Below is the first chapter of 'Where the Colors Blend: An Authentic Journey Through Spiritual Doubt and Despair ... and a Beautiful Arrival at Hope.' If the SoundCloud player isn't displaying, you can click HERE to listen to the chapter read aloud.
Am I in the right place?
Did I make the right decision?
I don’t know.
I already miss Winona Lake, Indiana, with its brisk falls and white winters, and all the professors and students walking through Grace College’s campus in coats and scarves with cold noses and cherry cheeks, past the brick buildings with snow-covered roofs and the bell tower tolling of your tardiness. My best friend, Josh, and I once broke into the bell tower as undergraduates, a very undergraduate thing to do, only to find there was no bell at all, which made us want to find the hidden disk-changer and swap the hymnal bell music with an album of some profane punk band that sang about getting high and pleasuring themselves and hating George W. Bush, which we never did, thank goodness, because we might have been expelled—since the college was also a seminary and since Christians, by and large, are fond of George W. Bush.
There was a magic, a romance, to those falls and winters, but what made Winona Lake a utopia of sorts were its springs and summers, when people would boat or kayak, or relax at the park on the canal, or walk down the hill from campus to the quaint, Craftsman-style village that wrapped around the east side of the lake, and visit one of its many artisans, galleries, or shops. That entire summer before leaving, I would often sit down by the lake on the coffee shop’s screened-in porch, beneath the clerestory with a clock, and find solace there as I wrote, as I contemplated my future and tried to navigate through my emptiness. One evening, not long ago, I remember sitting on that porch as dusk fell upon Winona, and as the colors danced on the surface of the lake, the sun sinking once more into its hammock, I could not help but wonder what an odd thing it was to experience such deep-seated discontentment in such a seemingly perfect place.
Yes, there was discontentment in my soul that I struggled to pinpoint, but if I were to take an overall assessment of my life, I would have to conclude that things, on the outside at least, couldn’t have been better. I had an enjoyable job working in the sports information department at my alma mater with my best friend, Josh, for the best boss I ever had, Coach Chad Briscoe. What more does one need? I went to school to be a sportswriter, and, considering how scarce journalism jobs are, I felt blessed to have the job that I did. It didn’t involve as much creative writing and storytelling as I wished—I wanted to write books—but believe me, I had no complaints. Plus, how does a person start writing such a thing as a book? Anyway, all I can say is that I just had a general feeling that I wasn’t in the right place, that I wasn’t doing the right thing. There was something outside of me that kept calling me elsewhere, out of that perfect place. There was a voice, a groaning, rising up from a mysterious space deep within me that kept urging me to depart. And eventually the voice became a scream and the groan became a stinging ache, and I had no choice but to leave the place I loved.
So I did.
That was nearly a month ago, but I often find myself re-living that fateful Tuesday in August. The day I left Winona Lake.
I remember Josh walking with me out into the parking lot that morning, helping me carry my box of belongings from the office we shared. As I loaded up my trunk and rambled on and on about something that did not matter, fumbling around on the shoreline of reality, trying not to get wet, I stupidly said something like “Well, I’ll see you soon,” and I remember finally looking up from my trunk at Josh and noticing that his eyes were red and puffy. So I looked back down at my trunk, then back up at him, then back down. I had never seen Josh like this before, and I admit I was confounded. The next exchange—my “goodbye”—is blurry in my memory, and all I can conclude is that Josh plunged into reality and I did not, that he was drenched and I was not, that he was alone and I still for some reason assumed that I’d see him tomorrow, and that, as we hugged, I was in a stupefied state, in utter denial that this chapter of my life was really closing.
And after leaving Josh there in that parking lot on that poignant midmorning in Winona Lake, and driving along the lake for good measure, I drove south to Indianapolis, where I was raised, straight to a golf course on the west side where my girlfriend was working, for she was the only person in the world I wanted to see. When I saw her, we embraced, and I told her I loved her, and I thought about what a strange thing it was for a guy like me, as noncommittal as my friends tell me that I am, to be so smitten.
Then we went to my parents’ house for dinner, and as Dad cooked lemon-marinated chicken on the grill, and Mom sat there next to him, hunched over, husking corn, and as my two little sisters and my girlfriend and I all hung out there on the patio, I would occasionally look out past my family’s backyard at the acres of soybean fields, contentedly sitting there beneath the clear Indiana sky, content because the Indiana sky was all they needed.
Like those fields, I had everything I needed in Indiana. I had family, friends, Coach Briscoe, and my girlfriend. But my gypsy of a soul insisted that I leave. It insisted that I move to Charlotte, North Carolina, to take a job at a faith-based sports magazine—ten hours away from everything that I knew and everyone whom I loved.
And as I headed south, I envied the soybean fields.
I now understand that moment in the parking lot with Josh more clearly. Reality has indeed flooded my heart and mind. I’m out in the middle of the waters. But there seems to be no lifeboat near. And I cannot help but wonder if I’ve made some sort of mistake. I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss her. I miss Indiana.
There is nothing that I need more than a piece of home. And it’s for this reason that I’m excited to see Coach Briscoe in Roanoke, Virginia, three-and-a-half hours north of Charlotte. I guess Coach’s family has been hosting a church softball tournament in Roanoke since the late 1970s, to raise money for missions in Paraguay or something like that, and the tournament is something I’m looking forward to witnessing up close. But the thing that makes me a little anxious is the fact that Coach thinks I ought to write a book about it all. I hardly feel qualified to write a book to begin with, not to mention somehow making a book about a church softball tournament compelling. But I’ll give the story a shot nonetheless. Maybe it’ll surprise me.
There must be some sort of depth to it if Coach Briscoe is the one recommending it. It’s actually surprising to me that he wants me to write a book about anything that he is associated with. After all, when Josh and I worked in the sports information department, he always used to cringe when we had to write stories about him for the numerous awards he received. There must be something here.
But all of this is beside the point right now.
I’m just excited to see Coach Briscoe.
Coach has always helped to affirm my direction: that I am following the path, that I am in the right place, that the present—the now, where I am mysteriously safe in the arms of God, no matter how uncomfortable or uncertain or fearful I am—is right where I need to be. Every protagonist in a story has a guide, and, though I do not feel worthy to be any sort of protagonist or to be a part of any story, I can certainly say that Coach Briscoe is my guide. I now need his wisdom more than ever.
I call Coach Briscoe “Coach” because that’s exactly who he is—a mentor, a giver of wisdom, and a leader who cares deeply about those who are following him. His job as an athletic director is not just a job: It is a vocation, a calling from the divine. And people are not just people to him: They are God’s children who have been placed in his path for him to love and encourage and inspire.
Coach lives an ordinary life. He is not a politician or a rock star or the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. But he lives in the most intentional of ways; from his cheerful enthusiasm at work—how he strengthens those he works with, really making them feel like what they are doing has meaning and value; to his gentle care and intentionality in his household—how being a husband and a father is the best of things, a privilege, an opportunity and how there is no one in this world more important to him than his wife, Jamie, or their two children, Kate and Kinley. I know he is a man with flaws and struggles, for there is not one saint in history who has lived a perfect life, but it is as if he does everything with purpose and grace, even the mundane tasks and monotonous routines. And Josh and I, somehow, by some divine happenstance, were afforded an opportunity to see grace in action, through one man, each and every day.
Like any good guide, Coach Briscoe is actually the one who told me to go, to leave home. I think he knew it would be good for me. I think he knew it was time for me to wander from the nest, open my wings, and fly, or maybe fall, but learn nonetheless … and hopefully fly eventually. I hope I can apply all that he has taught me over the years.
I also think Coach understands what it means to feel as if you are being called into the wilderness, away from your comfortable ways. He recently left Grace College too. He and I had arrived in Winona Lake together four-and-a-half years before—when I was a freshman and he had just taken the athletic director position—and now it is as if we were leaving together. Though he and Jamie always saw themselves living in Winona Lake for the rest of their lives, something that he could not explain pulled him south to be an athletic director at a high school in Indianapolis. It didn’t make sense to him. It didn’t really make sense to anyone. But Coach Briscoe helps me to believe—through both his words and actions—that the path we take in our lives does not always have to make sense.
More than anything, Coach Briscoe has impacted my Christian faith. Outside of my father, no man has influenced my faith as much as Coach Briscoe. As I ventured through those formative years at Grace, a time when I was taking lots of weighty, theological courses for my Bible degree—which was good but also complex and sometimes confusing—and was also wrestling with some of the frustrations related to Christian culture—like how I felt so godawful about myself all the time, like I was never doing enough or always doing something wrong—it’s fair to say that Coach Briscoe helped me believe in Jesus in the most practical of ways. I had some serious doubts about my faith, but every day I witnessed the selfless love and joy that flowed from Coach Briscoe’s life as he loved his family, affirmed the worth and value of his employees, and brought intention, purpose, and joy into his vocation.
Since moving to Charlotte, however, my doubts seem to be resurfacing once more. I no longer have a daily model like Coach Briscoe to convince me of what I hope to be true. I no longer have my best friends to distract me from my doubts. My loneliness is forcing all kinds of questions about my faith to rise to the surface. All I seem to do anymore is think and overthink. Have I ever been lonelier in my life?
My apartment in Charlotte has ghost trails and creaks and a foreboding silence that sounds more like a scream. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I live in an abandoned asylum or something. It’s a nice apartment on the second floor, spacious, with a balcony overlooking the pond out back. My boss set me up with it, and my rent is included as part of my salary, which isn’t much, but the living situation is worth it, I guess. However, as elegant and graceful as my apartment might be in appearance, in all those external things that we make so important, it is a lonely place—and this is where the dissonance lies. And instead of falling asleep next to four of my best friends, like when I was a student living in the dormitories at Grace, now I fall asleep surrounded by four walls, and those walls are now my best friends, not by choice, but by default—because I spend most of my time with them. And they whisper all kinds of strange things to me as I stare at the ceiling in the evenings. All kinds of lies that make me question who I am, or where I am going in life, or whether I made the right decision to leave those Indiana fields and all my Indiana friends. And sometimes the television accompanies me and drowns the silence, humming to me its toxic lullaby, lighting up my room, pulsating throughout the duration of the night. But other times it’s sin that accompanies me in the silence. And as it sweeps in, with all of its promises and fervor, it seems to momentarily rescue me from my isolation, and then, like a hurricane, it tumbles away, abandoning its destruction with no apologies or condolences, moving on to its next victim. And then the walls begin to whisper again, this time more horrifying things, until I am browbeaten, lying there unconscious, but guilty and ashamed; and somehow, I am supposed to call this “sleeping.”
That’s what is at the crux of my doubts about Christianity, I think: my shame and lack of self-worth. By shame, what I mean is that I am experiencing something of an identity crisis. I am desperately trying to get closer to God—reading, praying, trying to abstain from sin—but it feels as if I am really only on a treadmill, running as hard as I can but going nowhere at all; and no matter how long I am able to remain on my calloused feet, my legs eventually collapse, and I always fall flat on my face … sliding off that thing and onto the floor in a puddle of sweat … defeated … distraught … depressed that I’ll never be who God wants me to be. And here’s the most messed-up thing: It feels as if God Himself not only put the treadmill there but is also controlling the speed—often turning up the dial until I cannot possibly keep up—or the time of my run—never allowing me to rest and relax—and ultimately forcing me, over and over, to stare up at Him and beg for forgiveness as I lie on the floor of my exhaustion and shame.
This shame stems from my sense of identity, I think. Some people talk about the mistakes they made, but oftentimes I feel as if I am a mistake. Some people talk about the sins they are struggling with, but I feel as if I am a sinner, at the core of my being, incapable of doing anything good, of being fully accepted by God, unable to trust myself because of my “fallenness” and the “impurity of my flesh,” and, overall, never good enough for this supposedly loving God who keeps torturing me through a manipulative game of hide-and-seek. Some talk about the areas of their lives in which they have failed, but I feel as if I am a failure: say, anytime I’m unmotivated to read my Bible or cave to lust or slug through an apathetic prayer or become angry or whatever it may be that doesn’t seem to meet God’s expectations of me. My inadequate performance and my inability to get close to God—which is all I’ve ever wanted—seem to dictate my worth. So what’s the point of exhausting myself on this wretched treadmill? And what am I supposed to do with the fact that it was this seemingly psychopathic “God of the universe” that put me on the treadmill in the first place and tortures me on it?
The truth is, as the more I’ve delved into my faith over the last half decade, the more this shame has plagued me. I grew up Catholic, was confirmed Catholic, was baptized in an evangelical church two years later, and then began pursuing a Bible degree two years after that at Grace. But evangelicalism—or, perhaps more fair, the version of conservative evangelicalism that was handed to me combined with my ultra-critical personality—feels more works based than Catholicism ever was. I grew up in a loving family where my identity was one who belonged and one who was loved, but then God hijacked that identity. It feels that there is always more for me to do for God or something that I’m not doing! There is always something that is lacking, whether it be in my prayer life or my Bible-reading time or my church attendance. God feels so far away, so “out there,” so uninvolved and apathetic. Some tell me I should read the Bible more or pray more, that this will help me feel “closer to God” and that this will solve all my problems, and I’ve tried that, and I suppose it helps a little… sometimes. But mostly I just end up feeling guilty for not reading the Bible and praying more (why does the idea of “more” always feel like a never-ending road?), which makes me feel even more guilty whenever I stumble and sin, because it was my fault for not being close to God in the first place!
That being said, I don’t know what the phrase “close to God” even means. Whenever I hear that talk, I think about a nagging girlfriend saying, “I just don’t feel close to you anymore.” Solution: Stop doing the thing that is making you drift away or start doing something else that will pull you closer. God is generally displeased with me, I think. A “personal, growing relationship with God” seems to take so much work. And I’m a little tired of trying to crack the code that will make the genie emerge from the lamp. I’m tired of pitifully pulling my body back onto the treadmill.
I’m afraid that I might abandon the faith altogether if I am unable to attain some sense of self-worth. Should a “loving God” really make me feel this way? I fear that this whole Christianity thing is a sham.
Am I having a crisis of faith?
Maybe this place called Roanoke can be my lifeboat.
And maybe Coach Briscoe can help me to believe … just as he always has.
Alone but alive: Is this drive the prelude to my life? Paramount views. Joy in the journey. An empty passenger seat beside me reminding me of the route I chose, hoping to God I’m not my own, for such futility would leave me empty. Whatever guilt I feel for leaving, whatever song that Change might sing— for my brother or for her, for friendship or for love— the blame is mine. But if all runs dry, like Carolina in July, I would not change a thing. For if I’m free, I must wander; to meander through meaning and to make mistakes while dreaming is living—a journey unpredictable, the narrative of Change,
when I loved and left for life again,
searching for my name.
Where the Colors Blend is being released by Morgan James Publishing on November 27, 2018. The book is available for pre-order on Barnes & Noble or Amazon. If you live in Indiana, Tennessee, or North Carolina, there are a number of events the week of the release.