Of Lambs and Lions

Somewhere, lost amid the refreshments, meetings, numbers, politeness, and anecdotes of my religion is a power that gave early Christians the ability to face lions rather than deny their faith. I personally know people who need that sort of insane, unstoppable courage and strength for the lions they have to face down—addictions to heroine, meth, nicotine, pornography; things like death, divorce, physical or emotional abuse, eating disorders, and mental illness. I am one of these people. It strikes me as odd that this level of strength is supposed to come from a religion in which many people lack the conviction to even do their once a month service visits called “Home Teaching”. In order for a religion to be useful to those thrown into the Colosseum of life, it must be practical as well as spiritual.

The past 12 years of my life have hammered in this point. When I look in the mirror a 20 year old man stares out, hands calloused from a year of hard labor in a factory, bravado and a quick smile masking the confusion and turmoil inside. The man trapped behind the glass shouldn’t be here at home—he should have left to serve a mission over a year ago, like all his friends. He is “that guy” from a great Mormon family that didn’t leave on his mission at exactly 19 years old; he must be a bad person.  I have always needed the guy in the mirror to seem perfect. I have always needed him to be accepted by others, to do the right things in the right way at the right time, but he is never good enough. He fails me in the same ways over and over. I wish he wasn’t an addict. Then I could be normal.

I sit in church enduring another read-from-a-manual lesson on repentance and my mind wanders…

I’m outside the factory on a sunny but cold spring morning working with a new coworker named Eric. As we talk I find out he went to my same High School a few years ahead of me. He tells me about his time playing baseball there and all the fun times he had during that simpler time of life. As he reminisces, glimpses of the happy 25 year old he should have been show through.

There is a powerful difference when Eric is genuinely smiling—I almost don’t notice the nicotine stains on his teeth from the wad he’s chewing, the gauntness of his frame from years of hard drug abuse, or his repeated promise that he will quit tobacco “tomorrow”. All the pain and regret he works so hard to cover with bravado and a tough act fades in those moments of authenticity.

“How much longer do you have?” I ask.

“They haven’t decided yet if I can out in 6 months or if I have to go to prison for a few years,” he replies. “I’m still waiting on the court’s ruling”, his smile becomes less genuine as the pain of reality tries to surface.

The identification bracelet constricting his wrist brands him a convict, the tattoos splattered on his arms and legs brand him a rebel. He never felt welcome or comfortable at church after his parents’ divorce and when he started smoking at the age of 12 he found it hard to fit into “Happy Valley” Mormon society. He felt actively rejected by “the true church”. Fitting in with the good kids wasn’t really an option from that point on.

As the conversation continues, I try to imagine sitting in jail and having the first 2-6 years of my son’s life ripped away by my addictions and mistakes. Eric’s two year old boy lives with “his girl” as he calls her around the other inmates; around me, however, he refers to her as “his kid’s mom”, hinting at a more sobering reality. When we finish the prep work on these premium grade fence panels, I will head home and he will go back to jail until they drop him off to work again tomorrow.

…I tune back into the lesson and it strikes me that Eric has no place in this recited lesson on repentance. I don’t know that the man in the mirror belongs here either. The rehearsed and robotic responses given at the proper cues are nice thoughts but don’t seem useful or even applicable to a life of pain, addiction, and turmoil. I do believe the answers are true, but they sound too theoretical and idealized to work in real life. This lesson, though true and nice, is hollow. There is no power in it.

I am now sitting in a different meeting, held in my high school’s Seminary building. The side wall is dominated by large white cut-out letters spelling BOOK OF MORMON under which hang paintings of scripture stories. I look around the room-wide circle of desks and see familiar faces seated in them. I’ve been privileged to get to know these men over the past few months and am on a first-name basis with most of them. Actually, since “confidentiality and anonymity foster honesty and make this a safe place to share”—for most of them all I know is their first name. And that they “are addicts”. I am in a 12 step Addiction Recovery meeting sponsored by the LDS church.

This is why I think about Eric so much. If the Gospel doesn’t apply to him, I can’t fully believe it applies to me. I have been lucky (or maybe blessed) in that I have never felt to doubt the Gospel and its truth. All my life I have strongly believed it. I just haven’t known that it can help me.

The sharing portion starts up and the first man begins:

“Hi I’m So-and-so.”

“Hello So-and-so,” we drone robotically.

“I am an addict”, he says identifying himself. “These last couple of weeks I’ve been good, but I relapsed yesterday. I don’t know why I did it. It was stupid of me…”. I hear in his voice the same shame that chased Eric away from church and the same shame that has at times made going to church services feel like a burden to me.

So-and-so continues on about how he knows he needs to do better and repent and stop being stupid and sinning and how the church is true and how he was good on his mission but since he got back he has been stupid and keeps giving in and… his  voice sounds like the eye of a storm. Forcefully calm. Hollow. Hiding the self-loathing, confusion, anger, and fear that I have come to know well. He knows he should be here but doesn’t understand why. He knows he should change but doesn’t understand how. His weaknesses are ripping him apart inside but he can’t allow himself to show it—so he hides behind false courage and a tough act.

The sharing finishes its path around the room and a man begins to offer the closing remarks. He is roughly in his forties with brown hair and a bright, smiling face. I know from past meetings this man could label himself a US Marine, a Veteran, an Alcoholic, an Ex-Convict, an Ex-Husband, or a Sex Addict, yet I see pinned on his suit a name badge: “Elder Wilson, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” He is the missionary called to lead this meeting.

“Good evening brethren, I’m Elder Wilson.”

“Hello Elder Wilson,” we chime, perking up to focus on what he is going to say.

“I am a son of God,” he identifies himself with emphasis, “who struggles with addiction. I have been in recovery for 8 years now. There have been times that my recovery has looked better than others and other times that it was downright ugly, but it has been recovery.”

A thought strikes me. Recovery is changing who you are into a better person. That is the same thing as repentance.

“Over the years I realized I hate my addiction but I absolutely love my recovery. I have learned that society would define us by our weaknesses, but God refines us through our weaknesses.

“One of my favorite scriptures from the Book of Mormon reads: ‘And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.’ I know from personal experience this is true.”

As he is speaking I feel the thing that brings me back to these meetings week after week. I feel the power of the Gospel. I feel the reality of repentance and the Atonement. Most important, I understand why they are so important and critical for me—so I can change.

”As I have had to face my demons, of which there are many,” he says smiling,” I have come to know that I can’t do this on my own. I need the gospel because it is the only way that works. This is why the Atonement is called ‘The Way’. This is a gospel for the trenches. There is literal power found in it that we all desperately need.”

It hits me that Elder Wilson has been where Eric and I are now. He is now happily married, has a 16 year old son who is close to him, and genuinely finds joy in life. He doesn’t hide or pretend anymore. He doesn’t need to. This is the point of true religion: “to make bad men good and good men better, and to change human nature.” When I lose sight of this, church loses its power and becomes a charade.

”In the Lord’s eyes the only difference between the wicked and the righteous are the righteous are repenting,” he says in closing.

Eric belongs in this lesson on repentance. The man in the mirror belongs in this lesson on repentance. This is the same gospel that I have been taught my whole life, but now my testimony “is no longer a theory. It has become a living reality.” True religion equips us with the illogical, practical, unstoppable power and understanding to face our demons; to change, to heal, and to become better because of them. We were given the Lamb that we might overcome our Lions. This is why Eric needs the Gospel. This is why Elder Wilson needs the Gospel. This is why I need the Gospel.

I now look in the mirror and see. A friend smiles out at me, character and soul strong from years of hard labor in repentance, courage and a sincere smile revealing the understanding and peace inside. He is where God wants him to be and is doing what God wants him to do. He is not perfect; I accept that and love him anyways. He is genuinely trying and that is good enough for me. I am grateful he has weakness in the form of addiction. Through it I am becoming a man of God.

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