Preaching + Recovery

Death Valley Super Bloom 2017. Image by Rennett Stowe via Flick, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As someone who is formerly homeless, formerly incarcerated, and in long-term recovery I often find “Lenten disciplines” to be a funny deal. What many Christians adopt for a few weeks or 40 days is for me the only way I draw a sane sober breath. Prayer, meditation, and pouring my life out for others have been the only path to sobriety I have found.

Funny thing is, I also experience grace that way. Not something to be earned, but I walk immersed in it, like wading into a river of love.

Let me rewind. My parents met and fell in love in drug rehab. Story goes downhill from there. I grew up in the kind of house where you knew what kind of night it would be by the way the keys hit the lock on the door. By the stumble up the steps.

These nights were up for grabs. They could go either way.

I could have spent a night running to get beers for my mom and dad as they played records for me. Grooving to the Stylistics, or Earth Wind and Fire, or maybe listening to “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.”

I also could have spent the night standing over my mother defending her from drunken blows, from my father who stood over me three feet taller and outweighed me by 150 pounds at least.

How many blows can a ten-year-old take? I have an exact count for you.

By the time I had a drink at the ripe old age of 11 years old, it was a relief. It was a respite from a desert where I had been attacked by radical evil since I could first walk around. It felt like the entire world snapped into focus for the first time ever. I felt like fireworks went off in my soul.

I was driven into the wilderness. See Mark 1:9-15. I spent 20 years looking up at the world from the sidewalk, or from the other side of bars. There was a wide range of beauty and discovery and power to be found. But there was also a vast desert of temptation and thirst ahead of me. I faced the wild beasts of systemic racism, predatory economic policies, mass incarceration, societal indifference, and a church that neither cared to help, or in some cases didn’t know how.

As a preacher who may or may not have connections to the recovery community what does all this mean? The first thing is to remember is that brokenness is the trade of recovery. We revel in it in a liberating way. Imagine if you didn’t have to sell the wide expanse that is God’s grace. These are folks that get it in a way that most will never experience. Quite simply they know on a core level that the only reason they are alive is because of the power of God’s grace. They have dashed themselves on the rocky shores of life, and through no work of their own, have been reassembled into a new and beautiful creation.

Second, people in recovery are already doing the things you fervently pray your congregation will do. They are spending long nights buying a meal for the hungry, sharing their authentic selves in the pursuit pouring themselves out for fellow sufferers, and inviting people into their lives for the incredible fellowship cemented by the power of God. When you preach, remember that’s who they are: the most likely to jump into leadership and the most adept at meeting people where they are at, instinctively. These are people who not only hear you, but feel the same call to serve the oppressed as you. Leverage that in your preaching.

As we head into Lent many folks are still in that place: where death seems like a welcome oasis and satanic forces in the form of addiction and alcoholism seem to have more sway over their lives. What is our witness to those in the wilderness this Lent?

Are we telling folks to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? The same people who don’t own boots nor straps? I believe we are called to center stories of these marginalized folk, and to be thankful for the gifts God has embedded in this community for the Body of Christ.

One approach would be to remember the people we ignore on the way out of a convenience store: the person you grab your purse more closely when they walk pass. Maybe someone who looks like me: a person of color who is over 200 pounds, covered in tattoos, and may have pain all over their face.

They may be walking in the desert for 40 days that have lasted decades.

They may be Jesus Christ. Maybe this Jesus has tried heroin. Drank your friends under the table. Been thrown out of the drunk tank. Jesus has woken up in a homeless shelter. Jesus has wept because he let his kids down again and is too loaded to make it to the game.

Let’s hope he wanders into our sanctuaries. Let’s hope we have a real answer when he does.

Preach on recovery or addiction with these Scriptures too:

Mark 3:13-29 (Pentecost 3B) We have the authority to forgive sins and cast out evil, in the midst of resistant community structures.

John 11:1-45 (All Saints B, Lent 5A) Jesus sees what is happening to your struggling loved one and weeps while community is gathered in hope of the impossible.

Luke 7:1-10 (Epiphany 2C, Pentecost 2C) People still put faith in a God they barely know to heal loved ones from addiction.

Luke 8:26-39 (Pentecost 5C) Name how we cast out the problems of addiction, and the unintended consequences on communities of color.

In this bimonthly Working Preacher column, “Preaching + ____,” writers incorporate lived experience into preaching upcoming texts from the Revised Common Lectionary.