Deacon Eek-in — Week One, Twice

So I was very close to ordination. I was delighted to be ordained a deacon, which is the last step between, before becoming a priest. But then it all fell apart. ~ Thomas Keneally

Unlike Mr. Keneally’s experience, in my case it all seems to have fallen together.

Sunday, October 21, 2012. I, along with five other ordinands, sat at the front of the sanctuary for the service of ordination as deacons of the church. Looking out over the congregation, I couldn’t help but wonder how this had happened. I couldn’t help but marvel at the amazing, sometimes frightening, sequence of events that brought me to this place and this time.

  • Ordination: the process by which individuals are consecrated, that is, set apart as clergy to perform various religious rites and ceremonies.
  • Ordinand: a candidate for ordination.
  • Benjamin Eakin: always considered a highly unlikely candidate for ordination.

I tend not to see myself in a very good light. Perhaps that’s been obvious at times. In fact, left to my own devices, I see myself as something less than worthy of notice. The roots for that go back a very long time and I won’t go into them again here. Suffice it to say I am not my biggest fan.

As I’ve said before, I stood before a congregation a few years ago to join my first church in forty years. Standing there, my thought had been, “I wish I could see myself the way these people seem to see me.” It had been only four months since first setting foot in church again and there I was joining that church. It was the beginning of a process toward changing my view of myself.

To give credit where credit is due, though, I have to admit the sequence of events began much farther back than those four years. In fact, odd as it sounds, I suppose the sequence had already begun by the time I walked away from church at age seventeen. What followed was a largely dark period of thirty-three years where much of what I might have recognized as me disappeared behind a blur of alcohol. Fighting my way back, though, finally began in earnest at age fifty with the struggle to get sober. I was to find that more of me survived than I might have suspected.

So, let’s just say the semi-conscious journey to those chairs down front began in 2003. With most things, I am nothing if not a slow learner and a fast forgetter. More than that, though, I had to fight my way through a lot of anger that was preventing me from even beginning to consider looking at what I’d come to believe about myself and the world over the years.

I’d always considered myself to be open and accepting of the world at large. It’s very uncomfortable to realize that’s not precisely the truth. I’m not saying there wasn’t a part of me that was open and accepting, I’m saying that part of me had been buried beneath a series of masks designed to protect me from the world. The problem with that approach is, once you circle the wagons, you find it affords very little protection. Instead, what you end up with is isolation. While that may seem safe at first, the result is a continually smaller world. Once the process starts, it becomes easier to continually tighten the circle. I ended up with my wagon mired in a tiny world where there was no feeling of protection at all.

I think what I saw when I first returned to church was something of a surprise to me. Without meaning to, I noticed there were loving, caring people there. These people weren’t at all the self-righteous, judging people I expected. Of course, I reserved the right at first to change my mind as soon as their true colors began to show. Usually, when I’m suspicious of something, I’m able to confirm my suspicions soon enough – even if that something isn’t really there. Self-fulfilling prophecies tend to work that way. Despite my tentative, suspicious view of the people I met at church, I found I was gradually accepting that my long-held stereotype of haughty, got-my-ticket-punched church folk was, at best, exaggerated.

Change is rarely ever pretty, almost always uncomfortable. Letting go of my negative feelings about church people has taken a while. It helps, though, when you are surrounded by people who seem to genuinely care about the world around them. The fact they are also human tends not to get in the way nearly so much. It’s largely a change of perspective. When I stop focusing on what I consider the negatives about people, I’m able to see that spark of the divine I believe exists in us all. If I’m ever able to forgive you for being human, I may find a way to forgive myself, also.

When I found out I was to be ordained as a deacon, I told an old friend I hoped to have a ring for him to kiss by the time he got back from vacation. He replied, “Ben, my father was a deacon in the Baptist Church for many years. There is no ring. I do, however, still remember the secret handshake.” Even deacons, I think, should surround themselves with smart-alecs. It keeps you humble – and laughing. My friend, Judy P., said Tom might want to start calling me “Your Eminence.” Tom thought perhaps not. Instead, he said he was afraid I was now forever going to be known as Deacon Eek-in. I’m pretty sure he’s right.

In case you’re not aware, my last name is pronounced “Akin” but spelled “Eakin.” The “E” is silent. Rather, I should say the “E” is supposed to be silent. I’ve spent a lifetime correcting people: “No, the E is silent.” I don’t much correct folks anymore. Somehow it’s just not particularly important these days.

So, Deacon Eek-in it is, I suppose. Either way you say it, God will know who you’re talking about. With help, I hope what he hears you say about me is good. At the very least, God will know whether or not you’re right.

When I was growing up, it seems I never walked from Sunday School to worship without looking over to see some of the deacons smoking in the alley. Despite some apprehension I had about that, I have been assured smoking is not actually a requirement for being a deacon. Somehow, that’s a comfort.

Back to ordination. Each of the six ordinands were to take part in the service in one way or another. I was to lead the invocation at the beginning of the service so walked out behind the pastor, music director, and two of the other ordinands. Up onto the dais we went. I and another of the ordinands sat down in the chairs on the left. Looking around, I realized everyone else up there was still standing. The music director wouldn’t motion everyone to sit until the entire choir was in place. Too late. It was going to look even more odd for me to stand again. I must point out, though, that I only sat down because the ordinand next to me sat down first. It was one of those monkey-see, monkey-do things. My very first faux pas as an almost deacon. Ah, well, it will surely not be the last.

I love to manufacture problems. Pretty early on in my new church career, I became aware of deacons again. Looking ahead, I knew there was at least a tiny chance someone might eventually ask me to serve. The plan I hatched in my head was that if I moved my church membership often enough, I could ensure a deaconship could never happen. By the time I was asked if I’d serve, I knew I didn’t want to go elsewhere. As I’ve said, things had changed. When a friend asked me at the end of August if I’d serve if she nominated me, I can’t express the honor I felt simply from being asked.

I had to fast-forward through the DVD of the ordination service to find out when the six of us actually became deacons. The service was largely a blur to me. But, there came that moment when it was declared from the pulpit that we were deacons. I don’t think I felt any different at that moment than I had the moment before. That would come shortly in the laying on of hands ceremony.

The six of us – new deacons – moved to the front of the sanctuary to sit in chairs facing the congregation. Slowly, the congregation became a sea of individuals moving past us. They leaned over to offer congratulations, perhaps a prayer. I don’t remember much of what was said. I mostly remember how I felt. The tears started immediately as the pastor leaned down to me first. The tears continued until the end. Viewing the DVD, I realized that, from the vantage point of the balcony, this ceremony was very much like watching grass grow.

From the perspective of one who sat in those chairs down front, however, it seemed the world had shifted just a bit on its axis. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting the ceremony made me feel special – if only for a little while. You see, time had passed since that thought of “I wish I could see myself a little the way these people seem to see me.” I now realized that I was beginning to see what they saw. Very gradually, I’ve begun to forgive myself for being human. I’ve begun to accept that there’s at least a small part of me that wants to serve others. Perhaps I’ve done that in some ways for a very long time. The difference now is that I see I may really have not had an ulterior motive behind every move I’ve made over the years. Part of that is simply who Ben is, no matter how I may have tried to deny it.

So, now the real work begins. In so many ways, I really have just fallen off the turnip truck. Thankfully, I have no idea yet what that work is to be. I’d hate to scare myself more than I do normally. Next Sunday will be my first deacon meeting. In my church, deacons serve three-year terms. As I understand it, I became a deacon on October 21. My term as an active deacon, however, didn’t start until November 1. So, in a way, each of the two preceding weeks could serve as week one for Deacon Eek-in.

What’s ahead I can only guess. I know the deacons go to camp together once a year. Oh, sure, they call is a retreat but I know that’s just a grown-up word for camp. I’ve already begun writing my name inside my underwear. There’s just so much to learn — so much preparation.

All jokes aside, I have been given a gift I never expected to receive. Two congregations have played a part in helping move me from that deer-in-the-headlights guy at the front of one church to that grateful-to-God guy at the front of another. Through the eyes of each one of those people, I believe, God looked out and smiled at me.

It’s amazing what a smile can do.

On Dying – Almost but not entirely

Sometimes you have to go miles out of your way to go a very short distance correctly. – Edward Albee

I believe it was sometime in early 1971. My memory of this time is particularly fuzzy. My mother, sister, and I had moved to another, larger town after my parent’s divorce and I had become increasingly sad and suicidal. Nothing too unusual, thoughts of suicide go back about as far as I can remember – no later than age ten. It’s never seemed strange to me, these thoughts are just a part of who I am.

I’d rather not go into the specific details that led up to it, but one evening I found myself taking one hundred Dilantin capsules, downing them with several glasses of tea. I wasn’t at home, but parked outside the house of an acquaintance. More than once, I’d gone to the door to ask for something to drink, then returned to my Rambler American to swallow another handful of pills. It seemed to me it was simply time to go. I felt I’d endured all the pain I could bear. I’d graduated high school at mid-term, having taken a couple of summer school classes the previous summer in order to get out early. In fact, I almost didn’t graduate at all. I’d pushed my mother to the limit and she’d invited me to move out shortly after the beginning of my senior year. Living with a roommate for a while, I rarely bothered to show up for school. After a while, however, I returned home, made up the work, and the graduation proceeded as planned. My diploma was mailed to me because I refused to take part in any graduation ceremony. In fact, I’d asked that no picture of me appear in the high school annual. We were new in town and I was new at that high school. I already felt like I’d disappeared and I suppose this was one way of pointing out that I no longer existed. I was now “photo not available”.

The Dilantin showed up on the scene a couple of years earlier. My parents knew I had been in a deep depression for some time and took me to a psychiatrist in Dallas. I’m afraid I have to admit I’ve never quite forgiven that man for some of the things he told me. Anyway, he prescribed Dilantin – up to three a day – for my depression. Not sure why Dilantin. For years I thought I had petit mal epilepsy. That’s what I heard him tell me. “What I heard” was to play a major role in my life. Turns out, I found out much later, he’d said Dilantin was also used for petit mal epilepsy. Well, six of one, half dozen of the other, I suppose. The point was that my prescription came to me each time in a bottle of 100 pills and I used them liberally.

So, there I sat. What to do next? Where to go to die? I finally decided to get away from that house and drive down to the printing office my father owned in that town. I had a key since I worked there part time. I’d also decided to call my best friend from high school. I call him my best friend but the reality is that it felt like he was the only friend I had left in high school. He’d pretty much abandoned me (or so I thought) about a year before all this happened. Abandoned seems like a pretty strong word, but it’s a feeling I’d had a lot in my lengthy eighteen years on this earth. Something had happened between us he simply didn’t know how to deal with at age 17, so he walked away. I know that now but, at the time, it simply felt like there was no one left. I blamed him for leaving me alone, but then I blamed all my troubles on others.

The high school buddy was off at college by this time. I have no idea now how I figured out how to find him. He told me recently that I’d called his dorm and the student working the front desk climbed the three flights of stairs to tell him he had a long-distance phone call. It was quite late already. He said I was really out of it, sounded drugged – which, of course, I was. After a few words, I said, “I told you a long time ago that I would let you know when I decided to leave here.” He asked where I was going and I replied, “Anywhere but this life.” It was then he realized what was going on. As I recall, the original conversation about going away referred to running away from home – another frequent pastime growing up alongside plotting my own death. He asked what I’d done and I told him about the pills. He asked me to go to the hospital and I refused to even consider it. I swore him to secrecy and ended the conversation. I was just so tired and the only thing I wanted was sleep – and a little peace.

I finally headed home. In the meantime, my friend tells me he said a prayer for me, then called his parents to get my mother’s phone number. He said he thinks his mother alerted the Baptist church prayer chain. Great, just what I needed – the word out about that crazy Ben while the whole thing was still going on. Next, he called my mother to tell her what I’d done. When I arrived home, I found the lights on and my mother and sister up. It had to be after midnight by then, so I immediately knew the jig was up. My mother was waiting for me so she could take me to the hospital. I flatly refused. I told her I was very sleepy – all I wanted was to go to bed. She simply was not going to take that for an answer. Well, of course she wasn’t. She threatened to bring in the police so I told her I’d go to the hospital but only if I could drive myself. She made me promise I’d go straight to the hospital and I agreed.

Had you guessed already that I really had no intention of going to the hospital? Well, I didn’t. Instead, I drove around for a while, finally ending up a friend’s house. I woke him up and his father got up as well. I probably told them at least part of what had happened and now they both insisted on taking me to the hospital. I still didn’t agree to that until I finally saw myself in a mirror. I looked like I’d already died. I suppose that scared me and I finally agreed to be driven to the hospital. As I was walking up to the door of the emergency room, the nurse was astonished to learn who I was and that I was arriving under my own steam. Seems my mother had called the police to be on the lookout for me and had also alerted the hospital. It was three in the morning and had now been at least four hours since I’d taken the pills.

I remember some of having my stomach pumped. Take my word for it, you really don’t want to have that done unless it’s completely necessary. A tube was fed down through my nose into my stomach. I thought I’d been awake and aware for the whole procedure but was told later I did quite a bit of talking I couldn’t remember. The one thing I remember particularly well was hearing the doctor say, “I see we had fried chicken for dinner tonight.” Pleasant thought, eh? However, that greasy fried chicken from hours earlier was a part of what saved me that night. The grease slowed the absorption of the Dilantin. I was told years later that the doctor told my family I had a 50-50 chance of making it through the night.

All I knew at the time, though, was that I was pretty sick. The world was spinning and just wouldn’t seem to stop. I wondered why the nurses had just left me in the hall. I couldn’t sit up, so all I could see out of the corner of my eyes were rows of windows to my left and to my right. I later found out I was in intensive care and the windows were to allow the nurses to monitor the other rooms. It’s an awful feeling to realize you have no control over your body. What was even worse, however, was the look on my father’s face when he arrived from out of town to see me. My father had a look on his face like a hurt puppy dog. I’d disappointed him once again. Well, I suppose I’d disappointed everyone by this time.

I don’t recall now how long I spent in the hospital. My friend says, though, that he came to visit me the following week. He’d driven several hours to get there. He said we visited for about twenty minutes and the entire conversation was completely superficial. He said he felt as he left that he’d spent the time with a complete stranger. And he had. This event sealed my fate. The boy he’ known wasn’t to reappear for another thirty-eight years.

I went back to stay with my father after being released. I was sad, frightened, sicker than ever. You see, wanting to die simply said I was unable to see any other solution that didn’t just involve more pain and there had already been enough. I think it was my father who suggested that I check myself into the state hospital. I was eighteen, after all, and legally an adult, so he couldn’t force me. I think he partly wanted to get me out of the way for a while so the news could die down a little in that small town. I agreed to check myself in because I was afraid now of everything I did – afraid to be alone.

Two things happened during my stay in that institution. One, I knew there was no way I could stay there. I refused to allow anyone to help me. After all, I was only there to hide from, well, life. The second thing was far more profound and its effects would have far-reaching consequences. What I saw there frightened me probably more than I’d ever been frightened. If this was how to get help, you could count me out. But I also saw people who had no control over their problems. The final straw came when a girl there went into an epileptic fit in the hall while I happened to be standing there. The nurses tried everything they could to keep her from hurting herself. They finally managed to get her on a gurney and strap her down. I knew it was time to get out of Dodge. My suicide attempt had been about me running from my own reality. Now, it was time to run from a reality I didn’t want to know existed. What I took away from this experience would prevent me from asking for help in any sincere way for the next thirty-two or so years. How could I even consider that I had problems when these people were doomed to a life in the control of others, helpless to help themselves? I was overcome with guilt over being so selfish. I was left with what I’d been taught – pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and carry on.

At that time, a voluntary commitment to the state hospital meant I could check myself out after ten days. I checked myself out promptly on the tenth day. My father had to drive 30 miles in snow to come get me. The trip back was terrifying. It was almost impossible to see where the road ended and the fields began.

After this episode, the old Ben was gone completely. I’d been disappearing for a long time and now the transformation seemed complete. In his place was a frightened, walled-in boy who thought he was a man. I had no idea what to do next. I would spend years clinging to people desperately in an effort for them to make me okay. I never allowed anyone too close, though, because that was just going to get me hurt again. I knew I wasn’t okay, but I needed to appear okay. It became very much about what it looked like rather than what it was. For that, I needed people to prop me up, though I resented them for knowing how to live life. It was a recipe for a miserable life.

I think what I want to say is that it didn’t have to be that way. I don’t recall having anyone there to simply say they understood that the pain was just too great to want to stick around – that I was acceptable no matter what. But it was a catch-22 situation. I also didn’t know how to tell anyone why there was pain or just how much pain there was. I no longer trusted anyone to like me (much less love me) just for who I was. After all, I no longer knew who I was. What I remember of reactions to my suicide attempt were pity, indignation, fear, even moral disgust. The suggestions were mostly that I was just going to have to figure out what I wanted – just stop straddling the fence. I was pretty sure I’d already shown them what I really wanted, but I’d failed at that. Do I advocate suicide? Absolutely not. Do I understand suicide? Yes, I believe I do. Could anyone have prevented my attempt? Maybe, maybe not. I believe most suicides aren’t about causing others harm, though that may be one of the results. Anger at the person attempting to end their life is of less than no use whatsoever and more than likely will simply build yet another wall between you and the person who just wants for the pain to go away. I don’t think anyone could have handed me a solution. What I really needed was acceptance. What I demanded after that was understanding. I couldn’t know at the time that I was asking the impossible. Still my anger at the world grew.

Many years later, I finally started the process of asking for help. I say process because I had no idea how to do it and I still felt that, if you knew who I really was, you’d walk away. No doubt in my mind about that despite the fact there were people right there with me for all those years. Absolute knowing is a horrible thing, it prevents you from being able to accept anything new. I had become so locked down that no amount of evidence to the contrary was going to allow me to believe I wasn’t the person I told myself I was.

At age 56, it finally came to the end of the road for this particular Ben. This one had no options left – hadn’t really for a long time. All the old solutions had stopped working, no matter how hard I repeated them. Some small part of me finally admitted that, just perhaps, asking for help might be okay. But, when you’ve become your own entire means of protection, even the act of asking for help threatens to sink the whole thing. No matter how bad my life seemed, it was still the only one I knew.

Little by little, I got the help I needed. Little by little, I let go of a lifetime of fear. When I finally was able to get to a place where I was willing to peek out a little from behind the walls I’d built, I found people there who had been waiting to see me for years. Some had been waiting most all of my life, others for only a short time. I even allowed myself to remember a little boy who wanted to do good things but had lost his way. The biggest lesson I had to learn was honesty. It wasn’t just that I had to be honest with the people trying to help me, it was far more important that I allow myself to be honest with me. I could no longer play both sides of the game – presenting what had become a more and more difficult façade of self-confidence while running myself into the ground as the worthless piece of trash I felt I was most of the time. I’d tried therapy many times in the past, but nothing helped much since I could not bring myself to be honest with the person trying to help. Even there, it was about how I appeared to another rather than what was really going on.

Could I have broken free sooner? I don’t know. Perhaps it took every bit of pain I’d carried with me all those years in order to finally be willing to even try to be okay in my own skin. God knew all these things about me, right? I couldn’t hide it all from God, right? Oh, come now, don’t tell me you haven’t lied to God more than once, as though it was possible. No, I needed something more in order to break out of my own head.

Those thoughts of suicide? They’re still there. They show up now and again, usually at unexpected times. The difference today, however, is that I can recognize their presence, wish them well, and send them on their way. All these things are a part of who I am. Denying them cost me dearly. Sharing the worst I could tell about myself to just one other human who didn’t run screaming out the room, made the difference. Having that one person refuse to allow me to continue to tell him how bad I was made the difference. That person was placed in my path for a reason. I think that’s when I began to realize what I’d missed most in my life was a sense of community. Self-reliance is a trap and a lie. As long as I believed it was all up to me since I couldn’t count on anyone else, I was doomed to continue to repeat the same things that hurt me and allowed me to hurt others.

It’s amazing what can happen in your life when you allow even the smallest glimmer of light in. For me, that light was my recognition that I am a child of God, not a disappointment. I may do disappointing things, but that doesn’t make me a disappointment in God’s eyes. Taking an honest look at myself, finally, revealed to me a loving person who had done hurtful things. I can’t step back and change those things. I can, however, do something different today. I discovered to my surprise that I no longer asked every night for the God I thought I’d left behind to let me die. Today, my question is a hopeful, “what’s next?” I have no way of knowing how much time I have left. I choose today, however, to live that life as one who is loved and who is capable of loving. And when I forget momentarily, I know I am surrounded by a host of friends who will remind me.

Oh, and that friend who helped by his actions to convince me not to die that night? I count him as one of my closest and dearest friends after over forty years despite the fact that we rarely spoke again for another thirty-four years. You see, I believe God is in the redeeming business. Anything, absolutely anything, can be redeemed through the love of God. That, finally, is how it’s worked for me. It simply remains for us to accept that love and we become more able to recognize the love right around us.