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My mother died young, quite suddenly, at the age of 73. My father who loved her very much was quite lost. He had come to live near our home in Maryland, a ramshackle little house that we were all in the midst of renovating. I would check on him from time to time to see how he was. I noticed he was looking gaunt and was losing weight. Then one day I came to the house and I found him barely conscious on the couch. I got him up and drove him to hospital. The ER did a blood test and admitted him immediately, his white blood cell count was rising and he was anemic. The doctors spent the next several hours trying to figure out what was wrong. The primary doctor, a good friend and a member of our congregation, pulled me aside to tell me that he was very sick and that he might not make it. I knew this phenomenon especially among men, that when their spouse died, grief and a lack of self-care often led the surviving spouse to follow in death within months. Now I knew how scary and painful that could be. Then the doctor asked me “Are you sure your father doesn’t drink?” “What?!” I replied, “Who told you that?” “He did” she replied. “Are you kidding me?” I said “He drinks like a fish”. In fact, both my father and mother were what we would now call functional alcoholics, downing three or four double scotches each night before a gigantic meal with wine at 10 pm. “Well that explains it” she said, “He is dying of alcohol poisoning”. It turned that my father, in his grief, was drinking close to a quart of scotch a day and living on wonder bread and grape jelly sandwiches, that coupled with flu was bringing him to death’s door.
After the doctor went back in to see him and to order new procedures to reverse the effect, I followed. It was one of the most difficult and powerful conversations of my life, not as his minister but as his son. “Dad” I said “I know you are heartbroken after losing mom. We are all carrying around these broken hearts. But you have choice here Dad: you can choose to leave your body and be with her again, or you can keep on living. You can keep on living for me and my brother, for your daughter in laws and your beautiful granddaughters. You can keep living for walks in the woods with the dogs, for the warmth of the sun on your face, you can keep on living to do the work of justice, to write, to agitate, and to laugh. It will hurt for a while dad, but the pain will subside and, while there will always be a hole in your heart where mom lived, your grief, our grief, will bring a depth and richness to life such as you have never known. I know this is true dad, because I have seen it happen over and over again. You can choose but you have to stop drinking and start living. I want you to choose life.”
There was a foreboding silence as he contemplated what I said, and the shame he now felt at being found out as an addict and as a proud man. He said “OK. But I never want to see that doctor again.” “That’s fine Dad, that’s fine. I will find you another doctor.”
I tell you this story, because I know that almost everyone in this room has been touched by addiction. As Gerald May in his book Addiction and Grace wrote, “We all suffer from addictions: addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods like depression, shyness, cynism, people can become addicted to an illness, success, control and fantasies.” (From Addiction and Grace) And any number of substances and behaviors that mask the pain and stress of living: food, sex, alcohol, drugs, gambling, the list is long. So I believe that all of us have addictive natures, by virtue of having to both cope with life and to the power of substance and behavior to mask the pain. All of us are addicted, yet some become more so, for reasons that have as much to do with chemistry in our brains as behaviors in our life. Addictions become a problem when they interfere with our lives often leading to a ruin of life. It is then we need the most help. Today we launch the Addictions Recovery Ministry, taking part in a national movement to help our own help themselves. This ministry is not a 12 step program, although we can provide you with resources to help you find a way home for you or one you love. In fact, the Addictions Recovery Team as adopted “You are Not Alone” as its mission statement. You are not alone. I am going to ask the team to please stand so you can see who they are.
Rev. Jim Francek, a member of our congregation, a chaplain at the Bridgeport Hospital, a behavioral therapist, life coach, and the team lead and coach for our chaplains, is my colleague and leader of this endeavor. These folks will be available in (Library after 9, Sanctuary after 11) if you would like to learn more. The shame around addiction is its most insidious dimension my friends, in a few moments you will get to see just how prevalent addiction is.
I decided to launch this ministry now, in the season of Advent for several reasons. The first is that addiction is most dangerous in this darkest season of the year, when days are short and nights are long. Suicides are highest in December and addiction, whether it ends life now or later, always ends the brilliance of life itself. The theme for this month is Hope. I choose the issue of addiction and, in a few weeks, the issue of sexual harassment to bring hope to life. For hope can only be realized in our striving for a better self, a better world, a better life. Hope cannot exist as some abstract ideal, but must be grounded in an action towards which our hopes are directed. The second reason I chose now is because we are actually living in the midst of addiction crisis. There is the opioid crisis taking the lives of so many 54,000 in 2015 and 64, 000 in 2016.
White men without a college education are the most at risk, rooted in the communities they have known who are without work and without hope. These overdose deaths we are seeing are the results of a world losing hope. The election of Donald Trump is only a manifestation of that hopelessness and desperation for anything that will bring meaning back to life.
I tilted this sermon Hope in a Time of Addiction, not only because of the opioid crisis, but for the addiction to media that made this election possible, the tweets, the 24 hour news cycle, fake news, and our addiction to it. We try to convince ourselves that this craziness is not normal but what if this addiction to it is normal. Yes, our addiction to it: How many of you have MSNBC on almost all the time? Waiting for the next and latest outrage and our primarily liberal response to it. How many of you beloveds, think Rachel Maddow is a saint? Hmmmm.
When I was younger man, a friend told me that he couldn’t find his stash of LSD, so he asked his grandmother if she had seen the little tabs, “No” she replied “but have you seen the dragon in the kitchen?” The news has become our dragon in the kitchen, letting the news of the day somehow feed us like sugar, a rush of anger and adrenaline followed by worry and anxiety. Both Ed and I have been feeling the anxiety in church these days, and it’s not because we are trying something new. It’s because, in one way or another, this is the time of addiction.
Gerald May writes that ‘Spiritual, addiction is a deep seated form of idolatry. The objects of our addictions become our false gods. These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love. Addiction displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire. It contravenes the first commandment, you shall have no other gods before me, the god of love….it is in effect a counterfeit spiritual presence. As it is written in Ecclesiastes “I denied my eyes nothing that they desired, refused my heart no pleasure…What futility it all was, what chasing after the wind.” The Grace of one another is our hope, the only power that can vanquish addiction’s destructive power.’ (Adapted May)
Beloveds, I am inviting us into shelter before the wind, if you or one you love is being wounded by the addictions that surround us, come into the shelter of our arms, come and learn what help is here, come, “come whoever you are, wander, worshiper, lover of leaving. Ours in no caravan of despair. Come yet again come.” (Rumi) You are not alone.
My father recovered from his illness and stopped drinking cold turkey. He never attended a 12 step program. And he went on to live a rich and full life. He married again, he wrote, he protested, he laughed, he danced. And he had one glass of wine on his 80th birthday.
Blessings to you all, Amen.