Hi, My Name is Carla and I’m A Flesh-aholic

I’m no stranger to the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Not because of any struggle of my own, but because of the struggles of some of those whom I love. I went to meetings somewhat frequently as a teenager, to the point where I became comfortable enough to speak up and join the conversation. I used to say, “Hi, I’m Carla, and I’m not an alcoholic.” This always earned a soft tide of laughter.

addictionFor those of us who have never struggled with an addiction to something like drugs, alcohol or sex, it’s really easy to feel—consciously or subconsciously—like we’re a lot better than those who do. For those college students reading this, you look around at your fellow high school graduates and think, “Man, I may not be passing all my classes but at least I’m not passed out drunk every night like Suzy Q.” Any of the moms and dads reading this, you might find that you give yourself a little pat on the back when you find out that Richard has a drinking problem, or Zoe got addicted to the pain meds after her surgery, because at least you and your family don’t struggle with those things. I mean, let’s be honest, we think about alcoholism, drug and sex addiction as the BIG no-no’s, the taboo-iest, the dark alley that WE’D never go down. I’ve had those same thoughts myself, plenty of times. When I first became a Christian and the Holy Spirit would tap me gently on the shoulder to remind me of the guilt I felt over my own sins, I would always tell Him, “No, Spirit, it’s fine. I’m not out drinking every night, I don’t have sex with random guys…we’re good.” I wrote off my own struggles by looking back on those AA meetings and thinking, “At least I’m not that bad.”

Which brings me to my real point in this post. I may not be an alcoholic, but that response—that looking at another person as if I know their very soul and thinking, “Well, at least I’m better than they are,”—proves that I am an addict. I’m a flesh-aholic. Because only someone addicted to pacifying their fleshly desire to feel good about themselves, to feel better than others, would think such things. But we’re all flesh-aholics, aren’t we? fleshweakThe Bible says that our flesh and the Holy Spirit are at odds with one another, because they desire opposite things. Because of this, “you do not do what you want,” (Galatians 5:17). It also says that we are SLAVES to sin, which is the gratification of the flesh. Slavery sounds a lot like addiction, yeah? If you’re still not convinced you’re a flesh-aholic, consider the following verse from Galatians 5:19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar.” Now, most everyone I know has struggled with envy, anger, hatred, selfish ambition, and idolatry (Yeah, dudes, football counts—anything you place above God counts. I’m pretty sure I idolize my cat, actually…I should pray on that), so even if you somehow have managed to stay away from the sexual immorality aspect of the list, you’re still a flesh-aholic.  (The first step, in case you didn’t know, is admitting you’re a flesh-aholic. Some of us may simply need to start there.)

But I’m not saying these things to bring any of us down. Actually, my point flows back to those Alcoholics Anonymous meetings I used to go to. If you don’t know what the program is like, the gist of it is addicts coming together for hour long meetings where they share their struggles, share their lives, and encourage each other to keep fighting the good fight of sobriety. Meetings can be found around town morning, noon, and night, so depending on the difficulty of your day you could go to three or go to one. Most addicts truly dedicated to recovery go at least three times a week, but I’m pretty sure that once a day is the goal for most. The purpose of the meetings is to reset your mind, remind yourself of your goal of continued sobriety, but most importantly to remember that you are not on the journey alone.

But meetings are not where the program ends. Listening to the same people talk about their personal lives and struggles nearly every day creates some pretty significant bonds, and from that most addicts find a community, a family. They find lasting relationships that go beyond the walls of the meeting house and flood into lunches, coffee dates, desperate phone calls for encouragement…someone to sit beside when the shadows roll over and running back to the addiction feels like the best option. You get a sponsor, which is a glorified (and much more dedicated) accountability partner, who is wise in their experience battling the addiction and graciously devotes their time to helping you through the 12 Steps. The 12 Steps are all about facing the obstacles that can stand in the way of sobriety in a practical, introspective way—and, incidentally, they require the help of a Higher Power to get you through each of them. The goal is really to learn how to live your life better, with honesty and truth and freedom. Freedom from the addiction and all the tiny ways it tricked you into slavery.

meetingtogetherSo I was doing the dishes this morning, thinking about all of the different Christian study groups I have the opportunity to be a part of. I’ve just joined one on Mondays, my husband and I are hoping to begin attending one on Tuesday nights, and I have the opportunity to go to another on Thursdays. I was considering how much time this would take up, the many hours I would lose snuggling my husband while dutifully bingeing Parks and Rec, when I considered something. My mom and stepdad go together to AA meetings several nights a week, and it’s not something they consider optional. I’m sure many times they would rather be vegging in front of the TV, but they’ve learned through painful mistakes that the sacrifice is quite worth it. And this made me stop for a moment and think: how much stronger would my faith and my fellowship with other Christians be if we treated our Christianity like an Alcoholics Anonymous community? And how much better at fighting my flesh addiction would I be?

The first century Christians, I think, knew that we are all flesh-aholics. In Acts 2 we’re told that “all believers were together and held all things in common (v. 44).” In fact, “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, praising God and having favor with all the people (v. 46).” They met together daily? And had all things in common? They went to each other’s homes and ate together? That sounds a lot like a community of addicts who know that they need constant encouragement, honesty, and togetherness to be able to fight against their addiction.

I’m picturing the church. It’s not a building where people come once a week to hear one person give a speech, ignore one another, and then leave and pretend it never happened (that’s called a college lecture, people). It’s individuals who know each other intimately, who are humbled by their mistakes and share everything with one another, including their struggles. It’s people who know that if they don’t sacrifice things like personal free time or personal privacy, that their addictions will win and they will lose it all—people who have the proper perspective of what is most important, because they remember their life before this change, they remember who they were and they never want to be that person again. It’s people who, when their friend starts to forget who they once were and begins giving into it again, are unafraid to step in and remind them; unselfish enough to sit beside them and fight the battle together. People that will give a huge piece of their life to a stranger who needs their help, who will choose to mentor that person through healing, understanding, and growth that only comes from God. It’s individuals who meet together often, even daily, to share life together and build each other up because they know what it looks like when they try to do it alone. And in this Godly community, the fight for sobriety somehow gets easier.

It’s a punch to the gut when you realize that the people you used to look at and say, “At least I’m not that bad,” have a more Christ-like community than your own Christian church does.

So here, allow me to start the meeting: “Hi, I’m Carla, and I’m a flesh-aholic.”

How God Feels About You: A Reminder, Courtesy of Pixar

So last night I was watching Pixar’s Inside Out again (because sometimes you just want to make yourself cry, you know?) and I came to the scene where Joy and Bing Bong have just fallen into the Memory Dump. Everything has gone downhill. Joy and Sadness are both lost from “headquarters,” and without them, all Riley (our protagonist whose head we are inside of) can feel is Fear, Anger, and Disgust. She’s also missing her “core memories” which are what make Riley who she is. Without them, she is losing her love for family, friends, hockey, silliness, and honesty. She is losing herself. Because of this, Riley has just decided to run away from home. Joy knows this, but has no way to get back to headquarters to help save the girl they all love so dearly. Riley’s emotions are shutting down altogether, and she is becoming lost in a state of hopelessness and depression. In this moment, Joy is overwhelmed with the love she has for Riley and her desperate desire to help her.

Here is the scene, if you’ve never seen it:


As Joy picks up different memories of Riley, she recalls the special things about her that she loves so deeply. Looking at a little Riley coloring, she says, “Do you remember how she used to stick her tongue out when she was coloring?” And holding a memory of Riley telling silly stories, she earnestly adds, “I could listen to her stories all day.” Finally, looking at a memory of young Riley laughing joyfully and feeling overcome with sadness herself, Joy cries, “I just wanted Riley to be happy.”  

It struck me as I watched this scene that there are people in my life who feel this way about me. Chiefly my parents, but I know there are others too. Probably more than I realize. People who look at me and recall memories and feel love for me simply because of who I am, people who want joy for me. And then I was openly sobbing on my bed because I realized, God feels this way about me, too.

More than she represents anyone else in my life, Joy represents God in this scene. I picture Him, the Lord of all Creation, weeping over my heartbreak. I picture Him holding memories of a young Princess Jade and smiling sadly, because He just wants life for me. He just wants joy for me. God is holding little globes of my memories and whispering, “Do you remember how she always tried to catch lizards? She was so unafraid of the world.” He picks up another, “I could read her poetry all day—even the ones from middle school. She put so much life into them.” Another, “Her laugh is so full, so loud. I miss that sound.” He picks up a glowing blue memory and holds it to His chest. It’s me, a puddle on the floor, wracked with sorrow, crying out for someone to help me. And God loves me as deeply in that sad memory as He did in the joyful ones. He loves me for every single one. For every part of me, even the ugly memories that I’d rather forget. And He cries, “I hate it when she hurts,” He says, “I died so she’d have freedom and life. I just want her to have life.”

That’s real. That’s not make believe. That’s not a Disney movie. That is real life, happening right now. God feels that way about you right now.

God despairs for us. He feels pain over our pain. He aches for us to have joy and is jealous when we seek it elsewhere. God is looking at memories you can’t even remember anymore and loving you for them. He knows every single inch of your brain, has the blueprints memorized, can recall every single detail there is to know about you down to the number of atoms in your body and the amount of blood in your veins, and HE. LOVES. YOU. He knows you, and He loves you. And He desperately, desperately wants you to let Him save you.

Watch the video again. And this time, picture God instead of Joy, and you instead of Riley.

And believe it. It’s real.

Sitting in Sorrow

Author’s Note: Dedicated to my dear friend, James. Jesus is right beside you in this, my brother. I love you.

I love the band Flyleaf. They are unafraid to sing about raw pain in the light of their Christianity. They don’t pretend that sorrow doesn’t exist as a Christian, but instead describe Christ speaking into our grief.

I was listening to one such song, aptly titled ‘Sorrow’, when the following lyrics struck me deeply:

Sitting closer than my pain
He knew each tear before it came

Right now I am going through a period of time where I frequently find myself sobbing in my car at random intervals. I am unashamed to say it: I am suffering from massive mood swings. And because of this many of my days are knit with deep, intense sorrow; the battle against depression is being waged yet again. So when I heard these lyrics they echoed in my head, the question reverberating through me for days afterward, “How?” How could Jesus be closer than pain that felt etched into my very being?

So that Sunday, I decided to ask Him. Desperate and aching with helplessness for my life, the lives of my loved ones, the world at large—heavy with the darkness surrounding me—I reached out. The following is the prayer that I wrote to Christ in that moment, unedited in its rawness:

Jesus,

Do you really sit closer than my pain? You know what it looks like. You can describe it so much better than I can. It’s so large and monstrous. It looms over me, breathing down my neck and soaking me in fear and panic and uncertainty and anger and hatred and self-loathing and depression and lethargy and hopelessness and I can’t see passed the fog it surrounds me in. It’s black smoke, so thick it’s almost solid. Almost like a pitch black box that I have no way of getting out of. If it’s all around me, how can you be closer than it? I don’t understand… Are you in the pain, in the smoking darkness? Are you in me?

Where are you, Jesus? Make it clear to me.

I don’t want to question your presence. Reveal yourself to me. Where are you in the darkness? Please. I need to know I’m not alone here in this haunted place. Are you behind me, watching my back while I grope around helplessly? Are you a light that I just can’t see? Reveal yourself to me, Lord.

Are you closer than my pain? Get between it and me. I want to feel it and know it’s there. I don’t want to numb it; I just don’t want it to take me down like it has been. I’m pinned to the floor, heavy black smoke upon me, choking me. Get between us, Christ.

Help me. Help me. Help me.

I put my notebook down. I listened to the sermon, took fervent notes, the black smoke still on my back. Though I sat in a chair surrounded by Christians, what I pictured was a haunted house. Colorless. Whispering voices, staring eyes, hungry growls coming from every direction. No windows, no doors. Just a huge, putrid, decrepit house that I was hopelessly lost in. And no matter how quickly I ran, the heavy, daunting black smoke followed me, always at my heels. And in that moment it had caught me and I was pinned to the floor, tasting ragged carpet and being taunted at every angle by the voices, the eyes, the growls. The black smoke covered me until it seemed that maybe it was me—me and my pain, merging so that I would never be rid of it again. How could Christ be closer than a pain that felt like it was all around me and inside me?

After the sermon we took prayer requests from our small number of members. As we bowed our heads in prayer I folded my hands together, because I sat alone. But in that moment I felt a hand over my own, holding it as we began to pray. In my mind I lifted my head and saw Christ sitting to my right, smiling with tender eyes. I heard Him whisper, “I’m here. Silent tears slid down my cheeks as my brothers and sisters prayed on around me, unaware of my communion with Christ. In my head I stared at Him, eyes wide, and answered quietly, “You’re here?” I felt then the closest hug I had ever felt, the arms of my Savior surrounding me and pulling me into Him. I melted, sobbing, “You’re here.”

And suddenly I was in the haunted house again. It looked the same. The whispers and eyes and growls were all present, and the black smoke still sat over me, my body pressed to the floor with no power to move. But when I turned my head I saw, lying on the floor beside me, my God. My Savior. My Christ. He laid pressed low just as I was, under the weight of the black smoke just as I was, holding my hand in His own. At the sight of Him I sobbed, tears pouring over me, shaking with emotion. He whispered in the face of my pain, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m right here.

Jesus squeezed my hand, the two of us together in my pain. I’m always here.

In my chair at church, frantically writing the experience in my notebook, I penned, “He’s already here. He’s in the pain with me. I’m not alone, I’m not alone, I’m not alone.”

The black smoke of my pain pressed down on me, fearing the power of my God. I cried, “Please don’t leave me!”

Christ answered, holding my hand tighter, silencing my fear, I never will.

All praise be to the God of Light. All praise be to Jesus Christ, who took the burden of our sin so that we would never be alone in our sorrow again.

He sits closer than our pain. He shares it.

For Those in Peril on the Sea

I’m weak today. Really weak. Been standing on a slippery rock attempting to hold strong against the powerful waves for twelve hours straight weak. On days like these I wonder how I’m taking this breath. Or this breath. Or this breath. How is the pain not catching my foot, tripping me off the rock and into the stormy sea, pummeling me until any hope of finding air again is lost? Sometimes I close my eyes and for a moment that sick feeling of falling slips over my mind and I lose my balance. The fear of falling into the water is as dangerous to me as the waves themselves.

If I get lost in this imagery for long enough, eventually Jesus comes. He doesn’t leave me alone there for long. I notice him coming towards me like a phantom across the fog of the sea. My eyes, which have been so mightily trained on monitoring my footing, become locked on his silhouette. After a few moments the beating drum of the waves fades out of my mind—I can see and think of nothing but the man approaching me, walking gently through the storm. I think he might be glowing, a faint shining hue encircling his body, like peace flowing out from his very soul. I blink, and somehow this doesn’t affect my balance.

Suddenly he’s beside me. His presence encapsulates me, eliminating any fear of the waves or the storm or my footing or my pain. I’m shaking; I don’t notice it, but he does. He takes me tenderly into an embrace and my body is flooded with the warmth of a sunny June afternoon laying in the grass when you’re six and the biggest question in your mind is, ‘What shape is that cloud?’ I close my eyes and collapse into his strength.

Tower in Ocean

When I open my eyes again we have risen high above the waves. The storm is a memory below us—I can see the creation of lightning as it hurls towards the sea, hear the resonance of the thunder in the distance. I am suddenly untouchable. My paltry, fragile rock has been transformed into a towering pillar, its foundation balanced and strong. Hundreds of feet stretch between me and the angry surf; no matter how hard it tries, it can no longer reach me. Jesus’ presence spans like a shield around me—I don’t understand it, but somewhere inside me is the knowledge that I can no longer fall. With him near the rain and wind and fog are unable to affect me. Instead I feel a welling fire within my belly, growing, growing, until it’s a roaring bonfire overtaking all the cold within me. My icy interior is melting. I am a little girl at Christmas, familiar blanket wrapped around me, sipping hot cocoa before the welcoming fireplace. Safe. Safe. Safe. Untouchable.

Jesus, my calm deliverer, quietly turns my attention to an image down below. Through the whistling rain and harrowing fog I see it: a frail girl, anxiously trapped on a slick rock. Even from my lofty position I can see her trembling; she is lost in the storm, weighed down by the reality that she will likely not survive this. She can’t take her eyes off the wet rock at her feet, so petrified that she might lose her footing and go crashing into the menacing current. Her fear has her so imprisoned that she doesn’t even notice the splendid, radiant man behind her. He is wrapped in white and his light vanquishes the surrounding mist, creating a glowing barrier around them. His hand is on her shoulder, ensuring that she cannot fall. Still quivering, she is unaware that she has nothing to be afraid of. He’s already there. She was never alone to begin with; all she had to do was look up.

The realization hits me suddenly, and if I weren’t so sure-footed on our pillar I might stumble off the rock. My chest aches with the knowledge—he was there, he was there, he was there—as the reality of what that means sinks over me. He heard the powerful sobs when no one else was watching; he saw the panicked fear trapped within my chest; he felt the uncertainty, the confusion, covering my mind in a thick fog that was impossible to get out of. He was there all along, waiting.

Storm

When I can muster the courage within myself, I look up at him again. I am sure he will look disappointed, wishing I had noticed him sooner. I want so desperately to hide my face, ashamed of my faithlessness and fear. But when I meet his eye, he is smiling. The world around us has transformed: the clouds have collapsed; the rain has dried up. Bright, powerful rays of sunshine pour down on us like honey, and for the first time I see it. When I’m staring into his face, really seeing him, there cannot be a storm. He destroys it.

In his face is light, and as long as I’m fixing my eyes on him the wicked lightning, the paralyzing rain, the panicking thunder, the ominous clouds—none of them exist. It is quiet.