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The Five Spiritual Principles in Recovery

The Five Spiritual Principles in Recovery
by Rev. Chris Rice

Dear Friends,

Galatians 6:2 tells us to “carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Many times those burdens are addictions. US News and World Report estimated in 2015 that “40 million Americans 12 and over are addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs. Another 80 million are “risky substance users” meaning they “use tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs in ways that threaten public health and safety. Only 1 in 10 people with addictions to alcohol/drugs report receiving any treatment at all.” (Lloyd Sederer, “A Blind Eye to Addiction”, US News and World Report, 6/1/15)
We have to face the fact that addiction touches us all. 11% of Americans are addicted to alcohol or drugs. There are many other life altering addictions such as food, sex, codependence, workaholism, and TV and internet use. Chances are you yourself, someone you know or the person sitting next to you currently has or has had one of these. What we find in God’s Word is that loving God means loving addicts just as He does. We cannot love this way on our own. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.

Dear Heavenly Father, grant us ears to hear and a heart to receive what you would say to us by your Spirit. In this life we know first hand the pan brought on by addictions. We find in your Word that as sick as we are, you are for us, you love us. Help us O Lord to experience a spiritual renewal and to become willing to bring your message and your provision to all in need. In Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

I want to share a short study with you of the five principles embodied in the 12 steps of AA. They can be found in a book titled “Twenty Four Hours A Day” by Hazelden. The steps are adapted and used in all the other 12 step fellowships. And all the way through this study I want to look at how the Scriptures speak to us the truths found in the steps.
To start off the five principles we’ll look at include: Membership, Spirituality, Personal Inventory, Restitution, and Helping Others.
Proverbs says, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly. Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (26:11-12, NIV) The first step is “we admitted that we were powerless over alcohol (drugs, sex, binge eating, rage)—that our lives had become unmanageable.” It’s not always easy to say when or how it happened, but for the addict something changed in that drink. It was no longer just a source of pleasure, it became the reason to live. Slowly but surely everything else lost focus and alcohol alone remained. He couldn’t drink like other friends ever again. Slowly but surely he realized he could never drink the same way again. He was licked. On the plus side, he realizes that in his powerlessness and unmanageability he belongs with other who have the same problem. It doesn’t seem like this principle could offer hope. So many people stumble over this principle and never return to meetings. But the second principle brings us from devastation to gratitude.

The second step says, “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV) Steps two three and eleven involve the venture of belief, of surrender, and prayer. We come together burdened by our shared problems. And eventually we come to believe in a higher power who places us in a right mind. The third step says, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Alone each of us knew the addictions to be a cruel task master, a god that kept us isolated and bound in sin. In making a decision that God cared and would receive our will and lives and do better with them than we ever could, we understood that this higher power was the center of the universe instead of us. Step eleven says, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Each day we learn to ask for His will to be done, not our own. We also understand humility for the first time. God is in control, he knows, and we ask for his will instead of our own. This release of control is the basis of our spirituality.
The third principle, personal inventory, is found in steps four, five, six, seven and ten. Step four says, “Made a searching fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” The Bible says, “Above all else, guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life. Put away perversity from your mouth. Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you. Make level paths for your feet and take only ways that are firm. Do not swerve to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil. (Proverbs 4:33-37, NIV) In taking a self inventory we are willing to face the facts as they really are. We face reality instead of running away. We admit our faults openly and become willing to correct them. Where have we been dishonest, impure, unloving and selfish? This is not a one time thing but we learn to do it everyday of our lives for as long as we live. Many people find this to be the hardest of the steps and so they stay on step four for years. The purpose of a sponsor is to help us get to the point and look without looking away. It is doable and must be done with resolve. To stand still is to risk losing sobriety.
Step five is “admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. The apostle James wrote, “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” This reflects this principle beautifully. We cannot bear our wrongs only to ourselves. Why? Because we are not the center of the universe. We learn the truth fully when we reach out and admit it to someone else who can bear it with us. Of course we have to be careful about who that person is. It’s best to have a sponsor or spiritual adviser to help us. Step six, “were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character” and step seven is “humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.” Finally, step ten is “continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

The fourth principle is restitution. Steps eight and nine are “made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all” and “made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” This can be a very difficult proposition, but it is necessary to finally be done with our pride. We have lived too long with self-will run riot and taking responsibility for our wrongs in order to then right what we’ve wronged will make all the difference. These steps have to be practiced with care and with a sponsor’s help. They are not made quickly or early on in our recovery. And of course if there’s a chance we can further harm the individuals involved than we do not try to contact them. There are other ways to make restitution and a sponsor can be creative with ideas. Proverbs 14:9 says, “Fools mock at making amends for sin, but goodwill is found among the upright.” (NIV)
The final principle is helping others. It is the principle that includes all of the steps for it says, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” It’s not a one time thing, but a lifestyle. Galatians 6:1-2 says, “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.(NIV)” When someone is completely overtaken by an addiction they feel as though there is no possible way they could be of use to someone else. There is nothing left for them to give because they’ve been robbed by the addiction. They’ve lost the trust of family and friends, and they feel as though they have no self-worth left. By working the steps and coming to a spiritual renewal there is a realization that a better way of life is actually possible, that what God did for them he can do for others.
All of this takes time. Let me speak now to some who think they may be addicts but don’t know where to begin. Maybe a long time ago you went to a few meetings where you heard sloppy drunk-a-logs. You didn’t find what you were looking for so you gave up. But you still know you’re an addict and while you might stop using for a little while the alcohol or drugs or something else catches up with you eventually. I want to encourage you to keep coming back to a meeting.
God has a future for you. He cares about you and wants you set free. More than that you have something to give! The apostle Paul wrote, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15-16, NIV)” The spirit of the steps are honesty, unselfishness, purity, and love. God is our source for all of these things.
So long as we keep our minds centered on ourselves, whether it be our failures or those things we expect to accomplish, eventually failed expectations will leave us defeated. But when we come to God in surrender and seek out His will, “Not my will but yours be done”, we find that all along God had everything we need.

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

Sources
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
“Twenty Four Hours A Day: A Meditation Book and Journal for Daily Reflection”, beginning on September 16, Hazelden.
“The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous”
http://www.12step.org/references/bible/step-12-scriptures
Scriptures related to each of the steps:
Step 1: Psalm 38:3-14; Prov. 26:11-12; Mk. 5:2-15; Rm. 7:18-23
Step 2: Psalm 18:2-6; Mat. 11:28-30; Mat. 12: 18-21; Heb. 2:14-18
Step 3: Psalm 3:1-6; Ps. 142:1-7; Mat. 4:18-23; Mat. 6:24-34; Lk. 9:59-62; Jn. 1:12-13
Step 4: Prov. 4:23-27; Lam. 3:39-45; Mat. 5:4;Lk. 12:1-7; 2 Cor. 10:12-13; Gal. 6:3-8; Rev. 2:4-5
Step 5: Psalm 32:3-7; Prov. 28:13; Mat. 3:5-6; Acts 19:18-20; James 5:16; 1 Jn. 1:9
Step 6: Mat. 3:1-3; Rom. 6:8-14; Gal. 5:1; Eph. 4:17-24; Col. 3:5-13
Step 7: Mat. 18:4; Lk. 18:9-14; 1 Pet. 5:6-10; 1 Jn. 5:14-15;
Step 8: Lev. 6:1-7; 2 Sam. 12:1-14; Prov. 16:6-7; Ezek. 33:14-16; Lk. 19:8-10; Rom. 12:18
Step 9: Prov. 14:9; Mat. 5:9, 23-24, 25-26; Acts 9:10-31; 20:18-21, 26-27, 33-35
Step 10: Rom. 12:2-3; Phil. 2:12-13; 2 Jn. 1:8;
Step 11: Mat. 4:1-11; Jn. 15:4-11; Phil. 4:5-9; 1 Pet. 4:1-8
Step 12: Mat. 3:1-3; Gal. 6:1-2; 1 Tim. 1:12-16; James 5:19-20

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Love and Sin

My dear friends,

I am so blessed today to be able to share with you by the Spirit of God the grace and love God has poured out for us all in abundance. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35) and I have no greater way of showing you love than to share with you the way God has changed my life and is making us into the image of His Son Jesus Christ. I don’t know what I’m going to be yet, but I know what I was and I’m so grateful I’m not that anymore. He led me through a lot yesterday, today, and by faith he will lead me tomorrow. I’m here to assure you today that there is a way of life that works. It comes by trusting in, believing in, and clinging to Jesus in faith.

 

Romans 6:28 tells us that “the wages of sin is death”. I can tell you that when I rebelled against God again and again it came with consequences. I had to live through those consequences and I don’t want to have to do that ever again. I was not ignorant of sin, I was ignorant of the goodness of God. I did not really trust God, if I had really trusted him I would have become truly honest with myself and I would have confessed my true state before God and come to Christ in true repentance. Instead, for many years I tried to apply religion and intellectual learning to my life in order to find a quick easy solution to why I found more pleasure in sin than in God’s love. I kept turning to people to fix me, and they would try, but I still loved my sin more than God because I believed that God could not love me, my heart was too dark, I was too bent, and I was not worthy of anyone’s love.

 

I had people come along and try to tell me, “Awww Chris, you’re not that bad. It’ll get better. Buck up little guy.” And I wanted to believe them, I really did. But every time I sinned I proved to myself anew again that shame was my master, that self-pity was my bitter choice of drink, and that anarchical pride was my god. Now all of us are different. There are so many variations in the ways we talk, move, think, and express ourselves. But the human condition is the same. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23)

 

Many people get hung up over what that means. They hang on the idea of little innocent babies going to hell for not being baptized. So they don’t like that word sin anymore or what it implies. They want to believe that people are basically good. That the human condition at its core is a blank slate, and that with the right amount of positive cognitive stimuli and productive environmental conditions anyone can arrive at their full human potential.

 

We have two centuries of scientific progress and pursuit of learning to prove that the human condition is sound. So I ask you, where are these perfect human beings? What nation can we turn to on earth that has successfully rid itself of all poverty, all sickness, all suffering, all fear, all fatigue, and has also opened its doors so that the rest of the world can immigrate there?

 

I tried to free myself from the notion of God after repeated attempts to get God to give me a wonder drug that would keep me from destroying myself. I spent hours alone in the recesses of my mind. I had a little cave in my head that I hid in. On the outside I would go to college, go to work, go to church, go to the beach, go to the park, walk down the street. But between my ears I was lost inside myself. I was bound by self pity, resentment, rage, anger and fear. I was in and out of counseling, therapy, and support groups.

 

I did the right things over and over for a while, but then it was back to my cave. I had friends that tried so hard to help but they just couldn’t understand. “Chris is a Christian, what’s wrong with him? He knows the truth. What’s wrong with him?” So inside, between my ears, I was on the run from God, and was planning my ultimate escape.

 

My problem was that I was too much of a coward to do on the outside what it was I did everyday on the inside. I was never a cutter, someone who uses a knife on themselves. But in my mind I hated myself. I had so much faith in how awful I was, and I was living by that faith. It hurts to talk about it now, but I believe it might help someone here who can identify, to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there too.”

 

“So how did you move out of it?” you ask. I should begin by saying that when I describe what I went through I am not identifying myself with any particular 12 step fellowship. I can only refer to some experiences and allude to material, but I have never been in Alcoholics Anonymous. So let me begin. At first I tried the 12 steps of AA self-styled. I got myself a copy of the Serenity New Testament that is like a companion to 12 step literature and I worked through the steps in an afternoon and thought, “This is simple. I can write my first and fourth step right now.” All the other steps I knew I already believed, so I just fast-tracked it, audited the course, wrote myself the diploma and felt better.

 

Stupid. I was right back into anarchical pride and the same old behavior within a short time. But the thought of the first step (“I admitted that I was powerless over x, that my life had become unmanageable”) stayed with me. Am I really so self-centered? I didn’t want to think about that. So for many years thereafter I dodged the question. Then one day, I just couldn’t dodge the question anymore. I knew after a lot of pain and heart-ache, after putting the people I loved through hell and getting to the point that no one could trust me anymore, I realized, yes, I am truly that selfish. I wanted to BE God that badly. And so finally, instead of agreeing that maybe a recovery program was helpful for some really messed up people, I started into recover for myself. I made it through the door.

 

For a while that’s where I stayed. I admitted I was licked. It took a while for me to come to believe that God was greater than my sin and that he wanted to restore me to sanity. And it took an even longer time for me to turn my will and life over to God’s care as I understood him, because I wasn’t convinced He wanted my will, and my life or that He CARED, and I certainly didn’t understand Him. It was all I could do to keep coming back. I kept listening. I finally learned to shut up an listen. In time I had fewer and fewer excuses and more and more resolve to admit how selfish I was. Then I came to the place where I listened to an agnostic tell me about how the God that worked for him really loved him and had his best interests in mind. I finally reasoned that if a guy who didn’t claim to understand God perfectly was willing to just do what it took to get sober and learned along the way that a higher power loved him, what was wrong with me? I wanted that God too! I wanted the God that was for me as sick as I was.

 

And then I remembered this passage from the Bible, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man ;though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

 

Immediately the devil came along and told me, “Nawww, you’re a hypocrite. A liar! A con! No one will trust you ever again. You can’t sin and go to church and repent as many times as you did and have God trust you. You’re too much of a sinner.” But then I started reading the Bible again. It says that as sick as I was, God showed how much He loved me because Christ died for me.

 

And I will call heaven and earth and God himself as my witness that the same is true for you! Christ died for you! God is for you! God even loves back-stabbing, rumor mongering, crooked liars who go to church and then go home and spread all kinds of hateful gossip. Why? Because he sees them at their worst, all soaped up and in their best hats on Sunday morning. And he desires that they repent and come to stop playing God and playing church and get off the sick little throne between their ears and accept His LOVE!

 

After a few years, the God who loved me, who was for me, did something I would have never thought to hope for. See, when I got into recovery I considered that my calling. I was content to go to meetings and work the steps and pray each day to help the next person who’s still sick. But God started calling me to be a pastor in the very ministry I had run away from years before. I said to God, “If this is really your will you’re gonna have to help me, because I don’t really see it. You got to show my wife and my family. You got to show my pastors and my sponsor.” I thought that would keep Him off my back. But then he did all that.

 

Everyone gave me the green light. And I wanted to tell God, “Naw you’re crazy. I can’t work with my family in full time ministry down there.” But then God asked, “Do you trust me?” And I knew that I had learned through trial and error that God loved me and that He had a purpose for my life. I knew that I loved homeless people and people in recovery and preaching the gospel and praying for the sick, and there was this great need down here. So we trusted God and stepped out in faith with no PLAN B. There was no retirement plan. No benefits package. No insurance. No hedging my bets. Just God’s question, “Do you trust me?” It was a funny question, because before recovery I was always angry that I couldn’t be trusted. I wanted people to trust me but I knew I couldn’t trust myself.

 

My whole life has become one of trust in God. That was how he intended it all along. It’s one thing to say, “Yeah, I trust God.” But when I’m living in my head with all kinds of resentment, anger and shame I don’t trust him. So learning to trust God means, even when we’re scared of bed bugs, TB, running out of gas, that guy looks like he wants to kill me, those drug pushers on the corner, those property owners that consider us a nuisance, those bills that are too big and the donations that are too little, my security, my confidence, my trust is in God!

 

God IS everything that He requires. He wants me to be full of his love because He is all the love I need. Look again at 1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV). Let’s read this aloud together:

1 “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

 

If sin is rebellion against God in big and small ways, trying to BE God ourselves, then love is its opposite. Galatians 5:23 tells us “there is no law against” the fruits of the Spirit, the first of which is love. Matthew 22:36-40 gives us the secret of a life that works, and its all about love! Jesus was asked:

36 “Teacher,  which is the great commandment in the Law ?” 37 And He said to him, ” ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

 

No one but God can command that we love Him with such totality. No one but God can command that we love our neighbor as ourselves. His commands are in keeping with his intention in creating us. We were meant to love. Now if I went to the inventor of the first athletic shoe and I said, “I love to use your product as a bowl for potato salad”, he might say to me, “But why would you do that? It’s a shoe. Meant to be worn on the feet. Why not just get a bowl and spoon?”

And when we go to God and say, “Humans have been around for a while. They’re great for making money, growing food, pleasuring themselves, building tall buildings, for staring into electronic devices, and for using as targets for drone strikes,” we are reminded that this is not what humans are really for. We’re made for loving God. We’re made for loving each other.

 

Dr. Kent M. Keith penned “the Paradoxical Commandments,” and they were hung on the wall of Missionaries of Charity in CalcuttaIndia.

“People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway. If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.”

I used to ask all the time, “What’s the use!?!” Why would we do anything of these things “anyway”? I can only tell you why I do them now. It’s because Jesus Christ died for this hypocrite to show him the love of God. To live for anything else but the love of God is a wasted life indeed.

 

Some good things are very hard, but they are worth doing, so don’t quit. Don’t get distracted, don’t lose heart, and don’t give up. These good things may not win you honor, and in fact they may cause you to be dishonored. Don’t give up. What you do for Christ lasts. So do all things for love of Christ. Christ’s love will help you do this good for Him. His love will envelope you and make you what he desires.

 

Love in Christ,

 

Rev. Chris L. Rice

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Friday, Feb. 3 sermon, “Sick as our secrets”

We Are As Sick As Our Secrets

Dear Friends,                                                                                      Feb. 3, 2012

Here at NLEC you hear us say again and again that churches are not doing enough for the homeless in our regions. If you watch Channel 24 you have probably heard it for years; to be a Christian is to obey Jesus by sheltering Him in the stranger, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and visiting those sick or in prison (Mt. 25:31-46). Today I want to talk about what I believe is one of the primary reasons Christians don’t open their church doors to the homeless. There is a social stigma regarding mental illness and disability.

Christians, like other Americans, and sometimes in ways that are worse than other Americans, are afraid of people with diseases like schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, those who are clinically depressed, and those suffering from a mental disability or developmental disability. Persons with mental illness or disability very often don’t feel welcome in the church where they were born. If the illness develops as they grow up, the confusion they feel is met with confusion by friends and loved ones, and the church becomes a place to be feared rather than a place where they are welcomed.

I can identify with my brothers and sisters in Christ who are afraid of disorders and disabilities. I certainly don’t claim to be the most tolerant person in the world. I was that kid on the playground making fun of the “slow” kid. I too am impatient and angry and fearful very often. As a young man, I myself was diagnosed with clinical depression and placed on medication. I didn’t want to take the meds, my wife had to lovingly coax me into taking them. Over time I improved to where I no longer needed them.

The years I’ve spent serving alongside homeless Christians with mental illness and disability have marked me for the rest of my life. People whom I love have suffered violence (but thankfully not death or impairment) from some with a diagnosis who lied about the nature of their condition. I watched my mother get slapped in the face by an angry woman with a severe mental disorder. And yet I’ve also been marked by the great love, mercy, and patience I have witnessed from those in recovery. I’ve experienced a level of courage, honesty, and resilience among these people that is unparalleled in any church of “normal” people I’ve ever attended on Sunday.

I don’t think I was really awakened to the nature of mental disorders and how I should respond until my best friend decided to stop taking his medication. My friend had been diagnosed with a form of bipolar along with an anxiety disorder and moderate brain damage from injury. He’s probably one of the smartest and funnest guys to be around that I’ve ever known. There came a time when I had to drive him to his therapist and do an intervention with him. He was not sleeping or eating, and he was having suicidal thoughts. I and other members of my church were so worried about him. He was on the line between suicide and sort of caring for himself, but only because we were around to remind him to lay down and drink water.

I remember when we sat there in the therapist’s office together and my friend Joseph (not his real name) was so lucid and clear in his speech in answer to questions, that I helplessly watched as he almost talked himself out of the help he needed. InChicago, in order to receive inpatient treatment you have to demonstrate that you are a danger to yourself or others. He denied that he was suicidal and he wouldn’t relate the thoughts he was telling us. Finally I asked the therapist if Joseph could leave the room. They both agreed. I described in detail all the symptoms we’d observed for weeks, how he could not manage his meds himself and how suicidal he’d been at times. The therapist agreed to have him hospitalized.

I felt like I was betraying my friend, even as I was helping him. That only increased as I and members of my church went to visit Joseph in the psych unit on and off for weeks. For some reason, though there was a large yard outside, the staff would never let him or the other patients outside. We watched as winter turned to spring and yet Joseph couldn’t go outside. Finally his meds were straightened out and they let him go home. I was there to pick him up upon release, and I still felt guilty. Our church demonstrated true friendship, and in the months and years that followed he has thrived and excelled in so many ways. He is fully recovering and even tapering off his meds now. I consider him a hero because of what he journeyed through, and I’m so blessed to have been a part of it. Like me he’s not perfect, and though we don’t live close to each other any more I still consider his one of my most valuable friendships.

Along this journey of intervention, hospitalization, and recovery my eyes were opened to so many others who lacked the kind of support Joseph has. Some lack it because they want to struggle alone. But this one brief journey taught me that mental illness and disability are not things to be feared, but are opportunities for the power of Christ to be revealed in miraculous ways. Those suffering are all around us in society and in the church. Listen to these statistics from the booklet “Mental Illness and Faith Community Outreach” from Mental Illness Ministries (miministries.org),

“According to the National Institute of Health about one in four people have a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. One in 17 suffers with persistent and severe mental illness. Death by suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24 and over 90% of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. Four of the ten leading causes of disability are mental disorders.

At least one third of people who are homeless have serious mental illness. According to Department of Justice reports, over 50% of the people in prisons and jails have mental illnesses. Many persons with mental illness lack adequate housing, lack job opportunities, or lack basic needs such as essential health care and supportive services. Some are living in nursing homes or institutions that only provide basic services or worse. Others are living in family homes or by themselves, feeling isolated and disconnected to society.”(pgs. 4-5)

As a society we don’t like suffering. We are in collective denial about this issue, and even those suffering from it would like to deny it and often do deny it on and off. Family members, preachers, politicians, doctors, social workers, old people, young people, have all suffered in the past or are currently suffering. So many are on medication now for everything from severe depression to a bipolar disorder that we don’t even ask about it really. Perhaps we reason that nobody needs to know. The only time it becomes a problem is when someone is adversely effected with it, or when at least one addiction makes things worse. Then nobody can deny something is wrong. But like it or not we collectively suffer by our denial and pushing each other away. The toll this takes on our workforce, on our behavior as families, and our ability to worship and serve is huge. Denial only makes things worse. With denial comes greater suffering, which only perpetuates an insane endless spiral of pain.

The good news about mental illness is that despite the social stigma, those suffering can be treated and come to live happy and stable lives. They can even recover from severe disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar to the point that they can serve as sources of recovery for other people. This is what is happening in clinical mental health services these days. People who have been sick and homeless for many years are getting housed and connected with ongoing care in exciting new ways. Men and women who I’ve known since childhood who were what is termed chronically homeless have been housed and are living independent lives now. The kind of suffering they’ve endured and come back from gives me hope that mental disorders and disability need not end with suicide or endless squalor. And these men and women represent a faith in God to me that gives me strength to keep on going. They are true heroes.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came not for those who are well, but for those who know they are sick. He came not for those who think they can see, but those who know they are blind. This places the neediest among us in the best place to receive recovery and then become agents of change within our communities. What I’ve learned and am learning is that God uses people who have perceived weaknesses to bring strength and recovery to others who are in fact hiding their own needs. This is perfectly illustrated in the story in the gospel of John chapter 9. Jesus and his disciples are walking along and he sees a man blind from birth. His disciples as whether it was the man or his parents who had sinned. This sort of thinking is common among people trying to make sense of a disability. Someone must have sinned, so who was it? And Jesus answers, “”Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

I think it is interesting that neither this man nor his parents sought Jesus out for a healing. Jesus chose to heal him to reveal God’s works in him. The man had to do his part. He obeyed Jesus’ word to go and wash in the pool of Siloam (9:7) He returned able to see and he himself becomes a visible sign of God’s works. Just like those persons today entering recovery, he found opposition from those unable to accept his changed condition. The assumption was that people who are disabled all their lives should not just suddenly reenter society!

The man’s parents had to refuse to get involved because of their fear of the religious authorities. And this man is cast out of the synagogue because of his story. He tells the truth and has to pay dearly for it in the very place where he should be loved and welcomed. (9:34) This man’s healing serves to expose the religious community that was much more content with blindness, lies, and isolation than with truth and evidence of the miraculous. Jesus said,

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.” (9:39-41 NRSV)

The authors of “A Solution-Focused Approach to Case Management and Recover” (familiesinsociety.org) wrote that people with mental illness and or disability need to experience themselves as “empowered agents of change rather than passive recipients of mental health services.” Every person is different, and no one person’s recovery will look the same. There are some common things involved: hope, coping skills, empowerment, and supportive social networks. I believe that rather than full of fear, denial, and opposition our churches can be facilitators for recovery. Many churches are already doing this. Let’s learn from them and spread the good word!

When we choose to support those in recovery, we have the opportunity to understand change and time differently. One principle in solution-focused therapy is that “change is inevitable and continuous.” As hard as life gets, it never stays the same continually. We learn to identify improvements and successes where we hadn’t seen them previously. Change is God’s opportunity, not necessarily the loss we tend to perceive it to be. Change does not take God by surprise. In thinking of miracles it is easy to see them as a supernatural change that fixes everything and makes everything better forever. In the New Testament, Jesus miracles simply served to set people free and draw attention to the One whom God sent, the living bread of heaven. As with the blind man in John 9, miracles would often set people’s expectations on their head, as when Jesus would heal on the Sabbath or not simply heal but offer forgiveness of sins.

There is no greater miracle than the realization that Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world, has conquered death. All suffering sets before us the reality of our demise. Our bodies cry out “I am not invincible. I am not impervious to pain.” And when in pain it is easy to feel alone and forgotten. When we look at John chapter 11, we find the family of Jesus’ close friends inBethanysuffering. Lazarus was sick and dying, and they send word to Jesus, who incidentally was in Galilee after being rejected inJudeain previous chapters. Before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus stayed inGalileeuntil his friend had died. He gives the word to his disciples that his beloved friend’s sickness “is for God’s glory that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The disciples know that they are heading right back to where he would be killed. And Jesus speaks to this fear:

“Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.  But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”  After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”  The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”” (John 11:9-15, NRSV)

Jesus was well aware of his friend Lazarus’ condition, and he knew his own mortality. He did not fear death for himself or his disciples. He was simply waiting on God’s time. This, my friends, is real courage and confidence. His eyes were on what God would accomplish. This challenges our understanding of time, the nature of miracles, and healing itself. The Lord of time challenges us to be patient and to begin to see all changes differently. Jesus Christ, victor over death and hell, invites us to love with a view toward what God will accomplish. Even as I write this I am in emotional pain because a good friend of my family’s is very angry and hurt. We cannot seem to come to agreement and in the near future we see only separation. But I have to speak the truth about this situation aloud to myself, “I look forward to the day when we will again speak kindly to each other, when we will remember the good times we’ve had and marvel at all the good God has done in our lives. I choose to look past the present anger to the good change I know is coming.”

“We are as sick as our secrets.” The only way to become agents of Christ’s transforming power is to give up hiding our true selves. Many people are afraid of mental illness because it reveals their own frailty. In order to be given sight we must admit we are blind. In order to know that Jesus was not crazy, we have to accept that God was secure enough in Himself that he emptied himself and suffered humiliation, torture and death for our sake. Jesus’ claims to be God were connected to his intent to bear witness, suffer and die. (Jn. 10:17-18, 20) If we claim to be His people, we must know that our connection to Christ involves revealing our true selves. We are weak, vulnerable, and in many kinds of pain. To admit this is to admit that we have something to share with the mentally ill among us.

It is my privilege to acknowledge my brothers and sisters in Christ in the audience and watching or listening at home who are not defined by their mental illness or disability. You each have a unique calling and ability to bear witness to Christ. I am blessed by the image of God in you. Some of you do not know what a blessing you are and I’m here to say simply, “Thank you.”

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

A Brief list of resources consulted

 

1. Marcia Webb, Toward a Theology of Mental Illness,

http://www.spu.edu/depts/csfd/documents/Weter2009TowardaTheologyofMentalIllnessMarciaWebb_000.pdf

2. “A Solution-Focused Approach to Case Management and Recovery With Consumers Who Have a Severe Mental Disability” by Gilbert J. Greene, David C. Kondrat, Mo Yee Lee, Jeanne Clement, Hope Siebert, Richard A. Menzer, & Shelly R. Pinnell, from the Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, www.familiesinsociety.org.

3. Mental Illness Ministries, Chicago Archdiocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities
Website has useful documents as resources and support.

I used “Mental Illness and Parish Outreach” in my sermon,

http://www.miministry.org/booklet.pdf

http://www.miministry.org/support.htm

4. Pathways to Promise, an interfaith cooperative located inSt. Louis, offering many good resources. http://www.pathways2promise.org

5. National Alliance on Mental Illness, http://www.nami.org,

6. National Healthcare for the Homeless Council, http://www.nhchc.org/

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