Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk

by Heather Kopp
Jericho Books     2013
213 pages     Spiritual

At my cousin's wedding many years ago, my grandmother, a Methodist minister's wife, touched her wine glass to her pursed lips. After a small sip, she whispered to her sister, "Try the wine." To which her sister replied, "Well, dearie, I've tasted wine before!" There, in a nutshell, is my upbringing. 

My husband, Lee, and I took a trip to Europe when we were very young to teach ourselves to drink—truly. We were sure that we wouldn't go to hell if we had a glass of wine now and then, but we just had no experience. We wanted to be "cool" and "with it" among our group of friends, and so we learned to drink. Both of us were seminary trained; we were lifelong Methodists; drinking was not part of our life experience. It took us many years to feel comfortable at all with even small amounts of alcohol. On the other hand, when our oldest child was born, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) at our little country church wanted to have us take a pledge that our child would never drink. We refused because we knew that was a foolish pledge for parents to make for a 6-month-old. 

In Sober Mercies, Heather Kopp, a well-known Christian author and a recovering alcoholic, has written a memoir of her spiritual journey through alcoholism and a twelve-step program to recovery. It is raw and very honest. It also questions the roots of Christian ethics and morality that makes a Christian feel that he or she should be beyond or above the sin of addiction. She says, ". . .my Christian background had in many ways actually inoculated me against spiritual growth. For decades, I had heard the same truths over and over in a language that had become so familiar that everything I heard rang of something I thought I already knew. That meant that for years, deep spiritual truths I head in church had bounced off of me like a rubber ball off cement. She adds, "I had mistaken a belief-based faith for an experience-based faith. I'd been on a prideful intellectual journey aimed at being right about God instead of on a desperate soul journey aimed at being real with God."

Healing began for Kopp when she got tired enough of living a lie that she checked into a treatment center and a 12-step recovery program. Of course, her recovery had its ups and downs, but ultimately she found herself on the other side of addiction. Along the way, she learned to accept the mystery of God's grace and let go of a belief system about God that allowed no room for error. Add to that a wonderfully supportive husband who put up with years of abuse from his alcoholic wife, and you have a remarkable narrative of spiritual growth and ongoing healing.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Kopp's story is the way in which she began to understand that God works in people's lives in many different ways, and not just in the prescribed ways of the traditional theology of sin and redemption. She ponders the thought, "The God I thought I knew and understood was not the God who could save me. What if I could rediscover God as I didn't understand him—and arrive somewhere closer to the truth?" This part of Kopp's story really resonated with me. As I age, I rely more and more on the mystery of the spiritual experience and less on theology. Many of the people that Kopp encountered on her path to healing called out to God in ways that she didn't immediately understand, but she grew to appreciate their faith as valuable to them and she learned from them. And this is grace, given for all by a merciful and all forgiving God.

In Sober Mercies, Kopp describes her faith journey in a way that is not preachy or didactic. It is the truth, and we can all grow from her experience. She tells us that it is not necessary to try to "pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps." "We have a ravenous appetite for spiritual sustenance." What we crave is grace.

Another outstanding memoir of alcoholism is Ninety Days by Bill Clegg. You can find my review here.

A review of Sober Mercies in the Christian Century:
Heather Kopp's website and blog:

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