Swallow your pride and reach out for help, and you end up proud of how God lets you reach out to help others
The journey begins on a Sunday morning very early in November 2004. I was just over one year into serving the congregation, and that Sunday a solid, stocky but not tall guy walked into the service late. It was clear he was not familiar with churchy ways, and also that he might not be in the best of shape mentally and emotionally. A bit pale, tentative of movement, a troubled look on his face, he nevertheless stayed for the rest of the service. I “geared down” my language and ramped up my explanations of things as I usually do when a visitor’s lack of familarity is clear. I do it to help them follow along.
After the service one of our members went to talk to the man and did NOT deflect or veer away when the visitor bluntly admitted he was at the lowest point of his life and needed help; he couldn’t kick his addictions and it was creating all kinds of problems in his life. Of all the people in the congregation to talk to the one God moved to approach him was the one person who knew the phone numbers and the ins-and-outs of addiction recovery best. You see, he used to work at Union Gospel Mission. In the meeting tonight, that person was there, and he spoke about how God began to cure him of his looking down on addicts when God called him out of his cushy computer job into working at UGM for a time.
So, the troubled visitor was given some options to follow and the phone numbers. We did not see him again, or hear from him again in the next 4 weeks. This is not uncommon, hard as it is, and we were somewhat used to never hearing back. But then, in Mid December, our member got a phone call saying our visitor was already in the program since just a few days after that Sunday!
Well, God found the man in that program and the man accepted being found, and through the amazing power of his diligent work on the 12 steps and the spiritual power of the Alpha program, and a connection with a spiritual mentor during the group’s Alpha retreat, he was able to drop active addiction and begin a journey toward a new life. He finished the program and with his wife joined our church. The Sunday he gave his testimony is clearly burnt into my memory. We are a denomination not used to such turnarounds!
He and I began a weekly one-on-one meeting, and became brothers in Christ and friends, even though our relationship began as Pastor – Mentor. It became clear after a year of meeting that way that the roles were interchangeable as my new friend both struggled and grew. He gave me many first experiences as a Pastor. I had never encountered anyone before who wanted so much for the Bible to mean something, but couldn’t understand it well, and was frustrated by that, even though what I would call his direct relationship with God was strong. I had never had anyone call me before as pastor to say he had just about transgressed in something or just about slipped back into active addiction. I had never had acquiance with anyone before who, when he felt an urgent need for prayer, would seek out someone, anyone, on the jobsite who was merely wearing a cross necklace, and ask them to pray with him. So, I don’t feel I taught or mentored much, but I sure learned some new perspectives!
Now, today, he and I have less contact. That’s the way things go. But I really enjoy attending the occasional meeting with him (see “Visiting a 12 step church meeting“). The church, and I, can learn so much from the brilliant depth of theology, and understanding of humankind’s ways of the 12 step movement. No buildings. No budget. No campaigns. No ads – except the walking stories of people in recovery. So free of organizational and institutional encumberments, so focused on one goal: Sobriety for one more minute, for one more day for one more addict.
Over time, I learned some of what my new brother’s life had been like while active in his addiction. I learned he was a bouncer for a time, and had no compunction whatsoever about beating someone senseless. I learned he was a “bill collector” for a notorious gang for a while. He came out of a rough and tumble world in which you needed to always be ready to defend yourself, and in which, for him, the slightest provocation — real or perceived — could send him into at least a rant, if not an assault.
So tonight we celebrated his three years of substance sobriety and a similar time of spiritual inebriation. In these meetings, much to my surprise, there is a fixed liturgy, a long established pattern of things that are read to all: “The Traditions” and The Promises” and “How it Works” and “The 12 steps” and more. These are brilliantly designed, and rich in human and spiritual and theological insight. Each time I visit one of these meetings I see that more clearly. Each time I’m there, I am stunned by what the church could learn from 12 step programs. But I’m off my aim for this blog entry, I’ll get back to the night I’m describing.
The “cakee” has the priviledge of pre-picking a couple of topics that are to be the theme or the basis of people’s ‘talks’ at the meeting. This night my friend had picked “Reaching Out” and “Pride” as topics. What happens next, after a reminder to keep talks to 5 minutes or less, and that there is to be no “cross-talk” — meaning no interruption or side conversations — is that specific people are invited to speak to and on the topic as they see it fitting in their life journy. They address the whole group. You may turn down the invitation. And so the man who led the Alpha retreat for the recovery program group was invited to speak. He has since become an ongoing spiritual mentor and “third father” (after one Heavenly and one earthly) for our friend. His personal story itself is an amazing thing to hear. His talk was tender and touching, and showed clearly how a Higher Power had been and was still at work. Next, the man from the church, the guy who got our “cakee” in touch with the program, spoke. He spoke meaningfully about how God has challenged his pride and prejudice and his looking down on the poor and addicted, and how God has helped him begin to learn to reach out. And so it went. There were about 30 people in the room (two of them women who are part of my friend’s support team) and close to 10 of us gave talks. Each spoke on reaching out and pride in some way, and altogether the listening to it was more real, more vivid, more person-shaping, more memorable, than almost any the sermons I have heard or given. There is power in the level playing field of this, there is power in the ‘expertise’ of the common person in uncommon struggle. Our honouree’s AA sponsor spoke as well, and presented the cake (with three candles) and a medallion to our friend. He pointed out that in the ideal sponsor/sponsee relationship both grow. The medallion was passed around the room. What struck me was that it looked well worn, and I wondered about the history of it as I admired the motivational words on it. The candles were lit.
Then the three-years-a-new-man gave his talk on the topics and told some more of his story. After he finished and graduated from the 120 day program he went back into the movie industry, but found the stresses and temptations too much, and gave up the great money he could make there (the money was not worth risking sobriety over) to go to work for less than half that money in a low income housing complex the mission organization owned. He worked there as a maintenance man for a time, planning to take training to become an outreach worker in the mission over time. Side Note: His “boss” at the housing complex was a fellow from my denomination, and I saw that as an interesting “more than coincidence” coincidence. Recently he became the manager himself, and then the director of outreach at the housing complex. He now is organizing ministry to repair lives in the complex and delegates the repairs of the broken building to others. He told us of an 11 year old boy who lives in one of the units and is dying of terminal cancer, and how they are working to make his last days the best they can be, and he told of planning to visit that boy and being worried how to do that, and how the boy ministered to him with his clear sense of peace and even enthusiasm that he was “going to meet Jesus.” Three years ago he wouldn’t have cared a hoot about this boy.
He spoke of how with his recent promotions his pride had started growing, and how his dependence on God diminished, how he thought he was taking charge of his own life again and how the success was all his. Then he shared how he had gotten carried away with his new powers, and was firmly yet with grace and kindness trimmed back in his pride by his superiors. Awesome stuff!
But the most profound miracle he spoke of had to do with why it was clear he was sore and protecting his ribs all night. When I offered him a hug earlier, he accepted but said “Be carefull of the ribs.” It turns out that he had been dealing with a person at the complex and the person had attacked him and injured him. My former bouncer and enforcer friend’s instincts kicked in, and at one point he had the attacker down on the ground, and suddenly something intervened and instead of following the old instincts my friend was able to step back and chose not to go into further violence. For that, apparently, he received another flurry of being attacked and further injuries. All he could think of in it was that he now represented God, Jesus, the agency and a new way of being in the world. Blog reader, that was a miracle! That was the Highest Power at work. And I just had to share it.