healing & humility
50% spite/50% grace
Last week, I received a kind email with a gracious note about the sermon I preached on the previous Sunday. The author of the note directed me toward a few things he believed would interest me (they did), and toward the end, he thanked me for my preaching and said, “it was very healing for me.”
I was surprised and extraordinarily moved by this. I think for all the sermons I’ve preached – the good, the mediocre, and those that surely needed improvement – no one has ever said this to me before, and there is some place within my heart that is always hoping that this is precisely what a preacher of the Gospel might enkindle.
Healing is a universal need: each of us – no matter the status of our actual physical, psychological, or spiritual health – is in need of healing something. There is something within us that requires the patient, deliberate restoration of the Holy Spirit. There are breakages beyond the very best capacities of our own effort. Perhaps most particularly for those of us who spend much of our lives feeling strong and well, this need is something often ignored or avoided. Until it can’t be.
Health and healing have been on my mind in these past few weeks for several reasons that stretch from the macro (society, earth) to the micro (me). It could be winter in the northeast among the rest of it, but I have found myself praying in earnest about restoration. Restoration of trust and grace in the world writ large. Restoration of hope for places torn apart by war and corruption. Restoration of solidity and peace in my own heart. When I imagine this, I see branches stretched outward toward the edges of a wild place. With each prayer, the vines are coaxed gently, lovingly into union – a strong tree, home within itself, sturdy and resilient at last.
Here is a little content warning: I’m going to talk a bit about alcohol, so if you prefer to skip ahead for whatever reason, scroll on down to the next dividing line.
I stopped drinking alcohol in January. Not for “Dry January,” but on a random Saturday about halfway through the month. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile, and on that day, I knew it was the day. It wasn’t the morning after some wild bender or litany of poor decisions. I don’t think I qualify as a person experiencing physical addiction (though there is research to suggest that anyone who drinks any amount of alcohol regularly is low-grade dependent on some level. But I’m not here to scold you about any of this. Truly.). But there was something about my relationship with drinking more generally that wasn’t aligned with my values. The gap seemed to be widening. There was something selfish there. I had been praying about it. I had been gathering data. And that morning, it occurred to me that this sort of calculus was no longer contributing to my sanctification.
So I decided to stop. And then I did.
(There were other times I decided to stop. And then I didn’t.)
Please hear me when I say that this is only the recollection of one mortal person and in no way meant to prescribe any way of being in the world. But I am sharing this because I desperately wish someone had shared something like this with me. For a long time, there was something in my mind that said that I wasn’t worthy of complete abstinence from alcohol because I “don’t” “have” “a” “problem.” But you know, it turns out that there are a lot of ways that what seem to be several insignificant, “normal” attitudes and behaviors can – imagine it! – actually reduce one’s sense of identity and quality of life.
My sense of identity and quality of life were being reduced by alcohol. I was tired of participating in constellations of social and (help us) ecclesial expectations that demand inebriation and/or casual booze consumption. I was tired of seeing people become a different version of themselves under the influence, and I was tired of being afraid that I might do this too. I am keeping a small journal about all this, and on day 5, I wrote: “Half of my motivation for all this is spite, admittedly. The other half is the preciousness of my life.” The preciousness of my priesthood. The preciousness of my marriage. The preciousness of my body. The preciousness of my hope. I have preached and written for years about how the Holy Spirit is always opening things up, always breaking barriers down. Alcohol isolates me and shuts things down. It puts up barriers. It robs me of the freshness with which I know God invites me to meet his extraordinary creation. It helped me fit in and make friends – until I realized that I was fitting in and making friends with people and circumstances that weren’t at all how I wanted to be with others or myself or God. I was just so damn tired. Nothing new could happen without a change. A real one.
I’m going to keep the details personal here (though I am glad to speak to you about them if you are interested), but these past 61 days without a singular drop of booze that isn’t the sacramental Blood of Christ have opened up something marvelous and generous for me. Some of this has not been beautiful. Life hasn’t been as easy or as transformative as I would love it to be at this minute. But there has been remarkable goodness and material, joyful discovery. Every hard thing has been met with unutterable grace and peace. Met with – dare I say – real healing.
There is more to say, but I will stop here about this for now. I can’t imagine you subscribed to this newsletter for meditations from the Christian Women’s Temperance Union. But do know that if something here has resonated with you for whatever reason at all, I am here for you.
So how do we pray for health when we know that our merciful God is not (I am dating myself) a SkyMall catalogue? We do not always receive the bold things for which we ask, and it is natural to be left wondering about God’s provision at all when something as fundamental as physical or psychological wellbeing has been left untended.
The idea of wholeness has been helpful for me here. When I pray for health, I try to pray that whether or not health arrives as I might hope, I can still be made whole. I can still welcome the Holy Spirit’s endeavor to expand the imagination of my heart, and I can still clear away the things that inhibit my recognition of God’s care.
A prayer for wholeness is helpful in all relationships, but it is useful especially in pastoral care. As a priest, it is not possible for me to materially prevent someone’s divorce, cure someone’s cancer, eliminate someone’s debt or addiction, or resolve decades of residual trauma. But I can sit beside others and hold the yarn as they begin to untangle it. I can help them spread it on the table. I can help them stop and wait. I can help them remember words like “love” and “mercy.” I can point to Jesus on the Cross with a gentle, steady hand. And maybe, eventually, if it is God’s will, we can imagine a new, more redemptive way forward. Our Savior sees us as we have been and he sees us as we will be: complete, beloved, whole.
This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring
forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I
am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still,
help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it
patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.
Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit
of Jesus. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 461
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