I met a guy last week who saw Jesus in an IHOP. He had a serious drug problem (the guy I met, not Jesus), and he had been praying hard for God to help him. I guess I figure that if the way you are living your life is questionable enough for Jesus to meet you for pancakes, change is probably in order. The guy I met has been clean for two years now.
I don’t know what really happened in the IHOP that day, and neither do you. I believe God is with us, all around us always, and we choose, consciously or subconsciously, to let Him into our lives to varying degrees at varying times. How’s that for a concrete assessment of what happened at that IHOP?
Spirituality is an individual thing. My wife, Sheri, runs the Sunday School program at our church. She knows the Bible very well – much, much better than I do. The Bible stories are an important part of her spirituality, and she not only teaches them to the kids in our church, but she leans on them for guidance. I’m more of a constantly-talking-to-God kind of guy. I get the jist of the Bible, but I find more comfort from frequent, informal prayer.
Because I believe God is with us always, I feel like He listens to my constant rambling. I often imagine He’s got more important things to do than to hear from me. Like, for example, telling His Son to get to an IHOP in Aurora. But I keep talking anyay, because it is comforting for me. Annoying God makes me feel good.
I often ask God for answers and directions. I’ve grown comfortable with the idea that the answers I seek are both consistent and elusive. They are elusive in that I rarely hear them. Maybe that’s because I suck at meditating, or even sitting still for ten seconds. Maybe I can’t hear the answers because I’ve never learned how to listen correctly. Now, I’ve had a few moments where I felt God’s presence in more than a spiritual way. I’d tell you the stories, but I don’t want to sound like the guy who met Jesus at IHOP. I’ll just leave you with the notion that some pretty moving stuff has happened while I was praying a couple of times. Isn’t that what spirituality is all about?
I also believe God’s answers are consistent because we already know what He wants us to do, don’t we? God could not care less about our financial security, so praying about that is a waste of time, I think. He doesn’t care which college accepts our kids or what car we drive, so looking for answers in material places is probably wasted effort. But we know He wants us to love each other, care for each other and generally try not to be greedy, insensitive douche bags, doesn’t He? So maybe the reason we rarely hear answers when we pray isn’t because He doesn’t exist or doesn’t care or doesn’t have time, maybe it’s because He’s ingrained the answers in our morality. We know what He wants if we’ve paid even the slightest amount of attention. How many times do we need Him to tell us?
When my grandmother died years ago, the family gathered at my grandparent’s house to mourn and attend the services. Late on the night we arrived in town, I sat at the kitchen table in the dark talking to my dad after everyone else was in bed. My dad talked about the importance of faith. He shook his head and said, “I don’t know how people who don’t believe make it through stuff like this.” He wasn’t speaking condescendingly about people with different belief systems. He had just lost his mother, he was leaning hard on God’s shoulder, and he couldn’t imagine moving forward without that support. That might be the most spiritual moment of my life. I know the Bible stories (not nearly as well as my wife), and I attend church every week. But I was more aware of God’s presence at that kitchen table with my dad and me than I’ve ever noticed at any other point in my life.
I was reminded a couple of weeks ago about how human we are – how spiritually weak we sometimes become when faced with the situations where we need our faith the most. I was listening to a podcast featuring Jeannie Gaffigan, wife of comedian Jim Gaffigan. Jeannie had a pear shaped brain tumor removed a couple of years ago, and she was talking about the night before the surgery. She explained that she is a devout Catholic who takes her faith very seriously, but that in the last few hours before the operation, she panicked and called her atheist neurologist friend for support. She wanted reassurance about the medical details of the procedure. Her atheist friend reminded her of her spiritual beliefs, and suggested she trust God to pull her through. Amazing. When an extremely spiritual person most needed her faith, she was too scared to believe, so she turned to science for comfort, and science pointed her back to God.
That story sticks with me for two reasons. First, it points to how weak we are as humans, and how fragile our faith is, even those of us who consider ourselves devoutly faithful people. I often feel the same way Jeannie did. I am not on the verge of brain surgery, but I constantly question the path I am on in life. I want to believe in what I am doing, but I can’t help but feel like a fool because I am not locked in on pursuit of my family’s financial future. I pray, and I know the answers. I know we are not here on earth to amass a fortune, but I can’t help but feel stupid for pursuing a calling that’s not very lucrative. I wonder if I’m really helping, or if I sound like I’m talking about meeting Jesus at IHOP. I know the answer, not because God talks to me, but because He instilled in me the morality that drives my writing and keeps me going no matter how many doors are closed when I get there.
And that leads me to the second reason Jeannie’s story sticks with me. Her atheist neurologist friend pointed her back to her faith in God as the source of our comfort. Stories like that restore my faith in humanity. It tells me this particular atheist has the same moral compass I have. At that moment in the dead of night when his friend needed him, he didn’t preach about his beliefs, he gave her the confidence she needed in hers. He was blessed with the intuition to tell her what she needed to hear at that moment. For me, this story isn’t about human weakness in losing faith at the time it was most needed, this story is about human kindness. The kind of kindness God wants us all to have for each other.
And what if the atheist is right? Not about what he said to Jeannie about leaning on her faith, but about his whole atheist thing. What if Muslims or Buhdists or Jews or Hindus are right? What if Christianity has some of the details wrong? There are some pretty amazing, loving, generous, caring people who celebrate other faith traditions than mine. As a Christian and an American, I believe in freedom of religion, and I believe my God loves everyone even if they don’t love Him back. But as a Christian, I’m supposed to believe that acknowledging God and Jesus as the one true Father-Son Savior team is the key to Heaven. So am I supposed to believe Gandhi and Jerry Seinfeld are going to hell? Why can’t being a really good person who does his best and lives a loving life be enough? God knows we’re human. Why can’t we be confused and weak, but spend our lives giving and receiving support to and from other humans, and still get waved through at the pearly gates?
I have faith. But I don’t know. None of us do, do we?
Well, maybe the guy who met Jesus at IHOP knows, but the rest of us, we are flying blind and doing our best. And I am at my best now that alcohol isn’t in my life. Did you get whiplash from that 180 I just pulled jerking this one-way conversation around to sobriety from alcoholism? Despite the abrupt transition, the point is solid, isn’t it?
I’ve never claimed to be perfect. But I know what I know, and I know that I don’t know if what I know is the right thing to know, ya know? I’m not perfect, but I know my life is better without alcohol. I’ll never be perfect, but sobriety sure gets me closer to living my morality than battling alcohol for control of my life ever did.
I don’t believe alcoholism is a spiritual problem. I believe life is a spiritual problem. I believe our hearts want to be pure, and when we live life in support of that goal, we feel good. It is as simple as that. I can believe in God, and you can believe in Buddha, and as long as we are good to each other, we will feel better as a result of our interaction. To me, spirituality is having an awareness of that belief.
God doesn’t care if we drink or use drugs. God wants us to love each other and support each other, and for most of us, alcohol and drugs make that impossible in the long-term. So I believe if we think God will save us from addiction, we are missing the point. God wants us to work together in a mutual quest for some lofty common goal of peace and love. It’s a goal so far out of reach right now that I don’t bother to define it in my head. I just put my head down and try to do my part. And I’m much better at my part sober than I ever was as a drinker. I believe that’s what God wants. I don’t know the guy, but I’d be willing to bet that’s what Buddha wants, too.
Alcoholism isn’t a spiritual problem. Life is a spiritual problem. Alcohol is no more or less a barrier to solving the problem than selfish financial goals, fixating on athletic accomplishment, amassing power, drugs, porn, social media, rape or murder. Whoa – my list got pretty serious there at the end. But to me, those are among the millions of things that get in our way of our life’s work, aren’t they? There might be various degrees of naughtiness there, but none of it is helping us reach our goal of human goodness, is it?
Don’t quit drinking because you can’t control yourself once you get started, and don’t stop drinking because God wants you to quit. Quit drinking because it is one of the many things that is getting in your way. For the fifteen million American alcoholics like me, alcohol just happens to be the most obnoxious of the many barriers to being our best selves. So once the booze is gone, there is a lot more work to do. But here’s the good news – getting rid of the booze makes all the rest of the challenges significantly easier.
If you want some help getting sober, I’m here for you. It’s what I do – it’s part of me being in pursuit of better humanhood. Check out my SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery. You don’t have to believe in God to join. You are welcome even if you’ve lost all faith, or even if you never had any faith to begin with. I won’t try to convince you I’m right, because I have no idea. I only know alcohol was making my life worse, and I wanted to feel better. If you want to feel better, I hope you’ll consider my free program. If you want to donate to keep SHOUT Sobriety alive, why, I’ll bet that will make us both feel better. For more information, to enroll or to make a donation, please click the button below.