Christmas ’97

I’ve alluded to this little episode, but haven’t gone into any detail about it – so now I’ma do just that.

Christmas Eve, 1997, I woke up with this young lady who was someone I occasionally woke up with at that time. Her name was not Nancy, but I gotta call her something so I’ll just go with that.

Nancy and I scraped together whatever change we had and it was enough to get a coupla 40s of OE 800, so we got dressed and walked over the hill to the nearest convenience store. Walking out, with the 40s in a bag, we crossed the muddy edge of the parking lot where there were a lotta scratch-off tickets on the ground – losers. I stopped, in the middle of this patch of hundreds of scratchers in the mud, and picked up one. It had been scratched off and it looked to me like a $50 winner. I handed it to Nancy and said “Is this a $50 winner?”

She looked it over and said “This is a $50 winner.”

It was, in fact, a $50 winner.

I was holding the bag o’ 40s and I had just lit a cigarette, so Nancy took the scratcher into the store to get the $50. I stood in the parking lot, wobbling a bit because I was a coupla weeks into a bender. When I go on a bender, I drink, smoke, snort and/or ingest anything that’s available, so I was pretty loopy, even first thing in the morning. And I turned to the east, just as the sun topped the mountains and

I read somewhere that there’s some debate among scholars about the story of Moses and the burning bush. Something about how the Hebrew words for “bush” and “mountain” are similar and wouldn’t it make more sense for God to appear as a burning mountain? I mean – a bush? Of course, at this point “burning bush” is so firmly established that even if they could prove that the original Hebrew account of Moses first meeting with God told about a burning mountain, it wouldn’t matter. But what I saw was a burning mountain.

And I was suddenly swept up into something that defies explanation. It wasn’t a vision, because it wasn’t visual – I didn’t see anything. I just suddenly knew a lot of things. I knew that, despite my assertions to the contrary, there was a Divinity in the universe; I knew that this Divinity had kept me alive, despite my best efforts, for a reason – I guess there was a bit of visual to that part because I sorta saw/sorta remembered numerous times when I coulda/woulda/shoulda died – driving drunk, staggering into the street, ingesting stupid amounts of various chemicals – but I didn’t die. I was explicitly informed that there was a Divine plan for me. And I was given a name to use for the Divinity that brought me this message. The name was not “God”, but what it actually was is something that I don’t feel comfortable sharing here. It was the name of a pagan deity – and I knew that the name I was given to use was not the actual name of the Creator of the universe or anything like that – it was just a name that was provided to me so that I would have some way of addressing this Mystery.

And then I was standing in the parking lot of a convenience store and Nancy was standing beside me with $50 in her hand, trying to get my attention. I was kinda spaced out, apparently. She asked if I was okay. I told her I had just had a vision of God. She said “okay” and we started walking back to the house. At some point, she said she thought we should go to the ABC store when it opened and get a gallon of vodka. I thought that was a good idea.

See, I had already decided to drink myself to death. Having God, by any name, suddenly intrude into my life didn’t fit the plan, so I figured I’d just ignore it.

By the time the ABC store opened, I’d had most of a 40 of OE, plus some pot that somebody had wandered in with. Some people were around – no idea who, but some of ’em were under twenty-one. I know that because when we got to the ABC store, it was decided that I should go in – I was twenty-eight – and the minors should stay in the car. Nancy was there – she was twenty-one, but I went in alone and got lost. Seriously – ABC stores are not exactly labyrinthine, but I somehow got lost. I wandered around the end of an aisle and saw this wretched hobo standing there, wobbling and staring around like his brain was broke, and then I realized that it was me. I was seeing myself from a dozen feet or so and I looked like shit. I turned around and went back the other way and eventually Nancy came in and found me. She had to lead me out by the arm because I was about as wrecked as a person could be.

The rest of that day and the next day are pretty blurry. I know that on Christmas we bought all the 40s of OE in the one convenience store we could find open and then went back a few hours later for some lesser malt liquor – something with a bull on the label. I’m sure I smoked and snorted a variety of street garbage, but I couldn’t guess what. Prob’ly didn’t know what it was when I was doing it. I know I had sex with Nancy and at least one other woman – another one who I looked up regularly that autumn/early winter. In the early morning hours of 26 December, thirty-six or so hours after the experience in the convenience store parking lot, I was in a fight. I was actually only kinda in a fight – I was having these experiences at the time where it was like I was looking out of two windows – my eyes – and seeing what was happening, but I wasn’t really connected to it and had no control over it whatsoever. I think that’s what they call “psychosis”. So I saw this incident where my body got right up in some asshole’s face and provoked a physical confrontation during which my right hand clamped on this asshole’s throat and I vaguely was aware that I had a solid grip on his windpipe and that I wasn’t gonna let go until he was dead. Then somebody he knew took the initiative and snapped my left forefinger. My left hand was on the back of the asshole’s neck and this guy just reached over, grabbed my finger and bent it ’til it popped. I heard the pop, but didn’t feel anything. I looked at my hand and the finger was definitely sticking off at an unnatural angle. The asshole took advantage of my distraction to head-butt me in the mouth and suddenly I was back in reality. I was no longer disassociated from it.

Some people I knew – friends, I guess – broke up the skirmish and a couple of ’em took me to the hospital. The woman I regularly hooked up was there – not Nancy, the other one. I never did know her real name. She was pretty blotto and seemed to be vacillating between wanting to fuck and trying not to puke. The finger was dislocated. They put it back in place and gave me a week’s worth of painkillers which I took in two swallows. The guys who broke my finger &c lived in the house where I lived and they wanted to do me some more damage, so I became homeless. It was cold.

Two months later, I entered rehab and I’ve been clean and sober since. I saw Nancy around occasionally – and the other woman – but I distanced myself from them the best I could. At the time, I just couldn’t cope with anything. It was a struggle to stay sober and I was all eat up with guilt and shame and still not on appropriate medication.

The value of this story is that God reached out to me. God saw me – a really horrible person who did not deserve to be saved – and God reached out to me anyway. For years, I stayed clean and sober, praying everyday to God, using the name that I had been given in that parking lot encounter. I learned a lot, including that there is no name for God – God is beyond names and categories, neither male nor female, both male and female, impossible to define. Impossible to understand. All religions must needs be human attempts – perhaps Divinely inspired – to have a relationship with something that cannot be known. I understood that the name I was using was not God’s name – that I had been given a name to use because God knew that it would benefit me. God also knew that I was so grossly prejudiced against Christianity that I would not be able to use the Christian name for God, so God gave me something I could use. And God accepted that for twenty years. Then – God called me to become a Lutheran pastor and you know that part. And God called me to become a Lutheran – as opposed to a Presbyterian or Baptist – because the Lutherans are so adamant that we don’t deserve God’s grace. We receive it because God is infinitely loving and S/he gives grace to even undeserving scum like me.

My unwavering stance on absolute ecumenical-ism comes from the fact that I was actively praying to a pagan deity for twenty years and it was working. I was staying sober, growing, learning, becoming better and I believe it was both acceptable and pleasing to God. At various points, God gave me instructions to do certain things and I did them. Then God made it clear that I was to become a Lutheran pastor, which kinda obviously meant becoming a Christian, specifically a Lutheran. So I’m a Christian now – again. And I’m pretty happy about that.

I’m quite certain that it’s possible to be a Christian and hold to that path, sincerely stating the Apostles’ Creed and all, without automatically claiming that another path is wrong. This path is right for me. You do what’s right for you.

For a long time, I thought of the finger-breaking and homelessness and all as God giving me a smack-down. I related it to the story of Jonah – Jonah rejected God’s call and got ate up by a fish. I was okay with that – I kinda deserved a smack down. Then recently, it occurred to me that it might notta been that.

The fight and the aftermath of it were just the kinda things that would happen to someone as thoroughly fuct up and crazy as I was. There was absolutely no need for God to make anything happen to smack me down – I was already doing that. I think God mighta been giving me a chance to avoid the next bad thing that was gonna happen if I didn’t change. Let’s remember that God is Omnipotent – so God coulda looked at me and thought “That idiot is screwed up now and it’s about to get worse for him. I’ll give him a chance to pull outta the nosedive.” Coulda happened. It’s entirely possible that I coulda fallen on my knees in that parking lot and accepted what God was offering and avoided some pain and trouble. But I didn’t because I was firmly attached to my plan of suicide by vodka and benzos. Obviously, then Jonah could’ve avoided that whole whale’s belly thing if he’da just gone straight to Ninevah. Point is, I don’t think God was punishing me for choosing to get a gallon of vodka and fuck Nancy one more time. I think He gave me an opportunity to get right and I didn’t take it. That’s certainly more in keeping with the infinitely merciful God who I’ve come to know.

And that’s my story about Christmas ’97.

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