My dear friend Katie is a real life sunshiney-care bear. Every time I hug her, I swear I get glitter on my soul.
During my recent visit to her home in Florida, she came home from work emotionally spent.
“We had a memorial service today,” she said flatly. “Who has a funeral at work?!”
Katie works at Matthew’s Hope—a ministry that cares for people without homes, people without jobs, people who struggle with addiction and people who have lost almost everything. It’s a place of new beginnings, extending hope and recovery to those drowning in despair.
Every day, this place provides hot meals, haircuts, toiletries, educational classes and daycare. Beyond the value of practical tools, meals and education, Matthew’s Hope offers a sense of belonging.
These community members may have different stories and backgrounds, but they share a common familiarity with pain, defeat and loss.
In five years, there have been 45 deaths in their community. One day a year, this nontraditional family comes together to remember those they have lost.
This particular day, the community gathered around a table displaying pictures of the five people who had recently passed away.
After the unconventional and slightly irreverent eulogies, five men carried five bricks to the candlelit table—bricks bearing the names of those who had died.
Everyone in this community knows the sandpaper-y fabric of difficult lives. Dying can be lonely, but so can being alive.
One man, struggling with alcoholism, had been a part of the Matthew’s Hope community for a few years.
A volunteer pastor recently found him sitting out in the cold.
“Get in,” said the pastor. “It’s too cold.”
“Nah,” the man said. “I’m ok.”
“Get in! You’ll freeze!”
“Nah,” he repeated. “I want you to know I’m ok. I’m really ok.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean with this whole God thing. I know he loves me. I get it now.”
This man had found a place of peace, even in a cold, unforgiving parking lot.
He died a week later in his tent in the woods.
Each person gathered that afternoon has their own story—stories of being in prison and gangs, stories of brutal abuse and neglect, stories of dropping out of bible school and falling into drug addiction, stories of losing jobs and families and hope.
It was in this setting that a pastor spoke about a divine Love. He stared at the pictures of those who had recently passed away, saying over and over again that these people are God’s children. His words were not empty comfort or forced hope.
His message was reality. Being the beloved of God was far more real than any of the labels or words these people had carried during their lives.
He reminded the community that the love of a Higher Power is not earned by living in houses or avoiding substance abuse or keeping a job.
We don’t do anything to earn belonging or love. God cares deeply about people who live in the woods, people who have group funerals, people who have suffered so much.
One younger guy stood in silence the entire day, and as the 5 bricks were added to the other sacredly placed 40 bricks, he spoke.
“Maybe being loved by God is all that matters.”
We sometimes forget that being loved by our Higher Power is all that matters. We forget that in the love of the Divine there is no hierarchy. Our pain, rejection, struggle and even recovery have nothing to do with the reality that we belong.
This kind of love and acceptance motivates us to change. It can be a catalyst to a new way of life. The old is gone and now hope and belonging push us toward freedom. We can be fully alive despite our mistakes and failures if we are willing to see ourselves not through the lens of the past, but through the reality of our Higher Power’s presence and deep, deep love.
And this is an incredible motivation to keep going, not because our Higher Power demands perfection, but because we are driven by a love that is far more for us than we could ever be for ourselves.
Chris Gibson, MDiv
Many of us have felt invisible at some point in our lives. We have based our value on the judgment of others or our own long list of mistakes and failures. We’ve felt misunderstood, controlled and rejected, but rarely have we felt seen for who we are.
In a book entitled The Beautiful Risk, author James Olthuis talks about the psychology of loving and being loved, offering a profound love pattern:
I see you
I see you seeing me
I am seen
I feel loved
There is also an alternate pattern that blocks love:
I see you
I see you not seeing me
I am not seen
I am not loved
Who am I?
Something happens when we are seen. We learn that we matter. We know that we have intrinsic value. We experience acceptance and approval and ultimately, we are freed to live purposefully out of a secured sense of who we are.
However, when we aren’t seen, the results are devastating: despair, shame, confusion, self-doubt, anger and fear abound.
So much of our addictive behavior was undergirded by a longing to be seen for who we are—to feel loved and “good enough”.
Our Higher Power offers an alternative to the judgment of others or our own negative self-image. The love of the Divine is not contingent on behavior—this Love cannot be earned. When we make space to meet with the Divine, we reconnect with ourselves, being reminded that we are more than the difficulty we face or the things with which we are struggling.
Our Higher Power sees us as we are.
I met Sharon when I took my son, who was born with a liver tumor, to one of his first oncology appointments at Dallas Children’s Hospital. Sharon is the lab tech for the oncology clinic and she is famous.
When she came to get Owen and me in the waiting room, she was ambushed by love. A girl with short fuzzy blonde hair yelled hello to Ms. Sharon. A boy ran up and grabbed her leg. She greeted every child in the room by name. She told me how much she loves what she does—explaining that this is where she feels alive.
I sat in her office as she did my son’s lab work. The walls are covered with pictures drawn by her oncology patients. She has hundreds of letters from young children who love her and older children thanking her for being their best friend. And every picture and letter is signed with a big, beautiful, crayoned name.
Ms. Sharon is valued by the oncologists and patients alike. She has a strong presence in the pediatric cancer world.
But she doesn’t cure cancer. She doesn’t perform life-saving surgeries. She can’t give chemo treatments. She can’t even prescribe pain killers.
But, she sees. She sees every child who walks into her office and she knows their names. She knows their stories. She listens and cares. These kids don’t love Ms. Sharon because she makes their pain go away—they love her because she sees who they are.
Sharon is a miracle worker. She gives life, not by taking away cancer, but by seeing others. She gives what even cancer can’t steal—acceptance, belonging, and love.
More than answers to our questions, we need to know our Higher Power sees us. It is in being seen that we are loved and it is through love that we are transformed. Change happens not through our Higher Power’s willingness to take away our pain or erase our mistakes, but in our willingness to wake up to who we are.
When we feel seen, we can begin to trust and let go of all the other ways we’ve sought to escape, numb out or try to earn approval and value. We can let our Higher Power peel our fingers off of the worthless attempts to control others. When we are seen, we can stop destructively fighting for the love that God is already extending.
We receive this comforting, compassionate love as we meet with God. This love is far more for us than we could ever be for ourselves.
This is the kind of love that sees us. And being seen gives us what we need to be fully alive.
Chris Gibson, MDiv
Recently, I had a rare 24 hours to myself. I fully intended to read three self-help books, meditate for at least two hours and catch up on much-needed sleep.
But, before I started my first book, I put on a load of laundry. And when I went to transfer it to the dryer, I found clothes in need of folding. And when I put the clothes away, I found a disaster in my closet. As I cleaned, I found 7 sippy cups under my bed. When I went to put the sippy cups in the dishwasher, I saw that it was full and needed to be washed. Then, I noticed the counter was dirty, so I cleaned it, along with the rest of the kitchen and the dining room table. And the chairs. And the floors. And maybe a window or two. Nine hours later, I was ready to start reading. So I opened my book and was asleep three pages in.
I drifted off feeling like I’d completely blown my alone time. No journaling, no accomplished step work, no extensive prayer and meditation.
In the midst of my regret the next morning, I sensed my Higher Power telling me, “Chris- this is living.”
I often misunderstand being with God. It’s not about waiting for a good stack of time to power through books, attend sixteen meetings or escape on an extended meditation retreat. As it turns out, life is rarely stints in treatment or reading books or even long periods of silence. Life is all the space in between. It’s the frustrating dog accidents or navigating tough relationships. It’s the routine of buying groceries and returning calls and paying bills or going to work.
And this life, this routine, this unloading the dishwasher and taking time to listen to those we encounter can all be incredible avenues to meet with the Divine.
Because we’re a behaviorally based society, it’s easy to think we must perform to be loved—praying daily, going out on 12 step calls and being of service 24/7. We are tempted to believe we must perform even in our connection with our Higher Power. It’s a hard shift to learn that we are valued not for what we do, but for who we are. And we’re reminded of who we are as we learn to be open to the Divine presence everywhere we go.
Maybe we miss out on connecting with God because we see the spiritual aspect of recovery as another thing we need to fit into our day, as if it’s separate from the various tasks in which we engage.
Why do I think I can’t talk to God while I’m doing laundry? What makes me think going to work keeps me from engaging with my Higher Power? Turning our lives over to the care of a God of our understanding is a continuous, daily action, not something we must do alone in a closet.
There are times we DO need to unplug and make time for stillness, silence, and meditation. But connection with the Divine doesn’t end when we get up from our quiet, sacred space.
The amazing truth is that our spiritual recovery can happen anywhere and in the midst of any circumstance. Yes, dinner needs to be made and our friends still need support. Our employers expect us to show up to work. But this work is not opposed to our spiritual path—this is often what our spiritual path is made of.
The rhythm of life offers constant opportunities to open ourselves up to the new and the transformative love of God even in the midst of the mundane.
Yesterday, I spent nine hours picking up toys which will end up on the floor tomorrow. I spent nine hours windexing handprints I know will come right back. But I also spent nine hours with my Higher Power, allowing this God to give me insight into my life, comfort for my pain and love for those around me.
Housework or maintaining friendships or going to meetings gives us the opportunity to be, even as we’re doing. And as we live day in and day out, we learn how to be present to the Love that is present to us.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv
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