Posts Tagged ‘how to recover’

As I backed out of the driveway yesterday, I noticed the sun inclined in the trees of the Redbud Forest Pansy in my front yard. Warm and yellow, the leaves glowed, backlit by the fading, evening light — apricity, complicity. I paused my car between reverse and forward  — a moment of  stillness.

And so it goes, the fall has warmth in it, its colors delight, yellow is good, the color of the sun, the color of fire, splotchy effulgence.  We note it.

Life has a yellow, sun-smacked look to it.

But there are the other colors too, “Muddy-Yuk” for instance  — by the way that’s an official color established by the Global Board’s Periodic table of colors  — the color of the floors in the new remodeled counseling center that I scraped last week.

Thank about it.

The children in Yemen are starving. It’s because of the war. I saw the pictures on 60 Minutes last night. Disturbing. Yuck.

The same sun that delights me makes life unbearable for them. It’s horribly hot in Yemen. The children are dying. They fade, like light-hungry leaves, but differently.  It’s tragic.

What to think?

I don’t today, it’s quite beyond me —  Can it be beyond me-productive for just today? —  the why and when, while, want and whip of wasting, whooping time.

Granted. Today, really, I just am. I exist, and tired from a long season of hard work, I surrender to reality.  I hate some of it. l love some of it. I necessarily bow before all of it.

By personality, I am driven, high-output, a change-maker, and image conscious, an inveterate doer, a 3 on the Enneagram typology.  I feed people. I fix problems. But today, with the cat on my lap, I just wish to be a be-er —  to loll, to laze, to loaf; to slouch, to sag, to slump; to dangle, dawdle and droop outside of the push of the ever-pulsing push-a-thon and push-a-nator.

I know that some of my own healing lies in stillness, my spiritual wholeness lies in being, my recovery rests in a robust tranquility, or just tranquillity, or just —  a yellow just.

Don’t call.

I won’t either.

Tomorrow maybe, but today, my sunlit vow — not to break a necessary stillness.

I am a Christian, and I am a pastor, but I have unresolved psychological, emotional and spiritual issues.

“You think?”

I can get a little wacky sometimes and even often, just ask my wife and daughters.

This week I was triggered to recall a hurtful event from my past. As a result I became overly self-reflective. And so, being in complete control of my life, I overate, which seemed to help, until I got a stomach ache.

Then I watched Agent Carter on TV and fell asleep, but I had some scary dreams — which always happens to me when I get upset.

“Great, another dysfunctional pastor.”

Yep, are there any other kind,  but the good news is that I’m about as screwed up as the general population so we fit together nicely.

But if, if, if I just had more faith, I’d be okay, right?

Sometimes it has been taught in the church, or implied, that when we accepted Christ and are forgiven of our sins, and became new creatures in Christ, and begin to pray, and learn the Bible, all our problems will go away.

Accept Christ and poof, the past disappears with a spiritual whoosh — Jesus as David Copperfield.

The thing is though that the Bible doesn’t promise that. It doesn’t promise an immediate, instantaneous transformation of our persons.

Jesus taught that to change, a person must become a disciple, learn from a teacher, take up their cross daily, and choose to act out a new life.

Paul too endorsed this idea of change as a process when he told us in Philippians 2:12 to work out our salvation with “fear and trembling,” and to put off our old nature and put on Christ.

Lots of steps here.

Holiness is hard work.

Don’t misunderstand. A prayer asking God to save us, followed by baptism is a powerful, life-changing experience , but it isn’t the end of transformation.

Let’s get real. Let’s make friends with reality. We all have stuff to recover from. And it takes work.

Eating disorders, childhood trauma, prescription pain medication addiction, porn, drug or alcohol addictions, gambling, loss of family, shopping disorders, gossiping, complaining, selfishness — all that and more.

This is real. We live with this stuff.

An estimated additional 80 million people in this country are “risky substance users and abusers” and this includes the huge abuse of prescription meds.

We are the most medicated and self-medicated country in the world.

To help with this a massive recovery moment has developed in our country, and yet I have never heard much from the church about what the Bible says about recovery. Many Christians even put up their spiritual noses over the recovery moment.

But the Bible says to recover we need to have three conversations, and these  conversations are much in alignment with the recovery movement.

The first conversation we must have is with ourselves.

In John 8:32, Jesus said, “… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Jesus said what?

Jesus said that to get well, I must admit my problems to myself.

Jesus is tapping into the 9th commandment, “Do not lie.” (Leviticus 19:11)

Truth-telling is so important in recovery.


Because lies keep us sick. All addiction is really just one lie after another.

To recover from anything, from life, we must face the truth, truth about what happened, how we feel, what we did, what we think, and what pain we are medicating.

We must have to begin with profound personal honesty.

12 step groups speak of making a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Therapists speak of being motivated to work on our issues. Pastors speak of confession.

We must face our pain — this is crucial to healthy change.

Step one of the 12 step program goes like this.

“I admit to myself that something is seriously wrong in my life. I have created messes in my life. Perhaps my whole life is a mess, or maybe just important parts are a mess. I admit this and I quit trying to play games with myself anymore.”

This is a good model of honesty, it’s Biblical, it’s a great start to a conversation with ourselves.

1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.”

We can begin to face our issues at any point with the tool of honesty.

Secondly, to recover we need a conversation with another person. This is what the Bible teaches.

James 5:16, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be heal.”

We need other people to recover. This will often include doctors, therapists, pastors, sponsors, supportive family and friends.

When I am sad or broken in life, I always go to others for help.

I go to my people at H&M and Express Clothing, and sometimes Macy’s. These people help me buy things, which helps me.

I have also found people who help me at Bo Beau’s French Restaurant. They provide a particularly therapeutic pork chop there, with fresh, grazed peaches on top. It is a salutary pork chop, very healing.

I think of myself as a model of going to others for help.

I have also gone to see professional therapists, MFT’s, six different times in my life.

My six therapists were all great, well, all but one. I could have done a better job myself.

But then thinking like that is one of my problems.

Therapist have helped me discover the truth about myself. Not just that I am messed up, but that that I am strong, I have value, that after recovering, while recovering, I can do stuff. I can make a difference!

One of the really compelling reasons for seeking professional help is that there is a lot of new research discovering new approaches to therapy and healing.

New body-centered therapies do well in increasing our awareness of our bodies, their sensations, their emotions and this can be very helpful

Emotionally focused therapy has been very effective with couples. It works on reestablishing a lost emotional trust and bond.

Brain-based counseling is now coming out of research done by neuroscience. We now have scientific proof that the therapy process can actually physically change the brain.

Remember, Jesus said, “The truth will set us free.” Science is rediscovering that.

To be wise, we Christians need to embrace the truth, wherever we find it, and not act like we are above therapy or support groups and don’t need them.

We go to the doctor when we need to be treated for cancer; shouldn’t we go to therapists, support groups and pastors when we have cancer in our souls?

It is time for the healing arts to work together to mend broken people. This will not work perfectly, but the path to recovery is never without failure, setbacks, mess ups, it is life-long. But the questions is, in what direction are we moving?

Are we moving toward recovery? That means letting others help us.

Finally, to recover, we need to have, a conversation with God.

That’s what the Bible teaches. The 12 Step Program, which has it’s roots in the
Bible, puts it in a way many people can understand.

The step program teaches that we need a Higher Power greater than ourselves to restore us to sanity. That is a good introductory way to put it. It may seem vague to some but it’s a good start.

This is an essential step for all of us because at the root of our addictions and dysfunctions is self-centeredness.

We can get so full of self, so addicted to self, that we can’t seem to get to God.

But I believe that we will not fully recover until we move from being problem-centered and self-centered to being God-centered.

Only turning to focus on something greater than ourselves will deeply cure us.

This something else is God.

And this where the church comes in. We know God. We know who he is. He is not vague. God is a savior. This is the truth.

God is at the core of the solution to saving us from our problems.

Because God sent his son, Jesus, God in human form, to identify with us, to be in our support group, and to take our sin from us, and to set us free.

Jesus did this by dying on the cross for us.

The Bible says, “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; (for) “by his wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2:24

Once I got very sick. So sick my wife Linda had to take me to the doctor. She was so sweet. She entered into my pain. She held my hand. She rubbed my head. She literally entered into my healing.

I’ll always love her for that.

I’m not as good at this as her. When she gets sick, I go to work and call home to see what time diner will be. I am making sure I don’t catch her disease, because if both of us get sick …

Research shows that other people, touching us and hugging us floods our bodies with oxytocin, the “bonding hormone, and this makes us feel secure, lowers cortisol levels, lowers blood pressure and reduces stress.

Even just holding hands can reduce stress in our brains, including the part of our brains that registers pain.

Most people run from others pain. But when I was really sick, my wife Linda ran to my pain, held it, so to speak and in doing do helped take it away.

This is how it is with God. In Christ, God runs toward our pain.

Jesus came to earth to hug us. On the cross it is as if Jesus took our hands, and absorbed our sin and shame and pain into himself

On the cross he held hands with the whole crazy, sick, sin-addicted world said to all of us, “I am here with you, in you most yucky, messy self, I love you, I stand with you.”

On the cross, it is as if Jesus said, I enter into your addiction and pain, I will help take it from you, and I will never leave you even as you continue to struggle with it.

The Swedish proverbs says, “Shared joy is double joy, and shared sorrow is half sorrow.”

Christ came to sit with us in our sorrow! He is salvation from sin and shame.

So how do we recover?

It comes down to this.

To enter into a process of recovery, we must have three conversations —
one with ourselves, one with others, and a very important one — with God.

P1030619When I was little, I found a safe place high up in a tree near my house.

The first time I climb that tree I saw that above me, higher up and near the top, were grape vines tangled in the branches. I climbed higher, and I saw that the vines formed a kind of roof over me, and so I poked my hands and then head through the leaves and netted vines,  and there found a kind of vine nest, a skyfort — hidden in an upper world.


I climbed up, and into it, and I laid back, and I floated on my back far off the ground, and I put my hands behind my head, and I looked up at the blue sky, and no one walking by knew I was there lounging above.

That place has stayed with me. Last year, I had the chance to go  back to where I grew up. The skyfort isn’t there any more, but my need for it remains. I still find myself ferreting out somewhere where I might be alone and feel safe for a moment and watch the world pass by below. I need such a place. We all do and if we don’t find it, we go crazy looking for it.

My office, at my work, is a bit of this  kind or place for me, where I meet with people and help them. My bedroom, at home, is such a place for me, where I write and play my guitar and talk to my wife. These places are good, but they are not enough, nor will they ever be.

I spoke to someone recently who isn’t okay —  no skyfort, no place up above it all, where they can go and feel okay. This person has a home, but there is still no place to get away from what he has done and especially what he has not done and fundamentally and intrinsically from the rejection of himself by himself.

“Hold me,” my daughter said to me recently, and so I held her, my own flesh and blood, close, safe, in the arms that have no harm in them but only want to protect and comfort and rescue. And then she let down and rested.  She was safe there, leaning back into her nest of  not-aloneness that exists within the not-aloneness of my care, where she can lounge and  watch the world go by and be okay.

We’re all looking for that kind of okay, but most of us don’t find enough of it. I know I don’t. My daughter either.

Life for all of us is less that we hope for in our moments of hoping and dreaming and imagining what might yet be there somewhere above us.

Needy, we tend to climb life, unrested, looking for a vine-net of affirmation, but usually all we get is a bunch of criticism, a pack of rules and a parcel of lies. They tend to shove us  back, away from each other, and toward the ground. We experience the “not good enough” in the very places we hoped for “your all I ever hoped for.” Even in the places we expected to find the web of understanding, places like marriage, home, church and school, we meet the cool eyes of distancing disapproval.  And then in anger and stubbornness we retreat and sniff out alternate places, dangerous and harmful places of escape and avoidance and brain numbing stultification. Yet these places are not nearly strong enough to hold off the harsh judgments of our peers and of ourselves.

There seems to be no place, to make us okay, because in no place do we find unconditional acceptance.

Except one.

Where is that?

It is in God.

God only, Christ only, accepts the unacceptable heart when it comes to him broken and unacceptable and self-rejected and allows itself to be forgiven, lifted up and held close. There is no other place to go to be okay. No human arms, no social success, no known substance, no  wealth, no hidden tree fort, nothing on the planet or in the universe that can erase the loneliness incumbent in our own failure to love and be loved. This only happens  in God.


One place.

God is the one place in which we unacceptable persons may  begin to be acceptable again. He is a safe place in which  a new okayness can be found,  from which we can begin to recover and look out and gather strength and live and love ourselves and others once again.


He is a skyfort.

Two October ago, we trekked three thousand miles to see if the carotenoids and anthocyanins might heal us. The days were shortening. The Pacific Ocean was getting colder. Christmas was months away. None of that would have mattered a bit, if life hadn’t just smashed us sideways and flipped us upside down in a multi-person, relational train wreck. We were reeling through the autumnal equinox, staggering from the scene of a social crime and we needed treatment.

Every year people hailing from sunless, rainy climates migrate to Southern California for light therapy; we were reversing the journey, pioneering from San Diego to Maine for the reds and yellows and oranges of northeastern chromotherapy.

Arriving in the dark, we drove from Portland down to South Berwick. Our Maine hosts, Ralph and Donna, said they preferred to take the back roads and avoid what they called the “turnpike,” so we did. I leaned against the dark car window on Fox Ridge Drive.  In the headlights, I could just see the trees starting to blush. We hadn’t come too early.

The pigments were at work. The same elements that color the bright yellow squashes in our California backyard gardens, the purple lupines along our roads, and the red strawberries in our bowls, color the trees in Maine. They are the pigments, the carotenoids and anthocyanins. When they hang out and mix it up with sunlight and rain, heat and cold, place and genetics — and who knows what else — they saturate the world with color.  They are a virtual botanical mixed drink.  Leaves tanked up primarily on anthocyanins dress up and go out to party in red or purple. Leaves having downed  good shots of both anthocyanins and carotenoids parade about shamelessly in pure orange. Leaves drunk with carotenoids but little or no anthocyanins stagger happily through autumn decked out in yellow.

The postcard Donna wrote said, “Please come visit. Ralph will take off work and we’ll go around with you. We’d love to have you as guests at our home.”  It was a gracious, welcoming invitation, carrying a faint sense of a sweet-smelling kitchen, a fire heating up the family room, a tail-whopping dog on the rug and hot chocolate in mugs. We were touched by the genuine gesture of hospitality — and the timing. The things that have just happened in our lives affect how we read our invitations.

I recently ran into a friend, Jean, at a party given by another friend who had just gotten back from a summer in Kenya.  Our Kenya trekking friend was showing her travel pictures. I’ve been to South Africa. I have friends there, and the pictures brought back vivid memories for me. While standing in the living room watching the photo journal of the trip, the back of my mind ran silent movies of eating with my own South African friends in a cinder block home in Soweto, touring the Pilanesberg Game Reserve with them and traveling across the veld to visit a rural school in Swaziland. My whole trip to South Africa was so much about people. Perhaps healing is pretty much that too.

While photos of giraffes, AID’s orphans and dancing African teenagers scrolled on a flat screen behind her, Jean asked how I was doing. I paused, an African child squatting over her shoulder. I needed a second. The Africans kept moving as I tried to call up what I told her the last time I saw her. I was also sketching out how to respond to her question about my condition. Whenever someone asks me how it is going, I make up a short story, fast. We all do. Even when we offer only a word, or a few words, we play the raconteur, laying out one plot over another, one point of view over another, our story choices made with split second judgments of the social milieu we spin our narratives into. And it’s complicated, how it comes out and how it is interpreted. The story we tell is always embedded within the story happening in the present moment and both those stories interact with a story about us that already exists within the listener.

I said, “I’m recovering. It was tough to lose my job in the recession. But I really like my new place. We are working on social justice stuff, feeding homeless people here in town, helping Burmese refugees in City Heights, working with foster children. I’m moving on, but it takes time, to get over what happened.”

It is awkward, the thing about moving on. I didn’t really want to talk about it. It was way too painful. I really didn’t feel like ripping into some of my former colleagues at a party with unsuspecting friends present. It’s in such poor taste and can upset the host. It’s also bad for digestion. I avoid it, generally. Besides, I didn’t have to go on. She took up the story and began telling me about the church in town she didn’t go to anymore. Stories beget similar stories. She had just been to a reunion. Certain people were there. She didn’t elaborate. I didn’t really know what she was talking about. Her voice quieted as she said, “It brought up some feelings I thought I’d worked through.”  As she was talking I was thinking about how the craziness beats in on all of us at times, turning boring, commonplace narratives surreal. Homey places where we put our feet up and sip hot drinks become places we run from scalded.  People who were safe become people we fear. Rwanda and Burundi, in 1994, come to mind.

At that moment, I didn’t see the African orphans behind her anymore, just her face near me, looking up at me. Our half-veiled emotions riveted us together. I stood there processing the narrative before us, the story I did know within the story I didn’t know, and then I said to her, “It’s okay.”  I paused, formulating more words. “It’s okay to have people you don’t want to see. I have a couple of people like that, from what happened to me. Perhaps, in time…” She nodded, silently, looking straight at me. I wasn’t sure what she was thinking. Then she wiped her eyes with the skin on the tops of her knuckles. “Thank you,” she said with a slight smile.”I needed that.”

Maine was something my wife and I needed.  I remember standing in the yard at Ralph and Donna’s home watching the leaves fall. It was just what I’d hoped for. The wind gusted in the big tree in the center of the meadow, and a flurry of yellow leaves wobbled down with papery sounds. They fell in slow flutters and occasional arcs toward the ground. Donna told me that when it is quiet in the woods, on freezing winter nights, that you can hear the leaves snap off the trees. I walked up the road with her dog, to the top of the hill where a red maple was on fire with color. I walked back down in the leaves that lay piled at the edges of the road. When a car came by the leaves gusted up, as if raised from the dead for a few seconds only to sink back to a quiet resting place again.

The next day, Donna and Ralph drove us over to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. There is a photo album on the end table in my home where I read that has pictures of that trip to New Hampshire in it, one of a blue stream full of yellow leaves,  one of a smooth lake mirrored with vermilion, gold and lime colored trees, one of hill after hued hill, piled up to the horizon with a dusting of orange, brown, green, red and yellow. They strike me as some of the softest and most therapeutic color tones I have ever seen. There is something about the miles and miles of celebrating colors, something festive, party-fun, good. I remember now, looking at these pictures, that the days Ralph and Donna escorted us through the wonders, every turn in the road made me reel one way or another with delight. I was drinking with the leaves, inebriated with color, happy to be alive.

Back at their house, after our day in the White Mountains,  I remember sitting at their kitchen table.  Donna put a big casserole of shepherd’s pie in front of us. Fluffy mashed potatoes crowned the dish in a flurry of peaks, paprika accenting them with a dusting of red. Tall glasses of white milk sat in front of the plates. We ate and talked.

Ralph and Donna talked about the accident. I had heard them speak about this before. But it was sacred, listening to them again. Their feelings, thoughts and words arced down deep inside of me. As they took turns talking, I listened with the intensity of a soldier with a deep unsown gash, hanging onto every movement and word from the field doctors bent over him.

Their son Josh died in a motorcycle accident. It happened when he was on a trip with their church. He got on a bike in a parking lot for fun, zoomed off down the street, and then they didn’t have their son to hug anymore. His room was upstairs, across the hall from the room where we were sleeping. Some of his things were still there. There were stars on the ceiling.

There isn’t simply one thing that gets at it. The leaves don’t change colors simply because the days get shorter. There aren’t any certain lines on which all leaves fall, neither are there any perfect lines that end our discussions of things. Ralph talked about questions that lead to more questions. He offered me no formula to write in my journal, carry back home, mix up in my kitchen lab and apply to my wounds and bandages.

But of course, I didn’t want that. I have had the privilege and burden of teaching writing at the college.  I have sat at home reading papers that only a teacher could, should or would read. Over time I have come to see that a formulaic interpretation of psychologically painful events is much like an amateurish freshman paper critiquing a novel only partly read. It is a thing awkwardly cobbled together late, under the disabling influence of a deadline —  a hodgepodge of unsupported quotes, blown transitions and an unproven thesis.

But that is not what Donna and Ralph offered. As I listened to them story their life, I was struck by a scenic beauty that acted as a backdrop to everything they said. There was a soft shade of gentleness behind every question and commentary. In all their thinking, in their psychology of loss, in their sociology of survival, in their theology of pain, ran a dusted hue of kindness. I noticed that Sunday, when they took us to their church, as they spoke to friends there, they were as tender with them as they were with us. And in these interactions something unexpected began to happen to our stories.  Ralph and Donna’s story began to intersect and merge with my story and the stories of all my friends and their friends. A kind of narrative fusion began to take place — all our terrifying experiences, our tragically lost relationships, our agonizingly arranged  interpretations blew from the road to the air again, to lift and turn and arc down, to settle and to rest where the pigments cover the rising mountains to the horizon.

People think of the Jewish story teller, Jesus as primarily a great teacher; he is known for his sayings, parables, stories, but he was as much a healer as teacher. The accunt of Jesus reports that once when Jesus saw a man with leprosy, he was “filled with compassion.”  I think his compassion was not justfor the physical problem, although I believe he must have cared much about that, but also for the man’s damaged sence of self,  his lost connections, his broken relationships with family and friends. To be a leper was to be a pariah, to be separated from  hugs and kisses and sexuality and love. It was brutal and agonizing, the distancing factor of having scary skin. And we are told that Jesus had compassion. In other words,  Jesus felt the deep pain of the man, the loss of his identity, the loneliness of his existence, the anger he had inside, the stunned confusion, the cry of  injustice. “I am left out,” cried the leper and Jesus said, “Be in.” The account reports that Jesus healed him.

Make what you might of it, not much beats compassion when you are suffering. A daughter rubs her father’s feet on his death-bed, saying by touching him, you are still a person, worthy of attention, deserving to be touched. Touch, compassion, psyche healing even when the physical  deterioration cannot be stopped, is eloquent to a watching universe, a shout int the dark, “I love you!”  When I was so sick after a surgery, lying in the bathroom alone one night on the floor, one of our small kitten came and lay down with me. The gesture, from an animal, the soft warmth close — I haven’t forgotten it. Not being alone in that isolating moment of suffering — significant! The color of compassion is shifted toward the warm, fallish end of the light spectrum.

It always astonishes me, how close truth hovers in the backdrop of life. On the day that we went driving in the White Mountains we came to where the “old man” had fallen down above Profile Lake. The old man had been a series of five granite ledges, that when viewed from the right angle, looked like a man’s face. He was a state emblem, but a fragile one at best. During much of the 20th Century he was held in place by cables and spikes. Between midnight and 2 am on May 3, 2003, with a rocky roar, the old man just slid down the mountain. People were so dismayed they left flowers at the bottom of the cliff.

The time goes so quickly. We are back from Maine. Southern California, along the coast, is such a beautiful thing. The palms here stay green and bright all year long. One of the many lantanas in my yard is always in bloom — purple, yellow or orange. But I don’t need seasonal reminders that things change because I know they do.  And when that change is for not for the better, I am of the opinion that the carotenoids and anthocyanins are among the things that heal, and love.

When I go shopping at the grocery store, I pick out the small orange and red and yellow peppers. At lunch, I sometimes edge my plate with them. And when I make smoothies in my blender, I dump in the bluest blueberries and darkest red strawberries. They are rich with the pigments I love. They sooth me, but I know what they are and what they aren’t. I know that they aren’t a spike or a cable, certain to hold me up forever. It’s not a dark perspective, just true: the bottom of the cliff waits.

But so do other things — friends yet to travel to, places yet to surprise, narratives yet to be shared. We have been through a few things that have changed us very much, my African friends, Donna and Ralph, Jean, my wife and I. And for some of us, there may be places that we are not quite ready to visit and people who for now are perhaps best not seen.  But we know that in the fall, the hills change. They brighten with the therapeutic pigments. And lately, I have been hearing more and more stories of loss that sound, at the emotional core of the narrative, similar to mine.

I lean toward the voices that tell them and hope to grow more gentle, like other story tellers I know.