“Love and Mercy” by Mark W. Harris
October 25, 2015 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship from Psalm 34 (adapted)
Let me bless the holy name at all times, and always have praise for life’s goodness in my mouth.
Let everyone hear and rejoice, the lowly and the meek, that we can glory in love.
Sing these praises with me, let everyone exalt the holiness of this creation and its gifts to us.
I sought out the spirit of love in my community, and I was answered when others held me up, and I was saved from all that I dread.
Those who surrounded me looked over me, and they beamed, and my face was no longer dark.
I called out from a low place, and others responded from their hearts with love, and I was rescued from all the dire straits that held me.
These messengers of divine love surrounded me, and set up camp with me, I felt their love, and was set free.
Shelter in this love, and you will be happy.
Reading – from Blame by Michelle Hunevem
Our reading today comes from a novel by Michelle Huneven, called Blame. It is the story of an alcoholic who apparently during a black out has hit two people with her car, and killed them. Today we are privy to a session with a therapist after she has been released from prison and is trying to get her life back together. See pages 114-116
Every once in a while, I will have this sudden urge for a cigarette. I was once a fairly heavy smoker; a pack and half a day from the age of 18 to 43. I have not smoked regularly in over 20 years. And yet, every once in a while, on a crisp fall day, a trail of smoke will remind me of my former habit, or I will be feeling anxious or nervous, and recognize the need for a calming puff. It passes quickly, this sudden urge, but it reminds me of an addiction I once had. Like other addictions, I would do anything for a butt. If my pack suddenly was empty, I would leave my young son Joel sleeping alone in the house at night, while I dashed out in search of cigarettes. Smoking was an addiction I could function with, but it also points to other effects of addiction on individuals and families. For one thing, as the Globe pointed out this week, addicts will neglect their children to feed a habit. Second, any addiction leads down a rabbit hole of continuing addiction and disease from which there is no escape, unless you embrace quitting and recovery. A few years ago I remember reading that what smokers don’t realize is that nicotine addiction is as powerful as heroin addiction. The brain’s receptors for smoking are as strongly attached to nicotine as the heroin receptor is to opiates. What kind of role does addiction play in all our lives, and how do we respond to the plague of heroin addiction that is prevalent in Massachusetts today?
Addictions affect the lives of most people in this room. Think about it. Do you, a family member, a friend, work associate or neighbor have some kind of addiction, active or recovering (Raise your hand)? By addiction we may mean to alcohol, prescription pills, heroin overeating, or gambling. Suddenly addiction is not something that happens to an awful person. Addiction is not about that bum in the gutter, or that nephew that could have made the right choices. Instead addiction affects you or me, or someone we care about. Many begin by taking a pill to feel less anxious or by having a drink to calm down, and then taking another, and another. Addicts are not terrible people who we wouldn’t want to know. They are people like you and me that had something terrible happen to them. This past week people in Watertown have been trying to tell fellow members of our community that we want to erase the stigma that goes with drug addiction. It is not always someone else’s family. It is mine, too.
In fact it is my nephew who had a drinking problem, but then he was injured in a car accident, then took pain killers for his shoulder, then became addicted, then went to rehab, then got in a fight in rehab and permanently injured the shoulder, then couldn’t work anymore, then went on disability, and now tries every day to stay clean. He seems to have wrecked his life, and the one joy is the son he has custody of, born of a relationship started in rehab. Yet the one overriding judgment of him in the family seems to be that he is a bad person, who is just mean to other people and ungrateful. It is true that several family members helped him time and again, and they became tired of broken promises. Yet no one ever talks openly of how he struggles with mental illness, or has an addiction, and has never really gotten any help. We want to say he has chosen it to be this way because then we can blame him, or make him morally culpable. We can never say he can’t help it. Or it’s a disease.
Putting the blame squarely on the addict, means the family does not have to suffer what they perceive as the embarrassment of publicly airing our dirty laundry or our failures. This was certainly evident in the story behind Patrick Kennedy’s book, A Common Struggle, which came out recently. It not only detailed his own struggles with addiction and mental illness, but also those of his famous parents. The book caused controversy in the family, reflecting our cultural propensity to treat mental illnesses and addictions as “family secrets.” Not hiding the pain and trauma of addiction was brought home to me this summer when my friend Nathan, the minister in Sherborn, sent out a church newsletter detailing the overdose death of his younger brother. While some might think he would want to keep it private, in fact, he wanted the entire congregation to know to help them erase the stigma and be willing to openly admit issues with addiction in their own families, as well as be able to share the deep sense of loss we suffer when a loved one becomes addicted.
I was moved to see Nathan share something with the entire congregation that was this painful. Too often churches represent groups of people who are perceived as perfect to some members, where it is too embarrassing to share something as devastating as an addiction or a job loss, or a failed marriage. I have seen that here, too. A difficult issue surfaces in your family and rather than having the church there for you to provide comfort and support, suddenly the parishioner feels like church is a place that pries into privates lives to get details or make judgments about what kind of parent we are, or how we have failed. And so some people stay away from church at the times of greatest crisis. While many of us need alone time to reflect upon an issue, more often than not this absence comes as result of shame. We feel disapproved of, and yet our own disapproval of others comes from our own place of pain. Not sharing the pain of our addictions with others means it becomes private, and we are left alone with it. My grandfather lost work during the depression, and could not find a job anywhere. Facing this shame was too much for him because he could not provide an income for his wife and ten kids. Rather than go home, he went to bars because he could not face his loved ones or anyone else. He died young as a result of his drinking, and I never met him. Patterns of addiction cross generations. How do we break those patterns?
We started this sermon by talking about who is affected by addiction. It turns out 50% of the American public is affected. In Massachusetts, at least 1,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2014, and now it seems to have hit epidemic proportions. Watertown had one person die last year, and 10 so far this year. Eastern Massachusetts has the highest percentage of opiod addiction of anywhere in the nation. So it it a subject which touches us all. Already we have seen that it is a disease without boundaries. It afflicts the mind, body and spirit every day of people we know and love. For a while the public message of law enforcement was, we are going to arrest and lock up all the drug addicts, but that approach has changed. Now, especially with addicts the message is how can we help rather than how can we punish. We want to inform our children and our neighbor of the dangers of addiction, but do so in the spirit of compassion, and not punishment.
This means we are going to treat addiction like the disease that it is. People have long used chemicals to relieve stress and make themselves more comfortable in social situations. Most everyone experiments, and we relax, and feel inhibitions go away. We made that first choice to take a drink to have fun and loosen up for the party, or try a pill to stay up late, or get some extra energy to take the test. No one starts out with the goal of being dependent. Then we come to a second stage of use, where our spiritual and moral values remain in tact, and mostly we control the use, but it becomes more and more repetitive. Then the repetition reaches a third stage where we begin to rely on the drug, and tell ourselves we need it to maintain control. Finally, there is a fourth stage, where addiction to the substance becomes a daily obsession, like my need for a cigarette. I had it have it. Once addiction takes over, then the substance becomes the moral and spiritual foundation of our lives. Rather than God or love being the higher power that governs our lives, the addiction and feeding it becomes our highest authority. We believe the substance is what makes us feels better and gives us balance in life.
Once the substance becomes the focus of our lives the only way back to health and wholeness is if we can bring ourselves to ask the question: does my relationship to drugs, alcohol, gambling or any other compulsion cause suffering for me or suffering for those around me? If the addict truly understands that he/she has a problem, then the first stage of recovery has been understood. We admit that this addiction is bigger than ourselves. I think this is especially difficult these days because we live in a culture of addiction. Countless ads on television market some kind of drug to help us with every affliction under the sun. The pills make it all better, and are prescribed often indiscreetly, and for great profit. Too often those who are predisposed to a genetic proclivity to addiction don’t know how the drugs can take over a life, and then it may be too late to recover a spiritual balance. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous teach that addicts must accept personal responsibility, and Michelle Huneven’s character Patsy in the novel Blame feels the extreme weight of what she has done to others while in the full dependency of her addiction. Yet hand in hand with this stipulation to accept how much others are hurt by this, are other aspects of recovery that are vitally important.
Huneven compares Alcoholics Anonymous to church, or what church is supposed to be. It would be a mistake to see church as a place of recovery, just as it is not a place that can completely take care of those with mental illness. Everyone needs his/her own comprehensive recovery plan. But Huneven does point to what church can provide in this terrible human struggle with addiction. She is not saying you have to spill everything in church like therapy, but that church is a place where you should be able to bring your shortcomings, and not feel everyone else is talking about them. Your goal in being part of a church community would be to become a good person, and do something positive in the world. And in fact, AA often becomes a church substitute. There are some basic premises of recovery that are useful for churches to hear and claim as part of their mission. We recognize that we cannot do it alone, but in fact need others. When we share our stories we don’t feel so alone, and it gives us strength to carry on, and find ways to become better people together. We want to believe that church is a place where we feel its acceptable to show up with our failings.
While Unitarian Universalists may understand the AA step of accepting personal responsibility, we often have a harder time admitting its corollary which is that there is a part of my life over which I have no control. In the AA program, we give ourselves over to a higher power, which can be God, love or even the support of others, but nevertheless, the idea of admitting we are powerless and must give ourselves to something greater is a notion many liberals cannot accept. Yet an addiction is a physical dependency we cannot control, and it needs a spiritual solution to the false belief that you can solve and control everything.
There are three steps to a spiritual solution for addiction, and I also believe they can be three steps towards creating a stronger church community for all of us. The first is admitting that our personal control of life is limited. When I was fired by the church in Milton, I couldn’t believe that someone who was faithful and a hard worker could just get canned. Yet sometimes we get fired despite all our best efforts. Sometimes our relationships don’t work out and we get divorced. You make mistakes. You don’t always choose the right solution to a dilemma. The path may not be clear or we may be betrayed, or it may be bad timing or luck. As songwriter Leonard Cohen once wrote, “Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.” We all need a little humility or else we will never see the light leading to a more compassionate life. We live in imperfect communities, and our ability to control what happens to us is limited.
How we are all imperfect is illustrated in the poem King David writes that becomes Psalm 34, which began this service today. Here David relates the story of how he got in trouble and altered his good sense, or acted crazy thinking this would save him from Abimelek, the Philistine king. He ends up banished, or we might say, feels disconnected. But then he goes on to tell how he looked to a higher power, God or love, if you will, and then he was saved from all the dread that afflicted him. His face was no longer dark. He was set free because he realized he could not save himself by acting crazy. In what ways does the society encourage us to seek meaning in material objects and appearances to fit in? In what ways are we afraid to be real and admit our failings? So first, we admit we are not perfect. If you‘ve got it all figured out, and you want to leave your imperfections at home, then what will a religious community do for you? Are we here to strive to be better people, or find nurture for our own continuing spiritual development? Or are we here to hide our fragility and failings, and talk about those who don’t meet our standards?
Now that you know you are not perfect, the recovery of spiritual wholeness means you must listen to others and hear their stories, rather than judging what’s wrong with them, and thus you treat them with respect and understanding. If our place of pain is masked is it easy to judge others. In that journey back to wholeness we seek forgiveness from those we have hurt. Thus, the church should help us make good choices about ways to live our lives that show compassion for others. This leads to the third part of spiritual recovery which is service in ways that helps others. Coming from that place of weakness and failure is the perfect place to help others. Telling your story is the key to recovery, but it is also key in church to help us find what paths we each have taken to discover wholeness again.
“Love and Mercy’ is the title of a recent movie about the life of Brian Wilson, one of the original Beach Boys. In the film one actor plays a young Wilson who hears voices in his head, sometimes channeling them into the genius who created the album “Pet Sounds,” and other times being completely overcome by mental illness which, coupled with the psychedelic drugs he takes, fogs his vision. Then a second actor plays an older Wilson who is completely controlled by a psychiatrist who has made Wilson dependent on mind-altering drugs. We see Wilson escape both the prison of a domineering father in his youth and a controlling therapist in his adulthood, and build a life blessed by a loving partner, and a passion for music making. This need for compassion and care for each other as we endure the loneliness and pain of life is captured in the theme song, “Love and Mercy,” where he writes, “I was lying in my room, And the news came on TV, A lotta people out there hurtin’, And it really scares me, Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight, Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight.”
Brian Wilson in his trials with addiction and mental illness reminds us that no one would choose such a desperate path of loneliness and pain, and also that this terrible path can happen to any one of us. We need in our society to erase the stigma of punishment and failure, and recognize our own families in these trials. It is not merely that we are all broken with some degree of fault, but that we all need others to urge us on to be better people, knowing that we are not perfect, and can’t do it alone. This source of a religious goal of a greater life of love or life lived in God can happen in a community when we are honest and open with one another. Healing comes from knowing and depending upon that source of love returning to our lives. It is not in talking about each other, it is in talking with each other. Church is not a place of recovery from addiction, but it can be a place of support and honesty, and a common striving together to be better people one day at a time, inch by inch. May we help each other realize this healing goal.
Closing Words from “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others . . . they, too, have their story. . .
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. . . .
Be at peace with God, whatever you conceive God to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.