It’s so good to be in the house of the Lord. Jesus, the work you have done in me is beautiful and Im so grateful. I have been blessed to have been raised by dedicated ministers, as a child and as an adult. I say that now, but I didn’t always feel that way. My dream at one time was just to run as far away as I could from ministry.
I’m thinking of a lyric by Neil Young, “Helpless”.
“There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind
I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.”
Jesus People USA in Uptown Chicago is still that place for me to go, all my changes were there.
I can honestly say that from the time I was a child all I really wanted was to belong in Christian community. It seemed like the unattainable dream. I wanted to be in that perfect family where there was no shame, only acceptance; no fear, only protection. I wanted that because it seemed for a short time like we had it in my family. And then life happened and things just seemed to go from bad to worse. And then it was like I just wanted something true, you know? In myself and in the church. But the devil had his hook in me and I didn’t really know what I wanted for years.
I gave up on myself and just kind of existed and everything spiraled out of control. And it was like that for such a long time. Too long. I’m so glad those days are gone. I don’t want them ever back again.
That process of longing and becoming, for a long time I longed and seemed to want the right things, but I wanted my addiction more. And so I grew more and more into two identities. And I stayed there.
As a pastor now I find it so painful when someone I’m trying to help can’t bring themselves to tell the whole truth. It’s not painful because they’re lying to me, but rather because it brings back all my own memories of doing the same thing. It’s painful to be around that sick darkness. I know how easily that could be me again.
One of the easiest things to lie about is money. How much income is coming in, how much is being spent. It’s also easy to lie about time. What was I really doing when I should have been…and why isn’t that done yet? It’s easy to lie about lust and sex. Celibacy, chastity, monogamy; these are hidden virtues. And it’s so much easier with technology to hide the sexual side all together and say it’s no one’s business.
Money, time, and sex all get right to the heart of our deepest longings. They’re all reasons why families split up or just become hopelessly entangled in this sick mess of codependence, hatred and destruction.
At Jesus People USA I was given the freedom to be myself and learn healthy relational boundaries. I was taught about the importance of honesty. From the ages of 21 to 35 I worked alongside godly people and ungodly ones. Some were trying to be honest. Others were just playing church. And I spent most of my time playing church too. But for the last five years I sobered up and stayed sober one day at a time and grew to love worship and being together, loving and being loved.
I learned very painful lessons about repentance and reconciliation. Not everybody knew all my stuff. Just a faithful few who are still there. I didn’t really find God in the Church at first. I came to faith through an agnostic sponsor who led me through the twelves steps. Got dropped by that sponsor then got another agnostic sponsor. Got dropped by that one, then I got the one I still have.
It’s weird to say that because now I’m a Christian minister. But that’s what it took for me. My addiction was so intertangled with what I said I believed that my “christian” concept of “god” meant that god loved me the most when I was beating up on myself, isolating, acting out, hiding it, and then coming back in tears and saying I was sorry. As the band Uncle Tupelo said it in the early nineties: “whiskey bottle over Jesus, not forever, but just for now”.
Though alcohol wasn’t my chosen poison, I definitely related. I really wished again and again that there was some way I could just control and enjoy my way of life and still be accepted, married, loved, esteemed. But I’m here to tell you, there’s no way to “be yourself” and be an addict at the same time.
I know that the concept of what addiction is seems to be under scrutiny in America. Psychologists and other professionals question whether spiritual group recovery really works anymore. When I interview new program members at New Life Evangelistic Center and I talk frankly to them about problems with alcohol, drugs, prescription pain meds, it’s rare that I get someone who wants to even admit addiction. “I used marijuana and crack 9 mos. ago but I’m not addicted.” So I’ll ask, “so these things never led to homelessness?” “No, it was getting kicked out of the house. It was the job loss.” And often times that true. But I think more often my questions are posed just to make them think.
Living is this messy proposition, full of comfort and pain, edging toward self awareness, but most people don’t really want to know all that much about themselves.
I recently used these words in a sermon, “you can’t love unintentionally or unmindfully.” And I’ve been wrestling with whether that is true. Did I mean that I think really hard and deliberately about my every conversation, every action? No. I just meant that knowing and loving God and then living by His love is a mindful action. I deliberately pray, “Lord Jesus, I can’t face this day alone, please use me, please deliver me.”
There’s no “cruise control” in living by the Spirit of God. For me cruise control is the addicted life.
I know I can’t possibly think that everyone understands the powerlessness of addiction. I know that many people do destructive things to themselves and others and then just stop because they were never really addicts.
But I think everyone understands that we all need to belong somewhere and to someone and not just at the periphery. We all need roots. We need people we can rely on, not just for money or a roof over our heads, but because none of us can truly be alone in this world. Even broken interaction is still interaction.
I love my friend Mike from Canada’s story. He came to NLEC after having “made due” hiding out in a Missouri state park for years. I repeat his story to new people coming into the program to get them to think. He was referred to our shelter after being hospitalized due to dehydration and heat exhaustion. He’s a resourceful guy who proved that he could champion all the elements and live alone in the woods without anyone’s help.
And that’s a lot of people’s real desire. They don’t want to depend on charity. They don’t want “help”. They don’t want to feel ‘helpless’. They don’t want to be a burden on anybody. I’m that kind of person. Even though I pastor at NLEC and I’m an advocate for the civil rights of homeless people, I can really relate to not wanting to ask for help.
But as I see it, Mike’s story illustrates that there is no way we as humans can hide from each other without ultimately dying. Sadly I usually see people coming for help like Mike who tried valiantly but teach me that the loner life is not to be emulated.
“Indendence” is that elusive freedom that means we never have to account for our actions to anyone else. But I remember that the only true revolution in the western hemisphere took place in Haiti, not here in the USA. We declared independence and then kept England as our largest source of trade. When Haiti revolted, they’ve been punished ever since. That’s real independence. It doesn’t mean provision, it means fear, shame, being victimized by every other liar and thief I take up with.
I know, I know, that’s a grim picture of independence. I use it deliberately in order to say 1) we can’t revolt from our humanity and 2) that humanity without healthy community means death without meaning.
At the memorial service last night for Ida Dawn Mortimer, we remembered that she said that she knew Jesus was true because she had met him. Looking back at my life, I know I met Jesus at a very young age. I never doubted that he was there. I had very strong beliefs and was proud of them. But I really didn’t trust Jesus. I didn’t trust that this messy proposition we call life really led to loving and being loved. I thought that love meant keeping secrets, isolating, and finding my own way.
Now I know that loving Christ means utter helplessness, not the naughty, icky kind where I skulk around begging my loved ones to forgive me for hurting them again. I mean the kind of helplessness where, like Neil Young’s song, I’m overwhelmed by the memory of a place. For me it’s that place of meeting Jesus. He’s been there through all my changes. The time it took doesn’t matter anymore.
I know I said that JPUSA is that place for me to go to remember all my changes, but truthfully, my local 12 step meeting is where I go. Staying sober by God’s grace is what I got to do. I’ll be sitting there at the next available meeting. Remembering all that God has done and is doing in my life. I’m so grateful.
My meetings have taught me how to connect with God and take the actions of love when I least feel like it. They’ve taught me to reach out with a phone call instead of blowing up in anger and then later skulking back with an apology.
If you think I do that perfectly you don’t know me. The people I love most in life are still people who have to put up with my stormy emotions. I’m still learning to trust Jesus with my anger one day at a time. But it was here at JPUSA that I learned I can live with embarrassment. I don’t have to run away when I do something stupid. My family in Christ will still accept me.
I’m so grateful.