People Change

I have a friend who could not stop cheating on her husband.  She often asked me how God could do this to her.  I’ve stopped trying to respond to the question having come to understand that it is both rhetorical and a way to sidestep her own personal responsibility in the mess that is her life.  One day we went to lunch and over dessert she suggested that people don’t change.  I was forced to make a reply.  I couldn’t just let that one stand.


One benefit of being part of a community is the stories I hear.  For years and years, meeting most every single week usually multiple times with said community in various forms gives all of us a fairly honest perspective on our daily lives.  These stories are rich and nuanced and lived out often over decades, not days.  When someone speaks of a changed life it is hard to be a BS’er because if that person is part of our tribe, we see their life unfold in our midst.  Everyone knows I don’t have it all together and I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who are honest enough to admit the same of themselves. But that is not equivalent to saying people don’t change.  People do change.  Sometimes in huge ways, other times in small, uneven next right steps.  There are people who were lost and gone astray from their own core values and who found their way back to themselves and a purposeful, meaningful life.  I felt I needed to share that information with my friend or else I might be complicit in leaving her feeling that she had to accept a duplicitous and self-shaming lifestyle.  I shared a couple of examples from the lives of people in our community that indicated that change is possible; she ate her dessert, sighed and indicated to me that I just didn’t understand.  And she’s right.  I don’t know why or how or who might experience freedom from their compulsions and confusing choices that lead to heartache.  But my confusion doesn’t keep it from happening.


Quoting Sister Monahan again, she says  “…sober AA members who have been able to stop drinking and to ‘stay stopped,’ as we say, often speak of themselves as ‘chosen,’ of having received sobriety as a gift.  I believe that I have indeed received a gift, but my conviction that God loves everyone and desires good for everyone keeps me from thinking of myself as chosen.  I simply do not know why I am among those who are fortunate enough to be in recovery.”  According to Brene Brown, there are actually skill sets that can help us grow, change, even transform.  She likes to call it wholehearted living.  



Tomorrow, I’ll unpack her concept, but for today I invite you to consider this:  do you think you are living wholeheartedly or are you just dialing it in?  Are you stuck in a giant “sigh” of defeat?  Change requires that we start by acknowledging the truth about ourselves.  Today, consider if you are satisfied with your life. Why?  Why not?   What’s unmanageable? What would change if you realized that things could get better?


Stuck in a rut

Most of us want to have a life that has less conflict and more congeniality.  And yet, we often find ourselves stuck in ruts of existence in spite of our desires to live a more fulfilling life.  Day three of a new year, a typical time for us to set resolutions for change or feel the malaise of defeat – giving up on even daring to expect change after years of collapsed good intentions and no meaningful transformation.  This is our norm.


If you are tired of being sick and tired and want to take a step toward a more fulfilling life, listen in to Sister Monahan’s experience in AA – notice what changed for her that allowed her to tackle her demons and recover her life:


I learned that the absence of cross-talk [no advice giving, critiquing or

commenting on other people’s sharing] both protected me from overt criticism and

gave me no cause for wasting time in an imagined rebuttal to what others said.  So the challenge put to me by their honest disclosure, not only about their drinking and how the program worked for them, but about themselves, warts and all, was an interior one.  My only task was to figure out what I really felt and thought and then to say it as clearly as I could.  No small task that, and more helpful to me than any amount of criticism. And I learned that meetings calmed me, brought me peace….As best I can figure out now, these beneficent results come from listening.


Here are some suggestions that I take away from her experience:

1.     95% of the time in a meeting one is listening.

2.     Silence and attentiveness are healing.

3.     Finding a community that can hold suffering is like a giant hug for the soul.

4.     Criticism rarely helps heal.


What great intentions have you promised you will accomplish this new year?  Are you already discouraged by the choices you’ve made these first few days?  Perhaps you didn’t start this devotional blog at the beginning of a new year even though I’m writing it along that timeline.  Can you still relate?  What precipitates fresh starts for you?  If not a new year, what?  Do you find yourself stuck in spite of your goals?  What suggestions from above might be applicable to you?  How will you take action in light of these considerations?


Belonging isn't easy

Brene Brown writes the most amazing books.  In her book Rising Strong, she provides the guiding principles that she has in her own organization.  I’ll get to those in a second, but here’s the main point for us to consider today:  she and her organization are operating by guiding principles.


This is uncommon but necessary for belonging.  There is this tendency to get sentimental about belonging.  “Hey, come!  We accept everyone!”  I love the sentiment but it can be taken too far.  In almost twenty years of recovery ministry I can count on one hand the number of times that we have had to respectfully ask someone to find another community.  Yikes.  I hate writing that sentence.  BUT and this is a big BUT – BUT for the welfare of the community, it is important to have thought about the conditions of belonging.  I am SO not talking about forming a club where people get along.  In our community we have conflict and petty arguments on a fairly regular basis.  This is normal for a tribe of people who love each other and form deep attachments.  I’d be concerned if we didn’t have issues to sort through.  But there are limits, and those limits are best not determined in the heat of a dispute, but forged through a discernment process over a long period of time and shaped by experience/failure.


Remember Sister Monahan’s discoveries:  truth, authenticity, and humility (another way to say that is finding her place in the bigger story as she discovered she was neither unique or alone). Add to that Brene’s five guiding principles and I think we end up with the start of a great conversation for ourselves, our friends, our families, our communities, and any organization we are invested in.


Here are Brene’s (paraphrased by me but available in totality on p. 257 in Rising Strong:


1.     Respect -  for all and everything.

2.     Rumble – value our tribe enough to be willing to wrestle with hard things.

3.     Rally – even in conflict, refuse to let go of collaboration, ditch ego, and practice the discipline of gratitude.

4.     Recovery – rest!

5.     Reach out – don’t isolate, stay connected, practice empathy, compassion and love.


I hope the connections are fairly obvious regarding Monahan’s and Brown’s perspectives.  More than anything, I pray that me and mine find ways to remember the 5 R’s and practice living them.  Which of these is most difficult for you?  Which one do you feel you could show up for your community and practice reasonably well?


Spiritual Dis-ease

“I knew there was something about you that I liked.”


This sentence saved Sister Molly Monahan from an overwhelming shame attack early in her recovery from alcohol addiction.  Sister Monahan, fresh out of rehab, was serving as a consultant and visiting a college campus in Virginia.  One evening she slipped away from her duties to attend an AA meeting and discovered to her utter dismay that a law professor she had met earlier in the day was also in attendance.  His warm acceptance eased her shame.


As I read her account in her lovely book “Seeds of Grace, A Nun’s Reflections on the Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous”, I got the sense that it didn’t immediately occur to her that both she and her new professional acquaintance were attending a meeting for the same reason:  to stay sober.  Years later she pens these words about her experiences in AA:


And there it is, the deeper truth – that we need to help others in order to be

helped ourselves, and not just with the disease of alcoholism.  I can only

think that this reciprocity must be a God-given part of our nature, our true

nature, but obscured for us by the illusion of isolation and of independence and by a misguided selfishness. (Meetings: “My Name is Molly and I’m an Alcoholic”, Seeds of Grace)


Sister Monahan found in AA what so many others have – belonging and purpose.  Her personal accounts of isolation in the midst of her affliction leave both herself and others wondering – how is it that a nun felt so spiritually and relationally disconnected?  In her first essay, quoted in part above I believe she gets to the heart of the matter when she talks about what she heard in AA.


…I heard the truth of my own feelings, faults, and sneaky motivations played

back for me with uncommon honesty.  And I began to know that I was not

alone, and that I was not unique.  That is what the suggestion “Identify,

don’t compare,” often given at the beginning of meetings, means.


She hits on several key points that I want to develop in the coming days of devotional readings:

1.     She heard truth.

2.     She found a place to belong with full authenticity.

3.     She discovered she was neither terminally unique or alone.