I love the Texas Rangers. There are few things I enjoy more than going to the ballpark to watch a game.
Walking into the ballpark is like entering into a different world. I yell in a way I normally don’t yell. I eat what I normally don’t eat. I pay twelve dollars for a $1 drink. But even weirder, I high-five and hug the random strangers next to me when one of our players gets a run. In this ballpark world, the other people behind the first base line become those that I celebrate or commiserate with throughout the game as if they’re family. We’re all in it together.
This is the experience of connection. I somehow feel connected to the lady behind home plate who awkwardly cheers with a monkey puppet. I am not as annoyed by the drunk guy on my row who keeps yelling, “You SUCK!” to the other team’s pitcher. I make allowances for people’s superstitious behavior. Even if I don’t paint my stomach, I’m the same as that guy over there. We’re not paid to be on the same team, but you can’t tell that from the clothes we’re wearing or the way we cheer.
This is the same for us within the community of recovery. We don’t have to be neighbors, coworkers or best friends to experience this gift of connection. We all want the same thing. We all have a common goal. We can live in a connection that exists whether we know the people sitting next to us or we only moments ago learned their name.
In recovery we quickly learn that it’s important to surround ourselves with people. We need people cheering for us, people who have walked this path before, people who point us toward the higher purpose offered through a God of our understanding.
But sometimes, we forget we need others. We forget the goal of recovery is more than just not using or drinking. We forget that we’re becoming whole, healthy and free people capable of loving ourselves and the world around us.
We need the recovery community. We need someone to pray for us on days when we’re too discouraged to do it ourselves. We need someone to tell us when we’re getting resentful or stuck in our head or acting out of self-absorption.
And the important thing to remember is that people need us as well. I may not have the most sobriety or the most experience navigating difficult situations, but I have something to offer. I have the voice of hope and the experience of despair, and I have a phone number I can give to someone who desperately needs a cheerleader.
My first sponsor told me that I wasn’t allowed to ask myself if I “needed” a meeting. She told me, “Meetings aren’t about you. It’s about the other people in the room. Maybe you don’t feel you need a meeting, but someone else needs you there.”
Recovery is not an individual journey. It’s a group thing. And being on the same team offers the deep encouragement we need to keep moving forward.
And so, we stand next to each other, cheering for one another, hugging strangers, offering high-fives and celebrating the grace God is willing to give each one of us.
Bonus: the 25 cent cup of coffee is a way better deal than a $12 ballpark soda.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv
Currently, I live in one of those neighborhoods where the neighbors are extremely conscientious about the appearance of the streets and sidewalks. Everyone keeps their yards neat, the sidewalks clear and we all chip in for annual neighborhood flowers.
The sidewalks in my former neighborhood, however, were hazardous—old, cracked, and covered with restaurant fliers and empty beer cans. There were so many broken concrete pieces that whenever I would put the kids in the stroller to go for a walk, they’d all risk whiplash.
Sometimes, our lives feel like the cracked sidewalk—nothing is stable or easy or predictable. The journey feels a little messy, frustrating and unknown. We want a smooth path of recovery. We don’t want to have to navigate the pain, loss and feelings of despair.
We want life to be easier than it sometimes is.
But pain still comes. We still face rejection and blocked goals and the loss of control.
One day, while walking on the broken, messed-up sidewalk in front of my old house, I tripped over a large crack. Looking down at the concrete, I saw something growing. A red flower had pushed its way through the concrete. I began to notice the other breaks in the sidewalk—each one of the cracks, large or small was filled with some kind of plant-life. Grass was growing, wild flowers flourished—the cracks had become home to tiny gardens.
Whiplash-producing sidewalks are not necessarily ideal, but they make room for a different kind of growth than sidewalks without any bumps. Somehow, even in imperfect circumstances, life is still pushing through. Grass shoots up. Flowers still grow.
We may not have chosen our circumstances, but we’re also not limited by them. Our lives and relationships may not be what we desire them to be, but hope and change and peace can stubbornly push through.
The goal of our recovery and our lives is not to fix every crack or smooth out the rough edges. The goal is to be open to the grace and new beginnings God is willing to give.
There’s no limit to what God is able to do with the cracks and bumps and jagged edges of our lives.
The God of our understanding doesn’t need smooth pathways in order to bring about the deep, life-giving peace we desperately need.
Don’t put limits on what can happen when you turn your life and will over to the care of God.
There is a saying from the Bible that reads, “Don’t keep holding on to the former things. Don’t let them mark your life. Stop living in what’s already happened. Look right here. I’m doing something new. It’s springing up. Don’t miss it.”
Don’t focus your energy on securing a smooth path—instead, be open to the life, serenity and love that spring up when you least expect it.
The Divine is still at work. Love is healing wounds, hope is reviving despair, and flowers can break through concrete.
–Chris Gibson, MDiv
I’ve been thinking this week of how judgment and criticism are natural ways out of which we operate as humans. Our instinct is to want to compare, compete, self-protect and criticize. I know this as someone who can go from zero to annoyed in approximately .3 seconds. Entering into recovery, however, offers an alternative to my instinctual desire to criticize. I no longer have to fall into selfishness, dishonesty, resentments and fear. Recovery has not only held me accountable to a new way of living, but it has also shown me how to love.
I recently read an article on critical listening versus empathic listening. Empathic listening means we listen to another unconditionally in order to hear his/her point of view. Critical listening means that we listen to another in order to decide if his/her point of view is valid.
We have a principle for this in the community of the 12-step programs. It’s called love and tolerance.
The call to love and tolerate is a call to lay aside judgment and scrutiny and embrace others as our fellows. It’s an active willingness to stop fighting to be right and requires I listen to another as my equal.
Sometimes, however, our ideas of tolerance become skewed. Instead of tolerance being an act of acceptance, we can “tolerate” people from a place of arrogance. In the rooms, we’re tempted to say we “tolerate” others as dressed-up way of saying, “I think you’re dumb, but I have to put up with you.” Tolerance, in this sense, does not come out of humility. It might keep us from saying mean things or ostracizing others, but this is not love.
Love and tolerance do not mean that we try our hardest not to go get a cup of coffee during the long-winded person’s share. It’s not just about biting our tongue when we want to be hurtful. Love and tolerance are much more than what we say or what we do. Love and tolerance start with the way we see those around us.
Recovery is not just an individual journey. Recovery asks that we reach out to help others out of a true desire to see people live out of their true selves. Recovery means I’m a part of something bigger than my own sobriety. And love and tolerance require us not merely to notice the people standing around us—it asks us to accept others for who they are.
I cannot both criticize and love. I can’t accept someone while judging them. And our culture doesn’t need more people who insist on being right—it needs more people who are willing to value and affirm others.
Everyone we encounter is worthy of love. When we choose love, we free people to be who they are. When we love from a place of acceptance, we offer strength and hope. This kind of love is a shame-busting, courage-giving invitation to be fully alive. True tolerance and love has room for differing opinions and annoying personalities. It’s the kind of love that gives us strength to embrace recovery and press through during the dark days.
And we are freed to love people because we ourselves are loved by our Higher Power. We’re not arrogantly tolerated—we’re valued as those fully known, flaws and all.
When we love, we are willing to see others as more than that with which they struggle. We learn to practice forgiveness and grace and we teach others to do the same.
In loving, we cooperate with God’s heart toward those around us. We draw out the light within—we fuel a flame that burns with faith and trust. Our love reminds people that today can be different than yesterday.
This is something criticism will never do. Judgment can’t impart strength. Arrogance can’t give others space to grow.
But real love and acceptance can. And this is the hand we’re called to extend, offering new beginnings, purpose and deep hope to those who need it.
–Chris Gibson, MDiv
When we talk about spirituality, there’s often an idea that it’s associated with sanguinity and optimism. We use words like gratitude, blessed, good vibes, and joy.
And it’s true that connection with God does provide positive experiences and fuels our sense of contentedness and serenity.
However, the temptation is to trivialize our Divine connectedness by limiting our spiritual experience to glaring positivity.
While speaking to a group of women, I saw a sweet trio of older ladies wearing matching shirts that read, “You’re too blessed to be stressed.”
I’ve seen this phrase on bumper stickers, journals, wall plaques and well-meaning Facebook statuses.
While it highlights the gratitude and opportunity for contentedness, it implies that stress and blessing cannot coexist. It paints a picture of the mutual exclusivity of pain and peace as if they are opposites—difficulty or joy, loss or life, blessing or stress.
Anyone who’s lived a decade or longer knows that this can’t be true. Being spiritually connected doesn’t mean we experience blessing or pain. When we only see our circumstances in a forced positive light, we either have to explain away difficulty or pretend things are better than they are.
Why do we think a connection with God means we don’t have to feel depression or anxiety or pain? Why do we feel as if a connection with the Divine means things shouldn’t hurt or bother us?
Often, we are so uncomfortable with suffering that we’ll do anything to make it better, even repressing our real feelings and questions. Positive thinking and reframing our perspectives can be helpful—but the truth that our pain won’t kill us doesn’t mean we aren’t hurting today.
Maybe we minimize our pain because we are deeply uncomfortable with the dark, difficult places.
And it’s natural to be uncomfortable. Suffering is awful.
But we can’t avoid pain. We are surrounded by difficulties: loss, dead-ends, repeated heartache, sadness. And deep pain happens to those of us in recovery. Suffering knows no boundaries. It doesn’t care how long we’ve been sober or how often we meditate, journal or pray.
For most of us, our journey in life and recovery is not a story of easy faith. It takes serious guts to be free and learn to live authentically. The trying journey from addiction to healing isn’t characterized by a “blessed not stressed” bumper sticker.
The freedom lies in the fact that difficulty and peace are simultaneously possible. One doesn’t deny the other. Instead, a connection with God means that somehow blessing and stress can cohabitate. Somehow, we can still experience peace when the bottom falls out.
My cousin Allyson was a young mom of three boys. Allyson also had a terrible form of ovarian cancer that took her life.
In the time before her death, her faith had to shift with the abrasive realities of life. She had both a brave trust in God and a strong sense of how awful life can be. She didn’t feel the need to conflate the ideas of pain and peace. She didn’t have to defend how she was both connected to God and dying.
It’s only in the acknowledgment of the difficulty that we are truly open to the reality of the Divine and loving Presence. The real, life-giving truths about the nearness and compassion of God often come out of experiencing God through the storm, not when life is perfect.
Spiritual connection is not an avenue to avoid pain; it’s the means through which we’re carried through it. It’s the hand that holds us when everything in us breaks down, when we feel crushed or our hearts seem shredded beyond repair.
We don’t have to minimize our pain. We don’t have to filter our circumstances and relationships through unrealistic optimism. But we can learn to be held by Love as our hearts are filled with sadness and hope. There will be pain and joy. And the miraculous truth is that in the darkness and in the light, God is near.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv
“You can teach what you know, but you will reproduce what you are”
— Christine Caine
When my daughter, Ellia, was in second grade, she was given the assignment to make an autobiographical cereal box. Totally normal. I wonder if teachers who are pressed for time come up with assignments based on what they see in their kitchen trashcans. But anytime I can use recyclables for homework purposes, I’m on board.
Ellia named her cereal Elli-O’s… because she’s clever.
She covered the box with her dislikes and likes, hobbies, favorite author and songs.
She wanted her box to be about who she is and how she lives, so, in addition to her favorite color and movie, she wrote on her box in gold Sharpie the three lies she doesn’t ever want to believe:
- I am what I do
- I am what I have
- I am what other people say about me
Yes, my kids are more mature than me.
In our family, we talk about the beliefs that can keep us from being who we really are—like identifying ourselves by mistakes or successes, the past or the future, and as a result, the three lies have floated in and out of our conversations. But there was something powerful about seeing these words written in 7 year-old handwriting.
I’ve realized I can talk a lot. And I talk about what I believe. But I don’t always talk about what I do.
When we enter into recovery, we’re often sponges. We take in new thoughts, new ways to act, and new sayings we’ve read in 12-step literature, heard from old timers or seen in framed pictures on AA room walls.
But once the newness fades, it can be a challenge to keep living the things we’ve learned.
There are times in my recovery journey where I catch myself living in a way that doesn’t reflect what I believe. It’s easy to talk the recovery talk without living the recovery life.
Sometimes, I talk about what’s right, but I don’t always talk about my actual choices.
I talk about practices I value, but they aren’t always practices I consistently live.
Sometimes, there is a significant gap between my action and my beliefs.
When I talk with others in the program or when I share in meetings, I will sometimes catch myself saying something I believe and yet am reticent to do.
I know transparency and surrender are the keys to maintaining connection with God and my sobriety, but sometimes I’d rather just say the words than practice these principles in all my affairs.
None of us are perfect in recovery. I’m not talking about unreasonable expectations or beating ourselves up when we fail. I’m talking about asking ourselves if we’re living out of our true selves or if we’re just repeating words.
In the stress and chaos of life, I’m tempted to forget the importance of being active in recovery instead of passively attending meetings. I sometimes fail to reach out for help. I sometimes give in to self-centeredness. Instead of always loving, I judge. Instead of giving, I would rather take.
I found Ellia’s rough draft of the three lies and I have it taped to my mirror.
It helps keep me grounded in what I know. Recovery is not about simply calling my sponsor or reading the literature- it’s about living out of my connection with God, others and the gift of sobriety.
The truth is, the things that bring us fullness of life require action.
Regardless of how we feel on any given day, we must keep moving forward.
My kids remind me not of what I want to say, but of who I want to be—not just what I want written about me, but what I want to be true about me.
We have to get honest. Don’t be afraid to be real. Reach out to others both in an effort to help and to receive help. Lean on a Higher Power who provides new beginnings and grace for our failures. And live what you know.
Chris Gibson, MDiv