What’s Your Plan for Happiness?

Father Thomas Keating wrote about strategies for living. He called his a plan for happiness - which, to be clear, he knew was no real plan at all. His point was this is how we think, not how life works. He believed that most of us look for happiness in the following ways:

* We believe we need power and control to find happiness.

* We believe we need affection and esteem to find happiness.

* We believe we need security to survive and without it there is no hope for happiness.

Keating would NOT have taken his theory too far. I think he would have agreed that we all need to take responsibility for our life choices, that we are created for loving relationships, and that we need a certain level of security in life to thrive. It is hard to be homeless. It is brutal to be poor and without access to basic life necessities.

But Father Keating challenges us to think about our compulsions, our drives. Taken too far they feed our vulnerabilities to particular falsehoods that hinder our growth. If we cannot find a reasonable way to manage life, we are all vulnerable to developing compulsive ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that can lead to a dependency of some kind. Many times we become obsessed with chasing happiness.

Scripture gives us a different frame of reference. It offers the promise of a God who is crazy about us and offers dire warnings of how our forgetfulness or misunderstandings about the nature of God, ourselves and others can get us in trouble. Here is a scriptural warning that aligns with the false identity notion of Henri Nouwen and the misguided plan for happiness as described by Father Keating.

Understand that the last days will be dangerous times. People will be selfish and love money. They will be the kind of people who brag and who are proud. They will slander others, and they will be disobedient to their parents. They will be ungrateful, unholy, unloving, contrary, and critical. They will be without self-control and brutal, and they won’t love what is good. They will be people who are disloyal, reckless, and conceited. They will love pleasure instead of loving God. They will look like they are religious but deny God’s power. Avoid people like this. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 CEB

Denial is Not a Defect of Character

In Abraham Twerski’s book Addictive Thinking, he talks about denial and self-deception, both of which feel to me like sleepwalking. I cannot count the times in my life when I have fought knowing the truth of something only to have some event shock me into awareness. Once I am forced to face the truth I am amazed at how long I was able to pretend.

Twerski writes, “I cannot stress enough the importance of realizing that addicts are taken in by their own distorted thinking and that they are its victims. If we fail to understand this, we may feel frustrated or angry in dealing with the addict.”

Denial is a wall of limitation but it is NOT a defect of character or a shortcoming.

When someone says to me, “You are in DENIAL sister.” I hear that as a shaming condemnation.

“Maybe I am in denial, but why do you have to sound so smug?” I think. In active using and in recovery, I find some people hard to take advice from. This was especially true for me early in recovery. However, their callousness does not negate my situation. It did, however, distract me at times from paying attention to my real condition.

If I am active in my substance use, denial is a factor in my decision-making. But there is no need to shame me about that situation. Denial is a function of a hijacked brain, not a representation of my character. Sincere people often stumble as they try to help those they love. Later in the process of recovery, we will explore ways to deal with our feelings about the way others treat us. But try not to let other people’s clumsiness distract us from the seriousness of our situation.

Denial is dangerous. It keeps us from naming our problem/s, which guarantees that we are not free to find a solution. How do we get out from under this burden of self-deception?

We start acknowledging what we can. When you are asked to acknowledge things like powerlessness, unmanageability and name your Substance Use Disorder(s), please try not to judge yourself too harshly if your list is not satisfying to others. There is stuff about you that you cannot see.

BUT. And here is where it gets really, really hard: try to not immediately reject other people’s feedback, even if their delivery is awkward or even rude. If in fact you have a Substance Use Disorder, there may be people who have rejected you. Please try to give the people who have stayed a break. This is hard; no doubt they have their own issues, secrets and compulsions. Just do your best to consider what others are saying - especially if what you are hearing feels pretty repetitive!

When Weakness is Empowering

In recent years, criticism has been directed toward mutual aid societies that practice the 12 steps. In particular, they find fault with first step’s phrase “we were powerless over…”. Critics say that this perspective is wrong, too negative and needs to be replaced with the concept of empowerment.

Here is what I know to be true for me: it was really hard to quit using what my brain thought it needed to survive. Willpower is overrated and was ineffective for me when I was struggling with compulsive behaviors that turned into a physiological dependency.

This is what powerless means to me: There is something in my life that is so powerful, cunning and baffling that I am unable to comprehend that this thing that I think is making me powerful and in control is actually killing me. IN SPITE OF MUCH EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY, I am unable to see the writing on the wall and read its message. At the worst of my using, I was absolutely completely powerless over the denial and self-deceit that served as sentries, blocking the obvious truth that I was dying. Both served at the pleasure of my survival instincts, which were compromised and confused as a result of my eating disorder.

However, none of this made me a powerless person; it did mean I was powerless over the effects my Substance Use Disorder was having on my capacity to reason. In fact, the recovery process teaches me how to take responsibility for my recovery. It has EMPOWERED me by giving me a new, inspired way of seeing God, myself and others. It has provided me tools to manage the issues that drove my substance use. It has given me the support I needed as I regained my footing and found my capacity for taking the next right step.

If you are fretting over the word “powerless,” maybe it is because, to you, like me, the word feels shaming. Who wants to be powerless? Instead, consider it as an acknowledgement that you have figured out that your willpower and good intentions are not enough to treat what ails you.

For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10 (b) NIV

Softball as a Sacred Space

During the first summer of our marriage my husband severely broke his ankle while playing church softball. The second his foot hit the bag he knew he was in trouble; his foot pointed in the wrong direction and flopped around like a fish out of water as his teammates hauled him off and parked him on the hillside bordering the field.

At first, his friends did not want to acknowledge the seriousness of the injury. “Walk it off!” they encouraged. Afraid that they would have to forfeit the game because of the slim turnout of players that night made Pete invaluable so long as he could play.

Once he was deemed a non-contributor, they left him on the sidelines and continued to play one man down. A wife on the opposing team finally found a pay phone (no cell phones back in those days) and called me to come fetch my now worthless husband.

To be fair, when his friends heard that he had been rushed into surgery and told he may never walk normally again, two of them apologized for their competitive ways. Two.

Decades later, I still ponder this story. I marvel at how easily we abandon our core values for our passions. When the scriptures tell us that we belong to the truth, it is in no way implying that we are actually living by the truth. What it is saying is this: God gets us. He is truth. He is greater than our hearts, our passions, even the way other humans talk about him. We can rest in his presence because he is safe, not because we have figured out how to get life right. We can and will make mistakes - this does not change God’s attitude toward us.

But there is a caveat. We need to pay attention and acknowledge the truth about ourselves. We need to wrestle when our life is out of sync with what we say we value. On that hot August night in 1978 an entire team of Christian men were so distracted by their softball record that they let a fallen friend lay forgotten in agony while they returned to their respective positions.

Step one challenges us to acknowledge the real deal with ourselves, to name our compulsive way of being in the world AND its devastating effects on our lives (and eventually the lives of others). We do not thrive when our life is unmanageable. The chaos creates a forgetfulness that crowds out love to make room for our addiction. When we are not living a manageable life, we are feeding shame and condemnation. That stuff does a good enough job of bringing us down on its own - it does not need us feeding it more fodder by living unconsciously!

My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves. 1 John 3:18-20 The Message

Chipping Away Your Mask

When my brother entered treatment, my parents were less than enthusiastic. Once they learned that a “family weekend” was part of the package they were downright hostile. They attended anyway, dragging their bad attitude along with them like a security blanket.

By the time our family had access to treatment, we had all become adept at wearing masks and playing predictable roles in our family system. In hindsight, I suspect these various roles helped us cope and enabled us to survive. The chaos and conflict that active addiction caused in our family did not leave much room for creativity, collaboration, and addressing the needs and wants of the entire family as they arose. Our rigid roles enabled us to think and feel less. Our roles served as a means of energy conservation so that we had what we needed to fight and fume and blame and berate one another.

“Mask” is a Greek word that means “engraving in a stone” and that accurately summed up how I felt. I was stone cold. Furious. Enraged. Embarrassed. Frustrated. Ashamed. And fake. Recovery is the spiritual process of chipping away at our defense mechanisms while building up our capacity for honesty, coping, and living out our life’s purpose. It is hard intensive work; it is art; it is a sacred journey. This is not unlike the work God promises to do with us, shaping and molding us.

Then God’s Message came to me: “Can’t I do just as this potter does, people of Israel?” God’s Decree! “Watch this potter. In the same way that this potter works his clay, I work on you… Jeremiah 18, selected verses from The Message

As I worked my recovery program, I felt conflicted, resistant even, to this idea of God “working on me”. I trusted no one including God. But desperate times called for desperate measures and slowly, gradually, I began to trust others to help me. Decades in, I can see how the early masks and armor that my family wore to cope with our family issues contributed to my reluctance to trust and contributed to my own issues. Sometimes the hardest part of growing up for me is trusting that there are different ways of living than what I learned as a child.

How about you? What do struggle with?

Pivot, Re-Evaluate, Start Anew

We were constructed to be valued and valuable; to have purpose; to love and serve others; to be loved and cared for. This is how we are wired. As we have tried to conform ourselves to our cultural, familial, and various other expectations, we have crafted a personality to fit our environment. So long as our personality aligns with our core values and we are at peace with the values we profess, all is reasonably good (there are exceptions to this but assume this is true for a minute and keep reading).

When our constructed worldview and personality are at odds with the essence of who we are and how we were created to engage with the world, our life becomes unmanageable. We are at war with the metaphorical DNA of God’s design.

You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing - not caring about others, not caring about God - the worse your life became and the less freedom you had?....As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right ANYTHING for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end. Romans 6:19-21 The Message

Personality and life choices are not static. We can pivot, re-evaluate, start anew. We need a path back to God and a way to our truest selves. Each of us has a unique way we experience our world. When we lose our way we need a good basic framework and context for understanding ourselves in a way that is authentic and healthy. This will even require us to explore and own our worldview. The twelve steps and treatment provide us the rare privilege of taking the time we need to figure this stuff out.

When Scriptures Say Things We Struggle to Believe

I will give thanks and praise to You,

For I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Wonderful are Your works,

And my soul knows it very well.

Psalm 139:14 Amplified Version

I wonder if these verses make you shiver; if they are irritating to you; if you totally cannot relate to this perspective. I STILL struggle to believe that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I SAY that I know full well that God’s works are wonderful, but I struggle to believe that my own choices have not ruined the wonderful work that God “supposedly” did when he knit me together in my mother’s womb.

As part of my recovery I choose daily to practice believing things - including this - that are difficult for me to accept. I return to this passage trusting in something bigger than I can understand, acting on faith that this is true regardless of how I feel. As an act of discipline, I try to order my thoughts, my emotions, and my behavior in response to this belief, not my internal angst. Some days are better than others in this regard. We do not need a visit from Freud to understand that it took some doing to teach me that I was afraid and fearful but not wonderful. We are uniquely created to understand that we bear the image of God. This knowledge is forgotten, distorted, lost for most of us as we grow up in a world that prefers comparing and competing over cooperation and compassion.

What happens when we are assaulted with experiences that do not support our wonder-full origins? We survive. We study the world and give it what it demands from us. We create a personality that seeks to either fit in, fight or flee the world around us. This is survival of the fittest and our definition depends on what our environment requires of us. It is NORMAL for us to build a personality, a way of being in the world. It is INEVITABLE that, at some point in our lives, we will be shocked to discover that we are at war within ourselves, that our lives are unmanageable, and we need help. Transformation requires that we enter a period of reconstruction in response to the destruction that a broken world encourages.

Am I going to continue to rely on the messages my brain holds onto from its years of studying people on earth? Or am I going to make a decision to change my perspective because I believe in something bigger than me?

Opening up to Faith

Spiritual gurus tell us that the true source of happiness is found when we experience the presence of God. They also report that we all lose the key to happiness along the way, which I suppose is another way of saying that we lose conscious contact with the God of our understanding (more on this in a future step). Many write about this spiritual malaise as a form of spiritual sleepiness. Some say it is a loss of God consciousness.

This fascinates me. I did not grow up in a religious home. My maternal grandparents were people of faith and I was blessed to have them expose me to religion during my summer visits. I attended children’s Sunday School classes and listened to weekly sermons that seemed way too long. Mostly I remember the crackers were stale but the grape juice was tasty. The church was unairconditioned and my legs stuck to the pews with the glue of sweat and left a pattern on my bare skin from the crinoline that often lined my Sunday-go-to-church outfit custom handmade by my grandmother - including hat, gloves and patent leather shoes. Uncomfortable? Yes. But I enjoyed both the ritual and the way it felt walking into church all dolled up.

My sporadic church exposure to faith in my grandparents’ conservative Southern Baptist Church was confusing for a number of reasons. Among the top contenders was learning that the reason for a string of Senior Pastors’ mysterious disappearance from the pulpit was not the result of a serial killer. I was eventually told about how each participated (in their own unique way) in a series of pastoral indiscretions which led to their firing, not their burial. That information left me wondering if anyone practiced what was preached.

As a pastor, I have heard many stories of spiritual abuse over the years. No wonder we lose our keys to happiness! It is easy to confuse the presence of God with our experiences with the people in our lives who claim to represent him. I know my community must struggle to find grace and mercy for me when my words do not match my behaviors.

If you have been wounded by spiritually abusive practices, consider the possibility that our exposure to religion is not representative of the God whose story is told through the scriptures. It is also possible that even the most well intended teacher has misinterpreted scripture. I invite you to take a fresh look at who God is and how he loves you. If you have experienced spiritual abuse, please talk to someone who can support your journey to healing.

When I kept it all inside,

My bones turned to powder,

My words became daylong groans.

The pressure never let up;

All the juices of my life dried up. Psalm 32:3-4

Shame and Guilt and Acceptance

Once, a long time ago, a friend of mine valiantly tried to convince me that I was starving myself to death. I was having none of it. I was not quite ready to admit that my eating was beyond weird and had moved from bad habits that I acted on compulsively into a Substance Use Disorder. I was using the chemicals that my brain produced when I was in starvation mode to comfort myself and distract me from the deeper issues that were causing me great suffering. My life was out of control. Today, I can admit that I knew something was wrong; I can tell the truth about the shame I felt about my body and my starvation diet. Shame plagued me, dominating my thoughts. It berated me, insisting that I was without value unless I was super skinny, practically perfect, and pleasing to all.

Shame is the emotion that tells me that I am broken beyond repair. Shame is not guilt. Guilt is an emotional acknowledgement that I have done a particular thing wrong. It is circumstance specific. Shame is all-pervasive; shame lies and tells me that I am UNIQUELY AND TERMINALLY FLAWED. Back then? I was withdrawn, defensive and arrogant. I believed that people who ate three meals a day were weak-willed, even disgusting. This is what a Substance Use Disorder costs us. It robs us of our ability to love ourselves, God and others. I was also filled with self-loathing. It’s a Jedi mind trick to be both arrogant and filled with shame but most of us who suffer with Substance Use Disorders are masters at holding these two perspectives in one mind.

Before the underlying issues of our disease can be addressed - depression, anxiety, trauma, guilt and shame, trouble coping with real life on life’s terms, etc. - we need to acknowledge the truth about our situation. The combination of arrogance paired with self-loathing contributes to denial. It basically means having a messed up perspective on life. If we have a serious problem that is messing up our life - at some point we are going to have to collapse into the admission that something is wrong. We need help.

I’m tired of all this—so tired. My bed

Has been floating forty days and nights

On the flood of my tears.

My mattress is soaked, soggy with tears.

The sockets of my eyes are black holes;

Nearly blind, I squint and grope.

Psalm 6:6-7 The Message

The Sin Stigma of Substance Use Disorder

How do we make sense of the language of “sin” as it relates to addiction? If Substance Use Disorder can be compared to diabetes, where does the concept of “sin” fit in? Elbert Hubbard (not to be confused with L. Ron Hubbard) wrote, “We are punished by our sins not for them.” Claudio Naranjo, a Chilean-born psychiatrist, was known for integrating psychotherapy and the spiritual traditions in his work. He talks about sin as it relates to ignorance, difficulties, distresses and embarrassments as “a disorder of awareness and an interference with action.”

Think about the scriptures we have considered in this material thus far - recovery that heals is rooted in love, in particular - God’s love. God chases us down, not to berate us but to restore us, in love. Recovery is an opportunity to increase our capacity for honesty. Substance Use Disorder is disorienting; we lose our way; we lose the essence of who we were created to be - beloved children, made in the image of God. Do these concepts sound like God is more concerned with our “sin” or our restoration?

The “s” word - sin - can leave us feeling defensive and judged. Personally, I often feel a lot shame when I think of my behaviors as “sinful”. This shame-filled reaction stymied my recovery until I was able to understand that “sin” can be understood as “living independently of God” or “missing the mark”. Sin means losing touch with my spirituality, my true purpose for living, and my capacity to live reasonably comfortably in community with others. This is a by-product of my condition, not a condemnation of my personhood.

This is not to diminish the role of “sin” in our lives; thinking of sin in the way that the above authors suggest can actually deepen our capacity to reckon with it through the lens of compassion. It invites each of us to nonjudgmentally observe ourselves and get honest about our issues.

... whatever overpowers you, enslaves you. 2 Peter 2:19 (b) CEB

Put the Cigar Down and Do Your Job

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Philippians 3:12

When I started recovery from my eating disorder, I did NOT want to press on. But I did want to get out from under the oppression of my disease. Sometimes, as they say in the meeting rooms, we have to “fake it ‘til we make it.” I am not, as a general rule, a fan of faking stuff.

But sometimes we have to pray for the healing thing, even if our body, mind, and spirit rebel at the thought of the healing. When I prayed at the beginning of my journey, I imagined myself running from a giant bear, fighting for my life. I was in survival mode. I prayed as a cry of desperation, not a prayer of hope. If this is your situation, perhaps my imaginations will help your prayers!

Sometimes we have to acknowledge that we absolutely must. Press. On. Our lives or the lives of others depend on it. But no need to Pollyanna the experience up. We can admit how absolutely hard it is to press on when our brain is screaming at us to return to our old habits so that our brains do not have to work too hard.

When I know that I need to press on but do not want to, I imagine my brain sitting in a recliner chair smoking a cigar saying, “Not today.” And I say back to my brain, “Put that cigar down and do your job. You are smart. You can press on.”

Keeping a Realistic Perspective on Expectations

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Philippians 3:12

Frustrated with a lack of measurable progress, a friend of mine who struggles with binge eating tells me she is tired of trying. Her support group is going to great effort to cheer her up and they send her slogans like “You can do it!” “Be the change you want to see!” and other catchy phrases that imply more effort will automatically yield desired results.

Can I level with you? Most of us are ambivalent about change. My friend says she wants to fit into skinny jeans. But is fitting into skinny jeans really an expression of a higher calling in life? If her goal is to fit into skinny jeans at her age, then no wonder she is discouraged! But what about the goal of….being healthy enough to play with her grandchildren on the floor with a reasonable expectation that she can get up afterwards? She has already accomplished that with her weight management program and fitness regime. What about being able to walk five miles without getting winded because, when she babysits, that is about how many steps it takes to keep up with an active five year old who LOVES to play outside at the local playground? Check. Done. Is pressing on really her issue? Or does she need to adjust her expectations?

Today, offer yourself and others a more realistic perspective on life - pursue that!!

What does sin have to do with Substance Use Disorder?

Is Substance Use Disorder a moral failure? Some treat it as such. Is becoming a diabetic a moral failure? What about cancer? What about strep throat?

“God has turned his back on me,” says a young man lying on a gurney in the Emergency Room.

“Tell me more about that,” I inquire with curiosity.

“Man, you know it’s true.” His raised voice attracts the attention of the on-duty nurse and she peeks around the curtain with eyebrows raised but I wave her off. This young man has something to say and I am here to listen. “I’m a loser. Even my own grandmother won’t let me visit anymore. I’m a drug addict. I’m weak. I’m a disappointment to everyone who ever loved me.” He turns his head away from me and stares blankly at the wall, slipping off into an exhausted slumber. He’s been on the street for months; he’s feeling ashamed and embarrassed. He’s without hope and expects no help. He and his family believe that he is spiritually and morally bankrupt. This would not be the case if he had been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, or strep throat. I look at him and believe that he has a disease that has had physical, relational, emotional and spiritual consequences. Obviously, a by-product of compulsions that turn into addictions involves the inevitable self-destructive behaviors that result in desperate choices that are hurtful - even sinful. But this is not the whole story.

If we try to understand our Substance Use Disorder (SUD) only as SIN, as if that explains everything and points to the obvious and only solution of REPENTANCE, we are speaking out of ignorance. Doing this reflects an inadequate understanding of the nature of the disease (which completely hijacks the brain, the capacity to experience love and connection with God, ourselves and others). Despite what many believe, Substance Use Disordered-folks are not people who just need to know Jesus and pray with more fervor. Many have had profound spiritual experiences, believe in God, and have even served him in various capacities before this affliction robbed them of their sense of self-respect (among other things). Not all folks who struggle with SUD have spiritual backgrounds, but many do and IT DID NOT PROTECT THEM FROM THIS AFFLICTION ANY MORE THAN IT PROTECTS US FROM CANCER.

You can’t whitewash your sins and get by with it; you find mercy by admitting and leaving them. Proverbs 28:13 The Message

Sin is a problem - like when we stereotype and judge others. The disease of SUD often causes a breakdown in a person’s ability to live by their core values. But sin does NOT explain everything. What have you called sin that is more complicated than that label? What have you NOT called sin that maybe...is a sin problem?

The Habit of Substance Use

Once my brother came clean it about his Substance Use Disorder, it became apparent that ALL of us were suffering with dependencies that were creating one unmanageable crisis after another. A dependency, or a compulsion, is a coping strategy that we use to calm, numb, or benefit ourselves in ways that we use to excess. We are in “excess” when our behaviors begin to have consequences. Too restless, irritable and discontent to get out of bed in the morning and go to work? I may be using sleeping in EXCESS to cope with my depression, hangover, or have a disturbed sleep cycle - a host of possibilities but all related to this one true thing: our “excess” is disrupting our life.

My brother’s cocaine addiction, unlike my own eating disorder, caused him to break out in handcuffs, lose jobs, and generally manage to infuriate anyone who tried to maintain a relationship with him. He lied, he cheated, he stole. I lied in ways that were equally damaging but a teeny tiny bit less obvious than his dramatic crash and burns. In fact, his own propensity to get into massive amounts of trouble served to mask the dysfunction of our family system in general and in particular our individual issues.

The crisis created by my brother’s treatment for drug addiction provided an opportunity for our family to take time to assess the dynamics at play in our family system. Problems that seemed obvious to others about our family were revelations to us. Secrets were exposed. My eating disorder was named. The rigid roles that each family member played, the enabling, the lying, a lot of these realities rose to our collective consciousness. (Again, this was not everyone’s perspective.) Suddenly, what we thought of as normal shifted. We realized how unmanageable our lives were - the conflicts, the financial strain of dealing with my brother’s issues, the unhealthy ways my parents coped with their stress, the resentments we held against one another but never discussed. We were taught that all of this was related to the disease of addiction. It was a multi-generational problem. Both the affliction and the maladaptive coping skills associated with addiction were passed down through our family tree much like the family silver and a few pieces of good jewelry. When we take our first step the focus rightfully belongs on our own particular brand of compulsivity. But it is also helpful to realize that when one family member suffers from Substance Use Disorder, the entire family system is also suffering various forms of sickness marked by denial, unmanageability, powerlessness and resistance to solving problems.

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. Romans 7:17-20 The Message

Compulsivity is a problem

Stereotypes are naughty; they are a way we over-simplify and try to find patterns to understand our world. Our brain loves patterns; it craves understanding. If it can find a pattern, it can go into lazy mode. Ever driven from home to the gym only to arrive and remember not a single thing about the drive? That’s your brain remembering a pattern. How often have you started out for the grocery store and ended up at a craft store? Clearly, we are going to the craft store more often than Kroger’s. Auto pilot. This tendency to develop habits and predict patterns can get ugly if it turns into a compulsion. A compulsion can turn into a dependency.

My brother’s Substance Use Disorder was as simple and as complicated as anyone else who struggles with this disease. Our understanding of it shifted over the years, often in sync with our collective cultural awakening to the nature of the affliction. Today, the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Mental Disorders) characterizes Substance Use Disorder as a “Recurrent use of alcohol or other drugs that causes clinically and functionally-significant impairment, such as health problems, disability, failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school or home.”

Whatever we “use” compulsively eventually turns on us; it never delivers on its promise to make us feel “normal” or “happy” or “capable.” This is the human condition - we search for shortcuts that we hope will fulfill us. This affliction is physiological, mental, emotional and spiritual in nature. All elements of our body, mind and spirit are impacted by the disorder.

My people are broken—shattered!—and they put on Band-Aids, saying, ‘It’s not so bad. You’ll be just fine.’ But things are not ‘just fine’! Jeremiah 6:14 The Message

Today, consider your habits. Really think about it. Things you say habitually without really thinking about your words? Like assuming a group of people are all alike? Habitual ways you think about yourself - often negative but sometimes too positive as well? Your brain can get too hooked into your patterns; for this work, consider your heart.

Going the Distance

In Paul’s letters, he encourages consideration from believers toward one another. He is not talking about opening doors for ladies. He’s allowing for the vulnerabilities found in communities and asking those who do not suffer the same issues to respect the struggle of others. He talks about food preferences; he asks folks to respect their brothers and sisters who take a more narrow view of godly eating and not make it hard for them to follow their rules. He makes a statement - hey, just because it is not a sin, does that make the action you are contemplating beneficial?

I think about these things when I overhear two women talk about “snowflakes” and “millennials” as fragile and too sensitive. Paul says, be considerate. That requires a certain sensitivity, or at least a little civility. Or even self-awareness. Everyone is sensitive about the things they are sensitive about. Sheesh.

We have learned over the years how shaming and judgmental words like “alcoholic” and “addict” can be for folks. In an effort to reduce stigma, the preferred terminology today is “Substance Use Disorder” (SUD). This is helpful because it is more accurate - it indicates that this malady is on a spectrum and provides a framework consistent with observations about the disease. Words matter.

That said, some of my friends in recovery have worked long and hard to come to acceptance about their disease. They cannot get on board with this new lingo. It is part of their acceptance to specifically name their disorder - “alcoholic”, “addict”, etc. Wherever you land in the discussion, it might be helpful to think of the issue like this: there may be adjectives that I can use to describe myself that are inappropriate or unadvisable for you to use to describe me. SUDers may find using more specific labels helpful; the rest of us show more respect when we get with the program and use less stigmatizing language.

And finally, be gentle. Be kind. Because when you sit at Starbucks and talk about snowflakes and millennials in a disparaging manner, it causes me to sin. I judge you. And this is a problem for me. So help me be a better person. Please stop calling all white men bad, millennials fragile, attractive women floozies, addicts losers, the homeless annoying, and all the other stereotypes we consciously and unconsciously use to justify our cruelty.

Tomorrow will be different

In Richmond, we say if you do not like the weather, wait a day because it will surely change. This is good soul care advice too. I suspect we all find greater equanimity and peace when we realize that our highs and lows and in-betweens shift and morph and change. The mountain top experiences are lovely but temporary; as are the deep valleys of despair.

Whether I find myself up high or way down low, I remember this:

You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,

that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.

Psalm 30:11, 12 NIV

My own view of life is shifting. It helps me, and I hope it is helpful for you too, to know that there is ALWAYS the possibility that God will gift us with singing hearts and joy. When I ran away from home that Spring Break oh so many years ago, I finished my quiet time and strapped on my boots. I went for a long hike. I RESOLVED to choose to believe that my wailing was valid but not permanent. I went looking for joy; I’ve practiced the discipline of joy for so long now that most days I find her.

As I write this, I am at NSC and we are readying ourselves for our Saturday night service. I’m a voyeur as the band practices their set list. I listen as they discuss and choose and wrangle over chord progressions. I am reminded how hard they work to sing and play for us and in this I recognize the joy. They practice; they prepare. Tonight, the music will pour out. It will be a sacrificial offering. And I am lucky enough to know what that costs them and the joy they receive from the offering. Joy is a beautiful contagious lover of God and his people.

One final thought on joy; I cannot find her in isolation. All my joy stories revolve around others. I do not know what this means, only that it is true for me. Where do you find joy? Are you looking for her like a jealous lover?

Hope and despair

Once, many years ago, I was in a despair the likes of which I could not shake. Scott was at Va. Tech in school; Meredith was far away working; Pete was out of town. Michael was in high school and on Spring Break. I needed hope so desperately and my skin, my being, could not stay at home and go to work one more day in such a state of hopelessness.

I asked Michael if he would agree to a road trip, and he was kind enough to oblige. We threw some stuff in a bag and headed west. I dropped Michael off at Scott’s apartment in Blacksburg for a guys’ night, and I went to a local hotel. It was nothing special but this is what you get in Blacksburg with no notice.

That night I was in bed as soon as I got to the room; I woke early the next morning, went out to get coffee and a breakfast sandwich and returned to the solitude of the rented room. I transferred the steaming coffee into my favorite mug and retrieved my quiet time materials. Then I sat. I just sat. I reminded myself that I sit because there is a God and I am not him. I sit to honor his presence, without expecting to hear his voice. It is enough to sit. I sat until I could bear to listen. Then I opened my tattered copy of “Rooted In God’s Love” and turned to the next entry, finding this prayer from Dale and Juanita Ryan:

Lord of joy,

Lord of celebration,

open my heart to the possibility of joy today.

Help me to tolerate the confusion

that comes when sorrow and joy live side by side in my heart.

Give me the courage to

joyfully celebrate life.


Without a lot of fanfare, my mind opened to a new way of seeing - unbidden and undeserved - hope showed up in the nick of time. I saw how my day-to-day activities often created the illusion that life was more sorrow than joy. As my vision “corrected,” I grabbed my journal and out flowed the joy. The moment I turned and looked at my boys the previous evening, so glad to be together with game controllers in hand. The beauty of the coming Spring evident in the Virginia mountains that I so deeply love. On and on my joy poured out on the pages of my notebook. None of this was news to me, but it had ALL been forgotten. I was bogged down in confusion and sorrow, missing the joy that lived side by side in my heart.

So my friend, as we work to “get it right” - which is a good thing, we must find time to connect to our joy. We sit and wait on the Lord to give us the gift of hope - a gift that comes with no strings. But we also “get it right” as we take time to rightly remember. Look for the joy. Sorrow is a needy beast always yapping at our heels for our attention. Joy is far kinder and more polite. She waits for us to notice her, sitting patiently, eager to connect with us. Friends - find the joy! Then spread it around all willy nilly!

Hope and the future

Yesterday I mentioned a friend who is extremely resilient and provided an example of how is resilience shows up for him and the rest of us. He is, I suspect, temperamentally well-suited for resilience. This is not to discredit his resiliency in any way, because resiliency isn’t a temperament trait, it is a skill set. But knowing this man, I think it is a skill set he took to like a duck to water.

However, I am NOT temperamentally suited for resilience. But by dingy I practice it. It is not natural, nor am I as skilled as my friend, but I personally believe that as faithful people, we are called to resilience.

Whether or not we are working on new resolutions in this fresh, new year, resilience is a crucial life skill. It is the difference between thriving and wasting away. Too often we believe our circumstances drive our thriving - that’s not true. It is resilience.

Notice that I particularly called on faithful people to practice resilience. I’m not talking pie-in-the-sky, God blesses me because he loves me, and every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before thinking. That is not resilience. It’s a kind of spiritual languaging that some find comforting, and if you do - awesome. But I do not. It doesn’t fit the facts of my life. I believe that the facts and our faith align.

Does God bless his people? Yes. Do God’s people suffer? Yes. Resilient people can believe both those things at the same time without poking their eye out with a pencil, because resilient people do not NEED everything to go well for them in order to feel loved by God.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13 NIV

Hope is a gift not a guarantee. Whether or not we fulfill our resolutions in 2019, our hope does not rest in getting what we want. My friends the Ryans wrote this on page 242 of “Rooted In God’s Love” - “We need to remind ourselves daily that we do not serve the god-of-relentless-cheerfulness, or the god-of-naivete, or the god-of-blind-optimism. We serve the God of Hope. God is hope-full and loves to share hope-full-ness with us. We can come to God with our fear, doubt and despair and God will give good gifts to us. When all other reasons for hope fail us, we can return to the God for Hope because God is greater than our disappointment, greater than our failure, greater than the problems and conflicts in our hearts and our homes and our communities and our world.”

Resilient people can teach us

Resilient people have shared characteristics - so say the experts in these matters. One of those shared capacities is confidence that no matter what is happening in the present, tomorrow will be different.

This morning I had an early meeting with a group of folks, one of whom had just received terrible news about his business. It COULD be potentially very bad for his bottom line. Here is what he did about it:

1. He showed up for his obligation even though we all would have understood if he bailed. But he didn’t bail. He showed up because this is what resilient people do. They show up.

2. He named the problem. He analyzed it. He questioned the issues and was curious about the findings. It was clear that he would look into this issue further. He will not just assume that the bad news is the truth.

3. He ended his conversation by saying, “Either way, we will figure it out.”

Resilient people have an innate sense that things will work out. They understand that bad news isn’t the only news, and that a bad day is one day. It doesn’t translate into a bad life or even a bad week.

Can you find that capacity in yourself? If not, how could you acquire that skill?

Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:31 NIV