My pastor is a great guy. He really is. He bought me lunch today at Spangles (because I think that’s his favorite restaurant, ever) and we had great conversations in that faux-50s burger joint booth, talking about life and family and work and sports and hobbies. The indistinguishable aroma of Spangles burgers and fries hovered in the same air that floated with the quintessential musical hits of the very bygone era – and almost every branch of the franchise has the same Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley statues featured somewhere in place (and today, Marilyn was wearing a Santa hat). But, being a pastor, he asked me the obligatory (and inevitable) question, “So, how’s your faith?”
He’s not your typical pastor. As a teenager, I grew up hanging out with his son, so he’s not just “pastor,” he’s known me for twenty years. So when he asks a question like, “How’s your faith?” he’s not expecting the typical pastor-reply answer of “Oh it’s great.” He expects a real answer, and a real answer I would give him.
“It’s just – there,” I replied. And that was the best I could do. I mean, I could have easily appeased him with all the appropriate religiosity and faith-filled buzz words, but I respect him much too much to say such. “Know what I mean?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “Please explain.” I think he kind of did know, but he also knew that having me voice my thoughts and feelings would be more important than merely thinking and feeling them.
“I don’t know,” I began, “I guess I’m just not really feeling it anymore.” I paused. “I mean, I want to,” I went on, “but I just pretty much don’t.” I looked to him for some sort of facial expression that would suffice as a retort, but he gave me that keep talking look. “Don’t get me wrong,” I added, “it’s not like I don’t believe in God or have lost my faith or anything.” I paused, trying not to say anything that would prompt an exorcism. “I guess it’s just apathy, maybe?”
“I know what you mean,” he said, leaning back in his seat. Then he gave me the keep talking look again.
“I mean, I really do want to have that religious fire or that emotion or whatever,” I said, looking up at a framed picture of three Jan and Dean 45s, “but I guess it’s just not there. I listen to Hillsong United and watch Christian movies, but it’s just not the same anymore.” I paused. “Okay, let me give you an example,” I said, which (for some reason) prompted him to lean forward again. “Last weekend, my wife and I were cruising Amazon Prime and found God’s Not Dead. She’d never seen it and I saw it in Winfield and remembered it being really good – it seriously brought tears to my eyes; I loved it.” He nodded in agreement. “So I suggested we watch it and she agreed, so we did.” I paused again, trying to organize my thoughts. “I like that movie because it brings intellect and reason to religion. And from an intellectual Lee Strobel perspective, it made sense to me. On an intellectual level, I totally believe in the Christian concept of God. But I just don’t have the coinciding emotional bond that I had before prison. I just remember feeling closer to God, but now I feel like he’s just a passing acquaintance.”
“Why?” he asked, not because he was curious, but rather, I suspect, that he wanted me to talk-it-out, to try to make sense of it.
“Well,” I said, “before prison, it seemed like I prayed a ton, but most of it was me asking God for forgiveness for my addictive sexual behavior, for adultery, or something like that – my addiction to sex led me to retreat to God whenever I would participate in my addictive behavior.” He nodded in agreement, but scrunched his eyebrows together and narrowed his eyes, like he was literally trying to read my mind. I kept talking. “But now,” I went on, “I’m not into that stuff anymore – I’m not cheating on my wife or lusting or trying to hook-up with women or anything. So now, it’s like God and I don’t really have anything to talk about.”
And that’s when he sat back and nodded in complete understanding.
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about me among my family and friends was that I was participating in my sexually out-of-control addictive behavior as though I was just living the free-and-clear party life of a man-whore without reservation or guilt.
I don’t know how many times I was unfaithful or how many women I had affairs with, but I do know one thing for sure: Every single time, when it was over, I was filled with overwhelming guilt, remorse, and repentance. Of course, this did not stop me from repeating this behavior over and over again, but the cycle completed itself every time. Sex was my drug, but when I partook in my drug, I was filled with guilt, and guilt turned to pain, and pain was cured by my drug, and sex was my drug – lather, rinse, repeat. I lived like this for over a decade.
Today, one year and three days after my release from prison, my life is not even a shadow of what it was – thank God. But becoming a better, faithful, and more moral human being has had certain byproducts.
Before prison – before the vast majority of my acquaintances disowned me – I had a lot of friends from college and young adulthood with whom I spent a lot of time out at the bars. My wife and I used to refer to these friends as “the boys” and we would pretty much only hang out if there was beer involved – we were regulars at Club Indigo, Mulligans, O’Brien’s, and several other adult beverage establishments. But here’s the thing: The only time I saw these guys was when we were out drinking. If we weren’t at a bar, we didn’t hang out. That became the nature that defined our relationship as a collective group of social associates. But as we got older, we got jobs, then careers, then wives, then houses and mortgages and kids and pets and riding lawnmowers. And suddenly, we weren’t going out drinking anymore. We’d grown up. And since we were grown-ups now, we weren’t out partying together anymore, so we rarely saw each other. My “good times” with these guys morphed from plans this weekend to memories of weekends passed. And what sucks is, I really did have fun with these guys and they were good friends and we had great conversations and made awesome memories. But in retrospect, it was just all a drunken blur of bars and women and Macho Mugs and Silver Strike. Without the partying, we really had no other reason to talk.
I guess that is what’s become of my relationship with God. I spoke with God quite regularly for a long time, but it was always in a sense of prayers for repentance because I’d likely just done something which filled me with regret. My heart really did genuinely break, and my pleas for forgiveness were genuine, even if I turned right around and repeated the same behavior over and over again (hence the addiction, rather than just being a philandering douche). But now that I’m not living that life anymore – now that I’m a faithful husband and moral human being – I don’t find myself pleading with God for forgiveness anymore. And since that has been the basis of our communicative relationship for so long, we simply have nothing left to talk about.
“I’m not unhappy,” I told my pastor as we sat in the sparsely-filled Spangles, “not at all.” He smiled. “In fact,” I went on, “quite the opposite. I’m living better now than I ever have.” He nodded.
“And you look good too,” he said with a smile, “because when you got out, you were a chubby little guy!”
“I know!” I said. “I’ve lost 40 pounds!” I smiled – big. I love when people comment on how much weight I’ve lost.
“It’s your running,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “what if you were as motivated about God as you are about running?”
Enough said. I didn’t outwardly express my epiphany, but it was there. And he was right. It wasn’t that I wasn’t motivated to believe in God or that my faith was lacking – I simply gave my faith the wrong position on the totem pole of my life’s priorities. Right now, my marathon training routine is so organized, I get reminders on my Apple Watch for what workout to do on what day. But when it comes to my faith, well, I may or may not go to church this week. But the truth is, while I may run for miles and miles, eventually the watch stops. But faith is eternal. Granted, I’m pretty liberal with my faith, but the truth is, I really do have faith in Jesus. My relationship with Jesus has never been the “O Holy Art Thou” or something of the sort. I don’t think Jesus really cares about profanity or sarcasm or anything like that, but rather, is someone I can talk to, not at. I don’t ever hear the voice of God, and admittedly, most of my “talking to God” has likely been for my own benefit more than anything else, but maybe that’s the whole purpose.
But regardless, there’s a little bit of irony in my distance from God as my life got better. It seems that, as I’ve lived a more moral life, I’ve drifted away from God. One would think that drifting away from God would lead to a separation from morality, but precisely the opposite is the case for me. Maybe I’ve adopted an inadvertent mindset that, now that I’m living with morality, I don’t really need God – and maybe that’s worse than needing His forgiveness for my addictive sin.
Maybe I need to listen to that Amy Grant song “Better Than a Hallelujah” again. I think I’ll do that.