If I had to name the god of my time as a Baker, I would name it Cultivate.
Easter Sunday was my last Sunday at Vox. As I left Cite’ des Arts I shook the dust off of my jeans. I told myself that I was done with church. No more bullshit religion. No more judgments of people’s lives. Just give me raw, personal spirituality. Fuck the organizations.
It’s obvious now but, back then, I couldn’t see that I’d merely flipped my judgmental attitude onto a different group of people. I didn’t judge “the sinners” anymore. I judged “the saved.” For the first time in my life, I saw that the critiques that non-christians gave of the people who sat in the pews were true. We were condescending pricks. We were exclusive. We did withhold our love from people different from us. We were tied to a political party.
After a couple of months of not going to church, Carrie told me that she wanted to take the kids back to the church she grew up in. She told me she thought I should come with her. I begrudgingly went. I hated the smiles. I hated the songs. I hated the sermons. I hated the buildings. I hated the niceness. All I needed was heavy eyeliner and I could have blended in with any angsty teens.
When I got together with the dude who led worship, he told me, “I was looking out at everybody, trying to gauge who was connecting, how people were doing, and then… I saw you.” He and I laughed as we sat huddled over our pints of local beer. He kept talking, “I said to myself, ‘there’s someone who doesn’t want to be here.’”
I gave myself honesty points… at least I didn’t hide my discontent from anyone.
THE SIMPLE JOY
Not long into my baking career, I remember staring at the racks of cooling loaves and feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. I was looking at over 200 loaves of bread that I had baked. With my hands. It was an amazing thing to behold. I realized with surprise that I really enjoyed my work… the work that I had thought was below me a few months prior.
When you see people outside, working under the sun and, somehow, they’re still laughing, you’re getting a glimpse into the simple joy of blue collar work. We laughed and joked and told stories around the kneading table at Great Harvest. We gave each other nicknames. There was Father John, Kurg, Judas Thaddeus, Sookie, Jackson Michael Jackson Nevitt Nevitt, Lil Pistol Starter, T’Maringoin, Papa Burgundy, ESP, Tuggernaught, My Beau, Stew Beef, and a lot of others. The only nicknames that came close to sticking in my entire life were given to me in that bakery… “Delicious” and “Peanut”, as in the Peanut Gallery, because I always had a comment. We all laughed and made bread and went home tired but content.
We did movie marathons together. The bakery was closed on Mondays for the first few years, so we would occasionally get together and watch all the movies from a series back-to-back. We did The Lord of the Rings, The Bourne Trilogy, and -most regrettably- we did all six Star Wars movies in one sitting.
These were my people now. They were the community that embraced me when I found myself without a church. I watched so many people graduate, get married, and move on to other jobs. Only a handful of us remained. The constants were the yeast I worked with every day and the customers we served. I’ve already written a series of articles about my time in the Great Harvest kitchen. You can read them, thanks to the Internet Archive.
TWO POSITIVE TESTS
I got home from work on our anniversary and Carrie met me with a gift. I was upset because we had agreed that we weren’t getting each other gifts that year… we couldn’t afford it.
“It’s OK,” she said, “it’s for both of us.”
I was so excited. I wondered if she had gotten a sex toy or some lingerie. I grabbed the tissue and felt something hard in it. ‘Definitely sex toy,’ I said to myself. I let the tissue unroll and two pregnancy test rolled out.
Two positive pregnancy tests.
That’s how we found out we didn’t need fertility meds any more.
I THINK IT’S TIME
I was at Carrie’s childhood church again, hating every fucking minute. The minister was still the same, defying all the Evangelical Statistics saying he should have moved on by now. It was the same man who married me, gave me the nudge I needed to go overseas as a missionary, and encouraged me during my time pastoring Vox. He had equity in my life so I begrudgingly sat and listened to his 3 Point Sermon with Action Points for Living.
“I’m going to give you a phrase,” he said. “Put your name at the beginning of the phrase.”
“Now put the words ‘is a’ after your name”
Dallas is a
“What did you fill in that blank with at the end of the sentence? Whatever you automatically filled the blank in with is your identity.”
On the ride home, I asked Carrie what her identity was. She rubbed her belly that our third child was growing in. She had a smile and that wonderful Pregnancy Glow thing going on. She told me, “Carrie is a mom.” She was a mom. She was great at raising our little guys. Not in the Stepford Wife/Pinterest Glitter Orgasm sort of way but in the love-and-hugs-and-cleaning-vomit way. It was a beautiful identity and she embodied it perfectly.
She asked me about my identity. I sat in silence for a second before I told her, “Dallas is a loser.”
“I think it’s time for you to get some counseling,” was her reply.
She was right. I knew it. It was time for me to get counseling.
THEY CARRIED HIM
It’s really sad that I don’t remember when my Grampa died. I know it was somewhere around this time because of the age of my two oldest boys. My middle one threw his first punch at his older brother in the cry room during the service.
I felt bad as we cleaned out his house because the Reverend William A Haskell deserved better from me. It was easy for me to forget his larger-than-life, joyful presence from my childhood and let the cranky old man he became later in life get in the way of those happy memories. It was easy to forget that the love of his life died too soon and he was alone too long. He remarried but he outlived that wife, too. He knew sorrow at the end of his life and I regret not returning more of his phone calls or letters.
At his funeral, his congregation talked about how much they all loved him. This was a room full of people that he had married. He had baptized their children and buried their family members. They, in turn, carried him through the death of two wives and they carried him to his grave site.
According to my Catholic theology, he went to hell because he was a Protestant Minister. According to my Evangelical theology, he probably went to Heaven. According to science, he became dirt in a field in Bay City, Texas, next to my Gramma. I like to imagine that roots from the grass on the surface reach down into both of their remains, uniting them in its green life.
HAVE A HOMEBREW
I made my living as a baker, coaxing life and growth out of yeast, transforming grain into something greater through chemical magic performed by microorganisms. It was kind of natural to take up brewing as a hobby with everyone I worked with… we were coaxing life out of another type of yeast and transforming a different grain.
We gathered in J.P.’s backyard about once a month and I learned about the differences between American Hops and European Hops, Belgian Yeast and Brewers Yeast, and Lactose and Fructose.
“Relax and have a homebrew” is the first step in the homebrewing instructions. It’s a great first rule because you can stress out over Specific Gravity, when to add the Hops, and if you’ve washed your hands enough (baker’s yeast, which we brought to our brewing experiments via our arms, did not add a good flavor to beer). We’d start by cracking open a cold beer and we enjoyed it together while we shot the shit, stirred the wort, and added various ingredients.
Every month I’d return home with at least a case of homebrewed beer. Only once was it so bad that I ended up dumping all of it out… it was a Brown Ale that had, apparently, had some of that Baker’s Yeast sneak into the batch.
I started having a beer a day. That little bit of alcohol helped me relax. It took the edge off of my anxiety and dysphoria. Everybody in the house liked Dad with one beer in his system.
FINALLY DEFEATED ZURG
Carrie woke me up at about three in the morning.
“I think I’m going into labor.”
There is no other sentence that will wake you up as quickly as that sentence.
Almost 24 hours later my third son came into the world. Carrie’s epidural had only worked on one side of her body, which meant that the pain was amplified on the other side of her body. Only once did she let on to how bad the pain was. “I can’t do it,” she whispered/cried. All the nurses told her that answer was unacceptable. She could do it. And she did.
I spoke my third son’s name aloud for the first time as I held him. He was chunkier than the other two and I marveled at him as I searched his face and curly hair, learning him in detail.
A few minutes later, Carrie looked up at me from her bed and told me, “I did it. I finally defeated Zurg.” We both laughed… if you have kids, you’ll get that joke.
IN MY GARDEN
As with a lot of people, Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry changed the way I approached food. I began only eating humanely raised meat. The thought of playing a part in a miserable animal’s life repulsed me. I remember looking at my Popeye’s Three Piece and thinking about the small, sunless shack the animal had lived in. I couldn’t do it anymore. Meat moved to the side of my plate instead of being the centerpiece of my meals.
Carrie and I also started shopping at the Farmer’s Market. Every week I would get home from work and have to learn how to cook vegetables I’d never cooked before. I remember the first time I pulled out a weird vegetable I’d never heard of before… what the fuck was a Kohlrabi? It sounded like a Rabbi who taught in a Kohls but it looked like a plant that grew through a baseball. What did you do with a Kohlrabi? Did you eat it raw? Did you boil it?
During beet season our kitchen looked like a murder scene as Carrie prepped them for mashing. I learned about North America’s native tuber, the Jerusalem Artichoke. They have a beautiful, nutty flavor and work well boiled, mashed, or julienned in a soup.
We started gardening and an amazing thing happened: God showed up in my garden. He spoke hope into my life every time a seedling poked its head out of the soil. He showed me the benefits of a daily spirituality as I weeded my garden beds. I saw the delay between planting and harvesting and understood all the work in between. I marveled at the deep, important work of caring for soil.
I don’t want to tell you any more about what I learned in my back yard. I think you need to live it. Go buy a pot, some soil, and plant some seeds. Read about what the plant needs from you. Watch it. Learn from it. I don’t care if you’re an Atheist, a Monotheist, or believe in the Dark Overlord Zenu, that plant will teach you more about life than almost anything else you do, if you’re willing to let it be your teacher.
ON CARRIE’S SIDE
It was the end of a long day. I had been to church, played soccer, and was ready to relax. Carrie and her sister were going out to eat and I was excited about the opportunity to express my gender in a small way. I grabbed a pair of Carrie’s underwear and slid them on. The feeling of living a life constantly listing to the side disappeared. I exhaled, feeling the peace of the moment. Something as small as a piece of clothing was all it took to right the ship. I was about to step into my pajamas when Carrie unexpectedly opened the bathroom door.
I was caught.
When we talked about it the next day. She told me that she had always prayed that God would let her catch me if I wore her clothing. I didn’t know how to respond to that prayer. With God on Carrie’s side and me as the bad guy, how could I win? How could I ever be myself?
I was furious with myself for acting foolishly in a moment of weakness. If I had only waited ten more minutes, Carrie would have been out of the house. I had broken my promise to myself from my first year of marriage not to act impulsively with my gender expression.
THE LAND OF THE PROPHET
Carrie and I had accepted the invitation of a former “Voxer” and started going to the church where he was the Worship Leader. I needed a church in which I could be angsty, cynical, fearful, and broken. The Vineyard gave me that space. I also met someone who was friends with my mother-in-law at that church. They were both counselors and had an agreement to see each other’s families at no charge.
After a few counseling sessions with this woman, I knew I could trust her. I sat down in her office one day and backed up the dump truck. I used the words “sexual fetish” and “crossdressing” in my descriptions of my “compulsive behavior.” Unlike my experience in college where the counseling felt cold and sterile, this woman modeled acceptance and compassion. Unfortunately, she also accepted all the data that I gave her at face value. She did the best she could with that bad data I had handed her, though.
To say that my life was changed in positive, beautiful ways in that woman’s office would be a gross understatement. She opened me up to new ways of prayer and meditation. She taught me how to approach places of pain in my heart with compassion, knowledge, and a map in my hand. Parts of my Self that had been lost were reclaimed.
I was invited into her home for a bible study and her husband did many of the same things with me that his wife did. Their living room was a place of healing and transformation in my life. We shared meals, laughs, wine, insights, fears, and dreams with each other.
I walked into this woman’s life on the verge of losing my faith entirely. I walked out with the experiences that A. W. Tozer had spoken about in his book that I had read in China. I had journeyed into the land of the Prophet.
WE WENT BACK
The minister at the Vineyard was too good at his job. He walked us through what it looked like to disagree with leadership but still remain in community. As he did, I felt the familiar whisper of God. He was calling me to go back to Carrie’s childhood church. I needed to submit to their leadership, even their methodology that I disagreed with.
We went back the next Sunday.
A month later, on Easter Sunday, I was called and begged to come play guitar. There had been some sort of crisis with the Worship Leader and he couldn’t be there. I was the only guitarist left on the list. I, basically, improvised the first service and muscled through the other one. News slowly began to trickle out… the Worship Leader had an affair.
I found myself playing bass & guitar as well as actually singing and leading our community every once in a while. A few months later, Carrie and I took over leadership of a Small Group. I ended up on the team of people searching for the new Worship Leader. It felt like all of this had been set up for me to step into.
STIRRING THE SOIL
As I looked back on the year and a half I had spent as a Church Planter/Pastor, I realized that Vox was a calling not to success but to failure. In the same way that violence in my garden beds proceeded new growth, God had been stirring the soil of my soul. It had hurt like hell, and I never wanted to go through something as painful as Vox again, but I was grateful for what had grown out of my life as a result of that failure.
I told people about God’s voice because I had heard it.
I was able to deal with people tenderly because I had felt God’s tender touch.
I cultivated community because I had been cultivated by the ultimate Gardener.
Read the next chapter: The Second Interlude.