1. What inspired you to write Called! A Longshot’s Story?
On the eve of my open-heart surgery in October 2010 and within a week of my sixty-second birthday, I knew unequivocally that even if I didn’t survive the operation, I had already been blessed personally and professionally beyond measure, no small feat considering how close my life came to being summed up with words such as lost soul, addict, alcoholic, asylum, criminal, and suicide. Five months after my successful surgery, I felt compelled to write with uncompromising honesty about that earlier period in my life when I struggled for years with personal demons such as despair, addiction, and aimlessness before an astonishing call to ministry propelled me forward towards well-being. I fervently hope my “longshot” story will inspire folks, especially those desperately longing for a second-chance, and also prompt a wide range of readers to truthfully examine their own stories and perhaps discover important insights which had previously eluded them.
2. What messages do you hope readers with be left with after reading your book?
Given a second chance, longshots can surprise, sometimes even astound! During those periods when your life seems meaningless and no longer worth living and when you feel like you can’t or don’t want to carry on, may you never give up hope that somehow, some day, something or someone will pull you back from the brink and set in motion a process for restoring your wellbeing and sense of purpose. Alternatively, during those periods when you feel reasonably well off and satisfied, may you never forget the transformative difference which your understanding, compassion, and generosity could make to those in great need. Finally, regardless of your current circumstances, truthfully examining your life from time to time will help you remember who you really are, clarify your life’s journey thus far, and enable you to discern how best to proceed.
3. Your book is about second-chances and what a person such as yourself could do to overcome his problems or shortcomings to make something of himself. You had struggled with drugs such as LSD and Valium, were an alcoholic with a long history of alcoholic black-outs, unemployed once again and forced to return home to live with your mother at age 27, and in the throes of a longstanding existential crisis, how did you get your act together?
After shamefully flunking out of university following a 3-year debauched romp, I thankfully had enough resilience and false bravado to hang in there for several years without any sense of meaning or direction as my life quickly devolved. Yet, I also knew my point of no-return was getting close at hand. However, in October 1976 when I was reading my old Sunday School Bible purely from a literary, non-religious perspective, an astonishing call to ministry swept me to my knees, assured me of God’s steadfast, eternal love, and propelled me forward in faith towards a meaningful vocation. Nonetheless, without the wide array of personal, educational, and professional support which I received over the next four years while pursuing my calling, this wondrous second-chance for a meaningful, healthy life would never have materialized and I soon would have found myself permanently residing in oblivion without any hope of ever leaving.
4. You served as a minister for 35 years. Did your book shock some of your former parishioners who didn’t know about your life before becoming ordained?
All of my former parishioners were completely shocked, in some cases bowled-over, from reading about my life prior to ordination. Although some of them had realized while socializing with me during my ministry with them that I never drank alcohol, they had initially assumed this was on account of my profession until I used to matter-of-factly clarify their misconceptions by briefly mentioning my earlier struggles with alcohol. However, in terms of my story’s overall narrative, everyone was totally amazed and inspired by the fact that I had survived those tormented years but, even more so, by my astonishing call to ministry and the many timely, serendipitous blessings which made my ordination possible, ultimately propelling me towards a life of deep personal and professional fulfillment. Furthermore, some folks after reading my “longshot” story, realized just how little they really knew about other people and resolved to stop making snap critical judgments about them.
5. As a minister you discovered the resilience of the human spirit and discovered the beauty of people, including a generosity of heart. Is there hope for humanity?
In no small measure, those entrusted to my pastoral care as well as my beloved, late wife Robin have been my greatest teachers about what really matters in life: faith, hope, generosity of spirit, compassion, respect, forgiveness, resilience, reconciliation, selflessness, and love readily come to mind. As a result of my countless, embedded pastoral and personal experiences of God’s Grace from over the years, I remain hopeful that enough folks, including myself, and our future generations will undauntedly and selflessly band together and help mitigate the growing unjust, discriminatory, and inhumane inequities which are currently oppressing billions of folks around the world and also that we’ll do everything possible to avert the fast-approaching, horrific ecological calamity which would destroy life and our planet as we know it.
6. You had help in your life’s transformation. Do people realize others can help them improve their life?
Knowing that I needed help and that others could help me, being willing to ask for help, and having ready access to whatever resources could help me were all key factors in my personal transformation over the years. Throughout my ministry, I’ve seen that most folks know that help from others in times of great need would certainly benefit them. However, the key issue for them as it was for me, is whether or not they realize how much they really do need help. Once folks realize this fact, they usually reach out for assistance and their lives improve significantly. Yet sadly there is another group of folks who struggle their entire lives with major issues such as depression, addiction, and hopelessness who either don’t’ realize how much they need help or are unable, for a variety of reasons, to reach out for assistance. My heart breaks for them.
7. How do you help others reflect truthfully on their struggles and show them how to deal with their personal demons?
If folks felt that I genuinely cared for them, that I was truly there for them regardless of whatever troubling aspects of their lives they might choose to share with me, that I wouldn’t be judging or trying to “fix” them, and that I would support them within their own spiritual traditions without having a religious agenda of my own, there was a very good chance that they’d come to trust me enough to begin revealing some of their personal demons and whatever else was weighing heavily on their heart. This kind of transparency, in and of itself over the course of a few pastoral visits, invariably went a long way towards unpacking and lifting some of their torment.
Throughout my ministry, I consistently found that if given the support they need, most folks will discover their own answers about how best to reclaim their well-being and peace of mind.
8. You write with candor and transparency. How difficult – or cathartic – was it to admit your shortcomings?
Responding to an unexpected, compelling yearning, I began writing about my life, especially my Dickensian “best of times, worst of times” decade 1970-1980. Even after years of demanding inner work in which I had honestly faced and eventually dispelled most of my personal demons and also made amends for considerable unconscionable behavior, I was still shocked by the severity of my torment and shamed by my complete lack of moral scruples during some of this period. Although often tempted to abandon the project altogether or exclude the most unsavory details, I stayed the course, sensing that there was a greater purpose at stake. And I was right. Writing about my life with uncompromising honesty enhanced my appreciation for my jawdropping escape from oblivion, deepened my gratitude for my many blessings, reinforced my belief that given a second-chance, longshots can surprise sometimes even astound, and proved to me that my story merited telling.
9. You had open-heart surgery at age 61. How did this change your perspective on life?
Open-heart surgery forced me for the first time in my life to come face-to-face with my own mortality, something which I had only previously done on purely safe, abstract terms. Like those folks entrusted to my pastoral care over the years who had found themselves faced with major health concerns and even terminal diagnoses, I now found myself struggling with intense feelings such as denial, self-pity, fear, anger, depression, and resignation before mercifully reaching a point of some acceptance and inner peace. From a professional perspective, openheart surgery deepened my appreciation for what others experience when their lives or the lives of their loved ones are at grave risk and enabled me to care for them with increased pastoral understanding. From a personal perspective, my open-heart surgery continues to remind me daily of my own mortality, enabling me to more fully appreciate each day which I am blessed to live.
10. Your wife died last year in January 2021 as a result of early-onset Alzheimer’s. As her long-time husband and caregiver, how did you handle the challenge of seeing your wife slip away with dementia?
Being my beloved Robin’s sole caregiver and seeing her ever-increasing dementia, over a six year period, ruthlessly strip away her cognitive ability to engage in most aspects of life which had previously brought her much meaning and joy was heart-wrenching, staggering, overwhelming, and agonizing for both of us. Shortly after she was diagnosed with a major degenerative brain illness in early 2016, Robin had turned to me and said, “I don’t want to wither.” From that moment on, I vowed to help her live as normally, fully, contentedly, and safely for as long as possible and to approach her care grounded in devotion rather than duty, patience rather than efficiency, privilege rather than obligation, and love rather than anything less. Fortunately, I also felt an almost constant conviction that much of my overall life
experience, both personal and professionally, had instilled in me the wherewithal necessary for this ultimate ministry.
11. Throughout your 35 years in ministry including 24 years as a hospice chaplain, you helped thousands of people who died and also their surviving family members. Did that experience help you deal with your wife’s death?
First and foremost, my 35 years in ministry, especially those as a hospice chaplain, daily normalized death for me, helping me over time to fully accept that death, like birth, is just another normal part of the life cycle. Such insights and experiences proved invaluable for me in terms of how I coped with Robin’s diagnosis, disease progression, and eventual death at age 67. Having provided spiritual care to countless folks who were dying from Alzheimer’s and their families, I saw first-hand how the normal disease progression usually unfolded and what specific markers to look for when Robin and I would need more assistance. I also learned incredibly important lessons from patients’ primary caregivers as to how best manage a loved one’s care while also taking care of yourself in the process, a process which still continues for me one year after Robin’s merciful death in January 2021. That being said, I implore primary caregivers, both for their loved one’s sake as well as their own, not to wait until the “wheels start flying off” before they reach out for professional assistance. This point can never be overstated.
12. What lessons have you learned about death?
My 35 years of ministry as well as the recent death of my beloved wife Robin at age 67 have brought me face-to-face with some undeniable, often devastating realities about death which include: death is a certainty for everyone; death is completely inclusive; death does not discriminate as to one’s age, sex, gender, race, socioeconomic circumstances, political/personal beliefs, religious or spiritual traditions, personal life resumes; death will happen to all of us on its own terms whether we acknowledge it as part of our normal life cycle or not. That being said, over the past forty years death has become my greatest teacher about how to live my life. As I’ve grown more accepting about the certainty of my own death (no easy feat and far from finished), I’ve become more capable and motivated to live my life with intention, focused on what really matters, before death comes for me.
13. What lessons have you learned about life?
Everyone suffers, some suffer more than others. Life is not played on a level playing field. Never give up hope even when engulfed by seemingly irreversible hopelessness. Seeking and accepting help in times of great need is of utmost importance. With God’s Grace and the lovingkindness of others, we can be rescued from oblivion, restored, and propelled towards well-being. Never underestimate the positive or adverse effect our words, actions, and thoughts can have on others, including ourselves. Living with attitudes such as love, hope, generosity, compassion, equanimity, forgiveness, and gratitude lays the foundation for a fulfilling life. Expanding the
scope of those for whom we really care is a life-long process which lies at the heart of a life well lived. A keen awareness of our mortality can help us stay focused on what really matters. Living our lives with loving intention benefits others, yet no one more than ourselves.
14. Some people see life as meaningless and fall into addiction, despair, or withdrawal. What words of encouragement can you give to people on the precipice?
Given a second chance, longshots can surprise, sometimes even astound! Never give up hope. You can recover your sense of well-being regardless of how bleak the prospects of doing so seem at the time. With God’s Grace and the lovingkindness of others, there is always hope that you can be brought back from the precipice just as countless others in similar circumstances have been. Admitting how desperate your situation has become, reaching out for assistance, and being totally committed to whatever is required for your recovery are essential yet extremely difficult first steps. Give yourself credit for getting this far. If it becomes apparent that certain assistance programs or particular professionals, family members, or friends aren’t helping you, seek out others until you find the resources you need. Remember that your recovery will take time. Be patient with yourself. Stay focused on taking one-day-at-a-time and even one-breath-at-a-time on extra tough days. Trust the process. Never give up hope.
15. Can we each dig a little deeper to those in need, even if we are struggling ourselves?
Although we can certainly help those who are struggling by increasing our charitable donations when we have the financial resources, there are countless other ways for us to express our generosity of spirit and compassion which are not dependent on our personal circumstances at the time. Intentionally extending our hand, offering a blessing or word of prayer, or sharing a smile can immediately help folks who are feeling invisible, unvalued, and marginalized to feel, if only momentarily, more noticed, appreciated, welcomed, and perhaps in some cases, even more hopeful about their future. For me the principle of giving ourselves away in order to find ourselves has increasingly underscored the profound relationship between living with wholehearted generosity and realizing our full human potential. By not digging deeper for those less fortunate, especially when we are capable of doing so, we regrettably and tragically are ultimately the ones found wanting at the end of the day. In spite of some progress in this regard over the past decade, I can still dig much deeper.
16. What role can faith or religion play in another’s life?
Faith and religion, in some form or another, definitely play major roles in the lives of most folks by providing them with specific values and principles for how to live their lives and by affording them membership in a community of like-minded, kindred spirits. There is no mistaking the fact that faith and religion undeniably give folks a sense of purpose, security, and belonging. Yet depending upon their core nature and primary mission, various faiths and religions will either significantly help or hinder a person’s ability to think for themselves, arrive at their own truths, and to expand the scope of those for whom they really care, particularly folks whom they perceive as significantly different from themselves. I am eternally grateful that my faith and religion have consistently helped me immensely in this regard over the years and that this process itself remains ongoing.
17. Did the church save your life – or at least did your call to ministry do so?
By helping me to feel unconditionally, eternally loved and accepted to a degree which I had never previously come close to remotely experiencing, by instilling in me a profound hope that a meaningful and fulfilling life was still possible, and by providing me with a roadmap for how all of this could be actually realized, my call to ministry unequivocally saved my life. However, without the timely and generous support of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, The United Church of Canada, and the countless professional, personal, and educational blessings which came my while received I pursued my calling, my life undoubtedly would have quickly returned to oblivion. Though it sounds cliché, it indeed took a village to save my life. Of utmost importance to me is that I’ve been granted many opportunities over the years to similarly help others who have desperately teetered without hope on the brink.
18. Before you were a minister, you drifted from job to job with no ambition, from nickel miner to security guard. How important is it for one to get the best possible education and to have a career path to pursue?
The importance of receiving the best possible education and having a meaningful career path to pursue cannot be overstated. However, depending on what transpires in the course of one’s life, anyone can find themselves unexpectedly in places of overwhelming despair, meaninglessness, and destructive behavior. Escaping such dire situations depends on a wide array of factors but certainly folks who already have a good education and a meaningful career to resume are better positioned for the recovery process than those who don’t have such benefits. Fortunately, I had received a Bachelor of Arts a few years prior to my astonishing call to ministry. As a result, I could readily enroll at seminary for the 3-year Master of Divinity program which my church denomination required for those seeking ordination. Without that degree, my ordination process would have become much longer, more complicated, and possibly could have undermined my new-found hope’s increasing momentum.
19. Should everyone examine their lives from time to time, whether they feel like a failure or a success?
Frederick Buechner in his book Telling Secrets says, “It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.” This quote has profoundly affected me over the years and gave me the vison for how I needed to write my story. Regardless of our personal circumstances, truthfully examining our lives on occasion can sometimes help us discover important, even lifesaving insights about ourselves. During the course of such an honest introspective process, we may come to realize some additional faith and hope, courage and clarity, gratitude and generosity which had previously eluded us.