The year was 1921. Leonard was a bartender who worked for Lucky, down on Main and 33rd. Stodgy and his gang would be in town in a couple of weeks. "Little Joe bettuh make shuh he's payin' 'tention. Last time we had deh likes of deese figguhs come 'round, we lost a few loyal customuhs, if you knoe what I mean."
I don't normally go to parties, especially not ones that feature a 1920's murder mystery where you have to get up and mingle with people. As with most introverts, partying was not exactly an aspiration of mine, and if given the option, I would simply pass altogether without giving it a second thought. And on this particular day, I had that option.
I can still hear the sound of falling fractured glass cut through the silence as I held the invitation card in my hands; a life of whole instantly transformed into a million facets, forever changed. My therapist calls them out one by one: grief, betrayal, disappointment, and so on. In a word, shattered.
My story is not just another divorce story (nor is anyone else's, I know); of which there are millions out there, with New York Times Best Sellers hitting the shelves just about every day now, or so it seems. This one, however, is ever so slightly different, and comes off somewhat divine in the grand scheme of things: to me anyways.
Growing up in church, I came to not only know God at a very early age, but also pursue Him. I took copious notes in my little fat notebook during preaching service; as quickly as I could before falling asleep. I helped the Sunday School teacher pass out Oreo cookies and orange juice to the class (a "wonderful" blend of flavors, mind you). I won so many Awana dollars, it peeved the locals severely. I was one of the most heavily decorated Soldiers of the LORD in 6th grade; tricked into memorizing and reciting the entire chapter of Romans 12 before a small Baptist congregation at the age of 12. He was my everything...until He was not.
A desperate void enlarged within me, growing year by year. Some might say it was the music I listened to, and maybe so. But something deeper; calling; reaching; merely found music a life raft to hold onto as I weathered the storm building inside. I was searching for something, and whatever it was, I sought it with a relentless passion that would not rest content with mere curious observation.
I can still recall each of their names to this very day, but I was never permitted to stay along enough with any of them, for things to develop into any kind of meaningful relationship. And the few that did: ended in the same way as my marriage: abandonment.
At some point along the way, I was "politely" informed that what I was dealing with were the indicators of a hopeless romantic.
Once again, as a dog returns to his vomit, and a fool to his folly, even so I shortly thereafter resumed pursuing adoration and love, affection and appreciation, and acceptance, after my wife of 11 years left with the 3 kids; only to watch even the most "perfect" of prospective matches disappear like a fading memory. Thus my story ended, and thus God's began.
Everything in my life was now colored with wrath and terror. How was the time I spent with my kids at the park going to be used against me in the next legal proceeding? How long before the worship team would come up with the courage to tell me I wasn't good enough to make the cut? I could no longer accept being accepted and I esteemed myself now to be no more than the words exacted upon one who no longer was just a mere hopeless romantic, but a worthless wretch; and still hopeless.
"You can play the victim if you want, but you will always be the bad guy. Now take your apology and shove it."
They say the lake of fire is the second death, but it felt like I had died about a hundred times by this point. Clearly the answers were not in the past, so I turned away from it. All of it.
Days turned into weeks...and you know the rest. And as a bird wandereth from its nest, so I set sail, leading on quietly; gently broken: searching again, but this time for something else.
I remained at a different kind of church at this time: one that was recommended to me by the Counselor of our 10-month marriage counseling period. It was a "middle-ground" plea bargain of sorts; a notion I would have never entertained if I didn't think it could have saved my marriage. Turns out saving our marriage was the "last thing" she wanted.
Then came the announcement: the world as we then knew it was being ordered to stay home. COVID-19 became the next big life event, fundamentally altering the way we do life and manage risk. It was also the last time I saw a kindred spirit friend I had made during those desperate, dark, and lonely months.
Trial after trial, the debts were stacked unmercifully against me, and I became little more than an empty hallway and a scapegoat in a Court of law. I learned also how the only thing that could make a person feel even more alienated than they already are legally, is when their best efforts to recount themselves in the aftermath is met with unrealistic expectations, judgment, and utter disregard. Alone, grieved, betrayed, disappointed, and so on; I came to understand this verse better: Give us help from trouble, LORD, for vain is the help of man.
Existing with no aspirations or direction; a reed shaken in the wind; a shipped tossed to and fro without an anchor; I went cold: very cold. The best I could do to greet people in the online chat, Sunday morning after Sunday morning, was, "Morning." I found I could still serve and invest in others, and I did. But of myself and for myself, I expected and accepted no good thing. And if you were to tell me then, "It's good to you see you!" I would have said that you needed to go see a therapist too. All these years, I was a budding hopeless romantic; and to the best of my knowledge and belief, my time of bloom had finally come.
One Sunday morning, a moderator dropped a link in the online chat. I knew exactly what it was: I had done it before. In fact, I probably had done most of it by now (albeit on a much smaller scale). Only they say now that you're divorced, you can't "do this" or you can't "do that" even though they'll never admit it to your face if you had ever once been "one of them." But I guess I didn't care at this point, because I was still searching; and if there was no place for me to serve in this church, then I just assume pack my bags and head on down the road to nowhere. I was already prepared to leave anyways.
I half-heartedly filled out the application, dropped a couple links to some recordings I took during my songwriting class, and spent the next hour perfecting my ultimate disclaimer, "I am divorced. If that is going to be an issue, please let me know now."
The form was submitted, and I immediately began to pack my bags (at least in my mind). I didn't have so much as a grain of mustard seed of faith in anything good for me at this point, and in my heart of hearts, I already started despising the person drafting up my rejection letter on the other side of that screen.
A few days later, I get an email from one of the worship leaders; they were extending to me an audition. But of course, they extend to everyone the same courtesy of an audition, so it meant very little to me, beyond a simple appreciation that they at least acknowledged my existence.
Enclosed in the email were chord charts and split tracks. I had never played in a band like this before, but after studying it for a little while, the format made sense and I gave it everything I could. It's a little weird how you can still pour yourself into something or someone, when you have nothing left to give. And it reminds me of how she said she used to be in choir for many years. "Lately though, with everything going on, I am not especially musical these days 😊. I kinda lost my desire for it."
I guess you could say I was sufficiently distracted from the pain, now that I had something else to focus on for a little while. But how long would it last? Given my track record, probably not very long.
The day for auditions came and it was just myself and the worship leaders. I put in my ear piece—like I practiced at the house with my earbuds—, waited for the tinnitus to settle from the initial jolt of my cranked up channel, and responded, "Do you guys have a chord chart handy?"
"No, no chord chart. We like to try and go off of memory."
"Okay, no worries. Could I just get my part played in my ear, then?"
"Actually, it will just be the regular mix with everyone's parts."
At the end of the session, they thanked me for coming and said they'd talk it over with the team and get back to me in a few days. Next steps were, "If it's a yes, we'll take you out to coffee, get to know you a little better, go over logistics, etc."
("And if it's a no?")
I couldn't help but feel a slight smile breaking; but it was a blantant violation of my protocol then. I harshly admonished myself, "Okay, this was honestly fun and very enjoyable, but this means absolutely NOTHING. Get your head out of the clouds and get back into your prison cell. This means NOTHING. You will be sent a courtesy letter stating you've been declined, and that will be the end of that. So just stop now."
Dreams and hope make horrible inmates; they don't seem to respect boundaries of prison walls very well; and it's a bit intrusive when you're desperately trying to manage expectations and avoid further disappointment in your broken life. What on earth was I even thinking, applying for this gig? It's just going to end up being another disappointment to cope with. I wasn't ready for that and now I regretted ever filling out that application. I needed to get away.
It was Sunday, July 25. I was in Colorado, pulled up to a coffee table (working), trying to take my mind off of things. My heart sank and tears began to swell uncontrollably when I saw the email come through. People always seem to think embellishing bad news with high-energy, positive, and elaborate greetings somehow lessen the blow reality is known to often deal to its helpless victims. And now I was reading those very same words, "Hey Matt! Just want to say thank you again for coming in and auditioning..." My heart sank, ready to fall apart all over again.
"...I was wondering if there’s a Monday or Tuesday in the next few weeks we could slow down, grab coffee and get to know you more? Let me know!"
Every emotion in my war-ravaged being simply flatlined. I didn't feel excited, but I didn't feel pain any longer either. I just didn't feel anything. And then a sense of duty and commitment began to rise steadily. It was purpose. And it was the first "yes" I had seen in what felt like an eternity.
My apprehension levels fell steeply that day: from 100% to around 98%. I incessantly explained and reiterated in full color my disclaimer as it continued to rage in my mind.
"Are you people hearing the words I'm saying to you in plain English right now? I am divorced! Hello? This is a red flag. I am divorced. Did you even check for ID? You've got the wrong person. I am not the droid you are looking for. Repeat, I am divorced. D-I-V-O-R..."
"...so we'll have an audio pack ready for when you come in."
"...typically we like to have people shadow for a few months to make sure it's a good fit for both of us."
('I'm still divorced, you know that right?")
"Now, rehearsal starts at 6..."
("Wow, 6 AM?!? I've never been up that early on a ... wait, are you still ignoring me? This doesn't change my divorced status, you know that right?")
"...so, any questions?"
("Yeah, did you even clear this with your elders, first?!?") "No questions at the moment."
"Great! See you Sunday!"
"Yeah...I guess I'll see you Sunday then."
[Alarm clock ringing]
It took all 2 weeks of shadowing for me to commit myself to them, not knowing how long it would be before the feeling would become mutual (if at all). The entire time, I tried my best not to make eye contact with the leaders the group, for fear of them feeling sorry for my pathetic, broken little self and making a disingenuous decision based on that; I wasn't about to take anymore patronizing from anyone. But as I turned into the isle, I saw her marching in my direction, on her way to whip the next group of insubordinates into action before the next service commenced. I kept my head down and I kept my distance—the isle seemed to get wider and wider as our paths crossed—only looking up to offer an obligatory smile of acknowledgment. I headed for my seat.
"Hey!" She stopped me.
"Before I have to run away, I just wanted to let you know that we're ready to move forward with putting you on the schedule. You'll be playing in just a few weeks."
My heart shook inside of me. I was now being called. It was August 29th.
Up until this point, I believed in nothing good for me. I wondered why I was even yet alive; and for what purpose I did exist, having lost everything: paralyzed under the expectation of others for it to now always be that way for me. They counted me a castaway, as did I; and I couldn't accept being accepted...until now.
Hundreds upon hundreds of people every Sunday, with hundreds more looking on, streaming from various parts of the country. She caught me taking a selfie as I tried to capture this fantasy world I found myself in (that was embarrassing). In my past life, they mocked me to scorn behind my back and ridiculed every decision I made. In my new life, they rejoice to have me, even when I'm not around. And in time to come, days of rest would be appointed for this wayfaring stranger now come home.
Today, there's no place I'd rather be, but in the house of the LORD forever. Well, save for a 1920's murder mystery party with a family who "wants to celebrate you and say thanks for all you do!"
And I'll be Leonard, there behind the counter: the bartender. 🙃