Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Not quite there yet

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. (one of many sets of promises made in the book Alcoholics Anonymous - this set from pages 83-84 - emphasis mine)
The email came out of the blue ten days ago. My former wife wrote to say she would be in Chicago on Sunday - and in the process of looking me up, she had found this blog, and had read it from start to finish. (That alone should get her an award for patience, tolerance and endurance, all by itself.) But what she had read raised some questions about our former life together - and she wanted to get together and talk.

To say I was surprised was an understatement...

We've been divorced for 14-plus years - as my drinking life blew apart at the end of 1990, one of the many casualties was my six-&-a-half year marriage. And, let me say for the record, that she was exactly right, and entirely justified in kicking my worthless butt out. Furthermore, if she had agreed to my pleadings to stay married, I'm sure I would not have hit bottom, as I so desperately needed to do. And if that had not happened, in all likelihood I would have either found the strength to take my own life (as my best friend had done eight months earlier), or else I would have managed a slower death by alcohol and/or medication. So in saving herself from my insanity, I believe my former wife also helped save me, as well.

We'd not seen each other in seven years - when she had attended a conference in Kansas City in 1998. And we'd not had any contact at all since I'd moved to Chicago nearly two years ago. So it was with a mixture of curiosity and nervousness that I drove from church to pick her up at McCormick Place, and then spent a goodly amount of the afternoon talking in the food court at Water Tower Place.

To be honest, I'd rather have eaten ground glass than talk about the insanity of my past - the things I did, and didn't do, that led both to my self-destruction and our divorce. I hated to once again see the pain that those things had caused her, and I hated feeling the waves of self-loathing that washed over me once again. As we talked about the past, I found that in spite of some extended sobriety, and working the 12 steps of recovery, it seems I still "regret the past" in many ways, and "wish to shut the door on it" much more than I would have admitted.

The difference this time was that as we talked, as those awful feelings flooded over me, I knew (and could cling to) the rest of the story...or at least the story so far. It's true that I am the man who acted, and failed to act, to cause horrendous hurt and harm. And I know that man is still "in there." As my friend Bob S. says, "The tiger is in the cage, Steve - but the cage is not locked."

But I can also cling to the fact that today, I am not the same man that did those things. If I continue to do the things I am doing today - and rely on the God of my misunderstanding to steer my otherwise-broken brain - I will never have to go back to being the man I was. I'm not sure I can ever undo the pain and trauma I've inflicted, on my former wife and on others. But (to steal a page from Hippocrates) I can ask for guidance and help to "first, do no harm."

And I trust that the God I have come to know in sobriety is one of transformation: the ultimate lemons-to-lemonade worker, who can take my crap and ultimately compost it to something powerfully fertile. I know this is true, because a lot of people - including some of you, reading this - have testified to the Power that seems to work in me and through me. I'm well aware that I am not the Reservoir - but on the good days, the man I am becoming can at least be a pipeline for the Living Water.

We had a good talk - not just about the wreckage of our past, but a whole bunch of catching-up. She talked about her new artistic endeavors, of sculpting fabric and steel and barbed-wire and all manner of materials - and I couldn't help but be a little envious of the talents she's uncovered and the recognition she's receiving. She also shared the struggles she's had with her health - which definitely took the edge off my envy in a hurry. I talked about the end of my ministry career, and the struggles to find the next path to take. We took a driving tour of Hyde Park and the Pullman historical district - and as evening came, I dropped her off at her car, promised to stay in touch, and wished her well.

I really do wish her well...that she might find every good gift that I couldn't give her in my own brokenness. And I don't say that just because there's a high probability that she'll read this, either. The folks who know me best already know that there are many things in "the best of me" that are only there because of her, and the short life we spent together. I don't regret the good times, but only what I did to cause the bad times. And I only wish I could have been a man that could give to her as she has given to me...

That's why this particular set of promises from our recovery text have been on my mind the last 24 hours. They clearly aren't all true for me - but I can trust that they are all becoming true. I'm not quite there yet - but with a little help from my Friend, there's hope of getting closer still...
No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us - sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.


~m2~ said...

how tremendously brave - of both of you - to even want to approach those demons, let alone face them, together, all over again.

it's a tight walk, this narrow road, isn't it? it's easy to say "let go and let God;" it's not so easy keeping it in His capable hands.

you are courageous and i don't know if this is entirely appropriate to say to you, being as i am a veritable stranger, but i am sitting here feeling very proud of you.


Tom Scharbach said...


Someday, in God's time and not yours, you are going to be handed the suprise of your life.

God will touch you, and you will know that you are not worthless. You will know that God loves you not in spite of your "worthless butt" but because of your worthless butt, and you will understand that all the years of self-loathing were built on a foundation of sand.

I don't know when this will happen, but when it does it will change your life.

As Robin puts it, God is going to kick your ass, and you will know -- really know -- that you are not alone, and loved for who and what you are, "worthless butt" and all.

It is then that you will come to accept rather than reject the past, and it is then that you will right-size yourself, neither heroic nor horrible, but an ordinary, wonderful part of God's creation.

God keep you. You keep trudging.


APN said...


How honest. How open. How transparent.

I'm not sure I could have that kind of conversation with my ex-girlfriends, much less any wife I might ever have. Your strength & brokenness is such an example to me. Thank you for sharing everything.

BrambleBush said...

Yours, Brother Steve, is a voice of Christian manliness. Rigorous, vigorous, honest, confident and strong, loving and unafraid despite your personal unworthiness. Truly, Brother, yours is the voice of Christ among us in a fallen, depraved creation.

Steve F. said...

Well, I think I'm more in line with what Tom wrote, to be honest. The only "manly" thing I've done is admit what a schmuck I was in my former life...and have half the courage necessary to face it.

I don't know about rigorous or vigorous - but I know that there is strength at the point where I admit my weakness. And I think that I'm much closer to Paul than to his Lord... What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25a, NIV)

I'm more than ready to get whopped by the Spirit stick, though...

Meg said...

Keep on keepin' on. All you can do is be who you are, and do your best at that. Proud to read of your growth.

Fr. Wilde said...

I know this is not the main thrust of your post, but Tom's comment and yours did make me think of it.

John of the Cross speaks of a fault of beginners -- by which he does not mean just-getting-started but rather someone who is already making significant progress on the Way, by the grace of God -- as an exaggerated sense of one's sinfulness. It is just another devious way the Enemy has of leading us into grandiosity and self-destructive pride. The good news is, most everyone has to deal with this, he says, so don't be thrown off. The better news is, God frees us from it, too!

The unkown author of The Cloud of Unknowing speaks of imperfect and perfect humility. Imperfect humility is when we see our own failings. Perfect humility is when we stop looking at ourselves and see the wonders of God. That is a journey we are all on.

Although President Bush and I see many things differently, I will echo him in your regard: Stay the course! The promises of the Program and the even more wonderful promises of your God will be fulfilled.

Tom Scharbach said...

Steve: "And I think that I'm much closer to Paul than to his Lord... What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25a, NIV)"

Whatever else there is to say about him, St. Paul is something of a drama queen, I think. He may have been bipolar or something. He is certainly given to excess in his descriptions of his own wretchedness. It may have been a a rhetorical device, but I suspect that he had no sense of his own ordinariness or the ordinariness of his sin. If not a rhetorical device, St. Paul, I suspect, is engaging in grandious thinking -- "I am great sinner, a champion sinner, a world-class sinner, much more a sinner than any of you!" And grandious thinking is sick thinking.

Not that this should be a surprise, Steve, with St. Paul. When I look at St. Paul's exposition of self-wretchedness in Romans 7:24-25a, I read it in the context of 7:14-25, the "slave to sin" discourse of which it is a part. The larger passage is a textbook description of addictive behavior: "18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it."

I don't know what St. Paul's problem was -- some passages suggest that he was obsessive, other passages suggest that he was a candidate for Sex Addicts Anonymous, other passages suggest that he was attacted to men and couldn't deal with it -- but he is describing addictive behavior in the larger passage, and that's as plain as day.

And I suspect that St. Paul -- like most addicts -- cling tight to his character defects whenever he could, including his propensity for grandious thinking.

Given that, I think that it is worth tossing a bit of salt when reading his self-flagelation passages, looking at the possibility, anyway, that he has a false and exaggerated view of his own sinfulness. It is certainly worth careful examination before falling into the trap of concluding that our own sins, whatever they are, are world-class sins, or that our failings amount to wretchedness.

Wretched people -- even evil people -- do exist. But most of us -- perhaps you included -- are just ordinary, unremarkable, run-of-the-mill sinners, up to nothing that half the people on the planet aren't up to on any given day. We are lie, steal, shirk, cower, bluster. We puff ourselves up, are mean-spirited and parsimonious, and so on. In none of that are we unique or even unusual, and thinking that we are unique or unusual is but another indication of our own sickness.

Steve, as you know, I don't know beans about Lutheran theology. But I'm told that there is a tradition in many Protestant denominations -- Lutherans perhaps, included -- to take the passages about "justification by faith rather than works" and work that into an exaggerated theology of the worthlessness -- "utter depravity of mankind" is, I think, the theological term used most often -- that can and often does stand in the way of spiritual growth. I don't know if that is operative in your case, but if it is, that's ordinary enough, too, from what I understand.

At any rate, I'll see you face-to-face, no doubt, tonight or when I get back from vacation in a couple of weeks.

Go with God.

Tom Scharbach said...


Not said in the comment immediately above, and something that I should have said, is that my spiritual growth began the day that I absorbed how ordinary and unremarkable I am -- that I may be different in shading from other people, but I am always well within that range of "you've seen one, you've seen them all". Whenever I move outside that simple truth -- for example when I imagine myself in a epic struggle with myself or others, or see myself in Technicolor in any way at all -- all I'm doing is playing mind-games with myself, ignoring the truth that I'm just part of the human condition, the humdrum of human life, fair to muddling, thank you very much. Usually, I figure that out before my exaggerated notions of myself go too far. Sometimes my partner, my family or my friends have to point it out to me, directly or indirectly. But it is always true.


Poor Mad Peter said...

Sounds like a glimmer of God's love kinda got through, Bro.

Calia77 said...

Thank you for your honesty and your positive outlook - to see your past and know where and how God has worked and to know that He will continue to work in the future. God Bless you...

Hope said...

I can relate. Thank you for being so honest and vulnerable. It gives me courage.