Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The very best promises

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. (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 84)
This is a post that starts out sad, and gets a whole lot better. It starts with a backward glance...

On April 17, 2004, I stood outside the offices of the Central States Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), near downtown Kansas City. I don't even remember the time, any was early afternoon. I'd come back from seminary in Chicago to my home synod office (like a Diocese office, to my Catholic friends) to appeal the decision of the Synod's candidacy committee five months earlier. In November, 2003, they had told me I would not be eligible to proceed toward ordained ministry. I'd protested, asked to be reconsidered, and I had a fist full of letters, testaments from professors, fellow students, and members of two churches in Kansas and one in Chicago about my gifts for ministry. Surely they would see the light...

I still remember the woman who chaired the committee looking across the table and saying, "Steven, because of actions in your past, you do not meet our requirements for financial stability and fidelity. And because of that, you have no 'gifts for ministry,' as far as this committee is concerned." And with that, they thanked me for coming, and my interview (and my 7-year meandering path toward ordination) was over.

Now, I had in my head every syrupy-sweet phrase that people of faith say at times like this. I knew what to say - I'd been trained for this, after all. "This too shall pass, Steve...Just trust in Jesus, Steve, and He'll bring you through...God never shuts a door but that He opens a window, you'll see..."

But at that moment, I didn't care. I wasn't having any of it. All I knew at the time was that I had pursued a quest, one that a whole bunch of people had supported with their dreams, their wallets, and their prayers - and it was over. In my eyes, I'd failed - and in doing so, I'd let down my friends, my church family, God, and myself.

For about 10 minutes, standing outside the church offices, and then sitting in my car in the parking lot, I really wanted a drink. I hadn't had a desire to drink in years - but that moment, I really wanted one. A bunch, in fact.

I can't tell you exactly what happened... but I know that the voices of the saints in my life started talking to me. From 750 miles away, old Jon P., and my first sponsor, Bob S., chimed in, and said, "There is nothing bad in your life that a drink is going to make better." The voice of my first ministry professor, Tex Sample, reminded me, "No matter how tragic the circumstance, the Word of God is hope for those who struggle - and trust me, you will struggle." I thought of the congregation of Atonement Lutheran, waiting to hear me preach at the 5:00 service that evening. I thought of a lot of people - brothers and sisters in sobriety, brothers and sisters in Christ - and somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, a modicum of sanity returned.

That didn't mean that anger, resentment, and bitter disappointment didn't follow. The hardest task of that day was going to my mentors, friends and adoptive parents, Tom and Delphine Housholder, and telling them that no matter how much I wanted that dream, it wasn't going to happen. There was a lot of anger, shock, and tears that afternoon.

It's been a long three years since that day - some of the darkest times I've had in sobriety. There were many months when I was absolutely unable to endure the thought of walking into another church again; weeks and months when it seemed that God had, if not forsaken me, then at least turned a deaf ear to my cries. There were a whole bunch of nights when I found myself hammering at heaven's door, and a whole lot of mornings when the thought of getting out of bed was almost unendurable.

And yet, on this sunny day in April, there seems to be some considerable light at the end of the tunnel.

I know today that I did not fail in my service to God. Perhaps I could have saved many thousands of dollars, and much frustration, if I'd listened to my fellow-student Chuck Murphy and simply stayed in Kansas, gotten a degree at St. Paul in KC, and kept on working with AA folks there in the Kansas City area. But, as I learned in recovery, I needed to take every step I took to get where I am today. And I'm grateful for the lessons I learned. Even the ones that hurt...

After all, if I'd not been in Chicago, I would have never encountered Micah and Laura Jackson, the first bloggers I ever met in person. And I never would have thought to use the community of the blogosphere to pour out my struggles, laughter and tears on this journey. Of course, my eternal self-deprecation would still question the worth of all these bits and bytes that I've bled-out all over the 'net. But today, I know those thoughts are the voice of the Liar. In fact, knowing that is one of the gifts I've received straight from God (if you'll pardon the pun...).

The fact is, I can't go a week without hearing from someone who Googled something, or followed a link to a link to a link, and by some Divine coincidence followed some digital bunny-trail to my blog, and there found something they desperately needed to hear in one of my posts. People struggling with faith, with failure, with sobriety, even with their sexuality - from all over the globe - have all come here and found what they needed. Could I have done that from some pulpit in a tiny rural Lutheran church in Longforgotten, Nebraska? I don't think so...

The other thing that I need to give thanks for is this. Over the last three years, my sister Sue's health has deteriorated considerably. And in June of last year, she hurt herself at work. In November, she was eventually declared disabled for the work she had done for almost 20 years. A month later, her husband was laid off from his job for four months.

Now if I'd gotten my way three years ago, I would have been on internship right now, most likely in some tiny church in the rural Midwest (probably not far from Longforgotten, Nebraska, come to think of it). I would have been living hand-to-mouth, flat broke, and completely unable to move here to Ohio last October to help my sister and brother-in-law when they needed it. As much as I struggle with the work I do right now, and I struggle with so much of The Evil Empire, I am grateful beyond measure that when the time came to make a decision, I could do "the next right thing." God's plan is God's plan, not mine - for which I'm thankful.

And to be rigorously honest, if I'd never left Kansas I'm not sure I would ever have been able to come to terms with who I am as a gay man and a child of God. It took every bit of the last two years to come to terms with that, and to see how God can use me in the gay Christian community. Nearly every day, I am put in touch with someone with whom I can share my struggles (and, thank God, my victories) in accepting myself as a beloved and accepted part of God's magnificent creation - just as I am, the way I was made. Tom and Michael, God definitely gifted me with your presence, your patience, and your encouragement. It's because of your mentoring that the closet door is behind me (even if I did have to pull Tom's boot out of my butt, once I got out...)

I'd be remiss, looking back over the last three years, if I didn't point out some incredible friends who have commented, linked, emailed and generally lifted me up along the way from across the country and around the world. In addition to Tom and Michael (noted above), I'm grateful to count as friends these digital sisters and brothers:

Rick at a new life emerging
Peter at Another Country
Erin at Biscotti Brain
TK at Bumbling Forward
[rwk] at Daily Life in a Homeless Shelter
Bobbie at Emerging Sideways
Penni at Martha, Martha
Chris at Radio Rebellion
Tim at I'm A Foto Nut

When my voice has gone silent, when I'm hopelessly contemplating my navel, you folks have been the ones to say, "Helloooooo.... anybody home?" I am grateful to the digital community of faith for these especially, but to everyone who has dropped in and left a comment, an encouragement, or a link to something truly funny/tasteless.

I could not look back over the last three years without giving thanks to God for the sisters and brothers who have lifted me up, taken my emails and phone calls (even late at night on the road!) - Eric, Natalie, Neil and Mary Lou, Sandy, Ed, Cherri, Pastor Joe and John, Barry H., Mike M. and a host of others in Kansas; Nathan and Laura in Ankeny and Momma Delphine in West Des Moines, Iowa; John Z. in Florida, and Ted in Ohio. You have been the wind beneath my wings and in my sails, and many of you have helped me literally stay off the streets, at times. God has blessed me with your friendship beyond my ability to describe.

Lastly, to my sisters, Sue and Sandy: I almost lost you, 10 years ago. I thank God that you and your husbands are in my life today.

Soli Deo Gloria - To God alone be the glory...


wilsonian said...

I remain grateful for you too :)
Ministering has nothing to do with a job title. You prove that over and over again.

Im A Foto Nut said...

My life his a great thing because you are my friend.

TN Rambler said...

I don't comment often, but there have been many times over the past 2 years that I've been following your blog that your words have touched me in a way that I needed at a time that I needed to hear them. Thank you.

As Wilsonian said: Ministering has nothing to do with a job title.

Vaya con Dios, my brother.

John Z said...

Brother Steve,
In the thirty plus years when we marched together in Rogers Band, you have always been my rock, my friend, an inspiration to me. In the lime green Chevette, you ministered in a different way helping us all to traverse the path from teenager to adult. We both have had our share of bumpy roads, but our faith like our friendship has grown into a stronger facet of our lives.

wilsonian said...

Wait a minute... lime green Chevette?

That changes everything!


bobbie said...

firstly i am honored to be listed here steve - thank you, it means so very much to me!

secondly - i want you to know that they were wrong, dead wrong. how dare they say "you have no 'gifts for ministry,' as far as this committee is concerned." SHAME ON THEM!

those are abusive words and they had no authority to speak in that way. god is the giver of gifts - and we all have them. please know that those were lies. yes, they had the right to say "no" to you being ordained, but they had NO right to use that kind of language and invalidate a lifetime of gifting and incredible passion and heart for god.

as a member of the body of christ i apologize for their words steve - they were dead wrong. your heart, soul and gifting pours through your words and i know i've said it before GOD IS NOT DONE WITH YOU!

i have so loved reading your words here and peeking in on your journey. your recovery is an inspiration to my own and that just makes the honor of being linked with you and those other amazing bloggers that much richer.

~m2~ said...

you have inspired me, encouraged me, supported me when i went through some pretty tough, soul-searching times -- it is a mockery that the church told you that you had gifts for ministry. i would have to say that church's loss was truly our gain.

you are my brother in Christ and now that i admit i once had a grey chevette, i think that makes us soul siblings :)

In Christ Alone said...

Hello my brother,
Brennan Manning's 'word' brought me here...I love him and your words have kept me here for a little while. You are loved, unrecognized by those of the earth at times as we all can be...but you are loved! Thanks for the inspiration. Grace exudes from your posts. Keep it real.
In Him,