All the reasons pulled back like little justified fingers, forming a relentless fist. The fist rose to fall, once more, beating the same facts into Frank’s mind. The inside of Frank’s skull might as well have been Madison Square Garden; every seat was sold and every breath was held. In this twelfth round-kind of twelfth hour our underdog, hometown hero, Frank finds himself on the metaphorical ropes of a very real, lifelong, spiritual fight. Frank, half-dead from a quarter century battle, walks towards the center of the ring to touch gloves for one more round.
The bell rings and Frank enters into the final round of this bout. Sitting alone in a church parking lot he rears back for one more offensive struggle against the voice that’s calling him. Frozen in place, Frank sits as every reason he hates church plays on an endless loop. This second degree black belt sits paralyzed and terrified, searching for the strength to walk into the church service or the grit to walk away from it one last time. Thus the fight unfolds.
“The whole time I would think, ‘Why am I even coming here?’ The whole time I would sit there in the parking lot and there was this voice telling me to go in, but I just couldn’t. I just sat there and thought about everything. I just kept fighting it. I thought about everything, man.”
“Everything,” started with Frank’s birth and upbringing in the church. From a young age Frank began to observe the human cancer sometimes found inside of different church bodies. He watched as people smiled, bloody-lipped from behind their masks. He watched as the congregation’s bullet wounds were covered by their Sunday’s finest. Listening to the words they’d say, he’d see how their actions would betray them. All these little lessons led to Frank’s calloused and disillusioned view of God. Despite how much he tried, he never lived up to their totalitarian rules. Confusion and frustration blended together, leaving Frank a mixed drink of one parts depression and three parts anger. And so, this young boy was lost in the shuffle.
“So basically, I was raised in the church. Raised in the church one hundred percent. We started off in Catholicism and from there to Baptist. I always tried to relate to the church, but I just didn’t fit in. So that’s what started to turn me away from the church.
“You know, they would always say things like ‘how are you?’ And everyone would say they were fine. I just realized that people weren’t living the way they said they were. I was having real problems; I was angry all the time. But, I just felt so alone, and was cast out of every church we went to.”
From outside the church’s icy walls, a very young Frank began to wander away from the truth those walls claimed. By the time Frank was in his teens, he became friends with his anger. Lashing out at school and at other kids, Frank’s anger found itself a reserved spot in his corner. From that corner, anger began to coach Frank and instruct his actions.
His actions landed him in trouble at home, and this trouble dropped him into a restricted social life. Around this same time, Frank found Taekwondo. At first Taekwondo was a way to get out of the house in which he was confined. Ultimately Taekwondo was a great avenue for him, and he took to the discipline of it really well.
“You know, I started Taekwondo when I was twelve, and did it all the way until I was twenty one. And, it’s just funny how God works. I knew a lot of the Bible from church, and so many of the disciplines you find in Taekwondo are also found in Christianity. I became so good at mastering them and teaching them. Respect, honor, loyalty, and a bunch of attributes that Jesus had - I was teaching. I was so good at teaching those but was still so empty inside. I was so empty because I didn’t live that way for God.”
Frank excelled at Taekwondo. As he grew, his medal count, knowledge and prestige in the sport did as well. He began working as an instructor, and really separating himself as an outstanding man in the sport. As all these things grew, so did his anger. His old buddy anger slowly crept into other corners of Frank’s life. Once in those new corners, anger called up drug-use and depression to join it. More and more frequently, Frank lashed out in violence and began to experiment with drugs. His white belt spirit was now in the ring with black belt rage. By the time Frank was old enough to move out on his own, his anger became too big to contain in his own ring. It spilled out and ran into his family.
“I was just rebelling, man. So much anger. I had so much anger at everyone and at my parents. One night me and my dad got into it; it was bad. It was the worst night of my life. I had way too much anger. I had no control over it.”
Anger turned from friend to master in a moment’s passing, and it made Frank pack his bags and hit the road. With a God-sized hole blown through his entire being, Frank set off for his bumpy ride, throwing everything he could into that hole. He chased success through many different jobs. Into the void they went, offering no help in filling it. He moved to Arizona for a promising job at a prestigious Taekwondo studio. That job fell through. Frank then reached out for a different fix.
After coming back to California again, Frank looked to a relationship to sustain him. He began seeing a girl.
“We basically acted and lived like we were married, but we weren’t.”
Finding a form of validation through sex and companionship , Frank thought he had found the fix to his restless soul. He built his sandcastle kingdom on that girl. In attempts to find stability he clung to the most unstable thing one possibly can - a human. Before long, the salty ocean of life pushed that sandcastle, foundation first, into the same void Frank had been trying so hard to fill.
This God-shaped hole proved to be quite the opponent for Frank. It bobbed and weaved through every combination he threw at it. It crossed him, and hit him square on his chin. Frank was losing this fight. As he returned to his corner, he found one more tactic to try out: one that was no stranger to Frank and, in this case, triple-distilled.
Like a worn out heavyweight, Frank tagged alcohol abuse into the fight. With a cloudy haze, alcohol offered some relief to a very tired Frank. He was now free to sit on the sidelines while the alcohol separated him from his feelings. Like all things of this nature, an unhealthy habit was formed. With the combination of working long hours and alcohol, Frank had found a reprieve for his hurting soul.
It would seem as though Frank found a way to manage the opponent at hand. While he wasn’t content, he was living. He could dance around the ring and wait out the bell. Frank’s wounds could now scab over, and even scar.
“I started working twelve hour days. I would come home exhausted and just find any excuse to make myself busy. I would just drink all weekend, and then work all week. All of my time was taken up by stuff like that. The whole time I just felt like there was this void inside of me. I felt like I could just manage though.”
Bruises faded, and the cuts began to close up. Frank began to coast. With no idea of what was about to hit him next, he walked towards a new battle. Frank was about to go toe to toe with a Father who stops at nothing to get his children back. A power that threw the stars into the night’s sky now surrounded the ring. With a voice shouting for his lost son, this new Challenger spoke through the actions of a woman.
“Okay so I taught this guy’s kids Taekwondo. I also lost my job a while back and he had helped me out getting some work. I was driving by his place one day after working a twelve hour shift and I was dead tired and I was like I’ll just drop in and say hey to him. I really liked him. So I went to see him.
He started asking how I am and stuff. He asked me about work. Then he asked me about my girlfriend, and I was like, dude, we broke up like a year ago.
So then he kind of lit up and was like, ‘Oh that’s awesome because I really want to introduce you to this girl.’ He told me that every time he was around her, he thought of me and felt like God was telling him to introduce us to each other.
And I was like okay cool. Is she cute?”
Soon after that conversation, Frank was introduced to this girl. They instantly got along, realizing they had very much in common. A friendship was formed and something began to move towards Frank. And yes, Frank thought she was cute.
In the same way the moon pulls the ocean, attraction pulled Frank’s gaze from his battle at hand and his macabre coaches. He was shown something beautiful by a girl. Frank was shown gentleness, and comfort in the context of a friendship that pointed further. In the same way the moon steals the night’s darkness, this girl reflected a light into Frank’s void.
“We hung out a few times and she told me she was a Christian. So I told her I was one too, but I don’t go to a church. So she told me about Sandals Church. She told me about the whole vision of being real and stuff. When I heard that mission statement, I can’t even tell you what I was thinking.
I just bashed them, man. Real with yourselves, God and others? No way, dude.
When we first started hanging out, I was in a really bad place, man. I was still drinking a lot, and I was still so angry. I was just so confused. I liked hanging out with her but I just didn’t want to go to church, so I tried to avoid going.”
Frank’s fight was limping to an end. The ring that he was fighting in was being rushed by the patrons calling for peace. One by one, his corners began to clear out. Frank now found himself backed into a corner, with a few painful shards of himself he didn’t want to give away yet.
As his attraction grew for this girl, Frank found himself wanting to spend more time with her. While he tried to change her direction, her tenacity proved to be stronger than his cunning. Her convictions, like everything else she showed to Frank, pointed beyond herself and towards what Frank had been fighting for all these years. Knowing that there was no other way, Frank finally agreed to go to church with her.
“So then she invited me to church for the hundredth time and I was like okay, cool, but by the time we got to the parking lot I was like, ‘Nah.’ I just could not go in. Every excuse I needed was there and my attitude was awful. She told me, ‘Well, if you want to hang out with me on the weekends this is what I do. I’m not changing that for you.’
She told me that she was going to go in and if I wanted to go in too, cool. If I didn’t want to go in, she said, I could just sit in the car. So, that happened four times. I came four times and sat in the parking lot. The whole time I would think, ‘Why am I even coming here?’ The whole time I would sit there and there was this voice telling me to go in, but I just couldn’t.”
So Frank sat there in the church parking lot. While good and bad sparred in his mind, God was calling him to come in. All the reasons and damage that were killing Frank were the last remaining things that kept him in that car. Just a man, and a car, with a decision. A bare knuckle brawl for all the marbles.
“Well, I am going to go in. I started walking towards the church and I didn’t want anyone to talk to me. I was super nervous, man. I’m pretty outgoing, but I just didn’t want anyone to talk to me. I felt like I would break down on someone if they came up to talk to me.
So, we go in together and we sit down in the middle. Pastor Matt spoke, and he was speaking about serving in the church. I just remember feeling like he was speaking directly to me. Like everything he said was answering every question I had. I know now it was the Holy Spirit, but at the time it was weird, man. I just, like, melted. I felt like God showed me everything I was doing wrong and at the same time showed me how to fix it.
At the end of the service, I was sold, man. I wanted to know where to sign up. I was done doing it any other way.”
In that moment, the fight was over. Frank rested his busted knuckles in two nail pierced hands. A bloody-nosed boy ran into his strong Father’s arms. The white towel fell peacefully onto the killing floor. Better put, God came back for someone he had never left. God pursued a monster who wanted nothing to do with him. The lost was found and, in the way that only God can do things, the damaged was restored.
“It’s so weird because I found every reason not to come. Yet, as soon as I came here, every reason was washed away. I went from hating church, to being there every weekend.
I stopped drinking; I did a complete 180. I had to change my attitude towards the church, and my temper had to get better. I started working on it all, man. I am not perfect, and it wasn’t easy, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I am so thankful for this church now, and for this vision. I mean, I hated everything about church. Now, with this vision of being real, I have a place to be honest. It’s because of this church that I came back to Jesus. I am so thankful for Pastor Matt, and Sandals Church.”
Into this family Frank is now grafted. Into a landscape of similar scars and stories, Frank finds a community. Like a traveling band of carnies they carry a banner of hope. With many different hands, they erect a beacon for all of those who are lost. They await those who have been beaten black and blue by the many cruelties of life. They are an adopted family, spearheaded by a shepherd who fears no depth or height. A shepherd who chooses you; repeatedly, you.
While it is likely for Frank to find himself in another one of life’s fights in the future, he now has the advantage of having a community in his corner. This life is tough, bone-breakingly tough. That is why God has given us the church to lean on. Don’t let your reasons form into a fist; don’t let your fear steal the victory from you. There is an entire village waiting to stand in your corner.