By: Leslie Gaska

My faith journey began in fits and starts with detours along the way. I was first confirmed a Lutheran in my early teens in Velva, North Dakota . That was followed by a move to the Twin Cities, and another confirmation in a new church, this one Presbyterian. Then in my 30’s, I took another turn to United Church of Christ and was confirmed there. None of these “stuck.” At no point along the way did I meet Jesus.

The UCC pastor was removed, and I became disillusioned with church structure, so decided I could figure all this out on my own. No more church for me! Slowly over the years, I discovered I couldn’t figure it out, so I allowed myself to become intellectually complacent. I carelessly decided I probably wasn’t a true Christian, but always believed in my version of God. What I knew about the Bible I’d learned in confirmation classes, in other words, not very much. It wasn’t a book I read.

In 2006, I moved to Rochester because my mother was aging and starting to need help. After a year, she moved into my home, and we settled in. I decided to run for the Board of Directors for the Stonehedge Townhome Association where I lived, and was elected in 2008. The president of the Board was this nice guy, Brian Kaihoi, a Calvary attender, who worked at Mayo doing what I thought were fascinating things. We clicked a little. I liked his wife, Sharon too, feeling a pull toward her. But I couldn’t find any reason to get to know her much better, though. Then she retired, and I thought well, maybe now. But there was never a time when suggesting we do some – thing together didn’t feel a bit awkward. So I didn’t.

Besides, I was hiding a secret. I knew neither she nor Brian drank alcohol, and I knew by then I was having a problem with it. So I thought our interests and lives weren’t in sync enough for something to work. Or so I thought. God had other plans.

At Christmas time of 2015, my mother passed away. In short order – months, really – I had to put two of my three cats down, and I held the hand of my wonderful friend, Vern, as he passed away due to Lymphoma. While driving home from Bismarck that final time after Vern’s funeral in very early June of 2016, I had what some AA folks might call a “come to Jesus” meeting with myself. On a road somewhere in North Dakota, I made a decision to quit drinking. I felt a great relief, yet knew I needed to do a lot more than just quit. A week later I finally worked up enough courage to attend an AA meeting, and then another, and another. Very few family and friends were aware that I had a problem and certainly weren’t aware I was trying to fix it.

Initially, I was surprisingly euphoric over my decision. One afternoon, without much thought, I walked over to the Kaihoi’s and knocked on their door. Maybe we could be friends, I hoped. And I really wanted to share my story with someone I knew I could trust. Sharon was home, and welcomed me in. I gave her the short version of me, the sadness of Mom’s passing, pain over my beloved cats, the pain and hurt of Vern’s passing, and my recent self-honesty that had led me to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. That afternoon the bonds of a true friendship were born. But there was more to come, shared events that would change me forever.

A few days later, Sharon called to recommend a book she was reading called “You’ll Get Through This,” written by Max Lucado. Before I’d had a chance to even order it, she knocked on my door, handing me her copy of the book telling me that although she hadn’t finished it yet (but almost), she wanted me to have it NOW, feeling sure I would benefit from reading it. We spoke a lot that summer of 2016.

Towards the fall, she called to tell me her church was going to have a study group on this book, and asked if I was interested in joining it? I didn’t ask what church (I couldn’t remember its name, but should have – I’d been there for a few musical events.)  I thought, well, sure, absolutely. By now, I had immersed myself in Alcoholics Anonymous, was working the 12 Steps of AA, reading the Alcoholics Anonymous book, and listening to CDs. I knew my life was changing, and adding a spiritual book review in a spiritual setting sounded perfect.

Unbeknownst to me however, there was this matter of a church service following the book club meeting. Since they had picked me up in their car, I found myself going to the 10:30 a.m. service, at a church called Calvary Evangelical Free. I was uncomfortable at first, but quickly I could tell the experience felt GOOD. The “Evangelical” part I struggled with, but later I had a chance to meet with Pastor Kevin who gave me a wider view to think about. I’m still thinking.

So began my regular attendance at Calvary. My own sisters thought I was nuts after I’d made so many declarations over the years that “I’d never set foot in a church again.” Instead, I felt myself more and more drawn in to something much bigger than myself and my life.

In late fall of 2016, Sharon mentioned a trip she was planning to take to Africa. AFRICA?!! That’s number one on my bucket list! I decided to go. It was being led by a MINISTER, of all things. Its focus was on the BIBLE – Daniel and the lions – which made me feel unsure (remember, I don’t know much about the Bible). I welcomed a chance to learn more.

About a month after we got back from the trip, Sharon (bless her sweet heart) suggested I might want to join her in a two-day women’s conference called Devoted Hearts. I’d never heard of it. Sharon told me it was spiritual in nature. Day one was memorable; Day two was life-changing. I heard magnificent presentations by a host of skilled and inspirational speakers.

Closing out the conference was our speaker, Karen Kings- bury. We were all on our feet. Karen asked if there were any women ready to devote their lives to Jesus, to raise their hand. God raised my arm for me, nearly giving Sharon a heart attack and putting a shocked look on my face. But I didn’t want to take my arm down. It felt so good, so right. I was beginning to pull together disparate parts of myself into some – thing more cohesive and Christian-based. In Step 3 of the AA book “12 Steps and 12 Traditions,” it said, “Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.” I had initially struggled with this step, but that day at the conference, I suddenly better understood what was being asked of me.

My journey had taken me back to God; such a miracle. Every day I say that I’m a grateful alcoholic. Without AA, I may not have listened to the call of the church. I still search for how to reconcile old beliefs with these new ones, but I’m not afraid of them anymore. I welcome having those former beliefs questioned, and I absolutely love our church and its ministers and ministries. I am now 14 months sober, and have more wonderful people in life than I’d ever thought possible. I am participating in my very first Bible study class this year! I am so grateful to so many for their guidance to a safer, more peaceful place. I’ll never know all the facts, or be a Bible scholar, but I do know I have found my way home.

Today I want to grab one theme that has been stirring in my soul as we come out of our annual meeting and look to the next year. As we storm into the Christmas season, there are lots of plans to be made. It means going to relatives’ homes,special programs, holiday parties, and much going and doing. For some it means staring at an empty chair around the table- powerful reminders of loss that can’t be ignored – please know your pastors and church family are praying with you this Christmas season.

One theme that echoes through so many conversations I’ve had recently centers around relationships and connectedness. If I could give you a gift this Christmas – beyond knowing the abiding, and transforming power of Christ – it would be for you to know deeply significant connectedness. You see, these days many are lonely in a crowd. The busyness of life numbs the pain; but the ache won’t go away. Here at Calvary, we hear people saying, “I don’t feel connected, I need meaningful relationships.” I encourage you to take advantage of many opportunities to experience community.

Deep friendship

When Emma and I first went to the mission field, we naively believed that authentic community “just happened.” We thought that we would just naturally have deep friendships because of our situation; but the assumption proved to be false. Instead, we learned that significant relationships take time. One of our closest friendships was sealed when they phoned at three o’clock in the morning.

My friend said, “You are not going to believe this; but my wife left Germany yesterday to come home on the train. They diverted the train to another city in the middle of the night and are going to a city almost 300 miles from here. I need to leave now in order to pick her up; but my children are asleep. Can you come and be with them until I get back?”

Of course, I replied that I would be there in ten minutes. This was the beginning of a new level of deep and lasting friendship. These same friends shared their struggles with us again a few weeks ago. That same man who called in the night is suffering intensely from the aftermath of a brain tumor. They started their cancer journey just months before ours, in July 2007. This time they picked up the proverbial phone again and asked for help. Emma and I have prayed and we feel that God has said, “Go!” So, as I write this, I’m getting ready to board a plane for Germany to be with my dear sick friend. I remember so very many times when he was there for me, when we were in tight spots together, serving side by side.

Giving and accepting help

I am realizing that part of connectedness is reaching out in times of need, to both give and accept help. In many ways, it is easier for us to give help; yet in the struggle of accepting help, deep relationships are formed. If we are a people who pretend we don’t need each other it will always be difficult to grow deep and significant relationships.

One of my prayers for Calvary is that we would call to each other in our need. I pray that you would know what it is to make the scary call in the middle of the night, wondering how the person will react, and then have the deep joy of knowing that they care enough to come. That is the contagious community that “spread through the known world” (Acts 2:42-47).