Drinking the Kool-Aid (Well, Grape Juice…)

Early in my recovery, I started attending a new church. For many reasons, it was a difficult transition for me. Yet it was clear the move was needed; for the sake my family as well as mine.

Before the first Sunday we attended, I went to visit with the church’s pastor: Pastor Larry. I explained my story. I told him about my upbringing. I told him about my desire to be a preacher. I told him about my alcoholism, being fired, and the need to find a new place to worship. I shared my struggles as they related to religious practice as well as those related to my recovery.

Pastor Larry listened. He heard what I was saying. Although I did not fully recognize it at the time, he was receiving me and welcoming me in a way that would profoundly affect the rest of my adult life.

Several weeks after this meeting, we were attending worship on a Sunday when the church shared communion by inviting those in attendance to front of the auditorium and the pastors and elders of the church served people. As I approached the front, I realized I was headed straight for Pastor Larry.

Pastor Larry was holding the tray with those little cups of “fruit of the vine.” In the denomination I grew up in, we always used grape juice. In this particular denomination, they used wine. However, they had a few cups in each tray that had grape juice for those who did want to drink even a sip of wine (several of this church’s members were also recovering alcoholics and addicts).

As I approached Pastor Larry—with the full intention of grabbing one of the cups of juice—he did something I will never forget. He turned the tray around so that the cups of grape juice were facing me.

This was a 4000 member church that had three services every Sunday morning. I had only attended for a few weeks. I had only met Pastor Larry once. But he remembered the content of our conversation. Our one interaction was enough for him to do whatever he could to support me in my journey of recovery.

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People often ask me how they can support the recovering addicts in their churches.

The first step is to be inviting; to be welcoming. The cliché is that the church should be a hospital for the sick, not a museum for the healthy. Inviting people who are hurting is a huge first step. Don’t turn away from people who are in the midst of great pain. Often times, there is no special thing that needs to be said; no magical formula that needs to be followed. When you see someone in your church who is hurting—say hello to them. Let them know they are right where they belong.

Another important step is to listen when people share their stories. Don’t explain pain away. Don’t make trite statements like, “Oh, everything will be all right.” Don’t moralize by saying, “You just need more willpower.” Just listen. And actually listen. Pay attention to what people are saying. There will be times when you hear something you can relate to. Relating is great. It allows all of us to know we are more alike than different. Be careful not to “one-up” someone else’s story. You do not need to match hurt for hurt; heartache for heartache. Mostly, people in recovery just need to know that can be open and honest. They do not have to hide their recovery from the people they worship with. Listening is valuable.

After listening, remember. Did you hear something that you can respond to? Was some small act of kindness suggested that you can follow through on? Did they share something and you find yourself  down the road able to perform a random act of kindness? What small thing can you respond to that shows you heard and that you care? I would have grabbed one of the cups of juice if Pastor Larry had not turned the tray around. But here I am 12 years later still remembering that small act of kindness.

Because to me, that act was not small. It was profound.

I’m glad I drank the grape juice. But I am even happier that it was offered.

Love. Life. Loss. Legacy.

Death is not an easy concept to understand. It comes and sweeps all sense of stability from you, it takes your comfortability and shakes you up.

In my life, I can count on both hands the people close to me who have died. I can think back to the funerals, the families, the cemetery, the feeling of being lost.

I was ten years old when I lost my uncle. It was the first time I can remember having special memories with the person that died. It is the first time I truly sat in silence, a mental slideshow running through my mind with snapshots of the time we spent together.

Today, I lost a close friend – her name was Jorja. My first memory of Jorja is at the Metropolitan church in my town – my family slowly crept into the church, wanting to experience something new, but feeling a little awkward. Jorja was the one who greeted us and welcomed us in. Here started the journey to a wonderful and meaningful relationship cut far too short.

A few months later: Walking into our home church and suddenly my dad points out, “That’s Jorja. Remember her? She was at the Metropolitan church.”

“The transgender one? She was so nice! Can we say hi?” It was at this point that Jorja became a stable and welcome part of my life.

Jorja’s testimony is one of amazing re-creation in the eyes of God. Jorja finally found herself in her late fifties, and celebrated her third birthday this year. She has spoken to many other churchgoers about who she is without hesitation, guilt, or remorse.

Jorja has shown me how to be proud. She showed me to stand up and say, “Yeah World, it’s me. I’m beautiful and you can’t take any part of me away.”

Jorja taught me what it means to be a good ally. She taught me how to stand up for her, my gay brother, and my nonbinary best friend. She showed me that anger is not the only resource, and I can have a calm voice in all the turmoil.

Today, I lost a great friend. I lost the woman who means more to me than most. The woman who was an active part of my life for two years.

Today, I feel sad. I feel overwhelmed and confused and sad. I walked into my Spanish class, saw the faces of some close friends, and broke down. I sat in my seat, trying to do my bell ringer, and the tears began to fall. One friend grabbed my hand, another wrapped her arm around my neck, a third patted my cheek. I wanted to go home and curl up in a ball and cry until I couldn’t cry anymore.

Instead, I smiled a small smile at my friends, wiped my tears, and finished conjugating Spanish verbs.

It sucked.

I was surrounded by friends and comfort, and all I could think about was Jorja’s face when we went to see her at the hospital last month. All I could see was her face as she blew out her candles at her last birthday party. All I could see was her face as she stood in front of the Metropolitan church and gave her testimony and praised God. I felt all her hugs and cheek kisses. I heard her gentle voice — saying hello, asking how I was, telling us she had stage IV cancer of the tongue.

All I can hear is her trying to speak to us with the tube in her throat and needle through her tongue. All I see is her shaky handwriting asking my dad if she’s in Dallas.

I hear her say “I love you. God bless” to each of my family members as we stood around her hospital bed.

Jorja, you have been in my life for some of the worst moments. You have been here for some of the best. You were there for the mundane and the exciting. You became a part of our church family, and found your way into our hearts. You mean so much to all of us.

In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda “Death doesn’t discriminate/ Between the sinners and the saints/It takes and it Takes/And we keep loving anyway”

To one of the saintliest people I know – you never stopped loving, and I won’t either.

I remember your stories of people who shut you out in ignorance – and your door was open to them. You never spoke ill of them, and you were ready to accept them back into your life. You didn’t force them to come to you, you showed them the open door and backed away to wait for them to make their own decision.

That is your legacy, and it is one of the most honorable. Everyone who knew you was blessed by your kindness and acceptance, and I hope to continue that in your name.

Death is hard. It will come and make everything tilt, off kilter, everything will feel wrong.  Feel it. Allow yourself to feel sad, to feel the pain. Cry. Scream.

And remember. Watch the slideshow. Think about the jokes, and the serious conversations, and the last moments.

I will continue Jorja’s legacy. I will live my life the same way she did. I will open all the doors I have kept shut, and see what happens.

Unarmed Empire, Book Review

A new book has come out that you should buy today: Unarmed Empire by Sean Palmer.

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Order it here!

“This book is the result of a lifetime in the church.”

So begins Unarmed Empire, the new book by Sean Palmer. Sean is an incredible story teller. He observes. He listens. He reflects. And as he writes, he tells a story that I truly believe every churchgoer will relate to on some level.

Sean loves the church. He loves what the church should be and can be. He hates what the church in many places has become.

As Sean relays stories of his experience in the church, he is quick to point out his own failings. As he is quick to state, people on both sides of the current state of political discourse have become victims. We have allowed our personal, political, and philosophical opinions dictate how we operate and interact. Instead of being a Kingdom people, we have adopted a “Pax Americana.”

If you are a churchgoer who wants to reclaim what Jesus called the church to be, this book is for you. If you have been burned by churches in the past, pick up this book to grasp a picture of what church can and should be and what some churches truly are striving to be.

Sean is calling us all to community—a community based on grace, a community based on welcoming, a community that seeks to create peace. This book is authentic. It is convicting. It is a road map for what we as a church have been called to be.

Sean is a friend. I have known him for more than half my life. As he writes, I can hear and appreciate his growth and maturity through the years. I can see the ways God has molded and shaped him; how God has used him to bring about the Kingdom without being too distracted by any earthly kingdom. Sean may not realize how important he has been to my own spiritual development over the years. And as I read his book, I was wanting to loudly proclaim, “Amen,” over and over—about 90% of the time. The rest of the time, he was convicting me to wrestle with my own sin; the ways I have given in to earthly standards in my relationships with other people.

We have lost our story. Let us reclaim it. “Christians can be right, but if we are not kind, we are wrong.” Let us be kind. Let us be welcoming. Let us be the church.

 

Stolen Jesus, Book Review

My friend wrote a book! And I highly recommend it! You can (and should) pre-order it here:

For years, Jesus was “more of a habit than a relationship.” It is my experience that this has been true for at least some portion of every Christian’s journey. Jami Amerine’s new book, Stolen Jesus, is her story of turning her habit into so much more.

Jami is honest and vulnerable. She shares from the deepest parts of her soul. (And she tells funny family stories, too!) As she details the number of false Jesus images she grew up with, she reveals an important truth: most of these images come from a good place. As I read, I remembered the ways I misunderstood Jesus because the picture I was given was incomplete.

I grew up as a preacher’s kid and even went to college to gain a degree in preaching. Yet it was not until my own experience of almost losing everything that I fully came to have a real relationship with Jesus. On my blog and in my personal interactions, I strive to achieve the same type of open story-telling that Jami utilizes in Stolen Jesus.

Jami experienced different church groups growing up. She has children ranging in age from 22 to 1. Her family fosters children. They have adopted children. They have moved. They have experienced home school, private school, and public school. They have faced family tragedy and times of questioning and worry. Yet through it all, Jami and her family have sought Jesus. Her journey is one of moving from what people tell us about Jesus to actually getting to know Jesus.

I have never shared cabbage with a friend because my breasts were engorged with milk nor have I had my dress pulled off of me my by a shopping cart in Walmart, but I have friends with whom I walk through this life together. I have had moments of extreme embarrassment knowing the entire world was watching. I know what it is like to see the looks and hear the words of the person who does not know you putting you down.

As Jami writes, our journeys are so different yet they are so much the same. I, too, have many inherited Jesuses that I needed to let go of in order to have a relationship with the one, true Jesus. She admonishes all of us. She encourages all of us. She can make us laugh and cry. Yet she is careful to say she is not the expert. All she is doing is sharing her story. And I am grateful she does.

Note: I received an advance copy from the publisher. If you are interested in reading more Jami, head on over here.

The American Swastika

The first time I attended an AA meeting, I was six days sober. I read the poster of the 12 Steps. I thought to myself (confidently), “Wow! I’m already on Step 10!”

It was not long before I started drinking again.

Is that really a surprise?

You see, I was not honest. I was not honest with myself or my condition at that time. I wanted to believe that I had evolved so much faster than I truly had. I wanted to believe that by simply removing alcohol from system for six days I could ignore the hard work of self-reflection and living sober that was yet come.

I also was not honest in my recovery with my sponsor, my wife, my church, or my friends. I still kept secrets. I refused to admit all my wrongdoing. There was one secret in particular that I kept. It related to the ways I was getting the necessary funds to pay for all of my alcohol. (Essentially, what I defined as “borrowing” the State of New York defined as “extorting.”)

I was unwilling to acknowledge completely that alcohol was simply one part of the problem. It ran much deeper than drinking too much.

And so, because of that, I did not stay sober for long. I found myself drinking again a short while later. Only this time, I drank more often and I drank much more. I kept telling myself it was only a phase; it wasn’t that big a deal; I could stop anytime—pretty much all of the excuses you have all heard in every movie or TV show about addiction ever.

Because I could not come clean, I became much dirtier.

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In our country, we have not yet fully come to terms with our disease of racism. So it really is no surprise that events common in 1950 and 1900 and 1860 and since the earliest days of our nation were occurring still in 2017.

One of the starkest examples of this is that we still allow the American Swastika to fly.

The fact that many people in the country are still okay with and supportive of the Confederate flag and other symbols of the Confederacy shows that we are not being honest. People try to wipe away the hateful words that were associated with not only the symbols but also the very existence of the Confederacy.

We must be honest. We must be honest that the Articles of Confederacy stated that non-white people were inferior. We must be honest that at the heart of the Civil War was the desire to have the right to buy and sell human beings. We must be honest that the symbols that have gone up across the country did not go up right after the war; they were erected in 1900 with the proliferation of Jim Crow. They were erected in 1950 as a protest against the Civil Rights movement. These monuments were not intended as a way to preserve history, they were intended to intimidate and remind people they should stay in their place. We have tried to keep our racism and racist meanings behind our symbols a secret for too long.

The American Swastika still flies because, as a country, we have been unwilling to admit our wrongdoing.

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And so, because of that, we will continue to face events like we experienced this past weekend. We will never recover from the disease and addiction of racism for long until we finally decide to embark upon the self-reflection that is necessary for growth. We need to acknowledge that events like this past weekend are only one part of the problem. The true problem runs much deeper.

Until we come clean, we will continue to get dirtier.

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We all must acknowledge our wrongdoing—both in our actions and in our inaction; in our words and our silence. We must learn to listen. We must learn to face hard truths. We must give up holding on to only what we want, what we like, and what we are comfortable with. We must seek to journey to a place of recovery.

And that will come only with hard work. But that’s better than walking along blindly until another tragedy occurs.

 

*Artwork from https://venneccablind.deviantart.com/art/Bree-Newsome-542842829