Good Friday April 14, 2006

Jeremy Burke

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

God, I offer myself to you -- to build with me and to do with me as you will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I help of your Power, Love, and Way of life. May I do your will always!

My name is Jeremy and I am an alcoholic. Shortly after Bishop Gene shared with us his struggle with the disease of alcoholism, I felt moved to approach Fr. Peter about the possibility of having an alcohol awareness service, and I offered to speak. I was, at first, somewhat taken aback when we got together and found myself asked to give the homily on Good Friday instead. What was it that I had to share, and besides, what about my idea?!? But during the last nearly 30 months, I’ve been learning to let go and to let my higher power, who I choose to call God, guide me. Quite obviously (as usually seems to be the case) his will for me was not what I wanted it to be.

When I first walked into the halls of AA, I felt I was pretty unique – different from my fellow alcoholic. After all, I didn’t come from an alcoholic home, hadn’t started drinking at a particularly young age, hadn’t lost my house, my family, or a job. I know now that I am far from unique.

Growing up, I socialized with the “right” crowd, went to church, was an honor student, and did all the “right” things -- and life was good – at least on the outside. On the inside, I was extremely insecure, at times painfully shy, felt socially inept – I didn’t feel I really fit in with my social circle, or for that matter, any of my peers. As I look back on my childhood, and as I learn more about the disease of alcoholism, I am becoming increasingly certain that it is but for the grace of God that I did not find a “solution” to my fear, doubt, and insecurity in the form of a bottle before I left high school – I had all the “-isms” down pat, I just hadn’t found alcohol. That changed quickly when I left home for college.

In the fall of 1987, I left my hometown of Mt. Vernon, IL for Kirksville, MO where I would spend the next 7 years in school. My freshman year was relatively uneventful, although I remember it as one of the more difficult and painful times in my life. I knew absolutely no one, I was over 5 hours away from my family as well as my high school girlfriend, and I was under a great deal of pressure to keep my grades up to maintain the scholarship that allowed me to be there in the first place. By the end of the year, I had made a few friends, my long distance relationship had ended, and I learned about college parties -- and beer. I discovered that when I drank, the fears, doubts, and insecurities melted away; under the influence of alcohol, I became the person I thought I wanted to be – and I was quite disappointed that I didn’t’ discover this until shortly before I had to come home for the summer.

When I came back the following fall, I was off and running. To give you some idea of how quickly this transformation happened, I had accepted a position as a resident advisor to fulfill the work requirement for my scholarship. I remember meeting my residents about a week after I moved in – trying my best to hide a really bad hangover. My pattern for the next 2 years was already set – drink as much as possible Friday and Saturday night and study the rest of the week. Weekend blackouts, getting sick, and doing things I was far from proud of became the norm.

After 2 years of working in residential living, I moved off campus. At the same time, I had a fairly significant relationship in my life end and devastate me. During that summer, I was having a very difficult time sleeping – the result of what I now recognize as a bout of moderate to severe depression – and I discovered that a couple of drinks before I went to bed made sleep come much more easily. I had turned an important corner in my drinking by asking alcohol to do something for me. From that point, I became a more or less daily drinker.

Over the next several years, my drinking progressed very slowly. With a great deal of effort, I hung onto just enough control to continue to excel in school, graduate with my BA, get a full scholarship for my masters, then a full scholarship to pursue doctoral studies. I moved to Bloomington, IN to attend IU in the fall of 1994, again in a situation where I didn’t know anyone and had even more pressure, but this time, instead of being scared of being isolated or the pressure, I was very scared that I wouldn’t have money to buy alcohol. But still, I maintained just enough control to do what needed to be done.

I met Andrea in the spring of 1997, just as I was finishing my coursework. That fall, I moved to Athens, OH where she was finishing her masters, thinking my drinking would just end. And for the next couple of years, my drinking did slow down, but it never stopped, and I still drank more nights than I didn’t. Eliana was born in 2000. Again, I thought my drinking would end, but it not only didn’t stop, but actually increased – but I still thought I was in control. By the time Makenna came into our lives, I was in a miserable job situation and I knew I really was no longer in control. Morning hangovers had turned into still being drunk and I was drinking fairly heavily every day. I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t think I had a problem with drinking. What I did have was an anxiety problem and a lousy job. So, I had my doctor prescribe medication for the anxiety, and I got a new job. And it worked – for at least 6 weeks, maybe even 7 or 8. But then, things got worse fairly quickly. I found myself, rather than waiting until I got home to start drinking, starting in the last 30 minutes of my drive home. At some point, I started “accidentally” leaving an unfinished drink in the car and having it on the way to work -- and that was OK because I wasn’t mixing a new drink, I needed an empty cup for my coffee, and besides, it would be real alcohol abuse to just throw it out. Then I was finishing leftovers and having a new drink before I even got into the car, going out to my car at lunch to have a drink, and if I didn’t, having horrible shakes by lunch time. My life was no longer my own.

On November 19, 2003, life as I knew it came to a crashing halt – literally. By now, I had started drinking the minute I got to my car, but for the most part, I had a routine down so I was just beginning to feel the effects by the time I got home. On November 19th, though, I had some errands to run and my routine was disrupted. Before I knew it, I found myself 20 miles from home and in no condition to be driving. One instant I was setting my glass back in the cup holder, and the next, my car was on its roof. I was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated. I can’t not attribute the accident to the fact that I was drinking that night, and I have never and will never fail to accept my responsibility for what I did. But I also believe that what really happened that night was that God reached down, flipped that car over – and allowed his Grace to fully enter my life.

November 20th was a difficult day. I called my mom and admitted I was an alcoholic, Andrea came home and I admitted it to her, then I stood before the choir and asked for their help to allow me to go to AA and I walked into the halls of Alcoholics Anonymous. Since then, life just keeps getting better. I have friends, I have a meaningful relationship with my wife and family, my career has taken a huge turn and, one day at a time, I’m even starting to get some serenity and inner peace in my life. On November 19th, a part of me died, and on November 20th, I was born again into a new, sober life.

In the last several weeks since Fr. Peter asked me to speak, I’ve spent a great deal of time reflecting on the meaning of Holy Week, and specifically Good Friday, to me and my life. I’ve always struggled with reconciling the commemoration of the crucifixion and death of Christ with the concept of “Good” Friday. By doing a simple Google search, I found I am far from the only person to struggle with this. The web is replete with references to today as “holy” Friday, the idea that “Good” Friday was originally “God’s” Friday and references to the German “Karfreitag” [car – freye – tahg] or Mourning Friday. Yet, today is truly a good, if not great, day in the Christian faith.

In his Good Friday message given at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on April 13, 2001, Fr. Stephen Privett stated:

“Ours is the God of Calvary. Ours is the God of the emergency room, the AIDS hospice, the death watch at San Quentin, the homeless shelter in the Tenderloin, the broken family; the God of failed relationships, fragile bodies, and shattered hearts. This is why Friday is "Good." God has been and remains in our darkest places, even in the places where we are sure God is absent. Can anyone match the simple but profound final words of Betsie Ten Boom, who was beaten to death by a guard in the Ravensbruck concentration camp? "We must tell the people," she whispered, "what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still."

“The struggles and failures and death of Jesus are a profound affirmation of our own struggles and failures and deaths in the messiness of our ordinary lives. Because of Jesus, our suffering savior, we may give ourselves completely over in the face of our darkest moments, even in the face of our own death, to a God who has gone there before us and somehow draws grace out of senselessness. If our Good Fridays cry out for an Easter Sunday, Easter Sunday is the culmination of our Good Fridays.”

On that November day some 2-1/2 years ago, I faced my own darkest moment, and in so doing, I gave myself over completely to God’s grace and love and was born again into a new life. And I see this same miracle of suffering, death, and resurrection to a new and better life every single day. Just as I suffered at the hands of the disease of alcoholism, hit a personal bottom, and found recovery through God’s grace, so do we all face our own dark moments and tragedies in life. I call on you today, when life seems too difficult, painful, or unbearable, to remember the message and miracle of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion – the message that no tragedy – not even death – can overwhelm God’s endless providence, love, and grace. Amen.

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