Sunday, December 5, 2010
My Testimony Fr. Dale Matson
"Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!” (Deuteronomy 30:19, NLT).
I was given a Halley’s Bible Handbook for High School Graduation at the Baptist Church I had attended since childhood. It was also a graduation of sorts from church also for the next twenty years. It was the usual time of life for questioning things in general and it was a time when “God is dead” was the mantra of the professors at my University. The decade of the 60’s was horrible in general and worse for young men in particular. While some relish reminiscing, I think about the instability of life following the previous quiescent decade. Leaders such as President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in what seemed like an outbreak of unending anarchy. I was drafted into the Army out of the University my senior year because my grade point average did not meet the criteria for the local draft board. During my two years of service I went from someone with a drinking problem to someone with a serious drinking problem. I remember taking money from a donation canister in a store to buy alcohol. What had I become?
For the next sixteen years I was engaged in the process of killing myself on the installment plan. Addiction to alcohol and cigarettes was only part of a self-defeating and self-destructive lifestyle. I had a rage inside me coupled with a fear that paralyzed personal growth and hurt those around me. I desperately sought peace and found alcohol to be a dependable source. It was a however a deal with the devil. Mornings became more and more difficult. I had panic attacks so severe, I would have to pull off the road in the tractor trailer hauling heavy equipment and sit until the fear passed.
I planned my life around alcohol and always made sure there was enough around to get the job done. While I never drank at work, I had a string of jobs over the years where I fouled my own nest over time. I was a husband and a father but emotionally unavailable to my wife and sons except in a harsh and punitive sense. I believe at this time of my life, I was capable of any act and fortunately God didn’t allow opportunities to present themselves.
God in His grace can even reach into the heart of the active unrepentant addict. I signed up for a sixteen week adult bible study with my wife as an act of appeasement, at the local Lutheran Church. After the first night I remember banging my fist on the steering wheel and saying that I wasn’t going back. During that sixteen weeks, God the Holy Spirit courted me and won me back. I had given my life to Christ as an eight year old in Sunday school. The crucial question for me was the same one Christ posed to Peter. “Who do you say that I am?” To see Christ as God opened the door for my return. I began attending bible class between services and enjoyed the experience immensely. Jim B. the president of the congregation became my spiritual mentor. He answered my many questions and became a father to me. He has passed on now but his biological son became a pastor and his adoptive son became a priest. It is part of a fitting eulogy for a godly man. He is only the first of many good men and women God placed by my side.
God’s will is not initially heavy but the cumulative effect is a rod of iron. I gradually became aware following my baptism that there was no turning back. I remember the thought that came to me before I walked down the aisle for my baptism. “You are throwing your life away for this Jesus”. The statement was true but the life I was throwing away wasn’t worth living. I was now another ambassador of God’s Kingdom and as an ambassador; it was not fitting for me to be a drunk or a smoker. At one point in my life, I had such severe indigestion from drinking that I put baking soda in my wine to avoid the acid stomach. I actually believed the lie that I would die if I quit drinking. I prayed about this and was delivered from the need to drink. I was trustworthy again. I had to pray for two more years to get the desire to quit smoking and when I quit on January 10th 1983, I never smoked again. I believe there can be conversion from addiction also.
There can be an enormous release of pent up power in a recovering individual. I will state unequivocally, that God chose me as He chose so many others to demonstrate His power. I am an ordinary man with a limited amount of physical and intellectual aptitude. For the next ten years God began to release His creative and life giving power in my life. I went back to school and finished my Ph.D. at Marquette University in Educational Psychology. On my first day of classes at Marquette (a Jesuit University) I looked up to see a crucifix on the wall. It seemed so right to me. I was an average student in High School and an honor student in graduate school. I also became a licensed Psychologist and School Psychologist. During this time I also designed and built a home and ran my first marathon. Running became my replacement behavior for smoking. At one point my weight, blood pressure and cholesterol were in the extreme range and in need of medical intervention. Running and a change of diet solved another aspect of a self-destructive life. “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13, KJV).
There was also unexpected collateral damage. My marriage of more than 20 years was falling apart. We fought more than ever. We were two decent people who now only seemed to bring out the worst in each other. The rancor was difficult for our sons. We agreed that I would take a tenure track teaching position in California at a Mennonite Brethren University and the family would join me the following year after my oldest son had graduated from High School. It did not come to pass and we agreed to a Pro Se divorce. My university spent nearly a year investigating the circumstances. It was a difficult and lonely time. The same week in December of 1993 our divorce was finalized and the university agreed to allow me to stay on. Once again, God provided a saintly mentor Dr. Bob W., who I worked with for over eight years. His passing is mourned by hundreds of former students that he both taught and shepherded.
After seventeen years of teaching and being a school psychologist, I was no longer able to convince myself that was what God had intended as my final career. As a program director, I was able to both teach and counsel the students in the counseling and school psychology programs. Part of our evaluation was our participation in our church and I could see that increasing year by year with a declining passion for teaching and the academic life.
In the meantime, I walked into church one Sunday thinking that I would never meet a woman there who could be my wife. God’s humor is manifested at times like this. As I was sitting down in the pew, I looked across the aisle to my right and in front of me. There was a woman sitting there that was the most handsome woman I have ever seen. She had the most beautiful gray hair and a youthful face that betrayed the gray hair. Sharon was visiting with a friend who was a parishioner there. I said to myself, “I will meet this woman no matter what it takes”. I had coffee with her at a small local grill on Monday and knew within the next week that we would be married. She also had been divorced about three years. Between us we have four sons. We were married at the foot of Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite in 1996.
While I was still teaching at the university, I began taking classes in Anglican Studies at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary on the campus of Fresno Pacific University where I taught. I loved the theology and history of Anglicanism and began to sense that God was calling me to holy orders. Unfortunately for me the members of the Commission on Ministry decided after meeting with me that I needed more time to discern my call. This was a polite way of saying that my ego had metastasized and needed a two year course of rejection therapy. I was more humble at my next retreat and had retired as emeritus from Fresno Pacific University.
There remained questions about whether I was being called to the Deaconate or the Priesthood and following a year working as a vocational Deacon, I met with Bishop Schofield to say that I really thought God was calling me to the Priesthood. His response was, “What took you so long”? After a year of additional training and experience, I was ordained a Priest on the Feast Day of St. Gregory the Great, March 12th 2010. It is where God wanted me to be all along but it took me until age 65 to be prepared for this calling.
God has called me above all to comfort others with the comfort that I have been comforted with. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in our entire affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4). I know others who have been prodigals but they have had enormous gifts. What makes my testimony unique is that I am ordinary. If God can accomplish this with me then a similar life dedicated and submitted to God can also demonstrate the Glory of God. “But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God's OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellence of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9). My personal prayer for those who read this and are choosing death, would have hope that Christ could, like Lazarus also raise them from death to life. Amen