But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:27-31
I'm Terry. And I'm an alcoholic. I'm quite sure that for the first half century or so of my life those are words I never thought I would say. The idea never crossed my mind. It is not something I never considered. But here I am, an alcoholic. I'm not proud of that, but I'm also not ashamed. It doesn't define completely who I am, but it does inform who I am. I am a grateful alcoholic, grateful for what God as done in my life, what He has taught me, and the hope He has stirred to life within me. So my sermon today may be words you do not need or expect to hear, but they are words I need to say. I hope you understand.
I want to begin by saying how grateful I am. I'm thankful for Leslie. I put you through a very difficult time, and I am very sorry for that hard time. I'm sorry I didn't listen to you. There was nothing wrong with the words you said. An alcoholic is not a good listener. I could use a dozen different defenses to keep from seeing the truth. But you didn't give up on me. In fact, God used you to make the most important phone call you ever made. You called Leon on Monday night, November 5 and told him of your fears for me, and he came the next day to the office and told me, "We need to get you well." I don't know why those words got through to me. There is no formula for what makes an alcoholic finally listen. But I do know Leslie, you set that in motion. Thank you.
I'm grateful for Broadmoor Baptist Church and our wonderful staff (who did disgustingly well without me). You sent hundreds of cards, letters, notes, e-mails. I read each one, often more than once. One of the chief ways God loves us is through other people. You sustained me through your love. You helped me to see in a new and deeper way God's love and grace. What a gift! Thank you. And I also want to say that I am sorry for putting you in this difficult position. I missed some funerals, some parties, the weekly interaction in which you needed and looked forward to being with your pastor. But you still believed in me. Thank you.
And I'm grateful for Palmetto Addiction Recovery Center. The counselors, a small group I met with daily, the other 55 or so men I lived with, and maybe most importantly the 6-10 guys I lived with in cabins saved my life. Literally. Now I'm betting you have never had a pastor who was able to give a personal testimony about rehab, but I can. I'd sum it up this way: it was the best experience I'd never want to repeat. I learned so much there.
In fact, I think I can sum up what I learned in a single word. It's the title of the sermon: wait. Wait. I'm not good at waiting. I can relate to a story I read about a Russian comedian named Yakov Smirnoff. By the way, I paused and wondered about the irony of preaching a sermon like this and using a story about a guy named Smirnoff. Anyway. When Yakov Smirnoff came to the US he was especially impressed by the grocery stores. He said, "I'll never forget walking down one of the aisles and seeing powdered milk; just add water and instant milk. Then I saw powdered orange juice; just add water and instant orange juice. Then I saw baby powder. What a country!" (PT.com, "waiting on God").
We love speed. We want instant whatever. We don't like to wait. We try to speed up whatever we're doing. Fine. I like efficiency. I don't like waiting at traffic lights. (a guy this morning couldn't handle a turn right on red. Gonna lead me to relapse). I don't like the lines at the DMV. It may surprise you, but I don't like sermons that go on too long. The Methodists beat us to the restaurants. Speed is fine in many areas of life. But not in spiritual matters. If you're trying to grow spiritually you better be prepared to wait.
One of the most familiar and beloved passages in the Bible teaches us this. Let's read from the prophecy of Isaiah 40:27-31. This is the Word of God.
The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are pretty rough. He pronounces God's judgment on the people. Chapter 27 is called the Isaiah Apocalypse. That means bad things are about to happen.
And they did. Foreign armies marched through. The nations of Israel and Judah fell. The people were despairing and dispirited. They came to a point where they wondered if God really cared. They knew He existed, but they also knew they were disappointed in God.
This may come as a surprise to you, but disappointment with God is no sin. We bring certain expectations to the table and when God doesn't come through as we expected we are disappointed. That doesn't mean there's something wrong with God. Of course, it means there's something wrong with us. But God can take it. He's not surprised. Nothing hurts His feelings. By the way, that omniscience thing is really true. He already knows what you're thinking and feeling. That means He works best with an honest person. Just be honest. Get it out there. Tell Him how you feel. Then He can help.
Jacob and Israel, the twin kingdoms were disappointed with God. They had expectations. God didn't come through. Again, it was their fault. They had followed a bad course, and wandered away from God. They were in a spiritually vulnerable position, and they made a terrible mistake: they gave up hope.
Everyone of us reaches a point where we are spiritually vulnerable. The things we do to get there vary. The mistakes we make as a result vary. For me, one mistake of always trying to make things happen. Always pushing. Always evaluating, measuring, comparing, believing I could do anything better, and increasingly unable to enjoy the present blessing because I was worrying about the future challenge.
Now you must listen carefully. This church never put too much on me. Frankly, this is the easiest church I have ever served. Don't think for a minute that my drinking was caused by too much pressure at work. That's an easy and self-serving excuse. It sounds like I'm saying, "I just worked so hard I became a drunk."
No. Here's what happened with me. I gathered up disappointments, some resentments from the past lingered, and then self-pity set in. Then fears about the future. It all gets mixed up, and I became spiritually vulnerable. The chief spiritual problem I encountered, the chief character defect I faced was my own pride. Again, it can sound very noble. "I just wanted to do the best I could for God and for you." No I wasn't. I was trying to do the best for me. More and more everything around me became a measure of my own value. I can't tell you when it began, only that I know it was years and years ago. But little by little and then all at once I was living mainly in my own strength, relying on my own will.
Never take for granted your relationship with God. You can be in church, you can read your Bible daily (even in the original languages), you can speak with the silver tongues of men and angels but if you've lost that vital connection with God then you will fall exhausted. You will become spiritually vulnerable. I did.
And at one point about 2 years ago or so I began drinking wine. Listen carefully. There's nothing wrong with wine. The Bible says that God made wine to gladden the hearts of men. And Jesus' first miracle was not turning water into grape juice. The vast majority of people can enjoy alcohol safely. God bless you. I can't, and about 10% of the population or so can't. I can never drink alcohol in any form safely again. Most of you can. Don't worry about it. And you don't have to lock up the cabinets if the pastor is coming over, or not drink in my presence. My problem does not mean you have to change your behavior.
When I started drinking wine it was fine and good. In the first half century of my life the amount of alcohol I consumed wouldn't fill a single glass. But when I started, I enjoyed the effect. I drank to make me feel more comfortable about all the things swirling around in my head. It gave me a warm glow. It made me sleepy. It made me forget for a while. It numbed the pain I was experiencing and the pain I was creating. Then I relied on it. Little by little then all at once, I couldn't stop.
For any non-alcoholic or non-addict, this part of our story is very difficult to understand. I used to think the same way. If you just don't bend your elbow you won't drink! Problem solved. An alcoholic's mind and body are not like that. Alcoholism is a disease. It's a different kind of disease for sure. It's a mixture of genetics, environment, and choice. I have a gene that predisposes me to alcoholism, and when the stress rises and I exercised my choice badly, and I could not stop.
Again, I know this is very hard to understand. In fact, I think that unless you have an addiction it is extremely difficult to relate to what we go through in addiction. The best analogy I've heard is don't eat for three days. Nothing. Then try not to think about food. This does not excuse my drinking, but it does explain an important part of it and why I can never drink safely again. There is a real insanity to an addiction.
Spiritually I entered into an increasing blindness to God's ways. In fact, that is a major theme of the prophecy of Isaiah. The people in that day were willfully resisting the way God works. That's what I did. I relied more and more on my own strength and insight. This happened long before I began drinking. Little by little and all at once I was living in my own strength and operating along the lines of my own self-will.
That is selfish, self-centered pride that edges God out. My resisting God was not a conscious, angry rejection of Him. I still had spiritual knowledge. I still had spiritual convictions. I did not doubt God, and I was doing a lot of things right and well. But even a strong religious life is no substitute for a vital spiritual experience, a relationship in which I should have relied on God and been willing to WAIT on God.
So there I was in a shadowy world of increasing grayness, restlessness, and spiritual exhaustion, trying to fill a God-centered void with cheap chardonnay. Leslie described it as an unraveling. That's a good description. I would say that I became increasingly hollow. Spiritually desiccated. Dry as that valley of bones. I was right there with Jacob and Israel. Where is God? I was living on memories.
So what was the answer for me? The same as it was for the first readers of Isaiah. Isaiah told them to look at God's majesty, and that's what I did. I remembered. I remembered because at Palmetto you have time to think. You're out in the middle of a cow pasture in Rayville, that's what they like to say. No cell phones. No tvs in the rooms. You have to learn to live again without ESPN.
I thank God for that cow pasture. It gave me a chance to look up. The night sky has always stirred me, and the first month or so the planet Venus was bright and high in the western sky. You can feel pretty small under and open dark sky. It's easier for me to remember that the everlasting God is the Creator of the ends of the earth and the whole universe. He does not faint or grow weary. His understanding, His mind is limitless. God is great, and I am not apart from Him.
I began to hear the music of the spheres again, the celestial melody that God weaves into all of His stunning creation. He opened my ears and I heard His gentle voice, that's the way He has always spoken to me. A still small voice, easily obscured and easy to ignore. But I heard it again, and it was so good to know that God had never stopped singing. He was ready to give me strength.
And He did. What relief! The spiritual experience was back. The relationship was renewed. I'd been taught that I had to have that in order to be restored to sanity and health. I had it. It was back. By day 21 or so I was thinking clearly and God had restored me to a joyful faith. Thank God!
But there was more. We have a spiritual counselor at Palmetto, Stewart, and he told my therapist Phillip this, "Terry understands his addiction from the neck up." I heard that and thought, "That's right. That's great! What else is needed?" Phillip was not impressed. I was confused. He said, "I really hope you get it. I really do."
Get what? I had read the book, underlined important parts, and outlined it. I could quote page numbers so much it irritated people in my small group. Give me a text to study. Give me a paper to write. Give me a forum to vigorously discuss ideas. I love it all. So what have I not gotten? In therapy, in life, you don't change unless your uncomfortable. I was very uncomfortable, and I really did not know what to do. Apparently I could not figure my way through this problem.
We have a tennis court up there at Palmetto. Darren, the guy in charge, the fiery prophet of Palmetto, tells guys who are struggling with the whole idea of God to go out on that tennis court and 10:00 at night. Just stand there and look up and say "I'm willing."
Well, I already believed in God. Heck, I have a Master of Divinity! I have a doctorate in theology! But I decided to go out on that tennis court late one night. I said, "God you've put someone in my life to help me, and he says there's something important that I need to do. It goes beyond using my head. God, I don't know what that means. I don't know how to do that. I just know that I want what You want to give me." Heaven was silent, but I had done everything I knew how to do. I'd left it in God's hands.
That night as I lay in bed, a single word crystallized in my mind. Resign. Resign as director of my little world. Stop trying to be in charge. No matter how good I tried to make it out to be my efforts to lead a church or solve your problems in my own strength is nothing less than arrogant idolatry. I began to see how much I had been doing that. I realized that I was never in charge in the first place. God is. Always was. Always will be.
The only thing I'm in charge of is my attitudes and actions. Someone said, "you're only responsible for what's inside the hula hoop." I could stop all that confounded pushing. The success of my life, the success of my church is not a matter of my own strength and understanding. It always was up to God. I can't begin to tell you the weight that lifted off my shoulders when I let all that false responsibility fall away.
You see, I've been a man of action. Give me a problem, and I'll tell you how to solve it. Get things moving! Get things done! Let's rise up on wings of eagles, run and not be weary, walk and never faint. It's comical really. All my striving, all of my embracing that illusion of control is just a smokescreen for impatience. That is not of God.
The key word is wait. Wait upon the Lord. Nothing good happens when I push in my own strength. Nothing. In fact, I will accept worldly mediocrity if it means spiritual excellence. I've served mammon too long in the form of self-generated accomplishments. I want God. I want God's will. As long as it takes. God wants me to walk humbly before Him, not run proudly. Usually that means I wait, and that's ok.
That's what we all really need in this far-too-busy world. Just wait. Do the next right thing, but don't get in an anxious rush about it. That Hebrew word for wait literally means to wind or twist, as in a rope. It's good to think of it as a lifeline that God winds in His time and in His way, and He throws it out to you.
He threw it to me in a cow pasture in Rayville. The good news is that wherever you are that rope is always there for you to take hold of. Just grab it, hold on, and wait. You know who holds the other end.
Dr. Terry Ellis
February 16, 2014