The key to understanding my early years is to understand the family and culture in which I grew up. If there were two words to sum up my early childhood, they’d be “southern” and “affluent”.
My mother hails from Birmingham, Alabama and my father from Jacksonville, Florida. They met at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. As a result, southern culture was deeply ingrained in my family for as long as I can remember. In the early 90s, my family moved to Cary, North Carolina. Cary is well known to those who know it as one of the most wealthy parts of the state. Excellent schools, low crime rates, and growing job opportunities funneled wealth into this bedroom community of the capital, Raleigh.
Financially and culturally we fit right in in Cary where the average home price is over $350,000. My father was a mortgage loan officer whose commission based income climbed as more homes sold for higher prices. I recall one Christmas my mother spent over a thousand dollars on each of her three children. This wasn’t irresponsible spending either, it was something we could afford.
Likewise, our nondenominational church attracted wealthy congregants. We had state of the art equipment, building, and I benefited from some of the best ministers out there. There is no doubt that during these years my family and I lived a life of privilege.
Being a southern family, church is a requirement. We went there most weekends (as long as other culturally important things weren’t in the way!).
Most years I’d be sent off to summer camp in Blackburg, Virginia. I loved the camp; we’d spend a week playing in the creek, running around, and bonding with friends. Of course being a church camp, there would be speakers twice a day. Each year they’d tell us the story of Jesus. One year, the preacher got up and he told us about Hell. He told us how bad it was and how it was to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, he revealed, we had all already missed the boat on that one. We’d all sinned and we were going to Hell.
But good news, the preacher told us, Jesus came and died on the cross to save us from Hell. If we pray a magic prayer, when we die we’ll go to heaven instead. I thought long and hard, well, Hell seems pretty bad. Heaven seems pretty good. So, if Jesus wants to give me heaven, that sounds like a pretty square deal!
I prayed the prayer and got my fire insurance! I wouldn’t be going to hell. Anyone who has been following Christ for a while knows that I entirely missed the point, but that is where I was. Christ was a bonus to me, not a necessity. As a result, I lived my life confused and questioning my salvation. Was I really saved? I felt like there had to be something more, but I had everything I needed.
God was just a cherry on top.
God was just an added bonus.
God was someone my culture taught me was to be used when you needed him.
I didn’t need God.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked God. I wanted God. I could even delude myself into believing that I loved God, but I didn’t need him. I already had everything I thought I needed, this is the greatest tragedy of wealth. Wealth and plenty distorts our understanding of what we need.
I think now of the story of the rich young ruler found in Luke 18. Here is a man who approaches Jesus, and he asks the same question that I was asking, “What must I DO to inherit eternal life.”
“God, what do I have to DO?”
This is the first flaw in my thinking: I wanted to know what I had to do to be saved. I didn’t know that it is by God’s grace alone I could be saved, and not by works. I didn’t understand that there was nothing I could do, to earn God’s love. Because why not?
We worked hard and were able to earn a big nice house, my parents worked hard and raised three good kids. I could earn good grades and at the end of little league I earned a small trophy. So why couldn’t I earn God?
Just like the rich young ruler, there was too much too distract me. I had money. I lived in a safe town. I had never gone hungry. My family loved me and each other. I wanted for nothing…and yet there was still something I yearned for desperately. I was headed down the path of apathy fast. I think of it now and I am confident that if things hadn’t changed, I would be living a very comfortable yet pointless life.
Someone asked me the other day, “How much would your live have to change, if God was proven to not exist.” Back then, the only thing that would change was my Sunday mornings. There was nothing about my life to suggest that I was a christian. I never read my bible, in fact the only one I owned was given to me when I was baptized. I neither loved nor hated life. I just lived in shelter, passing from event to event, mesmerized by magic tricks and twinkling lights. I pursued nothing of eternal value. I wanted fame and fortune on earth and hoped to buy my way into getting it in heaven.
My 6th grade year, two catastrophic events simultaneously occurred. One affected the world at large, the other my world.
For years, the economy had been riding along on a housing bubble. Families like mine were buying houses and cars with money they didn’t have. Men like my father were getting rich processing these loans. But eventually it all crashed. My family was living beyond its means and when the market crashed, my dad’s commission based income plummeted.
At the same time, my parents told me that they were getting a divorce.
It is interesting that we often put that word into a noun. We intentionally set it apart from ourselves. I got a traffic ticket once; the officer said I that ran a stop sign; I felt different, but that’s beside the point. To keep my insurance down, I signed up for a driving class. At the start of the class the instructor had us go around the room and explain why we were there. Here is that catch, we couldn’t say that “we received a ticket for…” whatever. We had to say, “I’m here because I was ______” fill in the blank. When it was my turn I said that I had gotten a ticket for running a stop sign. She said, “no, you’re here because you ran a stop sign.” I wasn’t there because of the ticket; I was there because of the crime I committed (allegedly…). The same is true with divorce, you don’t just “get a divorce,” you tear apart what God has joined together. When you actively go against God, pain results. This small change in phrasing totally alters our view of divorce. My parents divorced, and it hurt.
I still remember it. Let me paint you a picture, for myself more than anyone.
My parents had been fighting more often than usual. I remember many car rides, just waiting for them to give up. I would sit in the back listening to them argue, or worse yet, sit in the front seat while my mom held my hand from the back. It felt like I was the only thing keeping them together and I hated that. I knew that they were headed to divorce, but just like the U.S., I wanted to ignore the impending crash of the system of my family.
I wished they’d just told me.
Life was getting rough, but no one else seemed to know.
I felt stranded and alone.
I vividly remember on one occasion me and my dad playing around in the hallway by my parents room. There was so much tension in the house, and for a few minutes, we were just having fun again. Like a kid being tickled I said “stop it! stop it!” He didn’t. He wasn’t malicious, he was just playing. I ran at him trying to get passed. He blocked me, and pushed me back.
I have never understood why I did what I did next. I began to fall back, towards the closed door of my parents room. I had just enough control to stop myself from hitting the door. I knew my mom was on the otherside (by this time my dad had set up permanent sleeping quarters on the couch).
Instead of catching myself, I let myself hit the door.
It burst open, breaking the door jam.
My mom looked at my dad like she had just seen him beat me.
What the Hell, Greg?!
He just fell..
You just pushed him through a door!
Why didn’t I catch myself?
I have always consciously known that my parents divorce wasn’t my fault. But moments like these…what if I hadn’t made it worse?
I wanted them to fight. Like a child with a loose tooth, I just wanted it to fall out. I was sick of pretending everything was ok. My worst fear was having to choose. But what hurt more was not being sure if I would have to.
If I KNEW that they’d be together, then I would have nothing to worry about. Or if I KNEW that they were getting a divorce, then I could face my fear head on. But I was left in the this limbo state of uncertainty.
There is so much about this time that is hazy to my memory, but there are moments that I remember as if it was yesterday.
It was a Sunday morning. My dad hadn’t come to church that day. I knew something was wrong, I guess they had fought the night before, something bad was coming. I can even remember the road. We were turning right. My mom tried to break the silence:
“So what are you going to do today?”
“Maybe I’ll go to Ryan’s.”
She had to know that I would be doing nothing for the rest of the day, and for days to come.
I don’t remember what exactly was said. I can recall phrases like, “We both love you.” and “this is not your fault.”
But the damage was done, my world was shattered.
My dad was already packed up, I remember the only thing left in the house of his was this rotating tie rack – its amazing the little details I remember, while the greater ones I forget. I spent the rest of the day, holding my mom.
This is the moment I grew up.
No one had told me the reason yet. I overheard conversations that gave me a pretty good idea. A few days or weeks or months later, I don’t know which, my dad picked me up from middle school.
He told me the truth. He told me about the mistake he made. He told me how badly he regretted it. He told me about how much he loved me.
He treated me like a man; I was a man.
Manhood is not a matter of age. Some become men in middle school, some remain boys until they’re lying in their graves.
Let me take a break from this world for a moment and confess. Here I am, years later, and to read these words, and to recollect these moments brings tears to my eyes. The pain is lasting. But so is God. Your pain – my pain, cannot outlive Jesus.
My parents separated and got back together again and again. Like pulling off a bandaid, only to put it back on, I was desensitized to it. I cannot now recall how many times this happened, but I do remember the last time the band-aid was torn away from my skin. The last time they said the words, “We’re separating.”
“Yep” was all I could say.
I had seen it coming.
The shock of my father out of the house was intense. It was the saddest time in my life. I took on the role almost as a partner in our house, like I said, I grew up quickly.
Before long the house was in foreclosure; we sold it off quick and moved back to the old house. The Audi and Mercedes became an old Nissan that squealed if you started it in cold weather. I stopped having the newest video games, and my room was much smaller, as if that mattered to me anymore anyway.
But God had a plan. Like the rich ruler in Luke 18, I had been distracted. I began to look around at my life, and what we had been putting stock in: Money (that was gone), family (that had crumbled), what else did I have left? It seems as if I was a camel, trying to pass through the eye of a needle.
I remember thinking about what those preachers told me at camp. Something clicked. I knew that nothing on this earth was lasting. I needed a hope and a purpose. I figured I would go all or nothing:
“God, if you are who you say you are, if you can truly give me a purpose, if you will really love me no matter what, then I’m all in.”
This is the fundamental and foundational decision of my life. It took walking through fire to make me into who I am. I am not a son of divorce. I am a brother and co heir with Christ.
But what did “all in” look like?
I had no visible example of what that was, but there were men that stepped up to be men of God in my life. They taught me the importance of reading the bible, pursuing God with everything I had. They didn’t do much special, but they came alongside of me and loved me the way God does. Small groups, camps, retreats, dinners, rides home; I formed relationships with these guys and God began to reveal to me how awesome he is. Don’t get me wrong, the pain didn’t go away. In fact over time even more pain came.
God didn’t “fix” my parents’ marriage.
But my priorities had shifted. The supreme question of my life, and yours, is, “how do I glorify God?”
He began to move, I now had motivation to reconcile with my Dad, to begin to heal that relationship. My pain was almost always there, but I now had a hope. I began to understand his hurt and pain, as well as my own.
I began to understand my Father, my Dad, better. I related with him, and saw that for him too this hadn’t been an easy thing to do. We talked, and I felt his pain.
Every Morning that he couldn’t make me breakfast, or see his son before he went to school, every time he had to get updates on my life instead of living it with me, every unreturned phone call from my brother, and voicemail message to my sister was a reminder of what had happened. It killed my dad.
Because of Christ, I became committed to not abandoning my Father. I was going to walk with him through his pain, even though it was his own doing, because that is precisely what Christ did for me. Not only did he walk with me through my pain, he joined me in my pain when he died on the cross.
The intensity of the shift in my life, pushed me toward Christ. I had nothing left to hang on to. He was all that was left, and I clinged to him for dear life.
The decision to follow Jesus Christ with my life is, without a doubt, the greatest decision I have ever made. Trying to live more like him has made me kinder, more loving, more joyous than I could have ever imagined or managed on my own. He has lead me literally around the world and given me experiences and challenges that have filed my life with variety and meaning. The rest of this site shares stories of the various ways that God is working in my life, I hope you’ll read and stick around.
Thanks for reading,