|Oct/Nov 2018 Nonfiction|
I remember the nervous excitement of expecting Christ's Second Coming at the turn of the millennium, and the suspicious rumors about Y2K; the smell of my first girlfriend's perfume and the freedom of driving alone, sunroof open to the humid north Georgia spring. I remember the earnest diligence of reading my Student's Life Application Bible, my friend's sadness when I told her I wouldn't dance with her because I'd "kissed dating goodbye," and agreeing with a youth pastor that the deepest of Christian love entailed sacrificing our desires—our bodies, our very selves—one for another.
Other things, I'd forgotten. Like how good it felt to be in God's presence, to hear His voice; that singular comfort of knowing I was in the middle of God's will for my life—and that tingling sensation in my gut letting me know the world made sense because I was being led through it by its Maker. But I remember almost all of it now.
It could have been the last year before the end of the world. For us, at least. It just made sense that Jesus would figure the end of the millennium was as good a time as any to float down and evacuate us in one last rapturous demonstration of our piety. We were almost giddy with the notion we would have a front row seat to the coming apocalypse.
But then those two boys, with their overcoats and so many guns, stormed into that high school in Colorado and asked that pretty girl, who could have been in any of our youth groups, if she believed in God. She said yes, and that was the end for her. We already knew that the world hated us, of course. We were living in times more at odds with who we were, and we knew to expect persecution for following Jesus. It was never clear to me which would come first—the mass martyrdom of Christians in the US or the rapture, but here, in 1999, after Cassie, it felt like both possibilities were pressing in on us.
Some of the teenagers in my youth group, along with a handful of adults, thought the Second Coming could be related to Y2K and the global economic collapse that was surely coming with it. "It's gonna be way worse than they think," Andy said. A year older than I, Andy was stocky and hardcore about his faith. His assessment carried weight and left me feeling this really could be it: our last months. Who knew what the new millennium might bring for everyone else?
We weren't scared about Jesus's return. For us, there was hardly a comparable excitement of joining with a triumphant Christ in the air as all hell broke loose below our feet. We weren't dead certain about this because we knew our Bibles well enough to be aware of the caveat: "no one knows the hour" of Christ's return, but, nevertheless, our faith pulsed with a sense of possibility about where we seemed to be standing on God's timeline. I even heard that in my county, a girl two years ahead of me in high school got married. It was rumored her parents wanted her to experience married life before the end of the world. "Married life" really only meant one thing to me: sex, which was enticingly held years out of reach, behind a divinely sanctioned "I do." I realized I might never cross that threshold if Jesus decided to take us home around the end of the year. The thought was bittersweet.
I wanted to be set apart from the world, from those who wouldn't live according to God's law. I wanted people to know me for being holy, which is to say, different. I took pride in not being invited to parties, of not even knowing where or when the parties were being thrown. It was best not to flirt with temptation, I reasoned. But Jesus's call to high school holiness went well beyond that. Andy said the Lord showed him a verse—Job, chapter 31—that he was going to live by: "I have made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman." I thought about the tight khakis Tamara would wear when she sang next to me as I played bass in our youth group praise band. Just looking was giving the devil a foothold in my life, Andy counseled. We promised each other we would keep our gaze at "eye level," attempting to be willfully oblivious to girls' curves.
I was convinced true love meant waiting until marriage for sex, and I'd made a formal pledge to keep myself sexually pure until my wedding day. I believed it was my duty to "save myself for marriage," and that duty was not only to God but a promise to my future wife and the possible future husbands of anyone I might date. That's why I looked on, enviously, at that girl who'd gotten married and could have divinely sanctioned teenaged sex and then sit through algebra like the rest of us.
So, between Columbine and Christ's Second Coming, there were a couple reasons why I thought the summer of 1999 might be my last one. In the meantime, I played music—contemporary praise and worship, mostly—trained for soccer, and kept my "quiet times" with God in the mornings. Those early morning times of Bible reading and prayer were exciting for me. I remember asking, "What does God want to say to me today?" and I would usually get an answer. I knew if you wanted to know God's will for your life—and I did—then you had to spend time—intimate, ordinary time—with Him. I loved the feeling of being in step with Jesus as he walked through the halls of my high school with me. I would parse the words of the holy text or the whispers in my heart or the little oddities of daily life for the subtle voice of God so I could answer when someone asked, "What's God doing in your life?"
One Sunday, a man at my church told me about a Christian band in town looking for a bass player. "They're a bit older than you, but they've been in a studio. Could be good experience for you," he told me. "I'm not sure that's what God wants for me," I countered. I remember following that with a story about how I'd been playing music with Andy and we didn't have any money but we went to Checkers anyway and ended up getting a free burger and fries. "So, it seems like God is providing there, and I feel I should stick with that." He shrugged, not one to spiritualize things unnecessarily.
When he asked me again the next week, I decided to call his contact for the group. I agreed to meet the band for a rehearsal in the garage of one of the guitarist's parents' house. All of the other band members were out of high school and the lead singer was already done with college and working as a youth pastor at a small Baptist church. To this point, I'd only been playing for my youth group's praise band on Wednesday nights, which were a focal point of my week. I loved feeling the unspoken fellowship among us musicians, and how that feeling was part of a beautiful sensation that would come every so often, when my soul would float in worship, being carried by the music into the presence of God.
These guys took things even more seriously than my youth group's band. They wrote their own songs and owned their own professional gear. They agreed I could join, and after a couple of rehearsals I was asked to lead a short Bible study they began their rehearsals with. I used The Message for my study—a plain language paraphrase of the New Testament I'd just gotten. I liked The Message because it made the Bible feel more relevant to life in the late '90s Georgia suburbs. Earlier in the week, while reading the Sermon on the Mount during a morning quiet time, a few sentences had stirred my heart:
When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions.
Sitting in that damp garage, I pondered how only those who were committed—who kept climbing with Jesus—got to hear his greatest (and arguably his most impossibly difficult) teaching. The lesson for us was clear: keep walking up the mountain. The true disciple won't turn back when it gets hard and steep—it's only then that you will hear what Jesus wants to tell you.
It felt inspired. I was in.
School started back in the steamy last days of the Southern summer. I was a junior now, and since I'd gotten my driver's license, I could finally date someone without enduring the embarrassment of asking my parents to chauffer. I asked out Virginia, a new girl who had just transferred from a Christian school. We didn't date long, but it was long enough for me to learn how to kiss, and long enough to get swept away on waves of electric magic, that sensation I'd only known before in church or church camp, when I felt God really "showing me something." Now, here it was, pulsing through me two, three times a week in my driver's seat, our orange silhouettes nervously meeting under the street light at the end of her driveway.
Things with the band were also starting to take off. We had several upcoming gigs at local churches, and I had to learn a couple dozen new songs to get through a full set. Jacob, the lead singer who was already out of college, offered to give me rides to the rehearsals, which were going longer, sometimes late in the night, sometimes capped off with a Waffle House run, other times ending with rambling conversations as I sat, a captive audience, in Jacob's front seat. He worried about what his dad thought of him. He confided in me that he felt alienated from the drummer, who said he was "freaked out" by stuff Jacob had told him. I wasn't sure what he meant, exactly, but I remember sitting in the front seat of his Jeep, starting to feel the slightest tinge of claustrophobia, a feeling I brushed aside with the compassion I felt for him.
Things never felt entirely right with Virginia. Were we tempting ourselves too much? I'd made a promise to God, after all, and she said her last boyfriend had tried to finger her, and even though I assured her I wouldn't do anything like that, we would still sit for hours on the shaggy carpet in her parents' quiet basement, alone, and I would feel the weight of time—of how impossibly distant marriage seemed.
Six weeks in and unable to shake my fear that I would compromise the commitment to wait I'd made to Jesus, Jacob asked me if the relationship was distracting from something else—something better—that God might have for me. So, I stopped Virginia before class one morning and revealed to her, as the anxious teenaged frenzy quieted in the hallways, that God didn't want me in the relationship anymore. "Okay," she said brightly, then turned and went into her classroom as the bell rang. I remember wishing she'd appear a little more disappointed at this twist in God's will, and I felt even more disappointed she was so effortlessly able to find a date for homecoming a couple weeks later. But I tried to keep my eyes on Jesus because if the end really was getting close, then it was probably best not to be distracted.
By the time I'd broken up with Virginia, Jacob said his dad didn't want his "sissy son" staying at his house anymore. As a youth pastor at a small country church, he couldn't easily find another place, he said, so he asked to stay at my parents' house while he sorted things out. He walked me through my first relationship's ending by suggesting I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris.
I was fresh out of a relationship that I felt uncertain about, and Harris had me pinned from the start. Did I get into that relationship because I wanted to serve God? Or was it really because I wanted to see which boundaries I could push? Did it draw me closer to God, or simply provide occasions in which I might compromise the commitments I'd made to God? Would I want someone else thinking about or treating my future wife the way that I'd thought about and treated Virginia?
I can't really say I was heartbroken over the ending of that relationship, but I was confused and knew God wasn't the author of confusion. I felt like I needed to keep myself open for being God's servant, which was surely far better than the emotional distractions of dating. It was a bit selfish to date—to want to be desired—and selfishness wouldn't bring me closer to God.
As I read Harris' book, I sensed an anxious tinge in my stomach—a feeling that told me this was what God wanted me to do. It would set me apart, show how God's radically good ways were foolishness to the world. I prayed about it for weeks and knew I was keeping in step with God's will for my life. So, I'd barely learned to kiss before I kissed dating goodbye. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make—I laid it at the foot of the cross, as they say in Baptist churches. God didn't want me to date, but instead to be discipled, to seek a radical Christian life. Jacob was showing me that, and it was good I could ignore the allure of glossy lips under street lights. This would be a different kind of commitment—a covenant, like the one God had made with Israel, "like David with Jonathan," Jacob told me.
As 1999 wound down, so did some of the speculations about Christ's return. It was still a possibility, of course, but it didn't stop evangelicals from planning huge end-of-the-millennium conventions over the New Year's holiday. One of the biggest of these conventions, YouthLink 2000, was based in Atlanta. We came—dutifully carrying our Bibles and wearing our WWJD bracelets and True Love Waits rings—to welcome in the new millennium with the fervent pious joy of chaste "Jesus Freaks." We shouted to God and praised Jesus while back in the corners of my mind, I still wondered if I might be lucky enough to get raptured next to the auburn-haired girl with the gentle Kentucky grin I met the year before at summer camp.
The convention was swarming with preachers and presentations and contemporary Christian rock bands. But none of them quietly commanded our attention like the father of Rachel Scott. Rachel, like Cassie, was a Christian girl killed at Columbine. Her dad walked onto a darkened stage, a semicircle of 13 crosses behind him. I remember his opening lines: "Two thousand years ago, a teacher and 12 students changed the world. Today, another teacher and 12 students are changing it again."
I thought back to a day shortly after the Columbine shooting earlier that spring, when I drove to school, listening to a Jars of Clay CD. One track solemnly asks, "Did you really have to die for me?" and I remember thinking, without effort, not of Jesus, but of those students in Columbine, and of Cassie foremost. And I had cried. I'd cried because I felt it: her death was the way. That's how you show the world that you're a Jesus Freak, that's what was being asked of us. Now, those of us who knew Jesus would need to live so radically that someone would get that angry over our love for God, over how different we were from them. Giving everything over to God, like we were asked to do in church, wouldn't just mean keeping my hand out from under a girlfriend's shirt; no, this would mean giving up life itself, especially if Jesus didn't end up coming back.
I didn't cry over Cassie's death because it was tragic but rather because it felt close, though I lived in Georgia. Her final words were some kind of spiritual truth for kids like me, who'd "pledged allegiance to the Lamb" with Ray Boltz in Lysol-scented wood panel Sunday School rooms and then became Jesus Freaks with DC Talk. For us, her death started to feel less like a tragedy and more like a fulfillment of prophecy. The response it demanded wasn't to mourn but rather to take a deep breath and face what would surely be coming.
I don't remember anything else of what Rachel Scott's father said that night at the convention. But I do know a new kind of conviction seeped into me. They died for me. They are showing the way ahead. It's just a matter of having courage now. As the Smalltown Poets' lead singer said to the thousands of us gathered in Atlanta that December: "You guys don't seem afraid, and that's cool." And, in my almost baggy jeans and my black "Nine Inch Spikes" (Nine Inch Nails parody) shirt, I knew I could be cool, too. Like Cassie.
On the back of our name tags was a blank area with the prompt: "At Midnight I will shout to God..." and I thought of her as I scribbled my promise.
It was some time that winter after Jesus decided to leave us down here a bit longer that Jacob, who was still living with my family, thought he was going to die. Something with his heart. He was never particularly clear about the how, but he was probably going to die soon, that much he knew.
Jacob was terrified of dying, and especially of dying alone. He needed me to know that I calmed him. He needed me to be there with him: It was time to stop talking about sacrificial love and start living up to its demands. This was true Christian faith, he said. It was then that I thought I would really begin to learn what Joshua Harris had talked about when he assured adolescents he had given up dating and found out God had something better in store.
I forget the exact story he gave my parents about why he needed to move into my room—something about his health, I'm sure—but they let him. Even still, the threat of death became more frequent that spring. Because he didn't know when his heart might give out, he said he needed me to be with him most waking hours outside of church and school. This, of course, meant giving up the high school soccer season that spring. But that was a sacrifice God was leading me to make, that much I knew, because this was the call to more authentic faith, not some cheap Precious Moments prayer of Jabez kitsch. I'd prayed about all of this most mornings and nights and felt assured this was all part of being open to serving God, of drawing nearer to God, of not being so focused upon myself or preoccupied with dating.
His anxiety about his health eventually fractured the band, but Jacob believed God was still working. God could use me, he assured me. I just needed to let go of things, to place them on the altar. Our bodies, the Apostle Paul tells us, should be offered as living sacrifices. And I wanted that. I wanted to be a sacrifice. Like Cassie, I kept saying yes.
The weeks began to run together that spring. Afternoons were spent going over music with him or talking about Bible studies or playing computer games, always together, "just in case," he'd tell me. It was during those endless afternoons that I first remember feeling a rising, quiet panic. That feeling grew into a thought: there was no way out of this. Just endless time spent with this man, a decade older than me, who was as certain he would die at any moment as my high school youth group friends were certain we would have been in heaven three months by now.
This was what God had for me. I knew that because I couldn't be there to serve Jacob, to "set aside my desires," if I'd still been dating Virginia. Kissing dating goodbye was God's way of making me available, of showing me there were more important things: that I had to keep climbing the mountain. So, I climbed on, seeking what God had in store for me.
Time got fuzzy through those endless afternoons. I'd go numb, leaving my body to let myself get lost in the hum of nothing at all, which was the only place I felt free.
Then there was one night when he woke me. He was sure this was it. He'd be dead soon, maybe. He needed to be closer, closer. His whiskers. Closer. Why? It helped him, he said. How? Closer. To know he wasn't alone. David and Jonathan, he said. This was their bond. Biblical. Godly. How do you know? It was the middle of the night. Dozed off. Why aren't you willing to sacrifice sleep to be with me? I'm dying. Okay. I'm here. You aren't alone. Don't be selfish, like the disciples in the garden. Can't you do better? You aren't alone. Then hold me.
And the hours and nights and mornings swirled into that dizzying liturgy.
I wouldn't be selfish, but it was some time that spring when I started to pray, secretly, that God would take Jacob to heaven, "if it be Your will."
Jacob didn't want to ask, just wanted me to know what he needed. Not lust. No, no. This was covenant. True friendship—sharing everything. This wasn't desire, this was serving one another, and right now he was in need and true love didn't take into account what I needed or wanted. Didn't true love lay down one's life—and body—for another? This was about godly love, and didn't I want to experience that? Couldn't I offer that?
Unsure of where else to turn—How to explain it?—I kept praying. And that still, small voice in my head said I just needed to keep carrying my cross, no matter how much life it sucked out of me, and that made sense because crosses are only meant for people to suffer long, agonizing deaths on, anyway. And I saw that all the two AM holding and caressing and consoling him was good spiritual discipline: God was showing me I still needed to learn how to better serve others.
So each afternoon I'd come straight back home, and I would float dully through the evenings until the nights came and the house got quiet and the crickets chirped and there he was, touching my less-selfish body and sometimes I could feel the floor disintegrate and then the floor below that and the concrete basement below that until the earth itself would yawn open and I'd fall into her darkness and all I could imagine as I dissolved into her forever was what a relief it would be. And other times I would try to float away in some manufactured rapture because wasn't Christ supposed to have come back already but that son of a bitch just stayed up there, and maybe he didn't remember that even on earth, if you try real hard you can almost forget that you have a body. So I would try and I'd float up and look back at what my servant's heart said I should be doing and I could almost be free, but then his hand would shift and I'd remember that I had a body and I'd say that I just wanted to finish it myself, so I would think about that girl whom I told God I wouldn't date and what it would feel like to touch her pure skin just above the waist of her cut off jean shorts—the part that showed when she leaned over the table in art class—the skin I could have touched had I danced with her at the prom that year—and maybe one day she could be here instead—her lips, her hands—the thought of them was enough, and calling it lust was the price I paid for the pleasure of being saved for those ecstatic seconds, and he said he felt less alone. I longed for sleep, for nothingness really, until his fingers, always slow, always delicate, would creep in, searching, pulling until I was no longer sure which mountain I was climbing.
All those months are as hazy as a Georgia summer. Toward the end of it, my mom took me for a car ride to nowhere in particular. I only remember one question from that conversation. "Are you okay?" she asked. I remember sitting quietly for a long time as we rolled over the soft hills of southern Appalachia, feeling completely alone, revolted that she would even feel the need to ask.
I lied. I said yes.
Not long after that car ride, Jacob was somehow able to afford his own place.
But my lie grew like the thick quiet chaos of the kudzu blanketing the woods along that north Georgia highway; you can probably make out what lies underneath, but there ain't any sense in tromping through it just to find out for sure.
At the turn of the new millennium, when we ended up not being raptured, we were told to shout out a promise to God at midnight. Instead of floating into the heavens, I yelled: "I commit to go where you lead, to give up my hopes, desires, wishes and give my life up in your service." I climbed that mountain only to find that Jesus forgot what he'd meant to say.
I remember believing in the purity of faith and even in the goodness of God, but that was before the apocalypse.