And the Cherry on Top is the Big Apple

shutterstock_129949166Finally I get to tell you a bit of what’s really been going on in my life.

For many months now I’ve been in a state of limbo. That feeling you get when you sense one season is ending and another is coming—but you have no idea what it means.

Dave has felt the same way. And yet over the years, we’ve learned to trust that inner knowing. So this summer, we began to make long-needed upgrades to our house. New exterior paint. Adding a bathroom upstairs. Shoveling out eight years worth of accumulated junk.

This fall, we learned what we were really up to. We got news that Penguin Random House was moving one of its imprints—Convergent Books—to the New York City offices, and was inviting Dave to move with it. As many of you know, Dave helped to launch Convergent a couple years ago while working as an editor for WaterBrook Multnomah.

On Tuesday, Crown Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House, announced the move, along with some other changes at the company. An article in Christianity Today noted, “Convergent, which focuses on books for ‘progressive and mainline Christians who demand an open, inclusive, and culturally engaged exploration of faith,’ will be led by David Kopp.”

Since I write out of my life so much (a nice way of saying I’m good at spiritualizing my self-absorption), it’s been tough to blog when I couldn’t give you the scoop. Even once I knew what was coming down the pike, it had to stay a secret until it was officially announced. Now that it has been, I’m not quite sure how to explain what I feel.

Honestly, I vacillate wildly between sadness and excitement. I’m devastated about leaving my community here in the Springs—those precious, amazing friends I’ve made both inside and outside of recovery. And moving away from my oldest son will be very hard.

But I’m also anticipating good things. In recent years, I’ve found so much help and encouragement among the tribe of Christians Convergent Books was conceived for. So in many ways, this move represents a kind of spiritual convergence for me personally. I can’t explain it all now, but I think it’s going to free me up to write my next book.

In the meantime, it comforts me to remember that I can carry all of you with me to New York.  And after seven years of learning how to form true connections in recovery, I get to take my friends here in Colorado Springs with me, too. Used to be, when I moved away, I moved away. Out of sight, pretty much out of mind.

Recently Dave and I had one of those long conversations about the trajectory of our life, marriage, and careers. We came to the conclusion that God is a genius for bringing us together, that life has always proved right in the end, and that moving to the Big Apple just might be the cherry on top of our dreams.

This morning, my eyes fell on a book title by Anne Lamott that pretty much sums up my feelings and my new prayer mantra as well: Help. Thanks. Wow! 

P.S. Check out the amazing  Convergent Books blog when you get a chance. Right now there’s a great video by Kathy Escobar on her new book, Faith Shift. 

P.S. S.  I’d love to hear from you today. Please forgive my being so behind in answering emails.  I’ll get there!

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The Gracious River (Or, Why We’re All Wet)

Art by Kate Ladd, click to visit her on Etsy
Art by Kate Ladd, click to visit her on Etsy

As many of you know, since getting into recovery more than seven years ago, I’ve discovered that God is in the business of drawing people to himself quite apart from religion, the Bible, church, or professional Christians.

I didn’t used to think God could do that.

Today I recognize and celebrate how God works wonders not only through myriad religious traditions, but through folks in my own tradition that I don’t necessarily agree with. It seems no matter how narrow or stunted the funnel we hold up to God, given the tiniest opening for love, God pours himself into the world.

Which brings me to the excerpt I want to share with you today. It’s condensed from a longer version in author James Finley’s book, Christian Meditation. Just to set you up, a “river enterer” is Finley’s metaphor for a person who seeks to experience God.

I know it’s way long, but I think it’s worth your time.

I hope that those of you in the Christian tradition whose spiritual odyssey has been expanded and enriched in opening yourself to other religious traditions will relate to this parable.

Now imagine that you are a river enterer. Imagine, too, that you have learned to be a river enterer in the religious tradition that traces its roots back to Jesus. But there is something missing, something that is not right. Seeking to sort out just what the difficulty is, you study the history of your river-entering community.

You discover that at first it was very simple. Men and women simply entered the river. Soon a path began to form leading down to the water’s edge. Word got out, and a growing number of people began showing up to use the path.

One day, someone observed that river entering is so important it seemed only fitting there should be a ceremony celebrating the admission of new members into the river-entering community. And before long, there arose rituals with hymns and candles as people gathered at the river.

Then one day someone observed that river entering is so special that there should be some kind of little tent over the path that goes down into the river. Others agreed. And a festive, brightly colored tent was built over the path.

Then someone observed that river entering is so special that a tent was hardly a suitable way to honor all the ways that river entering enriched their lives. Others agreed. And so there was the first fund drive to raise money to build a large and beautiful building over the tent that covered the path that went into the river. And everyone agreed that it was an inspiring and uplifting building indeed.

Then someone wrote a book titled The Meaning of River Entering. Someone read the book, did not agree with its premise, and so wrote another book refuting the teachings of the first book. Someone read both books, disagreed with both, and wrote a third. Soon there was a proliferation of books on the meaning of river entering. A second fund drive was required to build a library.

Then someone suggested that a school be built to promote the study of riverology and the granting of degrees to learned riverologists. Another fund drive raised the moneys to build a fine school, a seminary of sorts.

Then someone observed that [the path to the river] was getting so crowded, it might be best if everyone did not enter the river. It might be better if only certain members of the community entered the river, and then distributed river water to the others. The decision was made to create a new ritual to celebrate authority invested in the riverologists to distribute river water to the community.

Somewhere along the way, the riverologists tended not to enter the river nearly as much as they used to. At some point they began to pipe river water into the building. And there were rumors that the water was actually shipped in from undisclosed sources.

This is the situation that has developed in the river-entering community in which you find yourself. It seems that most everyone is content to sip bottled river water, read books on river entering, attend river-entering ceremonies, and agree and disagree with each other about the meaning of river entering.

Disheartened, you walk alone one day down by the river, trying to grasp just how everyone got into this predicament. As you are walking along, you slip and fall into the water. In doing so, you discover that the river is so gracious as to accept you completely in your solitary mishap. All alone, unplanned—with no building, no teaching, no ceremony—you get completely wet.

You come out of the river and start walking down the shore, and you are surprised to come upon a group of people who have built a large building over a tent that is over a path that goes down into the river. You are inclined at first to tell them they can’t do what they are doing. You are tempted to tell them they are not even really getting wet. They only think they are getting wet. If they want to really get wet they are going to have to travel with you to join the river-entering community from which you came. Or perhaps some riverologists from your community could come to show them the correct and truly effective way to get wet.

But then, in recalling the personal journey that has brought you to this place, you decide instead to ask if they would mind if you used their path that goes down into the river. In doing so, you get completely wet. Relieved and grateful, you venture father down the shore to discover other buildings where river enterers gather. You use their path that goes down into the river and, in doing so, discover how completely wet you get, regardless of the color of the tent that is over the path.

Although the teachings regarding the meaning of river entering vary greatly, one thing remains clear: each time you enter the river you get completely wet. And in each community you discern the presence of seasoned river enterers, men and women who even in the scorching sun remain drenched in the graciousness of the river.

In venturing still farther down the shore you eventually come to the point at which the river empties into the sea. As you wade out into the water there is only water as far as you can see. Taking all this in, you are surprised to discover yourself being interiorly drawn back to the river-entering community from which your journey first began.

As you arrive back at your origins, you enter the large building and head straight for the path that goes down into the river. You are touched by the sincerity and devotion that went into setting up the festive little tent that covers the path. You are touched, too, by the depth of religious feeling and commitment that went into each detail of the building. You see all these things not as diversions from river entering, but as sincere efforts of men and women attempting to honor and reverence a grace and mystery they hold dear. You realize that perhaps you were a tad too judgmental. Perhaps, had you humbly done more river entering yourself, you would have realized that more river entering was going on than you had realized.

You enter the river, and in doing so you become completely wet. As those standing about see how completely drenched you are as you come up out of the water, they are moved to enter the river as well. You, together with them, rediscover the origins of your own tradition of river entering. Together you seek to give witness to the good news that we are, from all eternity, completely wet.

–James Finley

P.S. In recent years, Dave and I have had the privilege of attending numerous of Finley’s spiritual retreats. We always come away profoundly re-convinced of our absolute preciousness to God. Here’s a post where I wrote about this experience—it’s called “Smitten,” and it’s one of my favorites.

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Ditch the Gas Cans

Image from Shutterstock

When I first ran across this cartoon, it totally cracked me up. It’s hilarious the lengths some of us are willing to go in our battle against destructive compulsions.

But if you think about it long enough, it’s sad, too. The desperation depicted by our guy with the gas cans is all too real for millions of people who can’t find a way to beat their addictions.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories of addicts who, in a reckless bid to disrupt their disease, consciously or unconsciously put themselves and others at risk of death.

Still other addicts take drastic measures that can only be called ill-advised. A few weeks back, I got a frantic email from a mom whose heroine-addicted son had just left her house to go commit a crime in hopes it would land him in jail and “give him a break from his demons.”

She didn’t know what to hope for. I didn’t know what to tell her.

But I understood that son’s twisted thinking. When I finally entered treatment, I too—or at least some small part of me—welcomed the idea of losing access to alcohol. For me, though, it was about revenge. After so many years of failing to conquer  my Inner Drunk, I couldn’t wait to watch her finally lose.

As it turned out, what helped me most had little to do with not drinking. What mattered more, what made all the difference, were the bonds I formed with fellow sufferers.

A line from our recovery literature says, “Almost without exception, alcoholics are tortured by loneliness.” Tortured is the right word, by the way. Especially since our favorite solution to loneliness is to further isolate ourselves.

Which makes me wonder: What if Gas Guy’s biggest problem isn’t that he can’t quit smoking, but the fact that he’s trying to quit on his own?

It’s no coincidence that every successful recovery program I’ve ever heard of places a premium on community. Treatment modalities differ, but they all understand and harness the same mysterious power of one addict talking honestly to another.

Today, you might feel a lot like our guy with the gas can. You’ve tried everything you can think of to control or outwit your addiction, or punish yourself for having it. So far nothing’s worked. You’re beginning to think it’s time to play high stakes poker. What if I stacked the deck so high that if I drank, everything I cared about would go up in flames? Would I pick up then?

You probably would.

Here’s a radical idea to try instead. What if you went to one of those meetings specifically designed to help people just like you with your exact problem.

I swear to God, we don’t bite. Very few of us smell bad. Sure, sometimes we cry. But mostly, we share our stories and laugh a lot.

For the rest of you, a question: What ridiculous lengths have you gone to in order to indulge or not to indulge your addiction? Are you willing to go to the same lengths to stay sober?

P.S. I love this cartoon, but I like this one even better.

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CLICK TO ORDER

 

 

A Lot More Beautiful

Art by Casspaintings, click image to visit on Etsy.
Art by Casspaintings, click image to visit on Etsy.

It seems my post about bonding over brokenness versus beliefs hit home for many of you (and set a new record on my blog—thank you!). It also raised the question: So what could the church do better to create connection and community?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Let’s agree that many churches do work hard to provide the kind of openness and safety that invite intimate fellowship.

And of course, beliefs and brokenness aren’t mutually exclusive; you can embrace both, and most Christians I know try to do this.

The point I hoped to raise in that post is that sometimes it seems like we Christians care more about what people believe than we do about loving them. And when “right beliefs” become the basis for inclusion in our fellowships, some of the most broken among us don’t feel welcome.

Maybe this is part of why the church Dave and I go to now has no official creed. In fact, when our pastor baptizes babies, in addition to the traditional things you’d expect to hear, he says, “We will not presume to tell you what you have to believe…”

The first time we heard this, we glanced at each other in alarm. What on earth? Isn’t that the purpose of church—to make sure we believe all the right things—and all the same things—about all the important things?

Up to now, we  hadn’t realized Christ-centered churches like this one existed. Churches that welcome everyone. That care about tradition but don’t double check your doctrine at the door.  That have enough faith to believe that God is present and at work in everyone’s journey.

It was a lot to take in. Yet we also found comfort in knowing that if we decided to stay, we wouldn’t have to agree with anyone’s theological, social, or political leanings in order to worship together, or to be accepted and loved.

We knew we had finally found home there the first time we celebrated Communion. When the pastor held up the loaf of bread and invited us to the Table, something in the way he spoke about Jesus being broken and given brought tears to our eyes.

I’m not saying my church is perfect or even the best. But years later, we’re still there and more involved than ever. Recently, Dave and I got to facilitate a month of adult Sunday school classes around the topic of addiction, recovery, and faith.

The first Sunday, I shared my journey from out-of-control drinking into recovery. Another Sunday, Dave shared his side of the story. We looked at the (dismaying) statistics about the prevalence of addiction. We looked at Scripture (Paul had a thing or two to say about doing—over and over again—the very thing he hated.)

But given the topic, it was such a relief to know no one was evaluating our spiritual correctness or critiquing our theology. We got to be vulnerable about our mistakes and weaknesses, and people responded in kind.

It got me wondering what might happen if we did this kind of thing in church more often. Maybe sharing our actual stories—what life was like, what happened, what life’s like now, and what doesn’t look like it’s freaking ever going to get better even though we’re following Jesus—would help to foster the kind of rich community so many find in recovery.

The power of truth telling to free us and change us can’t be overestimated. And hearing one another’s stories is how we realize we’re not alone, and that it’s okay to be human.

Mysteriously, when we share our shattered and less shiny parts with each other, our differences disappear. Healing happens. Community blossoms. We become a little more whole—and a lot more beautiful.

 

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CLICK TO ORDER

 

The Promise of Shared Brokenness

shutterstock_158680922

I get a lot of emails from people who’ve read Sober Mercies, which means so much to me. But I keep noticing how one particular line from the book keeps coming up. Last week, after three people in a row quoted the same sentence, I went back to read it in context (italicized below):

 “The particular brand of love and loyalty that seemed to flow so easily here [in recovery meetings] wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced, inside or outside of church. But how could this be? How could a bunch of addicts and alcoholics manage to succeed at creating the kind of intimate fellowship so many churches have tried to achieve and failed?

Many months would pass before I understood that people bond more deeply over shared brokenness than they do over shared beliefs.”

Aha! Clearly, a lot of you have shared my experience—felt a lack of community in a church setting or been surprised by the depth of community in another kind of group. I think my conclusion resonated because it hints at the reason why. After lots of thought, here’s a more developed theory:

  • When folks gather around a system of shared beliefs, the price of acceptance in the group is usually agreement, which means the greatest value—stated or not—is being right. Unfortunately, this often creates an atmosphere of fear and performance, which in turn invites conformity.
  • But when people gather around a shared need for healing, the price of acceptance in the group is usually vulnerability, which means the greatest value—stated or not—is being real. This tends to foster an atmosphere of safety and participation, which in turn invites community.

I’m not saying recovery or support groups are good and church groups are bad. But I do think the latter could learn something from the former about how to create safe places where intimate community can happen.

Of course, we all face the same challenge on how to foster authentic connection. As much as our souls crave it, our ego fears it. For most of us, it’s fairly easy to share intellectual head space with someone: We know this, we think that. Not much risk there.

But inviting that person into our heart space where we may feel broken in places takes courage, sometimes even desperation.

Last week, a recently widowed friend of mine came to stay in our guest room for a week. As much as she was tempted to isolate at home, she had the bravery to finally admit she needs to be around people right now, and let them into her grief.

And here’s the beautiful part. Dave and I needed this, too. Since all our kids are long gone, her presence in our home felt like such a gift. Having her join us for dinner or watching TV—she in her pajamas—gave us a dose of that family feeling we keenly miss.

On this Good Friday, I find myself thinking about the crucifixion in the context of connection. How the Old Testament Law failed to bring mankind close enough to God. How God sent his Son to die—beaten and broken on the cross—so He could make his home in our very soul.

Maybe God understood that we bond more deeply over shared brokenness than we do over shared beliefs—not just with each other, but with him, too.

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CLICK TO ORDER

“But I Don’t Want To Be an Alcoholic!”

shutterstock_22702285In the past week, three different people have made the same remark to me: “But I don’t want to be an alcoholic!”

It’s an honest plea. A desperate declaration of resistance. But it’s also kind of funny. One, because they’re saying to me—I don’t want to be like you! Please tell me I don’t have to! And two, because absolutely no one wants to be an alcoholic.

I sure didn’t. During my active drinking, it was like a constant mantra in my head: But I don’t WANT to be an alcoholic! I will NOT be an alcoholic! I REFUSE to be an alcoholic! Glug, glug. Don’t say that yucky word! Eeeew! Get it off me!

[The Huffington Post accepted this blog today, too—so I’m sending folks HERE to finish reading. More people may see it that way. Thank you!]

 

 

 

 

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The Shame Slayers

bigstock-Profile-40214233“Lasting addiction recovery solutions have been found, but the most credible faces and voices to support these solutions have been hidden and silenced for decades.”

–From the movie, The Anonymous People.

Many of my recovery readers will have seen the clip below already, but I thought I’d post it this weekend for those of you who haven’t. It’s actually the trailer for a documentary called, The Anonymous People, but it’s worth viewing on its own merit.

The film is about how “deeply entrenched social stigma have kept recovery voices silent and faces hidden for decades.” The makers of the film are part of a passionate new movement which “aims to transform public opinion, engage communities and elected officials, and finally shift problematic policy toward lasting solutions.”

 

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I love what they’re up to. It brings to mind the term, “shame slayers,” which I picked up from Glennon Melton of Momastery.

But here’s the rub. The film is causing a small stir in the recovery community around the long-held tradition of anonymity.

Since the creation of the 12 Steps in the 1930’s, people in groups such as AA, NA, SLA, OA and others have worked to keep private their own and others’ status as members. But recent years have seen a push by some to do away with aspects of this tradition that seem outdated and even counterproductive.

I don’t think anyone in recovery is arguing the importance of protecting each other’s anonymity. It’s never my right to disclose another person’s membership or association with any recovery group.

The movie itself is careful to respect this aspect of the tradition. And yet, the emphasis on the need for all of us to be more outspoken encourages a rethinking of anonymity with regard to press, radio and film.

The tradition of anonymity at the public level is important, because it keeps any single person from becoming the “face” of our community. This in turn preserves our sense of diversity, protects our reputation from scandal, and prevents members from profiting via their association with the group.

But a lot has changed since the inception of the 12 Steps in the 1930’s. Back then, the label alcoholic came loaded with a much fiercer stigma of shame and fear. Today, an increasing number of people are proud to be in recovery. Hiding in the shadows doesn’t sit well with them.

Another huge change is that the advent of the internet and social media have blurred the lines between private and public media. What about my Facebook? Is that me talking to my friends, or me broadcasting to the world?

Finally, given the horrific epidemic of addiction in our society, it strikes many as irresponsible to be coy about the solution. It strikes some too as a contradiction of the organization’s stated purpose:  “To the carry the message to those who still suffer.”

In some ways, the conflict surrounding anonymity reminds me of the gospel story where Jesus is scolded by the Pharisees for healing a man on the Sabbath because “work” was forbidden on the Sabbath.

When rules or traditions get in the way of love, service and compassion, hasn’t something gone awry?

I don’t think the recovery community is going to arrive at a consensus anytime soon. Individuals will continue to simply choose to do what they think is best. And ironically, the very traditions we sometimes squabble over will continue to give us the freedom to do that.

 

[Addendum: A recent comment made me think I should add a link to this post as well.]

I’d love to hear your thoughts on anonymity, shame, stigma, and how we can better advocate on behalf of addicts. In case you’re interested, a while back I wrote a post about anonymity in the context of my blog. For more about TheAnonymousPeople visit their site