February 28, 2010

A Wretch Like Me

Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy. Those who do not want mercy never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.
~Thomas Merton

Recently we had reason to spend a few Sundays in "chapel" at Caron Treatment Center, a drug and alcohol rehab. Our son was singing and playing his music there as part of the service during his month long stay so we drove up early Sunday mornings to join in. The day we went to pick him up and take him home I grabbed a book off my shelf to page through on the way. The quote I cited above was the last thing I'd underlined after I'd stopped reading on page 17 of No Man Is an Island, who knows when. Our son had "found God again" during his work and recovery at Caron (an amazing place, I must add) and I felt this quote so appropriate for our experience at chapel in the weeks prior.

Our first visit to chapel was the first day we'd returned to the place since dropping him off two weeks earlier. There were no seats available so we were directed to the front, to the seats literally in the sunken stage area of the auditorium. So Stan and I and a few others sat in front of hundreds of men, women and adolescents, recovering addicts, counselors and family. We had absolutely no idea what to expect, we were just along for the ride.

The pastor spoke, people shared their music, others lined up on the sides of the auditorium waiting for a chance to speak, to tell their story or celebrate their friend's recovery or mourn for their friend's death. No matter what the subject or purpose of each message, a resounding and unmistakable theme began to rise like sweet fragrance from the stage and from those congregated in that room. Brokenness. Humility. Weakness and strength. Strength in weakness. Beautiful, rare, precious, vital.

At the end of the two hour service, everyone wrapped an arm around the people next to them and we swayed to the music, the song that everyone sang about security and love and community. At this point in my story you might be saying, okay, enough, that's hokey, but at this point in my first morning at "chapel" on that hill overlooking a beautiful valley I was hearing myself say over and over in my mind, I love addicts. I walked out of that service feeling, "I love addicts", I said it to Stan as we walked to the car, "I love addicts." A couple of weeks later I'd realize, after an excellent and intense family education program for four straight days, that perhaps I meant I love recovering addicts, but whatever term, that service changed me.

A wretch like me. The other thing I was thinking as I left that service was these people are lucky. Another weird thought, believe me, I know. Addiction is not a fun thing to experience personally or experience with someone else. No. Terrorizing and horrible. But there aren't many things in life that hit you like a ton of bricks, wrestle you to the ground, push your face in the dirt, hold your arm behind your back and will not give up until you cry mercy. There aren't many things in life that so perfectly convince us of our wretchedness. And until we're convinced of our wretchedness - all of us - we may never know God's mercy and grace. Why ask for - beg, cry and ache and groan for - God's mercy if you do not find yourself a wretch, like me?

I suppose some might sit in that chapel and be glad they never sunk so low. I don't think sinking low is the point, but realizing our lowness and God's greatness is and how neither of those things change no matter what we do. Thank you Jesus. These people knew or were starting their journey to knowing their brokenness, they were humble and discovering their need for God, their Higher Power and for those who love them and would help to hold them up. They simply could not go on without those things. It was beautiful, because none of us can. The young kid in tight jeans hanging off his butt, the lovely middle aged woman in fine clothes and carefully applied make-up, the frumpy man with the scraggly beard, the overweight mom, her barefeet slipping in and out of flimsy shoes as she stood nervously speaking. All equally beautiful. Frankly, I've never been in another place like it. I'd rather be in that auditorium full of recovery than in any other for most any other reason, I thought more than once. It has become a home to us, a community of people for us, forever. Recovery doesn't end and neither does our need for God's grace. I felt blessed to be sitting there among these brave, weakened (and so, strengthened) people. It made me understand that it's only when we know our weakness do we begin to know our deep strength in God's tremendous greatness and also the greatness that is another person reaching out their hand to love and support us.

Perhaps there is a special moment, a precious point in time when God moves in and true light is shone onto our souls through our vulnerabilities. Like that saying about cracks allowing the light to come in. How is that to happen on those days when I feel so very okay, skipping along in my daily this and that with my new green eye shadow, feeling good enough? I don't know, but I saw it happen there - I felt that soft aire of mercy penetrating the hearts of my humbled sisters and brothers around me and I've felt that mercy upon me throughout these trials day in and day out, and it feels good to a wretch like me.


jim krieger said...

trust me - you love the recovering addict... the active (non sober) addict leaves wreckage along the trail... best of success in your journey.

rosemary said...

...just love you Jennie....

Mom said...

Amazing grace..that saved a wretch like me. I have been with my son to several similar worship times. They are a powerful testament to God's amazing grace and mercy. Peace and strength and courage to all of you for the days of this journey.

Paul Nichols said...


I know what you're talking about. We haven't had personal family hits like you, but in our work with homeless people, we understand. We love the homeless. I regret that I didn't read this earlier.