Recovery Lesson #1 Revisited: “One Day at a Time: Nobody Ever Died From Grief– But Plenty Of People Died Running Away From Grief.”

KCWithin the first couple of months after I surrendered to my addictions and joined a Twelve Step fellowship, now some twenty-plus years ago, I began to learn the first of many lessons that would save my life. It was a profoundly simple lesson, and though I am often a slow learner, yet once something is in my head it pretty much stays there.  Which is good: for, recently I have had a sharp need to access the practical wisdom of those first days in recovery.

That first lesson was, and is, this: one day at a time. Just one day.  People outside the rooms of recovery often hear this phrase, but my sense is that they do not realize its full power for the addict new in recovery. “One Day at a Time” is not just advice, it is a mantra, sacred and salvific wisdom to be absorbed deep into our marrow. “You can do anything, survive anything, as long as you can just stay present to the next 24 hours.”  Now remember that we addicts and alcoholics tend to live compulsively in guilt or in fear—in the past or in the future—and have a hard time showing up for the now. So an idea that might be simple and common sense for others is like algebra to the addict.

I remember early on I was explaining to a friend in recovery how much I had lost, how much I had thrown away, how much sadness and pain I was carrying, and that I was afraid I could not survive it all.  He said this, which still rings in my ears: “no one ever died from pain, but plenty of people died running from pain. One Day at a Time.”  Well, my reaction to this, upon first hearing, was that he didn’t understand; that my pain was different, worse, more tragic than anyone else’s (oh, the grandiosity of the addicted mind), and that I really would die of heartbreak and grief.  “One Day at a Time,” he said again.  I walked away thinking him a simpleton and grumbling unconvinced that I would give it a try. But in this, as in so many things, I was out of options and ideas and so I decided to stay in the One Day and see what happened.

Now, I hate to give away the ending, but it turns out that I did not die—though I thought I would. Every night for several months, I would go to sleep sad, some part of me actually believing that I would die of the pain—“they’ll do an autopsy in the morning and declare that ‘he died from grief’”—and then, whaddya’ know, I woke up the next morning, alive as I could be.  And then, the next night, I’d do it again, with the same result. And again, and again.  Then, one day, I don’t even remember how far down the road it was, I woke up in peace, with the beginnings of gratitude for what was happening to me. For my wounded soul, it seems, my deep brokenness, slowly was healing, like some putrid infection being gradually cleansed by daily washing in a sacred pool.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about those early days in recovery and the miraculous realization that “pain will not kill me,” because these last few weeks I have experienced sharp sadness and grief—this time not for myself, but for my lovely wife, my bride of seven months, and for our whole family. Just before Christmas she was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a cruel, debilitating, eventually fatal illness that has come on aggressively and in the short space of three or four months, has attacked her body relentlessly and mercilessly.

I should mention that I have my wife’s permission to write about her illness—at least as it pertains to the faith and spirituality in which we both live and move and have our being: the truths of the Christian faith as seen through the lenses of the Twelve Step programs. Being the gracious woman that she is, she wants to use this illness to be of help to others, and so she is glad for me to write here about her journey as it intersects with my journey in recovery.  But I don’t need to go very far into her illness, or make public things that are sacred and private, to make my point here.  And that is this: even in the sadness and pain of my beloved’s fatal illness, there is a deep and practical consolation for me in the grace of Christ, received gratefully as daily bread, enough—just enough—for today. One day at a time. Just today.

Each day, it seems, if I will but pay attention, I am given what I need for the day: the right thought, a practical insight as to how to be helpful, a joke that lightens the moment, a surprising winter sunset that joins us in awe and quiet joy, tears of sadness that now must flow for awhile.  For the fact is, that I now know how to grieve, I know how to be sad, how to let myself mourn a little bit at a time. I know what I did not know twenty years ago: that this sadness will not kill me, but that running away from it—drifting into unconsciousness, pursuing the old escape routes—likely would.  And then, if I run away from these hard truths we are facing, I am of no use to anyone, especially not to my family, who need whatever it is that I have to bring, now—now or never.

C.S. Lewis, the great Christian thinker who knew more of deep grief than is commonly understood, somewhere wrote that when people say that they cannot bear the thought of great suffering, what they really mean is that they cannot bear the idea of unending suffering, the sum total of all the suffering that might lie ahead.  Which is why, Lewis said, God made us as creatures to live daily, with blessed sleep dividing each day from the past one and the next one, to be fed by God’s daily bread.  And of course, Jesus Himself reminded us not to worry about the morrow, but like the lilies of the field to reach out to the warmth of the sun now, while it shines.  For the morrow will take care of itself, said Our Lord, and so we ask our Father which art in heaven to give us this day our daily bread.

We who have decided that Jesus is our Lord and that we will walk the difficult path of discipleship, find once again that we can see the great truths of our faith anew through the wisdom and insights of the Twelve Step fellowships—what I call the Gospel of Bill.  And the first of these truths is that we are called to live one day at a time, that if we do so, then even heartbreaking grief will not bring destruction, but instead will lead us to rely even more completely on the grace of Christ, which brings us closer to those we love—in peace or in joy, in suffering, in sadness, as each day may bring.

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Seeing Through the Snow

Friends:  As the waiting days of Advent wind their way toward Christmas, here is a Christmas story I wrote many years ago. I hope you enjoy it.  Advent Blessings.  Kelly

Seeing Through the Snow.

stock-footage-falling-snow-in-winterFor decades, my mother had a photograph, taken of my younger brother Clancy and me, aged about 4 and 6.  Every winter, sometimes at Christmas, she would take it out and we would all look at it together and remember, and laugh.  I’ve no idea where the photograph is now, but I don’t need to know: I remember it as if it were right here in front of me.

It shows the two of us, sitting on the steps of our front porch, waiting for snow.  Now, this was in the deep South, mind you–I grew up in South Central Arkansas, not far from Little Rock–so you have to take the phrase “waiting for snow” in context.  In the photo, there is no snow on the ground.  There is no snow falling.  In fact, there is no snow anywhere in sight.  There is only brown grass, dry pavement, and a gray sky.  Probably the temperature was all of about 36 degrees.  But don’t tell that to the boys in the photograph.  For there we are, bundled with enough clothes and hats and mittens and boots to survive a month in Antarctica.  And sitting there next to us in the photograph, no less, are two Redflyer sleds, metal runners resting uncomfortably on the asphalt like fingernails resting on a blackboard.  There we are, waiting, waiting.  Not knowing–or more likely, not believing the cautionary words of our parents–that snow takes time to pile up, and sleddable ice even longer to form.  After all, it’s not easy to explain snow to children who have only ever seen rain, or ice to boys who only know about dirt.

Waiting for—snow!!  It is impossible for me to explain how thrilling that word was for two Southern boys.

Advent–that sacred season that traditional Christians still celebrate for four weeks before Christmas–is about waiting.  The very word means “arriving”.   The waiting, of course, begins with the Promise,  the Forecast, if you will,  of what is to come.  What is yet unseen, not yet even understood,  but what is Foretold anyway.

Now, if I remember, I think that it did not in fact snow that year on the farm in Arkansas, and while I am sure we were very disappointed, isn’t it interesting that what I remember to this day is not what I felt when the storm didn’t come, but the boyish thrill at that  first news days earlier that it might?

And this paradox–that the Promise produces joy long before the Fulfillment ever comes–is the first of two truths of the Season worth pondering.  The Foretelling, the Promise, produces in us a kind of faithful waiting that is in itself full of joy and thrills.  How many of us can recall such Promises–the news that we are pregnant, the sight of a new present under the tree, the first pages of a well-recommended book.

And now, as the days of Advent yield to the days of Christmas, so the joy of waiting in the shadow of the Promise yields to the even greater  joy of the fulfillment of the Promise.  That is the second truth of the Season to remember: The fulfillment of the Promise is greater even than the promise of the Promise.   The book is even better than the friend says.  The child brings joy beyond even the dreams of the pregnant mother.   But not only better, but always very different, too, from what we expected, or imagined.  The Miracle is greater than the Promise precisely because it surprises us and because it causes us to see with new eyes.

A few years after it didn’t snow, I learned that the miracle of a snowfall was infinitely greater than anything I could have imagined or hoped as a little boy. As it happened, a few years later after life had taken a bad turn for my family and we had to move away from Arkansas, we kids were replanted in the Rocky Mountains, in a home literally lodged right up against the foothills of Pike’s Peak, where we met real snow for the first time. And over the next eight years I heard the forecast and experienced the miracle of snow dozens of times again. We even had several White Christmases…four inches, ten inches, fifteen sometimes, and once 38 inches of snow in three days; but no matter how many times it snowed, I never got used to it, and it was always different than I expected.

I can remember being 16, 17 years old, and I would wake up in the winter every morning at 5.00 without an alarm clock and bolt up in bed, glancing out my window to see if it had snowed during the night.  If it had, I was out of bed–jeans, sweater, down coat and boots thrown on– and in three minutes, I was out the door with a John Deere cap on my head and Buckwheat, my St. Bernard, slobbering by my side.  We would jump into my jeep–well, actually, I would jump and he would step– and head up into the mountains, where for two hours before school, I would  drive around, walk around, and sometimes just sit around, in the midst of snow so heavy you couldn’t see the tops of the pines but so light and dry none stuck to your clothes. All just to be in it.

Because in the snow, somehow, I always saw things more clearly.  Even with zero visibility, I could suddenly see.  My problems were suddenly no longer overwhelming.  Things were not as bad as they seemed, and in fact, all was somehow okay.  In fact it was good.  In the snow I knew who I was and to Whom I belonged, and so knowing,  life, for a few moments, did not press so close, for I was standing in the white, windy presence of God.

And now, as we move into the days of Christmas, we move from the waiting to the reality. We will see again, as if for the first time, we will hear again the voice of Christmas, speaking softly a message so profound that it takes us twelve days to consider it:

All is not as bad as it seems, and indeed, if you can just see clearly, well, then Glory to God in the Highest. That is the wind that rustles through the leaves of the Gospels, especially in the words of the Angel to the dumbstruck sheepherders: Fear not.  I bring you good tidings of great joy.  And the shepherds think: the Deliverer of all Israel… is an illegitimate son of a poor peasant girl and a no-name carpenter from some god-forsaken place called Nazareth?  Ah but it is not as it appears, thunders the Angel:  Glory to God in the Highest.

All is not as you think.  That was the nightmare turned dream of Ebenezer Scrooge, who carried his own chill about him and left his old stairwell unlit, because….”darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it”……until  Christmas Past, Present and Future quite literally scared the hell out of him and he was born again in the dead of night, deep in the fog of an English winter.

You aren’t seeing very clearly.  This is the news brought to desperate George Bailey by the persistent little Clarence, angel, second class:  listen to me, George, I’m your guardian angel and I tell you– you have a wonderful life.  Look around you at the family who treasure you, the friends who love you.

Things are not what you think: that is the shock that cracked the heart of the Grinch so that “it grew three sizes that day”…and not even Jim Carrey, try as he might, can ruin that story…”Christmas came…it came without ribbons, it came without tags, it came without packages, boxes or bags…..”

It’s not the way it looks; so explains Linus, gently in the face of aluminum Christmas trees, a commercialized beagle and a little sister with an extra long list.  “Sure, Charlie Brown, I’ll tell you what Christmas is all about…Lights please…For there were in the same country shepherds….”

When the Miracle comes, we see that the fulfillment of the Promise is even more stupendous than the promise of the Promise and everything is different than we thought: valleys are exalted, mountains and hills made low, crooked places are straightened, and rough places made plain.

In the meantime, of course, all of us are children sitting on a bare concrete step, surrounded by brown winter ryegrass and a sled….waiting….

But sooner than you think, it will snow.  Then we will finally know the soft surprising thrilling burning magical mystical dreamlike touch of the Divine like a snowflake on our cheeks. We will know who we are and to Whom we belong, and we will stand in the white, wintery, windy presence of Eternity.  And it will be as far above anything we might now imagine as is a Colorado Christmas beyond the realm of two boys from the South, waiting for snow.

Merry Christmas.






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Advent Waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

30726-bigthumbnailIn my last post, I wailed, mostly tongue in cheek, about how quick our culture is to rush past Thanksgiving into “Christmas,” and I reminded us that, for people of Christian faith, it is not Christmas yet. It is Advent, a sacred season of waiting expectantly for the good news that the Christ child will come among us, and that we should practice this waiting as a spiritual discipline, so that the fulfillment of the Promise will be even greater than the promise of the Promise.

Now all that assumed that the event for which we wait is filled with unremitting joy.  But what happens when that for which we wait is full of fear and dread? I ask this because in the last few weeks it has become clear that someone I love dearly may be facing an unexpected illness. A member of our family may be very sick, and while we are going through all the tests and tests and tests, we wait. We wait, wanting the answers but not wanting them, hoping that some miracle will appear that will make all this just a bad dream.  And so we wait.

So, what possible wisdom does the Gospel of Bill W—which is how I refer to the insights that Twelve Steps recovery can offer to Christians  —have to offer?

Even as I ask this, I realize that all of a sudden I am not writing a blog. I am writing a prayer. I am reaching deep down to the wells of my faith for strength and wisdom, for some gift I hold onto, and to pass along,  that will sustain us in this awful waiting. And so readers will forgive me if I preach to myself here, albeit publicly, trying to remind myself what I would say to any of you going through such a time.

The first reminder I take from my last post. Remember there that I described how it is that we addicts have a hard time staying in the moment, that we are inclined to the future and to the past, that the precious time of “now” is elusive to us.  And the antidote to this aspect of our disease is to be found in the simple idea from AA that God calls each of us to live “one day at a time.”  Just one day.  We can do anything for one day. And when we have done that, then the next day we get up and do it again.  We can do that, over and over again if necessary.  And in that enforced discipline of staying focused on the present, we get through the current crisis and arrive at whatever is next.

Closely related to this practice of taking just one day at a time is the freedom from unnecessary anxiety that comes when we do so.  I recall the comments of Michael J Fox, the courageous actor who has fought so nobly against Parkinson’s disease.  They asked him how it is that he stays so positive and so content in the moment, even as his disease slowly progresses, and this is (more or less) what he said: “we decided early on that it makes no sense for us to assume the worst about what is coming. For if we do that, and if it does, in fact, come to pass, then we’ve lived the whole nightmare twice—once in the expectation of it and once in the fulfillment of it; but if it turns out not to be as grim as we had thought, well, then we went through all that agony for nothing.” Right. Right.

Next, the Gospel of Bill W always emphasizes the surprising gifts of gratitude. When we but open our eyes and our hands and receive the blessings of today, then we are overcome with gentle joy: a simple and beautiful rain, a warm fire and hot tea, the simple laughter from a board game, the fierceness of love and support offered by so many friends and family. Last Sunday in church, for another example, we went to the small healing chapel, just off the side of the main Cathedral, for prayers, where an elderly couple were waiting to lay hands on anyone suffering from illness. We approached and knelt, and they laid hands on us. After the prayers and tears, the old gentleman reached in his vest pocket—by the way, there are too few vests in the world for my tastes—and pulled out a beautiful, spotless, handkerchief, neatly folded, and offered it to us  (too few gentlemen carrying handkerchiefs as well).  “You keep this,” he gently said.  What a touching and gentle gesture, and how it mattered to us in that moment.  So at times like this we must be intentional about gratitude, and quite consciously remember to talk about our many gifts.

Finally, in times like this we experience anew the gift of community.  I have learned in trouble how to “spread the stress around” to my brothers in recovery and to ask for help.  I have never been through this thing—this illness of a loved one—quite like this before; but I know guys who have been.  And so we are asking our friends and our networks for help: which is something that I, for one, did not know how to do when I first came into the rooms of recovery. I was too proud, too manly, too self-sufficient—or so I thought. That, too, makes it so much easier to get through something like this.

Advent waiting. It usually means expectant joy; it can also mean expectant fear.  Mary, that patron saint of all who wait, undoubtedly had both great joy that she was carrying a special child as the Angel had promised, but also great dread and fear—will Joseph believe me? Will my family shun me?  Will Herod find us?   But either way, no matter what the joy or fear we see down the road, our response can be the same: we wait, expectantly and with gratitude, with hope and faith that, one day at a time, we will be okay. For in God’s eyes we are, as Isaiah reminds us, “precious, and honored, and beloved.”  And as John tells us, we are not alone: for the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

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For the Love of Christ, people, it’s NOT Christmas!

One of the things we Twelve Steppers are very good at is waiting.  I have friends who have years of sobriety, and they have waited a long time for it.  In the case of my friend Mark, who has 30 years, he waited 10,957 days for it, and he will tell you he only reached 30 years by focusing on one day at a time. Anyone who knows someone in recovery knows that she or he is likely to talk a lot about “taking one day at a time,” or “just doing 24 hours at a time,” or something similar. This is one of a thousand slogans that puzzle outsiders and newcomers, and yet to those who have been in the rooms of recovery for a while, it is as natural as breathing.  See, one of the things common to all addicts is that we are people who have a hard time staying present in the moment. We are usually either living in the future or in the past.  This is true both for the practicing addict and quite often even for those of us in recovery.  And it is one of the things that we often talk about that has been with us our entire lives.  I’ve always been that way, of that I am sure: my default posture is living either in the past or in the future, and it always has been.  Now, any sane person can see that this way of living is, well, insane.  I mean, the past is, for most of us—especially most addicts—so very, very painful to contemplate; and the future is, for people like us who are fear-based, so very overwhelming to consider.

And it is because addicts are past-dwellers and future-trippers that the architects of AA and the other recovery programs built into the DNA of the programs the idea that, if we are to get well and stay well, we must lose this past and future obsession and learn to live today.  Just today.  “You can do anything for just one day” we say to the newcomer who is shaky from withdrawals and overwhelmed at the idea of “never taking another drink.”  And, sure enough, pretty soon, she discovers that she can stay sober 24 hours at a time.  And, so tomorrow, if she is working a program of recovery, she’ll do it again.  And then again. And then, after awhile, she’ll come into a meeting and announce that she has 30 days of continuous sobriety.  Then, sooner than it takes to write this, it seems, she’ll be celebrating one year of sobriety, and then five, and then…  But I am getting ahead of myself. I tend to do that.

Another well-worn saying in our rooms is that “time takes time.” As in, “I know you are grieving”—the loss of a marriage, or a mother, or a brother, for example—“but it will be better in time.  And, of course, time takes time.” Yes, time takes time.  And it is only by paying attention today—just the 24 hours of today—that time passes at all.

So. Why all this contemplation on chronology?  Why consider the struggles and hard-won wisdom of people who are either stuck in morose nostalgia or who are high on wild future expectations?   Because it is late November.  You know: “”  When all the sounds and sights of the secular culture are simply surreal with a vacuous faux celebration of Christmas.

Now properly understood, this should be a waiting time.  An in-between time. It is not even December yet.  It is just five days after Thanksgiving.  And—I cannot shout this loudly enough: It is not yet Christmas!  In fact, if you want to be precise about it, it is not even Advent yet.  You remember Advent?  That lovely season of expectant waiting that traditionally signaled the beginning of the Church year?  The one with four Sundays, each creeping a little closer, day by day, to the festival of Christmas?  Well, Advent I—ie the first Sunday of Advent—this year is December 2.  THAT, my friends, and not O- Dark-Thirty the morning after Thanksgiving, signals the beginning of the sacred season that leads us slowly, ever so slowly, one day at a time slowly, toward Christmas.

But, you may ask, what difference does it make how we Christians celebrate the several weeks before Christmas?  Well, if I have learned anything in recovery, it is about the beauty that comes with celebrating each day as it comes, about not allowing myself to get too far out over my skiis in jumping towards the future. It is that time takes time, and that if I go slowly, precisely 24 hours at a time slowly, then I am at a place where I can receive the still small gifts that God has in mind for me.

Like the beauty of late Fall: blustery days blowing the few remaining gold leaves around and around until they finally sail down to the ground for good. Like the quiet and warm memories of last Thursday, when family and friends gathered to give thanks, despite serious illness in our midst.  Like the newly remembered joy of building a simple wood fire to warm hearth and home, or of enjoying a good hot cider.  But you’ll notice: NONE of those joys are available to me if I am rushing headlong from the last holiday into the next one., forgetting to look around me right now.  The fact is that right now—these ten days between Thanksgiving and Advent—are no holiday at all.  Except in the most ordinary holy sense that they are the simple, holy days of  now, the “holy-day” of today.   Advent will come soon enough, and the Twelve Days of the Christmas Mystery, too.  And then it will be January: ugh.  See?  See what I mean about future tripping? Ha.  Serves us right. The thought of January is surely deterrent enough to keep us focused on today.

Jesus said that tomorrow will take care of itself, and he invites us like birds and flowers simply to live today. Time takes time.  And so do festivals, and they take their time in arriving. And so we Christians would do well to learn from our friends in recovery how to live one day at a time.  Especially now, when our rootless culture seems to pull so hard for us to lose ourselves in some manufactured, commercial frenzy.  One day at a time.  It is a good way to live. Especially now.

Make it a good day.

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“The Things I Cannot Change”: A Recovering Addict’s Review of the Elections, With Apologies to the Holy Spirit.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,  The courage to change the things I can,  And the wisdom to know the difference.    

The “Serenity Prayer,” Reinhold Niebuhr, 1943.

I wrote back in the summer about how politics, for the person of Christian faith, should be important but not Important. In other words, as much as we understand that politics has real and immediate consequences for the lives of millions and for the life and direction of our communities, states and nations, and so is deserving of our attention and energy, yet it is not worthy of our ultimate attention and energy.  This is part of what it means that we are to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.

This is also essentially what differentiates people of serious Christian faith from secularists. For many of the latter, politics carries ultimate meaning: there is nothing higher or more permanent than the political order, and it is in that order that the most important questions are answered.  This is why, so often, political parties and platforms offer what can only be described as eschatologies—worldviews promising eventual and lasting answers to what ails our world.  Of course, there is a price to be paid for such answers: the followers are asked to “buy in” completely.  On the Republican side, one must not only be right-thinking on economic issues but also must buy in to the party’s view of foreign affairs and defense matters, gun rights and immigration policies, and opposition to abortion and gay rights as well.  The message from the party pundits is something like: “to the extent you buy in to our agenda, and to the extent that our agenda is successful at this election—THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION IN RECENT MEMORY FOR CRYING OUT LOUD—then, to that extent, you will find the answers and you will find meaning.  And on the other side, the Democrat professional politicos seem also to say to us that we must buy in totally: to a statist view of society and well-being, to government programs as the option of first resort for solving social problems, to liberal and even radical views of social and moral issues, to a severely individualistic view of civil rights, and a whole host of related positions. Again, the promise seems to be that only if we buy in with all our hearts and all our minds will we see the benefits of membership in the Club.

But, it seems to me, in the linkage is the lie. In other words, there is no good reason as a matter of political or moral philosophy that a person of integrity cannot pick and choose.  Why can’t I be pro-life and pro-poor? Why not for a traditional understanding of civil rights—that all rights are limited, both by practical necessity and by offsetting obligations—and at the same time still advocate for basic equality of all persons?  Why can I not say that I am for humane immigration policies but also for common-sense limits on public welfare programs?  Most intelligent and decent people I know eventually end up “picking and choosing” amongst the political issues. But of course the political classes do not like this, for it represents a kind of independence that they find threatening.

So I, for one, plan to go on picking and choosing which parts of whomever’s agenda that I find sensible and leaving the rest of it alone. For I hold to another worldview, another eschatology, one that says that such monumental questions as who should finally be in charge of things—(I  have repeatedly offered myself for the job but so far no one has taken me up on it)—are not ours to control. We can work for the best ends as we see them, but we must know that we can but see partially, as through a glass darkly, but that there is One who can see clearly, and who is finally in charge of things.

Meanwhile, suffice it to say that the elections did not go entirely as I had hoped. Some of my candidates won but many lost, some of my friends running for office had success and some did not, some of the measures I most detested passed, and some I had liked failed. And so, I woke up Wednesday morning not very content; in fact I was, as alcoholics and other addicts talk about, “restless, irritable and discontent.”  And it took me about half a day, including a recovery meeting, to remember the basics: that I am to pray for courage to change the things I can, of course, but also for serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and for the wisdom to know the difference. Does it seem very odd to you that, for awhile during the campaigns, I fell prey to the temptation of thinking that I had some power over what would eventually happen?  For me, any delusions along this line were washed away with the Eastern seaboard sands, as a major hurricane brought misery to the lives of millions, and along the way threatened a major disruption of the elections as well.  It was then that I first began to remember that I have no control over such things as hurricanes, disasters, and certainly not over mundane and ordinary things like political elections.

To descend to the absurd, this is all not that different from another theatre, where I absurdly act as if I had some influence:  every Saturday in the Fall when I somehow think that, if I only wear the right hat or the right color, if I make popcorn, or don’t, or put butter on it, or refrain,  or sing the old fight song well, or badly, that somehow all of this will help the Oregon Ducks or the Arkansas Razorbacks win.  Of course, even in the sphere of “relative importance” college football is in a different time zone than political elections, but the point is still the same. There are some things over which I have absolutely no control. My job is not to worry about those things, but only to pray for the serenity to accept them, and then get on asking for courage—guts—to go out and change those things I can.  Which, for this addict anyway, always starts with myself.

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Why God Cannot Be Trusted

“It keeps coming back to surrender.” So said my first sponsor in recovery, now some twenty years ago, as he was trying to anchor the turbulence of my early recovery in something fundamental, some spiritual principle I could grasp in order to understand how I was to respond to all the chaos coming down around me.  Actually, “chaos I had brought down around me,” would be a more honest phrase, for the chaos—remnants of a sad divorce and family breakup, a criminal conviction for sexual misconduct, political scandal and professional discipline—were all my doing.  Mine and mine alone.  Even in early recovery, sick as I still was, I understood plainly that it was all my fault.

I was crushed about it, and baffled about how to try to take responsibility for it all and somehow fix it.  And so my sponsor was trying to give me some idea about how I should respond, of what my spiritual—and thus tangible—next steps should be.  And what he kept saying was, “it all comes back to surrender.”

I understood, at least conceptually, what he meant.  As a Christian, faithless and apostate though I was, I understood that all spiritual healing and growth was anchored in the idea that we must surrender to God.  And that Christian training was reinforced when I saw in my first meetings the 12 Steps up on the wall, the first of which read, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable,” and the Third Step, which says that “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”  Yes, even this new 12 Step thing I was doing understood and taught the necessity of “surrender.”

But there was, I soon came to understand with the help of my sponsor, a problem. A big problem. I didn’t trust God. And you cannot surrender to something that you do not trust.  High-wire artists don’t walk across canyons unless they trust that the line will hold.  And my life up until that point, even my life as a Christian, had left me with a nagging doubt about whether God was fully trustworthy.  Perhaps it came from early experiences: my own parents’ divorce and severe alcoholism in my boyhood home were, I suppose, the beginnings of my suspicion that, ultimately at the core of things, God was not fully trustworthy. Later in life, God had repeatedly failed me in small and large ways, at least it seemed to me.  And even my recent crash and burn during my drinking years would not have happened if God had really been looking out for me, or so I told myself.

So, “surrender”? To that God? You must be joking.  That God is not trustworthy. And so, in response, what my sponsor—and in fact the entire 12 Step Program—taught me was the remarkably simple idea that it was not God, but rather my idea of God, that was the problem.  Remember the Third Step says we surrendered “to the care of God as we understood Him.”  And so it was that my sponsor gave me the simple but profound challenge of deepening, indeed radically altering, my understanding of God.  And so I agreed to try, and I asked God for help.  Sure enough, soon I began to see God in the tangible love of the men around me in the rooms of recovery, I began to experience God’s joy in the laughter they shared, and I began to see all the ways in which the recovering addicts and alcoholics I was hanging around with were reflecting those very qualities of God I had come to doubt: grace, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, unconditional love, humor.  And once I allowed my soul some room to expand my understanding of God, it became much easier to surrender.

Of course, the 12 Step Programs do not hold a monopoly on this idea that our understanding of God can lead us badly astray, that we are invited by God himself to change and deepen our understanding of God.  Biblical figures from Abraham to Moses to the prophets had always said to whomever would listen: “you’ve got God all wrong; here, listen and watch and learn who God really is.”  Jesus himself, most centrally, had as his core incarnational teaching the idea that God’s people had it all wrong about the nature of the Father and what it means to follow him.

More recently, a theologian I know who teaches undergraduates related how often college students seek him out to tell him that they “don’t believe in God.”  “I see,” he will respond gently. “Well, tell me about the God that you don’t believe in.” And when the student responds—almost always describing a narrow, judgmental and angry God—my friend responds, “well, I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t want to believe in that God either.”

Decades ago JB Phillips, the great and popular evangelical theologian, authored a powerful little work entitled; Your God is Too Small.  His point was the same as that of the biblical heroes and of my friend the theologian, the same message as Jesus and the authors of the 12 Step Programs delivered: if you cannot surrender to God, then it is not God that is the problem; rather, it is your understanding of God that is.  So come, follow and join us and see what God is really like.  You will like what you see, and you will like being able to trust.

Because, in the end, my sponsor was right: it all comes down to surrender.

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On the Island of Misfit Toys

“Two months ago I was homeless and living in my car behind the Recovery House downtown,” said a guy in a meeting I was at recently, “and my life has turned around so quickly it is unbelievable.”  He went on to explain that, since he stopped practicing his addiction and started doing what was suggested by others in recovery, he had managed to get a job, find a place to live in sober housing, and—best of all, he said—start sleeping through the night. “This morning when I awoke, it was light outside, not dark, and I cannot tell you how long it has been since that happened.”  He concluded his comments with this: “I am so grateful to be an addict, since I now know where I belong, and that is here, with you guys, where I can find friendship and fellowship and unconditional love.”

Grateful to be an addict?  Really?  Yeah, really.  Most of us are, for we understand that without having been brought to our knees through utter and complete defeat and incomprehensible demoralization, we never would have asked for help, never would have been able to change our lives, and, most of all, never would have found a fellowship where we belonged, where we were loved unconditionally and accepted without qualification.  After all, the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous say that, as to qualifications for joining AA, “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” So anyone who wants to do things differently is welcome, and that is true for any Twelve Step fellowship.

Now, it is this idea that we addicts found our home in the rooms of recovery that I want to consider here, for in it are profound lessons for Christians of all stripes.

Any practicing addict, at least during those rare moments when she or he can be candid about the power of the addiction, will tell you that the most despairing thing about our condition is that we have burned all bridges, we have alienated those we love, and that, at the deepest level, we feel as if we don’t really fit in with the rest of society. For me, it always felt like, when they were handing out Instruction Manuals on How to Live Life, I didn’t get one.  In short, we addicts feel like total misfits.  So it is that we experience relief and joy beyond description once we finally stumble upon the Island of Misfit Toys—better known, of course, as AA or NA or any of the other Twelve Step fellowships.  We finally belong somewhere, we have a home and a spiritual family, and it is only by watching and imitating our new brothers and sisters that we can become sane and sound and functioning members of society, learning to love and serve and be content in the everyday.

I suggest that Christians have lost this sense of wonder and joy at being unconditionally loved and accepted in a spiritual family, and that the reason for this is because we have lost the sense of brokenness and emptiness and because we no longer feel deeply the need for God.  Now, I am the last to want to go back to the days where churches were places of guilt and shame and abusive systems of coercion, but, of course, those places were never really churches at all, at least not in the New Testament sense.

Once I wrote an academic paper on a passage from Philippians, and in studying the early church at Philippi, I was struck by how isolated they felt from the Roman society in which they lived, how deeply they understood that they were different from their fellow Roman citizens.  When everyone else was greeting one another by saying, “Caesar is Lord,” the Christians would respond, “no, Jesus is Lord.”  Now while this may have been a sound and strong theological response, it could not have done much for one’s sense of belonging.  But they knew that they had a true home, and that it was in the rooms of gathering, the church rooms, where they were welcomed and belonged. They knew that they had stumbled upon Jesus’ Island of Misfit Toys.

So it is that in this society of ours, our society of narcissism and materialism and secularism, where to acknowledge brokenness or sin or a deep need for God is considered bad form at best and at worst is taken as instability, where to speak out in the name of Christ will get you labeled as a danger to the regime, we Christians have a home, a place where we belong, and a place where—like our friends the addicts—we can be transformed one day at a time, to go out and love and serve the world in joy and peace.

Posted in Christianity and the 12 Steps | 7 Comments