the way I wanted. In fact, I felt pretty certain the outcome was going to be very bad — and with very good reason. Getting my heart’s desire isn’t the miracle of this story. The miracle came in the gradual realization that I could find some peace in the midst of this or any storm. The miracle was in finding I could let go of things that had tormented me since time began for me. The miracle was in somehow finding the strength to take a close look at things I’d tried so hard to forget and not allowing the terror to make me run away yet again.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to tell the whole story behind this saga. In fact, that’s not particularly necessary or even important. What’s most important about this story for me is the possibility of change. It’s also about having one or two people with whom I could share my exact fears. It’s about other friends who are willing to pray and care for you even if you can’t say why you need the prayers – no questions asked.

Miracles happen every day when I’m willing to recognize them. In fact, another miracle happens each day I wake up. If I so choose, each of those miracles can appear in the form of a second chance — no questions asked.

There’s nothing as exciting as a comeback – seeing someone with dreams, watching them fail, and then getting a second chance. ~ Rachel Griffiths

1 © 2010, Dorisanne Cooper, from her sermon, “Measuring Up.” Lake Shore Baptist Church, Waco, Texas, October 24, 2010.

Guiding Back to Faith?

Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.
— Kahlil Gibran

Faith makes things possible, not easy.
— Author unknown

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have personally known several people who have returned to church or, at the very least, begun to take a second look at their faith (or lack thereof), after having talked to me – after getting to know me in the last few years. No, I’m not patting myself on the back – far from it, in fact. But does this make me a miracle worker, a shaman, an evangelist? Oh, my, no. You see, I know a lot of angry, hurting people in my present line of work as a recovering human being. Many feel God was robbed from them many years ago. Many are simply too angry to remember they are hurt people. Some are simply too frightened to even look back to see why they’re angry. I personally fell into all those categories. Each described me at one time or another. All of them describe me, to some extent, still.

And yet, when I returned to the “right” church, I found myself irresistibly drawn back to a faith I’d discarded many years before. That’s true, in part, because I discovered I’d never really discarded that faith. Instead, I’d tucked it so far down into the inner regions of my being I’d all but forgotten it was there. And I wasn’t going to rediscover any of that without an invitation to take another look.

But, what do I mean the “right” church? It certainly didn’t mean finding what I thought was a place where they believed the “right” things. To me it was arriving at a place, whether it was an accident or grace, whose whole atmosphere breathed welcome. Admittedly, it didn’t feel quite so much like that the first day I showed up, but that wasn’t the fault of the people there. The fault, if we can call it that, was my own lifetime of fear of intimacy. I’ve almost never lived alone in my life, but that didn’t prevent me from living with one arm held out to keep you from getting too close.

The right church, as it turned out, was a part of the tradition of my past. It was also somewhat different from that past tradition. I think that’s what made it okay, though, for me to stay. It seemed just different enough to allow me to stay long enough to allow my own needs to surface after a long hibernation. I finally allowed myself just a little room to remember that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1]

I was allowed the room to remember that Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” [Matthew 11:29] That’s an inside job, you know. I was surrounded by people who appeared to genuinely like me, but it was up to me to put down the weight of the world. They couldn’t do it for me. When I finally simply stopped and surrendered, I was weeding a labyrinth. It was the place where I could think and the place where I was least likely to beat myself up for all the previous years of my life.

What did not bring me back into a faith community was someone annoyingly quoting scripture in my face that they probably didn’t even understand. No finger wagging, no instilling me with the fear of hell. Frankly, if you’d lived my life, hell looked a little like a resort.

If you’re keeping count, though, you may have noticed I’ve quoted two scriptures already. That’s not because I think God requires me to believe a, b, and c or, well, you’re out. No, it’s because those lines apply to me. They apply to my life in 2011.

But, do you know why some of those people took a second look at their faith (or lack thereof)? I believe it was sitting with me as I described how my life was changing. More importantly, allowing them to see in my eyes how my life was changing. Some of those hurting people had been doing the same thing I’d been doing for years. If you believe you’re not good enough, you’re unlikely to show up at yet another place where you’re made to feel guilty. I am completely capable of doing a much better job of that simply sitting at home. Why waste the gas?

I wasn’t sitting there trying to sell these people a bill of goods. These were my friends, after all. These were people who also had already had their own front-row seats in hell. These were people who already knew that it can’t just be about securing a place in heaven after you’re dead. The God I know requires substantially more of me than that. No, the question is what can we do for our neighbor right here, right now. A loving God also knows I’m going to screw that up on a fairly regular basis. That, however, doesn’t excuse my not trying.

So I ended up talking to people who were surprisingly willing to pry open their minds, even if just a bit. I saw some of the same reactions from them that I’d seen in myself. I saw a more relaxed face, a body not so closed. I saw a willingness to look around again – to see things they’d not allowed themselves to see in a very long time.

I’ve now had the privilege of two pastors who don’t simply open a Bible and read scripture after scripture, pounding it out in an awkward, literal sense. No, they have helped me see what these things meant to those people then. It’s only then that I’m able to see how it may relate to me now. It’s helped me see how I was able to create hell on earth for myself. It’s also rekindled a love of reading in me. I’m fascinated by the many ways the traditions of the church evolved. How different faith communities developed their own traditions and how, finally, many of those traditions were combined into the ever-interesting, ever-confusing book we call the New Testament.

When was it that mystery and awe ended up getting such a bad rap? We continue to discover smaller and smaller bits of matter, only to find out later that there are even smaller bits. In the meantime, we remain convinced that we can explain it all, given enough time. Somehow, I suppose, we think if we’re able to explain it all, we’ll also be able to control it. But control is a fleeting thing, with very little satisfaction connected to it. It’s also mostly a lie we tell ourselves in an effort to feel safe.

So, if you’re interested in sharing your faith, my suggestion would be to allow the one with whom you’re sharing see that faith in you. If others see that your only real interest in faith is having your ticket punched in order to get into heaven – that it is simply fear that you’d probably better stay on the safe side (you know, just in case it’s really literally true), they’ll most likely turn and walk away. Being Christ to one another means far more than dragging souls to Jesus. It means attempting to adopt the ways of Christ in order to bring into being a just world. It means reaching out a hand to help. It means inviting another to see the loving God you see yourself. It means looking around and realizing that you are surrounded by miracles every day and not a one of them really needs an explanation. Wonder and awe are their own rewards and they’re there for the receiving.