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Addicted Selves
Joel Kurz

It was a late Sunday afternoon in autumn, gray and heavy instead of bright and beautiful. I had hit the road after finishing parish duties and was traveling several hours south to visit my mother. Feeling drained and rather out-of-sorts, I decided to make a quick stop at a vintage audio store just in case a long-sought-after CD was waiting for me in the bargain bin. I walked inside and heard lyrics which hit me with grit and brought an ironic laugh: “Been working for the church / While your life falls apart / Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart / Every spark of friendship and love / Will die without a home” (Arcade Fire, “Intervention”).

I bought nothing and soon left with that truth to ponder. No less than a minute later, I got out of my car in another parking lot to be greeted by a man who had been walking toward me. He asked for anything I might be able to give, so I gave him the lone dollar in my wallet. To my surprise, he said emphatically, “You’re God!” I corrected him and told him I’m just a person trying to put some goodness and love out there, however small. As he walked away, he replied, “But that’s exactly what I need!”

Shortly before noon, early this past June, a distraught young man in a torn t-shirt and cut-off shorts came to the church door to see me. Once in my office, he told me about the torments of hell he’d been through the past few days after leaving a treatment center and holing up in the woods. I listened and prayed, made phone calls and took him to meet with a crisis counselor. He was exhausted and vulnerable with nowhere to go. The homeless shelter was closed, the treatment center was full, and no motel would take him without an I.D., so I told him he could shower and sleep at my house. On the way there, he asked if I could stop and let him get some cigarettes with his own money. Before going in, he asked me what I would do if he came out with beer too. I told him he couldn’t stay at my house if he added to what was already in his system, but he’d have to decide once he was inside. Soon he was back at my window saying, “They won’t let me get anything without an I.D.!” To which I responded, “I take that as a sign!” He gave me his money and told me which cigarettes I should buy.

He took a few deep drags before heading inside my house. I showed him what I had to eat and drink, got him a towel, and fixed up the couch before leaving.

When I came back less than four hours later, I found it strange that the garage door was open. Once inside, I heard music blaring and saw him staggering around in the wreck of a living room. He was totally unhinged and admitted to walking the mile or so to the nearest convenience store, where a woman bought him the bottle of vodka now empty and on my floor. I told him detox couldn’t wait until tomorrow and that we had to go to the E.R. now. He complied but swung between guilt, self-hatred, and the ache to be better. We talked to his mom on the way to the hospital, and she assured him of her love. It didn’t take long for belligerence to break out with the medical team, but after being restrained on the floor by a security guard, he stayed relatively calm and eventually told me I could leave.  

He never made it to detox. Two days later, on Pentecost Sunday, he showed up in my office fifteen minutes before service. He told me that he’d spent that Friday night in jail and the night before in the woods but that he’d come to hear me preach. I told him about the Holy Spirit’s essential strength in our places of weakness, prayed with his ragged self, and finished vesting while he went to find a pew. While preaching later and seeing him long for any words of life I could give, I added a recounting of the hymn “Come Down, O Love Divine” I had learned in Baltimore more than twenty years earlier from a homeless street alcoholic who had once been an accomplished organist on his way to a Ph.D. My new hearer nodded his whole upper body as I cited these words from six hundred years earlier:

Seek Thou this soul of mine, / And visit it with Thine own ardor glowing … // O let it freely burn, / Till worldly passions turn / To dust and ashes in its heat consuming
… // Let holy charity / Mine outward vesture be And lowliness become mine inner clothing— / True lowlines of heart, / Which takes the humbler part, / And o’er its
own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

After the service, he asked me if I could take him to a town half an hour away—where he’d been through treatment before and found strength. My time was limited but I told him I’d do it. We stopped first at a gas station so he could get his duffle bag which was stashed behind a dumpster. In that brief time, another man showed up, heard us talking, and said he needed a ride to the same town. “Hop in,” I told him. On that short ride, conversation swung between homelessness, hopelessness, drug use, prison, and the thirst for anything better than they’d known. My agonized brother in the front seat told me again that he’d been clean of meth for six months, adding this time with lit-up eyes, “I love meth!” Before I could think, I said, “But it doesn’t love you; it only wants to destroy you! You’ve got to keep conquering that love, including for alcohol.” My passenger in the backseat backed me up.

It took some doing to get my friend into the E.R. and encourage him to stay. The staff there knew him well. I left uncertain of his fate, wondering whether he’d bolt or wind up back in jail. I called his mother and gave her an update. She broke the silence a few days later when she called and told me that he was in the treatment center and that she was cautiously hopeful once again.

What do needs, wants, and addictions say about who we are? It can be so easy to shake our heads disparagingly at substance addiction, all the while lauding the devotion of a workaholic or sports fanatic. Could there possibly be another way to think about addiction which takes us beyond what detracts and destroys to what forms who we are and informs what we do? I’m convinced there is.

Addict (from the Latin addicere) was originally a legal term designating delivery by court sentence, thus the meaning of “being bound to or given over.” Whether it’s gambling or gaming, sex or excess, those truly addicted know the power and powerlessness of being controlled by something else. We can be bound to that which numbs and destroys or to that which engenders and enlivens. It is possible to sculpt a life that recognizes and resists addictive pulls in order to be bound-up in something more grand and generative and good. The film The End of the Tour depicts the author David Foster Wallace telling the visiting journalist, David Lipsky, that he lives without a television because he would want to watch it all of the time. So strong was the pull of televised entertainment on him since childhood that Wallace knew a TV in his home would divert him from the greater compulsion to write.

Reflecting on such realities in his book In Search of Stones, M. Scott Peck noted a distinction between the alcohol he habituated himself to at the end of an intense day—to take the edge “off my consciousness” (43)—and the tobacco he was addicted to and knew full well every time he went more than a couple of waking hours without it, experiencing “the feeling that rats are gnawing at the inside of my rib cage” (44), even as he juggled the mental devastation of losing concentration and being unable to think. Differentiation between habituation and addiction is a helpful tool for self-evaluation when thinking of our relation to substances, but, as he went on to address, one must also recognize the addictions to money, power, control, and violence which “are destructive not only to the addict himself but practically lethal to the society around him” (46).

St. James was aware of this deadly “friendship with the ways of the world” and traced the source of quarrels and dissension to the warring passions within (4:1-4). So what remedy did he propose? Just three verses later, this admonition: “Submit yourselves therefore to God”—which I offer could be phrased “Addict yourselves to God.” Similarly, St. Paul expressed that those who have been raised with Christ have died to self and have a life wrapped up in him—one which involves putting to death the destructive passions and putting on the virtuous, especially love (see Colossians 3:1-15). Seen this way, a Christian’s life is about taking up as much as about giving up; about addicting ourselves again and again to the new reality we have been brought into by our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord. 

Amid the wreckage of all the destructive addictions plaguing life, baptismal and eucharistic faith calls the adherent recipients—individually and collectively—to examine themselves anew in the light of Christ; to address and adjust the addicting entities within the daily pattern in each sphere of life. Small wonder, then, that the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (which Jesus assumes will be integral in the lives of his followers, Matthew 6:1-18) direct us to our deepest and fullest selves, in stark contrast to the shallow and escapist alternatives.

Concluding his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul praised the household of Stephanas for having “devoted (addicted in the KJV) themselves to the service of the saints” (16:15), right after urging that all be watchful, stand firm in the faith, be strong, and do everything in love. What is that but a call to embrace the varying vocations and common faith with renewed zeal and fervor precisely because of God’s love for each and every person. The agony and victory of the cross exist at the center of such life.

Even though my life was not fully coming apart at the seams that gray autumn day, I knew myself to be drained and near empty while “working for the church”—trying to live a life addicted to God and the ministry of the saints. I stopped for a music-fix for the same reason Dr. Peck took the edge off his consciousness with a drink: plumbing the depths in service of healing and getting past what corrupts is grueling work. Arcade Fire, the man in the parking lot, and my Pentecost weekend companion remind me that every spark of goodness and love really do need a home of belonging to flourish and thrive… and that we all need the Holy Spirit to dwell within.

 

Joel Kurz is pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri.

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