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.

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.

 

Asking Questions, Having Conversations

The following is a post I wrote for CenterPeace: providing safe spaces for men and women who experience same-sex attraction. For years, CenterPeace and their director, Sally Gary, have been striving to help create and increase conversations. I was honored to write this piece and am glad to share it here on my blog, as well. I would encourage you to check out CenterPeace’s website and blog.

(My post is one of series of posts written by fathers. Beginning today (Monday), Sally will also be sharing guest posts written by mothers.)

Continuing with our guest series from fathers of LGBTQ daughters and sons on Fridays, here’s a post from my friend, Paul Mathis.

Sometimes, I say the dumbest things. (According to my children, this only seems to be heightened as they grow older.)

I like to think I am a kind person; a thoughtful person; a caring person; a smart person. I know that I truly do want to be supportive and encouraging. But sometimes, in my quest to speak words of kindness, I mess up and say something that just sounds awful.

Have you ever read those posts on social media? Something like “Ten things never to say to a foster family,” or “Never say this to someone whose family member is deployed.” I read those and realize that I have said virtually all of them. Always with the best intentions. Always because I truly do care. But sometimes, I just don’t have the right vocabulary to speak into certain situations.

So when my son came to me several years ago and said he was bisexual (and later he would tell me he was gay), I did not know what to say. I came up with some non-committal response that ended with me telling him I loved him.

There is so much I wish I knew at that point. I had been raised in a traditional, conservative denomination that taught homosexuality was a sin. Although I never participated in any boycotts, I was quick to put down Disney and other media companies for their “liberal, homosexual agenda.”

Yet through all of that, I had several friends who were a part of the LGBTQ community. They welcomed me and I welcomed them. We spoke freely and openly. I can truly say I loved counting them among my friends.

But there were so many times that I would either say the wrong thing thinking I was being funny or supportive; or I would just not say anything at all because I was afraid anything would be the wrong thing.

One thing I never did: reach out to someone who could help me have these conversations. However, that was not just because of my fear; I did not know anyone with whom I could have those discussions.

My son approaching me made me so aware of my perceived inability to have these conversations. I did not know what to say. I was afraid to say anything wrong so I defaulted to saying nothing at all. I was woefully unprepared.

I wish I could go back and tell my past self that I was not unprepared. I loved my son. I still do. And it was okay for me to tell him that I was confused, uncertain, scared, and whatever else. It was okay for me to say that because I could also say without hesitation that I loved him. I loved his siblings, as well, unconditionally. I repeated that as often as I could.

I wish I could go back and tell myself that it is okay to question what I had been taught and to be okay with not having an answer. I wish I could tell myself to continue on the journey. I wish I could tell myself that I did not need to feel alone on the journey.

Here is what I cannot do: go back in time. Here is what I did do: reach out to Sally Gary and ask if I could have a conversation.

I remember well the day I texted Sally and asked if I could talk to her and say things that might make me sound ignorant and hateful. I just did not have the language I needed to have a conversation about sexual identity and orientation with my son.

Sally was welcoming. She was patient. She was kind. She was loving.

In the ensuing six years, my relationship with my son has grown closer. More than anything else, Sally taught me that I actually was prepared to have this conversation with my son because I loved him. Sally has taught countless people that conversations based in love are such a vital piece of building and maintaining relationships.

Here is what I continue to do: encourage every parent who has a question to make use of CenterPeace and all its resources. First and foremost, love your children. Second, know you are not alone. Third, continue engaging in conversation based in love and covered in prayer.

Sometimes, I say the dumbest things. But sometimes, my child hears me and knows he is loved.

I am grateful for CenterPeace and Sally and the conversations that have started because of this ministry. I am grateful for the visible support Sally has been to countless others. So when she lost her hair due to her chemo treatments I wanted to do something as a visible sign of support. My shaved head has inspired many questions. Each time I answer, I get to talk about Sally and CenterPeace!

An Open Seat, Just For You

This week’s post is written by a special guest: my daughter, Rheannon. She is a freshman in high school this year, active in a local service organization, theater, and her church’s youth group (as well as Freedom Fellowship which she talks about in the post).

Many of these thoughts have been circulating in her mind for a long time, but the sermon we heard at our church yesterday brought some clarity and focus. I hope these words will encourage you as they have encouraged me. 

Yesterday at church my preacher talked about the kingdom of God, and how hard it was to understand how church was really supposed to be. He spoke about how the kingdom is not where you are comfortable – church is not the place where everyone looks like you, thinks like you, believes what you do.

Church is where you are different, and challenged, and uncomfortable.

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This picture was taken at Freedom Fellowship, a satellite church of Highland. I’ve been going to Freedom for six years – longer than I’ve been at Highland. Every third Saturday night, Freedom does a special worship service and serves communion. Since I’ve been going, I’ve stood at the end of the line and given a hug to the people passing through the line.

I have always felt the closest to God in those moments. I’ve felt the presence of God on earth every time someone new passes through and return the hug for the first time.

Freedom’s ten year anniversary was a HUGE event – a big neighborhood party. Everyone who had been at Freedom in the beginning spoke about all the special things Freedom offered, and shared their favorite memories. Terry St. Pierre spoke about communion and how it started. Then, he talked about my hugging and how much it had affected the people who experienced it.

Then, we broke bread. And I gave hugs like I had been doing for almost half my life.

The woman featured in the picture had been going to Freedom for a couple of weeks at that point. I’d seen her in worship, uncomfortable at first, and then getting into it as the weeks went on. Every time I saw her raise her hand in worship, it brightened my day in amazing amounts.

I believe God put her in Freedom for a reason. I believe God sent her to Freedom to experience his love.

I believe she was sent to feel how worthy she was in the kingdom.

This would be the second time she had taken communion at Freedom. The first time, I’d given her a short hug and let her move on quickly like I did with a lot of newcomers.

That night, though, I gave her the biggest hug I could manage. I tried to relate to her God’s limitless love for her.

And I received more from that hug then I gave. She gripped my neck and gave everything right back to me, and I’ve never felt more blessed.

Because God’s kingdom comes when people give up their safe zones for the unknown without fear. God’s kingdom comes to earth when we allow ourselves to love without boundaries.

I believe that Freedom is the closest I will ever come to heaven on earth, simply because there is no judgement and no hate. Freedom gives me a chance to experience things churches strive for.

We welcome everyone.

We do not judge.

We do not leave anyone out of what they want to be a part of.

We do not assign certain jobs to certain people based on sex, or race, or social status.

Freedom is a place where the things others people say and believe no longer hold any truth or importance and you can believe what God believes about you and be affirmed by dozens of people that know how important you really are.

Today, we’re celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who fought for equality and respect among all people.

One point made in church yesterday was that a big part of the civil rights movement was the assembly of church. MLK was invited to talk with many churches, to have dialogue with the people who believed what he believed and who wanted to help.

Church has always been important to people who wish to bring peace among humans. Church is the place that people could be together and not be afraid.

And suddenly, church seemed to stop being that place. It began to become a place where we pretended to be perfectly okay to fit in. Church became a place where I no longer wanted to be.

But Freedom Fellowship? That’s where, at my most uncomfortable, I felt the most peace. Freedom is where I began to believe in the power of church again.

And there will always be an open seat, on any pew, on either side of the auditorium for anyone who wants to be there.

There is always a place at any table, inside or out, where anyone can sit and share a meal before worship starts.

There is always a place in God’s kingdom for anyone who has ever existed.

There is always a place for you.

Update: I forgot to give photo credit to Zach Snyder. The photo was taken on Freedom Fellowship’s 10th anniversary celebration.

When Someone’s World Falls Apart

I still remember the stares.

Sitting on the back pew in church as people would walk by, I would make eye contact. Eye contact with faces that seemed to convey pity (“It is so sad what happened.”) or doubt (“Is he even sober now?”).

To be fair, I cannot say with absolute certainty that those questions were in the minds of people as they walked by. But it sure did feel like they were. Every glance. Every whispered conversation. Every head shake. It was all so overwhelming.

And let’s be honest: I was in the wrong. I had lied. I had tried to cover up what I was doing. I got caught. It wasn’t as if I had an epiphany and confessed all my wrongdoings. I was confronted as a result of my own actions and finally ran out of escape routes.

So it was time for me to endure—not only the natural consequences for my actions, but also the fallout in all my relationships. I had hurt many people close to me. I had created a situation that also affected, in indirect ways, many other people. There were a lot of questions. In places I once was present I now was absent. In places I once had a leadership role I now had little purpose.

People wondered. People questioned. People assumed.

When my world fell apart, that was only the beginning. I had a lot left to endure.

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It is difficult to witness. It arouses feelings of despair, hurt, betrayal, shock, confusion. It leads to many questions. It is something we are rarely prepared for.

And the announcement can come in a number of ways: a social media post, an overheard conversation, from the church pulpit, in a newsletter. When we learn the news, our first response is often stunned silence.

Then, the questions start popping in our head: “What did they do?” “What happened?” “Was this a mutual decision?” “I had no idea anything like this was going on; how long has this been an issue?” “How is the person going to fare now?”

These questions are legitimate. They are part of the human experience of curiosity.

And we must resist the urge to ask them.

I have spent a lot of time with people in recovery. There is an interesting dynamic at play with many of them: they are learning to share their stories—their experience, strength, and hope—with others. They learn to love sharing those stories.

But they almost always hate answering questions.

The content is the same. The details are the same. The story is the same. So what is the difference?

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I am a big fan of stories. I am a big fan of vulnerability. I am a big fan of confession and accountability partners/groups. I think if more of us could learn how to share more openly and more frequently it would greatly increase our community in numerous ways.

But still, we need to stop asking those questions.

When someone’s world falls apart, asking those questions often serves to satisfy our need to have questions answered, but it rarely serves to provide hope and healing for the person who is hurting.

On the other hand, making yourself available for people to come to you makes a world of difference. You can be the person that others will come to when you show that your primary purpose is to walk alongside those who are hurting. And you can do that with an infinitesimally small amount of information.

All you need for walking alongside somebody is compassion. In fact, the fewer words you speak the better. Just be present. Just listen. Offer some words: words of comfort; words of hope; words of accountability to help prevent something similar from happening again.

I do still remember the stares (whether they were real or imagined doesn’t make much of a difference). But I also remember the people who were present. I remember the people who listened.

Can we all be people who listen?