Experience is a harsh teacher…the test comes first, the lesson after.
Many toothpaste tubes would come and go during this period of my life. I would be stretched beyond my limit, which, it turns out, is exactly what I needed. I would discover that some pretty awesome things become possible when we come to the end of self.
Sharron was the prettiest girl in the place. I don’t say this for the sake of earning brownie points, knowing that she’ll read it. It’s an incontrovertible fact. I had relocated from Southern California to my favorite place in the world, California’s Central Coast, just five months prior. The Laguna Village Inn, or ‘LVI’, as the locals called it, was a popular dance spot in San Luis Obispo, a 30-minute drive from where I lived in Paso Robles. I love to dance (see ‘Eternal Consequences’, Volume #2 of Chronicles). The rhythm, the music, and the opportunity for a shy, average guy like me to break the ice with a pretty girl; what could be better? Sharron was in the company of two other young ladies at the bar. As I scanned the crowd I was immediately attracted to her pretty face, long brunette hair and beautiful smile.
Let me back up a bit. I’ve never been a ‘girl magnet’. Like Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry Callahan, says in one of the Dirty Harry movies, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” I did. I’m a realist. I’m not a life-of-the-party, great-looking kinda guy, but, I might add, I did alright in the dating realm in my own, average guy kinda way. So, like many average kinda guys, I wasn’t afraid to shoot for the stars, so I asked the prettiest girl in the LVI to dance with me and she said yes!
I quickly discovered that Sharron had a great personality to match her great looks. She gave me her phone number that night. I began to wonder why she had when, after my 11th call (yes, ELEVEN), she had yet to agree to go out with me. Little did she know that I had a strict 12 call limit! Us average guys do have our pride! As the saying goes, “the twelfth time’s a charm!” (or something like that) Finally, Sharron agreed to a date. Flash forward just several months to November 14, 1975, and we were engaged. We were married the following Valentine’s Day at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Sharron’s friends were worried for her and advised her not to marry me. It would turn out to be good advice.
Simple physical expressions of caring, like hugging, were not natural to me.
Sharron had a 5-year-old son named Sean. I actually believed I was ready to be a good husband and stepfather. It wouldn’t be long before I realized I was in way over my head. I had entered marriage at 25 years old in much the same condition as when I left home at 17 years old – severely emotionally handicapped. I had spent four years in the military, traveled a bit, worked a few jobs, but emotionally speaking, I was in my infancy. I simply did not know how to express feelings in general, nor was I comfortable being on the receiving end. Simple physical expressions of caring, like hugging, were not natural to me. It seemed like Sharron and Sean would hug every time they walked into a room. Why couldn’t they be normal, like me?
A bit of background. Neither of my parents were raised in emotionally nurturing homes. As a result, neither were we children – eight of us. I don’t remember much of my childhood. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall mom ever hugging me prior to the day I left for basic training. Our parents’ definition of love was, in large part, “You’ve got food on the table, clothes on your back and a roof over your head.” Later I would realize that I harbored more than a little resentment toward my parents. I felt my brothers and sisters and I had been, to varying degrees, sent into the world lacking basic emotional survival skills. I eventually forgave my parents. To not forgive, to hold onto resentment, has been compared to taking poison expecting it to hurt the other person or persons in my case. My spirit had been poisoned long enough; forgiveness was the antidote. Forgiving my parents broke chains of bitterness that had prevented me from moving forward, but it also meant I was now solely responsible for the person I would become – no one else to blame. I hadn’t gotten to where I was overnight; changing would be a lengthy and painful process, and not only for me.
I vaguely remember the day as a young boy I made a decision not to cry anymore. I became adept at controlling my tears. Unknown to me at the time, I had hit the ‘off switch’ to more than tears. Finding the ‘on switch’ to my emotions would be much more of a challenge.
I had never had a serious relationship prior to Sharron. Being married exposed the extent of my emotionally stunted growth. The harsh realization that I lacked the ability to be a loving husband and compassionate father increased my frustration and drove me further into a dark place. Sharron and Sean deserved so much better than I was able to give! Realizing my complete helplessness, I eventually tried to drive Sharron away, not wanting to be the one to give up on our marriage and figuring she and Sean would be better off without me anyway.
Sharron had been raised in a warm, loving, emotionally healthy home. Not only was she an extremely loving person, but she had amazing inner strength. She would need every bit of it in the years to follow. We would wind up separating three times….each time reuniting, though neither of us could really explain why.
The terrible depth of my depravity and lack of compassion would be nowhere more evident than when, in the midst of the turmoil I caused, I committed the most heinous act imaginable; taking the life of an unborn child. Sharron told me she was pregnant and my unloving, selfish, immature response was to convince her that ending this sweet, innocent life was the answer. Abortion. I use the words “I took” because there is no doubt in my mind Sharron would have gladly accepted God’s gift of life had I shown even a modicum of joy and support. By then I had emotionally beaten her down to the point where she would agree to such a thing, agree that bringing another life into what had become the chaos of our marriage was not a good option. I took what God intended as a blessing and rejected it – threw it back in His face.
Our so-called progressive society likes to soften the language of abortion by couching it in positive-sounding terms such as ‘a woman’s right to choose’. After all, what fair-minded, intelligent, reasonable, women’s-rights-supporting person would possibly disagree with a good-sounding thing like that? I realize this is an extremely divisive issue and you may stand on the other side of it. After all, I did at one time, and I’ll regret it for the rest of this life.
But who was this man in the mirror? Where did Mike go?
The height and depth and breadth of God’s love is nowhere more evident to me today than in knowing He has forgiven me. As if that weren’t enough, God restored the life I was largely responsible for taking. I truly believe that God restored to Sharron and I the innocent, unborn life I had rejected, and He did so in the form of our daughter, Christina Marie, who was born years later. God returned to Sharron and I, as undeserving as I was, the gift of life that we had initially rejected. God is truly an awesome God. His love is unfathomable! There is no sin too great that He is not greater still. But who was this man in the mirror? Where did Mike go? Sharron, Sean, Christina, and by now our third child, Daniel, needed him! What they actually needed though, was a ‘new and improved’ version of Mike, not the one unable to handle emotions. As much as I knew this and as desperate as I was to make my family happy, I was powerless to do so. My abuse wasn’t physical, but emotional scars are just as real and with an even longer-lasting effect.
It seemed I was always in a bad mood, constantly saying something hurtful or rude. Later I would admit it and apologize, only to repeat the cycle days or weeks later. I got really good at apologizing, and I meant the words I said, Sharron questioned my sincerity after so many relapses. Sarcasm and silence were weapons I wielded with deadly effect. I hid behind my cutting, hurtful remarks rather than dealing with my issues in a mature way. Sharron had already suffered through one marriage to an unfaithful, selfish husband. I was never unfaithful, but she deserved so much better than the man I was. When my children needed me most, during their young, formative years, I was cold and distant.
Men like fixing things. Give us hammer and a reciprocating saw and there ain’t nothin’ that can’t be fixed! It was so frustrating knowing that I could not fix this. Clearly, this was going to take much more than my will power (or Black and Decker).
I shared in my last Chronicle details of my becoming a Christian at age 30. When I did, according to the Bible, God’s Spirit took up residence within me, but, like everyone who decides to become a believer, I brought ‘baggage’ along with me. Many new believers are instantly cured of addictions or bad habits; more typically though, God transforms things about us that are not pleasing to Him over time as we mature in our Christian walk. I was very much aware I had some baggage and more than a few ‘carry-ons’.
Fortunately for me, and for us all, God is a ‘come-as-you-are’ God. No need to wait to clean up our act first. I had spent years trying that. God has a way of convicting us of things that used to be okay, letting us know what things in our life need changing – and more than that, He gives us the power to effect whatever change is needed. We’ve all seen the bumper stickers….”I’m Not Perfect, Just Forgiven”, or, “Be Patient, God is Still Working on Me”. There’s a lot of truth to those catchphrases.
Even as a Christian, I seemed trapped on a highway with no off-ramp, still relying on myself to change who I was. There remained areas of my life that I had not surrendered to God’s control. I’m a control person, I wanted to be in the drivers’ seat. Of course, you would never know the real me, the Mike at home, if you were a co-worker of mine or if you attended my church. I played those parts well; put on the mask and had my lines down pat.
There I was, not only an official member of a church but now a deacon, a part of the Tuesday night visitation team, involved in whatever ministry I could be. So wrapped up in doing the work of the ministry that I was missing the heart of ministry. I was saved by God’s grace through faith but trying to earn God’s favor (and man’s) by my good works. I was caught up in religion, not growing in a relationship with my Savior. Finally, God got through to me. I realized I had no business doing ministry anywhere until I got things right at home. My first and most important ministry was to my wife and my children.
God’s Spirit never forces His way into our lives, even as believers. We must open the door. Once I did, He began a work in my heart. Surrender has such a negative connotation, but it is an absolute essential in the life of anyone who desires to grow as a believer, to not remain in a spiritual playpen. The Bible promises to those who believe that God will remove our heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). He began doing that for me. It would take time and will continue to be a work in process for the remainder of my life, but at least now I had hope, I began to see progress for the first time, and it was a good feeling.
Slowly but surely, I began to react differently in situations in which I would have, in times past, responded with a hurtful comment or sarcasm. I was beginning to like myself again as I began to see a new pattern emerge. Small victories became more and more common. It was no longer just my will power. By surrendering my life, my will, more fully to God, the door was now open for His power to effect the transformation that I had needed for so long. God was performing a spiritual heart transplant!
In some instances, these men literally put their lives and physical well-being on the line for what they believed in.
God would use my involvement in a ministry called Celebrate Recovery (CR) to continue the work He had begun in my life. He gave me the opportunity to become involved in and introduce CR at the prison where I worked in Tehachapi. I trained inmates to become CR leaders. Sharron joined me as we trained inmates to become CR leaders at other correctional facilities. The men who were the core leaders of CR at the prison in Tehachapi had done things serious enough to result in life sentences. That group of core leaders, those same men, Art, Ken, Rudy, and Chris are among the most committed spiritual leaders I have ever had the privilege of knowing. I learned so much from their examples. No one can convince me that there is anyone beyond the redemptive power of God. These men experienced persecution for their faith that the majority of Christians, at least in this country, will never have to persevere. For them, taking a stand for Christ meant paying the price of going against the flow of prison politics that dictated, among other things, not associating with other races. It also meant going against the gang culture. In some instances, these men literally put their lives and physical well-being on the line for what they believed in. Yes, I’ve heard of and seen so-called ‘jailhouse’ conversions, but I’ve also witnessed to a much greater degree new creations that the Bible talks about.
During the course of training leaders, conducting services and presenting the lessons of CR, God let me know quite convincingly that I personally needed to take those lessons to heart and apply them to my life, so I began to do so. CR deals with all manner of hurts and habits and hang-ups, not just drugs and alcohol. Narcotics were not my problem, my ‘drug of choice’ had been anger, and the addiction was real and difficult to break.
My constant prayer became Psalm 139, verses 23 and 24, which say, “Search me, oh God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts. And see if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.” It is still a regular prayer of mine.
Today my relationships with my children are, thankfully, much improved and on the road toward getting even better.
Because of my emotional absence from them years ago our relationships are not what they could have been, but I am so blessed and thankful for their forgiveness and their good hearts. They are awesome! God has used, and continues to use Sharron in such a major way in my life. I don’t know where I would be without her.
My beliefs in a nutshell (glad you asked!): God exists; He created all things; the Bible contains His actual words; He does not change in order to accommodate the ebb and flow of society; there are not many roads that lead to Him – only One – and that is through His Son, Jesus Christ; God desires that everyone would come to Him; if you believe in your heart (not just your head) that Jesus is Who He said He was, the Son of God – that He died for your sins and rose again, you will be saved (aka born again as the Bible calls it); salvation is about His grace working through our faith, not about earning your way to heaven by your good outweighing your bad. Most of the world believes otherwise. I know this, not only by reading the headlines and looking around me but because God says the gate is narrow and few are those who find it. My prayer is that you will be one of those.
During the last several years God has been teaching me about being a better servant; what that really means. I was too selfish and had way too much vitamin ‘I’ in me in the past to know what serving others was all about. I have much to learn and far to go, but all things are possible now. An old movie entitled, “God is My Co-pilot” comes to mind.
God is not my co-pilot, He owns the airplane, the airport, and for that matter, everything. He is the center of my life.
The Toothpaste Chronicles attempt to do what the title implies.… ‘chronicle’ events of life that transpire, from the caps’ first twist to the last squeeze, hopefully in a way you can relate to. Numerous tubes had come and gone during the period of my life chronicled above. Lives impacted, relationships damaged….and restored, transformation made possible by the grace of God.
How much will happen besides cavity prevention prior to the last squirt of your next tube? Let’s determine now not to waste time trying to put paste back into the tube…..to live life on purpose and with purpose. So, unless and until I’ve squeezed my last, see you next time. …