(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on October 2, 2015)
“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:32, NRSV)
My name is Joe and I am an alcoholic. I have not had a drink or a drug in over seven and a half years.
A few months ago I was ordained by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It was the culmination of five years of formation, seminary education, and long dark nights of wrestling with God, trying to understand why I thought I heard the call and how I could possibly be qualified. That ordination was basically a long, ceremonial worship service. We sung praise songs, heard a sermon, and participated in the liturgy of ordination. It was a moving and Spirit-filled occasion.
At that ordination service, I got the opportunity to stand up before the congregation and make a response. This is where a newly ordained minister might express her/his gratitude to friends and family, their commitment to the call or experience of grace in that process. I began with a condensed version of my encounter with God, and something popped out of my mouth that I had not planned. As I was telling the story of a near-death experience (I had gone into anaphylactic shock during a run on a treadmill one night six years ago), I remarked that as I realized I might die, I was not filled with regret or remorse, anxiety or fear, but rather an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude that I had been rescued from a mind and body warping, soul-crushing, family destroying disease. I said that I was so grateful that I had been given the opportunity to make amends to my parents, siblings, wife, children, and the chance to live a better life. What I was saying without using the actual word, was that I was grateful for sobriety. And I didn’t plan on saying that. I have always kept my addiction recovery life separate from my ministry life. The seminary I attended knew I was a recovered alcoholic, the search committee of Simpsonville Christian Church knew before they hired me, and of course, a few people that I see in recovery meetings knew. But other than that, I kept those worlds isolated from one another.
Now, if you weren’t familiar with a couple of coded phrases I had used, you might have missed it. But if you had any experience at all with the language of 12-step recovery, you would have known exactly what I was talking about. After the service, a very good friend of mine made the comment that he caught the reference and that he wanted to talk to me, since he had some questions about his own drinking that he needed help with.
And that’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks. I have no idea how many people I have helped by keeping my alcoholism and addictions a secret. But I literally cannot count the number of people who may have been helped by my open and humble sharing of them. Can it be humiliating for me to share the things I’ve done? Yes. Do people misunderstand me? Absolutely. But is it worth it to help just one person? Unquestionably, yes. Just last week, a delivery driver came into the church to drop off a package and said that his brother heard me speak at a detention facility in Louisville and found my story encouraging, that he was getting ready to go back home upon release. I praised God that the most wretched parts of my life are being used by God to help someone.
So I break the silence in this community, this community called Shelby County that I love deeply, for three reasons:
Addiction is a treatable epidemic. Addiction is a disease—a real, biological disease—which afflicts about 10% of any population across all demographic lines. Furthermore, many more friends and family members suffer greatly from this disease when untreated. Serious crimes that harm all of society can be eradicated by treating this disease. But this disease thrives in the darkness of misunderstanding and the shadows of shame and stigma. And so for my neighbors who suffer directly and indirectly, I break the silence.
Ministry requires truth. Frankly, I only know of one other active Protestant pastor (and one retired) who self-identifies as an alcoholic. Certainly there are more out there, but they (and I) somehow got it into our minds that recovery and ministry are two different things. We live double-lives, which is toxic for sobriety and ministry. So if I am going to tell the good news of God’s grace authentically, then I have to reveal how I have experienced that. If I am going to minister to the broken and battered, then I have to reveal my own scars. If I am going to proclaim that the truth will set us free, then I have to tell the truth. And so for those who are rightly offended by the superficial, self-righteousness of church people, especially ministers, I break the silence.
God’s grace is real. In the throes of my disease, I did things that still fill me with disgust. I have betrayed the people who love me most. I have hurt the innocent. I became a slave to the drink and would do whatever it took to satisfy such a bloodthirsty master. And though I scarcely believed in God, and though did not want a relationship with God, I fell to my knees one morning in March of 2008 guilty of terrible things and utterly unworthy of grace. I cried out and asked the God from whom I ran my whole life, “Would you please keep me sober today?” And to my amazement, that God said, “Yes.” And though I still have a hard time believing why God would save someone like me, I continue that prayer each day. And each day, that God surprises the hell out of me by saying, “Yes.” And so for those of you who may need to borrow that prayer today, I break the silence.
With peace and grace,