Shalom Philip: Life, Death and Sacred Failure

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 119

Matthew 5:21-37

[Given at All Saints Episcopal Church, Sunderland, MD, February 16, 2014]

I had a really exquisitely-researched sermon ready for you today, all about how taking Jewish law (and Matthew’s Gospel) literally gets us into trouble – especially in matters like contemporary divorce.  I had cutting-edge scholarship, ancient Rabbinic commentary, and I had even contacted a Rabbi and fellow blogger.  It was a very nice sermon.

Then, I read about the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and that stopped me right in my tracks.

PSHFor those of you who have not been following the news, the actor was found Sunday, February 2 at 11:30am, in his New York City apartment, surrounded by drugs and drug paraphernalia.  His death unnerved me personally for a couple of reasons:  First, he was my exact same age (46).  Second, like me, he had a substantial amount of clean and sober time (22 years).  In two days, if I do not pick up a drink or a drug, God willing, I will have 17 years clean and sober.  Hi, my name is Amy, and I’m a recovering alcoholic.

So with all that said, I am going to something a little odd today – I am going to preach from the Hebrew Bible text for my sermon, as it speaks to me very poignantly at this time.  The reading is the third speech of Moses from the book of Deuteronomy, which comes from the Greek meaning “second law” or “repeating of the law”.  Deuteronomy, according to Hebrew Bible scholars, is a boundary document.  It marks the narrative historic boundary between the Israelites’ years of wilderness wandering and their entry into Canaan, the Promised Land.  It also marks the end of the Torah – the first five books of the Bible, regarded as the foundation of Jewish law (Bowen, Nancy R.  “The Book of Deuteronomy.”  2008.  The Discipleship Study Bible. (NRSV)  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.  Pp. 237-240).

"The Promised Land," BenHeine on DeviantART

“The Promised Land,” BenHeine on DeviantART

In the reading today, Moses stands at the boundary of the river Jordan, just before entering the land of Canaan, which he knows that he will not live to see.  The Israelites will ultimately be led into the Promised Land by Moses’ second-in-command, Joshua.  This pause at the boundary of Canaan is reflected in the Hebrew name for this Torah portion, Netzavim, which means “the ones standing”.  There is irony in the fact that the ones standing at the brink of the Promised Land are not the generation that was led out of Egypt.  That generation all died wandering in the desert.  Several theologians have pointed out that, given this fact, Moses could be considered a failure, even though he delivered the Torah to the Israelites – the set of laws that defined them as a nation.  So the reading today is the narrative of a leader and his people standing, pausing before a new chapter of life – which the leader will not be there to see, and which the people he had led died before seeing.

taking-methadoneWe may never know if Philip Seymour Hoffman had the chance to pause and reflect before he turned back to his old life of using.  I do not have a pat answer for why he died, and why I am left standing here today.  Addiction (whether to drugs or to alcohol) is a vexing phenomenon that defies neat categorization or a handy cure.  On the one hand, addiction certainly has physiological determinants, including brain chemistry and genetic pre-disposition.  However, this clinical model has yet to produce any permanent chemical cure.  There are drugs such as Anabuse, which help deter drinking by making the consequences extremely painful and sickening.  However, I can tell you that Anabuse does not stop people from drinking – I have seen far too many relapses on Anabuse in the rooms of AA, to which the alcoholic typically responds by going off the Anabuse.  Methodone and Suboxone are also federally-approved maintenance treatments, which substitute non-lethal drugs for heroin – however, these drugs are not a permanent cure.  They are long-term maintenance drugs that also produce withdrawal effects if they are stopped.

Good Choice Bad ChoiceMedical treatment can certainly help prevent deaths from addiction, particularly from injected drugs.  However, treatment is a necessary but insufficient condition for recovery.  When the Anabuse prescription runs out or when the addict walks away from the Methodone clinic, there is still a choice that has to be made: Am I going to use or drink, or not?  Am I willing to do whatever it takes to stay in recovery and lead a clean and sober life?  And, like it or not, this is a choice with moral and ethical implications.  While it is true that addicts do not drink and use because we are bad people, the choices that we make can have very bad consequences – for ourselves and for the people around us.  And we are responsible for those choices.  If I engage in “drunk” or “using” behaviors like lying and stealing, if I walk away from a program of recovery, and if I finally pick up a drink or drug, I am making a series of choices with ethical ramifications whether I am conscious of it or not.  Every choice or action leads either toward or away from sobriety – toward life or death.

HigherPowerThe problem is that – left to our own devices – alcoholics and addicts will overwhelmingly choose death.  That is because relying solely on our own brains to think our way through to sobriety is like relying on a virus-ridden computer to fix itself.  It won’t work.  The only thing the computer can do on its own is spew out more virus.  The only thing that the brains of alcoholics and addicts are wired to do is to seek out more of our drug of choice (and to use the people around us to get access to it).  So if medicine can’t provide a cure, our own minds can’t be trusted, and the poor bewildered people around us are powerless to stop our drinking and using … what’s left?  As AA’s Big Book says “There is one who has all power, and that one is God.  May you find Him now.”

My own initial attempts at finding God were pathetic.  My first daily sober prayers went something like this: “Hi God.  It’s me.  I’m just doing this because my stupid sponsor told me to.  Yeah, and please keep me sober today.  OK.  Fine.  Whatever.  ‘Bye.”  Oddly enough, though, that micron of willingness, applied daily, gave God’s grace more than enough room to operate in.  I didn’t drink, in spite of myself, one day at a time.  Even though those first days felt like they were 72 hours long, the days eventually racked up.  And here we are, 17 years later.

Broccoli.Now before you think that this is a temperance sermon, let me say that – yes – there are many people who can drink perfectly normally.  There are lots of them here at All Saints.  They are strange, normal people who look at alcohol the same way I look at broccoli.  I do not have to have broccoli.  I do not spend my every waking moment thinking about when I am going to get my next broccoli.  I don’t stash broccoli all around the house or hide it from my family.  I don’t get angry or irritable if someone takes away my broccoli.  I do not have to count my broccoli so I don’t overdo it or make a conscious effort not to eat broccoli too early in the day.  I don’t miss work or family obligations because of broccoli.  I don’t call up people or send e-mails I regret after I eat broccoli.  And I have never been in the hospital because of broccoli.

I cannot, however, say the same about alcohol.  That is why I can never touch it again.  That is why, almost 17 years ago, I had virtually no friends left and was almost out of a job.  That is also why my drinking career ultimately ended with me face-down, passed out in a public park in Northeast DC.  You would think that after an end like that, I would take every precaution possible to choose life and stay sober.  And for my first ten years I did.  I went regularly to AA meetings, had a sponsor, did service work and worked the 12 Steps every day.

In the past few years, however, my attendance at AA meetings dwindled to an annual breeze-through to pick up my anniversary chip.  I didn’t have an AA sponsor anymore and I was not sponsoring anyone.  In short, I had convinced denialmyself that I am “OK”.  Yes, I’m an alcoholic in recovery, but … I know the drill.  I’m busy doing this, this and this.  There are no AA meetings close to where I work.  I had been busily coasting along on auto-pilot in my respectable life.

I’m sure Philip Seymour Hoffman was busy doing the same kinds of things, only more fabulous.  He had, in many ways, arrived in the Promised Land.  He had won Best Actor for “Capote” in 2005, had three Supporting Actor nominations, and had appeared in 51 feature film releases from 1991 through this year.  He was well-liked and respected by his colleagues, and he hadn’t had a drink or a drug in 22 years.  Then one day, he went to the ATM, withdrew $1500, and made the choice that killed him.

The Hebrew Bible reading today exhorts the Israelites to be ever mindful of the gravity of their daily choices:

idolatry“… if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your G_d, obeying [G_d], and holding fast to [G_d]; for that means life to you and length of days …” (Deut. 30:19-20).

Alcoholism, for me, was very much an exercise in idolatry.  I was busy mistaking alcohol for G_d, structuring my entire life around it, and in the end, letting it reduce my life to an area the size of a bottle, where nothing and no one else could fit in.  in order to dislodge the god of alcohol from my mind and my life, I had to make a decision to turn my will and my life over to “the G_d of my understanding,” however tenuous that may have been at first.

failureIt would be very easy to take this morning’s reading as nothing but a grim, punitive warning: Be careful what you choose, because you deserve what you get.  Yes, the choice between life and death is a simple one, but it is not an easy one for those of us in recovery.  And, yes, the wrong choice could mean tragic failure.  But we could also say that Moses’ life was a tragic failure – he and his generation did not live to see the Promised Land.  However, his sacred failure marked the birth of a new nation that was defined by the law that he delivered on Mount Sinai.

In G_d’s economy, there are no irredeemable losses and no absolute failures.  Rabbi David Zaslow points out that, for the Hebraic mind, seeming opposites like life and death are simply part of a unified whole.  He uses the example of the Hebrew word shalom:

Shalom“Commonly translated as ‘hello, goodbye’, and ‘peace’, shalom is etymologically derived from a root meaning ‘wholeness’ … In the most opposite of situations, coming and going, we use the same word, shalom.  When I come from somewhere I am going to someplace else.  When I realize this, I feel ‘wholeness,’ and that is a source of peace – the third meaning of shalom” (Zaslow, Rabbi David.  2014.  Jesus: First Century RabbiBrewster, MA: Paraclete Press.  Pp. 99-100).

Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to have left us.  However, his loss is not final or irredeemable.  His life is not a failure by any stretch of the imagination.  We can say “shalom” to him, and feel peace knowing that his parting is certainly an arrival somewhere else.

solar_systemOnce, when I was at a funeral, the priest asked the audience if anyone had ever seen the sun rise (a few hands went up).  He asked if we had seen the sun set (many more hands went up).  He went on to say that, according to science, we were all suffering from an illusion because the sun, as we know from astronomy, never goes anywhere.  We are the ones moving, coming and going.  Through hello and goodbye, God’s grace stays right there.  We may feel pain, but there is also peace.

I’m happy to say I have started up my AA meetings again.  I have a sponsor, and I have again found peace with people whose failures (like mine) have somehow been redeemed into something better.  I wish Philip Seymour Hoffman shalom.  I will think of him as I clasp hands with my fellow alcoholics at the end of my meetings and say the Serenity Prayer.  I wish all of us shalom, good choices and long life in whatever land that we are entering.  Amen.

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