My Testimony

(as shared with our Celebrate Recovery at Southern Hills Baptist Church, Tulsa, OK)

I am a grateful believer in Jesus Christ who struggles with depression and anger; my name is Hess.

I was blessed in childhood. I was raised in Memphis, TN by good parents- a mother who nurtured me and a father who always gave me his blessing. My parents had me in church early on- in fact, I think the first time I pooped in my diapers was in church. I committed my life to Christ when I was 9 years old during VBS, and by the time I was 11, began to have what were probably my first “leadings” into vocational ministry. I threw an early morning paper route that summer. Walking and riding my bike around those neighborhoods at 4:30 in the morning provided for a lot of quiet time, even for an 11 yr old, to talk and listen to God. It was a good undistracted time- all except the morning I thought I heard something behind me and turned to see a Doberman pincher running at me in a silent charge. THAT was distracting.

Our family was kinda boring- we didn’t have too much dysfunction. I even called one of my sisters before I wrote this to confirm my memory! But one thing I did not learn in our family was how to really open up to those closest to you. I would open up with friends much more easily than I did with family. My mom would TRY to get me to talk. She leveraged my best buddy, John, on several occasions- “John talks to his mother,” she would say, “why don’t you talk to me like John talks to his mother?” But I still didn’t talk. I was a stuffer and a conflict- avoider from early on. From a young age I thought the goal of the Christian life was to please both God and people. And if I got angry, I stuffed it.

My first bout with depression came when I was 20 yrs. old. I was hit with a disease my mother had dealt with from her early teens to her mid-40’s called Ulcerative Colitis. It showed up near the end of my freshman year in college. Painful cramping, bleeding, and, when the disease was on a rampage, uncontrollable diarrhea. That provided for many humbling experiences- to say the least. It was- shall I say- a very crappy time in life. I had to be hospitalized just after Christmas of my Jr. year and could not return to Dallas for that Spring semester of college. It was about the third week in the hospital that depression started settling in while I kept track on a Kleenex box of the number of times I went to the bathroom each day.

I prayed daily, many times a day, asking God for healing. But the healing never came. I was only beginning to learn what the apostle Paul meant when HE prayed for healing that did not come. 1 Cor. 12:9 (NLT) Each time (God) said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” As a 20 year old, I was coming to vividly understand key aspects of CR Principle 1; that I am not God and I am powerless- period! Jesus said, “God blesses those who… realize their need for Him.” I clearly experienced what unmanageable meant. That hospital stay lasted for just over 6wks. I had several blood transfusions and lost 30lbs before I stabilized enough to finally get out. I honestly didn’t realize how weak my body had gotten until shortly after being dismissed from the hospital I walked out onto a basketball court and attempted a free throw and watched it fall a good three ft short of the rim!

With all my best friends away at college, I was afraid it would be a lonely time back in Memphis. But, as it turned out, I discovered that another old friend had decided to stay home and go to Memphis State that semester. His name was Dean. Friendship was something I had always deeply valued in my life and Dean’s friendship was a blessing from God that helped lift me out of depression in spite of not being healed. And, when we went cruising around and I said, “I need to find a bathroom,” he understood that I meant, NOW!

By that June, I made the decision to have surgery. With UC, when the colon is removed, the disease is gone- you’re healed. It’s called an ileostomy. My mother had opted to have the same surgery in her mid-40s so she was a big help in making the decision. Some fear that it will be a life-debilitating surgery, but for me it was incredibly life-giving. In fact, six weeks later I was water skiing.

Before I finished college I essentially made a conscious decision to commit all my life and will to Christ’s care and control and pursue full time ministry and go to seminary for training. I finished seminary in 1980 and moved to Little Rock, AR to be the Youth Pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church. I met some interesting people that next year. On my second Sunday there I talked with a very friendly tall curly headed guy in his mid-30’s who told me he had just started visiting the church. I didn’t catch his name but shortly after the conversation was told that I had been talking with the Governor. I asked, “Governor of what?” They said, “of Arkansas!” It was Bill Clinton.

He was interesting, but the MOST interesting person I met was later on at a SS training event where I was asked to work with adult lay volunteers who were teaching teenagers at their churches. There was a very attractive young lady in my session who was teaching Jr. High girls at her church. I didn’t catch her name either. But, I put my seminary education to good use and told the group that I wanted to be faithful to follow up and provide important youth ministry information to them in the months to come. So I passed around a sheet of paper and asked them to write down their name, address, and telephone numbers. Needless to say, I only followed up with one person on that list- and her name was Julie. About 18 mos later she became my wife. (So- contrary to the rumor, she was NOT in my youth group- but she still was too young to know better!)

Julie and I have been married for 32 years. And, marriage has been a good challenge for us! She has courageously shared her testimony with you. We are opposites in some positive ways but too much alike in some not-so-positive ways. Neither one of us is good at managing finances, which became a major source of conflict. Our natural communication styles didn’t help either. Remember, the people I always found it hardest to share with were those closest to me, and I carried that right into marriage. We were also both conflict avoiders. Whereas I would get angry and very passive aggressively stuff it, she grew up learning to just sweep everything under the rug and pretend it wasn’t there. Well, I stuffed and she swept… for a long, long time.

Almost 11 years ago Julie’s oldest brother (14 yrs. older than she), who had been as much a father to her as a big brother, was tragically killed in a car wreck. After that happened, Julie went into what could be described as a fog of grief- a grief which was compounded by the loss of her father and her mother in the couple of years that followed. The lone remaining member of her immediate family was a very troubled brother who had always remained very distant. So she suddenly felt like an adult orphan in a way. She found some solace in her work but isolated otherwise.

Our marriage also got stuck in that fog. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, instead of moving toward her, which she so very much needed me to do and which is clearly what Christ would have done, I moved away from her in anger. I reacted to the “fog” by withdrawing and stuffing. I was not practicing what I was preaching. And actually, I avoided preaching on marriage as much as I could and just hoped that no one would ask why. And no one did. And we both kept our masks firmly fixed in place.

Not long after the fog arrived, another storm was brewing at the office. Frankly, this is another reason I have hesitated to share, but I can only tell the story as it effected my life. Several issues had developed with our church staff at that time but the biggest storm brewing was, in essence, a mutiny. A couple of years earlier one of the staff started disappearing from the office every Wed afternoon without telling anyone what he was doing- only to find out he was playing golf. That was in addition to taking a full day off on Fridays. Obviously, I had to confront him about it. Well, I was unaware of it for a long time, but, as I later confirmed in conversation with him, from that day forward he began to subtly work to undermine my leadership. He particularly influenced another member of the staff and their talk was eventually open enough that two of our younger staff members finally came to me one day to tell me about lunch conversations and other stuff that had been going on and wanted me to know that they were not a part of it.

Personnel problems like this are challenging in any workplace, but they can be very delicate in a church setting our size where church members are glad-handed in the hallways but are often totally unaware of the level or quality of work actually being done. Things steadily grew worse- to the point that I dreaded staff meetings and even going into the office. It was during this period that I became very depressed- clinically depressed. I had taken anti-depressants off and on, but they were not helping much at this point. I started spiraling. I felt like I was being sucked down into a deathly dark vortex and was completely helpless to do anything about. I called a man in our church who over the years I had considered to be MY pastor, Dr. Milt Olsen, and asked if I could come and talk. I did- I talked and cried and talked and cried. James 5:14-15, Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. Milt listened and offered his wisdom and then- as my elder- annointed me with oil and prayed for me. Within about 3 days, the spiraling had stopped. God, I believe, healed me. Whereas I’ve struggled with bouts of depression since that time, I have never spiraled like that again. I’m deeply grateful, to say the least.

In the meantime, the office storm continued until we ultimately discovered that the two staff members in cahoots with each other had been having secret meetings with church members whom they had been recruiting for the purpose of breaking away and starting their own church. In church life, that is extremely unethical, to say the least. We had brought both individuals onto our staff out of settings where we had given them an opportunity they would likely have never had otherwise. So, it felt like a huge personal betrayal- a deep stab in the back. Worst of all, it damaged our church. Looking back, I honestly don’t know what the best recourse would have been, but we chose to take a very high road in dealing with it and, essentially, sent them out to start their church along with an extremely generous love offering to boot.

You remember the movie or the book, The Perfect Storm? Three bad storm systems all converged to form one huge system in the North Atlantic they called the perfect storm- it was perfectly bad. The fog in our marriage and the problems on staff that had spilled over into the church all formed my own perfect storm. I was in a very bad place and on the verge of complete burnout. Depression was constantly at my doorstep and the anger that I was stuffing by this time was enormous.

For the previous 4 years or so at this point, I had been witness to so many people finding help, hope, and healing through CR. But, when we started this ministry I had no idea that one day one of the people who would need it most… would be me. I longed for that same help and healing that I’d seen take place in the lives of so many others. I knew that I needed to get into a CR 12 step study. But given the staff and church issues in particular at that time, I just did not feel safe doing so with one of our step studies. As I’ve shared at the summits, how do you sit around in your group and say, “I’ve got a huge hangup, and it’s you!?”

So, I invited a group of local pastors to join me and we began to walk through the steps together. That group became a lifeline for me in the midst of the storm. It was an immediate encouragement and the healing process began; especially- ala Principle 4– as I openly examined and confessed my faults not only to God but to my fellow pastors as we struggled and shared together.

Principle 6 was huge for me as well: Evaluate all my relationships. Offer forgiveness to those who have hurt me and make amends for harm I’ve done to others, except when to do so would harm them or others. Forgiveness, I discovered more than ever before, is a process. But the process has to begin somewhere. For me, it began as I took a week away that summer during my step study and drove to Colorado alone for a study break and personal retreat. Driving thru the majesty of God’s creation one morning, His Spirit broke through to me where I think it truly sank in for the first time in my life just how much God had forgiven ME in Christ. I truly realized that no matter what he would ever ask me to forgive someone else of, it could never come close to all that God has forgiven me for. How could I ever choose to withold from anyone else what He had so freely given to me? Eph. 4:32, Be kind and tender to one another. Forgive each other, just as God forgave you because of what Christ has done. And, I also figured out- the more I forgive, the less the anger and depression. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

But, what about our marriage? About 4 years ago, Julie completed a CR 12 step study and God used that to change her life and heal her grief- and the fog finally lifted. Up to that point, I am embarrassed to say, I had, for the most part, stubbornly refused to work the recovery principles in our marriage and remained withdrawn.

Finally, the day came that I made amends to Julie and not long after, she with me. We’ve still had our bumps and bruises along the way, but gratefully, our relationship is better today than ever before- primarily because of God’s work through CR. Next to my salvation, Julie is God’s greatest gift in my life. As I say to couples that I marry, our marriage, when I am fully submitted to Christ, has been His most effective instrument to reproduce His character in my life. Finally, I’m so grateful for you. Seeing God’s work in YOUR lives- again- is what convinced me of my personal need for a CR 12 step study. And, what a privilege it has been to share in all God is doing through this ministry. As many of you know, that very first pastor’s 12 step study ultimately evolved into a subsidiary ministry of CR called, CPR- Celebrate Pastors in Recovery. Over 120 pastors as well as spouses in the Tulsa area have been through the 12 steps now and today, there are CPR groups in many places around the US and in Canada. So, please pray for CPR- the need on the part of pastors and spouses all over the world is huge.

Thank you for making this church a place of healing grace where lives are transformed in Christ. Thank you for being a safe church where I as your pastor have the freedom to stand before you and tell you what a jerk I can be. Thank you… for letting me share.