I loved Kenny Curtis.
This self-described dope-fiend with over 11,315 days clean was my friend. This long-time, devout agnostic was my spiritual companion. Out of his soul poured the transformation which got hold of him in the rooms and relationships of Narcotics Anonymous. Through his life erupted compassion for the incalculable number of people he helped to break free from the debilitating and dehumanizing disease of addiction. Into his life came love with a name — Armicia — that would heal his own heartache, disarm his finely tuned self-protective survival skills, and fill his life with a joy he didn’t think possible.
My friend died a few days ago.
Our lives intersected several years ago on a Spring Saturday night at Mercy Street, where I was the pastor. With his long gray hair, beard, heavy metal band t-shirt, jeans and dark sunglasses, Kenny looked like he had just stepped off the stage from playing lead guitar with The Grateful Dead. Our mutual friend made the introduction. Kenny wanted to know if they could start a new Narcotics Anonymous meeting in our church facilities since NA’s presence in our part of the city was sparse. This was a no-brainer. My answer was an immediate yes!
Within a couple of weeks, the “Living Clean” meeting was up and running every Saturday night following Mercy Street’s worship service. Soon Living Clean became the largest NA meeting in Houston, providing an entry point for hundreds of men and women to start their journeys of recovery. And it wasn’t long before Kenny made his way from just using space in the building to finding a place in the community of Mercy Street.
Even though Mercy Street was designed to be “a church for people who hate church,” as we liked to say, in Kenny’s mind it was still a church and that meant he didn’t want anything to do with it. Only a few steps down a hallway separated the room of Living Clean from the hall where we held our weekly worship service. Given the spiritual wounds of Kenny’s life, many inflicted by churches preaching and practicing a shame-based toxic theology, the distance between the two spaces might as well have been 1,000 miles through hostile terrain. But one Saturday night he made the treacherous foray into enemy territory … and never left.
He was a gift to me. It was my great delight to be his pastor; deeper gladness still that he counted me as his friend. Our time together taught me a lot about what it means to be human, together sifting through the rubble which had formed the debris piles of our lives, looking for meaning, authentic connection, and something resembling a remedy for shame. He also taught me how creatively F-Bombs could be dropped into conversations about faith and experiences of prayer — how the artful use of his favorite four-letter word could snatch spirituality from the trappings of abstraction and ground it in authentic earthiness of honest human experience, erasing disingenuous divisions between the profane and the sacred. For that I am forever grateful!
Like the confluence of three streams, three phrases uttered over his lips a million times converged into a common flow which moved him through life: Don’t believe the hype. Be where your feet are. Don’t give up on me.
Don’t believe the hype.
With a finely tuned BS detector, perfected through his own personal history of addiction, he had little patience for pretense. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter, as they say. This was especially true when it came to religious types. He could smell a phony a mile away.
I guess don't believe the hype was his way of saying get honest with yourself about yourself. If you entertain exaggerated, grandiose, or alternative facts about yourself or the world, don’t believe the hype. Hyping hurts — yourself and others. It disconnects you from reality.
Don’t ever own the overblown ideas others may have about you — either positive or negative — because people will have them, that's a guarantee, and they are very willing to share their opinions, albeit probably not with you. People are going to think whatever they’re going to think and act however they’re going to act. You have absolutely no control over any of that. Don’t believe that hype either.
Perhaps the greatest gift you can give yourself is self-compassion. Accept yourself as yourself — all that makes up yourself, not hiding from yourself anything about yourself. Refusing to bury issues alive in a tomb of denial and face them head on is the only way to freedom. “God enters into you with all that is [God’s], as far as you have stripped yourself of yourself in all things," writes Meister Eckhart. "It is here that you should begin, whatever the cost, for it is here that you will find true peace, and nowhere else.”
Here is where you find true peace, and nowhere else. So be where your feet are. This little spot of terra firma pressing up against the soles of your feet is absolutely the most solid, the most important place you could ever be. It’s the only place where the potential exists for you to be at peace with who you are and become the best version yourself for sake of others.
Locate yourself in the present. Ground yourself in the here and now. Don’t get trapped in past regrets or caught up in future worries. Today has enough to deal with on its own. Commit yourself to each moment. Pay attention to who is front of you. Find beauty in all of it. You just might uncover true peace and discover the joy of being genuinely and most fully you.
And the truth is when we refuse to believe the hype and are able to be where our feet are, we locate ourselves in the space where God is, and in the place of our own healing and transformation. "You will find stability at the moment when you discover that God is everywhere,” observes Anthony Bloom, "that you do not need to seek God elsewhere, that God is here, and if you do not find God here it is useless to go and search elsewhere because it is not God that is absent from us, it is we who are absent from God."
Don’t believe the hype. Be where your feet are.
And whatever you do, don't give up on me.
I suppose for Kenny, don’t give up on me, was both his fear and his hope. Thinking that his broken self would be too much for people to hold, he was afraid folks would reach a point of deciding not to stick with him once they really got to know him. His hope was that perhaps there would be, just might be, someone or a group of someones who would not give up on him. People who weren’t afraid of his wounds because they had gotten to the place of welcoming their own.
Don’t give up on me was another way of asking, is there such a place where someone like me can fit? And in terms of his wrestling with God (which he did a lot), is there such a grace where someone like me can find a place? Maybe that’s the deep longing most of us sense.
"What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure?” the poet wonders.
I think it is the hope of loving, or being loved.
I heard a fable once about the sun going on a journey
to find its source, and how the moon wept
without her lover’s warm gaze.
We weep when light does not reach our hearts.
We wither like fields if someone close
does not rain their kindness upon us.
“I’ve been reading the Bible, the part where the disciples are hanging with Jesus,” Kenny confessed to me one day. "Man, these guys are fuck ups! I can relate. It made me think, these guys were fuck ups and I’m a fuck up. If Jesus was these guys' friend, maybe he could be my friend too.”
“Kenny, listen to yourself, man. You’re asking if you could be Jesus’ friend. The answer is yes. There’s another side to that, too. It seems to me that not only have you been asking for a very long time, hey Jesus, would you be my friend, Jesus has been asking you for a very long time, “Hey Kenny, will you be mine?”
A few months later, Kenny approached me in a crowd of people, urgent-like. He pulled me aside, looking left, then right, as if what he needed to talk about was top secret. "Hey, brother, I need to talk to you about the B word," he says in a whisper.
"You know, the B word,” again the whisper. "I need to talk to you about the B word!”
Since most of my conversations with Kenny over the years were laced with profanity, my mind immediately jumped to, “Oh, you mean bitch?” I whispered back to him, looking left and right, playing along with his incognito schtick.
“Nah, man!” he says rolling his eyes, a little frustrated I wasn’t picking up on his clue. “Not that. The other B word! I need to talk to you about baptism!” Finally, the top-secret message got delivered.
It took a while, several months actually, but all of this came full circle the night at Mercy Street when the B word was released from the vault of secrecy. Our conversation about friendship became the foundation for the words I spoke over Kenny as the water poured over his long, stringy grey hair, dripped from his face and beard, and soaked his heavy metal band t-shirt.
Taking his face between my palms and locking eyes with him, I said: “Kenny Curtis, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. The One to whom you have longed to belong receives you. To your question, could I be Jesus’ friend, hear in this moment God’s resounding Yes! And to Jesus’ question to you, hey Kenny, will you be my friend, this moment will be a constant reminder to you and to this community who surrounds you and loves you, that your answer is Yes too. God’s yes to you and your yes to God have come together. You have found a fit. A fit has found you."
One day, in rare form, Kenny starts blasting the church in general and Christians in particular for telling people what they had to do (and not do) to get to heaven. More specifically, he was getting all swelled up about a toxic spirituality which highlights moral perfection as the way into God’s good graces, demoralizing and shaming people in the process. I wasn’t sure what triggered the rant, but over the years the swill of self-righteousness had done a number on him, as it does with any of us.
"So," he blusters, “you gotta do this and do that! Don't do this and don't do that! Check this box or that to get to heaven! It's all bullshit, man! It’s just bullshit!”
"What if all this language about 'getting to heaven' is really off?” I say agreeing with him. "What if heaven is not a place you have to get to as much as …”. Before I could finish my sentence, he jumps in to finish it for me: “…as much as where I am when heaven comes to me?"
"Yes! What if heaven is not a place you have to strive for, work and perform for, and say and pray all the right things on your way to some level of moral achievement and acceptance to get there — all because you're afraid you won't get there? What if heaven is not so much a place, as it is a way of being, a way of being eternally, a way of being eternally loved, a way of entering the life God dreams for us? What if because of this God who is Love, heaven comes to us, because that's what God does, and that’s what love does? Love comes. What if heaven is not a place I have to get to as much as the place I am when heaven comes to me?"
The place where you put your feet is holy ground. The kingdom of heaven is within you, is what Jesus says. “The coming of the kingdom of heaven is not something that can be observed. People can’t say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”
So don’t believe the hype. God meets us where our feet are. And love … well, Love never gave up on Kenny. Love never gives up on any of us.
Shortly before he died, Kenny posted a quote attributed to Mavis Leyrer, which says a lot about the crazy, crooked and broken road he traveled throughout his life: “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting, ‘Holy shit! What a ride!’”
Maybe all we can ask for is to finish this ride at least approaching the fullest expression of ourselves. Kenny would take that. I’ll take that. He finished this life not believing the hype (although sometimes he did), being where his feet are (although sometimes he wasn’t), and knowing he was not given up on (although sometimes he felt like he was). He completed his life knowing what is to be loved and what it means to love. He was surrounded and loved by a community he never would have imagined ever being a part of, a community who helped him get out from under the weight of an oppressive God of guilt and shame and connect him to a compassionate God of grace and freedom.
It was one of the great joys of my life to be able to take at least a portion of that ride with him.
This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.