The stories we tell, the ones of pain and trauma, the ones of neglect and abandonment, these stories and so much more can sound like a victim’s tale.
These stories can be read as narratives of defeat. Oh but how Jesus has taught me a new teaching in this last week. This story I share now, and every story I will ever tell from here on will always be a story of victory.
Why? Because victory and the hope and faith that abounds from it, give strength, glory, honor, and dignity to fight in the temporal– whether that be a story of personal lament, or the truth of a larger systemic crisis and oppression.
So what follows is a story that I am no longer ashamed of.
A week ago that was different. What I had written I had only shared with a few close friends that I knew could hold it with care and honor. But I was still ashamed. But goodness there is no shame in the story.
For the one who has written my narrative is faithful to complete it, with great joy. This is a story of death, and the promise of resurrection. This is a story of the narrative of sin in my life, and how when I come face to face with the Deceiver, I bear the eyes of Christ, drenched in the waters of my baptism, the victory of Christ tattooed on my flesh, and my belovedness as a child of the Living God written on my heart.
Without further ado, here is the story of my victory:
I look at myself in the mirror and I see no value, no worth, no dignity. I see insufficiency. I see repulsion. I see something unsightly.
I tell others that they are fearfully and wonderfully made but I can’t stomach the same medicine. It’s a bitter taste to bear.
I am a Christian. I am a minister of the Gospel. Yet the words of scripture often have a difficulty piercing through the most stubborn parts of my defensive heart. Oh how I have tried to justify my defensive heart and my shame filled soul.
It all started when I was quite young…
Middle School and puberty has got to be the worst coincidence in human history. We all become intimately aware of ourselves and one another. Our bodies and what we adorned them with become social capital.
It took me sometime before I realized what that this sudden shift had happened. It felt like everyone had a heads up, and I was falling behind in every category – no name brand clothes, not yet an athlete … not yet an anything. It took a minute before it all sunk in.
Panic finally struck in seventh grade during step team practice when a few girls had more than enough courage to tell me how ashy my elbows were – “Ew! They’re yellow!” (Mind you, if your skin is that dry, I would simply encourage you to hydrate). On the one hand they were right, my skin was incredibly dry and I needed a serious amount of lotion. It still hit me hard and brought me shame. Not just as a seventh grader (middle school can be so savage) but also as a Latino – we take a great deal of pride in how we present ourselves.
However, it did more than bring attention to my ashy skin. It made me realize that people were in fact looking at me. I was seen. Not seen as the altogether beautiful child of God, but seen for how ashy I was and for all the other ways I was not enough.
I learned in that moment that my body is nothing but an advertisement for my worth. I became intent on making sure my body communicated the greatest worth and value. I wanted to be seen with value. At the same time my ego longed and sought for people to be fixated on me – so I had to get my external appearance right.
Having become pretty aware of my sexuality by the time I was 10, it did not take long to learn that in the world of gay men the standards for personal appearance and fitness were much higher than that of the average American.
The insidiousness of pornography only amplifies the generally unrealistic physical standards gay men hold themselves and one another to. It was exhausting just thinking about how I didn’t measure up – it is still quite exhausting.
I took the acknowledgement that people were looking at me to a whole new level. I became obsessed with the belief that people were constantly thinking about me and what I looked like and if, when, and how I didn’t measure up.
The internet was one of the safest, albeit dangerous, places to figure out what it meant to be gay. I was quite young when I found myself in one of its darkest corners.
From when I was 12 until roughly my senior year of high school I became the play toy of some internet predator. Who he was and where he was from I will probably never know. He would have me send him pictures or have me use a webcam for his twisted pleasure. Part of me didn’t know how to get out.
A small darker side of me was nourishing a growing ego that sought to find value in the fixation that could be acquired from others. I also began to believe that my worth and value boiled down to something less than I had even imagine – what I could offer sexually was all that I was really worth. The lines were blurred. I was just a toy. I was just a piece of meat. These lies made their way in early.
When I went to college I was determined to remain sexually pure. Whatever purity means. I felt strongly about saving myself for marriage.
Waiting for marriage wasn’t something I felt pressured into believing, it just felt right and honoring to my body – call it general revelation, call it ingrained American Christian purity culture, I don’t really care. It just felt right. I believed, and still believe, that sex is sacred, and I firmly believe that it ought be reserved for a covenant where it can be honored.
I reassured myself that I had no control of what had happened to me as a child, so it didn’t count.
But this didn’t last very long.
There was somewhat of a monster inside of me. A deceiver that whispered to me that my value was only in who and what I could do sexually, in my appearance, in my body. I believed the lie.
So began random escapades with a variety of men – almost always with older men…it’s what I knew I suppose.
I cared very little about the sex. The lies needed affirmation, I obliged. I needed to believe that I was desirable. Even my understanding of what being desired means has been incredibly corrupt.
After college, I began working as an openly gay Evangelical college campus minister – where the standards were high and the stakes even more so to be a dignified man of purity, above reproach.
Having been well steeped in Evangelism with all of its beautiful and not so beautiful attributes, my sexuality became suspect, even to myself. Purity became a very confusing and shaming concept. I couldn’t figure out how to find my worth, as I understood it, without violating a complex web of moral codes.
So I ventured into some really shady territory. I became quite comfortable with ambiguity. Like many LGBT+ people, I wasn’t left with much of a choice.
I thought, as long as I could get some acknowledgement that I am physically attractive and sexually desirable, then I could walk away affirmed and not lose my salvation (which is not how that works, for the record).
Claiming to myself that it would also help grow my self-confidence…I would find ways to parade myself around in whatever setting I could: gyms, night clubs, etc. Wherever I could feed the lies that needed to be reassured and my ego that demanded the attention.
I had become so broken down and shattered in this arena of my life. I had been molested several times when I was kid. There was the internet predator. There were all those older men that I had given rights to my body. There was the endless tapes playing in my head: this is all you’re worth. Parading my body was what I’ve known. It is the only way I understood my worth.
On two occasions while at the gym, roughly a year and a half apart, I was sexually assaulted by two different men in a gym sauna. On one occasion, my face buried into the wooden benches of the sauna, I just cried and ask God, “Is this my story? Is this all I am? Is this all I am worth?”
This is not victory; this feels nothing of the sort.
Fast forward to the end of my first tenure as a campus minister nine or so months ago:
No longer working in a space where I had to commit to not dating men, I began to give myself permission to start dating. Dating – be it a single date or more serious dating, be them Christian or not (territory I would not recommend at all for those who hold on to the name of Jesus) – came to affirm the same narrative, and feed the same monster of lies: I was just a toy. Just a piece of meat. No worth. No value. No dignity.
Most of the few Christian guys I’ve dated sweet talked themselves past my “I’d like to wait for marriage” spiel, some blatantly operating under the assumption of, “he’s already crossed the line, he’s already had sex, so what does it matter?” As messed up as it was, I couldn’t say no. I’d do whatever it took: I’d send sleazy shirtless pictures from the gym, be seductive and tease, all to get the affirmation I felt I needed.
All that was getting affirmed, however, were all the lies – if this is where my worth is found, then I better put out, otherwise I’ll get dumped or ignored or who knows. Sadly, a couple guys made that abundantly clear.
As dating proved itself to be murky and complicated, I found a different outlet. I’d get dressed to the nines, go to a club, and dance like I ain’t ever met the Lord. I even agreed once to getting paid by a club to dance in a speedo (being a collegiate swimmer, a speedo did not seem terribly scandalous, I mean, I wasn’t stripping. But what in the hell, Michael?!)
You can see here some of the incredible circus rings (RIP Ringling Bros.) I have jumped through to hold on to moral ambiguity while continuing to feed the lies that have been crippling me for years.
This monster, these lies have all taken advantage of me in the past, but now I was letting people walk all over me. I was walking all over myself. I had buried the story of my baptism and was denying myself access to victory.
Oh, if only y’all knew the amount of money that I have spent on expensive clothing, shoes, and skin care products or any number of things, just to try and make sure I don’t fall short of the unrealistic image, the desirable image, the oversexualied comodotized image. But of course, I would always lose this battle. The lies made it abundantly clear that nothing I did was enough, but somehow I had to keep trying.
I say that because my story is not unique or special—which is probably the worst part of it. My story has some ugly parts to it, some definite OMG shocker moments, but overall it is carries the same common thread – in me I believe there is no inherent worth or value. It’s what I see when I look in the mirror. No worth. No value. No dignity. Not an ounce of victory.
I know that this is not reality. In fact, there is nothing true about it. I have inherent worth. I am inherently valuable. I have inherent dignity.
I am altogether beautiful, says the Lord (Song of Songs 4:7).
And yet no matter how many times I repeat those things and countless other things, the damn lies will not die. It’s as if they don’t even know how to die. Quite frankly, I don’t know either.
It has taken some serious work to find healing and victory. I will not lie and say it has been easy. I have gone through counseling and therapy. I have found close friends – many that I now call family – that have held my story with grace and with a commitment to journey with me towards the victory that is already mine.
I’ve journaled my soul out on paper and I am constantly becoming increasingly self aware of the narratives embedded in me and slowly putting them to rest. I have chosen to forsake the shame I used to carry when asking for help. I learned to be resilient and humble – instead of stubbornly carrying my pain with no reprieve. Community. Prayer. Therapy. Scripture. Humility. Rest. Gratitude. Resilience. These are the foretastes of freedom, the signs of victory and the hope of glory.
Ash Wednesday is quickly approaching and Christendom will enter into Lent: a season of prayer, penance, and self-denial in imitation of Jesus’ forty days and nights in the wilderness. Right before Jesus goes off into the wilderness he is baptized. He comes out of the waters to the resounding voice of his Father saying, “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
40 days and nights he fought back the devil. He wrestled with a monster that offered him sustenance, power, and prestige. A monster that tried to feed him. He wrestled with this Father of Lies. Satan. The Devil. The monster. And he overcame.
I don’t recall my baptism being so monumental and victorious. I was a child, so honestly I don’t actually remember any of it.
But, in reflecting on Jesus’ baptism and his journey into and through the wilderness, I am beginning to see an invitation.
To be baptized, is to die. When we enter the baptismal waters, our old selves die. We then rise with Jesus into our belovedness.
Then, like Jesus, we are ushered into the wilderness and are there tempted by the Deceiver, the same Father of Lies that tempted Christ.
In the uncertainty of the wilderness, Jesus knew this: that he was beloved by his Father. Jesus resisted and overcame the Deceiver because he remembered his baptism. He remembered his belovedness. He knew victory was coming – and that he would be the one to usher it in.
The invitation is not to remember the details of the day but instead the very fact that I have been baptized. That my baptism is the very moment where heaven touched me, and having been cleansed and washed by the waters, my old self died and I rose to the sound of heaven saying, “Michael, you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.”
Alas, I do not need to overcome the Deceiver to be beloved. I was beloved before I even enter the wilderness. I have already had worth, and value, and dignity ascribed to me. The reality is, the Deceiver has already been overcome.
The lies have already been conquered at calvary. The wilderness is the place where we participate in the work of being freed from bondage. So regardless of what I think when I look into the mirror, regardless of the twisted sexual narrative that has been spun around me, regardless of all I’ve done and all that has been done to me, I am beloved and victory is assured to me.
Jesus was ushered into the wilderness with nothing. What he had was his baptism, his belovedness, and the promise of victory, and with that he overcame the Devil.
As I prepare to enter into Lent – into this season of praying and fasting, of repentance and penance, of sojourning in the wilderness – I go with the memory of my baptism and the knowledge of my belovedness. I go with the One who went before me – the One that has already resisted and overcome the Deceiver.
I go with the promise of victory. Good Friday is assured. Holy Saturday is a gift waiting in anticipation for me to receive it. Then there’s Easter Sunday – the day of resurrection, the day of victory assured, has been sealed on my heart before my first breath was taken.
So I rest assured now, that with my baptism in one hand and my belovedness in the other, I like Christ, and with him, will overcome – no matter how long it takes to put the lies, the toxic narratives to rest. I march into lent, ready once again to die.
This lent I want to learn how to die well, and on the other end of it I intended to fully experience resurrection power – victory and the hope of glory. I go forth into the wilderness with confidence and the promise of victory.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Romans 6:3-4