This is my testimony. I am a garden-variety addict, but I don’t want to go through a long explanation of my extensive experiences with addictions. I’m not embarrassed anymore of the spectacular scenes and pathetic displays that those around me encountered every time that I drank from my bottomless glass. Nor do I pass a medicine cabinet lightly. I slavishly keep to the words written on my prescription bottles.
The reason that I do not want to dwell on spectacular stories from my addiction is because I am already breaking anonymity to give this testimony. My addictions are only a part of my mental, physical and spiritual movement toward an abundant life. Plus, I am not the perfect example of addiction recovery. I do believe that I’ve stayed sober through the canopy of a network. I’m not an individual, but part of a larger group of men and women who struggle, laugh, cry and help each other. I bring up my recovery from addiction as an essential sidebar to my testimony as a whole.
Why a testimony? Testimony was central to the tent-evangelism Holiness tradition that I grew up. After a salvation experience those who experienced a “Second Filling” of the Holy Spirit would testify to the change that God, through the Spirit, had worked in their lives. It was central to a person’s understanding of being responsible to the community of faith in which they found themselves. It was also centered on the fundamental idea that it was a disciple of Christ’s responsibility to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
I think that the idea of testimony is an essential part of any post-modern ecclesiology. We can make our community an intellectual exercise and then it becomes so hollow that only elitists want to say they understand it. It is when the radical spirituality of our living texts is exposed to each other and our communities that the fire of a Spirit fuels change. So, now I’m prepared to give an answer to everyone for the reason that I have hope.
When I got to the end of my rope with addiction, I was in no condition to preach, teach or guide anyone in the ways of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, I was quite unemployed at the time. In a few fantastic nights of heavy drinking I had talked with friends and family about my grandiose views of God. I declared my liberation from the God of my youth and the God of my calling. It was over! We were through. It was hypocritical for me to continue to preach about fiction.
On the inside I knew that my own guilt was consuming me. I blamed that deity for not having made the pain go away, for not changing me, for never giving me one scintilla of an answer to prayers. I found myself more than one night drunk and raving at God.
Through the help of people who loved me when I could no longer love myself, I was able to make it to the next few days, weeks and then years without abusing my body with foreign substances. Yet, that is not to say that my pain and anger toward God went away. It was confusing to feel so grateful to recover from addiction, but have others tell you it was because of God. To me it was because of Sally, Ted and Mary. It was initially those Atheists, Buddhists and spiritual seekers of no particular faith who lovingly, patiently nurtured me back to the living. It certainly was not because of an unseen and unfeeling God.
Friends told me that I needed to pray and this filled me with so much discouragement that I felt it must now be impossible. I did what they told me, but it seemed like a fruitless practice.
I was told that it mattered little what God was like, it was only important that I tried to have a relationship with someone outside of myself. First, I leaned heavily on others. I chose to believe that the friendships and love that I experienced from others was all that I was to know about God. This gave me great comfort and peace. Yet, I still prayed these prayers that seemed to bounce back at me from the ceiling.
In one great moment of crises and all alone I felt I needed something more. So, I took a pinecone from my walk and said out loud, “Okay, you are going to be God for me now.” So, I confided in the pinecone my fears and the terror that was accompanying every thought in my mind. It sounds crazy, but that pinecone traveled with me to New Orleans right after Katrina. The desperate situations that I saw there grieved me so deeply that I felt like I was about to break in two. Yet, feeling the prickly points of that seed calmed me and made me realized I was connected to something greater than myself.I met and called friends who reminded me that I was loved.
It was not long into that first year of sobriety that I determined that I should go on a silent retreat. I was told that I should do some deeper personal work on myself. So, I decided to go to the furthest and most isolated place I could find. When I found that there was an opening for a few days at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur I jumped. I was still a shaky mess.
One of the physical aspects of detox from alcohol is that nerve endings that have been deadened begin to come back to life. This particular sensation feels like ants crawling over every inch of your body. It is a very unpleasant experience.
In the same way, emotions that have been suppressed for long periods of time begin to surface in the mind. I was starting to have emotions that had been hiding for decades. One emotion was grief. There was a tremendous grief over my wife’s miscarriage. At the time it happened I had been too busy drinking to have available emotions and now they seemed to pour out of every part of my being.
So, two miles into the mountains above the Pacific Ocean I resigned to a cell. Being alone, in silence with one’s own mind after an absence of time is terrifying. As a matter of fact my mind raced so fast, my guilt was so present and my pain seemed to burn in every waking moment. Attending the hours the hermits kept in the chapel helped some. Returning to my cell the same mix of confused emotions returned.
I read, wrote in my journal and prayed. I attempted to sit on the porch and contemplated the beauty that surrounded me. I was too agitated to sit long. It was during that time I realized the abundance of pine trees surrounding me. I grabbed a pinecone from the ground and held it like my life depended upon it. Yet, I was not soothed in the same way.
Those on retreat at the Hermitage are asked to observe silence and to only hike on the road in which our cars entered. This is to assure that the Hermits who live there will be able to keep their vows. So, grabbing my pinecone I decided to hike that winding road. I was out of shape and it wasn’t far before I was huffing. The views of the ocean were distractingly astounding. I stopped at the first bench and sat on what felt like the edge of the world and the frayed edges of my sanity. I knew there were things still yet unresolved, things that must be done, directions I must take, but I felt paralyzed and immobile in my spiritual life.
I questioned God. Why had you taken a life from us? I would have loved that child! How could I continue as a pastor in this condition? What was my future? I had never known anything but the expectation that I would be in the ministry in one way or another. Why? I could not think of anything that I was more ill-fitted to express at that moment. How would I return to a community of faith and proclaim anything except brokenness and frailty?
Gaining my breath, I grabbed my pinecone and turned back towards the road. It was when I turned that I lost all of my breath and strength again. Something on the other side of the road caught my eyes and pierced my heart. Somehow I had missed the simple cross that stood there. It wasn’t so much the cross that caught my eyes as it was the multitude of pinecones that others had left on its beams and surrounding it. I burst into tears and began sobbing uncontrollably. I lovingly placed my pinecone with the rest of the others and silently said, “Thank you.”
Something changed in that moment. I swear there was a slight crack of the eternal squeezing into my existence. It was a rare moment of clarity. That is the moment I trace a seismic shift in my spiritual geography. If I was a cartographer I would put an X right on that spot. It was at that moment that I slowly I began my journey to let go of childhood trauma, deep seated guilt, anger, resentments, narcissism, self-loathing and my childhood deity. It will never be a perfect journey. Many times I feel like Christian at the beginning of his trek to Celestial City and stuck deep in the Slough of Despond.
What also happened in that moment was it allowed me to be human. Some days I slip back into that scary place, yet over time I find I inhabit it less and less. My view of God has not become clearer over time. The one thing I know is the more complicated that God becomes, the less I believe. I depend on the faith, hope and love of others to shine new revelations in my direction.
I no longer require the supernatural intervention of a deity to have what I call faith. Nor do I need to feel that every prayer that I make is heard outside my breath and head. It is enough to know that I can change, that I don’t have to be bound by the past and that I no longer have to be afraid of the future.