First Steps Toward Freedom

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

This is a slogan we often use in the recovery community. And I find that it is accurate. For those who are recovering from an addiction, or those who care for those in recovery, denial is often the first and greatest obstacle standing between the addict and sanity.

Before the journey toward freedom can begin, the addict first has to admit that there is a problem.

This is why the first of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Those who are able to honestly take this one step find themselves on the road to recovery and a new life. In the words of the Chinese sage Confucius, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” On the journey to recovery from addiction, that first step is the overcoming of denial and the admission that there is a problem.

As many of you know, I worked as a substance abuse counselor before I was ordained. During that time, I encountered a lot of denial in my clients.

Typically, this denial would take one of two forms:

  1. Outright denial. This is the voice that says, “There is no problem.” This is the addict’s first line of defense against reality. They minimize and hide their dysfunction for as long as possible. They are lying (mostly to themselves). Their families and partners are usually complicit in the lying: trying to survive and present to the world the image of normalcy (this is what we refer to professionally as codependent behavior). This is the strategy that most addicts and their families will maintain for as long as possible.
  2. Deflection. This is a more sophisticated strategy that addicts use when the situation has become so dire that it is no longer possible to deny that a problem exists. Deflection is the voice that says, “The real problem is not with me [or my drinking/drug use/gambling/eating/working/sex-life] but with [this other thing].” Deflection is what happens when someone says, “I only drink because my [partner/family/boss] stresses me out!” They blame society, the past, bad luck, or anything else they can think of to take the focus off themselves and their addiction. Most of the time, addicts have become so good at deflection, they’ve even tricked themselves into honestly believing what they’re saying. That’s what makes denial such a big obstacle for addicts on the road to recovery.

Now, I don’t think this logic of denial and deflection applies only to those people who struggle with the compulsive use of substances or behaviors that we typically think of as addictions. I believe that we are all addicts at some level. It’s just that some addictions are more socially acceptable than others. We find it easy to look down on those who are addicted to things like alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling. But we admire those who have an addictive relationship with family or work; we call them dedicated, when in reality, their behavior is destructive to themselves and others. I’ve come to believe that political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism are also forms of addiction (see September 11, 2001 and the Holocaust as examples). These addictions are just powerful and dangerous as any drug.

We, as an addicted society, have learned how to maintain our denial over our dysfunction by deflecting the blame onto others. We say, “I’m not the problem; the problem is with those liberal/conservative, black/white, feminist/misogynist, rich/poor, gay/homophobic, Muslim/atheist people.” We look everywhere for the source of our problems. Every place but one… within.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus shines the light of truth on a very similar process taking place in his own society.

It begins with the scribes and Pharisees, the religiously observant and morally upstanding pillars of the community (I like to call them the Upright Citizens Brigade …improv comedy fans take note). These members of the “moral majority” are grilling Jesus about his disciples’ failure to observe proper handwashing protocol before eating dinner.

Now, I can’t totally fault them for this because, as a parent, I regularly (daily) have to remind my kids about the importance of washing hands before dinner. Furthermore, the Jewish ritual of handwashing was not simply a matter of religious observance, but also a matter of public sanitation. Historians have noted that Jewish communities in Europe, for example, were disproportionately unaffected by plagues because their religion required regular bathing and other sanitary practices, whereas the Christian religion did not. So, the handwashing thing really did serve an actual purpose.

But Jesus isn’t faulting them over their concern for public health. He’s less interested in what they doing and more interested in why they’re doing it. The real matter, for Jesus, is not having clean hands before dinner, but having a clean heart before God. That’s what Jesus is concerned about.

What Jesus sees in the scribes and Pharisees is an attempt to deflect attention away from the condition of their inner lives by focusing on the externals of religious observance. Moreover, they were doing this in a way that was specifically designed to undermine Jesus’ authority as a teacher, thereby preserving their own power-base. They weren’t really concerned with religious observance or public sanitation, just making themselves look good at someone else’s expense.

That’s why I tend to be skeptical when I see preachers in the media with an ax to grind, bashing other people over the head with their Bibles. When I see that, I think, “Somebody’s deflecting.” There’s something they don’t want us to see (or don’t want to see in themselves), so they put all the negative attention on someone else in the name of truth and righteousness. It’s classic addict behavior.

But Jesus isn’t buying their act. He sees into people’s hearts, which is why he calls these religious leaders hypocrites and says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”.

He shines the light of truth on their denial and deflection when he says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come”.

The problem, according to Jesus, is not what goes on around us, but what is going on within us. Jesus teaches his followers in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.”

Again, it’s not about what goes on around you; it’s about what’s going on within you. The real issue is not the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but the log in your own. Recognizing this and admitting it is the first step on the path to sanity, recovery, enlightenment, and salvation.

Many years ago, there was an essay contest for a newspaper in Britain. The prompt was: What’s wrong with the world? And it was the famous Christian author G.K. Chesterton who wrote the winning response. It read:

Dear Sirs,
I am.
G.K. Chesterton

Are we willing to admit that about ourselves? Are we willing to look deep into ourselves, past the mental fog of denial and deflection, to that place where we recognize that the real problem with the world is not what goes on around us, but what’s going on within us?

That’s a tall order. It’s not an easy thing to do. In fact, I would venture to say that it would be impossible for us to even begin this task, were it not for the grace of God leading and loving us to honesty.

The first of the Twelve Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is “We admitted that we are powerless… that our lives had become unmanageable.” But that is only the first step. It leads immediately to the next two steps: “[We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and “Made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” These three steps form the bedrock of our recovery from any addiction, whatever form it may take.

Here in the Church, we follow a similar path in our liturgy each Sunday at the Examination of Conscience and the Confession of Sins. In that moment, we pause and take a break from our denial and deflection. We cease from pointing the finger and look instead within ourselves:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, in what we have done, and in what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

We say this prayer each week, not to wallow in guilt, but to rest in grace: God’s amazing grace, which is given to us free of charge. God is not interested in making us feel guilty, but in helping us face reality. This is why the very next thing we do is listen to the words of the Assurance of Pardon:

“Almighty God has mercy on us, forgives us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthens us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keeps us in eternal life.”

These words are spoken to us, this grace is given to us, not just so we can get our tickets stamped for heaven, not just to get us a second chance with God, but to strengthen and empower us on the road to recovery (which we in the Church have historically referred to as sanctification).

This journey begins, continues, and ends in God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as we go from strength to strength, from glory to glory, being transformed, one day at a time, ever more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, “the Alpha and the Omega”, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Faithful Wounds and Tough Love

Today’s first reading at the Office of Vigils was from Jonah 1:11-17.

Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.

I love the story of these sailors at the beginning of the book of Jonah. So gentle and humane are their spirits that they would even defy the pronouncement of divine judgment for the sake of their fellow human being. It reminds me of my own approach to life and ministry: Let theology be flexible; only let me care well for those entrusted to me.

Generally speaking, I think we need more people like these sailors in today’s world, where relationships are often sacrificed on the altars of ideology: opponents are demonized, gay and lesbian children are kicked out of homes by their parents, and friendships are ended (or never begun) because two people see the world differently. Where are kind souls who would risk their own lives (or their theologies) for others’ sake?

Nevertheless, there comes a moment in the development of relationships where it becomes impossible to go on, to grow as human beings in relationship, unless we risk confrontation and have the courage to tell one another the bad news.

This takes an incredible amount of trust between all parties if it is to work well.

St. Benedict writes in chapter 69 of his Rule:

Care must be taken that no monk presume on any ground
to defend another monk in the monastery

This sentence is written for those people who have made a lifelong commitment to one another in the intentional community of a monastery. Such commitment is not made lightly and only comes after an extended period of formation in the novitiate. People who have reached the point of professing permanent vows have presumably built enough trust with one another (and their superiors) to engage in the difficult work of truth-telling. We should be able to say the same about marriage, parenthood, and a handful of other relationships in life.

Rescuing (Benedict calls it “defending”) one another, so that our loved ones never have to experience any pain or hardship can sometimes short-circuit God’s work in their lives. There are trials we must endure if we are to grow as human beings and we must be able to trust God and a few others to help us work through them, rather than avoid them.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” goes the old saying in Proverbs 27:6 (KJV). Speaking the truth in love is an icky-tasting medicine. It should be used like a surgeon’s scalpel: as rarely as possible and only with great care by one who has earned the right to be heard.

The sailors on Jonah’s ship reached the point where they could not go on any longer. Like the addict who has “bottomed out”, they had to make a choice between drastic action or death. After a final prayer, they did what had to be done: they tossed Jonah overboard.

As it turns out, this hard act of trust had salvific implications, not only for their physical lives, but their spiritual lives as well. They came away from this encounter with a deepened reverence for Yahweh. Likewise, the sailors’ willingness to do the hard thing opened up the possibility for Jonah to fulfill his own destiny. The doom he feared did not come upon him: Jonah was rescued (albeit in the most disgusting way possible) and he went on to be the vessel of Ninevah’s deliverance from destruction. An entire city was saved because of the sailors’ willingness to let go and cast Jonah overboard.

Do we have that kind of faith in God and each other? Are we willing to do the hard thing and “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) when necessary?

Many who participate in Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12 Step groups have learned that kind of trust through their sponsors and the power of the group. Tough love makes recovery possible.

I learned it from a trusted mentor when I was in college. He loved me enough to back me up against a wall and tell me some hard truths when I needed to hear them. He did not employ this technique often or lightly. He did not do it just to “be right” or for the sake of his own ego. He earned the right to be heard by me. Faithful were the wounds of this friend.


Image by Florian Siebeck. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

As many of you already know, in the years immediately following my graduation from seminary, I worked as a counselor at the Addictions Crisis Center, which is part of the Rescue Mission of Utica.  This is a great program.  They serve as the “first line of defense” that people come to when they’re beginning their recovery from dependence on drugs or alcohol.  They offer food, shelter, medical care, treatment, and counseling to folks in the earliest stages of recovery.  Some of them would even show up on our doorstep still under the influence of whatever substance they had been using.  As one friend of mine put it, “Basically, [we] meet people on the worst day of their lives.”

One of the most interesting (and often frustrating) things about people in those first few days away from their substance of choice is their adamant (and sometimes violent) resistance to the treatment, which was usually their last, best hope for healing and recovery.  They would kick, scream, and test every rule and boundary of our program.  Their substance of choice had such a hold on them that they would fight the treatment process, even after they realized they had a problem and voluntarily checked themselves in to our facility. 

Working with them for two years gave me a new appreciation for the meaning of the term possessed.  My clients’ addictions, their compulsive, uncontrollable desire for drugs or alcohol had taken over their rational faculties so thoroughly that they perceived our attempts to heal them as an attack.  The addiction owned them in a manner of speaking and led many of them to do all kinds of destructive things to themselves and others.  Most people in our facility had sacrificed money, friends, jobs, houses, and relationships to appease the false gods of their addictions.  There are many things worth sacrificing for in this world, but I think we can all agree that recreational substances are not among them.

A lot of people in the general public, people who don’t struggle with addictions, wonder why these folks can’t just stop what they’re doing and make better choices.  What most people don’t understand is that it’s not a moral issue.  Addiction is not a choice; it is a disease.  The electro-chemical processes in the brain have literally been hot-wired and hijacked.  And just like an airplane hijacked by terrorists: it’s not going where the pilot (the rational, moral part of the brain) wants it to go.  They are not in control.  They are possessed and they need help.

This, in a metaphorical sense, is what I see going on in today’s New Testament reading.  There is no mention in the text of any addictive, mind-altering substances being used.  All we know about the Gerasene man that Jesus encounters is that he “had a demon”.

In pre-modern times, all kinds of things were blamed on the activity of demons (e.g. seizures, mental illness, socially unacceptable behavior, bad luck, other religions, etc.).  They didn’t have the kind of knowledge or diagnostic equipment we have today.  For example, we now know that a person with schizophrenia doesn’t need an exorcism from demons, she needs anti-psychotic medication in order to make the voices in her head go away.  That’s not to say that there isn’t some kind of spiritual element to people’s problems, but I think we have developed a more informed, nuanced, and holistic way of looking at things than our ancestors had.

When people come to me as a pastor, asking for exorcisms (and they do, believe it or not), my first question for them is always, “Have you seen your doctor?”  I often end up making referrals, doing short-term pastoral care, praying with, and visiting these people in distress.  I find that a combination of medication, counseling, and prayer tends to resolve the vast majority of cases where exorcism was initially requested.

I don’t tend to think of demons as beings or entities in their own right.  The image of monsters with horns and bat-wings that take over your mind is the stuff of horror movies.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the reality of the demonic.  I believe I encountered a kind of demonic possession every day when I was a substance abuse counselor.  The people I worked with were possessed by their compulsive need for a particular substance.  The things they did as a result of that compulsion were truly evil, you might even say demonic:  They lied, stole, neglected and abused children, some of them had even hurt or killed others.  Those who found recovery from their addictions often had to own up to and make amends for the horrible things they had done under the influence.

And the amazing thing is that, in spite of all this harm to self and others, they continue to refuse to let go of their addiction.  They cling to their substance of choice as if it were more precious than air.  Many of them would refuse treatment and walk out of our program.  The average recovering addict has to go through rehab four or five times before they finally get clean and sober for good.  Only about one out of every ten clients finds recovery.  The rest go back out, pick back up, and continue to use or drink, despite the consequences.  That’s what I call possessed.

The Gerasene man in today’s gospel reading was similarly resistant to Jesus’ efforts to heal him.  When Jesus commands the demonic spirits to leave the man alone, the man cries, “I beg you, do not torment me”.  Torment him?  Didn’t this guy realize that Jesus was trying to help him?  It was the demons that were tormenting him!  But then again, as we’ve already seen today: people sometimes prefer an old, familiar slavery to a new, unknown liberation.  Getting over that hump is often half the battle of recovery.

The good news is that this doesn’t seem to present a problem for Jesus.  He just keeps at it with this possessed man, this hopeless case, until he has sufficiently separated the person from the problem.  That’s a key difference between Jesus and the people of the Gerasene region.  They just tried to lock him up and forget about him, but Jesus went out to see and to save the man behind the madness.  I think our task, as followers of Jesus in the present-day, is to do the same with those outcasts in our society, those people our culture of achievement has given up on. 

Where God is concerned, there is no such thing as a hopeless case.

Now, it would be easy enough to leave things at that: the addict finds recovery, Jesus sweeps in and rescues the man from the demons, and everybody lives happily ever after.  But life is more complicated than that.

It would be so easy for us to sit here in our (semi)comfortable pews on Sunday and say prayers for those poor addicts down in Utica, never once taking the time to look hard at our own lives.  We tend to take notice of people addicted to drugs and alcohol because (A) those addictions are highly destructive and (B) they’re socially unacceptable.  But there are many other kinds of addictions out there as well, many of which don’t involve recreational chemicals of any kind.  In recent years, we’ve become more aware of behavioral addictions to things like sex, work, food, exercise, shopping, and gambling.  Scientific studies have shown that our brains can’t tell the chemical difference between these behaviors and drugs.  Either way, it’s a massive hit from a neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine that our brains get used to having and eventually come to depend on in order to feel normal.  The best single book I’ve ever read on this topic is Addiction and Grace by Gerald May.  I highly recommend reading it if you want to learn more about addiction from psychological, medical, and spiritual perspectives.

In addition to the aforementioned behaviors, I would go on to say that anything can be an addiction, depending on the place it holds in our lives.  Even good and healthy things like family, relationships, church, religion, country, and school can be addictive.  Whenever we let just one thing take over our whole field of consciousness for extended periods of time, we are in danger of becoming addicted or possessed in the way we’re using that language today.  Spiritually speaking, we are committing the sin of idolatry: worshiping false gods, serving a part of reality at the expense of the whole, or even treating a part as if it were the whole.  We can even be addicted to (possessed by) a certain way of thinking or way of doing things.  This last one especially applies to groups of people as much as individuals.

I find it interesting that, in today’s gospel reading, the demons themselves ask Jesus to let them stay in the area.  They ask to be sent into a herd of pigs that immediately goes berserk and destroys itself.  After that, the people of the Gerasene community approach Jesus and ask him to leave.  Why?  Because, according to the text of Luke’s gospel, “they were seized with a great fear.”

Isn’t that interesting?  When Jesus first tried to help the possessed man, the man cried out in terror, “I beg you, do not torment me”.  He was afraid of the very person who had come to help him.  Now, at the end of the story, that man is “clothed and in his right mind” while the rest of the so-called “normal” people in his community are suddenly terrified of Jesus the healer.

This is another aspect of this story that bears a striking and frankly eerie resemblance to my experience of working with people who have addictions.  More often than not, so often in fact that it became a predictable pattern, my clients would return home after completing treatment to discover that their families no longer know how to relate to them.  In the years while my clients were active in their addictions, their families adapted in order to learn how to function in a dysfunctional environment.  They were used to operating under the assumption that one member of the family would always be drunk, high, or absent.  This is what experts mean by the term co-dependency: one person in the family unit is chemically or behaviorally dependent while all the others are “dependent with” that person or “co-dependent”.  When the dependent person comes home clean and sober, ready to rejoin the family system, the family suddenly has to rethink their old patterns for relating to each other and learn new ones.  This process is difficult and scary because they think they have to maintain the old balance and fulfill their old roles in the dysfunctional family system in order to survive.  It’s not at all uncommon for families to go through stress or even break up when someone is in the early stages of recovery.

The solution is for family members to participate actively in their own recovery process alongside their loved one who is getting clean and sober.  Addiction is a family problem that requires a family solution.  That’s why support groups like Al-Anon exist: to help the co-dependents of alcoholic people with their own recovery

And the same goes for the rest of us in the broader community.  Participating in the work of building God’s kingdom on earth is not just about helping those poor, unfortunate souls who struggle with addiction.  It’s about facing our own addictions and co-dependencies (even the socially acceptable ones) so that Jesus can liberate us from our own demons and bring healing and wholeness to the entire community.

If we are open to that process taking place in us, if we can trust that Christ is here to help us and not to harm us (even when his healing presence feels scary and unfamiliar), then we can say that we are walking the path of faith toward the promised land of God’s kingdom of heaven on earth.

Why Liberal? The Confession of a Recovering Evangelical

Several months ago, I put up a post on Common Sense Liberalism, where I intentionally began an effort to reclaim the term ‘liberal’ from its pejorative captors in the political and religious realms.  It’s all part of my personal effort to explore what it means to be a ‘liberal’ Christian in ways that transcend the polarizing animosity that is currently ripping our churches and state capitols apart.

If that’s the case, one might argue, then why not abandon the dualistic liberal/conservative language altogether?  There may well be a valid point in that.  However, I’ve chosen to self-apply this particular moniker, instead of the more current buzzword ‘progressive Christian,’ for three reasons.  First of all, it is used an insult.  Commonly accepted group labels like Quaker, Methodist, Unitarian, and Christian had similar origins as insults.  Personally, I don’t mind plucking this term from the landfill of language and bringing it back to life.  I’m a liberal Christian.  Double insult.  “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”  (Jesus, John 15:18)

Second, I don’t think working toward peace, unity, and purity in church and society necessitates the elimination of all distinctions.  I think it involves holding those distinctions differently.  I don’t want to be a watered-down, lukewarm, non-committal, middle-of-the-roader.  I want to be a liberal Christian who understands what respect, decency, and amicable compromise mean in the midst of controversy.

Finally, I’ve chosen to retain the word liberal for personal reasons related to my own journey.  I wrote a Facebook post recently where I compared my relationship to evangelicalism to the relationship between a recovering alcoholic and social drinking.  Some people can be evangelical Christians and live sane, healthy, and balanced lives.  But, for whatever reasons, I cannot.  I’ve spent many years blaming evangelicalism itself for the spiritual wounds I obtained in my late teens and early twenties.  But I think it’s time that I also take responsibility for the ways in which I intentionally chose to sustain an unhealthy relationship with my theology.  I tend to give myself wholly to the things I care about, sometimes pushing past the point of reason.  In a subculture that supported biblical literalism, I pushed it to the extreme.  My friends and pastors supported me in this because they thought I was just “on fire for Jesus.”  They probably had no clue that I was actually nursing a pathological obsession that eventually bordered on the psychotic.  I still think there are many aspects of evangelical culture and theology that are worth criticizing.  However, it’s time that I stop casting them as villains and myself as victim in this story.  It’s time that I own my part in it.  I’m a recovering evangelical, not because evangelicalism is evil, but because I can’t handle it responsibly.


Sidewalk Chalk Flood 2009, another Rob Bliss Urban Experiment in downtown Grand Rapids

I walked by the Agape Center on Genesee Street today, where the kids have decorated every square inch of sidewalk on the block with chalk.  The way the colors are jumbled together makes the sidewalk look like a chaotic rainbow.

As one might expect, there are various images depicting a combination of real-life scenes and abstract symbols.  One can see crosses, houses, flowers, even a shark!  Some have messages written on them (“Room 8 Rocks!”) while others let the images speak for themselves.  The collective effect is that one stretch of concrete along Genesee Street outside the old St. Francis de Sales School is now radiant with the glory of creative outburst.

The scene reminds me of the story of the Transfiguration, where Christ ascends Mt. Tabor with his disciples and temporarily radiates the brilliance that resides within him.  For just a moment, ordinary flesh and clothing were, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “charged with the grandeur of God”.

But this brilliant dust is sure to be washed away by some combination of footsteps and rain and we, like the disciples who had to walk back down the mountain to the harsh reality of their ministry, must find a way to draw strength from the gift of this moment.

As I was admiring our freshly transfigured sidewalk, I was approached by a woman who had been one of my clients at the Addiction Crisis Center.  Since finishing that program, she has continued in her recovery and now works for another service organization, helping others who now sit where she sat only a few years ago.  Brighter than the dust beneath our feet, which is soon to disappear, her sober life shines on as an ongoing transfiguration, reflecting the eternal glory that surrounds us always, even if we can only see it for a moment.