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» “When God breaks in... the end is the beginning.” - Don Vanderslice
When I finally died last February, it was violent and painful.
My life had been a fairly interesting one. I started a church and pastored it for nine years. It was a cool church. We did cool things. We made cool art, and we had cool liturgies. It was full of good people, with deep convictions, and a sincere desire to live out this whole “people of God” thing in a way that was real and thoughtful and creative. We made mistakes. We took risks. We tried new things. We failed. And succeeded. And failed some more.
I was young and dynamic, with just the right balance of coolness and humility, charisma and vulnerability, passion and authenticity. I preached good theology and encouraged contemplative spirituality. I listened to hip hop and rode my fixed-gear bike everywhere. Sometimes I cussed. Even in sermons. I was edgy like that.
On top of it all, I had a pretty wife and a couple of amazing kids.
It looked good, but there was a problem: I was dying. The image I created for myself was just that, an image. I spent most of my time impersonating the person I thought you wanted me to be. I cared – really cared – about what you thought of me. I needed you to like me. More than that, I needed you to approve of me.
To most, I appeared to be courageous, honest, kind, and compassionate. The truth is that I was driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity. And that gap – the distance between the person I projected and the person I had become – was killing me. I was incapable of being rigorously honest and unwilling to confront those shadowy parts of my interior life – that wild and terrifying darkness that pulsates beneath the flesh and within the veins of every single one of us.
Going back to my teen years, I had been admired and applauded for my faith. But that success was contingent upon my ability to maintain an image and live up to certain expectations. I was trapped and wanted a change. But change is costly, and I was afraid of surrendering control. I was also afraid of looking bad.
So I resigned myself to an existence of quiet desperation, accepting the cold truth that a life of wholeness just wasn’t in the cards for me. I would trudge though the years in a semi-state of misery and hopelessness while preaching a gospel of life and resurrection.
That kind of life is exhausting. So I escaped. I isolated. I coped. I drank.
And that – all of that – took a terrible toll on absolutely everything: my family, my church, my friendships, my soul. Hoping it would fix my marriage and my life, I left the ministry. Two years after that, my marriage fell apart and I moved out of the house.
I spent my life on two projects: family and ministry. By the age of 40, I had failed at both. I was devastated. But the most painful part for me to admit is that I was equally embarrassed. Amidst all of the loss, I still cared what you thought about me. And I was no longer the person I wanted you to think I was.
I didn’t like the way any of that felt, so I drank. And then I drank some more. The drinking helped me not care as much. Three months after moving out of house, I was arrested for a DWI. A year after that – nearly to the day – I was arrested for my second.
Life sucked. But I was finally desperate enough to surrender control and so I entered a community of wounded, broken, and being-made-whole people. They had what I wanted: sobriety and a fullness of life. No pretension or religious BS. God was real their lives. And they were real with each other.
I soon realized that I didn’t have a drinking problem so much as I had a life problem – drinking was a symptom. I wasted too many years caring about what you thought, managing an image, and suffering the gap. It was time to give up. And the only way that was possible for me was to be a part of a people who were learning, every day, how to give up. I discovered that my healing and wholeness were directly proportional to my willingness surrender and be rigorously honest. With the help of a close friend in the program, I was slowly clearing away the wreckage of my past and learning to life on life’s terms: one day at a time. For the first time in years, I felt joy.
Then, without warning, I died.
On February 24th I stumbled upon a website with the headline, “Pastor arrested for second DWI.” The article was accompanied by my mug shot. That feeling – that feeling of shock, adrenaline, terror, fear, dread, disbelief – is the feeling of death.
Never mind that I hadn’t pastored in over three years and that the church I started no longer existed. The accuracy of the facts didn’t really matter. The Don project was finally up. I had spent the first half of my life becoming the person I thought I was supposed to become: husband, father, pastor. And there I was: divorced, former minister, drunk. And now it was now public knowledge that I had failed at being … me.
My failure was newsworthy.
A few days after my death, I was reading T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” and came across three lines that changed everything:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
Those words delivered a magnanimous gift that disclosed the true nature of the article. You see, I had understood the category of the story as “news” – another juicy story featuring the fall of a pastor. But I was wrong.
The article was my obituary.
It was the pronouncement of the death of Don Vanderslice. That image I had worked so hard to maintain: over. That life of quiet desperation: finished. That life of coping: gone. That life of isolation: ended. On February 24, 2015, Don Vanderslice died. From dust you came and from dust you shall return, praise God.
Here’s the best part about being dead: I’m free, completely and finally. I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t care if you judge me as a moral failure, or just as a failure. That’s your business. And it’s between you and God. My business is this: to live the life that God has summoned me to live. I am free to live honestly and openly. I am free to be of service to others. I am free to live without fear and resentment, self-pity and self-centeredness. I am free to be fully present and in the moment. And since I’m human and forgetful, I am free to be loved by a healing community for whom I never, ever, ever have to fake it.
When God breaks in … there is a new beginning. But it’s not just about beginnings, because what we call the beginning is often the end. So when God breaks in … there is also an end. There must always be an end. And while our endings can be full of grace, they are rarely graceful. Empires never end peacefully.
Just about anyone can pull off a new beginning. The real work of God is this: the end.