A well-remembered adage flowing freely around the tables of Alcoholics Anonymous was this:
“You have got to give it away to keep it.”
Sobriety, the clean and serene, the return of sanity, the restoration of family and community was a gift of a Higher Power whom we trusted and revered. It was freely given through the grace of a loving, magnanimous God. Many of us, needing definition to this God, rely on the Christian concept of Jesus, the Christ. I have to give Him away to keep Him.
Celebrating the birth is part of this Jesus story that has given meaning to life as well as understanding to death. A boyhood verse learned in Sunday School said, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Alcoholism kidnapped my relationship with Jesus and set me in the darkness of the deep valleys. My story is found in the New Testament book of Luke, chapter 15, the parable of the prodigal son. Through Jesus, my Father and I have claimed victory over alcoholism and spiritual death.
Yes, yes, yes, I will go tell it on the mountain, in the valley, on the streets and wherever anyone will listen. Tonight I celebrate the birth of the Son who saved me from insanity or jail or death. Tonight is all about God’s gift to humanity. This little light of mine – I’m gonna let it shine.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” HAMLET – William Shakespeare
My grandmother was a wise yet simple farm woman. She knew how to gather any vegetable from the garden or berry from the woods and cook it into a delicious casserole or jam. The storage shelves in the cellar were filled each year with mason jars of wonderfully colorful canned vegetables and preserves. And in her spare time she crafted from scraps of dresses and coats gorgeous quilts or blankets.
I learned from her that a man “is what he eats.” The foods which a person consumes will ultimately determine the health status of his/her body. Unfortunately, I strayed from Grandma’s wisdom regarding foods and nutrition as a young adult resulting in various difficulties with the Western culture health epidemics plaguing us today.
I also strayed from the spiritual/life lessons learned from my farming community as a young boy leading to addiction and behavioral patterns which controlled the years when I should have been maturing into a responsible adult. Living life soberly has been a prolonged process of ‘catching up’ to others who learned their lessons well and pursued G.O.D. – Good Orderly Direction – rather than waste precious years cavorting as a prodigal son in the far country. (see LUKE 15)
Those of us who share these experiences of addictive exile have a choice to make in our recovery years. The times were neither good nor bad – they simply were. What we did, the hell we created for others and ourselves cannot be reversed. The heartaches and pain inflicted on loved ones including ourselves must be accepted as part of the process leading to sobriety. Today I know with certainty that I was a royal A-hole back then. However, today I also know that I don’t have to sit in this chair ten years from now looking back and saying, “Damn, what an asshole I was back on September 18, 2019.”
They say that humility is all about acceptance – accepting and reconciling my past, who I was and what I did, but then recognizing who and what I am destined to be as a sober-minded man living a life that doesn’t really belong to me. It’s a journey with G.O.D.
So, now you ask, “Larry, what does this have to do with Shakespeare and Hamlet?”
Everything, absolutely everything in life is neutral, neither good nor bad. It is the thinking which you and I attach to ‘everything’ that makes it good or bad. We have the choice to create the life we want. My physical pain suffered today from poor habits of eating and addiction years ago is a good thing because I choose to marvel in the complexity of a body which uses pain to remind me that, yes, I am still alive. The morning leg and knee pain awaken me to a new day saying a prayer of gratitude,
“Thank you Lord for giving me breath and heartbeat. My leg hurts, my knee hurts, but they still function and, oh, just look at the glorious sunshine awakening me.”
Am I always successful deferring thinking about everything that crosses my radar screen? Of course not, I continue to be a member of the human race and therefore frequently offer an opinion, good or bad. But, another tool learned in my recovery journey is the Serenity Prayer,
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, courage to change the things I should, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
For me, the wisdom is in knowing when my opinion matters and when it does not. When should I apply thinking to the never-ending parade of drama in today’s life? As I process this choice I realize more often than not that my opinion truly does not matter.
If I told you my story, I would tell you about the enemy, alcoholism. For you, I would remember again the self-loathing, the despair, the brokenness, the heartache, the shattered relationships…..if you wanted to hear my story. I would be thrilled to tell you my story because it ends with victory over the enemy, an unearned, undeserved victory won for me by a Savior’s grace that was greater than all my sins.
I would tell you about a Father’s love that never gave up on me. As with the prodigal son returning from the far land, my Father saw me from afar wanting to come home, met me on the road, threw his arms around me with caresses and kisses saying “Welcome home, my son.”
If I told you my story, you would hear about mercy and forgiveness. From the filth and mire of a life spent in the depths of addiction, I would tell you about the day, when on bended knee, I tearfully begged for a renewal, a way out of my desperation. And my plea was answered by a merciful and forgiving Father who erased the pain and self-loathing, wrapped His arms around me with love unceasing.
“This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”
The PRODIGAL SON in the book of Luke in Christian scripture is undoubtedly my favorite of the parables taught by Jesus. It is my story.
I was raised within the love and protection of a community of hearty, salt-of-the-earth farmers. Their lives were dedicated to raising families and raising crops. Very simple needs, even simpler desires. I often have reminisced that we were the prototype for the “Waltons” of television fame. Indeed, it is true. My extended family of great-grandparents, grandparents, mother and two aunts lived in an early 1900s house with 9 upstairs rooms which could be used as bedrooms when necessary. During the years previous to my arrival in 1947, the household consisted of numerous children and a full live-in housekeeping staff plus an assortment of farm-hands. During the harvest season Mammy (my great-grandmother) assisted by her daughters prepared a lunch table groaning with several meats, 2 or 3 potato dishes, vegetables fresh from the garden and at least 4 pies for dessert. They fed 6 to 12 hungry men. As was customary, the women folk ate after the men had finished.
But it was a hard life. I was earning a wage by the time I was 12 years old, had after-school chores, and during the summer worked long days in the fields as well as helping to tend the cattle, pigs, and chickens. It was a very hard life. I determined early in my youth that I was not going to be a farmer. When my friends from town came to visit they were awed by my lifestyle. I, on the other hand, was envious of their freedom to join social groups and participate in extracurricular school activities. They enjoyed the farm chores which to me were onerous.
Church attendance was mandatory. Through the eyes and ears of this thirteen year-old, the preaching was ominous and the threats of a punishing God were overwhelming. I finally accepted that anything which felt good was probably a sin. When I turned sixteen I was no longer required to attend services or participate in my family’s religious tradition. When I turned seventeen, one of my multiple addictions had already consumed much of my life and another two, smoking and drinking, kicked in with a vengeance. By nineteen I was fully controlled by substance and behavior addictions.
My grandfather, who raised me as his own son, offered me his farm. I ridiculed the offer saying that no way in hell was I going to be a farmer. Fifty-two years later I am still haunted by the look of rejection on his face. We never recovered that father-son relationship. My last remembrances of him are of a sickly man sitting in his favorite chair which offered a view of the highway. Reading his Bible he would look up to see who was driving by. Sometimes it would be the community’s undertaker, a solemn man named Lawrence. Looking at me with his clear blue eyes, Grandpa would quip in his Dutch accent, “Well, maybe next time Lawrence will be coming for me.”
I had an idyllic upbringing and a wonderfully simple life surrounded by people who loved me. But, I thought something was missing. I thought that those city folks living in the midst of glitz and excitement were offering a dream which my community and my family’s traditions could never provide. And at age nineteen I chased after that dream.
Drinking, smoking, drugging, and carousing assured me that finally this farm boy had arrived. Life was going to be grand and lavish. Partying every night, trashing relationships became the norm and for a few years I loved it. Never looked back on what had been sacrificed. Lost my job because of drinking, failed college because of my drinking, destroyed a military opportunity because of my drinking…..”Aw what the hell? That wasn’t the life I wanted anyway.”
Then the blackouts began. The car wrecks, the addiction-imposed poverty, the broken promises to friends and family stirred within me memories of a much simpler life, a life of hard work, joy, and focus. Like the prodigal in the book of Luke, I asked myself if I could go back home. Could I return to age sixteen and redirect?
Of course my answer was no. The farm had been sold, my family was cautious of their wayward son, no eligible prospects for a relationship wanted to take a chance with me, and my faith walk had virtually dead-ended. I was spiritually, morally, and physically bankrupt. I was a broken man at age 34 with no hope for redemption.
With nothing to lose except my wretched life, I arrived in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Something about those AAers sparked hope within me. Their message of sobriety through a Higher Power and a fellowship with kindred sober-living drunks offered a glimpse of a new life through recovery. I latched on to the enthusiasm and promise which I discovered in those rooms and held on to it for dear life. Unspeakable joy interspersed with debilitating depression controlled many of the early days getting sober.
My Father welcomed me with open arms as if we had never separated. He told me that those arms were wrapped around me all of the 17 years spent in the far country. I finally understood that God walked that trek every step of the way protecting and loving me while patiently waiting for me to return. The parable of the Prodigal tells me that Father was overjoyed to have me home. He prepared a feast and a celebration for my return. The celebration continues. We are no longer strangers, I have come home.