Did God Love/Forgive Judas? A Recovery Parable.

Okay, so the answer is an obvious yes, but the story is far more interesting.

At church this morning (Rayne Memorial) senior pastor Callie Crawford’s message was to be “Loving Judas” apt for Palm Sunday.

(For those not familiar, in the Christian Gospels, Judas betrayed Jesus causing him to be handed over to the Romans for ultimate crucifixion.  Judas got thirty pieces of silver for the deed.  Other of Jesus’ followers did not do much better.  Peter denied/betrayed Jesus three times – and apparently the other disciples left Jesus on his own after his capture and execution.)

Callie is an exceptional preacher and storyteller and as always, I looked forward to hearing her preach. A sermon with this title could have included how we are all broken, in need of forgiveness, and loved, regardless.

But the sermon took a twist that caught me completely by surprise.  Callie asked us to consider the difference between the role of Peter and Judas – each who had betrayed Jesus.  Was either betrayal worse than the other?  What was the difference between the two?  She suggested a big difference was that Peter came back and continued to be in community with Jesus, to follow him, to discover the empty tomb. Judas at first tried to undo his betrayal, but ultimately committed suicide instead.

As a recovering alcoholic, the story had considerable meaning.  I always equated my drinking to a slow form of suicide.  My grief over betrayal, dysfunction, pain – I completely relate to being the Judas and just wanting to make it go away.  I am eternally blessed that by grace, ultimately, I followed Peter’s example, toward recovery, to travel the road, to experience a personal resurrection.

But the end of Callie’s sermon caught me short.  She talked about a mythical Second Coming where all the folks are walking into heaven and Peter is there to close the gates after everyone is in for the party.  But Jesus stands outside the gate and Peter tells him to come on in because the party is going to start.  But Jesus stays outside the gate looking into the distance.  When Peter asks Jesus what he is waiting for he replies “I am waiting for Judas to come on up.”

And I could so relate to being that Judas when steeped in my addiction.  The self-hate and loathing – only wanting to be anesthetized with alcohol and drugs so I had to feel nothing – so that I lived only in a perpetual coma.  Unable or unwilling to just surrender to my powerlessness and walk through the liberating gates of recovery.

I am forever blessed that on August 4, 1984 just before midnight when I got off work from the paper bag factory, I chose to check myself into a detox unit instead of getting drunk, my norm.  I was finally able to walk through the gates and join the party.  Today’s sermon left me with a profound gratitude for that event and a sadness for those still wallowing in the muck.  I walked home from church with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, and a renewed commitment to life.

By the time I got home, my wife had already packed our picnic lunch and along with our reasonably insane rescue dog, we went up to the Fly along the Mississippi River, spread a blanket and had lunch.  I felt at home.

 

Personal Responsibility in Recovery

I just finished reading the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  From the amazon.com description:

. . . a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class.  The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years . . . J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck . . . Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

The punch line is that for Vance, he broke the cycle.  I bought the book because the story was a familiar. Vance grew up in the white working class Appalachian community of Middletown Ohio, just a few miles up the road from the white working class Appalachian community I grew up in of Norwood, Ohio.  Armco Steel was to Middletown what General Motors was to Norwood.  A bonus in the book was understanding the role that alcohol and violence played in our lives.  Ultimately, I found somewhat of a parallel existence with Vance.

The book has taken a good bit of heat.  For example, from the pages of The New Republic the reviewer concludes, and I concur, that Vance makes some rather sweeping sociological statements.  I suspect too that I would hated to have Vance in my classroom, as he seemed totally goal focused on getting out of school with little time for the process – but I also say that with the hindsight of someone who has recently retired from higher education, compared to the 30-something Mr. Vance.

The New Republic piece is critical of Vance’s emphasis on personal responsibility in the socio-economic dilemma of his hometown.  In fact, the New Republic piece is void of any discussion of the need for personal responsibility.  In my past as a practicing alcoholic, I readily had a myriad of reasons why I “had to” drink – abusive home situation, poverty, born on the wrong side of the tracks, to name but a few.  I successfully surrounded myself with a network of folks who would support my active addiction.  As well, I could find folks who considered the class system as the primary reason for my alcoholism.

Here is the deal – all of those socio-economic factors were true for me and they were true for others too.  However, it was not until I took personal responsibility for my actions that I was able to begin to see any possibility for recovery from my addictions.

In a recent TED talk Vance pondered how to give others the opportunities that he had to break the cycle of poverty, violence, and addiction.  That is where the role of mentorship in general, or sponsorship in 12-Step groups comes in.

Until I came to take personal responsibility for my recovery from alcoholism, I needed the poverty, the violence, the familial dysfunction to continue my active addiction.  In recovery, I no longer need those socio-economic factors to justify my existence.  I am grateful for the opportunity to now actively work toward a solution to those inequities in our world.  There is much to pick at in Vance’s book, but there is an essence of accountability and “getting sick and tired of being sick and tired” that truly resonated with me in those pages.  I suspect that others in recovery will have a similar experience.

Working the Fourth Step, Again

I am repeating the Fourth Step process – the first time in a few years.  I am using the set of questions contained in the Overeaters Anonymous Twelve and Twelve.  I believe in working and reworking the Steps as a part of my recovery.  The process always reveals new insights and helps me to move along my recovery road.  I am intentional this time around about taking a “moral” inventory and not beating myself up mercilessly as I did some 30 years ago when doing my first Fourth Step in Alcoholics Anonymous.  I am mindful of the fact that over those three decades I have in fact grown and matured.  I am less a person completely governed by “self-will run riot.”  The Fourth Step process certainly informs me of many areas and behaviors of my life in need of a reality check.

So for many of the questions, I was pleased to recognize and write that yes, I have in fact grown in this or that respect over the years but those questions continue to provide new insights.  Here is one:

           Are we snobs?  Do we pay more attention to VIPS than ordinary people?

My knee jerk reaction was – of course not.  I am very salt of the earth.  You won’t catch me at a restaurant with 9 pieces of silverware at a place setting.  But I also got to thinking about the question some more.  For example, my memory has never been a strong feature for me, and I have learned to be very intentional when meeting folks to really concentrate on their names so I don’t forget them.  So when I began to attend a new group meeting on Wednesday mornings, I made a special effort to remember everyone’s name.  Also, I help with a meal through the Open Table program for the underserved every Tuesday afternoon here in New Orleans.  In a given month there might be 30 or so volunteers that cycle through to help.  This past week there was a fellow I had met several times before and had to confess I did not remember his name.  Partially because he is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, with a somewhat thick accent and I am not certain I ever really got his name completely.  But this past week, we re-introduced, acknowledged that both of us had forgotten each others names, and now his name “Artie” is forever impressed on my brain.

But then I got to thinking about those who come to receive a meal, a voucher for a night’s housing, and some toiletries.  I know none of their names. Many of these clients who come for the services are more regular than the volunteers.  In these types of situations, I am more comfortable mingling with the clients than hanging with the volunteers in the kitchen and dealing with the food.  But I have never asked any of the clients their name.  A bit of snobbery – paying more attention to the haves than the have-nots.  Nothing earth shattering, but a truth learned on the recovery road.

A lesson too that the Steps, if I choose to use them, always provide new insights and opportunities for growth.

Giving Back in Recovery

I have strong sense of the need to give back in recovery.  The longer I remain sober, that sense increases.

Although the Christian New Testament line “It is better to give than receive” was used by my grade school nuns for every special collection and the Lenten box of nickels from the candy not eaten, there is more.

I object to what I refer to as the “Santa Claus” mentality of service work where those who have shower gifts like magic glitter on those who have not.  This practice is a rather self-indulgent feel good exercise.  And yes, it is true that in giving we do receive.  I have never done service work whether in recovery or any other context where I did not get more out of it than I put in.

More difficult is being certain not to take away someone else’s opportunity to give so they too then can receive.  That is something I enjoy about 12-Step programs in general.  I learn in the sharing of experience, strength, and hope, from a broad array of folks.  From those very first lessons in detox many years ago, to the continued growth today, including what I learn in the blogosphere, I have received much.

Today, I am grateful for and thank the broad scope of humanity (and canines) who have given me so much.

Sobriety & Mardi Gras

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On duty at the Port-o-Potty station at Rayne Memorial.

Where we live in New Orleans is referred to as the Mardi Gras Box.  That means we are boxed in by the Uptown parade staging area and the parade route that have been very active for the past ten days.  The mode of transportation that works best is a bicycle.  Although I enjoy the season a lot, by a couple of days ago I was pretty much Mardi Gras’d out and look forward to a quiet Lenten season beginning this Wednesday.  This year is the first time since the mid-1970s I have been in New Orleans for the entire Mardi Gras season.  Like the Christmas season that extends well into the pre-Thanksgiving period, the same is true for Mardi Gras parades.

Yesterday I had a revealing reflection on Mardi Gras Past and Present.

I took a geographic cure out of New Orleans in the fall of 1975.  I remember a couple of distinct events from that year’s Mardi Gras.  I had been suicidal from the absolute depths of depression but had kept from effectively acting on same.  On Mardi Gras day as the parades ended, I remember running as fast as I could down Tchoupitoulas Street because I was afraid if I stopped running my brain would leave my head and I would never be able to get it back – demonstrating my ability to hallucinate from alcohol consumption beyond the imaginary cockroaches and tremors when I tried to detox on my own.  I don’t remember much else from that day, except I was apparently responsible for “borrowing” a neighbors car without their knowledge, and woke up on the river levee sometime later.  After leaving New Orleans in 1975 I still had another nine years of drinking left before I got sober.

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Initial fitting a month ago of my coat of many colors.

Mardi Gras in 2017 is quite a bit different.  This past Thursday I was volunteering at the port-o-potties that my church sets-up as a youth fundraiser on the St. Charles Avenue parade route.  My church, Rayne Memorial, is also located within “the box” and just a 10-minute walk from our house.  During my five shifts of directing folks to an open unit or in administering the post-use squirt of hand-sanitizer, I experienced friendly convivial festival folks, mostly families – the antithesis of my drunken state over 40 years ago.  At our church service on Sunday, the spirit was one of celebration.  Tomorrow, is Mardi Gras and my wife and I will join another couple and take a slow walk along the St. Charles Avenue parade route to the French Quarter, watch parades along the way, have lunch, and then with any luck get a taxi back uptown, or walk if need be.  I will be sporting my “coat of many colors” that my wife made for me, and will dye my hair and beard blue.  I will remember it all and expect to have a thoroughly enjoyable day.

My wife and I will wake up the next morning to the peace and quiet that only Ash Wednesday brings to New Orleans.  I will start transplanting the germinated cucumbers, okra, basil, and other herbs and vegetables I started a couple of weeks ago.  There are sunflowers, purple cone, and bunches of other stuff to get going as well.  We still have several raised beds that we want to build this year near our citrus trees.

I remain eternally grateful for the opportunity to return and live in my favorite city in North America and experience a Mardi Gras of celebration, knowing fully that I am one drink away from the hallucinations and insanity of the past.

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My view as I write this from our porch with a view to our back yard with in process raised beds and gardens.

 

 

 

What Do I Want From Life In Recovery?

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Stop what you are doing. Take several deep, cleansing breaths. Ask yourself: “What do I want for my life?” Listen for the initial responses. You can even jot them down. Keep asking yourself, “What is beneath that? What is my heart’s deepest longing?” When you finally hear the response at the bottom of your soul, write it down. Keep it simple. Say it in one sentence: “I want….”

Then begin to meditate on the phrase that comes to you. Do not try to figure it out. Do not get caught in the mind’s resistances, the many reasons why that life is impossible. Do not waste time wondering what people will think. Do not try to figure out how that life can work practically. The soul is not practical. The soul simply wants what it wants. Life will dance with the soul to find a way.              ~ William Thiele

 

The above quote is from a blog post written by William Thiele, the founding Spiritual Director of the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  If the above resonates with you, I urge you to read William’s entire post.

Here is why the exercise William proposed resonated so much with me – When working with young adults, I encourage them to think long, hard, and broadly, about how they envision their ideal career.  We go back and forth over multiple sessions examining possibilities of how to have their deep passions meet the needs of the world.  But for myself, I have not thought that through deeply for my life beyond career.  At the age of 64, my standard response to the question posed by William “to have meaning” is not adequate.

This question applies to my addiction recovery life too.  I have blogged before how the AA Promises have certainly come true in my life.  I recollect quite clearly laying in a detox bed on August 4, 1984 and only wanting to be a normally functioning member of society.  Since that time I received so much more.

But today in retirement, I find that I can replace my freedom from all those dreaded meetings and reports of my work life with a myriad of other tasks and projects that divert and frustrate me – and I wonder how I got into this or that commitment that does not really feed what I seek in life.

Here are some cases in point:

  • This morning I overheard someone of about my age who recently spent a couple of weeks in intensive care, now in full recovery, comment how for years he kept an Atlas under his bed and would take it out and dream of places he and his wife could go.  He noted it was now time to stop dreaming but doing.
  • My wife and I have had dreams, many that we have lived into and made real.  Yet we realize the continued need to be very intentional about how we spend our most precious commodity, time, as we live into the future.
  • Today in the U.S., there is a pressing need for action on a very broad range of social, political, and economic needs.  Where can my skills and passions be best used?
  • Living into my Christian values and responsibilities of justice for all of God’s creation certainly can take me down many paths.

And the list goes on.  I commit in the coming months to follow William’s exercise, to think mindfully and meditate on the phrase or thought that arises, and be willing to live into what comes forward when asking “What do I want for my life?”

What does all this have to do with recovery? Had I not started down a recovery road over 30 years ago, I would not be asking myself these questions today.  I fully suspect I would be dead.  If still living I would be in such deep throes of my alcoholism that such life affirming questions would be the furthest thing from my mind.

Co-Creation in Recovery

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By and large, what human being want is resurrection without death, answers without doubt, light without darkness, the conclusion without the process . . . When the Spirit is alive in people, they wake up from their mechanical thinking and enter the realm of co-creative power.

Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, p. 146

 

In my professional life over the last 30 years I worked in the field of cultural heritage where I published a bunch of articles and some books.  A couple of years ago I noticed that the past half-dozen or so pieces I published had the word “co-creative” in the title.  I am rather evangelical about cultural heritage professionals co-creating with a community to meet the expressed need of that community.  When I see the word “co-create” in any context, I usually take note, such as the Richard Rohr quote above.

My sobriety and recovery in general is very much a co-creative affair.  My expressed need is sobriety/abstinence that is co-created with the support of other folks, organizations, or entities who can provide their experience, strength, and hope.  As in my professional world when working with communities, if I am not willing or interested in “co-creating” that recovery, it ain’t going to happen.

That is the obvious and simple part of lesson.

The more exciting part is the end product of co-creation.  In the museum world, when the process is truly co-creative and based in the community interests, and not what I perceive to be their interests, the end results are richer and more rewarding than anything I could dream up on my own.  In a similar way in sobriety, through living in the process over the years, and co-creating with the resources provided by so many others, and not just going on my own, I am amazed at the possibilities recovery has brought.  I so distinctly remember laying in that detox ward on August 4, 1984, wanting only to somehow function on a day-to-day basis in the real world.  The years have brought me so much more.

As the title of this blog clearly states, I too have learned that recovery is a process and not an event.  I remember an experience in my first year of sobriety.  I was desperately waiting for a situation to resolve itself.  At the time, I recalled that in the past I would have just gone out and drank over the issue.  But, I also thought that if I just stuck it out sober, I would learn from the experience and the next time would be easier to get through the same thing without drinking.  That insight in year one of sobriety proved so incredibly true, particularly in three decades of hindsight.

What I have learned over the years is that if I trust in the process, live into the process, not as an isolated being, but as part of a luminous web of interconnected co-creating humanity, I stay on the recovery road, with all of its blessings and responsibilities.