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.

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!

Your Boring Story

We know the story. Even those who have little or no Christian background know the story of the Prodigal Son. We know about the younger son leaving and going to the far country. We know about the desire to eat the slop they were feeding the pigs. We know about the return home, the rehearsed confession, the anticipated humiliation, and giving up of the position his birth gave him. We know about the father sitting on the porch and seeing the son while he was still a long way off. We know about the fatted calf and the party and the joy. That which was dead is now alive; that which was lost is now found.

It is one of the most popular stories in the Bible. It is likely one of the most popular stories in all of literature.

And it is an important story. No matter how far you have strayed; no matter how egregious your behavior; no matter how hateful your words and actions have been, you can always come home. We need to remember this. We need to proclaim this. We need people to remind us how they have come home and how they have overcome.

But it just feels like something is missing…

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There are many opportunities to hear powerful testimonies of people who have lost everything and found it again. People who were born into horrible circumstances only to overcome. People who have undergone miraculous transformations.

And those stories are important. We need to hear them. There are people who are hurting, broken, and lonely. In the midst of despair, it is valuable to hear that you are not alone.

I have been given the opportunity to share my testimony in several settings. It is an honor to be able to do so. I am grateful that I can share where I have been and where my journey currently has me and where it is taking me.

I am also grateful for those other stories I get to hear when others share. It is a gift of grace to be present when someone is willing to open up and be vulnerable and provide us a glimpse into their lives.

But what about those people whose stories are, for lack of a better term, boring? What about those people who never had a journey “to the far country?”

Sometimes, I wonder if we celebrate the story of the modern day prodigals (which is good) so much that we discredit the story of the modern day older brother (which is not so good).

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I have read and heard and preached on and listened to sermons about the Parable of the Prodigal Son millions of times. (Or some number close to that.)

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So I never expected to hear something different in the story when I read it out loud last week. A small phrase that I never caught before. A few simple words that changed the meaning in a profound way.

I never realized before that after the party started—you know, the party with the fatted calf for the younger brother who came back home—the father went out to the older brother.

This may not seem like much, but it hit me as I read it this time: the younger son was not the only one the father noticed. The younger son was not the only one the father was waiting for. The younger son was not the only one the father ran out to in order to extend grace and mercy. The younger son was not the only one the father wanted to celebrate.

The father went to the older brother. The brother who had stayed at home. The boring brother.

Leaving home, squandering our money in alcohol and sex, landing flat on our backs at rock bottom, and only then coming to our senses is not a prerequisite to be loved by God.

It is also not a prerequisite to having a great story, a great confession.

The older brother stayed. When the father must have felt abandoned, the older brother was there. When the work load increased, the older brother increased his effort. When the father faced the shame that would have come with a child abandoning the family, the older brother worked to restore the family honor.

The older brother is not a bad person. He is not the antagonist (though he is sometimes seen as such). The older brother devoted his life to serving and honoring his father.

And because he was never in need of radical grace, he did not know what to do when he saw his father extend it. And when he struggled with the acceptance of his younger brother, the father then extended radical grace to the older brother.

No matter how boring you may think your story is, you are still the recipient of the amazing gift of grace from God.

And your story is still important. We need to know that there is redemption for those of us who have struggled with addiction, loss, imprisonment, and oppression. But we also need to know there is redemption for those who have never wandered away.

You may think your story is boring. But it is not. Your story is valuable. Your story needs to be heard.

Your story will be a blessing. So share it.

 

*Picture is of the painting The Prodigal Son Returns by Soichi Watanabe

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?