Psalm 10

It’s good medicine to remember from time to time what I become when I’m in my addiction.   Psalm 10 serves as such a mirror.    I’m going to take the liberty of changing the subject, the “wicked,” and make it about myself.

I boast of the desires of my soul and, greedy for gain, curse and renounce the Lord.  In my pride, I do not seek him, and all my thoughts are, “There is no God.”    My mouth is filled with cursing and lies and oppression, and under my tongue are mischief and iniquity.  I sit in ambush in the villages; in hiding places I murder the innocent.  My eyes stealthily watch for the helpless…I say in my heart, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”  

This aptly describes me in my addiction.   When I was acting out, I was insane.   The only thing that mattered was my next fix, consequences be damned.    Everything that came out of my mouth was a lie.  Words were a means to manipulate others to get what I wanted.   I was constantly thinking about myself and when I could next act out.   Obsession was my closest friend, convincing me that this was my god.   My life as an addict is a lonely one – separated from the man I had hoped to be, from the family and friends who love me, from my children whom I neglect for my drug, and from my God who, contrary to my beliefs, sees every bit of it.  And is very near.

The other morning I awoke from a dream in which I acted out.  I laid in bed terrified for a moment because I knew exactly the sort of person I become when I am in my addiction and for a brief minute I was convinced I had gotten on that crazy train once more.   How relieved I was to discover it was just a dream!   I am grateful for these reminders – these gifts from God – which help to keep me sober for one more day.

 

 

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No other requirement

“The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

This is the third tradition of AA, adapted to fit all other 12 Step programs of recovery and for today, my favorite. We discussed this tradion in group yesterday and it meant a lot to me that it is groups like these who accepted me without requirement. They were patient and non-judgmental, holding me up when I would let them or holding me in prayer when I left them. From day one I was an equal member, seen as a person of value and worth. Set backs were not met with raised brows or wagging fingers but with hugs and sincere refrains like “We are glad you’re here,” and “Keep coming back.” Even the amount, little to lots, of the desire I had was never scrutinized or idolized, nor was it used as a litmus test to judge my worthiness to be a part of these groups.

It was and continues to be the epitome of grace in my life, that I would be so unconditionally accepted and loved in spite of my behavior, my thoughts, my beliefs or lack thereof. All that was required was that I have something within me that longed for something more, something better.

This tradition helped to save my life along with countless others. I have listened to numerous men, many of them lifelong church goers, recount how they never witnessed such grace and mercy in their entire lives until they dragged themselves, bruised and battered from life, into one of these rooms. And it proved to be their salvation.

I find myself wondering many times throughout a meeting if there isn’t something important that churches everywhere could learn if they would choose to listen to the wisdom found in the 12 Steps and Traditions. Something to think about, huh?

I feel so ashamed…

A friend in recovery, who was, like me, once in a professional ministry position, shared with me today how he’s struggling with some feelings of guilt and shame over letting people down whom he once worked with.   I could certainly relate.

If you have ever been a spiritual leader of any sort, the shame that follows a relapse is immense in and of itself.   Add to that the loss of that job, that position, that “calling,” and the knowledge that you’ve disappointed and even hurt so many, and that shame becomes crushing.

As he was speaking an image filled my spirit which I believe was from God.   It was a picture of Jesus’ disciples huddled together in a dark, locked room following his crucifixion.    During these dark days they all fled from the side of their friend.   I could feel their pain and shame over their hiding.   I could hear them saying to each other and to themselves a number of things, such as

  • How could I desert him like that?
  • Was all that time spent with him for nothing?
  • Just weeks ago I felt on top of the world, like my life had purpose and meaning, but now…?
  • I failed miserably.  I’m obviously not meant to be part of anything important in the way Jesus was.
  • He picked the wrong person to be his friend
  • I’m a bad person

I’ve felt all of these things over the past few years.   These feelings still creep up on me from time to time, as they did my friend this morning.    Perhaps you feel them, too.

But do you remember what happens in that room full of doubt and fear and shame?   Jesus appears to these huddled together and his first words to them all are

Peace be with you.

Peace.  God comes to them, and to you and I and my friend this morning, and says “Peace.”   He knows very well all they and we have done and his greatest desire for us at the time of our greatest distress and shame is that we know peace.

And then, because he knows we may have misheard or misunderstood or mistrust his intent, he says it again.   But he adds something just as extraordinary:

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.

What’s that, Jesus?   I’m sitting here in a dark room, locked away from the outside, ashamed of myself and my behavior, fearful that others will find me and expose me for the fraud I am, and fully aware of how at your greatest hour of need I scattered to save myself, and you still want me on your team?   You still see me as part of your Father’s plan?

I can’t comprehend the lavishness and indiscriminate grace of God most of the time but I am making progress when I can rest in it or be reminded of it some of the time.    This morning, because of a friend sharing his shame with me over the phone, I got a glimpse of it again and wanted to write it down.

Peace be with you.

 

 

John Piper’s plan to defeat lust, Part I

There are as many methods out there for overcoming addiction as there are addictions.   In my experience, not all of them are created equal.   I stumbled upon a technique to overcome lust offered by famous reformed pastor and author John Piper which I would file in the “less than” category only because I and many others I know have tested this technique most of our lives only to find it wanting.

What I want to do is share that technique here, offer some of my thoughts about it, and then in a follow-up post offer what I believe is a more helpful way forward if you have tried this technique only to find yourself frustrated by your lack of progress.

The steps Piper proposes for a person struggling with lust are short and sweet and have the useful acronym “ANTHEM” to help us remember.   It goes like this:

Step 1: Avoid all possible temptation.

Step 2: Say, “No!” to every lustful thought.

Step 3: Turn your eyes towards Christ.

Step 4: Hold onto a promise from God.

Step 5: Enjoy Jesus more than sinful pleasure.

Step 6: Move away from idleness and find something to do.

Let’s take a brief look at each one of these steps.

Step 1: Avoid all possible temptation.  

Right out of the gate this plan sets you and I up for failure.   Unless you plan to gouge your eyes out, lob off your hands and live as a hermit removed from society forever, you will fail every day at avoiding all possible temptation.    No matter which way we turn, we are inundated with lustful imagery and imaginations which are unavoidable this side of heaven.   If your first goal is to hide from temptation you will be sorely disappointed at every turn.

On a deeper level, this first step misses the heart of the issue.   Temptation is not the problem.   Our hearts are.    The need to get a fix, or to cope with life using lust or any other drug, is what we need to address.   I need a program that will liberate me in order that I can live, not hide under a rock.

Step 2: Say, “No!” to every lustful thought.

This is a good idea, but perhaps there is a better way. I’ll return to this later.

Step 3: Turn your eyes towards Christ.

Always!

Step 4: Hold onto a promise from God.

I actually like what Piper has to say about this step.   Far too often we give up prematurely, assuming that if we have done the right things (said “No!,” turned our eyes towards Christ) than the temptation should leave us.   But our addiction is persistent and will often knock on our door many times throughout the day, relentlessly.   It’s important to hold on.

In recovery we call this white-knuckling it.   Gripping to whatever we can until the obsession abates.   It can work for a spell, but generally leads to acting out at some point or another.   I’m not thrilled with how Piper reduces a struggle with something as cunning and baffling and powerful as lust to a simple “Jesus and me” transaction.   You can’t do this by yourself, clinging like a lone rock climber to the face of a cliff.    You need others to hold your line.   More on that in the next post.

Step 5: Enjoy Jesus more than sinful pleasure.

I can appreciate what Piper is going for here but let’s be honest.  This is like telling a child they should like vegetables more than cookies because veggies are good for them.   Piper fails to take into account here the seriousness of addictive/compulsive behavior and the very real ways that both our minds and bodies have been rewired to such an extent that lust is not only pleasurable (or else we wouldn’t do it!) but salvific.    In other words, our drug of choice has become our god, and after years of abuse it is impossible to think of life apart from that god.   In the mind of an addict, we will die without our drug.

Telling someone to enjoy Jesus more than the thing which has become their everything serves only to heap more shame and guilt on the addict who will no doubt feel that they should enjoy Christ more but does not.   Building into a program a step which almost guarantees failure is, in my opinion, not the best use of a step.

Step 6: Move away from idleness and find something to do.

This is good advice but in my experience there is a better way.  While finding “something” to do is certainly better than acting out with lust, nothing is more powerful than discovering a program that works for you and then sharing that with others.    Ongoing recovery depends not just in finding something to do when you’ve failed to “avoid temptation” but actively working with others who struggle as you do and teaching them the steps that have brought you freedom.

To conclude, Piper’s plan has embedded within it steps which, in my experience, only serve to heap greater shame on a person who already feels like an utter failure.   Avoiding temptation and enjoying Jesus “more,” while grand ideals in their own right, do not seem to appreciate the ways addiction works.

Another issue I have with this technique is the solitary nature of it all.   There is nothing within these 6 steps as stated which would suggest you cannot do this alone.   Just the opposite, in fact.   This program appears to me to be about behavior modification – something you can do on your own if you just pull up your bootstraps and try harder.   If only you stop doing certain things, and do other things better, you’ll defeat lust in your life.    Behavior modification may make the outside look good, but it leaves our souls untouched, even shriveled.

That, my friends, has never worked for me long-term.   If it has and is working for you, than by all means continue doing what works.   But if you are like me and countless others, thank God there is another way!  I’ll say more about that in the next post.

What did you think of Piper’s technique?

 

 

God will not break us

I remember like it was yesterday the first time I held my first-born son.    He was so tiny and fragile, so light and small.   I cradled him in my arms, determined to shield him from anything – a cold breeze, a bump from someone passing by, bright light – that could harm him.    And our drive home?   I’ve never driven slower or more cautiously before or since.

When holding a new-born baby we instinctively go into protection mode.   Our movements are less hurried, more gentle.  We know that what we hold in our hands is precious and vulnerable and utterly dependent upon us for survival.

I was reminded of this during Father Jake’s message last night on the gentleness and humility of Jesus as described in a prophecy by Isaiah, re-membered to us in Matthew’s gospel.    Here, in the midst of healing many and choosing to remain hidden and humble, Matthew wants us to know that the Son of God, the One who could have come to us in a triumphant display of power and might, comes to us instead as one gentle and meek, not quarreling or shouting, but quietly and unassuming.    The prophet tells us that God is a servant, one whom while proclaiming justice to the uninitiated will do so with tender hands.   Matthew writes,

a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,

breaking-the-bruised-reed

A bruised reed is one on its last leg.   It is hanging, quite literally, by a thread.    A smoldering wick is a candle nearly snuffed out.   The slightest breeze or bump will extinguish it.     Like a newborn child, bruised reeds and smoldering wicks require gentle hands and compassionate intent.

Matthew wants us to know that God is like this.   When you and I are hanging on by our last thread or feel as though we are on the verge of being snuffed out, God is the sort of Father who knows how to nurture us back to life.    God is not seeking to further damage the weak.   In fact it’s just the opposite.   God has a special affinity towards those of us who are weak and barely able to stand against even the slightest breeze.

God will not break or quench us.

As I look back over my battle with addiction I remember so many moments where I felt exactly like a bruised reed or smoldering wick.   I recall so many moments of feeling like all hope was lost and that the next moment may, or should, be my last.   I even remember believing that God was the sort of God who was kicking me while I was down.   God punishes the weak and rewards the strong.

A bruised reed he will not break.

God did not crush me.    While I didn’t always see it at the time, looking back now I can see how God was gently leading me out of the pit I was in.   He did not bludgeon me with facts or “truth” or “thou shall nots,” but lovingly cared for me as a Father or Mother would hold their newborn son or daughter.    Even when my actions may have warranted my bruising, God bandaged me instead.

Most often God’s tenderness came to me through his children.    Many, many times it was the children of God who loved me back to health.   Men in my recovery group and my sponsor poured into me, embodying a sacrificial, non-judgmental love which I came to believe was the way God must love, too.

As I ponder the way Jesus comes to you and I – we who are struggling and hurting and barely holding on –   comes to us with gentleness and humility, I am both awed by his great love and compassion and convicted by the lack of the same in myself at times.

May you, this day, know that God does not seek to kick you while you are down.   May you, this day, come to realize that while you are barely hanging on, your Father in heaven is craddling you with tender arms, full of mercy and grace.   May you, this day, trust in the God who will not break you.

 

 

Mercy, not sacrifice

This evening I listened to a message on the scripture passage which makes up the title of this blog:  “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”   It was a short homily that God whispered into Father Jake’s ear in order to meddle in my life and remind me (again) of what matters most.

When Jesus informs the religious leaders of his day that the Father’s desire is mercy and not the age-old sacrificial system under which they lived and breathed, he was without a doubt dropping an atomic bomb into their world of law and order.    Jesus was making it clear that God’s heart is one that favors mercy over judgment, grace over law.  Law and judgment ought not trump grace and mercy.    What was an A-bomb in Jesus’ day is no less world-shattering for me today.

Because every day I find myself withholding mercy from someone when it suits me.

My wife pointed out to me not too long ago that I seem to have an endless supply of mercy to extend towards addicts and atheists.    She went on to point out, lovingly, that my mercy bucket seems to be very limited towards Christians who voted for Trump.    She is right about that.

Most recently she and I found ourselves in the midst of an argument – a power struggle – where I was unwilling to give.   My desire to be right was outweighing my mandate to love.   I was withholding mercy because I felt that extending it would mean I have to surrender my right to be right.    My perspective on the situation left me feeling like unless she sacrificed something, I had every right to stand in judgment.

Jesus said he desires mercy, not sacrifice.

This is humbling as I realize the countless ways my Pharisaic heart has a bent towards sacrifice.   And it’s not just with others.   I demand it of myself, too.    Have you ever tried to please God by being a better person?  Ever mess up, relapse, do something you know is wrong and then avoid spending time with God because you felt like you had to clean up your act – make sacrifices – before you could be in God’s presence?   Have you ever felt convinced that your flat tire was God’s punishment on you because you weren’t doing enough right things – making the right sacrifices – to please him?   Ever felt like if you could just stop acting out in your addiction than God would love you?   Yeah, me too.

Jesus said he desires mercy, not our sacrifices.

So yes, while it’s humbling to face the reality that I am still a person who needs reminded to be a person of mercy rather than sacrifice, it’s also liberating and, perhaps a bit surprising, that God is already this way in spades towards you and I.    God is surrounding us in bucket loads of mercy amid all our faults and failures.  God loves mercy and he loves making it new for us every morning.   There is no sacrifice you and I need to make to settle up with God because that has already been taken care of in Jesus.

God lives in mercy towards us and invites us to do the same with each other.    This sounds like a far better way to live, don’t you think?

Resurrection is a recovery promise

Hi!   I have some great news to share!  On Saturday, July 28th, I married my lover and best friend, Stephanie.   That this day came to pass is a miracle deserving of many words to describe but I want to share at least a few thoughts this morning.

On Saturday we stood before each other, surrounded by our children, presided over by my dad, as we read to each other vows we had written ourselves.   Getting to write down promises to my bride was something I couldn’t have imagined being able to do this time last year, but here I was, sober and present and in love with this woman with whom I knew I wanted to share all my life.   And I got to hear her vows to me, describing a man that she somehow, by the grace of God, was able to see beneath all the junk through the last couple years.   She described a man who, with the help of God and my program, I am fully capable of being and, more importantly, I love being.

My wife has been instrumental in showing me unconditional love – the love of Christ – so much so that we both had the word agape tattooed on our wrists to forever remind us of the love God has shown us both, even at our worst, and the love we desire to show to each other with God’s help.

I’ve written before about how there was a time when I believed I deserved a piece of shit car because of the wreckage the choices I made in my addiction caused.  When we are acting out with our drug of choice it is impossible to think we are deserving of anything good.   I shared how Stephanie was with me then and loved me through those days.   Standing before each other Saturday, pledging ourselves to each other, I knew in my heart that I am loved and capable of giving love in return.   What a gift that is!

It was important to us that our kids witness this ceremony as we acknowledge our dependence upon God to continue resurrecting our lives, restoring our hearts, and redeeming past hurts.   I wish I could adequately describe to you the pain that permeated our lives just a few short years ago which, at that time, seemed like it would never end, because if I could you would marvel like I did as I watched my son Maddox hug my new wife and tell her how happy he is that she married his dad.    You’d know the miracle it was to see them gathered together, holding hands, promising to love each other as we formed this new family and marked the occasion by each of us pouring different colored sand into a heart-shaped vase.

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Recovery is a resurrection miracle and it’s promises come true if we continue to desire them and work for them.    Today I am so very grateful that my wedding day celebrates the love my wife and I have for each other as well as the beauty and joy of lives restored by God’s relentless love.

If you are reading this and you are someone pursuing recovery, you know this to be true.  If you are someone still running from it, as I have done many times before, my prayer for you is that you find a ray of hope here.   No matter how helpless and hopeless things may seem right now, no matter how undeserving you may feel you are of love or joy, no matter how far down the scale you feel you have fallen, I want you to know you are not alone.   You are loved. You are worth recovery.   God has not forsaken you or forgotten you.    A new story can be written in your life if you will allow it.   The things you are holding onto today which you know deep down are not giving you life can and will be replaced by something – Someone! –  that can and will give you life.    These promises are true for anyone who desires them.     I am praying for you now.

 

 

Learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' ~ Jesus