Proverbs and Programs are not Promises (and that’s good news)

I heard an important message Sunday at church.   It was part of a series on the book of Proverbs and the pastor began with this warning:

Sometimes it doesn’t work.

Sometimes we do all the right things, make all the right plans, follow all the right advice, cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s and still things go sideways.   To quote one prophet, Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get.

The sayings in Proverbs, the pastor went on to say, are not so much promises but probabilities.   Following the wisdom found in Proverbs will better situate a person for a fulfilling, rewarding life than not following its advice.    But nothing in life is a guarantee and sometimes you’ll bite into a coconut cluster when you were totally expecting caramel.

In the same way that Proverbs cannot promise a smooth-sailing life, working the steps of recovery will not guarantee rainbows and unicorns.   I can be working the perfect program but still get laid off tomorrow.  I can recite the most beautiful amends to someone I’ve hurt and still be kicked to the curb.   I can rise each morning and seek to connect with my Higher Power and hear nothing back in return.    I can strive to give back to the world what I’ve learned and be rejected or ignored.

Neither Proverbs nor the Steps are a talisman promising good luck if rubbed just the right way.    And thank God for that.

Thank God because who wants a Proverb or a Program that works like a vending machine?  Actually, as I type that question I realize that at times many of us want exactly that.   We want to be able to recite a verse or work a step and because we have done X we can be certain that Y and Z are sure to follow.   Deep down we want to feel we have earned our reward.   Yes, we may want that at times, even most of the time, but thank God that is not what we get.

Because here’s the deal.   Not one of us ever has nor ever will work a perfect proverb or program.   Not one of us ever has nor ever will get it right enough

Moms and dads, on a scale of 1 to 10, just how often are you operating at a consistent 10 when it comes to training up your child in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6)?   I often strive for a 10 but there are days when I know I just phoned it in.

Fellow addicts, on a scale of 1 to 10, just how fully are you turning your life and your will over to the care of God as you understand God?   I often strive for a 10 but there are days when I realize I’ve been running on my own steam and stubbornly clinging to my own will.

I am so thankful that both Proverbs and my Program are probabilities for a better life rather than promises because if they were promises than that would mean I would be accountable for perfectly performing those promises in order to get the promised prize.  My relationship with God would be based solely on how well I performed each transaction, how perfectly I lived out each proverb, how precisely I worked each step.

Probabilities, on the other hand, create room for grace.

Grace, God’s unmerited favor and goodness towards we who strive and stumble through life, makes up for the days I’m operating at a 5 at best.   Grace enables me to be gentle with myself and let go of worry about the future because while I know I may never be a consistent 10 when it comes to parenting, God our Father, is.

Grace is those moments you see your child respond to someone with compassion and you can’t remember having done it quite so beautifully as they or had no idea they were watching if you did.

Grace is what makes up the difference on those days when I know I haven’t had time to work a great program but I’m sober today and a text from a group member reminds me that I am not alone.

Understanding that my program, like proverbs, is made up of a list of probabilities releases me from the bondage of performance anxiety.   So long as I am setting my sail in the direction these steps suggest I can be hopeful that I’m going to make progress even if – no, when! – I don’t do it perfectly.    The Big Book, in the chapter titled How It Works, after listing each of the 12 Steps has this to say:

Many of us exclaimed, “What an order!  I can’t go through with it.”  Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles.  We are not saints.  The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress.  We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

So, if you are struggling today with keeping a bunch of promises and worried that your sub-par performance is going to sink you or those you love, know this:   Because of Grace, if you continue taking it one day at a time, moving one step at a time in the right direction, the probabilities that you’ll make positive progress are really, really high.   Don’t give up.

 

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Psalm 8

One of the hardest things for me to accept as a recovering addict is that a life filled with mistakes and regret can be used for restoration and reconciliation.   Our God-given job – to care for the world and all that is in it – is not undone because of our mistakes.   In fact, more than likely our past mistakes – our scars, wounds, and brokenness – can be the wellspring from which our best and most important work will come.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
    and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under his feet (Psalm 8)

God is mindful of you and I.   In the midst of this vast and breath-taking universe you and I are not lost or forgotten but thought about by our Creator.   Wherever you are today, God is.   No matter how far down the rung you have fallen you are still just “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned with glory and honor.”

We have important work to do during whatever remaining time we have left.    And God thinks you, with all your faults, is perfect for the job.

 

 

Acceptance is the key to all my problems and I’m angry about that

I both love and hate this:

Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.
When I am disturbed,
It is because I find some person, place, thing, situation —
Some fact of my life — unacceptable to me,
And I can find no serenity until I accept
That person, place, thing, or situation
As being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.
Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.
Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober;
Unless I accept life completely on life’s terms,
I cannot be happy.
I need to concentrate not so much
On what needs to be changed in the world
As on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.”

(Big Book of AA pg 417). 

I know this to be true but it’s so damn hard and I’m struggling with it.    I have been agitated, angered, saddened, shocked, and hurt by what I have been watching on the news this week.   I want to say I am feeling all of these things about the children that are being detained because their parents – heroes in my eyes – dared to want a better life for themselves and their family.    I want to say that it is their cries that are breaking my heart and making me feel so agitated.  And to some extent it is.  But if I’m honest, it’s more than that.

The truth is, the real root of my anger is directed toward the people who are OK with that.   I’m angry that there are people who I know profess Jesus as their Lord who are OK with treating immigrants like they are trash.    I’m angry that there are people who lack mercy and empathy but seem to have plenty of law and judgment to dish out.

But more than that, I’m angry that I can’t change any of it.   I’m angry at myself that I have anger towards those people rather than mercy and love.   I’m angry that I cannot seem to accept the world as it is or people as they are.

And more than that, I’m angry that my refusal to be merciful and accepting of “those people” means I am no better than them and I’m left with nothing but my own self-righteous anger to stew in.

I’m angry that deep down I know the Big Book is right, and until I accept them as they are where they are for who they are that I will never be happy.

I’m angry that God is asking me to extend mercy to the merciless.

Mercy is that thing I want all the time from God and everyone, which I’ll give aplenty to those who demand nothing of me personally but will horde from those whom I think should know better.   Why can I have so much mercy for the addict who has lied a million times and ruined everyone’s life but none for the pious elder brother who has never left home?

If I don’t find a way to love the latter I’ll once more become the former.  I know this.

So I picked up Anne Lamott’s meddling book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, and began to binge.  I knew I needed to gorge myself on mercy lest I die of thirst.    She diagnoses me on the first pages.

Mercy means that we soften every so slightly, so that we don’t have to condemn others for being total shits, although they may be that (Okay: are.)  If I do so, it makes me one.  As Father Ed Dowling said, sometimes heaven is just a new pair of glasses.  When we put them on, we see the awful person, sometimes even ourselves, a bit more gently, and we are blessed in return.  It seems, on the face of things, like a decent deal.

When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves, we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp. It gives us the chance to rediscover something both old and original, the sweet child in us who, all evidence to the contrary, was not killed of, but just put in the drawer.  I realize now how desperately, how grievously, I have needed the necessary mercy to experience self-respect.

All I have to do in order to begin again is to love mercy, if I am to believe nutty old Micah.

Micah. She is, of course, referring to the prophet whom God told only three things were required of us mortals:  Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.    I am a pro at dishing out justice.   But if I’ve learned anything over the past few years, riding the justice train is my fastest ticket to relapse unless it is tempered with gargantuan doses of mercy (for both others and myself) while staying low, low, low to the earth.

The path for me is acceptance.   I can only get there if I remember to love mercy.

Mercy.

I’m struggling this week having any for some folks, but I’m crawling up to the table like a beggar famished for some crumbs and asking God to give me some.

 

 

 

 

 

Psalm 7

It would be a good habit, I think, to begin each day as a recovering addict with the words of David from Psalm 7:1 on one’s lips:

O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.

This has every thing an addict needs to make it through the day, particularly if it is one ripe with temptation or withdrawal sighs.   You know those sighs, right?  The lingering, dying gasps of what has been your security blanket for so long.   The mourning that naturally follows saying good-bye to one’s best, and only, friend.

When I feel this way I need to find my resolve and refuge in God.   I need to remind myself that my addiction or compulsion is not my friend at all but my sworn enemy who, like a lion, will tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.

I need to remind myself in no uncertain terms that I am dealing with an enemy who is cunning and baffling and hell-bent on destroying me.    Flirting with it will not end well for me.   I have collected enough data over the years when trying to “control” my habit to prove that the lion is stronger than my willpower.    Another trial run won’t prove otherwise.

So, take refuge in your God this day and remember that the lion has nothing but death to offer you.

 

 

 

To the “Withered Hands” Among Us: A reflection on depression and the Church

On Friday Anthony Bourdain took his own life.  He is one of roughly 125 who did the same that day.  One of 45,000 each year.

On Thursday, a friend shared with me how a sermon he heard Sunday impacted him.   The text was Mark 3, the story of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand.   The thing the priest said that stood out to my friend is that Jesus was angry at the Pharisees because they were silent in the presence of need.

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus,[a] to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mark 3).

That story echoed in my heart on Friday as I watched past episodes of Bourdain’s No Reservations or scrolled through Facebook reading friend’s reactions to the news of his suicide.    It is fitting to see so many people speak up in the wake of tragedies such as these to remind people teetering on the brink to say something, to reach out, to make a phone call, to talk to a trusted friend or counselor.   All well and good.

But the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man with a withered hand reminds me that there are people among us who cannot reach out.

Due to social stigma many who suffer with mental illness and/or addiction remain hidden from our sight, afraid to speak up fearing that the shame that will come with voicing their need will outweigh the pain they presently suffer through alone.  Their withered hand is unable to extend beyond themselves to ask for help.

What I find so poignant about the above story is how Jesus has eyes to see the man with the withered hand.   His first instinct is to look for those who cannot speak up or reach out for themselves.   Jesus does not wait for a person in need to cry out for his help but is actively seeking them out so that he might push back their darkness.   Afterall, it is the sick and the oppressed – the addicted and depressed – for whom he came to save (Luke 5:31).

What I find so damning about the above story, however, is how Jesus directed his anger towards the religious who no doubt had this withered hand man in their midst week after week after week yet were silent.   How many times have I been in the midst of someone who is in need and I, too, have been silent?   How many of the 125 today who will be convinced that death is better than life are desperate that someone might notice their withered hand and say to them, “Come here”?

I am not suggesting that I or any of us can save everyone.   We are not God.   But it would be a grave mistake on our part, I think, if we did not at least acknowledge that when it comes to mental illness and addiction and other diseases which bear stigmas of shame we, the church, the body of Christ, are silent.   We cannot say of ourselves that when we enter the synagogues of our day we have eyes that are trained to seek out the withered hands among us.   We cannot say we are well equipped, should we see them, to speak words of life into their broken ones.

And though we are not God, I believe the Master wishes to teach us something if we will stop to listen.

The good news is we can get better if we will admit we need to do so.    What would it look like if every person battling alone with their own version of a withered hand heard a loving, compassionate, and resounding invitation from the body of Christ to “Come here”?

Hi, my name is Chad, I’m a recovering addict

My pastor and friend asked me a week ago if I would be willing to share at church this past Sunday. After praying and discussing it over with my sponsor I decided to give it a go. It had been nearly 3 years since I’ve done this, and as you might imagine I was rather nervous. Much of the nerves came from fears of feeling inadequate or imagining I am no longer qualified to share in this way. Those fears, however, were quickly vanquished by the love and support this church graciously gave me.

This is how I live out the 12th Step and give back a small portion of what I have received. I hope it blesses you today half as much as it did me to share it.

Best relationship advice

My sponsor reminded me about the usefulness of using what has become known as the 11th Step Prayer to strengthen any relationship.    Imagine if we all sought to love rather than to be loved, to understand rather than to be understood?

The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life
Amen

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