“Should we not indeed give thanks, too, for the reality of our human nature? For we have, inexplicably, fallen not from grace, but, undeservedly, into it!”
—Friar John Wong, OFM
It is axiomatic to state that no-one wants to be defined by the worst thing they have ever done. Yet in this world where we are regaled with stories of accomplishment and success, the reality is that what we have done—the best and worst—defines us. Such was my experience of the fateful day in August 2014 when my moral duplicity—my sin—was very publicly exposed.
Having been in prison ministry for 29 years and coming from a family who has served in prison ministry since 1952, I understand well, albeit vicariously, how one’s incarceration marks a person for life. I was cycling with my son one morning soon after August 2014, and the conversation in my head was of how I had talked at length with prisoners about letting their loved one down; of dishonour, betrayal and the attending shame and guilt; of loss, separation and desperation. It was largely rhetorical then, but now it seemed I was living that reality. My knees buckled and I literally felt I was drowning in tears of desolation.
On the journey back, the words of Brennan Manning resounded: “Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond fidelity and infidelity…that He loves you when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, and your whole being rejects it… Do you believe that He loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be?” A second flood of tears flowed freely. This time, they were tears of consolation at the depth of the Father’s unconditional love.
From the pinnacle of ministry “success”—priest at a prominent Anglican parish, President of a global charity, Prison Fellowship International (PFI)—to the abyss of ministry “failure”, the descent was diminishing and devastating. From a bird’s eye view of life from the vantage point of success, I descended to now having a worm’s eye view of life from the vantage point of having fallen between the cracks of my hitherto charmed life.
Yet the change of scenery, the view from the bottom, gave me, over the course of many months, a greater appreciation of the length and depth to which God’s love descends. The love of life-sustaining friends, whittled down to a few in this season of adversity, bore testament to the power of human love.
The work (if I could even call it that) at PFI was life-giving and richly rewarding. Positively impacting the lives of prisoners and their families, making inroads to constructive improvements in the rehabilitation and restoration of prisoners’ lives, was the privilege of a lifetime. Deciding not to return even though the option was available after the year of discipline was the most painful decision I had to make. Yet it was the right one. I realised in a deeply humbling way, that I was not responsible for perpetuating the legacy of my grandfather and father. Instead, I was to honour my heritage and paradoxically, to then free myself and the ministry from an inordinate sense of legacy preservation.
Thus began my journey in the establishment of Desert Odyssey. The metaphor of a desert, as one author put it, “…in the silence [of the desert] you can hear your heart beat. There is no better place to meet yourself.” I needed to find Timothy Khoo. Not the one with multiple personas/masks that his face had grown to fit, but the Timothy Khoo, beloved of God, “simplified” by the barrenness of the desert, that needed to be met beyond all the accoutrements of position and privilege.
Desert Odyssey’s seven-day residential retreat is built on the premise described succinctly by Ernest Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.” Having the gift of time and space and a rhythm in cadence with the beat of our own hearts enables those of us broken by life in some way to be truly remembered—made whole again.
A few weeks after the exposure of my sin, and as I sat in the ashes of the ruins of what was once a charmed life, I reached out to an old friend. I sat with John Wong (who was to become my Spiritual Director), drenched in my tears once again, narrating painfully the decimation of everything I had once held dear, and everyone I had let down. He spoke the words that began this article, as I pondered the incredulity of my moral failure being a fall from grace.
How does one fall from grace? As I understand grace and being a recipient of God’s unmerited favour, a moral failure is inexplicably not a fall from grace, but a fall into grace, undeservedly so.
This truth of the unconditionality of God’s love is resisted by the human heart which continues to believe that we can earn God’s love and His favour. Having taken the journey from elder brother to wayward son in my lifetime, I understand. But more than that, I have found my heart opened to the reality that if the rest of my life is to love and be loved by God, that grace will truly be sufficient.
The Rev Timothy Khoo is an Anglican priest and the former President and Chief Executive Officer of Prison Fellowship International. He now runs Desert Odyssey, a residential and travel programme where participants—“sojourners”—can seek refuge, and where their minds, souls and bodies can be tended to and transformed. (https://www.facebook.com/DesOdy/)
Photo courtesy of the Rev Timothy Khoo