I had to think long and hard before I wrote this article. I started to write it and was three paragraphs into it before losing interest. And it wasn’t because the story wasn’t worth telling. It’s a great story, because God’s fingerprints are all over it. I lost interest because I felt like there wasn’t any value in telling it. Because my own story had become stale. If you were a photographer, would you go to the trouble of carefully capturing a picture of a decaying thing?
My life isn’t decaying, mind you. But I’ve felt for around three years that it is.
Three years ago, I was employed as Program Director for a discipleship program in the State of Washington. That’s as specific as I’m going to get, since I don’t care to be associated with the organization any longer. But when I was there, I was having the time of my life, re-writing the program, overseeing the counseling and education, teaching classes. It looked like I had finally arrived, and to be sure, it was an enormously fulfilling job, full of challenges and moments of discovery. I surprised myself, even though I had strong support and guidance from my friend, former pastor and Biblical counseling instructor, Warren.
Then things went south. I found myself at odds with my superiors, the Executive Director and the Board of Directors, all of whom thought a basic understanding of Scripture was sufficient for the task of running a discipleship program.
It isn’t. You have to be familiar with everything that comes with the territory―antisocial behavior, manipulation techniques, criminal thinking errors and the institutional environment. Most importantly, you have to understand human fallenness and rebellion and how to deal with it. Many people today, including many whose livelihood is trying to help fallen people heal and grow, haven’t learned to distinguish faintheartedness from unruliness, and so go about their work trying to put a soothing bandage on what is, in fact, a snarling, unrepentant disposition. That is every human being’s basic problem: a heart that wants its own way, and damn the consequences.
That’s where I found myself in disagreement with my boss, who wanted me to “de-escalate” residents of the program instead of confronting their behavior, even when the resident in question wasn’t going through emotional turmoil at all, but simply using the tried-and-true Toddler’s Special: throw a tantrum and hope Mommy and Daddy will let me keep the toy.
I wasn’t willing to do this, and after a three-and-a-half-hour sit-down in the ED’s office on a Friday afternoon, I drove home for the weekend and, two days later, received a strident dismissal letter from my boss by email.
Losing a job is a difficult experience in the best of circumstances. But this was the best job I had ever had―not because I was getting paid a great deal (I was earning just enough to cover my monthly bills and buy a few cups of coffee during the week. It was an important, purposeful job, one I could pour all my God-given intellect and wisdom into. Losing it left me without an income and also without a home, since housing was part of the compensation package. I had left two good jobs to take this one (just one of them had brought in twice as much as the Program Director gig) and transported all my earthly belongings up to Washington. Now I was given 72 hours to come collect it.
To say I was deflated as I drove back to Portland would have been a vast understatement. However, I wasn’t really aware of how bad I felt. I told myself all the standard situational platitudes, and I honestly intended to take things in stride. I jumped eagerly to work on my songbook, which I had started assembling when I led worship for my Vancouver-based fellowship. There was plenty to do, so I didn’t lack for meaningful productivity.
But what I really needed was to pray, make phone calls, visit friends, soak up the energy of others, since I had so little of my own. I needed to talk about what had just happened to me. Besides all the immediate circumstantial effects of the thing, I had been hit with spiritual abuse (not to put too fine a point on it). Although I had done my job well and with a good conscience, I was sent away with hostility by a person who had four pastoral degrees and who functioned as my spiritual leader. Spiritual abuse is particularly damaging because it’s hard not to see the treatment as coming from a divine source. I felt like I’d just gotten brushed off by God. The whole thing had a Lucy-and-the-football feel. I was sprawled out in the dirt with the wind knocked out of me. I just didn’t know it.
In the months following, I went through what turned out to be my worst year in a long time. Several other fiascos were added into the mix, including heavy drinking and unrequited love. The theme of this melancholy movie seemed to be: The Leopard Can’t Change His Spots. After several years of groundbreaking wins for me on many fronts (great jobs, increased responsibility, trust and respect from others, burgeoning careers in freelance writing and the mental health field, post-graduate studies), it had all seemingly been ripped away to reveal an impostor with a sagging posture.
My perception was distorted, but it was also convincing, thanks to my resumption of several bad habits. At the top of the list of my failed endeavors, in huge, bold font was the new designation: COUNTERFEIT CHRISTIAN. Now, when I prayed in pathetic snatches and made wispy gestures of repentance, I couldn’t receive solace or strength from God, because in my heart, I believed I had exhausted my ability to truly repent. I was waiting around to die and go to hell.
I finally reached out to Warren. We spoke several times over the phone. Much was said, but what I came away with convinced me to come to Washington and ensconce myself in a strong Christian community. Warren connected me with people he knew up here, and within a couple of weeks, I was driving north.
The weight of what had happened (made worse by my spiritually flaccid response to the events) didn’t lighten right away. For months afterward, I went on strictly because suicide wasn’t an option. I had a strong sense that I was sticking around for some consolation prizes. But God was there, and of all the communities I might have landed in, I found an incredible collection of kind, loving souls here. Such people are rare enough these days, but on top of it, my church mates also possess a razor-sharp understanding of authentic Christianity, driven by a fierce loyalty to Scripture. It was a custom fit, and it was all set in motion by a series of phone calls from Portland. I didn’t have to go church-shopping, apartment-hunting or any of the hundred other exhausting, depressing things people ordinarily have to go through when they move to a different state.
Given what has happened to American Christianity in the past hundred years, it’s hard to find a church that gets half of it right. How did I slide effortlessly into fellowship with such an amazing group of people? It had to be God, who had operated behind the scenes through the whole ordeal. I doubted the possibility of reconnecting with God, and I had no enthusiasm for it to begin with. But God was at work. His love got through to me again through His people. It is, I’m discovering, how He works most powerfully in this dark world.
I still suffer from abysmal depression. It comes and goes, and doesn’t always follow events or patterns (although idle time is usually a factor). The best antidepressant I have found is authentic Christian fellowship. That means sharing the good, the bad and the ugly. Disclosure takes the punch out of our sin and sorrow and helps us keep going.
I had a whale of a depression recently, a blend of hopelessness, exhaustion, self-loathing and a terrible regret. I knew I couldn’t stay there, but I couldn’t get out of it, either. As people with severe depression will tell you, when you get far enough down, you can be overtaken by a morbid desire to stay down there. As miserable as they are, these pits of gloom offer detachment from cutting emotions and the frustration of life.
On about day three of the storm, I went to work at Century Link stadium. My main gig at present is substitute teaching for Federal Way Public Schools (also Cascade Christian Schools on occasion, which I love), but I have a side job with a temp agency through which I get supplemental hospitality industry jobs. It’s work when I need it, with no long-term commitment. And the variety! At one time or another, I’ve worked as a server, bartender, cook and dishwasher. This gig at Century Link was like nothing I’ve ever done before. There is a phone app people can use to order food while they watch the game. The kitchen loads the food and beverages into bags and sets them out with order slips that display information about section, row and seat, so the runners can deliver the bags to the people in the stands. I was a runner, and I was waiting for the orders to start coming in when I heard my name called. I looked up, and there was Dane, a friend of mine from church. I had last seen him at church a few months previously. On that day, things were reversed; he was the one going through internal hell. I could see it all over him from 25 feet away as I approached him in the auditorium of the church. I stopped and prayed for him. Now, a few months later, I was the one suffering, and he was wearing a calm, happy countenance. (For the record, this is exactly what God intended for us.) Dane was attending the preseason Seahawks game with friends. When he stopped to talk, I told him what I was going through. This was partly by way of explanation for why I didn’t seem too happy to see him. At that moment, I couldn’t have mustered a genuine smile if someone had been counting hundred dollar bills into my hand. Just as I’d done for him a few months before, Dane stopped everything and prayed for me, out loud, right there in the promenade, while people ten feet away ladled food onto their plates.
Around 15 minutes after Dane said goodbye and left, my mood changed dramatically. All of my energy and humor returned to me. I found it remarkably easy to pray as I ran my orders. The people all around me suddenly seemed wild and fine, even the ugly ones. The entire world sparkled again.
I might have chalked it up to a festive environment, the concern of a friend, or even the soothing effect of physical exercise. (Running orders at Century Link is a workout.) But God wanted to make sure I knew He had personally stepped in to comfort me in response to Dane’s prayer. He did this by arranging things so that I ran into Dane three more times in a matter of two hours in a stadium that holds 72,000 people. The runners, around eight of us, took bags at random, destined for seats all over the auditorium as they were set out by the kitchen staff. Twice, I happened to grab a bag with beverages for a lady named Brianna, who was watching the game with three of her friends, including―you guessed it―Dane.
I have prayed often over the past two years for a clearer view of God’s kindness and loving concern for me. Whether by coincidence or appointment, Dane was in the right place at the right time. So was God.