Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How I found God at the Bottom of Someone Else's Bottle

When I was eight years old, I had a neighbor named JJ who had a howler monkey. This is one of the gifts of my childhood - that for several years I had the opportunity to get in regular screaming matches with a monkey. It was easy, because this monkey (whom we'll call Bobo for purposes of privacy and a bad memory) was always ready to partake of a good holler. All you had to do was start out with a low, slow grunt and gradually increase in pace, intensity, volume and pitch. It usually didn't take more than a few grunts before he was giving as good as he got, and in a few more he was off in his own auditorially excruciating world.

If you've met me sometime in the past twelve years since I left Peru and have experienced one of my reenactments of that scene from the spindly branches at the top of some high tree, this may give you some clarity: you may now rest in the understanding that it wasn't just a displaced jungle boy acting out and grubbing for your attention - it was also just a long-standing habit and a product of what being high in trees does to my abstracting, free-associating, creative-minded thought process: "Tree = Climb = Freedom = MonkeyScream". Very logical, see? And practically unavoidable.

What's illogical is this monkey-trail I've taken you on when what I really wanted to tell you about was JJ. I like the monkey story too much to axe it, though, so I'll just reach down into my grab-bag of analogy and manufacture a connection...


Oh, OK - I've got one. The fact of the matter is that for most of my life I've been less the obnoxious, taunting human and more the caged monkey. That is, I have spent a lot of time monkeying (like parroting, only louder) other people's grunts, and I think that this weekend, on a visit with JJ in Kentucky, I may just have had the lock sprung. Let me explain in as convoluted a way as possible.

JJ was an interesting neighbor to have. He was this intense, troubled, intensely-creative chap who would, for example, spend days building beautiful and elaborate paper mansions, replete with pillars and staircases and awnings and gutters, and at the end he'd just soak them in kerosene and light them on fire. He was always coming up with crazy new challenges - like the time when he was eleven that he made his own hang glider out of wood and plastic, and then actually tried to fly it.

Mostly it was these sorts of stories I remembered when I hopped on my motorcycle last Friday and headed from Waxhaw, North Carolina to Lexington, Kentucky for the first face-to-face in around twenty years, but I knew that in the intervening time he had been through a fair bit of what I, despite my Missionary Kid upbringing, am finding impossible at this moment to describe as anything other than "shit". Our mothers had kept in touch over the years, so I'd heard a few stories and imagined a few more, but they had nothing on the heart-aching reality of the things he'd had to deal with.

While the jail sentence for arson my fertile mind had invented was interesting enough, it could not compare to the sorts of things that happen to someone living under the shadow of their own and someone else's bad choices. I could probably go on about this, but even though he gave me permission to write about it, the other people in his story didn't and it isn't really the point, anyways.

So let's monkey trail our way instead to the cramped basement of a Civil War era building in Lexington, where JJ and I went on my first night in town to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Thick layers of white paint covered the hand-cut stone walls, over which were plastered plastic placards of the steps and principles of the AA program. After the approximately twenty people present had settled into the black folding chairs, someone flicked off the fluorescents and the room was then lit only by strings of Christmas lights affixed to the ceiling, which bathed the room in a warm, cave-like glow.

I was the only non-recovering alcoholic in that room, I think, so it could have been a really awkward experience for me. Instead what followed was an intense, profound, joyful, love-filled expression of common humanity - the first in a weekend of the same. It was a journey into the heart of faith so moving that I felt like I just had to come back here and write this down, so that in some small way you could go there with me.

We opened with the beginning of the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

After that, there were a few readings of principles and practices of AA, and then a final reading of something that had been chosen from the "Big Book" as a discussion starter. After that, the floor opened and the room filled up with... what? Out of the mouths of everyone from white collars to white trash - and I don't mean that that's what they were in their essence, just that that is what I might have pigeonholed them as if I had seen them on the street - came one to five minute "sermonettes" packed with more honesty and truth than I felt like I had heard in a thousand carefully constructed expostulations from the pulpit. These people were real. They were God's kids. And why?

It doesn't take too long perusing the literature to figure out the answer to that question - Step One of their famous twelve-step program, in fact, in which they admitted that they were powerless over alcohol - that their lives had become unmanageable. These people had been forced to admit with their entire beings a universal human Truth that I had only ever lightly grasped with a corner of my mind - that they were incapable of managing their own lives.

From there, they had moved on to Step Two, where they came to believe that a Power greater than themselves could restore them to sanity.

I cannot begin to express to you the impact that just those two first steps had obviously had on these people. It was just so raw, so obvious. Stripped of all the lies and posturing of the religiosity of self, they had stood naked and broken before God and had just said, "help". As a result, they were more genuinely grateful and filled with wisdom, as a group, than any room full of people I think I've ever been with. They didn't speak eloquently with glorious oratorical timbre and perfectly chosen words - they just spoke honestly and humbly from the heart about their journeys as individuals who have been forced to be daily aware that they are frail and broken, powerless to control the outcomes of their lives.

For most of them, you probably couldn't fill a thimble with the formal theological training they'd received; but I tell you, these people got God and their relationship to God in a way that I never had, and it showed. No, it emanated.

JJ tries to attend two AA meetings a day, and before we sat through that one I assumed in my ignorance that it was because he had to go for some program, or out of fear that if he missed just one he'd fall back into a self-destructive pattern. While there is undoubtedly some unhealthy fear that brings a lot of people to those meetings, I can honestly say that for JJ that wasn't the case at all. He went because he loved going; because in that room he found the truth and solidarity and community he needed in order to remain whole and connected to God, free of the symptoms of his own brokenness that had enslaved him so many times before.

That was the key to the whole thing - "symptoms". Alcoholism was a symptom of a deeper ill that afflicted his entire being - a separation from God brought about by his mistaken belief that he could be the one to deal with the difficulties of citizenship in a broken world, and the belief that with just a little or even no help at all from God he could make things work. It was a heart disease of self-addiction and self-obsession he was dying of, and alcoholism was merely the chest-pain, tingley-armed sign that something was mortally wrong with him.

Many recovering alcoholics, JJ told me, are grateful for their disease, because it is their dis-ease that made them uncomfortable enough to acknowledge that they were dying of self, so that they could at long last begin to live. You probably think I'm exaggerating or lying, or that they just mean that in some theoretical, abstract sense. Nobody likes to suffer, it's true, but the point JJ was making is that we are all suffering all the time - we're just not all aware of it. These people were aware, and as a result brimmed with gratitude for one sober day. Or hour. Or minute.

Now, if you're like me, you probably chafe at the classification of alcoholism as a disease. You've been taught to believe in gumption and the power of the human will, so you think that maybe they're just making excuses so they won't have to take responsibility for their actions. If they just tried a little harder and weren't so weak-willed, you might say, they could stop drinking.

You know what? If you and I said that, we'd be dead wrong: dead wrong in just about the most important matter of our lives, because after taking Step Three and making a decision to turn their will and their lives over to the care of God as they understood Him, these people were willing to plow through Steps Four through Nine:

Step Four; "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves",

Step Five; "Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs",

Step Six; "Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character",

Step Seven; "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings",

Step Eight; "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all",


Step Nine; "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

They didn't stop there, though. I got no hint of the sort of arrogant presumption I've experienced in so many religious people like myself that they thought they had arrived, or would ever be whole and right without the consistent intervention and support of God and their fellow self-addicted wayfarers as they did the work necessary to be healed.

Step Ten; "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it",

Step Eleven; " Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out",

Step Twelve; "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs".

Again, the effort they were making to follow these steps had achieved real results in their lives. The twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous has been proven for over seventy years to be highly effective for those who are willing to fully own the various steps. If all it was was a good vibe in a clustered room then I could have dismissed it as another example of euphoric group delusion, like a political rally or some of the over-hyped religious events I've attended in my life. But over the weekend I spent time with JJ's friends, many of whom he knew from rehab or through the recovery meetings with AA. I got from these people a real warmth and love, uninhibited and heartfelt hugs, and an honest yearning for God and truth such as I, at least, had rarely experienced in my own self. It wasn't that they had accepted some convoluted propositional set of religious beliefs - they had just accepted the very basic truth of their own finite creatureliness.

I understand that I was just popping in and out of their world. I saw only a small piece of their lives - I missed completely the relapses and all that brokenness from which they were straining to be free. Those things were undoubtedly still a part of their lives, because the point of the program isn't that you stop having problems or being broken, it's that you acknowledge in an ongoing way your brokenness and believe that God and the community of the broken that He provides is the only path to freedom from the symptoms of your self addiction that you've got. Despite that, however, I did glimpse in those hurting and often marginalized people a truth that I have been missing for way too long.

I had come to Lexington, in part, to take a break from some personal problems that were just about driving me to the edge. I had been trying so hard for so long to fix them and nothing had been working. After a lifetime of striving and doing and figuring, I had finally arrived at just that baffled point where I could conceive of taking the First Step, and stop seeing God as just another tool I could use to get over the hump until I was able to manage things again on my own. It was invigorating. It was real. It was a glimpse of the Divine stripped of the stuff of religiosity against which I had been gnashing my teeth for a lot of my adult life.

None of this negates the thought and toil I have put into understanding what it really ought to mean to love God and serve God with my life. I haven't suddenly abandoned my sorrow at the hypocrisy and lies rife within the syncretized Christian religious tradition in which I have been raised and even now continue to live and operate.

On the contrary; I am as angry and grieved as ever at the arrogance and consumerism and destruction that eats away at a sub-culture that claims to have Jesus in its back pocket and God in a box.

What I found at the bottom of someone else's bottle, however, is an awareness of how deeply and fundamentally I am exactly like them and every other hurting, broken person on this planet. I, too, am manifesting the symptoms of the disease of self-love, believing that I can diagnose the problem and with hard work and a good roll of duct tape I can patch it all back together.


I can't even keep the smallest bits of my personal life in order. I'm falling apart and I have to stop trying to fix relationships and other people. I have to stop long enough that I can sit down, shut up, and notice that I've got a massive log in my eye and an overflowing septic tank in my mouth.

Look. I'm not an idiot. I know that a lot of what I've written here sounds exactly like the same-old, same-old Christian mumbo jumbo I've been spoon fed my whole life. That's because it is, kinda. But it's the part that is real and sits down near the cockles of my being, but that gets piled over so high with the poopy lies of moral certitude that I end up puffing out my chest and holding my head high in an effort to hold my breath and ignore the fact that I'm metaphorically wallowing in my own excrement.

I'm not claiming here to have suddenly figured out what it is all about, or who God is, or how it all works. I just think I have finally bought into the truism that "there is a God, and I am not it". I know that seems like a no-brainer, but there it is. I don't think I've ever completely believed that until this weekend. Beyond that, I'm stumbling as blindly as I ever was. It's enough, though, and probably all I ever need or can expect to know. It doesn't fix my problems, it just allows me to see past the symptoms to the cancer.

I'm almost done here, I swear, but I want to finish out by saying the thing that saddens me most. It is that there may be some friends of mine - people I love dearly - who could read this and think, "Yes. Josh Barkey has finally bought into the party line. He believes this core thing and now he'll do all those other things and fit oh-so-much-more nicely into the approved slot. No more vaguely heretical and uncomfortable ideas from Mr. Artsy Pants."

To which I reply:

"Shut Up! Listen. No, not to me, you fool - to yourself! To God! To that still small voice raging inside of you, hollering like a deranged howler monkey for you to stop trying to fix the world and make sense of it all. God does not need me to make sense for you. God does not want me to accommodate myself to your warped ideas of how I ought to be. I have very little idea at all of what God wants from you or me, but I'm pretty sure it has not got much more to it than a few simple steps. If God is only available to the "theologically sound" or the "morally correct" (whatever the farfignoogan that means), well then... er... may God have mercy on us all."

This weekend I hung out with the sorts of people who aren't normally a part of my little bubble of a life: gays, lesbians, alcoholics, vegans - people who are willing in very small, provisional ways to *"wail, for the world's wrong"; and to acknowledge that that wrong is lodged deep within their own hearts.

If your response to my story is to rejoice (in a crude perversion of that term) that I have seen the light and joined the ranks of the elect who've figured out God, then it is to you that I direct my deepest sorrow. For I fear that you, to once again quote Frederick Buechner, "labor less under a cross than a delusion."

None of those recovering alcoholics is any different than you or I or anybody else. They still leave that room and go out and do idiot things that hurt themselves and others. They still live the lie of their symptoms and follow destructive behavioral patterns. In those few moments in that basement, however, they are united in honesty, able for a while to stop howling back the monkey-lies and admit who they really are. I can only imagine what might happen if I can join them in that and live on in the the awareness that I, too, am a broken alcoholic.

None of this epiphanizing and awareness even changes my relationship to God - not, at least, from God's side of it. It does, however, at long last free me from the Sisyphean task of my own salvation and the world's, and allows me to rest at last in the palm of God's hands. There are a lot of ways I could have become aware of my freedom to enter that rest, I know; but for my part I am deeply grateful for a monkey, a motorcycle, and a momentary migration into the God-soaked world of Alcoholics Anonymous.


* A Dirge, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Rough Wind, that moanest loud
Grief too sad for song;
Wild wind, when sullen cloud
Knells all the night long;
Sad storm, whose tears are vain,
Bare woods, whose branches strain,
Deep caves and dreary main,
Wail, for the world's wrong!


  1. Don't you hate it when you pour your guts out onto the internet and no one cares to comment, Josh? Why, yes Josh, I do. How insightful of you to notice. And yes, it is hard to write the next one if there is no indication that this one's been read. I do see your point, though. It is hard to think of what to say after a monster-long post like that one. Shell-shock, I guess.

  2. I'll comment. Hearing howler monkeys in costa rica while laying in bed has been one of my favorite moments ever. They're amazing and I'm jealous you've howled with one before.

  3. What an honour to have had you in the house, dear one. Entering a new community where no one cares if you come or go, but where everyone cares that you came is liberating and endearing. Pray (what ever that is) only for His will for us and for the power to carry it out. Not a lot to ask! It asks for allllll.

  4. I could't wait until lunch break to finish! This post is something I like to call spiritual orange juice - quite the challenger that lifts you out of your own muck, puts a sweet taste in your mouth, and helps you continue the life you lead with an enlivening power and vitamin C. Why thank you for "squeezing" this one out of you. :) I quite enjoyed it and finished wishing I could express myself in such a way as you did here.