Resurrection and Addiction: A New Paradigm

[1] In 1973 I began a year of Clinical Pastoral Education at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois. The director of the program, Rev. Ronald Leslie, told our group of CPE residents that if we spent a quarter of the year at the Alcoholism Rehabilitation Center (as it was called at the time), it would probably be the best quarter of the year. He emphasized that we would probably learn more from the recovering alcoholics than what we could teach them.

[2] We also might learn some things about spirituality that weren’t taught at the seminary. I liked Ron but I wondered what on earth he was talking about. I thought at the time alcoholics were the inhabitants of skid row and couldn’t image how spending three months with them could be characterized as “good,” let alone “the best”!

[3] Now, almost thirty years later, having worked in the field of addiction treatment as a chaplain/counselor/manager type person, I look back at Ron’s statement as truly prophetic. It was the best quarter of the year and I did gain some new insights about spirituality that were very helpful. I began to sense a calling into specialized ministry with addicts although I had no idea how and where I might be hired as a chaplain. One month before my CPE residency was to end, the Alcoholism Rehabilitation Center posted a notice for a new position, “chaplain counselor.” Several residents and I applied for the position, along with a number of pastors outside of Lutheran General Hospital. I was offered the position and now, after almost 30 year working with addicts I look back and firmly believe I was Spirit-led into this journey. And I am ever so grateful for the journey.

[4] You may be asking yourself by now, how can anyone enjoy working with alcoholics and drug addicts? Isn’t that a little abnormal? I had similar feelings in one of the first open AA meetings I attended when one of the speakers claimed that he was happier now, in his recovery from alcoholism that he was before he became alcoholic. He further stated that he is grateful to have the illness because, “in recovery my life is better, my relationships are better, and I have a relationship with God that I never believed I could have.” At the time I did not understand what he was saying or how, what he was saying, could be true: having a better life because of a major illness! Come on! Get real!

[5] If you are an alcoholic or addict or close to an alcoholic or addict, you know from experience how painful it is to be addicted or to love someone who is. When you can no longer control the alcohol or drugs (remember not all drugs are “street drugs” like cocaine and heroin; diet pill, pain pills, and sedatives can be addicting also) you are taking, your values change. Whatever values you may have cherished- like honesty and kindness – become secondary to the value of obtaining and using the drug to which you have become addicted. If you have to lie, you lie; if you have to steal, you steal. Family, home, friends, work, school, health, church – everything is secondary to the drug. And one day, when your illness has progressed long enough, you find yourself alone, without your family, home, friends, work, school, health, church. The only “friend” you have is that which caused you to lose everything, the drug.

[6] But, you say, wouldn’t people realize that the alcohol or drugs are hurting them, and stop? Wouldn’t that be the sensible thing to do? Of course it would be. However, there is a dynamic operating in all of us, which was operating in Adam and Eve in the garden a long, long time ago. However we approach the story, we find that like Adam and Eve, given the chance to be all-wise, and thus all-powerful, most of us would jump at the opportunity. We like to think we can control or handle anything we set our mind to. If others are telling us we are drinking too much, we know better. We are really in control: the DUI arrest, the lost job, the failed marriage had nothing to do with our drinking. The police were just making sure they got their quota of arrests, the boss never liked me, my spouse was the problem, not my drinking. We believe that we can control what others are telling us we can’t, and the spiral downward continues.

[7] Addictions are not limited to chemicals. We can become addicted to gambling, food, sex, spending – all in an attempt to feel good, to be in control, to take charge. Initially, for most people, addictive behaviors often begin as pleasurable and safe. Eventually, if the progression ends in addiction, the experience is no longer pleasurable nor safe, but we continue because we are addicted. We cannot do otherwise without intervention and help. We become sick physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. What we once valued takes a distant second place to our addiction, and we are miserable and longing for relief. The irony is that once the addiction sets in – whether it is addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex, spending, or eating – we still hope and sometimes truly believe that what once gave us relief and pleasure will eventually give us pleasure and relief once again. We continue the behavior and we experience more pain and grief.

[8] Years ago I attended a graduation ceremony for a group a young drug addicts who had successfully completed an extended treatment program. One of the young men gave a brief speech about what his life was like before recovery and what it was like now. He began treatment after one night, when he was stoned on several drugs, he hid in the bushes outside of his house with a gun waiting to shoot his father. Fortunately he passed out and neighbors saw him and called the police. This young man thanked his counselors and fellow patients in treatment and the people who helped him in his AA and NA meetings. But he also thanked his family – his siblings and his parents – for the love they showed him that he couldn’t experience because of his addiction. There was not a dry eye in the house when he finished talking.

[9] I will never forget one line that he used to bring his talk to an end: “I was lost and now I am new.”

[10] I’m sure everyone in the audience, including me, thought he was going to say he was lost and now he is “found”. As I look back, I am now convinced that the word “new” is profoundly correct, and the young man was prophetic in his declaration. It is only when we give up our old self (focused on self and self gain) that we can become a new creation.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.
2 Corinthians 5:17

[11] One of the pastors who mentored me in my early development as a student and young pastor, once told me that his decision to enter the ministry resulted from a near death experience in which he came close to drowning. He prayed to God to save him and when he was rescued he believed it was by the hand of God and eventually went to seminary and was ordained. He later became a much respected and beloved bishop. Luther himself, living in a time when plagues and death were always ever so close, got caught in a terrible storm and made a similar prayer to God to save him. You know the rest of the story! Not everyone who comes close to the abyss, either through a single traumatic experience or through a lifelong struggle with addiction or other illness, becomes a new person. But some do because they are caught by the Spirit of God and are changed. They turn from a focus on worldly wealth and power and self-preoccupation, to give rather than to always get, to care and not to conquer, to love and not to hate. Jesus said “Who ever finds his life (in the values of the world) loses it and whoever loses his life for my sake (gives up the values of the world to focus on God’s values as seen in Christ) will find it. We become the person God created us to be when we follow God’s way, not our own.

[12] Resurrection is the experience of dying to the old life and finding new life, a better life. Recovering addicts know this perhaps better than anyone. I have been blessed in working with addicts who teach me as much as I teach them. As a follower of Christ, I do have something to give to them, however, and you do to. The best gift you can give to addicts is a sense of God’s love through your own genuine love and concern for them. An addict will sense moralism and condescension and dismiss you as a source of help. Likewise, however, an addict will sense genuine love, when given, and be open to letting you into his or her life. With patience and perseverance, you may have an opportunity to guide the addict to the help needed. One of the best messages you can give to addicts is that they are loved and loveable, but they have an illness. The illness is controlling them, not vice versa. The beginning of recovery, of arresting the illness, is to admit defeat – something we all hate to do. That is the irony: victory comes only through defeat! Victory comes as we admit to our own powerlessness over an illness that is greater than we are. We stop our useless attempts to control, and ask for help from those who know more about it than we do. The beginning of victory is in admitting defeat. Giving up our old way of trying to control everything – as if we were God – opens the door to new avenues of help, beyond what we could hope for by using our own limited resources. Having admitted defeat, we are now in a position of asking for help from God and some of His friends. Out of defeat, victory; from death (of self-centeredness), life, hope, Resurrection.