Writings by Cole Huffman

XL Grace

Caleb, our 21-year-old son, has a drug and alcohol problem.

On the inside of his left arm, Caleb sports a tattoo: XL. At first glance it looks like “extra large.” But it’s actually the Roman numeral for 40, as in Psalm 40, a psalm that has long articulated our hope for him. He knows that, and as a once-aspiring musician he thought it was cool that U2 put Psalm 40 to music on their War album (1983), and that Mom and Dad pray it for him.

A friend once gave me an apt childrearing analogy. He said on the whole it’s comparable to driving a vehicle. During the growing up years at home, Mom and Dad are in the driver’s seat. We move to the backseat when our child is old enough to navigate life on his own, yet remains our dependent. But then—I’ll employ a Tim McGraw lyric—if he takes “a lot of wrong turns on the road finding his life,” like going off-road at full speed, his parents get bounced around violently in that backseat. Something has to change.

Earlier this year, we didn’t leap from Caleb’s life as he sped toward another cliff, wheels on fire. But we could stay in his backseat no longer. Recently, however, he drove back to where he left us to signal he needed to go to treatment. Lynn and I are here with him now for a few days as I write this, in the program for families at our chosen treatment center in another part of the state.

There is a lot people don’t understand about addiction. The Christian community doesn’t have a lockstep consensus on what it is. Some will insist addiction is a full-on disease, like diabetes. Others, like Ed Welch, call it a “worship disorder.” We’re learning more than we ever wanted to know about it, and there is a lot to learn. We’re also unlearning preconceived notions we had about people in its throes.

I get credited for transparency in the pulpit, but this is different. This is my son and his life. I don’t like this part of our family life being public. Privacy is different from secrecy. We never “put on” for you at church, but like shaking hands with someone when yours is bruised, I grimaced inside each time someone asked me how Caleb was doing. Parenting a child caught in the grip of addiction is a private hell.

With his permission I share this now, but I won’t give you the exhaustive list of all we’ve been through, as that doesn’t help Caleb for you to know details. Suffice to say it’s been a broken road, and long. It still is.

Caleb was named for one of those few guys in the Bible about whom, other than Jesus, nothing unheroic is ever mentioned. Abraham is called three times in Scripture “the friend of God,” and yet even Abraham is, in Eugene Peterson’s polite way of putting it, “not conspicuous in the human qualities that we usually admire.” Abraham’s faults and flaws are there for all to see. Not so the biblical Caleb. Of him God said he follows me wholeheartedly.

Our Caleb may yet do that. He may grow into his name, as a friend recently prayed in my hearing (I appreciated he said “grow into,” not “live up to”). Life isn’t cemented for you by 21 years of age, thankfully. But if Caleb doesn’t grow into his name there is still much to live for—for him and for us.

We’ve run a gamut of emotions. Compassion is primary now. But this affects everyone in our family ongoing. We’re all in recovery.

A risk we take in making this known is that some will think this results from us being inept parents somehow. A pastor in Knoxville I reached out to recently, who traveled the same road with his David that we’re on now with our Caleb, reminded me how God is a perfect father but His family is a disaster.

A predecessor of mine once thanked our church for letting him be a dad. I can say the same, with bottomless gratitude. This has been a great place to raise each of our children, including Caleb, who was baptized among us, memorized verses in AWANA, went on youth trips, experienced the discipleship and mentoring of godly men, and played his guitar at times in our worship venues.

But some deep pain has throbbed inside him. Whether it is precisely a disease or disorder or some toxin of both, this is at least the mystery of addiction: why a smart, athletic, musical, mannerly young man—our beautiful boy with a bright future—would seek a palliative for raging insecurity. As if someone with his attributes is insulated from existential crisis. That’s what we assume. But people are more complex than we often want to recognize.

Someone gave me a definition of patience recently: that it is bearing the burden of hoping. If you want to know how we are, that’s how we are. We are bearing the burden of hoping. We’re not bearing it alone. Jesus has put burden-bearers around us inside and outside First Evan, people who have been this way themselves, people who know us well and know how to hold up our arms.

Addiction grips more families than you probably think. It’s craziness, but not without opportunities for holiness too. I’m into Frederick Buechner’s newest book right now, entitled A Crazy, Holy Grace. If I had to caption our ordeal, I think that title fits. Crazy circumstances. Holy God.

But grace is everywhere.

If I know anything at this point in my career as a parent and pastor, it’s that I want to be, and want Caleb and all my children and Lynn to be, where the grace is.

XL grace.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 10:57 AM
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