Isn't it about time we stop telling lies in church?
(This is a sermon I gave at LaSalle Street Church in Chicago, as a part of their summer sermon series. If you'd rather listen to it than read it, here's a link to a live recording. - Lenora Rand)
I have the honor today of kicking off the 5 week summer sermon series at LaSalle on "Invisible Issues." These are issues that are often unseen or un-talked about, at least, in too many churches today. Human trafficking. Homeless children. Mass incarceration. And the Muslim/Christian dialogue are on the upcoming agenda. And I'm going to be talking today about Addiction. These are issues out there in the world, all around us, but maybe ones that we don’t feel directly touched by so much. So we don’t really see them. It’s like they’re in our blind spots.
I was thinking about the importance of checking your blind spots and it reminded me of when my daughter Hannah was 15 and learning to drive and we were tooling around together one day, and by tooling I mean, she was driving and I was gripping any firm surface I could find with white knuckles and trying to keep a positive, upbeat "I’m not going to die in a fiery crash" look on my face, when she did an abrupt lane change, at oh, just 65 mph, and our lives flashed before my eyes and I saw the possibility for the jaws of life in my immediate future. Thankfully she didn’t hit anyone, we didn’t die, and so once I did some quick panting breaths, as we are taught to do in labor, which by the way, continue to come in handy throughout your parenting years, I smiled and said calmly, “Honey it’s always a good idea to check your blind spot when you change lanes…” At that point, she glanced over and confessed to me that a couple weeks ago when her driver’s ed teacher kept telling her to check her blind spot, she had no idea what he meant—she would do what he told her and pretend to be checking, of course, but every time she looked back over her shoulder all she saw was the edge of the window and why would she want to check out the edge of the window???
“Do you know what it means now?” I asked. “Oh yeah, sure, I figured it out,” she told me. And smiled…somewhat reassuringly.
So yeah, knowing what a blind spot is, and what’s in our blind spots, matters, I believe…and it could even turn into a life or death situation. So I hope you’ll join us the next few Sundays as we talk about these Invisible Issues.
Now addiction may not seem to you quite as invisible as some of these others. Sure, 30 or so years ago, addiction was kind of taboo to talk about in polite company. If anyone did they’d use their whispery voice. But most of us now probably know someone personally who is struggling with an addiction or in recovery. And it’s all over the media too.
Anybody watch the TV series Nurse Jackie? Or Shameless on Showtime? Also, in the CBS sitcom Mom, one of the lead characters is a recovering alcoholic. And then of course, there’s America’s favorite addict, Jesse from Breaking Bad.
Not to mention, all the celebrities we hear about who are in and out of treatment centers: Lindsay Lohan, Zac Efron, David Cassidy from Partridge family fame. If you’re a celebrity an addiction seems almost like a badge of honor these days.
And of course, there are recovery groups for addicts on every corner…a couple of them meet in our church basement each week in fact. Groups for all kinds of addictions, not just the classics – like alcohol and drugs, but for addictions to sex, gambling, shopping, online porn, exercise, food. Go to Google and you can find a meeting for almost anything…we’re talking Debtors Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Nicotine Anonymous, Online Gamers Anonymous, even Clutterers Anonymous. I just read an article this week about phone addiction. Nomophobia, the fear of being without mobile devices, yes there’s now a word for that, is a hot topic right now. And 46% of moms in a recent survey, said they’re addicted to their phones. If there isn’t a support group for that yet, there will be tomorrow.
Sometimes it seems like the only kind of addiction recovery meeting we’re missing is Anonymous Group Anonymous, for those who over-attend support group meetings. But who knows, maybe that’s out there too.
It starts to seem kind of crazy and overblown, doesn’t it? I mean, is addiction really that much of a problem these days? Don’t you sometimes wonder if it’s all just the latest trendy thing to do, like eco-tourism or eating quinoa?
I do. At least a part of me does. But then there’s this other part of me. Because, once a week, I am one of those people who sits in a room for an hour and a half with some other people who are also recovering from addictions. My group happens to be a recovery-focused therapy group. And as much as I roll my eyes about the whole thing, I also don’t. I can’t. My life is at stake.
When Laura asked me to give a sermon about addiction today, my first thought was, I am so NOT a poster child for recovery. From the time I went to my first 12-step meeting, about 25 years ago, I’d say my recovery journey has looked more like a maze than a highway. I have not been rocking this thing. I’ve been kicking and screaming and falling and floundering and failing, and often, too often, hiding behind all the things I am good at. Like I’m pretty good at being a wife and mom and a wise and caring friend and good at my advertising career… And I really suck at letting other people help me and at surrendering my will and my life and my ice cream to a Higher Power.
The addiction that first brought me to my knees and led me to ask for help was food. I’ve got to admit, I have always wished I had a cooler addiction, one that would go well with tattoos and possibly a motorcycle. However, in my first 12-step meeting I finally admitted to myself and a few other people that that’s what I am, that I use food like a drug addict uses heroin. Like an alcoholic uses scotch. I use it to medicate my sadness and joy, boredom and excitement, my shame, my deep seated feeling of not being good enough, I use it to medicate too little intimacy and too much. And though I’ve been “in recovery” from my food addiction ever since, I have struggled daily with what abstinence from food might look like for me. But when I walked into that first meeting all those years ago, one thing did change…I started coming to believe, praying to believe, that if I kept showing up with honesty, recovery could happen, and I began to see that recovering was going to take wallowing around in some muddy waters, and also most importantly, that I couldn’t do it alone.
I so wanted to do it alone. At one point, when I weighed over 270 lbs. and my blood pressure was off the charts, my doctor looked at me and said, “This is a terminal disease, you know. And you can try to diet your way out of this again, but frankly, I’m not sure you’re gonna live that long.”
This is why I relate so much to the story of Naaman in the scripture that was read earlier (2 Kings 5:1-14). Naaman is a guy who has some skills and social standing and money and power and basically a nice life. He’s got it together in so many ways. Except for this little leprosy-type disease problem. Which he can’t seem to fix on his own. So on the advice of his slave girl, he packs up cartloads of riches, and travels to Israel to be healed. And he ends up at the prophet Elisha’s door. I’m not sure what Naaman was expecting from Elisha. Maybe what we all want and expect. A miracle pill that’s easy to swallow. He was ready to fork over all kinds of money for that. What he wasn't prepared for was Elisha, sending his servant out to tell him to go take a bath in a muddy river. Naaman was like: This is absurd. This is humiliating. Naaman, the big powerful man, who was so good at so many things, was essentially being told he had to strip down to his naked need, expose his shame and hurt and wounds and surrender to a cure that seemed so humbling it was almost worse than the disease itself.
And he almost didn’t do it. He almost walked away. He would have walked away, except his servants, sounding for all the world like some kind of stereotypically annoying support group saying, “it works when you work it,” convinced him to at least try. Convinced him that he had the guts to do this.
Have you ever wondered why Elisha had Naaman wash in that muddy river to be healed? I have…because I really doubt there was any particular special magic healing sauce in that water. Elisha could have so easily told him to go fight some great beast or jump off a cliff or something that would have been harder and more heroic. But no, he asked him to do something that didn’t depend on his strength and skill…that forced Naaman to let go of everything he’d been holding onto…his position, his power, his money, his illusion that he was in charge.
And at the heart of things, that’s what an addiction, really is – it’s anything we hold onto for dear life that we think is gonna save our lives, anything that keeps us from facing the fact that we are not all powerful, not in charge, anything that we use, whether it’s food or alcohol or a smart phone or self-harm, or porn or taking care of others or work or being smart or even being godly, anything we use to numb the pain and fear, to manage our insecurity and loss and hurts, versus facing them.
Versus holding on to God. And holding on to each other.
Unfortunately, a lot of addicts have come from families in which God was framed up as an angry, punishing, beat-first, ask-questions-never type, versus someone who wants to hold us, love us.
And many addicts come from families in which they learned it wasn’t safe to be held by others, either. Or they grew up families where they were taught they couldn’t, or at least weren’t supposed to, depend on other people.
I definitely got that last message. And started playing that story out early on. Like, when I was maybe 10 or 11, I was doing some “roughhousing” as we called it way back then, with my best friend Ralph, a big bruiser of a guy who lived close by. I was what at that time everyone called a “tomboy,” which basically meant, I was a girl who liked sports more than dolls, I liked being active outside more than playing house inside.
Anyway, my buddy Ralph and I were wrestling or whatever and somehow I landed wrong on my right shoulder, and something…happened. I didn’t know what…but It hurt. It was very painful. But I didn’t want to say anything to Ralph about it. I didn’t want to be a whiner. I was tough. So I just kept my mouth shut and told him I needed to take a break from wrestling to get some water. Which we did. But then a couple minutes later a bunch of other guys stopped by to play football with us in his back yard and at first, I tried to beg off, I said, my arm was kinda hurting, so maybe I should just go home, but one of the other guys said his arm was sore too, but he was gonna play, so at that point, I took a deep breath and jumped into the game.
I couldn’t actually pass, but I was running, tackling, getting tackled. Finally, after what seemed like hours, but was probably only 10 minutes tops, as I ended up at the bottom of a pile of big boys once again, my head swimming close to the verge of unconsciousness, I finally said, “Hey guys, I think I need to get home. My mom needs me to do something.” I walked away, smiling goodbyes through gritted teeth and went out front to retrieve my bike to ride it home. However, when I tried to get on my bike, which was a boy’s bike, btw, I realized I had to put all my weight on that arm to swing my leg across the bar. And I couldn’t do it. My shoulder couldn’t bear it. Tears, by this point, were streaming out of my eyes from the pain. But no matter, I was tough, and I going to ride my bike home. So I managed to climb on top of a small mailbox on the corner so I could slide from the mailbox onto my bike seat, without putting my full weight on my arm, and I rode my bike home.
When I got there my mom wasn’t around, but my older brother Dave was. He took one look at me and asked what was wrong. I told him I’d kinda hurt my shoulder but I was just gonna go lay down until it felt better. Luckily he was having none of it and drove me to the doctor’s office, where it was discovered, that yes, indeed, I had a dislocated shoulder.
So yeah, some of us addicts learned early on not to share our pain with others, not to ask for help, to keep things to ourselves, to isolate.
To add to that ingrained reticence to hold onto others, we also live in a consumer society where connection with people isn’t really encouraged as much as connection with substances and experiences…things that we can buy. The author of this new book on addiction, Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs, puts it this way “…we have created an environment and a culture that cuts us off from connection, or offers only the parody of it provided by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live -- constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object, rather than the human beings all around us.”
I haven’t read the whole book yet, but the article I read made me want to. Basically it says that we may have been looking at addiction all wrong…it may be neither a moral failure, and we should just stop doing it, “Just say no,” or strictly a medical condition, all about brain chemistry and addictive substances. The author, Johann Hari, talks about some experiments with rats in which they gave them drugged water, and the rats who were all alone, went for the drugged water. But when they put the rats in this very nice Rat Park, an environment where they could bond and connect with other rats, mostly they ignored the drugged water. Based on these findings and other studies with actual humans, Hari concluded that “…human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It's how we get our satisfaction. If we can't connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find -- the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe.”
This idea of our deep need for each other, for deep connection, and our difficulty making that human connection, starts to explain perhaps why so many addicts get clean from one substance and go on to another. This is maybe why there are so many different kinds of recovery groups…we are creative creatures…and we’re always looking for and coming up with other substances and experiences, other gods, that will save us, that we can hold onto.
We’re very good at letting go of one thing that we’ve been using to make us feel whole, make us happy, make us feel safe, help us feel more alive, and turning to another addiction.
This is why as I’ve spent more time in recovery from my messed up relationship with food, it’s felt kind of like I went to the doctor for a sprained toe and discovered that actually, practically every bone in my body is fractured in multiple places. Because I began to notice, along the way, oh my, look at how I use work and busyness as a way of not dealing with my sadness and fear and inadequacy, look at how I use shame to keep me isolated and to feel more shame, look at how I use taking care of others as a way to mask my fear of taking in love. Just a couple weeks ago, a woman in my therapy group offered to hold me and let me cry on her shoulder…and I was afraid, I was uncomfortable, and I didn’t want it, I couldn’t let go, because I am attached a little too much to hiding my pain, and what I get from being the one who holds others. But I’m working on it…
Now I suspect I may not be the only one in this congregation dealing with some addiction issues. There may be other folks out there today struggling with a compulsive or at least unhealthy relationship with food or sex or drugs or work or saving the world. Or possibly you’re just doing a bit of binge watching of Scandal. Or trying just a little too hard to fix other people’s problems. And yet, truthfully, this is not something we usually bring up here, on a Sunday morning…our pain, our struggles often remain invisible. Most of us show up here and put on our “Sunday best.” Ok, maybe not always in our clothing choices, because this is LaSalle, after all, but in every other way.
Because even though we say this is a place where you can come as you are, it’s difficult to do that if it feels like you’re the only one whose “as you are” is so freaking screwed up.
So we tend to show up here as the Facebook versions of ourselves. Curated and a little retouched. There’s another wonderful article going around the internet in which the author starts by saying: “So, according to Facebook, this is how I spent my Saturday with the kids…” And she goes on to paint this glowing picture of waking up with the sun, of shiny hair and shiny smiles and idyllic walks in orchards and rocking out to Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Then the author says, “And while all of this is basically true, I’m also full of shit.” And then she tells us how it really went down.
The article is titled, “We need to quit telling lies on Facebook.”
I would like to suggest that we also need to quit telling lies in Church.
Now I know there are lots of small groups here at LaSalle that meet regularly and in many of them there is a space for truth to come out. But I think it’s still easy to show up in a small group and remain invisible and unseen, unknown. I wonder if that’s something we need to be even more committed to around here, creating safe places where people feel they can be honest about all that they are holding onto for dear life, about their other gods, about their little baby addictions and big nasty ones. Where we could speak without careful editing and curation and just be with each other in spirit and in truth. Where we could follow the advice from the epistle of James where he says, “Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed.”
I think we have something to learn from the recovery group model in this. There is a sort of ritual involved in a 12-step meeting, and an understanding that we each are there to be rigorously honest with each other about our own stuff, but we aren’t there to fix or help or judge anyone else. We are meant to just meet each other in the dark places and sit with each other as fellow strugglers and witnesses. So what if we could do that for each other in our small groups? Provide a few minutes, a safe ritual, for honesty received without judgment, but simply with empathy and identification and the prayer, Lord have mercy on us.
Sometimes I think we might also be missing an opportunity for more of this during Sunday worship times too. I know we’re not Catholics, but I’ve been thinking we might need confession booths. Because I think people could really use them. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about PostSecret, but it’s an ongoing community art project that started in 2005, where people mail in their secrets, their confessions, anonymously, on one side of a postcard. The most recent visitor count to their advertising free blog is almost 722 Million. Yeah, 722 Million.
So lately I’ve been having this crazy fantasy of putting confession booths here in our sanctuary. Not exactly like the ones you may have experienced in the Catholic church…instead of having a priest on one side and a regular sinner type person on the other, what if both sides were populated with us regular recovering sinners, who have struggles, and addictions and who hold onto other gods like they’ll save us. And what if we took turns, on each side of the booth, confessing and being witnesses? I could tell you about how I sometimes drink diet Pepsi like it’s going out of style because I feel so stupid and scared that I can’t see how I can get through a day without it. And you can tell me what you do and we can simply hear each other’s prayer and pray together, Lord have mercy on us.
Finally, I think there’s something else that’s been a blind spot in the church, something that’s been invisible to us in the capital-C-church as a whole, around the addiction issue. And that’s that we’ve too often been blind to our corporate, institutional addiction to rightness. And self-righteousness. Blind to our addiction to having a corner on the truth. Having all questions neatly answered. It seems like the Church in North America has been addicted to “we have it all together-ness.” The Church has not been very humble. Or open. Or honest about questions and doubts.
And it’s taken a toll.
There's a widely quoted 2014 study that has said 1.2 million people would be leaving the church this year and I’ve got to believe it’s partly because people are kinda tired of the BS. The lack of rigorous honesty in faith communities. Churches, more than ever, can put on very good shows, do high quality productions, but as the author Rachel Held Evans has said, what people want from church “is not a change in style, but a change in substance.”
And I’ve got to say, I think that’s something we’re very aware of and working on here at LaSalle…being a church that’s more honest about questions and doubts, more open to growth and change. To not having all the answers. But it’s still hard. For example, we still kinda want our pastors to be beacons of “total togetherness.” Sure we want to hear they have struggles. But we also like it when they have it all figured out by the end of the sermon on Sunday morning. We depend on it, I think.
I don’t know how open we’d be to pastor Laura, standing in this pulpit for a couple Sundays in a row – a pulpit, which as you notice, is up higher than the pews, a couple steps closer to God, I think is the subliminal message that’s supposed to send – saying “I’m not sure I know what I believe at the moment. I don’t have any clear answers.” Can you imagine pastor Randall saying during the prayer time, “I don’t feel like praying today, you guys give it a shot without me”? Or pastor Oreon telling us a story about how a guy almost ran her over in the parking lot…and she’s so angry at him and didn’t learn a thing from it. And isn’t ready to forgive him yet. Or what if pastor Gary said, “I went on a silent retreat for a week and God didn’t speak to me. Not once. Not at all.”
That would be uncomfortable wouldn’t it? It would be messy. Like walking into some deep and muddy water. But maybe we hold on to our leaders having answers and epiphanies a little too tightly, maybe we kind of cling to their having it all together, to medicate our own uncertainty and doubt…and it might even be something we as a congregation are a little addicted to.
So what if once a month or once a quarter we instituted “It hurts here” Sunday. And we could spend the entire service writing our unanswered questions on the walls, our pastors right along side us, holding up all the daily struggles we have, the addictions we hold onto, the sins we haven’t overcome yet. Maybe when we break the bread at those services we could celebrate a Jesus who came for the broken, hurting people like us, the Jesus who said in Luke 5: “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, it’s the sick.” What the heck, maybe we could celebrate that this Sunday when we break the bread, too.
And what if every Sunday, we could stop worshipping at the altar of the church as a sanctuary for saints and see it instead as the communion of sinners and seekers and screw ups and second/third/50th-chancers, a healing vortex for the sick and wounded. Not as a gathering place for spiritual giants but a place where we, like Naaman’s servants, serve each other by inviting each other to have the guts to take a dip into a big muddy pool of confession and questions and rigorous honesty.
What if starting today, we could really meet each other here, show up with our brokenness not quite so invisible and bear witness to each other. Bear each other’s burdens. And in the process, help each other let go of whatever we’re holding onto for dear life, so we can have real life, the abundant life that Jesus says he came for us to live.
I’ll be honest. That sounds incredibly scary to me.
And also incredibly holy and healing. It sounds like it could mean recovery of sight for the blind. Freedom for the captives. Maybe even good news for the whole wide world.