The worth of an addict

“Just don’t show my face”.

He said it almost immediately, before I even knew this would be much of a story. But it’s a story that needed to be told, with or without his picture.

I’m an addict.

This is Jay’s story.

The addiction started when he was just fifteen. And so did the dreams.

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Dreams that hit him hard in the middle of the night–even when he was completely drunk out of his mind or still sniffing the last of the powder on the rim of his nostrils. Even when he passed out, needle marks in his arms, the dreams hit. And it’d wake him up and remind him that on his 18th birthday he was going to die.

He didn’t take the dreams seriously, really, although in the back of his mind he always wondered why he kept having that same dream. A foggy staircase, yelling coming from behind him–and that fatal shot to the head.

But then his 18th birthday came and he couldn’t shake the dread.

“I didn’t know what it meant,” Jay said. “All along God was trying to tell me something and I just kept pushing it away. And so my 18th birthday came, and I decided to get high with friends.”

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Sneaking out after dark, Jay snorted, drank, laughed, and smoked his way until dawn, filling his body with so much substance that, “I don’t even know how I lived through that” he says now.

Marijuana, cocaine, heroine, opium–Jay kept going long after his friends were passed out. By morning he was ready to go home and not wake up for another year.

“But that’s when another friend called,” Jay said. By this point in the story his eyes are lost, just a little bit past my shoulder. “That day my whole life changed.”

A friend convinced him to go with him and a group of guys to get some drugs for a good price. Jay didn’t want to go of course–he could hardly see straight. But he did.

“I don’t remember much,” Jay said. “But I do remember snippets, like from a movie. I remember holding a guy by his neck and yelling at his face. I remember three loud pops and a pain in my head like a rock hitting me from a slingshot. I remember looking up at a blurry staircase and seeing someone yelling in Spanish, pointing a gun down at me. But that’s when it goes black.”

Jay woke up in a hospital handcuffed to the bed.

The sentence was 7 and a half years for 1st Degree Robbery with Gun Enhancement.

“On top of that, I had been shot three times,” Jay said. “I died for two minutes. But they brought me back.”

And the story should have ended there. But it didn’t.

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Jay didn’t stay true to the rules that most prisoners go by. He didn’t follow a certain pack. He’d play pinnacle with the Russians and then get his hair braided by the blacks. He’d speak Spanish to the Latino group and strike up conversation with the Italians. The guards didn’t like it so Jay spent more time than usual in solitary confinement.

“You asked where I found God,” Jay says to me now. “That’s where.”

With nothing but time, Jay turned to books. “I read and studied about every religion you can think of,” he said. “But all I kept coming back to is there’s a God. And he hears me. He loves me. He forgives.”

Jay prayed–talking to God as if He sat in the corner with his ankles crossed, nodding along to Jay’s stories and offering a hand on his shoulder when the tears would come. The concrete walls weren’t enough to keep the words locked inside. God was right there in the room.

“I decided then and there that I’d never take drugs again. It’d be a hard road, but I couldn’t go back. I made a promise to God.”

And it wasn’t easy.

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After serving his sentence, old friends were quick to invite him to parties again. Dealers he knew from the past had special deals on the baggies of white stuff they carried in their bulging pockets. The past–with its dark, luring fingers–begged him to come back.

He had to walk away from old friends–people he even cared about–and for years and years he had to move jobs every few months when background checks failed and employers shooed him out. Jay had to leave his old town and meet new people and spend Friday nights convincing himself that it’s better to sit alone then to sit with wrong company.

Even now–years later–after meeting his wife and having three children and finding more joy in teddy bear tea parties then in beer pong–it follows him. And that’s because it’s the path he once chose.

“I’m an addict,” Jay said. “I always will be. But that’s not all I am. That’s another man inside me that fights to come out every day. But he doesn’t win.”

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We live in a world where addiction is taboo. Especially within the church. We smother talk about pornography and we wrinkle our noses in disgust at cigarette smoke following a man into the chapel. We often categorize alcoholics, even subconsciously, as people who have no self-control and we label food-addicts as fat, lazy, or disgusting.

We tend to judge addicts more harshly simply because we’re taught to label addicts as sinners worth shunning rather than prisoners worth saving.

We often forget that the Savior himself sits in solitary confinement, listening to a prisoner, and forgiving him despite it all.

But Jay hasn’t forgotten it. Not for a second.

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“It’s been years now, but it’ll always follow me,” Jay said. “When I get stopped for a simple traffic ticket now, the cops will always call for back up when they see my record. And I don’t get mad. I understand it. It can be hard to live in a world where your mistakes follow you, but I know that doesn’t define me.”

How do you do it? I ask. How do you live that way?

“We all have that ‘other’ person inside of us,” he responded. “We either choose to acknowledge it and overcome, choose to give into that person, or choose to ignore it completely. I’ve decided to acknowledge that addict.”

Jay is hoping to instill the same message into his three little ones now. His daughter has nightmares sometimes and wakes in the night crying and fearful. He said he’ll take her and walk around the house, praying and waving a smudge stick the family has as a physical symbol of God cleaning the house and keeping them all safe.

“It’s exactly what I did in my cell, in a sense,” Jay said. “I tell my daughters–‘Now we can use different things to make us feel a little better, like this stick. But first we must pray. We must always pray.”

Forgiving Cain: And everything else we owe to the undeserving

In the past, challenges have usually turned my mind toward Christ. But something that just happened recently turned my mind toward Cain as well.

 

Yes, that Cain.

 

The Cain who killed his brother thousands of years ago and has his story shared over and over countless times in countless Sunday school classes and in between the yellowed pages of countless Bibles tucked on shelves all over the world. The Cain we talk about in direct comparison to his obedient brother—the surest sign really of a fallen world. The symbol of slipping beyond the forgiveness of an ultimately forgiving Heavenly Father.

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That Cain, in particular, has been on my mind since a couple days ago.

 

I got a letter from someone who hurt me pretty bad three years ago. I thought the damage was beyond repair. Actually, I was fairly certain that if I ever saw him again he’d have hell to pay. Out of all the people who had ever made mistakes in my life, offended me, or treated me wrong, they all fell short of the bitterness I tended to have pent up toward this man. Without rehashing the story, it was simply unforgivable.

 

But that was three years ago. Seasons changed. I grew and learned. And between then and now I learned the hardest lesson I’ve ever had to learn: That forgiveness is owed to everyone, even the ones who never ask for it.

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What a painful lesson that is to learn. It’s painful because you crave for justice to be served. For “I’m sorry” to finally be said. It hurts simply because you feel like you’re the only one bearing the cross. And for three years I’ve wondered ever so often why I had to give this man that forgiveness. Was it just so that I could move on?

 

Contrary to what the world says, the answer to that is no.

 

We’re commanded to forgive all men—not just the repentant ones. The commandment isn’t in place just so we feel better either. The forgiveness we give is mercy that we owe simply because Christ forgave us first–before we even asked for it.

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I didn’t know the repercussions of that kind of forgiveness—the hardest kind—until I opened that letter. I never thought I’d hear from him again. In fact, for the last three years I’ve imagined him going through life without a second thought about me or the damage he caused. In a way I didn’t even care to hear from him again. But then the letter came. And it all made sense.

 

He asked for forgiveness. He asked, sincerely and deliberately, for me to understand that the hurt he caused had ultimately led to such suffering that his whole world began to fall apart. His faith was shaken—his family crumbled—he had fear that the blessings would never come.

 

And then—three years later—it was my duty, out of all people, to tell him that they would. That I already forgave him, long before he ever asked for it. That he was free simply because I was told to set him free.

 

But why? you might ask. Why should you forgive the woman who walked out on you or the man who beat you for years? Why should you forgive the father who drank too much or the stranger who ran the red light and killed your sister? Why should you forgive the church that kicked you out or the friend who betrayed you?

 

Why? Because you’ve been given grace too, even in your most undeserving of moments.

 

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a leader in my church, once said: For our own good, we need the moral courage to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. Never is the soul nobler and more courageous than when we forgive. This includes forgiving ourselves.”

 

We talk about Cain’s fall, his rebellion, his turning away from God’s voice and his unforgivable sins. But how often we forget that Eve—a mother stricken with grief for both of her lost sons—had to forgive too. Not even she was exempt.

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So neither are we.

 

Cain, in the pages of my Bible, reminds me of my obligation. So does the letter in front of me from a man that sat in the pages of my past. Because these aren’t just stories. These are reminders.

 

Father, forgive them.

 

Words always given to the undeserving. Words first given to us.

 

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It’s your turn to rise again: A letter to a sinner

I thought of you today.

It’s a day before Easter Sunday and I was finally able to see “Son of God” in theaters. A fitting time, if you ask me.

Throughout the movie I tended to focus on a particular person: The sinner.

Judas, who betrayed Jesus all for a handful of coins and ended his life because of the shame of it. Peter, who denied Christ three times and couldn’t even bear to sit at the foot of the cross because of his shame. The woman caught in the act of adultery, who cried at Christ’s feet and expected nothing except a stone.

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The woman in the crowd who reached out to simply touch the hem of His garment–hoping that it would simply make her clean again. The pharisees, who within their doubt and corrupted laws, hammered nails through the purest hands that ever came to earth and then fell to their knees when the skies went dark and they realized they had killed the Messiah. Thomas, who doubted that Jesus would rise, and then fell in a guilty heap at the master’s feet when he saw for himself the holes in His hands.

The sinner is also you. Me. The man next to me who I’ve never met.

We often talk about Christ and his atonement and we praise faithful acts of John and Matthew while also scoffing at the fear of Peter. We shake our heads at the Pharisees who refuse to believe. We wonder how Thomas could doubt.

But then– ahhh yes. We come to a point in our lives when it hits us harder than usual that we too have sinned. That we too have slipped so far away. That we–just like Peter or the adulterous woman or the tax collector within the temple–have messed up horribly.

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Sometimes that realization and the shame of what we’ve done is enough to keep us away from the foot of the cross. Sometimes our sins seem “so dark” or so beyond recovery that, like Peter, we decide to step back. That might entail skipping church every sunday morning. Maybe it means we stop praying. Sometimes we decide we’re too far gone and we let other mindsets or beliefs take the seat of what once was reserved just for Him. Then there are the times when we decide to put our scriptures in a drawer that never really gets opened again.

Sometimes we just stop believing altogether.

I write this to you, Sinner, because I’m a sinner too. And maybe, just maybe, this is more for me than it is for you today. Maybe not. But either way, I write this because I think that as humans we have the habit of seeing the beauty in the gospel and the faithfulness and power in others while telling ourselves beneath muttered breaths that we’re no good. That we’re lost. That we don’t fit in with the mold. That we’ll never be up to par. That Christ is beyond disappointed with us.

And I think that when we buy into that thinking, we step so far back that we trick ourselves into thinking that Christ was the one that stepped back first.

This painting was my Dad’s favorite.

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While he was hospitalized during the last month of his life before coming home to hospice, this painting was hanging on the wall opposite of his bed, and I would catch him staring at it often, amidst the muffled beeps of machines and the chatter of visitors. The one time I asked about the picture he told me that it’s his favorite because he feels like he’s the man in the picture. No matter what I’ve done or how bad I’ve messed up in the past, he said, Jesus will welcome me home with open arms and say ‘Well done’.

I wish, especially this Easter, that you’ll remember the same thing my Dad did.

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I don’t know what kind of mistakes you’ve made. You might be a teenager who slipped up in a relationship and didn’t quite wait for marriage. Maybe you’re a victim of something that made you feel less than what you are. Maybe you’re overcoming an addiction or have spent the last fifteen years convincing yourself that church isn’t a place for you. Or maybe–I’m actually quite certain–you’re a sinner just like me who sometimes pushes Christ away when all He really wants to do is give a hug and show us the escape. We’re forgiven.

Christ came for the sinner. Not for the perfect. That’s my cue that we can let him into our damaged, fragile, beaten and bruised hearts. We can let him see into those dark shadows of our minds and those painful remnants of the past. He can see our scarred hands and tear-filled eyes and he can see all of our second, third, fourth, fifth chances and all the times we fell short. We can rise again out of the ashes and still be confident that he loves us. Each and every time.

Let him rescue you, fellow sinner.

Let him be your Savior.