By Rev. Ryan Canaday
“I'm Ryan. I'm an alcoholic.” These were the scariest words I ever uttered. The first time I said these words, I did so with fear and trembling. My voice was shaky. My hands were clammy. I didn't know if I would say it when it came around to me. My head was swirling. All I could think about was: “I'm a pastor. What will people think about me? I don't want to do this. I don't want to be here. How did I get here anyway... how'd it get this bad? It was never supposed to be like this.” But I said the words. I admitted it. And I felt lighter... a burden had been lifted in a way I never could have imagined.
I felt like Jacob [from the Genesis story], on the run from God, his past, himself, everything. Jacob wasn’t free. But as the story progressed, he found himself in a brutal wrestling match with God. There were wounds — flesh wounds and ego wounds. There at the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob was asked, “Who are you?” For the first time he said his own name: “I am Jacob”. And it’s like God said: “Good. We’ve got some work to do and now we can move forward.”
In that moment of admitting who I was for the first time — in all the fear and unknowing — I knew what it was like to finally say “no” to shame and “yes” to a path of being free. It was like saying my name again for the first time. Thanks be to God and some friends who showed me the way out of the chaos through the 12 steps, I have been sober for more than 5.5 years. God has removed from me the obsession of the drink and I now know a new way of life. My “why”, my calling, the thing that gets me out of bed, is as clear as ever: to help others find God and beauty in the midst of mess and brokenness.
About five months ago my wife, Tami, and I started asking the question: What would it be like to start a faith community that centers on issues of addiction and recovery? Not to go to the inner city and start something, but to start it right here in our own backyard [literally], in the heart of the suburbs. We put together a leadership team of 12 people to begin the conversation of starting something new. Starting a new thing is scary. If you’re passionate about it, it will always come with a bit of doubt and anxiety. It will always come with some twists and turns. The week before our first leadership team meeting, we received dreadful news. Nick, one of the guys on our team, was 20 years old and found dead of a drug overdose early that morning. Out of the gates we had the poignant reminder that this disease is cunning, baffling, and powerful. It is relentless and always seeks to destroy life.
The need in our community is real. I was tired of seeing my friends die. The sub-story was growing old too: they didn’t feel like they belonged with God or the Church.
We wanted to break the silence of addiction and create space for recovery, healing, and spiritual connection. So Tami and I started FREE and we began hosting gatherings on Saturday nights in our backyard. We didn’t know who would show up or if anyone would show up. We live with that question each week. That’s the reality of starting the new thing to which God is calling you. But each week FREE [in our backyard] is filled with addicts, loved ones of addicts, and spiritual refugees. We want to remind them that God loves them, God is for them, and God has not forgotten about them. During our gatherings we celebrate milestones of recovery. I teach on the stories from Scripture about a God who is filled with love, compassion and grace. We have storytellers that share their experiences with addiction and recovery. We have music [sometimes live, sometimes pre-recorded] — everything from Eminem to Hillsong. We pray together. And we always have coffee...lots and lots of coffee.
During these few short months of starting FREE, I have asked myself hundreds of times: Are we doing it right? Are we on the right path? Is this really making a difference? Will we be able to fund this? Will we be able to afford the lease of that space? Every time I ask those “what if” and “are we doing it right” and “should we keep going” questions, I open up an email or a Facebook /Instagram message or a text of someone telling me they’re battling addiction and barely hanging on. Or a message from someone saying: “I’ve been looking for a church since I got sober 18 months ago. I’ve tried so many churches...FREE is my church.”
God keeps giving me a reason to keep saying “yes” to the path of being free, and to walk with others on this path. It’s about learning to live one day at a time and trusting God in the next step, and living into the constant reminder: this journey is about progress not perfection.
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Rev. Ryan Canaday serves as a Lead Pastor at St. Luke’s UMC in Highlands Ranch, CO. He is active in the recovery community and co-author of “Whiteboarding Your Why: An Interactive Approach to Living a Better Story.” Ryan and his wife, Tami, are the Founders of FREE, a spiritual community for addicts, loved ones of addicts, and spiritual refugees.
[Posted September 12, 2018]