I was 18 years old and out of hope. My friends were heading off to pursue college and career. I was destined for neither. Suicide was not an option but neither was hope. The only thing hope had taught me, up to this point, was not to hope. I settled for the purgatory of lifeless living.
I blame addiction for my purgatorial existence. When I was 12 years old, my slightly older sister, Tammy, found a hypodermic needle in our family bathroom. We brought it to my parents and the bomb dropped. My dad, and hero, confessed his longtime addiction to shooting up heroin. The shock and shame of my dad’s addiction was hard to swallow. I associated my father with all of the “junkies” my friends and I poked fun at in my South Philadelphia neighborhood.
Just when I thought the shock and shame couldn’t hang any heavier around the collar of my identity, my mother went off the codependent deep-end. My mom was the glue that held my family together all of those years while my dad was using. She “held down the fort” when my dad was away on “business trips,” which I later discovered were really stints in rehab and detox centers. Growing up with an alcoholic father and being married to a drug-addicted husband slowly eroded my mother’s soul so that she too became an addict. My mom’s drug of choice was cocaine and it quickly transformed, or deformed, her from a loving mother into a lunatic monster. I still remember the day she chased after me, while my friends watched, for several city blocks begging me to give her money to cop.
Everything was collapsing around me, especially my family’s economic system. We hit a recession that became a depression, causing my parents to pawn our video game system and my acoustic guitar to support their habit. Welfare cheese became our staple meal. The car and mortgage payments were ignored for months. We lost our car. We lost our home. We lost each other. My freshman year in high school began with my parents, sister, and I living with four different extended relatives. We lost our dignity.
The trifecta of despair, shame, and anger led me into the same trench of addiction that demoralized and destroyed my parents. By the time I turned 16 I was an alcoholic, jobless, high-school drop-out son of two drug-addicted parents. That was the label that I, with the help of others, assigned to me. I lived only for the drink that allowed me, at least temporarily, to forget the label. I quickly discovered, however, that vice does not diminish shame; it deploys it! I was, as they say, so low I could walk under a snake wearing a top-hat.
Living my life seemed more torturous than dying. I was not suicidal really, but I had a death wish. The South Philly that shaped me was overtly racist. The Italians, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Vietnamese, Polish, and Irish each had our allotment of turf. If someone ventured out of their own ethnic environment and into another, they were asking for trouble. One of these troublemakers walked through my Italian neighborhood. What is worse, it happened on a night when I was not only drunk from beer but high from marijuana.
For no other reason but his ethnic make-up, I punched him as hard as I could, from behind, on the right side of his face. He fell and then came to his feet in an instant sprint. I chased him, fueled by the cheers and belly-laughs of my drinking buddies. The man stopped and, when I went to swing at him, stabbed me, collapsing my lung. I nearly achieved the death for which I wished.
Well, that was the “before” picture. Let’s fast-forward the slideshow 23 years to the current “after” picture of my life. God has replaced the old label of “alcoholic, jobless, high-school drop-out son of two drug-addicted parents” with some new labels. Some of my new labels are: child of God, lover of Christ, forgiven, redeemed, transformed, husband to Amy, dad to Zach, Lia, and Sam, Asbury Seminary M.Div. and Beeson Pastor D.Min. graduate, Lead Pastor of a congregation that became a fast growing and multi-ethnic addiction-recovery church, Associate Professor of Proclamation at Wesley Seminary, and author of Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide.
Those who knew me during both the “before” and the “after” snapshots of my life, even my non-religious family and friends, would call what happened to me a “miracle.” God has restored to my life the “years that the locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25a). One of the premier tools he used to accomplish this miraculous restoration is the community of faith. Through the Church I bumped into Humpty Dumptys like me who were being put back together again. Through the Church I was adopted by spiritual mothers and fathers who saw and spoke the potential of “Christ in me, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Through the Church I was forced into fellowship with people who were frightening and frustrating but formative. Despite her failures, foibles, and flaws, the Church was and still is a means of God’s grace to me. I am who I am because of who she is.
God also used the Bible like a scalpel to surgically sever shame from my soul. I located my story lodged in particular nooks and crannies of the biblical story. What God did for those Egyptian-oppressed Hebrew slaves, he did for me. I resonate with those oppressed slaves turned mighty nation in more ways than one. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high” (Lev. 26:13). God is the cosmic chiropractor who breaks the bars and lifts the heads of the hopeless and helpless among humanity. God did this for those ancient Hebrews and, through Christ, he has adjusted my crooked spine too.