Who Am I? Pt 4

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

While I was no better off than them I knew that going back to a prison cell was not something that I wanted. So one night I remember laying in my bed in my room and began to recall all the things that I had experienced, and for the first time began to think about what my future held. Thoughts of my friends’ actions and mentality began to creep in, as well as a realization that their choices and decisions were not the ones that I was envisioning for my future. As I lay there that night I began to stew in my past and what a miserable hand that I had been dealt. I thought deeply about all of my life’s regrets and what had become to the 35 year old man.

I thought of my dad, step-father and mother. For the first time in my life I began to see the consuming anger and hatred that my life had become to the point of despair. For some reason that night I also thought of those messages that I heard in my grandparents’ church, those messages that my step-father preached, yet had not practiced, those messages that chaplains and preachers brought to me in some of the deepest and darkest times in my life. That night, through the anger, fear and hatred I began to recall those Biblical stories that told of a caring, kind, and compassionate God that desired happiness and peace for His sheep.

That night I began to see that what I desired is what I had been fleeing. No parting of the clouds or a burning bush but simply a softening of a very hardened heart, by which I could view these things in a differing light. Beyond my calloused flesh, I began to see the distant, flickering promise of God and a scripture, that I can never recall hearing before, began to settle on my heart, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (I didn’t know it was John 16:33, would soon).

I remember lying there that night, and for the first time since my mom was given the cancer diagnosis, prayed through a torrent of tears a very simple prayer, “God help me!” and I fell asleep. I awoke the next morning, still the same angry and tormented person, and tried to forget the previous night’s thoughts chalking it up to stress and desperation but with a new found realization of wanting to escape my present reality.

That next morning I had an job interview with someone that I had never met but who had heard through a Christian friend that I was looking for work. Despite my anger and stubbornness I found that something extraordinary might be going on. I met with the gentlemen and began working as a landscaper the very same day. After a month of working for him I had been promoted to a manager and had amassed enough money to move out on my own.

For the first time my past took a backseat to my future. Around this time the office manager of the landscape company asked me out on a date and I readily agreed. It did not take very long for her to express her Christian faith to me. It did not take long for me to see that she valued her relationship with God. I tried refute her position using shared pieces of my life and all of my reasoning behind my anger toward God. She sat patiently listening to my tirade, and then took out a Bible and began reading to me the scripture that had been placed on my heart a month ago. That verse from John 16:33 began to wrap my heart as she gently and lovingly began to show me a little of the trials and tribulations that she had faced in her life.

For the first time ever, I felt like I was not alone. As she began to share her own anger and resentment toward God I could not help but feel that there was something to it all. Many nights she continued to listen to this conflicted, angry man as he came to terms with the misplaced hostility toward God. She invited me to church; the whole time we sat in amazement as the pastor spoke directly into our lives.

We began attending Bible studies and exploring together the scriptural truths of God’s Word. Through the study of the scripture, the exploration of my past and the love and kindness of this amazing woman I began to view God not as a make-believe figure whom I could blame for everything but as a kind, loving and compassionate Lord who gave so dearly in order to free us all from the bondage and slavery to sin. We were married at that church, and Christ was no longer a foreign object to me but the foundation upon which our marriage was to be built. Yet again, a new reality had set in.

The Wounded Healer

From my many scars of deep and serious wounds (imposed or self-inflicted), I am beginning to understand what Nouwen meant. Nouwen states that the minister, “is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after his own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others. He is both the wounded minister and the healing minister….” (Wounded Healer, 82) For the minister there is a connection between the suffering that this world has to offer and the suffering in the minister’s heart that leads to the precept of a wounded healer. The wounded healer is one who takes his own loneliness and suffering and through that lens of understanding creates a “hospitable space” for all of those who are wounded and looking for understanding and consolation. The wounds of the minister enable him to enter into the pain and affliction that the person is enduring, begin to understand them on a different level and connect with the person through a mutual suffering.

“For the minister is called to recognize the sufferings of his time in his own heart and to make that recognition the starting point of his service. Whether he tries to enter into a dislocated world, relate to a convulsive generation, or speak to a dying man, his service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks.” (Wounded Healer, xiv)

I wish this could be the end of the story. But there is more…

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Who Am I? Pt 3

See Part 2 here.

This new reality and routine continued on in my life until the fall of that year when I was again summoned to another office, but this time it was the Chaplain’s office. I vividly recall sitting in that chair and listening to the chaplain explain that my mother had finally lost her battle with cancer. He offered to pray with me as he explained that our God who is rich in compassion and cared for me dearly, who would not forsake or leave me during this time.

With this news and through my floodgate of tears I lashed out verbally at him telling him of what I thought of his God. No longer could I contain my anger, fears, and outrage at life and what it had given me. I was sure going to let him, and everybody I ran across, know what I thought of this fictitious deity.  Soon after I stopped going to classes, began masking my pain with alcohol and marijuana use, and was given a hardship discharge from the military. Being an only child and having the rest of my family succumb to death I decided to stay in the area. Instead of looking at the new reality that I found myself in, I focused on the past and the entirety of what my life had become. I was angry, hateful, full of resentment—overall mad at the world. Words alone cannot express the depth of the emotions that seeped from every pore of my body.

I continued to deal with all of these emotions and pains by abusing substances that would allow me not to feel anything beside the sadness that dwelt within me. It was not long before I had yet again fallen into the “wrong crowd” and surrounded myself with people who were of the same ilk. I became good friends with the pot dealer who lived across the hall from me and we would spend every night, for the better part of a year, partying and selling marijuana to others. One night that all changed though— through a tip to the police we were raided and arrested in my apartment for possession, burglary and theft.

I spent the next nine months of my life in the county jail where my anger and frustration with life only seemed to grow more deeply and manifest in more ways. Eventually I was sentenced to fourteen years in the state prison. Now these feelings of anger, hatred, and embroiled passion manifested themselves toward any of those hypocritical, Bible-thumping Christians. I spent the next ten years of my life confined in numerous prisons throughout the state. I made sure that everyone I encountered knew how angry I was with their make-believe God.

Through my penal tour I became known and feared as a “bible basher” who would do some pretty deplorable things to anyone who professed a faith in Christ. Child molesters, woman abusers and rapists were often the target of my anger as they so desperately sought to go to these church services where God gave them such a false comfort and security.  Not one time in this ten year span did I ever enter a chapel, attend a service, or accept any amount of help from a religious community or group.

While I was released from the confines that I had so desperately wanted flee, I was still filled with anger and hatred. The new reality that I now faced was one of fear as I stood before the world a free man, but a free man who had no place within society. Ironically, the only places, people, and organizations that would help someone in my situation were those Christian groups that I despised so much. Not wanting to join the ranks of the hypocrites, I began my journey of new found freedom not by accepting any help from them, but by continuing on in my obstinate anger, and hence my own self-made prison.

Living in a shelter and endlessly searching for work proved to be quite challenging for an ex-convict with little work history and obvious anger issues. This routine continued for a month or so until I ran into some friends of mine from prison who offered me a place to stay as they too could relate to the difficulties in transitioning back into society.

Eager to escape the shelter I jumped at the opportunity for this new found freedom, but it did not take long before, yet again, reality kicked in. My friends, plain and simple, were up to no good as they were already back into the lifestyle that had led them to prison in the first place. While in one breath they would praise the freedom they had on the “outside,” in the next breath they would talk about how they could get their next fix or how they could rob and rip off people to support themselves.

Now my prison had no visible walls, but my prison was just as real.

Depression-seeking help

(Note: I wrote this on a flight Monday afternoon—Aug, 12. But I didn’t have a chance to post until today. So this post actually preceded Robin Williams death. As I listened to broadcasters/announcers/commentators on Tuesday, I couldn’t help but wonder: how can they know so little and make at times so uncaring and judgmental statements….?)

How do we help those experiencing what we experienced? Should we speak to the person? Can we speak to the person? What shall we say? Do we become intrusive by even asking such questions?

In one sense, if the experience is too close to what I lived through, my tendency is to back away. Am I reliving my experience through that other person? If so, is it that person’s experience that I want to fix, or my own? And what if I have misread the signs? What if I am projecting my own battles onto someone else?

Seeking help

Most often, this is not my problem. Rather people seek me out because they have read about what I have experienced with depression. That really is better—for me and for the other person. That way, the person needs help and seeks something to deal with the problem. And I do not have to intrude into the person’s inner life. No, this invitation for help is far better.

Over the last four years since I began writing about depression and the Christian life, several people have contacted me about depression. They had been battling it for months or years.

For some the fear is that a Christian should not have a problem with depression. Some view it as a sign of weakness or lack of faith. Others see a continuing rerun of the same thing. For some depression seems to establish a life of its own that seems to never end, rearing its ugly head time after time.

Survival, Relief, or Cure

I know for me, the reaching out for help was survival mode. I wanted to make it through one more day, one more week. I wanted to know if there was any hope at the end of this dark tunnel.

As I lived through medication and counseling, survival gave way to needing relief. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but rather a progression from desperation to a sense that something changed, maybe not even sure what, but it changed.

But what changed really was far greater than my own experiences, greater than the medicine, greater than counseling. These were all necessary and helpful. But something behind and greater is there..

Change behind that

All three (survival, relief, and cure) share the ultimate same change. The change was to know that the God who I thought had abandoned me during the whole tunnel of depression had not, in fact, abandoned me. In my darkest days, the only word I seemed to hear was: Why are you so weak? Why are you giving into despair. I could only agree with those (and many more) accusing questions.

The change was to hear God’s Word for God’s proper work: saving, redeeming, forgiving, restoring work for humans. For me. God’s good counsel of hope, love, mercy, favor were spoken to me, the broken, depressed, forgotten person. Not because I had conquered depression, but because I couldn’t conquer it.

That change I knew intellectually, academically, and could have taught it to others prior to the depression. But in the depths, I couldn’t know it. It was a lost word, a voice through too many other voices, my own in particular.

But God sent faithful people to me to speak his saving, redeeming, forgiving, restoring words, loving words. Repeatedly speaking to me. And in that process God worked the hearing ears to believe what he declared. As our one son repeatedly asked over the past 36 years: “How can you keep loving me?” I was saying those words to God. His answer needed to be spoken again and again. I have shown you how much I love you: look at my Son.”

And this was not “God’s Son” as I imagined him to be, how I wanted him to be. Rather, this was God’s Son revealed in his Word, in his baptism of me, in his body and blood, in his spoken word of absolution. There Jesus promised to be. There Jesus gave concrete evidence of his presence. And that was what I could cling to, the only thing I could cling to.