I was being interviewed for the call to First in Sandpoint, when at the Synod's suggestion, they asked me to describe my "personal life of prayer". "If I have to talk about it in a call interview, its no longer personal." was my initial response. Part of me simply didn't want to talk about something that I felt was woefully inadequate. I imagined what other pastors did. In my imagination, I never quite measured up. I've always taken great consolation in the verse from Romans, "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." "Sighs too deep for words", that I can do.
And then came one of the worst moments in my life. Over a period of ten years I had become more and more dependent on alcohol. I was self medicating. I was later to be diagnosed as bipolar. Alcohol, it seems, is not a good mood stabilizer for someone who is bipolar. Actually, it worked until it didn't.
A conflict erupted in the parish. Personal criticism that I felt was unwarranted was thrown my way. A letter had been penned that threatened to seek my dismissal if I didn't comply with their demands. I went into a rage, and desperately tried to calm the beast within with my old friend, Scotch. It didn't work.
I found myself locked up in the psych unit at a local hospital. My doctor, very bluntly and forcibly shared two things with me in those first days. "You are an alcoholic." And "You almost died." Utterly defeated in every way, I agreed to enter the chemical dependency program. Correction: I wasn't yet totally defeated, as part of my agreeing to enter the program was to preserve some sense of my own dignity. I had fallen and injured myself, and I wanted some time to heal up before showing my face to my congregation again.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
God, be merciful to me, a sinner!
Many a prayer I would have preferred to offer. Many a thing I would have preferred to say. But I had been entirely defeated. The rage that I had experienced toward others, became focused on myself. And now I had to face that rage without the numbing effect of alcohol. I wish I could say that my prayers had an immediate positive and healing effect, but the truth is that I plummeted into depression and would continue to experience recurring bouts with it for years.
Four years have passed. Healing has come. Life is good in sobriety. In a few hours I will stand before a new congregation and offer the prayers. The words will be well crafted. The posture -- liturgically correct. And I suppose there may be some in my congregation that will hear my prayers and wish they could pray like that.
Yet, in all my life, there was only one prayer that really mattered. It was offered from that psych ward in utter despair. And God answered.
"a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."