I wish someone had told me this a long time ago, before I lost patience with people who desperately need my patience. Relapse is what happens when people give up a powerfully magnetic addiction only to find themselves at some point giving into the temptation to try it again.
Relapse doesn’t mean a person has failed at recovery, that recovery isn’t happening or that recovery has failed. It means that person is human, still recovering, and learning from both successes and failures how to be whole.
What it means is thatwe are sunk without grace.
Think of it this way: You’re one of twenty people racing around a track. The gun goes off and all twenty of you set off running. Somewhere around the turn, you fall down. Do the usual rules of a race demand that you go back to the beginning and start over because you fell? Nope. You don’t limp off the track and quit, either. To the contrary, the unofficial rule for any competitive runner is that whatever else happens you finish the race. You stand up, shake it off and start running again even if it looks as if you’ll finish dead last.
Falling down isn’t the point; finishing is.And one day you’ll find you can make it around the track without falling at all.
Paul talks about spiritual relapse in his letter to the Romans. He writes (Romans 7:15-20), “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
This is the language of relapse and the anatomy of human nature. Inside every person, there are two sides that war with each other, and sometimes the side that works against our design wins a battle and we do things we don’t mean to do. God gets that. He gets that sometimes we’re going to relapse and do the things we hate and promise ourselves we’ll never do the thing again. We tell God, “Never again,” and then something happens and there we are, doing the very thing we hate … again. Because we fear death or fear pain or fear failure or fear being seen as a failure …
Paul teaches us that we are all in recovery, all of us recovering from “self addiction.”We are all struggling to conquer a weak nature. We are all prone to wander and we all have triggers that set off the war within.
So what is that thing for you? What is it that you battle against, that turns your head and keeps you from confidently moving forward? Is it lying or lust? Food or alcohol? Some other substance? Is it the way you treat people? Do you have anger issues, or childhood wounds that have created adult dysfunctions you can’t seem to shake?
For Abraham it was the habit of self-protective lying. He told Pharaoh that his wife was his sister in order to protect himself. It wasn’t exactly a lie (his wife was his father’s child), but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. His motive was purely selfish. Abraham allowed fear to make his decisions for him, not once but twice (he said the same thing to Abimelech, and it didn’t go well then, either).
Abraham’s lie morphed from an event to a habit. His habit compromised his influence. His lack of integrity destroyed trust.
And that is the problem with our addiction, whatever it is:
The practice of it makes a habit.
The habit of it ruins your influence.
The persistence of it destroys trust.
And it all begins with letting fear make our decisions for us.
So … where are you allowing fear (a self-defensive posture) to breed an addiction or send you backward into spiritual relapse? Or physical relapse?
If yesterday was the day you fell apart, don’t limp off the track and quit. Make today the day you stand back up again and finish the race.
This weekend’s sermon comes from Rev. Jorge Acevedo. While it was preached last fall, Rev. Acevedo’s sermon on addiction recovery and gratitude remains extremely timely as we head into the summer months. This weekend the church celebrates Pentecost. As you reflect on how the Holy Spirit has interrupted your life, consider everything from supernatural Divine encounters to the grueling daily grace of recovery, therapy, and disciplines.
This piece is part of a series on substance abuse, faith, and different expressions of Wesleyan Methodist response. You can read the first installment about one congregation’s prayer vigil over the heroin epidemic in its community here.
There are two striking features you notice when Aaron Neville performs: his massive biceps and his ethereal falsetto voice. Once you come to grips with the incongruity of his hulking, muscular frame and his transcendent vocal gift, you take notice of the rosary bracelets, the distinctive mole above his left eye, and the numerous tattoos- including the dagger on his left cheek.
A few years ago, my best friend and I were invited to the CD release party for the Neville Brothers while we were in New Orleans. The Neville family has been a Big Easy music institution for more than 50 years. The brothers (Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril) were in their hometown promoting “Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life” -a hip-hopish album of French Quarter funk, jazz, soul, rhythm and blues.
The crowd at the House of Blues was mesmerized as Aaron sang his classic ballad, “Tell It Like It Is.” Forty years ago, that song shot to the top of the charts. The heartbreak behind the hit is that although it had been selling 40,000 copies a week and was being played nationwide on the radio, Aaron Neville’s recording label was in a downward tailspin. He never saw the song’s royalties. Someone was getting rich off his artistry, but it sure was not Neville. While the song was topping the charts, he was busting his back as a longshoreman on the docks of New Orleans in order to feed his family.
Aaron Neville sings with a sincere earnestness. He is the least flamboyant on the stage, yet he is the most intense when he strings along his vocal offering-treating each note and harmony with the precision of a heart surgeon. He is grateful for his gift and he treasures the opportunity to share it with others. Neville earned his spot on the stage by triumphing over Jim Crow racism, drug addiction, prison time, and financial desperation.
For the warrior, the battle never seems to cease. His wife of 47 years recently died of a long bout with cancer and Neville found himself displaced from his hometown of New Orleans shortly after hurricane Katrina. In the midst of his losses, he sings to bring hope where life’s clouds have turned gray.
His tremulous voice is recognized all over the world. Neville has won three Grammys and has been nominated for numerous others. He has even become a modest pop culture icon by being periodically parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XL with Aretha Franklin, and making a guest appearance on “The Young and the Restless.”
Life was not always so sublime. There were the drug-induced clashes with the law-stealing cars and robbing jewelry stores. “Deep inside, I was always nervous and scared, but the dope pushed down the feelings,” he writes in the autobiographical “The Brothers.” “Before taking off, I shot up. I went to that otherworld place.”
Neville did the crimes and served his time.
He began smoking pot in junior high and started using heroin shortly thereafter. “First time I shot smack, I was in love,” he recalls. He even got high with the late Ray Charles.”Shooting smack didn’t help my thinking any. I thought I loved the high-and I did-but my mind checked out. I just wanted to stay high.”
Neville was raised in a God-fearing home. His dad was Methodist and his mom was Catholic. He attended Saint Monica, a school run by nuns who used to get death threats from the Ku Klux Klan for teaching black kids. “They were caring women who taught me about love,” he remembers.
The lessons he learned from the nuns faded for a time, but the core message never went away. Although he was a thug-lookin’ junkie with a criminal record, Neville wanted to be something different. “If you saw into my mind.and looked into my heart, you’d see someone who just wanted to sing. Sing with the Madonna. Sing with the angels. Sing the dreamy doo-wop, sing like Gene Autry out on the range, sing the old love songs, sing my prayer to God to find a way to get off the dope that was turning my mind to black night.”
He was desperate to be unshackled. He would get on a Greyhound from New Orleans to New York in order to try to dry out. “Just climb on that sucker and find a seat in the back and sit and sweat it out.Curl up in a fetal position, all fevered, throwing up in the bathroom, sweating and suffering through Indiana and Illinois, up all night, up all day, not eating, not drinking, just sweating out the dope, cold turkey..”
He went to the Big Apple to find his brother Charles, but what he found were the “shooting galleries” in Harlem where addicts were using heroin. “I got to the city clean, but the clean didn’t last. Those shooting galleries matched my mood-dark and lonely..I didn’t want to know about anything except floating away from a world filled with pain.”
Heroin was Neville’s undoing. For a while, his wife kicked him out of the house because of his habit. He was never sure if he was chasing the dragon or it was chasing him. All he knew was that he was a slave to the high.
“I knew I needed to make my transformation, needed to get back to the place where I was a little boy who believed in the goodness of God and power of prayer,” he remembers. He called out to God. He prayed with tenacity as he climbed up the steps of Saint Ann’s Shrine in New Orleans on his knees. He even called upon the intercession of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.
He finally checked himself into the rehab program at DePaul Hospital in New Orleans. That was 25 years ago. In addition to the one-week lock-down, Neville stayed an additional two weeks because he didn’t feel ready to deal with the outside. He did lots of praying. The man with the physique of a fighter was battling for his own soul. “When I left, I left clean,” he testifies. “I vowed to stay off drugs. With God’s help, I’ve kept that vow.”
When he got out, he changed friends-separating himself from the users and abusers. “If anyone came to me or my brothers with dope, I’d get in their face and scare them so bad they’d never come back again,” he says. “I became a watchdog. But a lifetime of drug taking taught me no one stops till they’re ready.”
Despite the temptations to bow once again to his addiction, Neville was ready for the next chapter of his life-one that would include three Grammy Awards and numerous nominations.
In his 1997 song “To Make Me Who I Am,” Neville doesn’t sugar coat the change in his life. “I’ve met a lot of lost souls in the bowels of hell / Traveled some crooked roads, got some stories yet to tell. I’ve shot up with the junkie / Broken bread with the devil, fallen on my knees to God. Some days I was blessed, some nights I was damned / But I always tried to lend a helping hand. Once I was a deceiver, but now I am a believer.”
The revelry of the Neville Brothers gig at the House of Blues came to an astounding and respectful silence when Brother Aaron began singing an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.” Without preaching, the testimony went forth. “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.” People wiped tears from their eyes. John Newton’s hymn is universally beloved-even in the midst of spilled beer and cigarette smoke. Although we may not all be ready to walk through the front door to the house of redemption, we still like to know that the porch light is on.
A few years ago, The New York Times reported: “In Britain, many social workers have sent Neville’s CDs to suicidal patients as spiritual medicine, hoping his voice will quell depression. In India a bridge has been named for him. Doctors at the Betty Ford Clinic, in California, sometimes use his gospel CD “Devotion” to comfort addicts in detox.”
It was Bob Dylan who was referring to Neville when he wrote: “There’s so much spirituality in his singing that it could even bring sanity back in a world of madness.”
He gets letters all the time about the healing power of his singing. “It’s the God in me touching the God in them,” he concludes.
Looking back, Neville considers himself blessed to have been arrested as well as for getting robbed of his early royalties. “When I did ‘Tell It Like It Is’ in ‘66, I didn’t get paid for it and that was God doin’ that. Man, if I got $10,000 when I was 25 years old, I’d be dead now. When I sing it today and get a standing ovation, that’s my pay. I’m still here, still singin’. That’s my pay.” Since he has tasted redemption, he refuses to lean on regret. “My life, I don’t think I’d change nothing, because everything I went through enabled me to have compassion for the next man. Whatever he’s going through out there, I’ve been through.”
Last fall Rev. Roz Picardo organized a prayer vigil at his Dayton, Ohio church, in response to the overwhelming increase in heroin use in Ohio. We’re pleased to be able to share his description of the event and to encourage church leaders to look for creative ways to reach into our communities.
Heroin is an epidemic spreading like wildfire throughout our country. Last month alone, there were over 200 heroin deaths in Montgomery County. The Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team reports that in Ohio there has been a 366% increase in drug overdose deaths from 2000 to 2012, and authorities say they don’t see that number slowing down. This is a disease that is plaguing cities across the United States. It doesn’t discriminate and has become a killer of all ages.
The Point: A Ginghamsburg Church Community decided to take action to reclaim the brokenness in our streets by having a prayer vigil this past fall. Two news stations were present because they were intrigued by how our faith community was responding. Testimonies were shared of life transformation by folks in recovery who moved from a life of brokenness to blessing. The evening culminated with the group going outside in the parking lot, clasping hands, sharing names of lives personally affected by heroin, and praying in unison the Lord’s Prayer.
We can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. Our solution is simple. We don’t want to be silent. We want to pray for our community and be the answer even to our own prayers by raising awareness of what is going on in our city. This includes partnering with recovery programs, starting recovery houses, and working with those who desire a life change. Addiction, death, and destruction do not have to have the final word!
To see a video of prayer in the parking lot, visit The Point Facebook page here.
A young man made an appointment with me at the church, came into my office at the expected time, sat down in his chair, glanced around the room, nervous as a cat, and began to speak.
What emerged over the next 15 minutes was a tale of escalating addiction that led to discovery on the part of his wife and with it the threat of expulsion from his home.
What kind of addiction?
The most common kind clergy in the 21st Century face in their role as pastors: pornography.
You’ll note that I opened by stating that “it happened again last week.” And the again is not accidental…the odds are that when a man in our church makes an appointment to speak with me, the presenting issue is compulsive use of pornography that has in fact made his life unmanageable. It impacts men of all ethnicities, nationalities, and even ages – ranging from adolescents to seasoned citizens.
It sometimes leads to trouble with the law. It often leads to difficulty with the family. It always results in disconnection from the self.
The rise of the internet has created a perfect storm for growing numbers of men to become addicted to looking at and masturbating to pornographic images. It is available. It is anonymous. I suspect no other generation of men – or their pastors – had such a collision of forces that are the same time both irresistible and destructive.
So what is a pastor to do when faced with this kind of epidemic?
Well, through trial and error at Good Shepherd Church, we have devised a protocol for those times when porn comes into a pastor’s office. The protocol stems not only from the frequency with which the addiction comes calling but also my familiarity with and appreciation for Twelve Step Programs. What you will read below is a system we talk about on-staff, these are notes we distribute internally, and it is a process that we have seen God use to bring men to new places of wholeness and healing.
Specifically, our pastoral counseling protocol revolves around three elements: spirituality, therapy, and community.
When a man comes to my office seeking help with his addiction to pornography, that first meeting always includes healing prayer.
While the addiction may have begun as moral failure, it most cases it has escalated to the point of uncontrollable behavior. He no longer looks at porn because he wants to but because he is overcome with a compulsion that makes him feel he has to.
I always affirm the man’s courage in coming to me, assure him that I am not going to place another layer of guilt on him (he usually feels enough of that already), and let him know that his current impasse is, at the core, a spiritual issue. He has substituted a false god for the true one – after all, it’s not accidental that so many excavated idols are sexualized figurines. Internet porn is simply a modern manifestation of an ancient idolatry.
With that awareness, I will often anoint my friend with oil, lay hands on his shoulders, and pray Jesus’ healing power over his addiction. At some point in that spoken prayer, I will have the man pray out loud for himself. I believe it is vital for the man to own his addiction before God and to claim the healing that is available in Christ. Whether it’s porn or alcohol or gambling or gluttony, I contend that God won’t do for you what he needs to do with you.
Sadly, all too many pastors, church, and addicts would regard the meeting described above as the end of the matter. As in, “it’s been prayed for, I’ve been delivered, so that’s it.”
My friends in the world of Recovery call that a “spiritual bypass.” Meaning: many addicts long for a one-stop, one-step prayer miracle – a ZAP! – that heals them without going through the difficult work of recovery.
And while deliverance from porn addiction may on occasion happen in that fashion, it is much more common for healing to occur in and through the type of community one finds in a Twelve Step Program. So in the counseling session I’ve been describing, I will connect the struggling man with either a Sex Addicts Anonymous or a Sexaholics Anonymous group meeting in our area.
To make that connection more personal, I typically contact one of several men I know in our church who are in SAA or SA and ask them to ensure that the new person makes it to his first meeting. Those in recovery have proven remarkably eager to help others begin working the steps.
Once in a recovery group, an addict discovers that a) he is not alone; b) he needs to be restored to sanity; and c) healing emerges from shared struggle much better than from isolated toil. I enjoy watching church friendships flourish that I know began at SAA meetings.
The recovery community calls sexual addiction “cunning, baffling, and dangerous.” And so it is.
So the battle against it requires the heavy artillery of individual therapy. We are fortunate in the Charlotte area to have a number of the nation’s leading therapeutic experts in the area of sex addiction, and so Good Shepherd keeps a ready list of referrals.
There are many, many forces at work that drive a man to sexual and pornographic addiction, and it generally takes the skill of an experienced therapist to uncover root causes and to craft coping strategies.
In cases of financial hardship, we underwrite up to five sessions of therapy.
We firmly believe that all three elements – spirituality, community, therapy – are indispensable.
I have met men who were either too private to join a community or too proud to enter therapy, and the results was a partial attempt at recovery. And, as the Twelve Steppers remind us, “half measure availed us nothing.”
Pastoral Follow Up
I do my best to maintain contact with the guys who have trusted me with their stories and their struggles. So, via text message, email, or phone call, I will periodically check-in with those under my pastoral care. How you holding up? How much sobriety do you have? Are you making your meetings?
Without fail, the men appreciate being remembered and known.
And then when I get an email like the one below from the same guy who I mentioned in the opening of this article, it’s all worth it:
I just want you to know how much this journey of healing has meant to me. I feel free for the first time in my life. Thank you for getting me in that group, thanks for (my therapist), and thanks for the prayers.