Keeping Perspective

This afternoon I had the joy of spending time with a former seminary classmate and his daughter over a cup of coffee. One of the largest struggles I have had to face while in recovery from both alcoholism and domestic violence has been the message that was handed to me by both my culture and my partner.

My culture taught me from an early age that alcoholics looked a certain way and were untrustworthy. I was not told that they had a disease with real physical roots. I was told that alcoholics drank out of paper bags under bridges or in book clubs depending on how much money was in their bank account. I was never given the perspective that an alcoholic was someone who could recover with support, care, and love. When I realized I had a problem with alcohol, I immediately was ashamed of who I was as a person despite the fact that I am a human being with a disease that was quite treatable and was not a one-way ticket to a lifestyle under a bridge.

My partner taught me through her actions and words that I wasn’t worthy of any better treatment than how society treated alcoholics. I was told multiple times that I was not good enough, was worthless, was inadequate, and told me, “God must love you because nobody else does.” Even though she is gone, I can still hear the exact inflection of and scorn in her voice as she cast such judgments over me and my value.

Do you know what my friend from seminary told me today? When my partner left, there was joyful cheering (along with the tears on the other end of the state). To be clear, they didn’t cheer because I was hurt. They were thankful that I was free from a sick and desperate situation that they saw coming years before I began to recognize what was happening. They believed in me, cared about me, and he went out of the way with his daughter to come and see me because I matter to them, which they did with the full and enthusiastic support of his wife (who is also my friend).

I often forget the simple truths my friend reminded me of this afternoon. I didn’t lose value because I became sick: I became a person in need of healing and support. I didn’t lose value because someone tore me to shreds: I just needed to look for value in people who believed in me, cared for me, and loved me as a friend and person. Now that the shackles are breaking, I can choose to keep investing in healthy relationships even as I continue to seek my freedom from the person who tore me down.

It is easy to forget how much we matter, especially if we are recovering from domestic abuse or an addiction. It is easy to forget that there may be people who love us and support us in spite of what others have said about us or done to us. Yes, God loves us: there may be people who love us as well.

If you’re recovering from abuse or addiction, may I invite you to believe that you have value? Although it is close to the end, may I suggest that a good thing to remember during National Suicide Prevention Week (which is also part of National Suicide Prevention Month, which is halfway to completion) is that you have value? As much as the tagline this month is about Domestic Violence, allow me to point out that in the United States you can dial 988 to reach someone who can support you if you are feeling suicidal. No matter what others may have told you, your life matters and I hope you stick around.


October has been Domestic Violence Awareness month since it was first introduced by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981. Regardless of the month, domestic violence is never okay, no matter the circumstances. If you or someone you know is in desperate need of help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.

“Celebration” and Sobriety

Our devotional points out hard words from Christ today. In the New Revised Standard Version, Luke 5:39-40 says: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Throughout the season of Lent, Sundays are “mini-Easters.” Traditionally, Sundays are moments of celebration in the midst of a somber season. The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt acknowledges this by having every Sunday until Easter be the same theme: “Celebrate.”

Even with that prompt for celebration, I feel called to celebrate out of a place of testimony today. My photo is of a flower that was blooming in the nearby Henry Smith Woods in the heart of Trumansburg. It was one of the first flowers of the season and I found it to be beautiful both in its vibrance and in the way it has a wonderful blossom that reminds me of the Trinity. What minister wouldn’t love a flower with three petals on one blossom? Well, one who doesn’t enjoy oversimplification, but it is still quite a flower!

So, what does the scripture bring to mind today? It reminds me of the fact that I am in recovery and that recovery has been a challenging road.

A few years ago I had the bright idea of running on an elliptical everyday as a fundraiser for the church. It was going wonderfully until one day I had the audacity of trying to pull up my pants after running too hard. A trip to Urgent Care, multiple visits to my doctor, and months of physical therapy followed.

I am the child of an alcoholic. I have had a gastric bypass surgery which means that once something goes down my throat it doesn’t come back out, Both of these are reasons I should never drink. I was so desperate to get rid of the pain that late one night I tried mixing alcohol with my medication to make the pain go away. It worked for a while, I got in a habit of soothing the pain until that soothing didn’t work anymore. Like many people who have been ensnared over the years, I drank to get rid of one problem and found a lot more waiting for me including the very thing that once “helped.”

The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit that life has become unmanageable and that you are powerless over alcohol. My goodness, things grew out of hand quickly. Things kept getting worse until the day that I, as a minister who had helped others to do this very thing, had to hit my knees in prayer. I came to a point where I had to tell God that I had not only made a stupid mistake but that I needed help to get out of my brokenness.

“Pastor Rob, didn’t you realize what was happening?” No. I just wanted the pain gone. “Pastor Rob, were you helping other people deal with literally the same issue while you were struggling?” Yes, but this physician couldn’t heal himself. “Pastor Rob, do you feel ashamed about the fact that you did something so stupid?” Yes, although I have come to realize that there were bigger things going on than just that one mistake. My life was unmanageable for a number of reasons, none of which are unique to me. There are ministers who become addicted and there are ministers with family problems. I’m not unique in either of those things.

The words of Jesus still strike me hard: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” For so long I believed in Jesus, sought through the scriptures, and even shared the testimony while refusing to come to Christ in this one area of my life. I chose secrecy instead of honesty, hiding brokenness instead of admitting struggles, and even offered hope while refusing to accept it for my own brokenness.

The flower I share is like me today. I am watching my petals spread every single day, have new growth reaching out after years of dormancy brought about by fear, and have even started making new friendships after a long period of feeling as if I did not deserve something as simple as friendship without my family’s approval. I used to feel as if my heart was locked in a cage like a silent bluebird but am increasingly feeling like I am rising on the wings of a phoenix.

Even if you have had moments when you have refused God’s love and help, it is not too late. Friends, trust me when I say that God loves you deeply and truly. If you need help, there’s help out there. There are places where you can walk through the door and they won’t judge you for needing help. A lot of them are filled with wonderful people who will bend over backwards to make you feel welcome and help you get your life back in order. Don’t hide in the shadows: the light is okay.

There is a way to freedom. It may not be easy, you may stumble, and you may want to give up sometimes. Don’t give up. You can find freedom with help. Don’t give up.

The Calling and a Personal Journey

There’s a long gap in my blog between the events of the past and the events of the present. A lot happened between those last poems from a while back and the poems of today. I have been on a journey of discovery as my wife separated from me as I came to grips with the fact that my marriage was at an end.

There were a lot of missing poems that were shared between shed tears. Like sand mandalas, those poems were here for a moment and then gone. In many ways those poems blurred the lines between prayer and poetry even more than usual. There were moments of grief, anxiety, and loss.

Over those months of quiet self-reflection and work I came to a point where I finally publicly admitted that I am in recovery from alcoholism which did not begin in the last year or during that silence. I have been open about my family’s history with alcoholism, but had never shared the stories with anyone of how I used alcohol to supplement pain medication during a lengthy period of severe pain and physical therapy where I could barely walk or even sit still from the pain. I didn’t have the life wisdom to realize that I should have gone to a doctor instead of self-medicate on top of prescription medication. That decision was dangerous and doubly-dangerous as my family has a history of addiction. It was foolish.

I have had to come to grips with what part of my life had been shredded by alcoholism, realized that there were problems that had had nothing to do with alcoholism in my relationship, and I have realized that I kept medicating pain of a different kind even after my back healed. I have come to understand that this is a season where I need to be faithful to my identity as a single man who still wants to be a good father, wants a respectful relationship with his former partner, and who wants to find a way forward while choosing both life and the high road through some very dark passes in spite of the choices of others.

One of the most difficult conversations I had during that dark period was a long conversation with my District Superintendent where I shared openly and honestly about the journey I have been on. I shared that I still felt called to the ministry, still felt the Holy Spirit at work, and shared about the journey of recovery which has included working with professionals and a particular anonymous organization to connect all the aspects of my journey into one way forward. I have put in a lot of work medically, psychologically, and spiritually over a period of years to come to this place where I am beginning to see the light of freedom in recovery. I have put in hundreds if not thousands of hours into seeking freedom from the consequences of my biology, choices, and a disease that is not infectious certainly seems communicable.

I share this now as I was just blown away by a passage I read while preparing for my sermon this Sunday. I was working through the commentary of Ronald Clements in the Jeremiah entry to the “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” Series published by John Knox Press. On page 16, Clements writes of Jeremiah:

“The sense of call, with all that this meant by way of reliance upon God and the stripping away of all other social and personal supports, was something that was taking shape over a long and difficult period of time. It had begun for Jeremiah at a specific moment in his personal life and had continued. The experience of inner self-discovery had not ceased since that first day. The sense of call belong too to his private inner world as a part of his personal understanding of God. Yet it had to be a public and openly declared part of his self-understanding, since it alone could explain his declarations and his personal authority to declare them. No one could confirm or deny that he possessed this calling; it was between himself and God.”

Clements, Ronald E. Jeremiah. John Knox Press, 2012.

I was blown away by this passage. While reading this commentary, I connected deeply and intimately with Jeremiah in a way that I have never connected before this moment. Certainly, I am not the first pastor to sigh over the direction of American Christianity. I can connect the dots between the political and social forces of Judah in Jeremiah’s day and the the political and social forces in modern American religion. I am not the first pastor to wonder if the rhetoric and posturing of many modern church leaders on television is not the gasp of a system that is about to go into exile. This is not where I felt a connection.

I felt a connection as I remember my past. I remember being a teenager who felt called away from a suicidal grief into the love of God. I remember talking with a youth leader about how I wanted to go into ministry because it was tugging at a deep part of me. I remember being a youth leader and a church intern who just kept feeling the compulsion to go deeper. I remember studying and taking the first steps into ministry. I remember the interviews, the affirmations, and the ordination. I remember all of those moments.

I also remember praying with trusted friends in Malvern, PA, at the Academy of Spiritual Formation as I admitted that I was occasionally mixing drugs and alcohol to get through the pain. I remember talking with close friends about how it felt less and less like a choice. I remember asking them to pray for me as I started trying to get free of that compulsion to drink. I remember being dry and miserable on my own without a single supportive voice. I remember the first time I said: “Hi, my name is Rob and I’m an alcoholic.” I also remember that it took a few attempts to find the courage to say those words. I remember meeting with a sponsor for the first time and sharing stories. I remember the anxiety and fear. I remember the first time I worked through my fear and clearly stated aloud why I always note that we serve non-alcoholic juice when serving communion: I say it because of people in recovery like me.

I remember talking with Pastor Parish Relations Members at my church about the fact that my wife and I were separating and how it partially related back to my own journey of recovery. I remember sharing that I had a relapse and that I had climbed back on the wagon quickly because I was afraid. I remember crying with fear about being honest. I remember how freeing it was to tell people that I attend meetings daily via Zoom to continue to seek freedom. I also know that I have both amends and living amends to make with people I have harmed along the way. I remember almost every conversation with someone I have known for a long time where I have said something along the lines of: “I’ve had to come to grips with something.”

Through all of these things I have never felt my call to leadership ebb. In fact, I have had many people open up about their own struggles and the struggles of others. I have talked with wandering folks who come to my church each time they are in the area because the pastor not only understands the journey towards sobriety but is walking down that same road. I share a cup of coffee with them after church not out of sympathy but out of true camraderie as a sojourner down a similar road. I have even performed funerals for people who have and have not found a way to freedom on that same road. I feel like I am a better minister since I have found the courage to be honest about my alcoholism. Honestly, I feel more hampered by the pain of marital and parental separation than the daily journey of recovery.

At some point I hope I will get to the point where I share with others in those meetings that I’m not only an alcoholic but a pastor. Honestly, that’s almost more scary than sharing with the church that I have a struggle with addiction. According to one study published last year, the national average of drinks consumed in the United States was 17 per week (Survey: Americans consumed 17 alcoholic drinks per week in 2020). It seems less strange to admit that I am just another person struggling with the disease of alcoholism that has been on the rise over the course of the pandemic than to admit to other people that I have a very very close relationship with “the God of my understanding,” especially if that means they might share less freely about their own journey and struggles.

In the meantime, I do feel called to continue in ministry quite strongly. Clements indicates of Jeremiah, the calling that Jeremiah experiences was one that nobody could confirm or deny from the outside. I identify with that description of the calling deeply. The calling is first and foremost internal.

Surely, I could be reappointed or even stripped of a title, but that’s different from having the authority to confirm or deny a calling. As the Bishop said at my ordination, ordination was a recognition of what God has done and what God is doing in my life. Ordination was an affirmation of what God was doing and recognition that God was at work in a special way. That journey has not changed and that calling has never ceased. It still burns deeply within me.

I wish I could put into words how strange it is to be called to leadership and authority while daily admitting that I am powerless to straighten things out on my own. The power was never mine, but it often feels easy to assume I am more powerful than I am, which many of my colleagues likely understand. I personally have come to believe it makes me a better leader as I am quite clear on the fact that the power I hold and wield as a minister does comes from God and not from my own strength.

So that’s the story of the long absence between posts. Yes, I am in recovery. No, I’m not ashamed of admitting my need for God to work in my life every day through the process. Yes, I am allergic to alcohol and I have a disease. No, having a disease is not the end of the world. This disease is a disease and not some moral failing or mark of worthlessness. Good people that I have come to trust tell me that there is a solution and I believe that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Truly, I live each day with hope and courage that comes from being on my knees and asking for help each time I wake up in the morning to the snuffling sounds of a dog and each night that I go to sleep alone. God is with me on this journey and that journey will continue 24 hours at a time for the rest of my life. I am okay with that journey and I will keep walking.