Livin’ the Dream

summer sunshine - liberonetwork.com

It hasn’t been on purpose, but I realize I have been conspicuously absent from this blog for most of the summer.  Rather than finding myself hunched over my computer, I’ve been out and about savoring every bit of this glorious season’s sunshine and warmth and, well, just participating in life.  It has been a total gift to have had the opportunity to preach occasionally and, beginning this October, I will have a somewhat steady gig with a congregation currently in a pastoral vacancy.  I have been finding myself re-discovering who I am and what gives me joy.  That may sound elementary, but to this recovering alcoholic, reclaiming life has been no easy task.  I wasted a great deal of time feeling sorry for myself.  I was sure I had ruined everything and there was absolutely nothing to look forward to our hope for.  Yes, there was a time I believed I could never have fun or enjoy myself, let alone be ‘happy’ without alcohol.  Not true!  I haven’t had a drink in nearly a year (I will mark one year of sobriety this Friday), and, while I have no idea what my future holds, I am finding myself pretty jacked up about it!

I don’t think about a drink anymore.  Really.  The AA folk used to tell me this day would come and I didn’t believe them.  But it really has.  I’ve gone places and done all sorts of things I never thought I would go to or do again—at least not without booze—and have enjoyed myself!  Seltzer with lemon has become my drink of choice (I prefer the sodium free when I’m stocking my fridge at home, but any seltzer will do, even club soda if need be, just please squeeze a wedge in it!).  I’ve been to concerts and clubs and birthdays and funerals and celebrations of all sorts—and have come through unscathed.  I think it is because I am so damn happy; I don’t want to risk this sense of well-being and deep-seated joy ever again.  NEVER.  I never want to slip back into the abyss that was my life prior to getting sober.  I shudder at the thought of all the years I wasted.  Never again.  Life is too good, its gifts too precious, to risk missing even another moment of it.

At the risk of sounding like one of those AA folk (and yes, I still go to meetings), I want to reassure anyone who’s a few hours or weeks or days into sobriety that it absolutely will get easier and so, so much better!  I thought my experience was as bad as it could get—rehab, job loss, compromised health, but I could have died.  I know that now.  If I could have gotten away with drinking for another month or year, I could have very easily killed myself; if not by alcohol consumption directly, then by a car accident (thank God I never killed anyone!) or some other reckless behavior.  Looking at things from this perspective, I am one incredibly lucky woman: lucky to be alive and sober and able to sit by the pool and look up at the night sky and experience joy and thank God over and over and over again!  No matter that I considered them lies, the promises are coming true in my life.  Slowly, but surely, I am reemerging as someone more true to herself than I had ever imagined possible.

Hang in there, peeps.  From the one year mark, and for as far as I can see, life is looking oh, so good!

Photo Credit: Bing Images/liberonetwork.com

It Is Enough

I have not been around these pages for a while.  I apologize.  I have missed you.  The only explanation I can offer is it’s summer (I absolutely love summer and am savoring every last moment of it).  Anyway, here is my sermon from yesterday ….  –PP

Sermon for Sunday, August 9
1 Kings 19:4; John 6:35, 41-51
Elijah Under The Broom Tree pic2fly.com

 [Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life …” 1 Kings 19:4

It is enough.  Elijah has had enough.  He cannot bear another day.  He cannot take it anymore.  There is something familiar about this scene; something we recognize.  We have seen this sort of depression: in ourselves, in others.  Elijah is not simply tired or discouraged.  Elijah has reached the point where he can no longer bear the thought of another day.  He collapses under the weight of his despair, right there where he is, a day’s journey into the wilderness, there beneath a solitary broom tree.  He cries out to God for release, for death.  Elijah welcomes sleep.  He wants only for his life to be over.

Yes.  There is something familiar about this scene.  According to the World Health Organization, there are 350 million people worldwide who suffer depression.  And, contrary to what we might suspect, depression is not just an American problem, or even a western problem, depression and anxiety exist in every country of the world.   According to the available data, 5% of the world population has experienced depression within the past two years.  That’s 1 in 20, and those numbers don’t even take into account the hundreds of thousands of occurrences that go unreported because of the stigma of mental illness.   Chances are either we, or someone we love, has sat beneath that broom tree.  Elijah’s despair is painfully familiar to too many of us.

Two weeks ago, a woman collapsed into her despair and fell to her death from atop Caesars Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.  She was a bright and beautiful young woman, a wife and mother, the foster daughter of a friend of mine, and someone who had struggled with depression her whole life.  This was certainly not the first time someone within my circle of acquaintances had taken his or her own life, but this one was close.  The obituary did not report the cause of death, only that the woman’s death was unexpected.  It was heartbreaking to get that phone call and the memorial service was nearly unbearable.  So many unanswered questions.  So much pain.  Family members tried to speak, struggled to lift up and celebrate this woman’s life, and the minister did a commendable job of witnessing to God’s unconditional love in Christ; but it was hard.  Even for this pastor, it was hard.  The harsh reality of this woman’s death still presses heavily against my heart.  Did God not see fit to send angels to minister to her in her distress?

In the days since, I have found myself thinking of little else.  I have wondered what I might have said, had I been the one asked to preside at that service.  I have searched the scriptures and brought the whole of my faith to bear against what appears to have been the absence of angels beneath the broom tree that overshadowed that woman’s life.  There are no answers and I hesitate to speak with certainty about anything, but I kept coming back to one story in particular—about how the devil taunted Jesus to leap from the pinnacle of the temple for surely God would send his angels to bear him up in their wings.  True as that may be, Jesus does not jump; he does not test God.  But I’ve been thinking about those angels and their wings and that is where I have located my hope in the face of suicide—the angels do come; somehow, somewhere, in those moments between suffocating despair and death, the angels come with heavenly bread.

Anyway, that’s how I see it.  The bread that comes to us from heaven, comes as sustenance, yes; but it is primarily a sign and a promise.  For the Israelites who cried out in the wilderness, complaining against Moses and fearing they had been led into freedom only to die from hunger, God says No and rains down bread from heaven; food to eat and the assurance that God has not and will not ever abandon them.  When Elijah collapses beneath the broom tree, weary and spent, ready to surrender to death, God sends his angel to minister to him: a cake appears there on the ground before him, a sign that he was not then nor ever will be beyond the love and grace of God.  And when Jesus has compassion for the crowds and provides loaves and food for thousands, he does so as an expression of his own self-giving.  They came hungry and were fed, but the sign ultimately points to the one sent by God whose own flesh was to be bread for the life of the world.

Once the sign, the bread, has been pressed into your hand; once the promise has been sealed upon your heart; there is no way out, no way to escape the grace and mercy of God.  No peril nor hardship nor sword.  No height nor depth.  Not even death, itself.  Nothing in all of creation can separate one of us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  It’s madness, really, to believe such a thing.  That God loves us that much; that God has claimed us forever; that we are his and Jesus gave himself that we—you and I—might come to his table on this warm August morning and taste the sweetness of the promise.  I have seen the wonder of that promise realized in the faces of those who have taken the bread in eagerness and in tears.  In that moment there is nothing except Jesus, his self-giving love, and his promise:  broken and given for you and for me and forever.

Just this past week, I finally got around to seeing the movie, Selma.  I’m like that; it sometimes takes me a short forever, but I do try to keep my thumb on the pulse of popular culture.  Anyway, the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the hype, but it did raise a disturbing question:  would I have marched?  Would I have been willing to submit to beatings and scorn and possibly even death to stand up for something I believed in, for what I felt in my bones was God’s will?  I could not answer that question.  The year is not 1965; this is not Alabama.  But I also know the question is not limited by time and space and circumstance.  Would I march?  I stand before you this day forced to admit I probably would not.  Shucks, I have a hard time speaking up when someone starts making judgmental and disparaging comments about another member of the community.   I know I should say something; but I don’t.  So, no, I don’t suspect I would have joined the thousands who marched from Selma to Montgomery.

We all fall short of the Glory of God.  Each and every one of us fails miserably at giving full expression to the hope and faith we have in Christ.  We have good intentions, mind you.  But our feet hold us fast and our voices fall silent.  We are forever chasing after distractions to keep our minds occupied and away from thoughts of justice and poverty and racism and Jesus and life and death.  Even those of us who come to church on Sunday morning, often have the darnedest time lingering in the promise; claiming it for ourselves.  Five thousand people ate their fill on the grassy hillside across the lake.  Some went home.  Some followed.  All fell victim to doubt.  Who is this one who claims to be sent from God?  Bread of angels?  Bread of life?  We scan the landscape of our lives and cannot, for the life us, recognize the sign.  Oh, if only we could.  We wonder, briefly, what it would be like to rest on the wings of angels and trust God above all things.  And then our thoughts run off after some thing or another and we find ourselves frantically chasing we know not what.

As I watched that movie, I found myself profoundly moved by the moment when Dr. King and the crowd behind him, all kneel down in prayer, right there on the bridge; pausing in the presence of God; open to a sign.  I was reminded of the friends and family who gathered in silence trying to reconcile their often fragile faith with the inescapable reality of desperation and despair, daring to hope for some word of comfort.   Not unlike the crowds who stood in the very presence of our Lord and still could not recognize the sign, I thought about how we, too, hesitate to trust what is right before us, in our hands and on our lips.  The body of Christ, given for you; for me.  Bread from heaven.  Bread of angels.  Bread of Life.  Broken and pressed into our hands.  Take.  Eat.  Otherwise, the journey will be too much for you.  The promise is so outrageous, the possibility so incredible—forgiveness, mercy, sustenance, life—given for me, for you; restoring our strength; giving us life; right here, right now, lifting us up on the wings of angels.

Come to the table, beloved of God.  Touch the promise to your lips.  Dare to taste and see.  The Lord is oh, so good.  Amen.

Image: Elijah Under The Broom Tree/pic2fly.com

Consequence of Choice

One of my biggest problems when I was still drinking—aside from still drinking—was I somehow had myself convinced that I would be totally unable to write without lubrication.  I can remember, a full two years before I gave up alcohol for good, I had managed to stay sober for about 30 days.  I was on medical leave at the time and feeling pretty awful, so my sobriety was more a consequence of circumstance than a choice.  After a few weeks, I was feeling better and planning to return to work.  I will never forget sitting in front of the computer, trying to write a sermon, and staring at the cursor mocking me from the blank page.  The pressure was on.  I had to write something.  And there was only one way I could imagine making that happen.  I went out.  Procured a bottle of Merlot.  And returned to the computer with glass in hand.  Voilá!  The words started flowing.

Unfortunately, the wine kept flowing long after that first sermon was written and preached.  It would be a full two years before I would find myself sober for any considerable length of time.  Again, more as a consequence of circumstance than anything else.  I ended up in rehab for 30 days—at the conclusion of which, I was, eh, shall we say, encouraged to resign my position.  I was sober alright.  I was also broken, depressed, and convinced I had been sentenced to a lifetime of repentance and misery.  I would never preach—let alone write—again.  The cursor would forever mock me from the blank page.  There would be no words:  no sermons; no poetry; no musings.  The flow of wine and words had dried up.  I think I started this blog to prove just that.  What I discovered, however, was it was still possible for me to coax words onto a page.  It felt clumsy at first, but the words eventually did come.

Before long, I was writing again!  Mostly about my struggle with sobriety at first, but then I started stringing nouns to verbs and crafting bits of poetry and fiction and actually found I was enjoying myself!  Discovering I could indeed still write without lubrication was, for me, the single most precious gift of my sobriety.  At around nine months sober, my bishop asked if I felt ready to supply—to fill in for pastors who , for one reason or another, would be away from their congregation on a given Sunday.  The previously unimaginable happened:  I said yes.   And last month I sat down and wrote my first sober sermon—ever.  My joy was nearly uncontainable.  It was actually pretty good.  And leading worship was, as they say, like getting back on a bicycle.  I took up the mystery and rhythm again without missing a beat.  I preached like a woman who truly did have something to say.  And I ended up having an absolute blast!  I was called upon again to supply last Sunday and I’ll be filling in somewhere else this Sunday, and have another half-dozen or so dates scheduled throughout the summer.

I am ecstatic.  Not so much about the preaching gigs—although those are a pretty big deal—as about feeling alive and forgiven and whole.  Maybe it does take a full nine months to a year for a career drunk to get comfortable enough in her sobriety to step out into the world with confidence.  At least that is proving to be my experience.  When I was drinking, I was as all but agoraphobic; ridden with anxiety and certain everyone “out there” was judging me.  In early sobriety, I felt humiliated and embarrassed and just wanted to be left alone to wallow and cry.  Slowly; ever so slowly, all that began to change.  The idea of living and laughing and writing and being happy began to feel like a real possibility.  Even for me.  And, what’s proven even more amazing is it’s turning out even better than that!  When I look in the mirror, I still see a middle aged woman, but on the inside, I’m feeling like a bright and capable somewhere-still-in-her-thirties kind of gal.

My sobriety is no longer a consequence of circumstance.  It is a life choice.  A gift.  One I want never to take for granted or risk losing.  People promised me it would get better.  I did not believe them.  And, aside from the merciful presence and encouragement of God, I cannot tell you how or why I was able to stick with sobriety through so many months that felt like deprivation and misery.  Somehow, I did it, though.  I stayed sober long enough to begin to live sober.  And life is good!  Oh, I still have plenty of problems.  Decades of drinking wreaked havoc with my health and my finances are in a shambles, but those concerns have receded into the background.  What is front and center now is—safeguarding my sobriety, yes, but—mostly wanting to smile like crazy because it’s summertime and the marsh grass is green and the sky is blue and I can write and life is so incredibly wonder-filled.  Thank you, God!

There Is A God

She was crazy attractive in a disheveled sort of way.  Work boots.  Torn jeans.  An over-sized shirt and a mane of thick tangled up curls.  I met her at an AA meeting I attended while living in a different city.  She was, and continues to be an inspiration to me.  Not because of anything she ever said, but simply because she was sober; and, so far as I was concerned, her sobriety was nothing less than a miracle.  I didn’t know a whole lot about her.  Only what she shared.  She had been cross addicted and homeless, I suspect both being the parting gifts of a relationship gone sour.  The old timers welcomed her at the club house.  Let her detox there on the old worn couch and later made sure she had something to eat.  The club opened early and closed late, and she was there every day all day for weeks.  Alternating between sleep and sobs.  Those old timers got her sober and, so far as I know, she still is.  The woman I met was living a life of joy and gratitude and freedom.  And though I have long since moved away, I will never forget her.

Sobriety takes a tremendous amount of courage.  Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.  The easiest, indeed, what seems the only choice is to “do whatever it takes” to perpetuate the madness.   Self-perpetuated insanity feels like a much preferable option to dealing with the dismal reality of life and circumstances sobriety would inevitably reveal.  There are those who have experienced what is referred to in AA circles as a high bottom: they recognize their lives spiraling out of control, assess their options, and choose sobriety.  It takes guts to admit you have a problem and set off in a new direction, but I’m not talking about that sort of courage.  I’m talking about hitting concrete at 70 miles an hour and having the courage not to die.  That’s what it felt like for me anyway.  Sitting there amidst the wreckage.  Never wanting the fog to lift.  I didn’t care if I lived or died.  No.  I take that back.  Death would have come as a welcome end to the tragedy my life had become.  Surely it would soon be over.

Except it wasn’t.  Someone appeared in that fog, alright, but it wasn’t The Grim Reaper.  Rather, it was a young upstart in a suit sitting behind a desk and two women from church who put me in their car and drove me to rehab.  I kept insisting I didn’t belong there, that I could do it on my own, that the whole rehab thing is just a scam to bilk money out of insurance companies.  But none of that was true and I knew it.  I didn’t have that sort of courage.  Not like the woman I had met some two years prior.  No matter the mess I had made of my life.  No matter that I was sick and getting sicker.  Sobriety was too scary.  I was terrified for the fog to lift.  When I insisted I could do it on my own, what I was really asking for is another chance:  let me try again.  I screwed up.  Okay.  But I can do better.  I can live in this fog and keep all my balls in the air.  Just let me show you.  Please don’t do this to me.  I don’t want sobriety.  I’m afraid.

I still am.  Nearly a year has passed since last August, and I am still scared.  But old timers have taken care of me, and a family of sorts has embraced me and, for the first time ever, I have found the courage—not to get and stay sober, but—to admit I can’t do it on my own.  I need the eclectic mishmash of folk who make up my AA home group.  I need the discipline of meetings and the support of those who have travelled this path ahead of me.  And I desperately need the companionship of the friends who have and continue to love me.  It has taken me a lifetime to do it, but I have finally found myself taken up by the Body of Christ: loved by others who , rather than holding me in high esteem because of my valiant striving toward perfection, cradle me in my brokenness with the healing grace of understanding and compassion.  I was lost.  I am found.  Much to my grateful surprise, I am now sober and alive and free.  Go figure.  Me.  Yes, beloveds, there is a God.

 

Clearing

gray skyThe cursor keeps time on the blank screen.  How many blinks before my next thought?  My next phrase?  This incessant blink blink blink taunts me.  Over these past few days, I have tried to respond to the prompts for Writing 101.  Words simply haven’t come.  I have sat poised and ready.  For long hours. Nothing happened.  Oh, I wrote a sentence fragment here and there.  Ended up deleting each one.  Some writer I am.  No.  I take that back.  I am a writer.  I breathe and think and laugh and cry and wonder and despair and write.  These experiences make up the whole of who I have come to recognize as me.  But I’ve always had difficulty writing on purpose and had hoped the daily challenges might coax me into greater consistency.  I was doing pretty good for the first two weeks.  I guess my enthusiasm waned.  That and I had a lot going on.

I was up and out early two mornings this week.  Off to doctors’ appointments.  One was a simple follow-up with my rheumatologist.  The other was a first time visit with a psychiatrist.  Don’t panic.  I am not crazy.  I did not end up in restraints that morning.  Nor was I carted off by the proverbial men in white coats.  Psychiatry carries a crippling stigma.  I’m not sure which makes my throat seize up more:  having to admit I am an alcoholic, or sharing that I am now seeing a psychiatrist.  My reasons for making the appointment are far from dramatic.  I simply felt an increase in my antidepressant medication would prove helpful and my primary doctor recommended I see a psychiatrist.  So, you see, I was simply acting under my doctor’s advice.  That and I figured one more attending doctor’s statement in support of my disability appeal surely couldn’t hurt.

It was really just a formality.  I’m actually doing quite well.  I celebrated eight months sober on the 21st, was asked to preside at a wedding of friends of a friend, and picked up a handful of preacher supply gigs over the next few months.  The opportunity to again step into the role of ordained minister has probably done more for my sagging spirit than any amount of medication or talk-therapy could ever accomplish.  It now feels like I’ve been having a bizarre out of body experience these past eight months and have finally landed back in my shoes.  Oh yeah, I remember now.  This is who I am.  The wedding was yesterday; a small gathering of family and friends on a lake shore.  It was cold, but sunny and the short ceremony went off without a hitch.  I could barely contain my happiness on my way home.  I was happy for the couple, sure, but I was absolutely ecstatic about my having officiated at a wedding.

And I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am to sit down with Scripture and prayerfully discern a relevant message and then put on my alb and stole and step into a pulpit, let alone having the privilege to preside at communion again.  It has been a long time.  My joy is well off the charts and into the stratosphere.  It’s hard for me to explain, and, I suspect harder still for someone to understand.  But being called upon for these small favors has reignited the pilot light that fires up my passion for living.  All sorts of things seem possible again.  I am well aware caution is called for here.  It is dangerous to define one’s personhood by his or her professional standing.  I know I should be able to feel complete and whole independent of whether or not I’m “working,” but I’m indulging myself the luxury of lingering in this feeling of uncontainable glee for just a while longer.

So, anyway, back that infernal taunting of the cursor on the blank page.  Now that I’m typing full throttle, I may as well catch up my responses to the daily prompts.  I believe I can do that in a single sentence.  Here goes.   “Oh, my beloveds, I have searched the horizon beyond the darkening clouds of storm and night and found there a word for you, a word too enormous to behold and yet so easily captured with five swift strikes of the keys: faith.”  Granted, it is a rather long sentence, but I’m pretty sure it meets the criteria of Days 12, 13, 14, and 15 and, more importantly, is true.  Just beyond a seeming sea of despair, I stumbled again into the presence and love of God.  This pickled pastor might always be a pickle, but she’s always going to be a pastor too, and that realization is making a huge and holy difference.  All of time and space is sacred again.  Blank or otherwise.