30 Years After: Loss, Faith, and Recovery

The Rev. Dan Gibson serves at First Lutheran, Carson, as Director of Spiritual Care at the Haven, USC, and as Therapist at the Thelma McMillen Recovery Center.

The church can offer spiritual reinforcement, armed with a healthy understanding and practice of our faith tradition.  At the opening of many of our weekly Lutheran worship services, we confess that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  We acknowledge that we too, are under the control of sin and in need of God’s grace in our lives. As Christians, we are all recovering sinners.

It was thirty years ago that my brother Mike Gibson, left us.  He was undoubtedly the greatest guy I ever knew.  As a child, I was given to wild imagination and fantasy and my big brother would provide the backdrop for whatever adventure I was on at the moment.  He was the Red Skull to my Captain America. Always.  Never once did it ever occur to me that he could take a turn at being in the role of the hero, and never asked to be.  Later, while we were both active in our church’s youth group, and I was actively driving our youth pastor nuts, Mike was well loved and respected by all the other teens and was elected President of his Luther League.  While I was cutting class to go surfing, “Hoot” Gibson was riding the side horse at Lakewood High School and received a varsity letter in gymnastics.  He was a winner, everything that I was not, yet he always made me feel like a champ.

 

As Mike grew into adulthood, it became apparent to us that he was having a growing problem with alcohol.  Our family was no stranger to alcoholism, but at the time we were conditioned that “real men could hold their liquor.”  In my opinion, this became a huge liability in my brother’s spiraling condition that psychologically prevented him from accepting the help that he needed, and at some point, the substance took total control.  After a harrowing process of rehabs and other unpleasant events, awkwardly, our roles were reversed as the younger brother was forced to become the older brother, and while I was told that I was finally acting like a “hero”, felt more like the villain.  Finally, after several heart-wrenching more years, my brother, Mike Gibson, after being picked up somewhere out of the gutter, passed away in a county hospital in Riverside, California.

 

Thirty years have come and gone since that dreadful day and the nagging question I was left with was this:  How could such a standup guy like my brother come to such a pathetic demise?  Over time, aided by ongoing education and experience, my journey has led me to the following conclusions...

 

To start with, the American Medical Association officially recognized alcoholism as a true disease in 1956.  Despite the periodic emergence of a new “cure”, alcoholism is chronic, progressive, and incurable.  It pays no attention to class, race, gender, education, religious background, wealth, age – no factors or combination of factors.  In most cases, the disease is passed genetically and manifests itself by shattering marriages, families, friendships, and other relationships.  Like in my brother’s case, it was clearly not caused by a lack of character or morality.

 

One of the main warning signs of alcoholism has to do with the battle for (and eventual loss of) control.  I heard it said once that, “If you are attempting to control something, then chances are, it is in control of you.”  That actually makes a lot of sense to me.  I think the same is true for just about any form of addiction, whether that be alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling and even the internet.  Over my years of doing church work, I have observed that religious addiction can be characterized by a preoccupation to tradition, rules, and other practices.  Rather than being the taproot of grace and freedom, the church can just as well be governed by control and codependence.  Consequently, many of the hurting who have sought the church for help and healing have been met rather with indifference and rejection.

 

However, in the long, dark history of trying to get a hold on the problem of addiction, there is at least one bright ray of hope.  Through the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, a fairly large number of addicts have come to know long-term sobriety and regained their health and livelihood.  Similar Twelve Step programs are now available for all the addictions mentioned above.  At its core, AA calls for a total release of control; to wave the “white flag” of surrender to one’s disease, so to speak.  Depending on the stage of one’s addiction, this can be extremely difficult, and like in the case of my brother, it runs contrary to the way many of us were conditioned.

 

The church can offer spiritual reinforcement, armed with a healthy understanding and practice of our faith tradition.  At the opening of many of our weekly Lutheran worship services, we confess that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  We acknowledge that we too, are under the control of sin and in need of God’s grace in our lives.  As Christians, we are all recovering sinners.  For some, that manifests itself differently, in some cases more severely, than it does with others, but we all share in the same condition.  So, when dealing with those suffering from addiction, rather than relating in judgment, consider treating them as you would treat any other sick person.

 

I am aware that, despite what I have written here, there will be  those who will have a different opinion and attitude toward those who suffer from, not to mention who have died from, alcoholism, as well as other addictions. Furthermore, I realize I have my own peculiar notions behind the mysteries of what has occurred in my own family and why it might have happened.  You see, sometimes I can’t help but wonder if my brother took the fall as the villain for me, one final time, in order that perhaps, one day I might do my part to help champion this cause.  It just seems so consistent with who he was, and how deluded I am.  If our world could be free from the clutches of tyranny by allowing me to feed into the belief that I am indeed the star-spangled avenger, then he’d take the dive in a heartbeat – but in my heart, I will always know who the true hero is.

 

The Rev. Dr. Daniel William Gibson
October, 2021
Torrance, CA

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