The Amazing, Mysterious Psalms

July 23, 2014

I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Psalms in the last few years, and every time I study them I see more. That’s the basis of these seven studies, which have been field-tested in my own small group. They start with thoroughly unmodern topics we usually gloss over, such as the king, or the absolute difference between the righteous and the wicked. They go on to Anne Lamott’s three types of prayer (I love this list): Thanks, Help, and Wow! And they end with two psalms that, though adjacent in the psalmbook, take opposite approaches to the assessment of trouble.

Feel free to spread these…. You should be able to copy them and print at home.

Seven Studies on the Psalms

Study 1: The Righteous and the Wicked

We are accustomed to thinking of people in shades of gray. Nobody is all good, nobody is all bad. For the psalmists, and for the Bible writers in general, however, there is a fundamental division between the righteous and the wicked. The two kinds are at odds with each other, and ultimately God is on the side of the righteous and will destroy the wicked. How do we gray thinkers understand this?

Psalm 1
1. What does the blessed person not do? Why?
2. What does the blessed person do? Why?
3. What is the law (Torah) of the Lord? What does it mean to delight in the law? Why should it be the key mark of the blessed person?
4. The opposite of a well-watered tree would seem to be a drought-stricken tree. How is chaff different?
5. How does v. 5 explain/illustrate that? What can the wicked not do?
6. According to v. 6 what is God’s role?

Psalm 10
7. According to v. 1, what is God’s role? Does this accord with 1:6?
8. The description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is very strong. What strikes you most?
9. Do you know anybody who meets this description? Where in the world might you expect to find people like this?
10. Does verse 11 accord with v. 1? What is the difference?
11. What, according to the psalmist, does God do? List the activities attributed to him.
12. According to verse 18, what is the aim of what God does? What does this say about God’ interventionist goals? How closely does he want to be involved in everyday affairs?

Psalm 11
13. Assuming the NIV is right, that vv 1b-3 quote a skeptic, what is this skeptic’s view of the righteous and the wicked?
14. What is God actually doing?
15. What will God do?
16. What does it mean that God is righteous? (v. 7)
17. Given what we have discussed, what does it mean that he loves justice?
18. What is the reward for the righteous?

Study 2: Who Are These People?

Even when the psalms focus on an individual’s relationship to God, they do so in the context of the nation of Israel. When the past is described, it is less likely to be about a personal decision to follow God, than about God’s act of claiming his people in the exodus. In the present, not only individuals are called to worship God, the congregation of Israel is urged to worship. The future, as we shall see, belongs to the people of God.

Psalm 47
1. Verses 1-4 call on the nations of the world to joyfully celebrate God’s greatness, which is expressed in his special treatment of Israel, putting the nations under their feet. What kind of people want the rest of the world to celebrate their own subjugation?
2. What else should the nations celebrate? (v.4)
3. Why did God love Jacob (v. 4)? Why does he treat Israel so well?
4. Verses 4-6 accelerate the praise for God as King over all the earth. What circumstances would make people find this a source of such extravagant delight?
5. Verses 8-9 describe the great apocalyptic throne scene, where the king is surrounded by all those who serve him. What is the great surprise? What does this say about Israel’s understanding of the pride expressed in verses 1-4? What are the dangers of this mindset? What are the strengths?
6. Note the final line of the poem. What is the significance of that?
7. If the church is the renewed Israel, how can we apply this poem to ourselves? Can we really take joy in God’s favoring of us? Can we joyfully appreciate the kind of future assembly that is described?

Psalm 50
1. As with psalm 47, this poem begins with a summons of the whole earth. What is the purpose of this assembly?
2. On what basis does God judge his people?
4. Why would God clarify that he has no charges to make against Israel for their sacrifices? What kind of mindset is he correcting?
5. What kind of behavior does he want to see? What kind of relationship? (v. 14,15)
6. The psalm seems to turn to a different category of people–the wicked. Are these Israelites? How do you know? (v. 16, 17)
7. What behavior is condemned?
7. What is the thought behind these actions? (verse 21)
8. What, exactly, do Israelites need to know? What do they need to do? What does this tell us about Israel’s self-understanding?
9. If we are the renewed Israel, how does this scolding apply to us?

Study 3: The King

The psalms that translate easily into our modern life are personal cries: “help,” “thanks,” “praise God.” Others are not so easy to relate to–for example, those that call for judgment on enemies, those that remember the history of Israel, those that revere Jerusalem and the Temple, and those that revere the king.

The king is crucial to Israel’s hopes. The psalms make it obvious that Israelites think not only individually, as we do, but as a nation. The king embodies their national identity. In that simple fact, you have the kernel of the expectation of the messiah. For “messiah” is simply another way to say, “king.”

Psalm 132
1. In 1-9, what is David (the great king) remembered for? Why is this significant?
2. From the prayer of verse 10, what can you speculate about the situation that propels this psalm?
3. What promises of God are remembered in 11-18? Which are for the king? Which are for the nation?
4. How is the king’s welfare related to the nation’s welfare?
5. If Jesus is the promised Messiah, how does this relate to us?

Psalm 2
1. What is the problem presented in vv. 1-2? Does this have any contemporary reality?
2. What are the kings of the earth calling for?
3. What is God’s response?
4. What has God done? What will he do?
5. What is his relationship to the king of Israel?
6. What should the kings of the earth do? (Note that they can maintain a continued existence.)
7. Has anything changed from the time this psalm was written to today?

Psalm 45
1. What is the occasion of this psalm?
2. In the description of the king (vv. 2-9) what strikes you most?
3. Does it seem odd that the king is addressed as God and that his throne is said to last forever? (v. 6a) Is this just highfalutin’ rhetoric?
4. If the description of the king is climbing higher and higher, why does it end with the gold-decked bride? (v. 9)
5. What advice for the bride on her wedding day? (vv. 10-11) Given that the situation for women in those days is very different from today, is this good advice for her situation? Why or why not?
6. What is the bride told her future is like? What has she done to deserve this?
7. What New Testament passages does this illuminate for you? In particular, what does it say about the church as the bride of the messiah?

Study 4: Praising God

The psalms teach us how to pray–both how to lament and how to rejoice, for they speak about the highs and lows of life, always very actively involved with God as a real and personal presence.

Psalm 33
1. The psalm starts with six imperatives. What are they? Do you do this? When and how?
2. What is the place of music in prayer? Do you use music in your prayers? How?
4. In giving reasons for praise, verses 4,5 speak of God’s character: what he is, how he does what he does, what he loves, how he “fills the earth” as someone (we might say) fills a room. Which of these attributes strikes you most, and why?
5. Verses 6-9–on what do they focus? Why should this make us fear God and revere him? (verse 8)
6. Why does God want to thwart the plans of nations? (v. 10)
7. Why are God’s plans superior? What quality of those plans does the psalmist point out, and why is it valuable. (v. 11)
8. Who is blessed, and why?
9. Verses 13-19 portray God as watching or observing everything on earth. How does he differentiate those he loves and protects and blesses? What does he see in them?
10. The psalmist claims that there is no salvation in great armies, personal strength, or horse power. This goes against everything known in the annals of warfare. How would he justify it?
11. What is the psalmist’s closing petition and how does it relate to what he has previously said?
12. How would you sum up the psalmist’s vision of God? Does it seem to be a good reason to praise him exuberantly, as in verses 1-3? Does this accord with your vision of God?
13 Do you learn anything about prayer from this psalm?

Study 5: Prayers from Desperation

Anne Lamott’s book on prayer is Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Last week we did Thanks, and now we turn to Help!

Psalm 17
1. On what basis does the psalmist appeal for help? (v. 1-5) What is he actually claiming about himself?
2. Do you ever pray this way? Why or why not?
3. What kind of help does the psalmist want for himself? What does he want for his enemies?
4. How does he describe his enemies? Can you relate? Where does one encounter such enmity today?
5. What is the psalmist’s ultimate hope? What does this have to do with his situation?

Psalm 25
1. The fear of shame preoccupies this psalm. (v. 1-3, 20) What is shame and why is it so terrible?
2. On what basis does the psalmist appeal for help? What is he actually claiming about himself?
3. Do you ever pray this way? Why or why not?
4. What kind of help does the psalmist ask for to begin with? (v. 4-5)
5. What are God’s “ways?” What exactly is he asking God to do for him?
6. From a consideration of help in the future, the psalmist turns to the past. (v. 6,7) What does he want God to remember? What does he want him to forget? What does it mean to ask God “not to remember?”
7. The psalmist returns to considering the future (mostly) in verses 8-14. What more do you learn about God’s ways?
8. What are some characteristics of those who benefit from knowing God’s ways?
9. In the final section (v 15-21) the psalmist sticks to the present. What do you learn about his situation? Do you identify?
10. What does he want God to do for him? Do you identify? On what basis does he appeal?
11. Why is v. 22 stuck on there?

Study 6: From “Thanks” and “Help” we turn to “Wow.”

Psalm 29
1. What function do verses 1 and 2 accomplish in the poem? Where is God to receive glory?
2. What qualities are deemed pre-eminent in those verses?
3. In Psalm 19 the heavens declare the glory of God. What speaks in verses 3-9? How does it speak?
4. The identification of God’s voice with the sound of thunder treads on the edge of pantheism. Is the storm God? If not, how can it have God’s voice?
5. Why does verse 9b bring the temple into it? What does the human voice add to the picture?
6. What are the implications of God’s magnificent glory for us, according to vv 10 and 11?

Psalm 46
1. In vv 1-3, the shaking of mountains and the roar of water are not a signal of God’s presence, as in Psalm 29. What do they stand for? What do they mean to you?
2. What is God in relation to them? How does that affect us?
3. What do verses 4-5 refer to?
4. How can God be identified with a city?
5. What are the external threats to a city? Can you name some contemporary examples?
6. Verse 7 is repeated in verse 11, and seems to be a significant statement. What does it mean?
7. How would you describe the picture of vv. 9 and 10? Is this present or future?
8. With this psalm in mind, how would you interpret the phrase, “a personal relationship with God?” What is personal?

Study 7: Dealing with Trouble

You may have heard it said that God is both the master of everything that happens, including bad things, and also the one who intervenes to help us with bad things. Thus some Calvinists will say that when a tree falls down and crushes a little girl, we should praise God for his mysterious goodness. Others, horrified, will ask why God didn’t intervene to stop the tree from falling. They can’t believe God would ever want (or even allow) such a terrible thing to happen.
While not exactly confronting such issues, these two psalms show very different sensibilities about trouble that comes into our lives. Lots to think about!

Psalm 90
1. What attributes of God does the psalmist (Moses?) pay attention to?
2. How does this God interact with our lives? with our sins? with our troubles?
3. What is the quality of our lives, according to this psalm? Do you resonate with this? Why or why not?
4. What does the prayer of verse 12 mean?
5. Apart from teaching us to number our days, what does the psalmist ask God to do?
6. Some of the psalmist’s requests have to do with seeing God’s love and splendor. How does this fit with the earlier, bleaker experiences?
6. What is the end result the psalmist asks for? What is God’s place in this?

Psalm 91
1. The psalmist begins with qualifications. What kind of life will experience the benefits that the psalm names?
2. Verses 3-7 use metaphor to convey threats and also protection. Which of these metaphors do you relate to best? What do they specifically convey about danger?
3. Are verses 9-10 truth or hyperbole? Why do you think so?
4. Satan quoted verse 11-12 to Jesus. (Luke 4:10-11) How did he distort its meaning? (Or did he?)
5. How does this God interact with our lives? with our sins? with our troubles?
5. What kind of experience can we expect if we are faithful, according to this psalm? Do you resonate with this? Why or why not?
6. What is the end result the psalmist says is promised? What is God’s place in this?
General questions: 1. We all pray to God in time of trouble. Which of these psalms do you relate to best? Which is truer to your experience?
2. Why do you think these two psalms are in the Bible together?

What in the World is Holiness?

July 21, 2014

That’s the title of the sermon I preached on Sunday. As you may know, I don’t preach very often, so it’s pretty exciting to me when I do! I spoke from Isaiah 6:1-5 and Hebrews 12:14-16, seeking to rehabilitate the word “holy.” If that sounds boring, it might be because the word hasn’t yet been rehabilitated for you.

Here’s the link: It goes about 25 minutes.

The Forgotten Child

July 16, 2014

Last week, when we were visiting the Eastern Sierra, we spent the night at Sawmill Campground not far from Tioga Pass. It’s a walk-in campground in a lovely little valley where I camped with my family as a child.

When I visit Fresno, the town where I grew up, a lot has changed. In fact, some years ago I tried to show my children the high school I attended, and I couldn’t find it. Some of that has to do with my memory, of course, but it’s also that the familiar markers have disappeared.

But at Sawmill, hardly anything has changed. The campground is better developed (picnic tables no less) and the road access is gone. (I remember the car bottoming out as we scraped and jolted our way to a spot flat enough to thrown down our massive canvas tent.) But the valley is identical. The view of Mt. Dana that I cherished as a child has not changed an iota. I’m not sure they have even changed the mosquitoes.

I found, wandering and rediscovering the trails I followed as a child, an almost magical reawakening of memory. I was again that child, enchanted by the snow-patched ridges. Such is the joy of landscapes that do not change, but welcome like an old friend. The mountains bypass time–or seem to, for us changeful creatures. And so, for a brief sojourn, I catch a glimpse of my soul, which does not age like the rest of me but remains, at some depth, at least half a child.

Escape Hatch to Sanity

July 11, 2014

Last week we got away for a few days to the eastern Sierra. It’s probably our favorite place, other than home. We had planned to backpack, but then the dog broke his leg and couldn’t hike, so we stayed in cabins and did day hikes. The weather was perfect, and to our surprise there was actually more snow on the mountains than we had seen last year in the same week. It’s good to get away! And it’s good to see the mountains.

These pictures are from the Little Lakes Valley, just up the road from an establishment named Pie in the Sky.

photo 2 (1)

photo 1 (1)

photo 1


June 27, 2014

David Brooks has an interesting column in today’s NYTimes entitled “The Spiritual Recession.” In it he bemoans a loss of American idealism regarding democracy. He points out that socialism never much penetrated the American psyche, even during the Great Depression, because we had an alternative faith. We believed that the American political system was, as Lincoln put it, the last best hope of the earth.

“Americans have lost faith in their own gospel.” Brooks says. “This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint. The faith bound diverse Americans, reducing polarization. The faith gave elites a sense of historic responsibility and helped them resist the money and corruption that always licked at the political system.

“Without the vibrant faith, there is no spiritual counterweight to rampant materialism. …Without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with.”

I was struck by Brooks’ column, not so much by its analysis as by its diagnosis of a mood. Things are sour, and lacking in hopefulness about what can be done.

It reminded me of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech. I guess if you are under 50 you probably have no idea what I am talking about. In July, 1979, in the middle of an energy crisis, Carter gave a speech–famous or infamous in its time–in which he talked about a “crisis of confidence” afflicting America. I remember being powerfully struck by his identifying a sense of hopelessness and loss of idealism. It seemed to me at the time that he put his finger exactly on the deepest issue. Without a will to sacrifice and work for solutions, we could go nowhere as a nation.

The speech was well received at first, but in a short time sentiment turned against Carter. It seemed that he was blaming Americans for their problems, rather than fixing them.

Which is, I think, precisely where we are today. Obama’s standing is very low, but so is everybody else’s. We want our leaders to fix things, and we don’t like to hear reasons why they can’t. Citizens of America would much rather rail against Washington than examine the impossible things they demand from Washington. They certainly don’t want to hear that they are at fault. They want to hold their leaders at fault.

Brooks is right that we need faith in democracy–that we are better people and a better nation when we keep that faith. However, that faith has not been maintained over the years through pep talks. It has been maintained by democracy’s effectiveness. There have been many times when America has been stuck with intractable problems, as we are today. But we have muddled through, sometimes blind and stumbling, to find our way. Democracy is tough.

Yes, we are in a spiritual recession. But somehow, through our ranting and our complaining and our posturing –and through our voting–we will get through. That is my faith in democracy.

Bill and Melinda Gates; Miracles

June 16, 2014

On Sunday I attended graduation for Stanford University (a friend was receiving her PhD) and heard Bill and Melinda Gates address the graduates. It was a remarkably inspiring speech. Bill started by talking about his appreciation of optimism. He said that he started out his career with great optimism for how computers and software could transform society. But this optimism itself was radically changed as he encountered (in 1997) poverty in Soweto, South Africa. Melinda shared her own encounter with death and poverty in India. It seemed that these experiences really shook them, forcing them to reevaluate their optimism and ultimately to apply it to problems deeper and more intractable than the digital divide–problems like the stigma of AIDS, malaria, drug-resistant TB. The two of them challenged the graduates to seek exposure to deeper problems and apply their optimism and genius to deeper problems.

I was grateful for the talk, and I thought myself how lacking in optimism I am. If you had told me 20 years ago that Bill Gates would give such a talk to Stanford University, I would not have credited you. The richest man in the world, known for his rapacious business instincts? Didn’t Jesus say something about camels and the eye of the needle? But as Jesus also said in that context, anything is possible with God.

Here is the transcript…

Regarding polls on evolution and creation

June 13, 2014

Deborah Haarmsma of Biologos has an elegant post on recent Gallup polling of people’s views on evolution and creation. While the poll suggests that factions supporting young earth creationism and atheistic evolution are stable and unyielding, when you break the questions down with more detail you find a far more nuanced situation. Worth reading if you are interested in these questions, regardless of your point of view.

Sociopolitical sin

June 11, 2014

In a recent NYTimes column summarizing conservative policy proposals, David Brooks comments that “conservatives should not be naive about sin.” He doesn’t explain what he means, but in the context it seems fairly clear. Reform conservatives emphasize deregulation and decentralization. According to Brooks they should beware of new unregulated power networks–”Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities — … dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves.”

Brooks isn’t talking about sin as an offense against God–the classic way for religious people to think of it. He is talking about sin as a sociological phenomenon. It’s the pernicious tendency among human beings to make arrangements that favor their own interests at the expense of others, and to do it in a (perhaps unconsciously) devious way that hides its selfishness under a cloud of pragmatic, good-of-society rhetoric. Sin as a sociopolitical reality is endlessly creative.

Where there is power and money–and where isn’t there?–sin will abound.

Conservatives have aptly criticized liberals for being naive about sin–for example, by assuming that people are poor strictly because of discrimination or lack of opportunity, and not their own folly or sloth. They are right that government programs become a safe harbor for sinners, because the programs tend to be insulated from the suspicious minds that capitalists bring to their own endeavors. (Capitalists have always suspected that their workers are lazy and dishonest–perhaps projecting their own character–and therefore set up controls and incentives to keep them working for the company. But in government, it’s not in any particular individual’s interest to stop the cheaters. And by the way, this applies just as much to doctors who work Medicare and farmers who haul in ag subsidies, as it does to people on welfare.)

Sin, however, finds destructive opportunities in all social arrangements. And woe be to the policy proponent who believes that some preferred social arrangement will magically eliminate the problem of sin.

The doctrine of sin, understood sociopolitically, will keep us from undue optimism. When someone proposes that the whole problem is X, and that the world would become rosy if we simply did Y, those with a robust understanding of sin will smile and sigh. It doesn’t matter whether X is government, or Wall Street, or gun-toting individualism, or teacher tenure, or broken families. It doesn’t matter whether Y is deregulation, or a carbon tax, or eliminating the income tax, or a higher minimum wage. Whatever the analysis and whatever the proposal, our human ability to game the system for our own benefit, and at the expense of others, is almost boundless.

Sin is not, of course, the only thing. There are also many reasons for hope. But sin must be taken into account, not only for the other guy’s ideas, but for your own.

Clash of creeds?

June 10, 2014

I’m confused.

The story, summarized in today’s New York Times, can be told as a simple tale. The most obvious story line–at least obvious to me–is the Orwellian fable of liberal universities banning religious groups from campus in order to protect diversity. That is surely the practical impact of new policies coming into play at both public and private schools. The universities demand that all student groups sign a pledge not to discriminate in any way, including religiously. The Christian groups say they welcome everybody but must have Christians in leadership. So the universities say, sorry, you’ve got to go, we can’t allow discrimination.

Another story line, though, puts the universities in a nobler light. It sees Christian groups that discriminate against gays. They want to have the privileges that go with recognition by a university, but they also want to stay stuck in their medieval conceptions of sexuality. The university has crossed that river and won’t go back. So, Christians can hold their opinions but they can’t hold university privileges.

This story has been playing out at many schools over the last decade. Most of the time it has stayed out of the headlines. At different schools it’s been resolved in different ways. Harvard notably resolved it in favor of letting the Christians stick to their principles. But more and more universities seem to be trending in the other direction.

Though it is a low profile story–I don’t think Fox News has yet exploited it–it’s symptomatic of a larger cultural debate and potentially significant.

I’m confused, though. It’s hard to put your finger on what the issue is for either side. Why do universities have to cast the issue as one of discrimination? Why couldn’t they see it as a matter of qualifications? In order to be an officer in the organization you must have certain qualifications, one of which is religious belief. Nobody is discriminated against; anybody can choose to hold those beliefs.

And that question works the other way: why can’t the Christian groups pledge that they don’t discriminate? Is this all about semantics?

I don’t think it’s just semantics. I suspect that hiding somewhere down in the depths of this dispute is a question of creeds. Can a group on a university (read: civilized society) be creedal? That is to say, can membership depend on your submission to a written statement of truth? For all kinds of reasons, creeds are at odds with the modern university–and with modern culture.

Even deeper down, I suspect, is a clash of competing creeds. Because of course the modern university does subscribe to a creed. Some of the creed is written down, usually in very bland language. (“Openness, spirit of inquiry, diversity, etc.”) A lot of it isn’t written down, but it’s pretty well established. And Christians who claim to find their truth in an ancient book are not entirely in harmony with that creed.

All the same, there must surely be some way to square this circle on pragmatic grounds. I expect that university administrators feel intensely uncomfortable with reducing diversity in the name of protecting diversity. Banning groups that won’t sign your pledge sounds a little bit McCarthyesque, dontcha think? On the other side, I believe the Christian groups involved in these disputes truly want to be a respected part of a diverse and non-discriminating university community. Somehow both sides have written themselves into a corner, and don’t know how to get out of it.

I should say, lest this be painted in the starkest terms, that the consequences of the university bans are not that great. They generally amount to Christian groups losing the possibility of university funding (which I don’t think most Christian groups receive anyway) and the loss of privileges for booking meeting places. I don’t think there’s any attempt to root out their existence on campus.

But symbolically and culturally, there may be a lot more at stake. Can a liberal, material, post-Christian society find ways to include and accept those who hold to another creed? Can Christians (and other creedal groups) find ways to accommodate their practices to a post-Christian America?

I am not personally optimistic about the status of Christianity in our society for the near future. I think religiously we are likely to look more like Europe than like Africa. But whatever we are becoming (and after the meteoric rise of gay marriage, the future seems to be closer than we thought) we are going to do it in a patently American way. And that way, we haven’t discovered yet.

George and the urges for darkness

June 2, 2014

For the past year I’ve been volunteering as a “coach” at the Redwood Gospel Mission (RGM) near my home. I meet with men in the 10-month residential drug and alcohol rehab program. It’s a program that the 30 men in the program mostly run themselves, cleaning, cooking, doing laundry and serving other homeless men who come for a bed and a meal (but aren’t in the program.) The men in the program work, they take classes, they go to 12-step meetings, and they follow certain disciplines such as memorizing Scripture.

Since I meet with the men individually for 45 minutes to an hour each week, I get to know them pretty well. That’s why I like it: they are very interesting people whom I genuinely enjoy. They all have stories, pretty interesting stories.

A few observations stand out. First, these guys are terribly vulnerable to their own addictions. At any moment they can give up the cause, leave, and relapse. And they do, very often. They seem like normal, unstressed people most of the time, but they live on edge. I’ve seen them making very good progress until one day, without warning, something had switched off in them, their attitude was negative, and within days they were back on the street.

Second, there are no programs that can “fix” them. The RGM says that they give men an opportunity–a safe, clean place where they don’t have to worry about food and shelter–to learn and grow and experience God’s working in their lives. They have to engage and make the changes, the program can’t do it for them. I think that is exactly right. I’ve often slipped into thinking that good programs are the magic elixir. But what we are offering is not a fix-it. It’s an environment where they have a chance. Out on the street they don’t have much of a chance, realistically.

When you see these realities, it can be pretty discouraging. The success rate isn’t all that high. (It isn’t anywhere, I believe.) I’d say ten months is a minimum to establish real change that will last, and for most it’s not enough.

However, this week one of my guys, I’ll call him George, told me a story that gave me encouragement.
He’s a heroin addict. If you met him you wouldn’t guess it: he’s clean cut, young, smart, articulate. But he’s on the verge of losing his life to heroin. We’ve talked about the urges: how he tends to isolate himself, get down on life, isolate some more, and then find drugs to ease the pain. An impulse wells up in him that’s almost impossible to control. He might put it off, but not for too long–certainly not for the rest of his life. You could call it a death wish and not be too far off. It’s a wish to forget, to avoid, to obliterate self. It’s an overwhelming wish to slip into darkness.

Before I met him, George went nearly to the end of the 10-month program and then relapsed when he had just a few weeks to go. The RGM will take you back any number of times, but you have to start over. So George is in his second time through the program. (Plus he’s been in other, shorter programs before. Most of the RGM men have been through multiple programs.)

This time he says it’s different. The difference is in his relationship to God. He says that now God is involved in everything, not just some things. He has given his life to God and he wants to live for God.

Of course, there is a lot of God-talk frequently associated with recovery. Some of it is just hooey. But I know George pretty well, and I am fairly sure this is genuine. Not just sincere seeking, but genuine finding. He seems grounded. Nevertheless, there are those urges.

A few weeks ago he had a scare. He was with the RGM truck picking up stuff for the thrift store. The owner of a house was moving out and wanted to donate everything, so he called RGM and they sent the truck to help him clean it out. George went into the bathroom and immediately saw some pill bottles. He glanced at the labels–keeping his distance as though from a black widow spider–and glimpsed words that he associated with pain medications. He turned and almost ran out of the room, found the driver of the truck, and told him what had happened. “You have to keep me out of that bathroom,” he said. “Keep an eye on me,” he said. “Don’t let me go in there again.”

When George told me about it he was still almost trembling, recognizing how close he had come. He took encouragement from his spontaneous decision to run away from the temptation–he had never done that before–but at the same time he had brushed up against his vulnerability, and it scared him.

Last week, George went on a run and hurt his knee quite badly. He could hardly walk, so he visited a doctor who x-rayed it and told George he didn’t see any structural problem. It was probably a torn muscle that would recover with time. He said he would give George pain medication. George said, politely, that he doesn’t take pain medications. The doctor said he understood, but urged George to take the prescription just in case. George politely said no. The doctor continued to urge him, and George continued to say no, four times.

Finally, the doctor stopped offering. Then as George was leaving, the nurse asked about his prescription and urged it on him. It was almost comical how much they wanted to help his pain through drugs.

George says he didn’t even think about what he was doing until later. His refusal was completely automatic. It didn’t seem hard; it was simply a matter of doing what he knew he should do. He didn’t feel any temptation, not at the time, nor even later when he reviewed it. For the first time, George really began to believe that his addiction could change. That it is changing, in fact.

I’m not drawing any conclusions from this. I’m hopeful for George, but still wary. He is too. However, I think it’s good to stop and notice when something happens that has never happened before.


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