My Name is Paul and I’m an Alcoholic, Step 10

One Thursday each month I will share a post on one of the 12 Steps. This month is Step 10. Recovery is an area of life that 12 Step groups have done amazing work with, yet many churches (and other community groups) struggle with what to do. My hope is that this series will help those who are not in recovery learn more about their friends and family members who are in recovery. I welcome any feedback, questions, and concerns you may have!

“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it” (Step 10).

“We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities. ‘How can I best serve Thee—They will (not mine) be done.’ These are thoughts which must go with us constantly. We can exercise our will power along this line all we wish. It is the proper use of the will” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 85).

“Learning daily to spot, admit, and correct these flaws is the essence of character- building and good living. An honest regret for harms done, a genuine gratitude for blessings received, and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow will be the permanent assets we shall seek” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 95).

12 Step groups do not have a graduation. There is no Certificate of Completion. There is no end goal at which one arrives. Sobriety is a lifelong process.

There is an important shift at this point in the journey, however. Through the first nine steps, the recovering addict has learned how to reconnect with God, how to forgive him- or herself, and how to reach out and seek forgiveness from those they have harmed. It is not an easy journey.

Now, the recovering addict gets to do it all over again; only this time on a daily basis! You see, alcoholics are never truly cured. Many people, including several mental health professionals, disagree with this. However, if you attend enough 12 Step meetings you will story after story of people with long-term sobriety relapsing. When they do, it is rarely a one-time slip up. The disease of alcoholism and drug addiction is progressive. If someone with 10 years of sobriety picks up again, they do not start over in their addiction. They do not even pick up where they left off. They often pick up and start using as if they had never stopped. In other words, a person with that length of sobriety who starts using again would use as much as they would have been using had they not stopped 10 years earlier.

So alcoholics and addicts recognize that we are not cured, but we have a daily reprieve. Each day we wake up is a new adventure in sobriety. If we are to maintain the sobriety we have worked so hard to attain during the first 9 steps, we will repeat the process every day.

There is an emphasis on humility and proper use of self-will throughout the 12 Step process. Both elements are on display in Step 10. Each day, I must renew my connection with God through prayer. Each day, I must acknowledge that my past is behind me and I only have today. Each day, I must honestly analyze my interactions with other people. When I make a mistake, I must admit it. When I insult or injure someone, intentionally or otherwise, I must make amends for it. When someone hurts me, I must address it.

Step 10 pulls no punches: PROMPTLY admitted it. The addict has spent a lifetime covering up his or her tracks; a lifetime avoiding dealing with people. In order to first attain sobriety, the recovering addict learns how to live appropriately among other people. In order to maintain that sobriety, the recovering addict learns to practice these principles every day. No longer can I allow mistakes to go unchecked. No longer can I allow relationships to suffer from silence and avoidance. No longer can I allow resentments to fester. I deal with these, and other, issues as they come up promptly.

Throughout this series, I have been intending to highlight how people who are not in recovery (specifically church communities) can aid those who are in recovery. At this point of the recovery process, it is likely you will not know the person is in recovery; unless you have known their story to this point.

This is an area where the culture of the church is important. There are two common misperceptions in the church: 1. addiction is an issue of self-control and 2. once the substance is removed the problem is solved. Both misperceptions are toxic.

If the church acts as if addiction is purely an issue of self-control many addicts will be afraid to open up about their struggle. If the church acts as if the removal of the substance equals the removal of the problem many addicts will be afraid to open up and ask for help along the journey.

In all of our spiritual journeys, we must remember there is no difference: sin is sin; brokenness is brokenness; separation from God is separation from God. There are no levels. If you truly want to help a person in their journey of sobriety, remove the stigma of the terms “addict” and “alcoholic.” I am a recovering alcoholic. I know the things I have done. I have faced many consequences for my actions. But the past does not define me. Please do not treat me as if my issue is any different than yours.

Further, don’t tell me that I should “be over it” now. It has been a number of years since my last drink. It has been a number of years since the last time I wanted a drink. But I am still a recovering alcoholic. This does not mean I am defined by the label alcoholic, but it is an admission of an important truth: I cannot drink alcohol. Ever. Acknowledgment that I am a recovering alcoholic is a reminder to remain vigilant to the dangers of giving in to that addiction ever again.

Most importantly, I need you to walk with me. I need you to encourage me. I need you to listen to me. This is the same for everyone. We need to build a community where all of us are safe sharing our struggles as well as our victories.

Sobriety is a daily journey. So is spirituality. Let’s journey together.

The Spiritual Practice of Highlight/Lowlight; Please Join The Conversation

I want to start something new on my blog, but I need your help. I want to hear the best part and worst part of your life over the past month. In other words: your highlight and lowlight. Or, if you prefer: your happy/crappy!

The fancy term for this is examen, which means examination of conscious. It is a spiritual discipline that leads the individual to focus on the consolation (the good) and the desolation (the bad) of his or her life. We all have triumphs and we all have defeats. I believe we must be sharing them with one another.

_________________________

DESOLATION

Here is something I have noticed. When I share a post about depression, loneliness, or some other struggle many of us face, I receive a lot of feedback. Often, the comments come on facebook or on this blog, but just as often those comments come in private messages. I get that. I get the anonymity that people believe they must have in order to prevent being put down or cast aside. When people open up, they are afraid they will be looked down on. And I can’t say that I blame them.

But I continue learning that none of us are facing struggles alone. There are so many people all around us that need to hear our stories—YOUR story. People need to know that others are struggling with similar issues so that we can begin to support one another instead of continuing to isolate.

CONSOLATION

Here is something else I have noticed. When people who have been in the midst of a struggle experience some type of joy, they do not know what to do with it. Is it appropriate to be happy? Dare I smile for a moment in the midst of all this pain? Sometimes we are afraid of being happy.

But all of go through ups and downs. All of us go through seasons of life. All of us face the variety of emotions common to humanity. We need to be able to speak the good just as often as we speak the bad. Because some days I need you to remind me that it will get better. It may never be the same as it was, but there is a day coming when there will be some relief.

_________________________

We should never stay in either consolation or desolation. We move back and forth between both. So here is my new, interactive task for readers of my blog: share with us your consolation (highlight/happy) and desolation (lowlight/crappy) from the past month. You can think about in several ways: simply use the terms I have already given, or think about when you were the closest to God and when you were the farthest away from God. For those of you who are not particularly religious or spiritual, when you were the closest to the person you need to be and when were you the farthest away from the person you need to be.

Please share with us. Share in the comments on this post. Or share in the comments on facebook or on twitter (my handle there is paulmathis2). I will do this once a month, so please take part continually. I believe this is an important spiritual practice. We end every day at FaithWorks of Abilene with this practice. I am in a weekly prayer group that practices this, as well.

We need community. We need to support one another. We need to know that we are not alone in our struggle. We need to remember that there is joy in the midst of our pain. So please join with us in sharing our highlight/lowlight.

_________________________

For me this month, my highlight is my relationship with my three children. I am so impressed at their thoughtfulness and spiritual discernment at such young ages (15, 13, 11). I have often felt far away from my oldest, but I believe we are closer now than we have ever been. My middle child is full of God’s Spirit and it shines through her constantly. My youngest continues to fill my days with joy.

My lowlight is my health. In the long run, it is not a big deal, but I have to go back on cholesterol medicine. A little over 2 years ago, my bad cholesterol was really high and I was given a prescription but never took it. My classmates at that time encouraged me, I started taking the pills, and my numbers came down. I began exercising (a little) and eating better. But I have been off the medication for a year and my numbers are back up. I am not doing as well as I thought. I come from a family of heart disease. My brother died 4 years ago at age 47 of a heart attack. I need to get this under control. In addition to the medicine, I need to better with diet and exercise.

_________________________

So what about you? What is your highlight/lowlight? What are your consolations and desolations? Please do not be afraid to share. May you find encouragement as you read what others have to say.

Sitting Alone At Church

The church I attend has two worship assemblies on Sunday mornings. One of my children likes to help out in the nursery during one of them. So my Sunday routine is usually to attend the first worship assembly by myself; my daughter goes to the nursery and my wife and sons join us for the second one.

So this means I am by myself during early worship. Normally, I sit with a friend of mine, but this past Sunday I sat alone. By alone, I mean there was no one in the seat immediately to my left or my right. I knew the family in front of me and behind me. I was sitting in a row with a family of visitors. But for all intents and purposes I was sitting by myself.

Which led to anticipated questions: where is the rest of the family? So why are you by yourself today? Are your wife and kids sick?

Most of these questions may have been exactly what they sounded like and nothing more. Or, there may have been an underlying question beneath it: is your family about to fall apart? Because it is not normal for someone to be here all alone.

I do not know the motive behind the question (because I did not ask). I was not particularly concerned about the motive behind the question (because my family was on the way). I knew everything was okay with me, so I received the question as a curiosity, nothing more (which is likely how it was intended).

But I started thinking: how difficult is it to be a single person at church? More than that, how difficult is it to be a single again person at church? Churches are not particularly known for having great singles programs. Church culture often venerates marriage, family, and child-raising. So the person who is not married and sits by his- or herself on a given Sunday morning may feel…

  • Different.
  • Left out.
  • Isolated.
  • Odd.
  • Pitied.

None of those are particularly comfortable emotions.

_________________________

Have you ever noticed that the thing that makes us different is often the thing we try and hide?

  • I don’t want to talk about my depression because then you will think less of me.
  • I don’t want to talk about my addiction because then you will think I am weak and lack self-control.
  • I don’t want to talk about my problems with my partner or my children or my parents because then you will think I have a dysfunctional family.
  • I don’t want to talk about my sexual orientation because then you will think I am a deviant and you will turn your back on me.
  • I don’t want to talk to you about my loneliness because then you will think I am weird and you will do everything you can to avoid me.
  • I don’t want to tell you I am afraid because then you will think I lack faith.
  • I don’t want to tell you I am sad because you will think you need to cheer me up.

But here is the difficult thing about being single at church: it makes you different, and you can’t even hide it.

__________________________

I have been writing this year on some things I wish all churches knew about how to deal with recovering addicts and alcoholics. There are also some things I wish all churches knew about how to deal with the single members in their midst.

First, singleness does not equal sickness. There is nothing aberrant or wrong about being single. But our current church culture emphasizes family so much that many singles are left to feel as if something is wrong, or at least lacking, with them. We need to stop acting as if marriage is a victory and singleness is a loss. That is not the case. We need to celebrate the fact that some people embrace their singleness and use it to God’s glory.

Second, not all singleness is alike. Some people are single because of circumstances beyond their control. Their partner may have left them. Their partner may have passed away. They may have never had a partner but are actively seeking one. There may have been a number of different factors that led to them being single.

Others are single as the result of an empowered choice. There are some people who have been called to singleness. They have accepted that call and are not in pursuit of a relationship. Or they are single again and have prayerfully decided they will not seek out an intimate relationship again.

Some are lonely. Some are not. There is no specific formula for “handling single people.” Instead of treating single people as “them,” how about we treat them as human? Single people are not a problem to be solved or an issue that needs a program. They are active, vibrant parts of God’s Kingdom, gifted and talented and looking for ways to be included.

Third, that which makes us different is that which unites us all. And we need to be talking about it. Because whatever I deal with makes me human. Regardless of what I deal with, I am a child of God. And so are you. It is in our struggles that we are all reminded we are not God. We are His sons and daughters, though. We are on a level playing field. Your struggle might be different than mine, but the fact that we both struggle means we can find a common ground.

So if you are single or married or in a relationship that is crumbling, let’s talk.

If you are riding high in life right now or you are mired the depths of your depression, let’s talk.

If you are getting along great with your kids or have no idea what you are doing, let’s talk.

If you are trying to figure out how to keep from feeling alone, even in the midst of a throng of people, let’s talk.

Whatever the case may be, let’s talk. It’s what a community does.

It Is Time To Wake Up…Lessons We Must Learn From Ferguson

Note: I wrote this before the incident that occurred last night where yet another unarmed black teenager was shot and killed. Pray for his family. Pray for St. Louis. Pray and act to bring about real change.

As a parent, I worry about many things. I worry about how my kids will do in school. I worry about their spiritual development. I worry if I am feeding them properly. I worry that we watch too much TV together. I worry about future dating relationships. (Like way, way, WAY in the future.) I worry about them learning how to drive.

But there are some things I have never worried about and I believe I never will:

  • I do not worry that my kids will be shot by the police, especially when my kids are unarmed.
  • I do not worry that they will be the target of excessive force if they are in a car that is pulled over for speeding.
  • I do not worry that they will be yelled at for walking down the street or wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

I do not worry about those things because they are white. There are issues, concerns, and fears that I—as a white parent—will never face.

Why do we fight to acknowledge this reality?

As members of the predominant culture in our country, we are not always able to recognize the difficulties members of minority cultures face. When white fans pour out of a baseball stadium and tell black protestors, “Go back to Africa,” what are those protestors to think about how they are viewed?

When a cop who is charged with killing an unarmed teenager is put into hiding and people put “I support (said killer)” on their clothes; when online fundraisers collect money—not for the victim’s family—there is a clear message of who is important and who is not.

When evidence is presented that shows one side lied about an important forensic detail (Mike Brown was 100 feet away when first shot, not 35) and six separate witnesses confirm the story that the victim was truly a victim, what are minorities supposed to think about justice and the legal process?

When these issues are brought up and people say, “Quit talking about race so much,” how are members of minority races going to be able to open up and talk freely about their experiences?

Ferguson, Missouri, has highlighted a huge problem in our nation today. And it is a problem that many people wish to ignore. Accusations of race-baiting or fear-mongering are utilized in an attempt to shut people up. Accusations of paranoia are used to tell people their experiences aren’t as they perceive them to be, so they should just deal with it.

And we have created a climate where an armed white man can shoot an unarmed black teenager (who has his hands raised) six times without being charged. (This may change, but it’s been almost two months with no charges being brought yet.) Further, the victim endures a character assassination attempt in order to try and justify an unjustifiable homicide.

Meanwhile, white Americans, specifically white, Christian Americans, sit back and say things like, “Well, he should have listened in the first place.” Or, “This has nothing to do with race, it only has to do with law and order.” Or, “We don’t live in Ferguson, so it doesn’t matter to us.” Or, “We need to wait until all the facts are in.”

Or they say nothing at all.

The silence is perhaps the most troubling. We need to wake up. There is a problem. The first step is in acknowledging it exists.

I suggest three things we all must do, especially those of us who are in the dominant culture; in other words—those of us who are white.

We need to Shut Up, Listen Up, and Speak Up.

SHUT UP

As a former-preacher-recovering-alcoholic, my sponsor gave me one directive in the early months of my sobriety: shut up. I spent my life talking. I talked from the pulpit. I talked in the classroom. I talked in my office. I talked at board meetings. I had done my fair share of talking. My sponsor recognized that and told me to shut up. When I went to meetings, I was to sit there in silence.

In my current job, I work with people who want to learn how to be successful in the workplace. One of the biggest lessons they need to learn is when not to speak. When I see people in the therapy room, one of the first things they often need to do is stop talking.

When we talk, we do not listen. When we say things like, “Race is not an issue,” we are telling people their experience is invalid. When we say things like, “It’s really not that bad,” we are indicating that we have made up our minds and we are not willing to face the truth of what other people are living through.

We need to stop talking. We need to pay attention. We need to listen.

LISTEN UP

If you have ever said to yourself, “I’m not racist, I have a black friend,” then there is a problem. Your circle is too small. This step has two smaller steps: first, increase your circle. Start attending events where you will be in the minority. Visit churches that are made up of a culture you are not a part of. If there are events going on in your town: civic events, neighborhood parties, attend them. Put yourself around people who are different than you.

The second step is to listen. Do not respond. Do not try and explain away. Do not justify. Do not tell people they are mistaken. Do not suggest that they should be happy with what has already happened. Just listen. People of color experience things in their daily existence that white people do not.

And if we don’t listen, we miss out on that. Actively seek to be among people different than you and just listen to them. Remember: you are not an expert on someone else’s experience.

SPEAK UP

This may sound antithetical to “shut up” but when the process is followed properly this is a necessary step. After we stop talking and start listening, we start learning what is truly broken within the various systems we live in. Once you learn what is broken, work to fix it. Thankfully, I live in a community that has a police force aware of its racial disparity. Our police chief has publicly stated there is a need to recruit more African-American and Latino police officers. I worship with several members of the police force and they are all men and women dedicated to bringing about justice. I have heard from members of minority groups describe their experience here as opposed to other places they have lived. We are far from perfect, but we have also moved away from where many cities still are.

With that being said, however, there is still a multiplicity of problems in our community. Racial and economic disparities still exist. It is difficult for people with criminal records to overcome their past and find work. Neighborhoods are often segregated by color. Churches continue to be predominantly made up of one ethnicity.

We must recognize the problems and speak out against them.

Look for ways to get involved in your community.* Look for ways to volunteer with organizations that are dedicated to justice. Make friends with people who have different life experiences than you.

Most importantly, stop trying to say that issues surrounding racial stereotyping are not a big deal. Stop telling people they are imagining things. Stop telling them to get over it. We must wake up and acknowledge the problem that exists. If we ignore it, we will be replaying the Ferguson episode over and over again. If we acknowledge it, we can work to correct it.

 

*International Justice Mission
*Justice. That’s All
*Salvation Army
*Goodwill
*Local churches
*Food banks
*County Health Departments
*Medical missions

Why The Good Ole Days Weren’t All That Good

“You cannot be a person of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning the authority of prejudice, even though that prejudice may seem to be religious. Faith is not blind conformity to a prejudice—a ‘pre-judgment.’ It is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of truth that cannot be proven. It is not merely the acceptance of a decision that has been made by somebody else.”—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 105.

“Take my word for it.”

“That’s how we’ve always done it.”

“My family has done it like this forever.”

“I saw a headline that said it must be this way.”

How many different ways can we say: “I don’t really want to think about this; I just want to blindly accept whatever the people I tend to like more have already said.”

Whether we are discussing disclaimers placed on Tom and Jerry cartoons or repeated calls for the Washington NFL team to change their mascot or Emma Watson receiving threats because she is calling for the equal treatment of men and women or Adrian Peterson’s right to spank his four year old with a switch we hear the same argument:

This is the way things have been for generations, so why can’t everybody just be happy?

To be honest, there is some validity to this. Time tested traditions should not be mindlessly discarded in order to appear more modern or “with it.” However, time tested traditions should not be held onto mindlessly in the face of changing social awareness.

Growing up, I played Cowboys and Indians. There was no negative intent behind it. It was just a game. There were several Western-themed TV shows and movies on at the time so it was just a way for young children, especially boys, to play.

My children never played that game growing up. Social and cultural awareness had grown in several ways. I learned more about the plight and mistreatment of Native Americans in our country. I knew more about their higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide. I was more aware of how the simple, seemingly innocent game played into a larger narrative of prejudice and disrespect.

Growing up, I thought boys wore blue and played with trucks while girls wore pink and played with dolls. That’s a rather simplistic over-statement, but it sums up my childhood beliefs fairly well. I was certain that each gender was supposed to act a certain way.

Raising my own children has challenged the generally accepted gender norms in many ways. I have become more aware of the over-sexualization of girls, seemingly from infancy. I have learned how detrimental it can be to have few, if any, role models of substance to look up to. I have been able to witness how sometimes boys like “girl” things and girls like “boy” things and it’s absolutely okay! I have been made more aware of the underlying, subtle messages that are expressed to our young girls.

These are just two examples of how my thinking needed to change. Does this mean I was a bad person? Or that I was raised by bad people? Or that we are hateful and hurtful?

No. It means I have been presented with new information and I have to decide what I am going to do with it.

Merton suggests that in order to have faith, one must be able to doubt, question authority, and then deliberately make a decision. To blindly accept what previous generations have done is not faith. (By the same token, to blindly reject what previous generations have done is not enlightenment.) Why is this important?

We know more now than we have ever known before. Education continues to grow exponentially. Research and education can be so much more focused and specific now. We have learned more about different cultures and cultural beliefs, expectations, and values. We know how people are affected and impacted by words and actions. Information on physical and mental health issues continues to expand. As we continue to learn, we must continue to adapt to what the information teaches us.

We have the ability to listen more now than ever before. Social and human services fields continue to grow. Helping professions continue to hire at faster than average rates (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). People are listening. And as they are listening, they are learning. As they learn, they disseminate what they find. It is important for us to listen to people that previously have not had a voice.

We are a more global community now than we have ever been before. This means we know more about cultural customs, beliefs, and behaviors. We should be more culturally sensitive as that knowledge—and that community—continues to grow.

Acknowledging that we have done things wrong in the past is not an admission that we were bad people. It is an admission that we have learned something new and have decided to change our attitudes and behavior appropriately.

So we confess, we repent, we live in community. We come to a place of faith that is our own—not one that is simply handed down from one generation to the next.