This is the final bog in a four-part series about addiction and the church. You can read part 1 here.
When I first got sober, I learned a lot of important stuff. Like, take it a day at a time. Go to meetings. Don’t drink in between. And, one other biggie: Never, ever go to Wal-Mart on a Saturday.
So, here I am at Walmart on a Saturday. Somewhere in the frozen foods, I had checked off three of the letters in my HALT acronym—the reminder from counseling that we are not to get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Since Wal-Mart does not make me lonely, which I kind of long for at this point, I am experiencing HAT, which is still pretty awful. I trudge to the parking lot with a cart full of groceries and despair.
It’s dark and cold, and the rain has made the concrete shiny with oil. Christmas lights reflect off the pavement, and chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, or so the car radio tells me. And I am just not feeling it at all. Instead, I feel like a drink.
The holidays used to be a great time to drink. Christmas meant eggnog with rum (which actually tastes rather awful). It means wassail. I have no idea what wassail is, actually, but it’s loaded with booze, so there. Christmas meant cozy evenings by the fire, with a snifter of brandy. It didn’t matter that we don’t have a fireplace and that I broke our only snifter. I made do. It was Christmas!
Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store . . . especially one with lots of shiny bottles all lined up in a row. And maybe my recovery also means celebration. Not just hard work and meetings and have-to’s but real, merry, spirit-filled festivity.
And now, here I am, stuck with holiday cheer blinking at me all over the place, and I am glum. I remember that I have seltzer and cranberry juice at home, so I can make something fizzy and festive if I so desire, but that’s not it. I am not in the mood for a surrogate drink.
As I find my way out of the labyrinth of the Wal-Mart parking lot, I feel very sorry for myself. I fiddle with the radio, and sigh loudly, and grump at the whole world. Everything is wrong, and I can’t drink at the wrongness anymore.
And then I see it. A church sign, festooned with lights and this rather spastic message: Celebrate Recovery! Tuesday Nights at 7! Come RECOVER WITH US!!!
The sign is blatantly abusing the exclamation mark, but still. It made me smile. And right there, in the car, I had my own The Grinch Who Got Sober moment. Maybe . . . I pondered. Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store . . . especially one with lots of shiny bottles all lined up in a row. And maybe my recovery also means celebration. Not just hard work and meetings and have-to’s but real, merry, spirit-filled festivity.
I’m not saying that every meeting I attend ends up with all of us singing and clasping hands, but we actually do hold hands. We pray together. No one has ever broken into that weird Dr. Seuss song, which is probably a good thing, but there certainly is something to party about in recovery.
I couldn’t invite people into my addiction. And I certainly couldn’t shine a light on my drinking. It would blind me.
When I was deeply caught up in my addiction, I still attended church. I had to keep up appearances, after all. But I try to remember: “Did I ever notice those Celebrate Recovery” signs back then? And, if I had, would it ever have occurred to me to go?
My life in addiction was very organized. My drinking was hidden, in my house only, and only at night. I never mixed my friends or job with it because that would cause a crack in the perfect exterior I was working overtime to uphold. And I certainly never mixed church with my alcohol. That was impossible. One was shameful, dark, and alone. The other was a community filled with light. I couldn’t invite people into my addiction. And I certainly couldn’t shine a light on my drinking. It would blind me.
I think differently now, mainly because I’ve been sober for a few years. Now I firmly believe that my recovery was orchestrated by my Father and my faith in him from the very beginning. I am so grateful. And so, yes, the church and addiction do mix. Because they must.
Recently, the Surgeon General stated that one in seven people will grapple with addiction. Those numbers are only of those who are documented, so the statistics are probably considerably higher. So, how can the church help? How do we step forward for those who are struggling?
1. Get hope.
One of my fears about telling my church was that I would be viewed as a shaky powder keg, ready to explode and relapse all over the place, at any minute. I didn’t want to be “watched” with sympathetic eyes—or worse, fear. However, when I found my way into recovery, I started on a path with Jesus that I had never traveled before. Much to my surprise, I was now hope-filled. The journey was at times harrowing and hard, but, inexplicably, it was often joyful. It was even fun. So, the first thing I would ask is that the church doesn’t see us as only miserable. One of my greatest discoveries in recovery was laughter. I’m talking the belly kind of laughter, from deep down, that I hadn’t really experienced since I was a kid. This sober kind of life has caused tears to run down my cheeks in helpless fits of giggles. Laugh with us!
2. Get ready.
But then, of course, life happens. Sometimes we do fall apart. We struggle. We’re angry. At times, we even relapse, and the nightmare starts again. Don’t freak out. Instead, listen. Come alongside us and pray with us. And remember, you are not in charge of our sobriety. We are. But ask us, “How is your recovery going?” It’s the elephant in the room, after all. Sit the elephant down, get it some coffee, and listen to it.
Remember, you are not in charge of our sobriety. We are. But ask us, “How is your recovery going?” It’s the elephant in the room, after all. Sit the elephant down, get it some coffee, and listen to it.
3. Get informed.
Addiction isn’t going away any time soon. I think the church will be—or should be—a beacon for us. The best way to prepare to be that beacon is to get informed. There are some great books out there about Christians in recovery that will help. Seth Haines’s Coming Clean and Heather Kopp’s Sober Mercies are wonderful. Keep a copy of AA’s Big Book in your office and familiarize yourself with its 12 steps of recovery. These are the building blocks that have helped so many people to a sober life, and they are firmly tethered to the Christian faith.
4. Get a list.
Sunday schools. Bible studies. Celebrate Recovery. There are plenty of ways to invite recovery into your own church and countless studies that take on addiction. Beth Moore’s Breaking Free is a great place to start. Prayer groups can also be a good place to begin. Moore’s Praying God’s Word devotes an entire section on biblical prayer for addictive behaviors. There are so many resources out there. Put them into circulation at your church.
6. Get praying.
The church is not a therapist meeting, or a 12-step group, or a medical doctor. The church loves God and loves others. Those are our marching orders. We don’t have to prescribe or sponsor or—heaven help us—detox anyone. Just start with prayer and, as they say at my meetings, “let go and let God.”
I cannot lie. There are many times when I don’t feel like celebrating my recovery. But attending my church reminds me that my life in Christ is a daily worship. It’s a daily celebration. My sobriety is my life, and that’s worth singing from the rooftops every day. My church teaches me that Christ wants all of us, after all. He wants our lives, our dreams, our failures, and all our addictions. We can lay all that down before him.
And then he lifts us up. Praise God.