Forrest Church's Redemption Experiences

Forrest Church's Redemption Experiences
Forrest Church's Redemption Experiences

Stories and reflections from, Bringing God Home: A Traveler's Guide (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002). Used with permission.

Church's Childhood Death Fantasy

Etched in my soul, and by far the most haunting memory of my childhood, is a fantasy of death. I date it to sometime after my family moved to Washington, D.C., when I was eight years old. I can't remember how often I succumbed to this fantasy, but I do recall what prompted it (a brutal argument with my mother), the time of day when these battles took place (right before bed), and the thing that triggered them (always a lie). When my mother caught me lying, not content to leave bad enough alone, I would fabricate more lies to cover up the first one. What finally piqued her anger into fury, whether my transparent mendacity or my panic-driven tears, I'm not certain. Given the premium placed on cheerfulness in our household, probably the latter. In either case, possessed by my favored demon (naked fear), I spun out of control, my mother's anger intensifying until it reached a fevered pitch. Invariably, the battle ended with me in total humiliation and banished to my room.

More vivid in my memory than the struggle itself is its aftermath. After sobbing uncontrollably for a few minutes, I would launch my mind into a sea of self-pity. Into this wine-red sea sailed my fantasy of death.

Running away from home, I crawl out of my bedroom window into the snowy night. Wearing only my pajamas, I wander in the bitter cold through the woods between our house and the elementary school. I fall into a snowdrift. Never have I felt so alone. And then I die. The snow stops and morning dawns. A schoolmate finds me lifeless in the snow, bursts into tears, and rushes off to tell my parents. "Come quickly. Forrest is dead." My parents hadn't missed me. They didn't even notice I had run away. Hastening to my side and falling to their knees to embrace my body, they beg me to awaken. My father becomes distant. My mother moans in disbelief. Through tears of self-recrimination and overcome by grief, she pities me with all her heart.

At this moment in my imagined melodrama, the floodgate opens once again, my self-pity magnified by the specter of me dead, my mother's lamentations almost too poignant to bear. But not quite, for with this I rewind my fantasy and play it back again, embellishing it yet further with loving detail: ripped pajamas, my beloved sock monkey frozen to my breast, my mother's raven hair blowing in the wind, the dark sun, the snow on my forehead.

And then, interrupting my fantasy, the bedroom door opened. A crack of light pierced the darkness, and in slipped my mother. Sitting down on the bed, she leaned over and hugged me, saying she was sorry, confessing how very much she loved me. We cried together. She cradled me in her arms, my tears subsiding. An inexpressible calm settled over me. I shut my eyes. My mother rocked me gently until I drifted off to sleep. When I awakened in the morning, my fantasy of death was but a distant dream.

Church's Reflections on his Death Fantasy

My waking nightmare and its aftermath... reflect the basic elements of a familiar tale of sin and redemption. First, I abandon love in a search for love, flee home to find the comforts of home, destroy myself in order to be saved. Then, through no act of my own, I receive love, find home, and experience salvation. My mother knew nothing of my fantasy. It was not by willfulness or self-pity that I found fulfillment. It entered my room uncoerced and undeserved, like grace. All I contributed to my own redemption was to long for it and to be willing to receive it when it came.

In this childhood drama my mother assumes the role of a traditional Judeo-Christian God. She punishes me for my wrongdoing and then forgives me, each as an act of love... .

... What impels us to run away in the first place? In the search for an answer, consider the broader question: Why would we run away from anything we seek: success, companionship, community, health, freedom, responsibility, even love? What would drive us to subvert our most cherished aspirations?

Church's Reflections on his Former Drinking Problem

"... when fear spurs our flight we are running away not from another but from ourselves. Having many times been prompted to flight by inner demons—muting life or changing channels and turning up its volume—I know this pattern well. Turning to the comforts of the bottle was for me itself (at least in part) a fear-driven attempt to escape pain, especially that of worry or regret. Only after years of mistakenly self-serving resistance did I finally learn that suppressing pain strengthens its grip... .

I have pondered why I drank so much and for so many years. To any but the most attentive observer, it would not appear to have been from a lack of healthy self-esteem, but looking back I wonder. I certainly used alcohol to subdue unwelcome feelings. I was afraid of looking too deeply within myself, for fear of what I might find there.

More prideful expressions of my egoism were more obvious in my drinking. I dictated my own set of rules and then slavishly followed them. Nonetheless, having counseled many addicts and alcoholics over the years, I didn't recognize myself in their glass. My work won me the respect of others, and my spirit—whether elevated artificially or not—contributed to the general bonhomie of most of the company I kept. For the most part, I lived life in the manner I wished and did what I chose to do.

To ease my conscience, I also prided myself on not being a moral perfectionist. I wrote books with titles such as The Devil and Dr. Church and The Seven Deadly Virtues. I edited a twelve-step book while drinking. I have discovered it to be useful to me now that I have stopped. At the time, however, I accepted drinking as a lubricant to creativity. If Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald could write drunk, who was I to question such a muse? It even appeared to work for me. I found that Scotch muted self-criticism and thus facilitated my productivity. I would never be guilty of committing a bestseller, but that was fine also. Until my awakening began to complicate matters (when the emptiness of my life became unendurable), I was enjoying a good time and hardly raising a sweat as I did so. My appetites for both indolence and gluttony were well served and, far from being a bad person, I was merely a self-indulgent one. I believed that the world, on balance, was a better place during those years of my residence within, and in retrospect I think it probably was.

As things turned out, for me pride didn't lead to a fall; it simply took slow possession of my soul. Fortunately, when I awoke one day to discover that God was nowhere in my life, I knew enough to recognize that alcohol (thought symptomatic of more general self-absorption) was part of the reason. I wasn't humiliated into humility as so many others have been, merely lost in the desert of self. I felt an emptiness I could no longer medicate against and to which I had to either respond or succumb.

Love gradually turned me from the bottle, which had become a kind of mistress. I discovered that I could fulfill my own hopes only by answering the needs of those I love. Old habits are hard to break, but over time love's responsibilities tempered and deepened this awakening. At first I simply cut my drinking back, and my pilgrimage progressed, albeit slowly. Were it not for my wife, Carolyn, I doubt that I would have attempted to continue it sober, for to do so entailed the loss of fond and familiar comforts. Notwithstanding her concerns, comforted triumphed over love for years. I walked toward God with a half-full bottle in my suitcase. I tried to cut a bargain between my appetites and my responsibilities. As most drunks will tell you, this didn't work. So I swallowed my last bit of pride and, at long last, found my way out of the thickets of addiction.

In retrospect, I am grateful today not only for my wife but, in a strange way, for my addiction also. It established the parameters of a God-shaped hole that I could fill only with God. Each of us has his or her personal version of this hole, and we attempt to fill it in our own private ways. Yet no God substitute can fill the God-shaped hole. For this reason alone—since little contentments disguise our spiritual emptiness by taking the edge off our hunger for spiritual renewal—we should welcome discontent when it visits.

About the Author

  • The Rev. Dr. F. Forrester Church (1948-2009) served the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City as senior minister since 1978 and as minister of public theology since 2007. He died September 24, 2009, of esophageal cancer. A frequent contributor to UU World , he is the...

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