Addiction and Grace

Give us the discipline that springs / from abstinence in outward things /
with inward fasting, so that we / in heart and soul may dwell with thee.


attributed to Gregory the Great (540-604), altered for Hymnal 1940 (# 152, Hymnal 1982)

While waiting to have the oil changed in my car last week, I walked to a nearby pancake house for breakfast. I love pancakes, smothered with butter and syrup, but I decided to eat something healthier. I ordered a “lean and fit” omelette and settled into a certain Lenten satisfaction. While finishing my meal, an old pop song, one that climbed to #9 in 1976, began to play over the sound system: In the daytime I'm Mr. Natural / just as healthy as I can be / but at night I'm a junk food junkie / Good Lord have pity on me. And I thought, ever so briefly: maybe, since I was really good this morning, I could pick up a burger for dinner.

All my life I've never needed to worry about my weight. Until the past few years. Now, I carry around a few extra pounds – a clergy spouse once called it the “Episcopot” – and I'm not the only one who's noticed. “Have you gained some weight?” one parishioner asked me some time ago. “That shirt really isn't flattering,” said another. Yes, I thought, it's true. But it's challenging to shed weight when you fix food for one. And there are those meals restaurants serve that are more than enough for two.

You've probably seen the statistics, but just in case: today, one of every three adults and one in five children is considered clinically obese in this country. 24 million Americans are afflicted by Type II diabetes, often caused by a poor diet. Another 79 million are pre-diabetic. Even gout, a form of arthritis once known as “the rich man's disease” and associated with gluttony, now claims eight million of us.

In an article titled “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, states the obvious: “The public and the food companies have known for decades now. . .that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities. . .we consume. . ..It's not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the manufacturers. What I found,” Moss says, “over four years of research. . .was a conscious effort – taking place in labs. . .marketing meetings and grocery store aisles – to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. Foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of. . .industrial formulations and selling campaigns” (The New York Times, February 24, 2013; adapted from the book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us). Sugar, according to another new study, is toxic (“It's the Sugar, Folks,” NYT, 2/27/13).

If we are honest, all of us here today know just how seductive and addictive our food can be. Years ago a nurse said to me, “If you think you're hungry, you're probably thirsty. Drink water first.” If you've ever been to the Grand Canyon and walked the trails, you know how the humidity there is so low, you literally may not even know when you are thirsty. Everywhere the signs say, Stop. Drink water. You are thirsty, whether you realize it or not. That's true for us, too. You and I may not even know we are spiritually thirsty. But that's why we're here, isn't it? We may have come here today, hungry and thirsty, longing for God. But we may not have a clue just how much we need to be in communion with God, to eat of the bread of life, to drink from the cup of salvation. We may not know how much we hunger and thirst for God.

And yet, that spiritual water our soul thirsts for, as the Psalmist puts it, this Holy Communion we will share here today – it's free. We Christians call God's priceless food and drink a “sacrament” – a tangible sign of God's free, spiritual gift of grace. But what happens when other food and drink no longer satisfies, becoming a sign, not of free grace, but of costly addiction? What if we need to heed the words of Jesus, spoken to us twice today? What if, this Lent, we need to repent, with inward fasting, from what may be killing us? What if we changed our lives, so that we could truly live?

One of the things to consider fasting from or giving up for the rest of Lent is a certain kind of anger. Anger all by itself is a healthy emotion, as long as we express it in a constructive way. But it's repenting from unhealthy, self-righteous anger Jesus is talking about. He has been hanging out with his home folk, his people, and they are serving up some delicious, self-righteous anger. They tell him about those Galileans whose blood Pontius Pilate dared to mix with animal sacrifices. What, they say, could be more deserving of condemnation? Why, they wonder, wouldn't Jesus want to rise up with them in moral superiority against the evil Roman Empire? But self-righteous anger is something that hooks people, then and now. It can hook us ’til we are addicted to it. Anger all by itself doesn't taste so good. But self-righteous anger is “the seasoning that makes plain-old-hamburger anger (simply) irresistible. . ..(it) reheats wonderfully; it tastes almost as fine the sixtieth time. . .” (Feasting on the Word, p. 92).

Jesus spoke strongly then. Jesus speaks strongly still. He is saying, You live in a day when everyone wants to shame and blame everyone else for the ills and sins of the world. But this is not about “those other sinners.” This is about you. You did not listen to Moses, the prophets and the psalmist. So listen NOW, because this is your last chance. Repent! Change your life, or you will all die, just as they did (Luke 13:3,5). Ouch, we may say. Where's the Good News of Jesus that will satisfy our souls?

Psychiatrist and spiritual teacher Gerald May, in his book Addiction and Grace, described how his work with addicts and alcoholics caused him to change his life. “I tried to run my life on the basis of my own will power alone. . ..(but) I became depressed. And with the depression, by means of grace, came a chance for spiritual openness. I learned that all people are addicts, and that addictions to alcohol and drugs are simply more obvious and tragic addictions. To be alive,” Dr. May proclaimed, “is to be addicted, and to be alive and addicted to is to stand in need of grace” (p. 11).

Jesus ends with a Good News parable: the Divine Gardener of our lives is ready to give us one more chance (Mark 13:6-9). But first, today, how will we “just say no,” and say “yes” to the grace of God's food and drink – God's mercy, forgiveness and love?

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
March 3, 2013