What I Was
This is the first real opportunity I have taken to accumulate my letters, notes and ramblings on the birth of my spirit – ‘born-again’ – as many would call it. Where is it in the Bible? Yes, in John 3:3, Jesus answers Nicodemus with, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Better late than ever, I would say, as my birth came in my 57th year of breathing air upon this earth.
I’ve always had trouble in adopting the term ‘born-again’ to refer to what happened to me. The simple truth is that I had no spiritual life within me; up to the rather dramatic call that God made upon me on January 13th, 2009. Rather I was a man of empirical evidence, logic, and reason. I not only did not know whether a god or gods could exist, but I couldn’t imagine why there would be a need for a god or gods, or even care about such matters. The meaning of life was towards the bottom rung of priorities, unless of course its contemplation could advance my goals. No, I wasn’t one of those totally self-centered, amoral humans that we all know. I had been told many times by various sorts of people of my good moral and caring character. Moderation in all things was my motto. You might say I was extreme about moderation. I could do good as easily as I did evil. I was pious as well as a sinner.
Agnostic? Certainly. Atheist? If pressed for a strong opinion. However, I do remember that at times I could spin the pantheistic formula for the world. God is everything; the ecology of community of all inanimate and animate things and creatures working together in wonderment of self and sustaining creation and transition. In other words, the term God is a condensation of nature in work, and an acknowledgment of nature’s omnipotence. Religion was scientific ignorance, and science is the new religion. It resolved all things without and material that this body and mind of mine had to work with in this world, except it had no answer to all of the things within and immaterial that left me in perpetual wanting of something beyond my grasp.
It’s not that I did not have opportunities to be religious, aka Christian. I had a few.
My family was Scottish and English by heritage; my parents were Presbyterian. I remember being dressed in my little blue suit – short pants of course, white shirt, bowtie, and matching cap for Sunday school and service. The church, on the north side of Mt. Lebanon, PA, was a gothic, gray-stone structure that I’m sure must have had gargoyles leaning over the parapets in search of some sinner to feast upon. Other than that concern, I had little that seemed to bother me about it except that I just did not want to go. Neither did my older sister and brother, so Sunday morning was always a battleground of partisan angst. In the end, and many years later I realized why that whole experiment failed – the religion experiment. It was simply that once we left the church and went back home; neither the bible nor its teachings came along for the ride throughout the following week of human traffic. You might say we were areligious through consensus of non-action.
Without the glue that holds a family together – God – it appeared to a boy of fourteen quite simple to disband the experiment of family when my mother died after a lengthy illness. My brother, Drew, was twenty-one, my sister, Cris, was sixteen, and I was that boy of fourteen. Timing was bad and timing was good. Good in that Dad was being promoted into the main corporate office in New York City as a hard-working executive. It was a big change for a broken family. Bad in that Drew was old enough, so he was jettisoned into the world; Cris was of proper age for prep-school in Boston; I was of proper age for prep-school in Pottstown, PA at the prestigious Hill School. We were never a blue-blood sort of family. Prep-school would have never been a contemplation if mom had never gotten ill and died. I’d have to say that more than one coffin was nailed shut that year.
Hill School had a foundation of Presbyterian faith, and faith was mechanically woven into everyday life. Chapel was mandatory at the end of each day prior to dinner, and Sunday service was likewise mandatory. I was still dressing with some import for religion; weekdays were sport coat, dress slacks and collared shirt with tie. Sundays was suit and tie with dress tie shoes. There was the mandatory religion class. The only thing I ever remember of that course was the teacher; the school’s pastor. I remember a good deal of animosity between us. I’m certain it was my fault; the ‘push back’ was in full swing now.
If a monastery is a place of seclusion for the soul, then I lived the life of a monk for four years until college. No outside activities beyond sports. No friends outside of school. No dating. I did go to one dance my senior year; yes, sport coat, dress shirt-and-tie kind-of-dance with a girl’s school down the road. Never did that one again. College was coming and I knew things were going to change because I was a bit of a rebel at Hill. I started listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Who while most others were into glee club. I found bell-bottom pants and sandals in the bohemian, clothing stores of NYC when I was home for holidays. Dad even felt sorry for me after graduation, and took me shopping for a gift. I bought a matching brown leather pair of bell-bottom pants and jacket. I went to college and never looked back.
While in college, ignoring all education in favor of partying at fraternity and rock band parties, escaping through drugs and alcohol, and looking to catch up on all of the dating that I had missed as a younger teen, I did manage to do one thing right; find my beautiful and steadfast wife, Kathryn. The first time I saw her was at an Alpha Omega fraternity party. In the company of her frat boyfriend, I was transfixed by what I can now say was her soul; a soul fitted amply and tightly into a white-knit mini-dress. From there, I’d spy her on campus now and then, but I was busy with the girls in my freshman class; Kathryn was a sophomore. It wasn’t until the spring, and after two fumbling experiences on my part with dating steady, I worked up the nerve to ask Kathryn out to a dance. From there, we have never separated.
Above all else, I was mystified by her maturity. While other young women were mental butterflies and keeping score of daily conquests, Kathryn had singular focus to the task of college and her future. In many ways she was not what I wanted, but rather what I needed. That’s what mystified me. Why was I incessantly attracted to a young woman who gave little attention to my broken and misplaced physical desires? I wanted her to be vain, and Kathryn didn’t know the meaning of the word. I wanted her to be overindulgent with her physical appearance, and she wasn’t. I wanted her to be more of a rebel, and she didn’t see the point of it. In my physical and spiritual fog, in my continuing and defiant choice of path away from God, I made one of the few good choices in my life; Kathryn.
I was that boat on the Sea of Galilee, loaded with the apostles clinging to their emotional lives as the storm raged. I’d rise on a swell of desire and want; only to plunge into a trough of desire and want. It had to be a tough ride for Kathryn, and still is I’m sure, but Kathryn was that temperance that Jesus emanated in rescuing the apostles from themselves. God had tossed me a lifeline in giving me Kathryn and it would be years before I could acknowledge any such truth.
Where I was Going
From that point forward, I spent my life just moving forward. I let the only thing I knew be the wind in my sail – my desires. I was breathing, but I was not alive; not in the sense that I know now. Then, it was a feign of happiness through possession. Now it is happiness through being.
It was not until I approached thirty years old that I focused enough on my being that I distilled myself to the steady career of design. I had to chase one more sea swell with a side venture into professional cooking in restaurants, and luckily I found my way back to the much more calm waters of designing the interiors of homes. My need to personal expression and pressing purpose to very high quality of work lead me to my own firm in 1996, in Naples, Florida – a wealthy, second-home (or more) community on the sunny shore of the Gulf of Mexico. These were the settled years when my flesh and mind ruled my spirit (Who? What?).
Now the phrase I just tossed out, “need to personal expression”, is one of those phrasal lexicons that appears as one thing, but in reality it is something else. Here it appears as my desire to artistic, personal expression of my work, but in reality, I am talking about a loneliness I had felt throughout my life that I could never understand; a loneliness that propelled me to be somewhat introverted and selective of friendships. I protected myself from pain, and found relationships structured more upon the law of moral character than upon the love of moral character. I can say now that I had no knowledge of God’s agape form of love. Love, to me, was a physical quality in which one wants something from someone else; to receive, but never to give of oneself, except the physical markers of what we perceive love to be. It had always been an illusion; an omniscience of being that really didn’t exist. If I was not receiving what I wanted, I believed myself not to be loved. You can imagine how that belief can isolate a person. I ran both my personal and business lives from this viewpoint; an allusion towards love, but with law as my guide.
Business was good and I had various people assisting me from 1997, going forward to 2005. There seemed an upheaval that year. I can look back now and see God’s plan. Business dropped off, I allowed my assistants to slowly fade away until I was alone, and I moved my office. I remember there was a good amount of self-examination in those days. There rose an intensity of internal contemplation; not about the meaning of life or spiritual matters – how could there be, there were no spiritual matters – but more like finding myself out on the ocean in a small, row boat. There is no horizon revealing a shore, and I’m trying to figure out which way to row. One way seemed as good as the next, but was it?
There came a new client or two, and once again I had the need for an assistant to help move the work along. I crafted my help-wanted ad, posted it in the local newspaper, and waited. Few calls came in, and the prospects interviewed poorly. I pulled the ad after a couple of weeks and settled back into work. Some months later I tried again with the ad, and likewise received back what seemed meager options. I interviewed a few people, without success, and things seemed to just not be fated for me once again. There was one interview left, with a young woman who at least had some past experience in the design trade, but the skeptic within me had already gone home. It was June 17th, of 2005, and my interview was with Kim Sprague.
God Sends in the Marines
I guess we have all had an experience where we meet someone and the sonar inside you bings back like crazy. It’s like the quality of ‘intrigue’. You wonder what is this thing I am discerning that brings me to attention? What is it that is calling me to investigate this person with curiosity, concern and actual need? Well, this is exactly what I felt when Kim came in for the interview, so I perked up and engaged. It was a thirty minute parry on both our parts. I went home that evening and declared to Kathryn that I had found my assistant – though I had given no real offer to Kim yet – and I learned a little later that Kim had likewise gone home, called her mother, and told her that she just got a job. I called Kim the next day, offered her the job, and she accepted.
Over the next three and one-half years, Kimberly set a standard of unflinching dedication in helping me with my business. I can look back on it now and say she was a basketful of the fruits of the spirit. There they all were: You might know them from Galatians 5: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
I found I needed no structure, no law at least, to protect me; to direct my career forward. Rather, Kim earned so much respect and cooperation from all of my business associates that my law, my authority was without need; for Kim gained through real love, what I could not achieve through law. It was most frustrating and attractive. I was sucker punched; I knew not by what and I wanted more of it.
During those years, Kim began to dedicate herself to a church in Naples. She noted one day that she wanted to join the School of Ministries that the church offered to those prepared to go further with God’s Word. She did, and I heard little of it as time went by, for Kim rarely brought her beliefs visually or verbally into the office. We really never got into religious discourse. Oh, once or twice, we may have flirted with the subject. I was quick to spell out my agnostic or pantheistic attitude. Kim knew where I stood on such things, and as I realized much later, God had given her a quality of quiet patience and enduring faith that He would do the work necessary when the time came.
At Christmas time of 2008, I closed our office for the holidays, and Kim took off to a family gathering. What I did not know at that time was that Kim had met a man while attending her church’s School of Ministries. They became close and both felt that God had placed them together for some good purpose. They wanted to get married, and Kim had written a letter to her family to discuss this turn of events. Kim’s family get-together had now a real purpose for them all. Kim had never said anything about this to me. I know now that she was a little nervous on how I would take such news.
Our offices opened again, and on January 5th of 2009, at the end of that day, Kim gave me the letter she had sent to her family before the holidays. She then wisely exited out the door before I read the letter. In that letter, Kim expressed her deep dedication to her Lord and Jesus, and that she had met a wonderful man in her ministry classes. They had decided to get married. God had asked this of the two of them, and Kim was asking for everyone’s understanding and love.
I didn’t know how her family took it all, but my thoughts were of complete confusion and heart break. Desperation is a feeble description of my state of mind. I had no understanding of this. I tell you now, that when you have no understanding of God’s love, no concept of the spirit within you; that agape kind of love – when truly received – is totally unexpected, confusing, cataclysmic and catalytical. I really did not know what to say to Kim the next day, and I held my words for two days until we were driving to the east coast of Florida on business.
I could think of nothing else, yet I could not bring myself to start the conversation I so wanted to have. I finally resolved I would stop at the Miccosukee reservation store in the middle of the Everglades, get some drinks for us, and once settled back into the car and driving, I would venture forth into the waters that could prove to be way too deep for me to survive in. I asked her to tell me what the letter was all about.
Kim patiently walked me through the whole series of events. How was I ever going to understand the God-stuff in her words? I could not. I let those words just lay there without any real examination or discussion. I was more interested in what I was getting out of this, or was I about to lose something instead. “No Reese, I am not going anywhere.” That’s what I heard, and that’s what I wanted to hear. I could relax, so I did, and our business day proceeded smoothly and happily. But there was to be no return to my normal or respite from God’s actions in my life going forward.
I slept terribly that night. The next morning I hid in the shower hoping to steam the confusion out of my mind. That didn’t work. I started to dress and sat at the end of the bed putting my socks on. A slow panic was building, my eyes grew wet. Fear became panic, and huge sobs began to heave in my chest. This was no time to bring Kathryn into this seemingly unsolvable equation. Luckily she was in the kitchen, so I got some control of myself, prepared to leave, and slipped out the door saying goodbye as I went.
I wasn’t even out of the driveway when the sobs and tears poured forth. I have rarely cried in my life, and this was just further confusion. I sobbed all the way to the office; alone in the 6:30am dark of the morning. I should have been happy. After all, Kim had just set my mind to rest that she would be around for a long time to come. What were these tears, this panic for anyways? What was I losing here, or as I can reflect upon now, what was I receiving? I got to work I know not how, and held it together the best I could that day. The weekend came and I was most relieved to get away from the office and Kim.
Monday came. Work came and went that day. I’m miserable and I’m living with it. It’s evening, I’m spent and it’s time to sleep. I was awakened by something at about 2:30 in the morning. Laying there in the dark, with Kathryn sleeping by my side, I sensed an overwhelming urge to rise from bed and go into my study. There was a need to write something, and as I powered up my computer and opened the word processing software, that need had crystalized into an intent to write a letter to Kim. Was it really to Kim, and what is it that I am supposed to be writing?
Reminding myself of the ways I wrote poetry in college, I resolved to go silent and just let things happen. My hands began typing out words that became sentences that came not from my consciousness. The letter was to Kim and early in the letter I wrote,
“It is important for you to understand that this new quality of love I was now experiencing was before you reaffirmed your faith in your God, and found devotion within a church. It is important to understand that what I saw in you was a person full of innate faith; one willing to offer loyalty, devotion and love to myself and my cause without questioning my worthiness.”
I had never allowed anyone to show me this love since I was a teenager. I had not only kept it away from me, I asserted its non-existence and simply clung to the eros of love as if it was of some good alone. Now there was more; so much more. It was as if I was crossing over into a new existence; irrational thoughts ceased and were replaced by a serenity and love heretofore not known. For God at that moment was patiently, lovingly, breathing against a mist that I knew not surrounded me. And I saw and wrote of that image.
I was on a raft; no oar – an inflatable raft much like those WWII movies. Everything was a gray-green; my raft, the sea and the air. I was just sitting there tired, and there was a mist all about me. I couldn’t see anything beyond a few yards. The sea seemed like a clock; just ticking away the time without purpose; its waves randomly rising and falling, colliding and receding, in some abstract course that only God would understand. This was the life of my past, and I knew it. I wrote in this letter the following:
I was “to cling to a raft God was providing me in order to complete a journey I had no idea until now that I was on. With you leaving me at this time it was as if my raft was sinking before home came into sight, and I would then just go back to drifting in a sea not really of my choosing; not quite knowing which way to go.” But God never leaves us, does He? I know now that I am face-to-face with God’s presence, and I can acknowledge and address Him.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”
God was showing me the waves of the sea; His people who lived in doubt – in a mist that blinded them, from Him, His love and His grace. The imagery in my letter continued and as only God can work these things, the mist about me began to rise; evaporating as it rose. The sky grew bright blue and clear; the sun shown down so brilliantly. The sea was infinite except in that one direction where I could clearly see a shoreline, just a couple of hundred yards away. I could see a deep beach of pure white sands, and beyond the beach, there was an infinite, dark, beautiful forest.
And so what were those tears from the day before? I know now that the Holy Spirit had brought me His conviction. I wrote again:
“I know now these tears were one of fear and joy. Fear in that I might not succeed in reaching shore without you as a continuing symbol of one’s ability to attain real love with good works. Joy in that I now saw a way to shore; and that shore was home. The mist had broken; I saw that I had a way out of a life that I did not even know was holding me back.”
I now understand fully what is happening and am able to write to Kim, saying
“I want you to know that God has obviously chosen you to lead me towards home. Not necessarily to be there for the entire journey, as much as I’d like, but definitely long enough to show me a path that I can walk myself.”
God is here; before me. I know Him and cannot deny Him any longer.
And now I know God heard those tears I cried, for at that moment, as my heart poured out in its confusion, as Psalms 34 speaks of in verse four: “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.”
As you can see this wasn’t simply a letter to Kim; it was that moment, that vehicle by which God revealed Himself to me. I completed my letter with:
“So please pay me no mind as I continue to want you in my life. I hope to find shore now.”
All of God’s work upon my wretched body and mind, and all of His love came fully upon me in the writing of that letter. I now saw how God had used Kim to show me the truth of what love is; not the physical desire of eros and personal want, but the beauty, serenity and peace of agape love; the self-sacrifice of one to the good purposes of God’s will, His people, and all of His creation.
That morning I awoke a new man.
God Bless & Love – Reese Cumming