12-Steps

  • blogpic.wheelofemotionsLast Sunday I was getting ready for the high school graduation party for our youngest child. Everyone else was either at church or asleep. As I rushed around the house, I began to feel nauseous. I knew I wasn’t physically ill; my body was bearing the symptoms of emotions I was ignoring. I wanted to do anything but feel my feelings—could I busy myself and ignore them? Could I eat something sweet and shove those uncomfortable feelings back down?

    What do you do to avoid feeling your feelings and to escape experiencing the height and depth of all your emotions? Some turn to alcohol or drugs to feel better; others shop, gamble or become control freaks; still others exercise, work or busy themselves compulsively. It’s no accident that the naturally occurring chemicals in chocolate make us feel better; it has phenylethylamine which is the “love drug,” serotonin which is a mood lifter, and it releases endorphins in the brain. Alcohol can relax and numb us while controlling others enables us to externalize our discomfort and blame someone else. This all seems far preferable to dealing with guilt, shame and fear, which, as I learned from 12-step programs, are the primary reasons people drink. We all do something to avoid uncomfortable feelings whether or not we’ve developed a full-blown addiction. The problem is that the relief is only temporary, and the cruddy feelings remain. Feelings unexpressed come out some other way--often in hurtful, destructive ways.

    While I contemplated what to do with my nausea, it occurred to me that sobriety from any addictive substance or pattern of behavior means the willingness to feel my feelings, especially the uncomfortable ones. This is the only path for those who want to be spiritually healthy and whole. Plus, my body was not letting me off the hook.

    I sat down to pray, journal and get in touch with what was really going on. I wrote out feelings of anger at the changes in my life, and was left with a deep feeling of sadness that an important stage of my life was ending. Once I acknowledged my emotions, felt them, and received the wisdom they were sharing, I felt so much better. I was still sad, but no longer nauseous. I was both grounded and freed, releasing new energy for the tasks at hand. I also became emotionally available to enjoy the party and everyone who came to celebrate our daughter’s success. It was better and longer-lasting than a chocolate high and it wasn’t followed by guilt and shame.

    This experience made me wonder why it’s so hard for me to lean into my feelings and listen to them rather than indulge the compulsion to avoid and cover them up. Part of the reason is taking the time to listen to my inner self and believing I am worth this attention. Part of it is fear that my emotions will become all-consuming (and then overcoming my resistance to asking for help from a friend or therapist!). Part of it is letting go of the illusion that I’ll feel better if I just ignore uncomfortable emotions. Part of it is the irrational fear that I won’t be loved if I’m honest about what’s going on inside me. I’ve actually found that the opposite is true. We become much easier to love when we’re honest and engage in our own self-care.

    Two days later, we came home from our last high school graduation ceremony. Again, everyone was either out or asleep, and there I was, in the house alone with these feelings of loss and sadness, plus I was overtired to boot. I didn’t handle it as well as I did before the party. I found the dark chocolate bunny my kids left untouched after Easter, and I ate the whole thing while watching Netflix. At least I got some extra antioxidants since it was dark chocolate!

    A big part of spiritual sobriety is also forgiving myself when I don’t handle my feelings well.

    Image: Roger Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions: By Machine Elf 1735 - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13285286

  • Truth Pain and Freedom in ChristA sermon preached at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, Missouri, for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, October 29, 2017, on John 8:31-36 and Romans 3:19-28. This is my farewell sermon before moving from St. Louis to Frisco, Texas.

    We’ve all heard that “the truth hurts.” If you google this phrase, you will find hundreds of "the truth hurts" pages on Pinterest.

    You will know the truth and the truth will make you free. Jesus's words, yes—but he doesn’t mention that the truth will hurt. He seems to skip the part about pain being involved in those moments between "knowing the truth" and "being free."

    Our unwillingness to feel the pain of facing our truths is one of the biggest reasons that we are not set free in so many ways. Jesus is not talking about propositional truth—statements and doctrines of fact that we simply accept—but rather he is talking about the truth of who we are, the truth of who God is, the truth of our relationship with God in Christ Jesus, and the truth of how we live out that relationship in this world.

    Psychologists write entire books about what they call defense mechanisms—all the ways in which we can try to avoid the pain encounteredwhen confronting the truth of who we are:

    • We repress what disturbs us. 
    • We project what we don’t like about ourselves onto others, and then criticize them.
    • We rationalize our errors. 
    • We regress into childish behaviors and thought patterns. (We can look forward to this dynamic as the holiday season approaches, when the whole family gets together and we feel like we’re eight years old again!)

    And let's not forget denial, the way we just reject a reality in front of us until we’re ready to deal with the pain that comes with facing it. (When someone I love seems stuck in denial, I like to sidle up to them, smile, and say, “You know ‘denial’ is not just a river in Egypt!”)

    While in seminary, I dated a fellow student. We looked like such a good match on the surface, and I knew my parents would approve, so gosh darnit, I would make this relationship work! To this day, he’s still a great guy and he's become a great pastor. But the truth was, our personalities, needs, and ways of expressing ourselves back then were not all that compatible. I didn’t want to deal with the pain of that truth. I didn’t want to experience the pain of being alone. I certainly didn't want to feel the pain of admitting that, no matter how many ways I had tried, I couldn’t be my true selfin that relationship. The truth hurt, and so for nearly two years, I repressed, rationalized, and denied my way into trying harder, over and over again.

    While learning about the 12-Step program, I visited an open Alcoholics Anonymousmeeting. The speaker that day was talking about Step 1, and I'll never forget his message. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and our lives had become unmanageable,” he said. He went on to explain that the problem is that we think that just by trying harder, we can kick addiction or end a painful situation. But no matter how much we try, we fail and repeat the cycle—over and over again. Talk about pain. Maybe the pain of facing truth isn’t so bad after all. “The truth is,” he continued, “Step 1 happens not when we try harder, but when we admit that we cannot do this on our own at all!” Now, that’s a painful truth: We really are powerless, and left to our own devices, our lives are a mess. But the moment we accept this is also the very momentwhen we are ready to receive help from God. That’s when freedom happens!

    And that’s what happened to me, in this relationship that I was trying so hard to make work. When I admitted that on my own I couldn’t fix or change it, that I needed God’s help, I was finally facing the truth—a truth that unleashed all of the pain of a broken relationship, the pain of being alone, the pain of knowing my own limitations.

    It was the end of December and very cold in Chicago. We talked and cried late into the night because, well, the truth hurts. He would have been unwise to drive back to his parents’ house that night, so we pumped up the air mattress. We weren’t married, so when there were no alternative sleeping arrangements, we had gotten into the habit of trading off who got the bed and who slept on the air mattress. That night, it was my turn on the air mattress. As it turned out, the air mattress had a new leak. As I slept, all the air seeped out and I ended up on the cold hardwood floor. It sounds horrible, I know, but it turned out to be the best night of sleep I’d had in months—the truth had set me free! I was enveloped in the forgiveness and love of Jesus, and I was finally trusting him with my whole life, whether or not I remained alone. The pain of realizing that I couldn’t make my life work by myself was momentary, while the relationship with Jesus would last for my lifetime.

    We see this pattern throughout Scripture and in the lives of the saints, who sought to be faithful to the truth of who they were and the truth of who God is in Jesus Christ.

    When Jesus appeared to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, Paul had to experience the pain of confronting the revelation of who he was: a man who was persecuting and killing early Christians. He endured blindness and confusion, deep sorrow and regret. But the truth of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ freed Paul from that pain, and it freed him from his former life as a Pharisee. Paul was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime; the pain of facing who he had been before accepting his truth was only momentary by comparison. Paul experienced being justified by grace as a gift, and we still hear about his freedom today, two millenia later, as it is written in his letter to the Romans.

    Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther grappled with the pain of his own sin and of the truth that he could not by his own work or merit—no matter how hard he tried—make himself right before God. Would the Reformation have happened if Luther had repressed, denied, rationalized, even projected the pain of his sin on someone else, rather than experiencing it and discovering in the process forgiveness without price and grace without merit? The pain of his sin was only momentary. Luther was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime, even through excommunication and a threat to his life.

    This evening, we will come together, Roman Catholics and Lutherans, at the Basilica to commemorate the Reformation and the truth of the Gospel that both Luther and Paul preached: We are saved, not by trying harder, but by confessing that alone we can’t do it at all. Telling this truth about who we are can be painful. The law convicts us and makes us aware of our brokenness and sin, but because grace opens up a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ, that pain doesn’t last.

    So now here I am, at another moment of embracing both the pain and the truth of who I am. I have resisted moving and the pain of saying goodbye for as long as I could—two years, at least! Yet the moving truck comes on Thursday. It’s time to say farewell to a city, my home, my church, my ministry, and to so many people I love. I do not have a call. I do not have a clue what God has in mind for me in Texas. Maybe I’ll be a little tempted to grab Texas by the longhorns, to try hard to make something happen. But I've learned that God calls us all to ministries and endeavors, expecting us to step forward in faith, even though we cannot see the ending or even the way.

    Our future is held in the same place it has always been—in our abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “If you continue in my Word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” This Word is the Bible, yes, but the Word is also Jesus himself, the Word made flesh.

    Trust in the truth of who you are in relationship with Jesus Christ—that you are freed from your own sin and limitations, enveloped by God’s grace to love and serve with your whole heart. Wherever you are trying harder, but resisting the pain of change—that’s the very place where Jesus Christ is calling you to greater freedom and to put your trust in him.

    So be willing to experience the pain of change—of trying ever-new ways to connect with Millennials—and to proclaim Christ in our ever-changing post-modern era.

    Pastors and programs come and go, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever! Jesus sets us free for a relationship with Him that lasts for not only a lifetime, but for eternity. That’s freedom, indeed!

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