Before the Sad Height

There was a time when I didn't know pain. Not that I was unaware of pain in the world, but I had no personal experience with it. Right after I graduated college, I had a childhood friend die suddenly, which was shocking but it wasn't "mine." Ezekiel's death, and the dying of my own self afterward is really the first time I've had to wrestle pain. Incomprehensible pain.

So who was I? Before landing on the sad height?

Normal. Middle-class. White.

Still am. Except maybe not quite as normal as I was.

Both of my parents were teachers. Science teachers. My mom is the screwloose, Magic Schoolbus Miss Frizzle-type. My dad is the organized, unemotional, nice guy who has his PhD in Analytical Chemistry (I still don't know what that really means, but he's got an unhealthy grasp of the periodic table).

I was always the smart kid in school. Not really the cool kid at all until about my senior year of high school, when I just stopped caring what people thought of me (freeing, isn't it?). Never really excelled at sports except for a few years on my summer-league swim team. I picked up the butterfly quicker than the other 8 year olds and just dominated for a summer.

Grew up in Georgia. Family went to church, but I didn't really care for it until being forced to go to youth group in middle school. My youth pastor was a stand-up comedian (at least to my middle school mind), so that was cool. But I really just went to make fun of the other kids who were actually having fun. I guess you could say being a cynical, smart-ass has always been a primary ingredient in my mental soup.

I didn't really like who I was becoming in late middle school & my freshman year of high school. I think I lived under the stress a lot of peer pressure then. And hormones. Raging, horny, hormones.

The summer before my sophomore year of high school I went on a youth trip with my church and made a decision to turn away from some of the immoral stuff I was starting to dabble in. I can't say it was a "give your life over to Jesus" moment because I didn't even really know what I was committing to. But I did see my personality really come alive & be free for the first time since being a little kid. I just didn't care anymore what people thought of me. I was a goofball, not cool in any way, not attractive, athletic, or tough. But I was okay with that.

I really started hanging out with Kristina that sophomore year of high school. Started off pretty simple. She sometimes sat at the same lunch table as me and a few crude friends. She'd tell me to stop cussing so much. And over time, I did.

I really fell for her hard my junior year of high school. To the point where I couldn't fall asleep at night because I was thinking about her. She was so mysterious to me. She hung out with me & my friends as we formed our terrible little hardcore band. She was kind. Caring. Soft-spoken. Generous. Loving. Everything I'm not. It was a complete head-over-heels (what the hell does that even mean?!) deal for me. I wrote songs about her. Poetry. Journaled. Conjured up exotic ways to confess my undying love for her in front of the whole lunch room, which I now know would've absolutely terrified and embarrassed her.

But I didn't want to risk losing her as a friend, so it took me over a year to finally tell her how I really felt. Of course, she already knew. The Valentine's Day "mixed tape" CD of all love songs probably gave it away.

We dated in college. Broke up briefly (we really only broke up because all we were doing was making out & felt like our relationship should be more than that... and dry humping occasionally). Got back together. Broke up again. Totally my fault. I was a jerk.

I had never seen much emotion modeled in the Christian life. I went to a boring Methodist church while growing up. My parents never talked about faith stuff at home. I didn't really even see much emotion or affection between my parents. I had grown bitter toward the emotionless life. But it was all I knew. I didn't trust emotions at all. Felt they had no place in a rational world.

Some of that changed when I went off to college. I got involved with a campus ministry where college kids were just straight fired up during the worship service. I had no grid for it. I thought it was fake. Just some sort of a show. And I couldn't sing the songs they were singing with any honesty. I remember one song that went, "I am so in love with you, my Lord, my God!" ... and I couldn't even put together how someone could have actual, emotional love for God.

I got burnt out on school & decided to take a semester off. Kristina suggested I look into Youth With A Mission (YWAM) for their 6-month Discipleship Training School. Although I had absolutely no passion for missions, it seemed like a more adventurous option than just doing AmeriCorps, so I raised the support & left for Malawi (south-central Africa) in January 2004.

It was there that I really got truly overcome by the love of God for the first time. Although I had identified as a Christian since about my junior year of high school, there was no emotional involvement to my faith. I coined my faith "The Jesus Diet". You know. You read the Bible, pray, talk to people, blah blah blah because it's "good for you"... but you don't internally enjoy it. Just like a diet. You know it's the healthy choice, so you do it as much & as consistently as you can to stay healthy.

A few weeks into my training school in Malawi, this missionary guy had come to teach for a week & he only taught about baptisms. I had been baptized as a baby (so I'm told and a few pictures might be floating around out there somewhere), but I now had a burning desire to be baptized as a believer in Jesus. Holding back tears, I talked to the missionary teacher guy about getting baptized, and he simply asked, "Have you been baptized in the Spirit?" I had NO CLUE what he was even talking about! But I meekly replied, "Um, yeah. I guess so. I mean. If I'm a Christian then I have the Holy Spirit, right?" He just kinda nodded & smiled at me, saying, "Hold on. We'll do the baptism later this week if you still want to."

I'll never forget that day. March 5th, 2004. After a few days of more teaching, prayer & worship sessions, etc. I was more than ready to get baptized. In the last prayer session of the teacher-missionary-guy's time there, he asked if anyone wanted to be baptized in the spirit. I was shaking in my seat. I knew I needed to go get prayer. But didn't do it. A few other guys went up, but I just sat in the back.

Then the missionary called out my name. "James. You need to come up here." I knew I was supposed to, so I didn't hesitate this time. He started to pray for me. Nothing big. Nothing loud. No hands on me. And I felt this IMMENSE weight come upon me that I still can't really explain. In my head, I asked God, "What is going on?" and the reply I felt on the inside was "Just trust me." So I did for half a second. I gave in to the weight. And I hit the deck. I have no clue if someone caught me. If I fell outright. I don't know. I was overwhelmed. Unexplainable.

Going to the ground didn't knock me out or anything. I was conscious that I was laying on the ground of this classroom in Malawi. There on the floor, a blinding, shining white light filled my inner vision. I had my eyes closed, but I knew there was no way light from a window could reach me where I was. I even thought, "Did I hit my head?" but my head didn't hurt in any way. Again, I prayed inside myself, "God, what is going on?" And this time the answer (all inside, not audible or anything) was "Trust me. I'm ministering to you."

So I continued to lay there until the white light left. It wasn't too long. Probably 5 minutes at the most. Maybe less. I have no clue. But when I got up, I knew something inside me had changed. I had a peace and an emotional consciousness I had never had before.

That afternoon I was baptized down in the river in the village. Me and one other girl got baptized that day.

As I was hand-washing my shirt out later that day, I caught glimpse of something just over the roof of the house we all stayed in. I walked around to the far side of the yard, and there were 2 complete rainbows stretching across the sky. I stood there in awe. I knew exactly what it meant. The rainbow being God's sign to Noah after passing through the waters that he wouldn't be subject to destruction again. It's the same sign as baptism. Passing through the waters (death) and coming up alive in Christ on the other side. Two of us baptized that day. Two complete rainbows. More than just a coincidence.

Beyond all the crazy stuff of that day, my heart had become alive. I cried for the first time in years. I felt peace internally. I had forgiveness for a lot of bitterness I hadn't even realized was chewing away at me. I started to hear from God. Not complete stuff, but things I couldn't explain that would come true minutes or hours later. Seriously. It got so freaky all the African guys started calling me "the prophet" on our team for a while because I'd say something was about to happen and it would then happen. I can't explain those days. Even in the midst of later doubts in life. I can't explain all that switched in me in such a short time.

Fast-forward ahead. ALOT.

Got back to Georgia. Had typical college ups & downs. Went through a short season of doubt in my faith. Hit another unexplainable spiritual milestone coming out of it. Wrestled internally with affections for Kristina that had never left. Had fun. Drove a scooter. Rocked a mullet for a few months. Your typical college life.

Kristina & I slowly started dating again after I realized that I just couldn't handle it if anyone else dated her. We cried & argued our way through some hurts & walls we had built up during the 2 years we weren't dating. Got engaged. Married. And moved to Charlotte, NC.

Kristina went through a very tough season upon moving to Charlotte. I'll let her tell the tale some other time, but it was definitely her "dark night of the soul" season where she felt God had abandoned her. She's believed in Jesus since she was 7. It was something I hadn't seen on someone before. And it shaped our marriage. I learned to love through it. It's how I learned to love. To love someone even when they aren't feeling loved in a deep way.

That tough season for Kristina lasted a long time, and we still see the ripple effects of it in ways today. But part of what drew her out of the darkness was the birth of our first child, Adoration Joy. We named her that because we believed God would make her into a worshiper (Adoration), and that joy was being returned to Kristina in a new way. Over 5 years later, she definitely embodies the identity of her name.

Getting tired of the cold and seeing an opportunity for some growth in my job, we moved to South Florida in 2011. Although there's alot to like about South Florida. We just didn't like it very much. Our son, Asa Trust, was born there... in Boca Raton of all places! But when the opportunity came to move to Jacksonville, we didn't hesitate.

We moved to Jacksonville just before Christmas in 2012 with a 2 year old and a 3 month old in tow.

We love Jacksonville. The people. Our church. The weather. The beach. There really is alot to like.

For me, though, Jacksonville kinda kicked off a season of isolation in many ways. I moved up to the top of my work ladder within the city and found myself very lonely. I have friends within my work, but the work itself was very stressful, solitary, and pressure-packed. It just wasn't an environment I thrive in. I come alive when I can be around people, be outside, be open & honest. Not when I drive around all day or send hundreds of emails. When I have to wear the boss hat more than the friend hat.

The stress of my work transition really sapped away all of my internal energy. I no longer felt like myself. I didn't act like myself, and I knew it. That just buried my frustration even deeper inside. I started to feel powerless to change. Meanwhile, my work numbers were going downhill due to factors I couldn't control at all, and I felt abandoned to "just work hard and figure it out" with minimal training in my new role. It all just created the narrative in my head that: 

"No matter what you do, the cards are stacked against you from the start, and you can't do anything to change it."

Nothing. No power. No control. I am set up to fail. And in the process, I am losing myself.

And that's the mindset I carried into the birth and death of my son, Ezekiel Promise.