LEARNING TO THRIVE
The rest of the memory seems more like the recollection of a hallucination, except with much more clarity. I remember, with no sense of time, being aware of all of the times I had hurt others, even in the smallest way. I was fully aware of all my sins, a concept with which I was totally unfamiliar. I had an overwhelming sense of sorrow and remorse while, at the same time, experienced the peace, calm and security of knowing I was all right. I knew, for the first time in my life, the feeling that came with a sense of forgiveness. It seemed as though the thickest, softest comforter imaginable had swallowed me. Accepting that unconditional forgiveness has continued to be a difficulty.
Upon L.’s arrival home she found me face down on the garage floor, knees under my chest, sobbing and moaning. She helped me up, sat me down and, after looking into my face, called Beckie. Beckie talked, prayed and cried with me into the night. She knew I was in a strange place and was feeling very unsure. Logic told me it had to be hallucinations of insanity, but I knew in my heart it was real. I also remembered myriad bible passages and comments, mostly from my mother and her friends, from decades before. They had never made any sense, nor held any interest for me, but now I knew I needed to cling to them. I can now thank God, and the obedience and faithfulness of many others, for my very soul.
I began going to church with L., crying at almost every sermon and song that seemed to bore directly into my heart. I was invited out of the blue to join a small group led by a young couple that had left Liberty some years earlier, and whom I had only met once or twice by accident. Their group was for college students and young adults, but they welcomed this forty-three year-old as one of their own. Over the next two years I was taught and loved by a group of ‘twenty-somethings’. It didn’t stop there. Everywhere I turned were people who could have only been sent by God, at just the right moment. My life somehow seemed orchestrated by and toward God.
Within months of this event in my life, I found the courage to walk away from my suicidal lifestyle. The defining moment came in a conversation with a new client. My partner had described me to him as “a self-taught genius, although very eccentric and kind of incapable in the world outside this business”. I came to the immediate realization that I had become my father, and as such, would never find the gumption to change my life if I didn’t do it now. God, working in mysterious ways, provided the “trump card.” My business partner, and CFO of the company, had withheld payment of withholding and sales tax. The first time this had happened I stayed to help work it out, but this time was too much. Five and a half years ago I resigned, and walked out the door into my freedom. I’ve never looked back.
For two years, full-time, I built furniture, a skill I’d learned some fifteen years earlier in an attempt to leave some tangible evidence of my life. I was good at it, very good as a matter of fact. It kept us for those two years, although not in the manner to which we were accustomed. L., however, remained supportive. I began doing the books for Liberty Church in the evenings, as much for the joy as for the moderate, extra income. I started a small group at the church modeled after the ‘twenty-something’ group I attended, and was subsequently asked to help start others. Then the requests from the minister and some session members began. They wanted me to work fulltime for the church as the business manager. I wasn’t prepared at that time to take the leap, and repeatedly and politely declined.
In October 1998, while attending a Saturday evening service at another church with some friends, I felt inexplicably moved to turn my life over to God completely. I had accepted Christ as my Savior and Lord two years earlier, but this compulsion was distinctly more powerful than that. I was struck with the realization that God had fought for my soul for a purpose. One problem – I had no clue what that purpose was. I prayed that God would use other people to verify the nudges I thought I was receiving, which did indeed happen. I then made a vow to go along with God for the ride, wherever it led.
Almost immediately the minister, the staff and several elders approached me again to help the church. Liberty’s finances were becoming desperate, and the church needed fundraising and financial skills. I still resisted, finding it impossible to believe I could be useful to God in a church setting. A member of the small group at the other church, without knowing the situation at Liberty, spoke to me after we’d prayed together. She told me to recite Proverbs 3:5-6 until I understood how it applied to my church and myself. She said she had no clue what it meant. I gave up fighting.
After beginning work at Liberty I felt as if I was meant to be there, not as much from the nature of the work, but from the reaction of the people. The congregation responded openly to an honest disclosure of the finances and a request for prayer for God’s provision. I was asked to do a testimony at a Lenten service and decided, at the last minute, to give them the gory details of my life and my conversion. Asked publicly why I had the courage to speak so openly to the people of the church, I simply replied, “I can only be hurt by the things I keep secret.”
People began describing me as a pastoral presence, and asking why I didn’t become a minister. I was shocked at the question. Why would God possibly need someone with such an ungodly life to minister to others? As far as I was concerned I was still largely an emotional cripple, although it had been over three years since my last bout of depression. L. also played a role in my turning away from the suggestion. Not more than two days earlier she had mentioned that she could never be a pastor’s wife. When I asked why she’d said it, L. answered that she really didn’t know.
After the testimony people seemed to come out of the woodwork wanting to talk. The number of people with addictive family or friends, or dealing silently with depression, was astounding. Shame had kept them from talking to anyone before, but now they felt more secure. A significant portion of my time was spent helping people find the professional connections they needed and, many times, just being a listener. The minister asked me to speak at a Sunday service, after which the questions about entering the ministry resurfaced, only louder and more persistently. He then asked if I could put together a sermon, not a testimony, for another Sunday service. I answered that I really didn’t know how, but would try. After that sermon, I gave the message twice more at Liberty and twice at other churches, each time hearing more encouragement for entering the ministry. By this time, armed with my own fear and L.’s spoken warning, I had compiled quite the list of reasons against a seminary education, which I recited to all who would listen.
In May 2000 I went with Methesco students to Cuernavaca, Mexico. Ginny Teitt, a Methesco student, intern at Liberty and a very good friend suggested me as a possibility to fill an open slot. Ginny had been one of the loud voices about the seminary and, I believe, had ulterior motives in inviting me along. A great many aspects of the trip had incredible impact, but the relationships with the other travelers had the greatest effect. My single biggest asset, oddly enough, was that I was so experienced at staying aloof that I didn’t feel close enough to my own culture to actually go into culture shock. Ginny got her wish. The voices became yet louder and even more determined. When reminded by Ginny and Sister Joanmarie that I had appealed to God for other voices to affirm the nudges, I replied that I would recognize only the voice of a stranger, or the last person I would expect. It was, in a way, a joke – but not really.
Upon returning from Mexico I was emotionally crushed at the airport by the news that L. wanted to separate. For three months I pressed for attempts at resolution, or at least an understanding of the reasons. Various reasons were given at different times, most of them economic, but the one consistent theme was that she did not want to reconcile. Finally, I agreed to give her some space and moved out. Later, in a conversation about money, I heard from the proverbial ‘last person I would expect’. For a particular need I had offered her some of the small amount of money I had accumulated from building church pews, which she declined to accept. L. then said, “That’s your seminary money”. She looked as if she couldn’t believe what just came out of her mouth. Because of her earlier statements I had not mentioned the constant pressing to pursue a seminary education and was astounded at her response. I could only acknowledge God’s hand in it.
I detailed to God my list of obstructions to the seminary, placing them in God’s hands. One by one the roadblocks were removed until the last was reached. I didn’t have a Bachelor’s degree. I never finished my undergraduate work and I couldn’t possibly attend a seminary without a degree. Some months later I was at Methesco to talk about the Mexico trip at Sister Joanmarie’s request. She had asked that I take part in a service and give my account of the trip. When she asked again about attending classes I played my trump card. “No degree”, I offered triumphantly. “You don’t need one,” she answered with equal vigor. It is possible, she explained, to request an exemption from that requirement. In the ensuing conversation she dug to the root of my resistance. God hadn’t told me where that trip would end. She pointed out that, maybe, I was just supposed to take the first step and trust God to show me the rest. Oh well, I guess I needed to go back to Proverbs.
When I revealed my plan to attend Methesco to Liberty’s minister, the relationship collapsed, as I knew it would. I had been privy to the pain Ginny had endured to be the student pastor at Liberty. The minister could not abide any perceived competition for the pulpit. I knew that he asked me to speak from the pulpit in the past because I was safe. I was not, and had no intention of being, ordained. Predictably, he tried many times to change my mind, finally resorting to leveraging my job against school. When it was obvious that approach wouldn’t work, he offered me a scholarship to go away to school. He wanted me out of Liberty. I declined, gave my resignation, and informed him that I would continue to attend Liberty as a member. It was probably wrong to find any enjoyment in the painful expression on his face, but I did.
On Monday, August 27, 2001 I began classes at Methesco. To what end? I didn’t know! But I was along for the ride whether it lasts two semesters or ten. Since I made that vow, life certainly hasn’t been boring.
Will be continued: Learning to Swim. Or go to INDEX.