Good morning! I have to confess, that there was a time when speeches like this, in the middle of Mass, would really irritate me. I would mumble under my breath, “Can’t they do this on a different day? We have a priest here after all – who the heck is this person?!?”
Oh my have things changed – about a lot of things! But more on that in a moment…
I was born and raised in a suburb of Detroit and come from an Italian Sicilian-Catholic background so church was very important growing up in my family. My mother urged me to always keep God in my life, so when I moved out, I always tried to stay connected to a church no matter what city I was living in. And for the most part I did. After living in LA for a few years, I moved to San Diego about 10 years ago, and got an apartment just across the street at “Le Moderne”. I remember looking out the window of the kitchen thinking, “Well Joe, you’ve got no excuse now “! So I came and my first impression of St Paul’s was, “What a beautiful building”. I noticed right away the diversity of people and the female Clergy–Wow, I thought… what a concept! I had no idea it was an Episcopal Church, I just assumed it was Catholic. You know, “California rules” or something?
So I attended from time to time, but just didn’t get any traction and starting finding myself less and less interested. I simply wasn’t ready to fuse Religion with my life and more importantly, my attention was being pulled elsewhere. I guess you could say the “good life” was calling….
I was in a long term relationship at the time and we were both hairstylists. After moving out together from Detroit, we had spent time working in West Hollywood, and by the time we got to La Jolla, the economy was booming and for the first time in our lives, we were really starting to make some serious money. So for the next eight years I did not go to Church – instead well, we went shopping! I was like the Prodigal Son going off into the world to seek my experiences, leaving God behind. We bought our first Condo, but soon upgraded to a beautiful craftsmen home, new furniture, started driving expensive cars, all while enjoying a nice credit line at Neiman Marcus! We had 3 dogs and a cat a great house and all the stuff we needed. I was a success! Or at least what I was always thought was success…
Unfortunately, the foundation of our life was sitting atop of an unstable relationship that in many ways, was getting buried underneath all of this stuff! We weren’t honest with each other, we never talked, we’d act out, doing things we shouldn’t have been doing and never being true to ourselves. I was thinking about God less and less, using the Lord’s name in vain when I got angry, and hardly ever praying. On the exterior I was this nice, outgoing person who looked like he had it all, but on the inside I was a mess.
We were young and so foolish and made so many mistakes so when the economy crashed so did our lives….and our relationship. I was left with all the bills and all the responsibility. I tried desperately to save the house, but I just couldn’t do it alone. The market crashed and I lost the house in a short-sale. I went through a bankruptcy, which was followed by essentially losing my job. I was so depressed I cried constantly. I even had to give our dogs away which just killed me. It was during this time I reached the lowest, worst part of my life.
Looking back, you’d think that someone with such a lifetime connection to the church would have the sense to call on the Lord for help. That I would have just turned all over to God at some point. But I didn’t. I was struggling so hard to keep it all together, to juggle everything and fix all of my problems on my own, that I didn’t have the energy to even ask. It just didn’t occur to me. I was so completely drained that somehow, I had totally forgotten about God. Just as I had left God behind when I though it was all going good, I had forgotten him when I needed him the most.
Well, as time went by things slowly got better. I got through my financial nightmare and began slowly rebuilding my life. I met someone new and started to feel like my old self again. I was able to breathe and feel a smile returning to my face. And I started reading – anything I could get my hands on. Eventually I came across, “The Shack”. For those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s a Fictional story of a man that took his family camping in the woods and one of his children are murdered inside this “shack”, which devastates him. Years later after emotionally falling apart he gets a letter in the mail from God telling him to return to the Shack so they can talk… I loved it. It was like a catalyst for me since I could relate to it so much. It was as if God was tapping me on the shoulder in the same exact way, saying, “Uh, hello Joe, remember me?” It reminded me of the love that I have always had for God.
Well, little did I know “The Shack” had sparked tons of controversy from Fundamentalists on the internet. It wasn’t long before I found myself in these intense arguments in chat forums with these people, defending this wonderful book that was so important to me. One woman was so crazy that I told her she reminded me of a character out of a Stephen King novel and she ought to go read it – “The Mist”! Well she proceeded to tell me that I ought to go read the bible! The Bible? Well there’s an idea. So I thought about it, with all this reading, why not? So I bought a bible and proceeded to read it cover to cover. Well, my experience was shall we say…mixed. It was incredibly captivating and profound, but maddening at the same time! The pages were so paper thin I felt that I never made a dent. I kept it on my night stand and stayed up late just trying to make some headway. By the time I got through about a third of the Old Testament and I had become completely frustrated, it just went on and on repeating itself, or so it seemed at the time. I finally skipped ahead to the New Testament. That was easier going but I knew I was missing something. I needed a guide. I needed a companion in this.
I needed the church.
And so I returned to St. Paul’s. And slowly, something started happening inside of me. I felt the presence of reverence, if you will. I was praying again, I would steal away time and go into the other room and say the rosary. When I went about my day I started getting outside of myself and my worries. I began to look up and notice the world around me, I began to talk to strangers more, even the homeless and look them in the eye. I started staying home Saturday nights so that I would be here on Sunday ready to take it all in. I found myself leaning forward in my seat during sermons so I could capture every word. I started hanging out at coffee hour to meet new friends who felt the same way. I stopped using the Lord’s name in vain. In time I took it a step further and decided that I wanted to volunteer somehow so I started acolyting. I felt I was going through some big changes, I was “cleaning house” so-to-speak. It was almost as if Christ was mutating in my body, fusing himself with me once and for all so that I could never walk away again. One thing leading to another and I found God growing in my heart and entering my life in more and more areas.
I even found myself starting to give money to the Church! Now that was something I rarely did in the past and even then, it was only out of guilt or obligation. After all, “the church is huge. Do they really need my money as much as me?” But somehow these changes in my life had changed my attitude about money. When I made a pledge for the first time a couple of years ago, it had nothing to do with guilt or obligation, but everything to do with thanksgiving. I was so thankful that God was coming back into so many areas of my life, why NOT my money too? After all, wasn’t the pursuit of money and such part of the reason I had stepped away to begin with? (And look at how that turned out!) Perhaps my money was one more place in my life where I needed to let God in.
So why do I love St Paul’s and why do I choose to be generous? It’s so many things I could go on and on. But an important one is that the Cathedral was here when I was ready. Like the father in the prodigal son, you welcomed me back with open arms. Above all of the volunteering, the committee meetings, the Potlucks, and all of the protocol of Church, what I enjoy most is just being a parishioner. Simply being here with you all, sharing the love God has to offer through each other. Sometimes coming to this Church feels like a visit to the Chiropractor. When my week seems out of whack or not in alignment, I come to the Cathedral for an adjustment. It is my sacred space where I can truly pause and reflect on my life, and with the help of my friends give thanks to Christ for all that he has done and continues to do in my life.
I realize now, my story–our stories– are very important, just as important as anything else that goes on in this Cathedral. We need each other. We need our stories. And we need God in every part of our lives along the way. I will close with this. Dean Richardson said something in one of his sermons once that I will remember above everything else, “We are all in this together”…I think this speaks VOLUMES. Thank you so much for listening.
EDITOR’S NOTE – In order to keep the witnesses as short as possible
without loosing their power, these texts are heavily edited by the
time they make it to the pulpit (not to mention to keep them under 10
minutes!). But you can imagine how hard it is to see important parts of
your life fall to the cutting room floor so to speak. So this year we
thought it would be fun to post the original, longer versions of each witness on the blog. The “extended cut” if you will. They tell a more complete story with more personal details. Thank you to all
of our witnesses who so courageously share a part of their lives with us
so that we might be opened up just a little more to how God is working
in our lives and in the life of St. Paul’s.
Do you have a story
to tell about why you are thankful to St. Paul’s? Email Chris Harris at
email@example.com – we’d love to share them here!