Sunday, December 3, 2017

Hope In A Time of Addiction

My mother died young, quite suddenly, at the age of 73. My father who loved her very much was quite lost. He had come to live near our home in Maryland, a ramshackle little house that we were all in the midst of renovating.  I would check on me from time to time to see how he was. I noticed he was looking gaunt and was losing weight. Then one day I came to the house and I found him barely conscious on the couch. I got him up and drove him to hospital. The ER did a blood test and admitted him immediately, his white blood cell count was rising and he was anemic. The doctors spent the next several hours trying to figure out what was wrong. The primary doctor, a good friend and a member of our congregation, pulled me aside to tell me that he was very sick and that he might not make it.  I knew this phenomenon especially among men, that when their spouse died, grief and a lack of self-care often led the surviving spouse to follow in death within months. Now I knew how scary and painful that could be. Then the doctor asked me “Are you sure your father doesn’t drink?” “What?!” I replied, “Who told you that?” “He did” she replied. “Are you kidding me?” I said “He drinks like a fish”. In fact, both my father and mother were what we would now call functional alcoholics, downing three or four double scotches each night before a gigantic meal with wine at 10 pm.  “Well that explains it” she said, “He is dying of alcohol poisoning”. It turned that my father, in his grief, was drinking close to a quart of scotch a day and living on wonder bread and grape jelly sandwiches, that coupled with flu was bringing him to death’s door.

 After the doctor went back in to see him and to order new procedures to reverse the effect, I followed. It was one of the most difficult and powerful conversations of my life, not as his minister but as his son. “Dad” I said “I know you are heartbroken after losing mom. We are all carrying around these broken hearts. But you have choice here Dad: you can choose to leave your body and be with her again, or you can keep on living. You can keep on living for me and my brother, for your daughter in laws and your beautiful granddaughters. You can keep living for walks in the woods with the dogs, for the warmth of the sun on your face, you can keep on living to do the work of justice, to write, to agitate, and to laugh. It will hurt for a while dad, but the pain will subside and, while there will always be a hole in your heart where mom lived, your grief, our grief, will bring a depth and richness to life such as you have never known. I know this is true dad, because I have seen it happen over and over again. You can choose but you have to stop drinking and start living. I want you to choose life.”

There was a foreboding silence as he contemplated what I said, and the shame he now felt at being found out as an addict and as a proud man. He said “OK. But I never want to see that doctor again.”  “That’s fine Dad, that’s fine. I will find you another doctor.”

I tell you this story, because I know that almost everyone in this room has been touched by addiction.  As Gerald May in his book Addiction and Grace wrote, “We all suffer from addictions: addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods like depression, shyness, cynicism, people can become addicted to an illness, success, control and fantasies.” (From Addiction and Grace) And any number of substances and behaviors that mask the pain and stress of living: food, sex, alcohol, drugs, gambling, the list is long. So I believe that all of us have addictive natures, by virtue of having to both cope with life and to the power of substance and behavior to mask the pain. All of us are addicted, yet some become more so, for reasons that have as much to do with chemistry in our brains as behaviors in our life.  Addictions become a problem when they interfere with our lives which leads to a ruin of life and it is then we need the most help. 

Hope in a Time of Addiction, not only because of the opioid crisis, but for the addiction to media that made this election possible, the tweets, the 24 hour news cycle, fake news, and our addiction to it. We try to convince ourselves that this craziness is not normal but what if this addiction to it is normal. Yes, our addiction to it: How many of you have MSNBC on almost all the time? Waiting for the next and latest outrage and our primarily liberal response to it. How many of you beloveds, think Rachel Maddow is a saint? 


Gerald May writes that ‘Spiritual, addiction is a deep seated form of idolatry. The objects of our addictions become our false gods. These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love. Addiction displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire. It contravenes the first commandment, you shall have no other gods before me, the god of love….it is in effect a counterfeit spiritual presence. As it is written in Ecclesiastes “I denied my eyes nothing that they desired, refused my heart no pleasure…What futility it all was, what chasing after the wind.” The Grace of one another is our hope, the only power that can vanquish addiction’s destructive power.’ (Adapted May)

 My father recovered from his illness and stopped drinking cold turkey. He never attended a 12 step program. And he went on to live a rich and full life. He married again, he wrote, he protested, he laughed, he danced. And he had one glass of wine on his 80th birthday.

With Grace and Grit, John


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Observing Abundance

Why is it that when we are at the end of our life we regret what we didn’t do?  Couldn’t we try instead to appreciate what we did do. Abundance and gratitude are sisters. One is possible through the other. Studies have been done on happiness and aging. Apparently we, as a population, are happiest in our sixties and seventies.  Why?   Time changes as we age. We all know that time is slower when we are young and faster as we age, which is likely due to the fact that we have so many more memories to compare time to. So while we have more time when we are younger it’s full of anxiety. As we grow older we can let go of the worry about the future, in part because there is less of it to worry about.  Our time is less but more abundant in quality. When people are asked about meeting new people when they are young the answer is often “sure, why not?” because there is plenty of time to try that out. But as we age we don’t really have time for that. We want to develop and cherish the relationships we have. These are the deeper wells of our humanity from which we draw our living water.

Once we realize that all of us – all of us – are blessed with this divine abundance, this essential wholeness, than the sooner we can get on with the task of living lives that are integrated with our hopes and aspirations. Let me give you an example. I used to be a real penny pincher. I could make the Indian ride the back of the Buffalo. I would never give money to a panhandler. Until I met a messenger.  A panhandler I passed on the street who when I ignored him and walked on by said to me, ‘bless you anyway sir’. I turned around and saw a young man, a man my age at the time, and something went click; a moment of grace. “There but for the grace of God go I.” I realized our essential interconnection and I reached into my pocket and gave him all the money I had. Becoming whole will cost you. And it might just help you observe the abundance of love that resides in your own heart. 

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Call of the Open Road

I begin with this from Walt Whitman:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.
Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial,
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,
The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,
They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted,
None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me."
(From the "Song of the Open Road")
The more I serve others, the more convinced I am that all of us need a time to be away, to follow the call of the open road and restore our souls, whether across the country or down the street. So that we might in Whitman’s words: “Be Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, Strong and content I travel to the open road.”

For what is to continue must find time to roam and return. I hold to this as dearly as my calling. I know that only by journeying out from you each resplendent summer can we find meaning once again in our return. People often ask why ministers have most of the summer out of their pulpits or away from their pianos. When you work 60 – 70 hours a week, you must have some time to recharge in order to serve again. This call to the open road, is more than just a much appreciated sabbatical, it is a spiritual practice. For only with it, are we able to serve again with new ideas, fresh energy and what wisdom we garner along the way.

Perched here on the edge of summer, I recall the sort of excitement that we all felt as school was about to end, and we had that great expanse of the summer before us, endless it seemed.  Most of us, now living in the adult world think of summer differently, the possibility of a small vacation, sure but other tasks and the heat to be contended with.
Nevertheless, I still commend summer as the best time to do the work of the soul.  That time of year when we travel figuratively and physically to new horizons and new ideas to be tried.  It is a season of pause, a time to reconsider the future.  In its implied rest, the summer is the space between our heart beats.  I commend to you this journey of the soul, to reflect on our place in the cosmos and to bring back.

Follow your call, and find your way home again.

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, March 3, 2017

Be Who You Are

Many of us have had what is called a sophomoric crisis, me included. What is a sophomoric crisis you ask? As the Latin hints at it is when we think we know more than we do and begin to question our very identity. It happened to me in either my sophomore year of high school or college, I can’t remember which, when I wondered who was I really? Was I this middle class nerd who liked the Grateful Dead? Or was I whatever my friends were? If they were tough guys, then I was a tough guy, if they pretended to be erudite and smart, I pretended to be erudite and smart. I felt like a chameleon, always changing my colors to suit those around me. It was a real crisis. And then there was my worry that I didn’t think I mattered at all. I decided to try a little experiment: I would not go out of my way to reach any of my friends, stay in my room as much as possible and see if anyone noticed or reached out to me. A full week went by and nobody called. I was heartbroken: Nobody loves me, nobody cares, guess I will just eat peaches and pears.  Anyone here ever tried that?

This was long before Facebook. But now I see this on FB every once and a while. Someone will post. “Just checking to see if anyone will miss me. Click like if you are still out there.” And then they are devastated that nobody notices.  Why would we do that to ourselves? It’s like jumping out of a plane without a parachute.

“Be who you are” was one of Forrest Church’s great temperate instructions, want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.  Even when it pushes against sanity.  Nytimes article about Milt Greek, a schizophrenic living in Ohio who has been trying to channel his higher delusions into a positive center.  He tries to ignore the voices of destruction.  But he does listen to the voices that implore him to make a better world.  Being who we are means embracing our given talents.

Thanksgiving 1993.  A soup kitchen on Calfax in South Bend, IN. The food was warm and there was plenty of it.  Half way through the meal the door flew open and these two drunks came in pushing people this way and that, shouting for something to eat.  My first reaction was to call the police but I didn’t.  Being the only male volunteer in the room, I yelled at them to keep it down and stop pushing. When the first got to the front of line he wanted to know what we were serving, although those weren’t his exact words.  I told him and as he took the plate he sniffed it and flung it back at me.  I ducked and the plate missed me, but the food went everywhere.  I let loose a tirade that turned more than a few heads since they all knew I was a minister and called the staff upstairs who came down and had the two men escorted out.  As I cleaned up from the encounter I thought to myself “How ungrateful can you be”?  Here he had come for free food, warmth and he had thrown it back in my face.  I questioned whether I really did have the guts to be a part of the solution.  Not answered easily.  As I thought about that incident, I began to realize that my reaction was in part the result of who I was, a white, middle class man, just as his ungratefulness was a result of his being.  How many of us, having lived a life full of violence, hunger and rejection would have been grateful for a plate of stale food?  I was looking from the top down in life and he was looking from the bottom up; expecting him to be grateful was a condition of who I was and not a condition of his life.
Truly living up to who we are sets the stage for us to make our lives and the world a better place.  Learning who you are can take a lifetime.  For some of us, it is very painful. Girls that are born into boy’s bodies and boys born into girls bodies. Transgender people are ridiculed, taunted, and are ten times more likely to be murdered than any other identity group in the world.

My identity in life comes from knowing misfortune to be occasional not constant; while for the drunk his identity is marked by an anger that is the only response to a life of constant hardship.  Not that he should have thrown the food at me, but who he was and what he had to deal with played a large part in what he did.  To effectively undo a wrong we have to look seriously at who we are.  We cannot do everything we think we can, no matter how much we want to.  But we won’t know until we try; whether it is starting again or healing some ancient hurt.  We are who we are, because we did everything we could, and when we could do no more we rest secure in being who we are.

Who among us doesn’t carry a loss?  Who among us was unable to do what we thought we could?    But don’t you see?  If you tried, you still were caring enough to be worthy.  Because there is merit in trying.  There is redemption in every attempt we have to be who we would dream we are.  Sometimes we will fail but we try and are saved.  And that is thanks enough.  And that is love.
Traditionally, religions have been about the task of providing a set of beliefs upon which a person takes action.  That is the meaning of ethics; the doing of a moral understanding.  But, as Dr. King understood, we have to sometimes stand against what our religion tells us to do.  Reformations continue to evolve religious understanding even today.  I sense one such reformation happening even in evangelical Christianity, not especially known for embracing the troubles of this world.  Increasingly, conservative Christians are uniting with other groups to affect positive change in our society.  No not on the so-called core values of  marriage and abortion, but in terms of global warming, the causes of poverty and war.

When Dr. King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he answered the charge by white and liberal colleagues that he was being too radical.  He decried the suggestion that the status quo was good enough when the Kingdom of God on earth required a challenge to that status quo.  King asked “was not Jesus an extremist for love; ‘love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that you’?  Was not Amos an extremist for justice when he said ‘let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’?  …..was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist when he wrote ‘We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal.’”….the  question is we willing to do what it takes to live out what we believe?  Our identity as privileged folks weighs on those who have so little privilege.

Eventually, I moved beyond worrying about whether or not I mirrored other people. We all do to a certain extent. It’s our evolutionary imprinting, but more importantly who I am is a result of what I do. Not in a job, but in how we treat others, the kindness we express to strangers. The hope we have in life, despite the sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As James Baldwin who became one of the greatest African American writers of all time put it:   “An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience."  Here then is our work, to thy own self be true, and to that truth we devote our best and most noble self.

With Grace and Grit, John