My Story (Part 1)

January 31, 2015

I don’t think I fit into any particular box very well.

I know because I’ve tried.

Man, have I tried.

I’m a native Texan, with all the big-hearted fun and ethnocentric pride that brings with it, but none of the southern drawl or cowhide boots or country music. I was always more spaceman than ranch hand, even as a boy. My dad loved cowboy heroes, but the Wild West could never capture my imagination like the Final Frontier could. I’m a devoted son of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and every brilliant or ridiculous film or TV show they’ve inspired. I have loved them all (and still do). As a boy growing up, when I wasn’t building model rockets, I was converting my bedroom into the bridge of the Enterprise and going on wild adventures where no young man had gone before.

Part of this was just the natural expression of my adventurous imagination. And part of it was because I really was trying desperately to get away, and this was the only way I knew how.

I was raised in a strict, religious home. Mom & Dad married young and stayed together their whole adult lives. They had three kids ~ boy, girl, boy. I’m the youngest. For half of my childhood, my dad was lead pastor of a series of churches in south and east Texas. For the other half, he was a home missionary based in Austin…what we now call a church planter. There are dozens of churches in the central Texas region that were either started or made to prosper by my father.

As you might expect, my young life revolved around the church. I would go to church on average three to five times a week. My sister, brother and I were good kids, with good parents. Everyone said so.

But not everything was as it seemed. My mom was a troubled soul, a soul in bondage. She was raised in the back country of Missouri, in a nice, lower-middle class, church-going home that was also grotesquely abusive. Her father abused her mother, who was blind. He abused her verbally, physically, emotionally, probably sexually. He also abused the nine children in Mom’s family, including Mom herself, though she would never speak of it. Over time the children learned by example and began abusing each other ~ older against younger, stronger against weaker. Verbal, physical, emotional abuse. Probably sexual.

It was a war zone, and all of my mother’s efforts as a child were spent trying to survive, and escape. And she did. She married my father when she was 17. The state law in Missouri at the time said you could’t get married before the age of 18 without your parents’ consent, so my parents snuck out of town late one night and drove across the border into Arkansas, where you can marry pretty much anybody at any age. And they got married. And she escaped.

Only she didn’t really escape anything. You can’t escape those kinds of wounds by running away from them. But she tried. For years. She buried her pain deep inside, and tried to go on with her life, and be “normal.” But you can’t white-knuckle your brokenness forever. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball under water. Eventually the brokenness pops up.

My mom began sexually abusing me when I was 5 years old. It probably lasted for only about a year; I don’t know the timeline precisely. But the abuse wasn’t only sexual, and the rest of it continued for a long time. Years. Throughout my childhood, I never felt safe, or loved, or even truly seen, except in those moments when I could get alone, locked away in my room for hours on end. It was there, while on my adventures to far away worlds, that Jesus came to me, and I could feel his presence standing watch over my life.

I met Jesus the same year the sexual abuse began. I tell people Jesus came for me early in my life because I needed more work than most, and while that’s likely true, the deeper reason I think He came for me early was because of the abuse. I don’t think I would have made it through my childhood if he hadn’t. I needed someone to save me, but I didn’t know who to trust or even how to cry for help. Thankfully, Jesus hears everything, even the stuff we don’t know how to say. So he came. He made a safe place for me in the eye of the storm of my life, and became for me the Father, Mother, Teacher, and Friend I never had but desperately needed.

So I found myself coming of age in this insane situation, where my family was outwardly perfect and healthy and very, very “Christian,” but behind closed doors I experienced us ~ especially my parents and me ~ as a mismatched huddle of shattered souls in desperate need of an actual Savior. It baffled and enraged me even then how we professed to believe in Jesus, but refused to give him access to the darkest and most broken parts of our lives. Even as a young man, I could see that for most of the people around me, belief in Jesus was more about feeling safe and being right than it was about being transformed. Jesus was a talisman, an icon of protection, and Christianity was little more than a formula for avoiding suffering and managing the shame that was secretly running all of our lives.

I knew Jesus was more than that. He had been more than that for me all through my childhood. But as I came into young adulthood, I was still afraid that maybe everyone else was right. Maybe the gospel wasn’t really all that powerful after all, certainly not as powerful and real as I needed it to be. Because even though Jesus had given me the strength to endure my childhood, I was still deeply wounded by it all. I was one messed-up young man, and I knew it. Could the promise of new life in Jesus be real enough and strong enough to actually heal my shattered heart, and make me whole again?

In one way or another, that singular question has shaped every choice I’ve made in my life from that time forward ~ not just as it pertains to my own healing, but also to the healing and restoration of others, and even of the world itself.

It’s out of this question that my interest in studying personal transformation was born. Recovery, renewal and restoration are the domain of God’s Spirit, but I wanted to learn the mechanisms and processes through which he typically accomplished this work, for the sake of my becoming, as much as possible, a trained ally and partner to Him in His work in the world. Also, largely due to what I have learned about the process of Divine transformation, I’ve become the enemy of anything that smacks of false religion, legalism, authoritarian control, or the like. Any gospel that claims to set your heart free to love yet binds you in fear of exposing your own shame or in contempt of your fellow human beings is no gospel of Christ. It is the “brilliant substitute,” as John Eldredge calls it, and I agree with him when he says this false gospel currently has the Western Church by the throat.

(The story continues in Part 2…)

Michael Warden

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