Every Saturday at 7 am, I sit in a room of about 75 recovering men, all of whom are resurrection stories. Now, to be sure, they probably would not use that term to describe their journeys, but resurrection stories they are. Some of these men spent weeks, months or years in asylums or in jails or in prisons, for crimes ranging from DUIIs to drug-related property crimes to various kinds of violence. Then there are the men whose addictions never exploded quite so dramatically as these, but rather whose lives slowly got smaller and smaller as they drove away their loved ones, one by one, with their selfish and self-destructive behaviors, year after year, like some constant but slow-growing cancer of the soul. And then, finally, there are some in my home group whose lives, from all external appearances, never really looked that bad: they didn’t lose jobs, homes, wives, families or friends, but they did lose some part of themselves in a bottle or a pill, in gambling, sex or food, and they realized before they lost everything that they were in deep trouble and needed help. But whether his story was dramatic and explosive or quieter and implosive, everyone in that room on Saturday mornings carries a story of surrender, death, resurrection and new life, and each is quite clear about that, whatever language he uses.
Sometimes, near the close of a recovery meeting, I look around and I think of the scene in the Gospels where the disciples of John the Baptist, after he was imprisoned, come to ask Jesus how this could possibly happen: “are you He who is to come, or should we expect another?” Remember Jesus’ answer? He said, “go and tell John what you see: the lame are walking, the blind are seeing, the poor are hearing the good news, and blessed is he who does not lose faith in me.” And as I look around the rooms of recovery, I say to myself: “Go and tell the world what you see here–the drunk are sober, the insane in their right minds, the violent are peaceful and the addicts now get high by loving one another—and blessed is the God who has shown us the way to new life.” For these are Resurrection stories, all.
Now, the entire purpose of this blog generally is for Christians of all stripes to see what we can learn from men and women recovering from addiction, to see how a spiritual community very different in self-understanding and purpose from the Christian Church nonetheless does some of the things we strive to do, and in many ways does them better—more tenaciously and intentionally—than we do. So, among other topics as examples of this point, I have written in these pages about how the 12 Step Programs are a kind of underground, counter-cultural fellowship based on mutual love and service; how recovering addicts hunger for deep prayer and spirituality with an urgency that we don’t often see in the churches; how “evangelism” in the 12 Step programs is based on attraction rather than promotion; and about how a concern for the “look good” is one of the first things that we must let go of in order to find any lasting recovery.
But I think we have not yet considered the very plain symbolism of death and resurrection in the recovery programs, and what we as Christians can learn from our friends the addicts about new life, freely given us in response to a decision to surrender our old lives to God. For the central fact of recovery is that alcoholics and addicts, if we are to be released from our hellish bondage to addictive substances and experiences, must surrender to our disease completely and unequivocally, must give up our old lives. In very real ways, we must die. And we addicts—often far more so than we Christians—are clear, intentional, repetitive and insistent about this reality, this requirement for recovery, and for membership in the fellowship of the saved.
The First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous makes the point expressly by saying “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” What an admission this was for most of us! Proud, hard-living and hard-driving, often ambitious and accomplished men and women–for whom the idea of surrender and letting go was anathema, weakness, utterly foreign to our entire sense of who we thought we were. But the facts of our lives, once considered with clear eyes, rendered no other verdict possible. We had tried and tried, only to fail and fail, to do the one thing we most wanted to do, which was to control our lives and our addictions. But we could not, and so we admitted defeat. And we were clear that it was this admission, this surrender, that was the moment our new lives began. And once we were at this turning point, nothing—nothing in the world—could keep us from our new reality. “If you want what we have and are willing to go to any lengths to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps,” says the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. “Half-measures availed us nothing…Some of us have tried to hold onto our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.” There simply was no “easier, softer way” than the 12 Step path. And so we accepted that we had to die, and we were quite clear about that, as the First Step demanded we be.
And although we Christians claim to be an Easter people, I wonder if we are any longer Cross people. Contrast the unequivocal acceptance of brokenness and the willingness to go to any length to be healed that we usually find in recovery circles with the general drift in many churches towards easier, softer Christianity, and you see the problem. For we all have been exposed to the subtle and seductive scents of modern Gnosticism, which tell us that through the trendy and self-actualized approaches of so many contemporary churches that somehow we can share in the fellowship of the crucified Christ while at the same time avoiding all this unpleasantness about brokenness, surrender and death. It is as if our churches and ministers are afraid that if they don’t water down the Gospel of Christ, no one will sign up. So well-meaning shepherds allow us sheep to wander down easier paths—but those are not the paths that lead to green pastures. We drift into the kind of contemporary narcissism shared by the society at large, and so conclude that we can have the blessings of new life without the spiritual death that accompanies it, we can receive the power of baptism in Christ without personal and corporate repentance, we can partake of the Eucharist without undergoing the rigors of baptism, we can know the unspeakable relief of forgiveness without undergoing the painstaking and humbling process of making confession to one another and to God. In short, we are allowed to believe that we can join the fellowship of the Risen Lord without sharing in His crucifixion.
But, of course, we can’t—not at least if Jesus teaching has anything to say about it. He talks openly and often about the cost of discipleship. You will be persecuted for my sake. The way is narrow and few can find it. Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, then come and follow me. If anyone would follow me, let him deny himself, take up his Cross, and follow me. I must be delivered up unto death—and as for you, well, we all know that the servant is not greater than his Master.
Paul says the same thing: I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation: the old has passed away, behold the new has come. Have this mind among you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who did not claim his rights but emptied Himself and became as a slave, even unto death on the Cross.
Christians, of all people, should know the hard truths of the Cross as part of our very being, our spiritual DNA and our heritage. And yet, as it is now, so it seems to have been in all ages, that there has been a tendency to try to tame God, to make the Cross of death—foolishness, says Paul, and not just to the Greeks—more palatable, to hang the “Welcome All” banner high, while we hide the “Beware, Sure Death Ahead” banner in some back closet. So in the early Church even Peter wanted to dilute the strong medicine of the Gospel so that it did not offend pious Jews. Or, for a thousand years, the Church of European Christendom, as another example, wanted both worldly power and wealth and yet wanted to claim as its Lord an itinerant preacher crucified as a common criminal. More recently, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor martyred for resistance to Hitler, faced cowardice and compromise in dealing with the German national church, which acquiesced and cooperated with the Third Reich. But Bonhoeffer would have none of it, and so echoed both Jesus and Paul in his Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Indeed, in a phrase that we would do well to remember and circulate, Bonhoeffer called the attitude of too many churches and Christians in his day “cheap grace,” and he prophetically called the churches back to “costly grace.” He would know: his life ended at age 39, at the wrong end of a hangman’s noose in 1945.
I sometimes wish that, once in a while, maybe every Lent and Holy Week, the churches would replace all the crosses on all the walls and over all the altars with symbols of guillotines, or gallows, or electric chairs: instruments of execution, all. Maybe if Christians started wearing small gold gallows around their necks and hanging plastic guillotines on their rear-view mirrors, we would make our point more bluntly for this blunt age, and along the way might start to remember again what is the meaning and power of the Cross.
Our friends the addicts, by remembering what they went through to get sober and sane—by their daily affirmation that they are, for one more day, powerless over alcohol and addiction and wholly dependent upon the grace of God—remind us Christians that there is no easier, softer way than the way of the surrender and death. But they also remind us, with resurrection-like stories, what new life really looks like.