I talked to five friends this week, each of whom are therapists and each of whom were trained in a different kind of therapeutic method or school of thought. I asked each the same question, “Will you tell me everything you know about addiction?”
And each one of them said, “We like to think there are addicts and there are the rest of us. But the first thing you need to know is we are all addicts; every single one of us. There is a large spectrum of addiction and severity of addiction and some people function at greater levels than others, but we are all addicts.”
“Okay, then describe addiction for me.”
“Addiction is a coping method that helps us avoid pain or anything that is too vulnerable, too shameful, too scary, or simply too much for us to handle. Addiction offers a withdrawal, a distraction, a way to avoid hard issues. It’s highly personal too, meaning your addiction is as unique as your pain. The greater your pain, the greater your shame about yourself. And the greater your shame, the greater your addiction. As the addiction grows the more the feeling of powerlessness grows until a switch takes place and you feel as if you no longer have the addiction, but the addiction has you. Even if you know it will do you great harm, and even if you know it will cause great harm to those you love, and even if you know it will destroy whatever is good in your life, you still choose it.”
“So let me get this right. You’re saying that addiction tends to usurp our identity, possess power over our wills, lie to us and promise us things it can’t deliver on, and wants to harm us and those we love.”
“Yep. That sounds right.”
“You know, listening to this as a Christian pastor, this sounds demonic. Would that be crazy to call this demonic?” (Now here’s where I thought that professionally, these therapists could not go there with me, but each one, Christian or not, responded, “No. It’s not over the top. Most people who are confronting their addiction will readily call it their personal demon.”
I want to offer this paradigm as a way for us to enter into this Gospel story from St. Mark, chapter five. Of course it’s not the only way into this story, but perhaps it is an urgent way for us to listen to the story in our day and in our place. So in the safety of this sanctuary,
I want to invite you to become open to epiphanies about your own demons, your own addictions on a broad continuum, and the pain lies beneath it, in order that the Risen Christ who is present with us now might continue to be truth and grace for you.
MARK 5: When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
We don’t know much about this man. We don’t know as a little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. We don’t know what evil and traumatic thing may have happened to him that continued to follow him as he got older. We don’t know how it was that he came to be in this place where the only home he had left to go was a graveyard on the furthest margins of his community. But what we do know is that there was a lot that led up to this moment and now he is utterly alone in his misery. People have tried to help him. People have tried to isolate him. People have tried to forget about him, but when the town is asleep in their beds they still hear him howling and wailing in the cliffs. The children shuttered at the sound. The mothers remember when they helped midwife his birth. The father’s remember coaching him in little league. And now his persistent screaming in the night terrorized the whole community because they knew that it was not only his demon, it was their demon.
The therapists I talked to said, “Our culture treats addiction like a medical problem, like a disease. Certainly there are chemical and biological issues at play, but emotional and spiritual healing cannot take place simply through will power. It must be addressed in relationship because under every addiction there is a yearning for relationship and when the trauma of a broken or abusive relationship leaves you fragmented, the craving for and repulsion for relationship is intensified and that’s where the addiction grows.”
The odd thing about our story is that as horribly conflicted and ambivalent as this man might be, he comes out of isolation and hiding to be in some kind of relationship to Jesus:
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him.
He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
Perhaps this is the crux of the story. Perhaps no one had ever asked this question of him before. No matter who you talk to, naming addiction is fundamental to healing. Every AA meeting starts the same way – “Hello. My name is Ryan and I’m an addict.” This mantra holds two very tenuous truths together at the same time, that I am both “Ryan” and I am an “addict”. Most of us wont allow both to be true. Martin Luther called this the paradox of always being at the same time both “saint and sinner.” For those suffering from severe addiction, the lie is with them every day of their life, “You are your addiction. That’s it. Your addiction makes your choices for you, defines you, and directs you.” But naming our addictions puts us back into the paradox and returns our truest name back to ourselves. When we name our demons we can now tell the who truth about who we are, “Yes, we are addicts. But we are more than addicts and we are more than our addiction. There is something true about me long before my addiction – I am God’s Beloved. And not even my addiction can take that from me. Not even I have the power to screw that up.”
A friend of mine who is both a pastor and a recovering alcoholic told me, “My AA group was more honest than any church group I’ve ever pastored, and in our brokenness we found freedom.” What if our church was a place safe enough to tell the truth about ourselves – the whole truth? This man who came out from his isolation to meet Jesus had become so enmeshed with his demons that his very identity was usurped. Not even the man could tell where the demons stopped and he began. Jesus simple question, “What is your name” brings distinction between the person and the addiction.
The story continues: The demon said, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
Here’s the thing that we might not be ready for: Loving each other in the midst of addiction costs. It costs a lot. Being on a path to healing costs. It costs a lot. Not just the individual, but it costs the whole community. For this town in the region of Garesene, it cost this man’s community two thousand pigs. Last summer we bought a pig for the pig roast and it fed a whole community of people – 200 lbs of pig cost us about $500. That means at that rate 2,000 pigs would cost exactly a million dollars! What an extreme cost. This was likely the entire livelihood of an entire village. No wonder Jesus wasn’t asked to stay for dinner. But there’s a way in which Jesus was inviting the entire community into the healing of this man and to bear the cost of his healing.
We can no longer pretend that addiction is the problem of an individual. Addiction is a systemic problem. Addiction is a communal problem because the man didn’t get to where he was on his own and he wont return to wholeness on his own either. He needs the community and the community needs him for their own wholeness. But it costs a lot. Who’s healing is bound up with your healing? And what price will you put on that healing?
The story ends by saying:
Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
What a miraculous thing: the man goes from screaming at the furthest margin of community to sharing his story in the Decapolis – the very center of community. The twelfth step in every AA program is this: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Sounds like echoes of a baptismal covenant to me.
The man wanted to go with Jesus. Sounds like the “Christian thing to do”, but Jesus said, “Look. I can understand why you would want to leave here and have a redo. But your redo is right here, because here is your community. Here is the place where your addiction took root. Here are the people who have both helped and harmed you. Here are the people who don’t know what to do with you nor their anxiety about what to do with you now that you are not howling in the caves. And here are a people who need naming and need freeing relationships and need you to tell your story.”
On the one hand, this was only the beginning of healing for this man and his community. What happened next would be hard and slow. It may even result in some more pain and wondering if he should just go back up to the tombs again. But he would be brought back to community knowing that his experience with Jesus had fundamentally changed everything. And it was that hope that possessed him now.
We tend to say there are addicts and the rest of us, but if we are honest with our selves we know we are all addictive people. We all have places that we go to to escape ourselves.
Man, that’s scary to name. I imagine some, if not all of you might be in a place where just talking about this brings up some major fear and anxiety and that is sure understandable. But I promise you, Jesus is speaking to you the same word of grace as you come out of hiding: “You are more than your disease. You are more than the labels you are given. You are first and foremost made in the image of God, claimed by God and you are free. Free to be human, free to be in relationship. You are free to be whole. And I’m here with you, as you much as you push and pull on me. As much as you yell and scream. I’m not here to torture you. I’m here to restore your true name and restore you to community.”