If every (alcoholic, cancer) breath I have ever taken . . .

In April of 2001, I was sitting in a coffee shop on Canal Street in New Orleans while in town to attend a professional conference.  I was in the coffee shop visiting with a former colleague from graduate school days at the University of Illinois.  He spoke of how his career and personal life were not going as he hoped.  After he spoke for a while, I very intentionally chose my words and said “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.”  That idea had rolled around in my head for a while, but I never said it aloud until that day.  Today, I affirm the same sentiment – my life has perfectly led me to where I am today.

Let me explain.

Today, through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have a life that exceeds the best of any situation I can imagine.  I married my bride over 19 years ago and she is truly my best friend and confidant.  We have racked up some wonderful adventures together and have more to come.  I retired from a rewarding career with a job description completely aligned with my interests and vision.  Step 3 of AA launched me on a now three-decade long spiritual journey that continues to evolve.  My church home at Rayne Memorial UMC along with activity and friends in the School for Contemplative Living are the bedrock for my spiritual existence.  Today, I also live into a life of service consistent with the embryonic values I held over 45 years ago as an inner-city student teacher.  My life has a greater meaning than ever before.

An old friend from high school commented to me once that he never realized I had such a “rough life” early on in battling my demons and alcoholism.  But today, if I truly would not “change a thing” I am blessed by the lessons of my drunken alcoholic past.  Besides sharing my experience, strength, and hope, particularly with students in my classrooms over the years, I know too that those drunken days and the sobriety that followed provide me with the wisdom of how to live today.

Then, this past August, I received a stage 4 cancer diagnosis with a still unknown primary source.

I participated in a recent discussion where someone commented about the need to look for the silver lining in such adversities.  I think differently.  I don’t need to look for a silver lining for my cancer diagnosis.  In fact, the diagnosis was a wake-up call for me to prioritize those things that are important in my life.  When I retired in 2016, for the first year, I put nearly the same amount of effort into my career, but I was no longer drawing a paycheck.  My wife had retired from her full-time position to take on another full-time position in opening a business that had been her lifelong dream.  We both could have continued our separate retirement careers for years.

My cancer had other plans.  The original prognosis was that I might be dead by last Christmas.  That did  not happen.  I sat with my oncologist a couple of weeks ago and candidly discussed the unknowability of my prognosis, though he is very pleased with how I am doing.

Cancer has allowed Emma and I to focus on what we want to do in our lives.  We are all mortal and we don’t know when that mortality will be called in – as is clear for the 17 in Parkland, Florida.  So, I am not looking for a silver lining in my cancer diagnosis.  It is all silver and gold and is a wake up call for re-ordering my life priorities in the same way the massacre at Douglas school is an opportunity to take steps to end that carnage.  On a personal level, I will not waste the cancer wake-up call, as we must not waste the lives of the 17 in Parkland, and those before, as a national wake up call.

Alcoholism, cancer, mass murder – the only regret I can have is if I do not learn, absorb, and grow from the implications of these life events.  I must take the appropriate actions in living into the understanding that we are all truly made in the image of God and must treat ourselves and all those in our luminous web of life accordingly.  If I can continue moving in that direction of true self, I will be able to continue saying “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.”

 

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley – A Review

A couple of months ago I received a package in the mail from an unfamiliar address in Midtown Memphis.  I opened the package to discover a set of prayer beads made by Suzanne Henley.  I met Suzanne once via my wife’s writers group in Memphis.  An enclosed card titled Prayer Beads in Thanksgiving for Robert describe the beads from Ethiopia, the Afgan Silk Road, Brazil, China, the Dead Sea, and more.  I was blown away by both the beauty and the significance of the creation.  Now, I carry the beads in my backpack and they go everywhere with me.  They are a regular part of my centering prayer and other contemplative exercises.

Suzanne has now published a book Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (Paraclete Press, 2018).  The book is composed of three parts: an historical discussion of prayer beads followed by a set of prayer activities, and a final section where readers are “encouraged to draw their own set of prayer beads and, with discernment and prayer, label each bead. They then can keep and literally hold their life in their hands in prayer, gratitude, and awe.”

The book is all of that and much more.

In the introductory comments Suzanne notes “I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself.”  As an artisan who creates prayer beads, the Prologue to the volume lays out the intent and perspective in her creation.  The beads Suzanne uses in her creations include “handmade Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic prayer beads as well as rare Hebron beads of Dead Sea salt . . . replicas of third-century Ethiopian Coptic crosses and Stars of David, hand-carved Chinese jade pendants, or river rocks collected from my fishing sites.”  The anthropologist in me delights in her noting that when handling the beads “I am the latest in a long line to add the imprint of my hands’ oils to the human and earth-marked patina of all those who have come before me. I feel the weight of their histories in my palm.”

The abundant illustrations in the volume attest to the 800 individualized sets of prayer beads she has created, some commissioned for the likes of The Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, along with the holy, secular, and terminally ill across the globe.  (Suzanne’s gift to me was prompted by my recent cancer diagnosis.)  She observes that while formal worship in churches is on the decline, the increased popularity of prayer beads means people are “simply carrying their altars with them in their pockets” as they go through life.

After the introductory material there is a solid 20-page section of prayer bead history beginning with their several thousand year-old Hindu origins in Vietnam and continuing to the present day.  The comprehensive summary highlights prayer bead development, particularly for the Abrahamic faiths.  Suzanne highlights the 4th Century Desert Fathers who used pebbles to count the number of times they said a prayer, through to the familiar Roman Catholic Rosary and Islamic prayer beads that hold the 99 names of Allah, to the more recent evolution of  Protestant or Episcopal prayer beads.  The history section has many historical notes of interests, such as that the earliest recorded Roman Catholic rosary belonged to Lady Godiva of horse-riding fame.

My Prayer Beads Gift Created by Suzanne Henley

The next section considers the range of prayer types both with and without beads, drawing on the works of modern contemplatives such as Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr and the more ancient traditions such as the Celts.  Suzanne also discusses prayer bead use with chants, hymns and in silence.  Drawing on her personal practice, she broadens the tactile experience of prayer beads to include handling fruit in the grocery store.

The book could have ended at this point and been a worthwhile read.  However, Suzanne’s final sections of the volume are of immense value for the novice and experienced user of prayer beads.  With a good bit of autobiographical material she tells her story including recovery from extreme depression and a heart attack to a chance encounter exploring how the Holy Spirit is like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  These life changing experiences resonated with me as a recovering alcoholic.

As “homework” she invites the reader to construct a prayer bead activity based on their life experiences.  Suzanne provides ample guidance in the form of writing exercises and meditations to achieve this goal.   I found this invitation to be the punch line of the book.  The earlier sections on the history, tradition, and contemporary contemplative use of beads were interesting, informative, and certainly directing in terms of practice.  As well, reading Suzanne’s story provided grist for further considering personal use.  However, the homework allows the reader to completely contextualize and apply prayer bead practice to their experience.

The 20 color illustrations of prayer beads created by Suzanne are a welcome addition to the volume.  At under 100 pages of text, the volume is readily accessible to all.  The 9 chapters can readily be adapted to a group study where participants create their own set of prayer beads.  I look forward to working through the exercises included in Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New  to enhance my use of Ms. Henley’s gift to me.

Redemption, Resurrection, and the 12 Steps of AA

Recently my wife and I had dinner with two friends whose family was very active in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  I commented how much I enjoyed living in Jackson, Mississippi years ago because there was such a spirit toward racial reconciliation that is not present in many other locations I have lived.  Indeed, as our friend noted, the newly opened Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is the only such institution sponsored, supported, and operated by an individual state in North America.  He then commented with something like the ‘Redemption is commensurate to the degree of the sin.’  In this way, Mississippi, and the rest of the U.S. in my opinion, sin(ned) greatly and are in need of substantive redemption and resurrection.  I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Richard Rohr:

Death is not just physical dying, but going to full depth, hitting the bottom, going the distance, beyond where I am in control, fully beyond where I am now . . . When you go into the depth and death, sometimes even the depths of your sin, you come out the other side – and the word for that is resurrection.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond pp. xx-xxi, Josey-Bass

I have long equated my sobriety as going to that depth of death with the opportunity for coming out the other side in resurrection.  Compare the general content of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous with Rohr’s Twelve Ways to Practice Resurrection Now:

 

Twelve Ways to Practice Resurrection Now

1. Refuse to identify with negative, blaming, antagonistic, or fearful thoughts (you cannot stop “having” them).

2. Apologize when you hurt another person or situation.

3. Undo your mistakes by some positive action toward the offended person or situation.

4. Do not indulge or believe your False Self – that which is concocted by your mind and society’s expectations.

5. Choose your True Self – your radical union with God – as often as possible throughout the day.

6. Always seek to change yourself before trying to change others.

7. Choose as much as possible to serve rather than be served.

8. Whenever possible, seek the common good over your mere private good.

9. Give preference to those in pain, excluded, or disabled in any way.

10. Seek just systems and policies over mere charity.

11. Make sure your medium is the same as you message.

12. Never doubt that it is all about love in the end.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, pp. 211-212, Josey-Bass

This past December I had the opportunity to hear Richard Rohr speak.  During a book signing session, I spoke to him briefly.  I commented how my experience as a recovering alcoholic paralleled so much of what he discussed in his presentations.  He noted that recovering alcoholics by virtue of their resurrection are folks who are often better able to understand the spiritual development toward true self.  I certainly agree and find that journey one of the true blessings of recovery for which I am grateful.

Thin Places in Recovery

My Chair for Practices, Casma, Peru

I am a creature of habit.  My current morning practices include journaling, writing a note to someone, recovery step work, meditation and composing a gratitude list.  For the past three weeks and through the first of August, I am in rural Peru.  Before leaving on the trip, I was certain to pack all of my necessary supplies, take into account the likely lack of internet service so that I could continue these practices.  All has gone well and I foresee no problem in maintaining my routine.

A couple of other recent practices I knew I could not continue during my trip.  Since moving to New Orleans last year, every Sunday morning I have come to enjoy walking to Rayne Memorial and participating in the service.  Obviously that was not going to happen while in Peru.

Another practice I picked up over the past several months is my Wednesday 11:30 AM meeting with my fellow pilgrims in the School for Contemplative Living.  At these gatherings we have a 20 minute centering prayer/meditation and discuss a spiritual text for an hour.  I committed to my friends that at 11:30 am each Wednesday, I would join them in spirit in a 20-minute centering prayer practice from Peru.  That has gone well.

I have come to understand that a good part of the experience of my Sunday and Wednesday morning practices has more to do with being in community and relationship with others than just the physical process of the practice.  That has been a meaningful insight for me in the same ways that I was never able to get sober just by reading the literature or thinking about my addiction, but by being in community and relationship with others.

This past Wednesday I sat down for my centering prayer in the courtyard of the house where we are staying here in Casma.   I had Russian Orthodox chant music playing in the back ground.  I am a novice at this sort of thing and generally tend to just try to focus on my breathing.  I often become rather restless about half-way through the 20-minute practice.

This past Wednesday, I quickly got into the rhythm of the breathing – the Spanish/Quechua voices from next door replacing the sounds of traffic at my regular practice space in the States.  Trying to empty myself as best I could and focus solely on my breathing, I was filled with a sense of well-being.  Knowing too that my fellow pilgrims in the US were practicing at exactly the same time came into my head and I emptied that as well.  The chanting caught my attention like never before for the sheer beauty of words of which I knew not the literal meaning but spoke to me fully.  A cool breeze flowed through the yard, as I continued to empty myself of all thought.  My eyes felt wet and I could feel tears moving down my face.  I entered a thin space.  And then I was back again.

I liken these thin spaces to pink cloud or mountain top experiences in recovery.  I have come not to expect them, but by putting one foot in front of the other, and following the next intuitive step on a path to true self, I can be ready to absorb the experience, the liminal space, when presented.  In the same way that the mountain top experiences of recovery can never be taken away, so to these liminal or thin spaces remain as well.  As certain as the “aha” moment when I realized that it was not that “I could not drink alcohol today” but that “I did not have to drink alcohol today” so too my Centering Prayer experience in the dusty courtyard in Casma, Peru, is now forever a part of me.  I am grateful for this gift.

Did God Love/Forgive Judas? A Recovery Parable.

Okay, so the answer is an obvious yes, but the story is far more interesting.

At church this morning (Rayne Memorial) senior pastor Callie Crawford’s message was to be “Loving Judas” apt for Palm Sunday.

(For those not familiar, in the Christian Gospels, Judas betrayed Jesus causing him to be handed over to the Romans for ultimate crucifixion.  Judas got thirty pieces of silver for the deed.  Other of Jesus’ followers did not do much better.  Peter denied/betrayed Jesus three times – and apparently the other disciples left Jesus on his own after his capture and execution.)

Callie is an exceptional preacher and storyteller and as always, I looked forward to hearing her preach. A sermon with this title could have included how we are all broken, in need of forgiveness, and loved, regardless.

But the sermon took a twist that caught me completely by surprise.  Callie asked us to consider the difference between the role of Peter and Judas – each who had betrayed Jesus.  Was either betrayal worse than the other?  What was the difference between the two?  She suggested a big difference was that Peter came back and continued to be in community with Jesus, to follow him, to discover the empty tomb. Judas at first tried to undo his betrayal, but ultimately committed suicide instead.

As a recovering alcoholic, the story had considerable meaning.  I always equated my drinking to a slow form of suicide.  My grief over betrayal, dysfunction, pain – I completely relate to being the Judas and just wanting to make it go away.  I am eternally blessed that by grace, ultimately, I followed Peter’s example, toward recovery, to travel the road, to experience a personal resurrection.

But the end of Callie’s sermon caught me short.  She talked about a mythical Second Coming where all the folks are walking into heaven and Peter is there to close the gates after everyone is in for the party.  But Jesus stands outside the gate and Peter tells him to come on in because the party is going to start.  But Jesus stays outside the gate looking into the distance.  When Peter asks Jesus what he is waiting for he replies “I am waiting for Judas to come on up.”

And I could so relate to being that Judas when steeped in my addiction.  The self-hate and loathing – only wanting to be anesthetized with alcohol and drugs so I had to feel nothing – so that I lived only in a perpetual coma.  Unable or unwilling to just surrender to my powerlessness and walk through the liberating gates of recovery.

I am forever blessed that on August 4, 1984 just before midnight when I got off work from the paper bag factory, I chose to check myself into a detox unit instead of getting drunk, my norm.  I was finally able to walk through the gates and join the party.  Today’s sermon left me with a profound gratitude for that event and a sadness for those still wallowing in the muck.  I walked home from church with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, and a renewed commitment to life.

By the time I got home, my wife had already packed our picnic lunch and along with our reasonably insane rescue dog, we went up to the Fly along the Mississippi River, spread a blanket and had lunch.  I felt at home.

 

Truth & Relevance in Recovery

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My own experiences with mystical truths are within the realm of experiences that result in an affirmation of beliefs.  For example, a mystical truth for me is found in Matthew (7:7-8) in my own recovery from alcohol addiction. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

This is such a core truth for me that I have no interest, desire, or ability to explain or particularly articulate the truth.  I know the truth of this statement regardless of the probability that the historic Jesus uttered the words or not.

Me – from a talk I gave a long time ago.

This quote is from a series of classes titled “Evolution: Scripture, Tradition & Reason” I led in a Sunday School over ten years ago.  Recently, I passed on a section of that talk to the leader of a Sunday School I currently attend.  The section I passed on describes the different types of truths as discussed in Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millenium by Bennett J. Simms.  The leader of the current Sunday School e-mailed the section out to the 20 or so members of the class.

I was walking out of church this past Sunday and a woman I knew from the class approached me.  She is a long time member of the church, and I am quite new.  She is clearly from a socio-economic status far above mine.  She wanted to talk to me.  She had received the email that discussed the different types of truths and initially thought that was all fine and good, until she got to the statement on mystical truths I quote above. The woman teared up and told me that “truth” was the answer to something that she was struggling with, and in reading my statement she found direction.  She just needed to let me know.  I thanked her.

Here is my point –  the details of the woman’s situation are unknown to me and irrelevant.  But the Step 2 Came to Believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity approximation of the scriptural quote from the Christian Gospel of Matthew is relevant.   The incident is relevant too that in these times of divisive and polarized rhetoric and behaviors, by speaking all of our truths in our experience, strength, and hope, healing and the next indicated step is found.

Mutual Interdependence in Recovery and Life

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Belonging is the innate human desire to part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown, 2010, Hazelden

Human strength admires autonomy; God’s mystery rests in mutuality. . . We admire needing no one; apparently, the Trinity admires needing. . . Needing everything – total communion with all things and all being . . . We’re practiced at hiding and self-protecting, not at showing all our cards.  God seems to be into total disclosure.

The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr, 2016, Whitaker House, pp. 59-60.

Like much in life, the obvious eludes me for a long period of time, and then it becomes clear. I have known for a while that much of my existence is a process of working out where it is I belong. Brené Brown’s quote, causes me to reflect on my past professional existence in higher education.  I wanted to be part of a team, but with egos, including my own, there was not an interest in team play but only maximizing individual benefit – what tenure track jobs in higher education demand. So, I spent years trying to fit in, but realized if I were going to align with True Self , I needed to go down a different road.

But the belonging of which Brown speaks remains – and where my life in recovery comes into play.  I have long known and thrived on the understanding that in 12-Step meetings, I do belong.  No one is turned away at the door because they have not done a 4th Step, met with their sponsor, relapsed 100 times, and so forth.  In fact, regardless of an person’s sobriety/abstinence, the most common refrain is to “keep coming back.”

Which is where the Richard Rohr quote comes in.  As a practicing addict, I believed I could do it on my own – so long as I could get everyone else to behave according to my plans.  I well recall in 1971, when dropping out of my B.A. program for the third time after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA, I told my academic advisor how I did not need his “bourgeois” education, that I would make it on my own.  In 1984, I had enough of my autonomy and made a decision to enter the mutual existence of a detox center for 30 days.

Looking back over the past three decades of 12-Step recovery – of mutual existence – I have begun to learn to live life on life’s terms.  In fact, that simple goal is the primary thing I have in common with the people sitting in 12-Step rooms.  Other than that we are a diverse lot.  The ability to live into that goal has little to do with any piece of demographic data such as age, race, gender, or academic degree.  I experienced a similar common goal when participating in medical or house building missions in Central America.  When I look around the room of those participants, we don’t have much in common beyond the goal of bringing medical care to the underserved.  As an autonomous person, I never got sober nor did I even consider medical care issues in Honduras or Panama.

I recently joined a faith community that nourishes and thrives in that mutuality with a rather simple mission of “Shining the Light of God’s Love and Grace.”  The congregation “is a community of faith and love representing, celebrating, and embracing all God’s children as persons of sacred worth regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, culture, tradition, sexual orientation or gender identity, personal and family history, or station in life.”  So, we do not need to debate all of that.  Rather, as mutual community, we can live into the mission.  There is no debate about the mission, rather consideration of how best to practice the mission.

Mutuality of community around a common mission seems of critical importance as we go forward in the world today.  Gaining debaters points on who did what and who won in electoral politics assures only that we will continue in a quagmire of inaction and decay where innocent people are slaughtered, the environment becomes more toxic and human dignity has no value.  Mutually agreeing on common goals around these issues and working toward the ends seems a more productive path.  The paths may be many, but they will only be accomplished through belonging within a mutually committed community.

Again, Richard Rohr (pp. 80-81):

. . . virtue of hope applies first of all to the collective before the individual . . . It is very hard for individuals to enjoy faith, hope, and love, or even to preach faith, hope, and love – which alone last – unless society itself first enjoys faith, hope, and love in some collective way.  This is much of our problem today; we have not given the world any message of cosmic hope, but only threatening messages of Apocalypse and Armageddon.