“Come in from the cold, friend, and join us,”
Bobby instructed me. At the time, Bobby was hugging two of his hospice nurses as he bid them a final farewell. Later in the day, Bobby would be leaving with his son for a city in the South where he was planning to die surrounded by family. Beloved patient that he was, Bobby was being visited by a stream of nursing home staff, hospice personnel, and fellow residents who wanted to say goodbye.
The “cold” place from which Bobby called me was a corner in his room where I had positioned myself in order to hold my own grief in check. Even in the midst of physical pain and emotional upheaval, Bobby clearly sensed my sadness and pulled me close to join the “group hug” that was taking place at his bedside. For moments, which seem as if they were frozen in time, Bobby’s room in that squalid, over-crowded nursing facility became a holy shrine, a tabernacle of the Divine Presence, a place where God’s healing grace transfigured the wounds of our humanity into bright rays of love.
“Come in from the cold, friend.” These words of invitation, blessing and embrace were spoken by a man who had lived many of his days and nights in the cold, both figuratively and literally. Born into a poor, Mississippi Delta family only a generation removed from sharecropping in the Jim Crow South, Bobby spent much of his life feeding his addiction to alcohol and then crack cocaine. Along the way, Bobby served in the Army, fathered a child, and burned nearly every bridge he ever crossed.
As a consequence of the “hungry ghost” of addiction which enslaved him, Bobby had become homeless for significant stretches of time and developed more than a passing familiarity with the backstreets, flop houses, detox cells, and men’s shelters across the Delta. One particular “bottom” in his addiction career took place a few years ago when someone in a group of men with whom he had been gambling behind a dumpster stole the new dentures he had acquired just the day before at the VA Hospital.
Why Bobby, in a drunken stupor, decided to seek another “geographical” cure two years ago by hopping a bus from Mississippi to Minneapolis with no more than the shirt on his back is anyone’s guess. Bobby had no family or connections in Minnesota. He told me that he had passed through the Twin Cities once back in his Army days and that he remembered the people being “nice” here.
What is clear is that when Bobby arrived on the Minnesota plains from the Mississippi Delta two summers ago, he was homeless, friendless, penniless, and sick with cancer. Bobby was at the end of his rope. Bobby believed that he had come North to die as he had lived – ashamed, alone, high, out in the cold.
“God often writes straight using crooked lines,” Mother Teresa liked to quip. From the vantage point of polite, respectable, Middle American society, the lines in Bobby’s shattered, destitute, alienated life couldn’t have looked much more crooked. In many respects, Bobby resembled what the old psychiatrists used to label “a hopeless case.” He had been in and out of rehab for years, failed to hold a job for any significant period of time, and betrayed the trust of everyone who tried to love him.
The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous states, “The age of miracles is still with us.” At the time of the “Big Book’s” publication in 1939, the assertion that recovery was possible for “hopeless” addicts such as Bobby was met in many quarters by skepticism, even derision. As far as the reigning lords of medicine were concerned, the only “hope” for addicts entailed locking them up and throwing away the key.
Along came the movement of Alcoholics Anonymous, claiming that through the adoption of certain spiritual principles, men and women in the death-throes of addiction could be healed and go on to live meaningful, productive lives in the service of others. Six decades and tens of millions of transformed lives later, we now know that long-term recovery from addiction is possible; addiction is not a moral pathology or curse, but a treatable disease.
The paradox of recovery (as understood by the Twelve Steps) is that an addict can begin to get better only by first admitting utter defeat. The old, “false” self – and all of its striving for control, mastery, and escape – must die and be replaced by the True Self – the person who God, in love, created us to be.
To use Christian language, addicts must realize how “lost” they are before being “found” by the miracle of God’s grace. In Eugene Peterson’s contemporary rendering of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s way. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”
When I first met Bobby, he was a man who had lost literally everything in his life, including his health. And yet before me on that nursing home bed sat a living miracle. For the first time in his adult life, Bobby had achieved nearly six months of continuous alcohol sobriety. Friends from a local AA group faithfully came three times a week to take Bobby to meetings. In working the Twelve Steps with his sponsor, Bobby confronted the horrible wreckage he had made of his life and began to make amends to those he had wounded the most. Bobby would eventually reconcile with his family in the South, and they would come to Minnesota to take him home to die within the circle of their loving care.
Even as the cancer took its brutal toll, Bobby became the Good Samaritan of the nursing facility. He spent his days visiting bed-bound patients, wheeling fellow residents to the outdoor patio, and spreading good cheer in whatever hall he was wandering. No matter how bad he was feeling physically, Bobby never failed to ask those of us who visited him about our children and families. The day before he left Minnesota to die, Bobby snuck a $5.00 bill into my Bible with a note instructing me to give it to my daughter who was turning seven that week. Every person on the hospice team has a story to tell about how Bobby touched them. His lead nurse told me that in her decade of hospice nursing, few patients have affected her as profoundly as Bobby.
In the eyes of what our culture values – wealth, health, productivity, longevity, status, morality, etc. – Bobby was an utter failure. And yet he finished his earthly pilgrimage as one of the most grace-filled souls I have ever met.
Why? Because in his total poverty (spiritual, financial, relational, emotional), Bobby was embraced by the Christ Mystery in its most radical, scandalous simplicity: we are loved, cherished, forgiven, and accepted by the Beloved who created us to have life and have it more abundantly. Like the dying thief on the cross and the Prodigal Son, Bobby’s abject need invited him to encounter the “One Thing Needful.” Indeed, Bobby was ushered into the Heart of God, which breathes, beats, bleeds and burns for us with a Love beyond our ability to comprehend.
“Come in from the cold, friend.” During our many hours together, I had told Bobby some of my own story. In our shared histories of brokenness and failure, I experienced a powerful bond with Bobby. More significantly, however, it was Bobby’s metamorphosis from dejected street-dweller to joy-filled, spiritual teacher that drew me to him. I have more often than not chosen to live “out in the cold” of my own fear, defensiveness, ego, and loneliness. Bobby reminded me that it need not be that way, that the Beloved’s arms of divine mercy are always open and ready to embrace me, bless me, and heal me.
As I made my way across that room to join the “group hug” taking place at Bobby’s bedside, I realized that suddenly I was walking on holy ground. Without even knowing what I was doing, I found myself kneeling before Bobby to ask for his blessing. When he placed his hands on my head and prayed for me, I knew that God was using Bobby – broken, mangled, frail vessel that he was – not to preach but to make present the Jesus Way in all of its messy glory.
Holy Week is here, and Resurrection seems all the more real to me because of my friendship with Bobby. “Come in from the cold, friend,and join me,” I hear the Risen Christ say. Saints like Bobby have shown us the path. Time to get those feet a movin’…