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Sinners Anonymous: Less Church, More Recovery

Noah and I were supposed to be playing outside but he hit me with a rock (in his defense, I threw his Chewbacca in a mud puddle). I went into the nondescript yellow building to look for his mom and walked into a room full of people sitting in a large circle.

I had inadvertently stumbled into a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. And although I was only nine and couldn’t fathom the complexities of the group, I knew something significant was happening. I quietly sat in the back of the room.

I couldn’t see the guy talking, but could hear him using the kind of language that would have gotten me grounded for a month. As he talked, cried, and swore, he demonstrated my first exposure to complete, unconcealed remorse. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had chanced upon both life-giving repentance and empowering acceptance.

Why isn’t the church more like a recovery group?

When I read about the attraction that first-century social outcasts had for Jesus, I always think back to that meeting. And I wonder why the broken and hurting are not attracted to Christians.  That’s really the litmus test for our effectiveness isn’t it? Not that we’d offer a respectability to those on the inside, but that we’d be so counter-cultural that outsiders would come to us for sanctuary from themselves.

We’re not safe

I’ve asked quite a few friends and acquaintances why “the program” (A.A. or N.A.) worked for them, and they’ve all talked about the group’s commonality. No, they hadn’t shared the same experiences—not by a long shot. But they’d all come to the end of themselves and they’d all made decisions that had damaged their lives and those around them.

There was no more room for pretense—no more bullshit. They had found other travelers with whom they could be completely honest. It was their only hope.

We don’t really offer that. For all our talk of grace, community, transparency, and repentance, very few of us have hit rock bottom. And those of us who have, are afraid to be open about it. We, of all people, should be beyond the scandal of sin—but we’re not.

We’re so sin adverse and disgusted by swearing, sex, drug use, and the like that we can’t afford to be honest. We gossip, point, whisper, and condemn each other over the smallest infractions.

Until we get over ourselves and realize that embracing the world as it is, and not as we wish it were, we’ll never be a place that the broken will flock to. The histories, experiences, scars, and improprieties that we use to disqualify each other from spirituality are the very reasons that Jesus chooses us.

You can’t really be a good parent if you’re not willing to get in there and change a dirty diaper. Crap comes with the territory, and you can’t wish or pretend it away. It’s the same with the church and sin. If you get the vapors every time you hear an F-bomb, see cleavage, or encounter a drunk, you might be in the wrong social club.

We’re not that interested in getting well

Because we’re kind of hung up on propriety and respectability, we’re scared to take what people in the program call “fearless moral inventory.” We don’t honestly look at our behavior and how it affects others. We each have our individual or communal lists of unacceptable sins and as long as we’re not guilty of those (often as long as no one knows we’re guilty), we’re fine. But we don’t address the gossip, greed, gluttony, and other assorted offenses that devour us.

When we’re given glimpses into the monsters within, we don’t often follow up like those in 12-step programs with transparent confession or by making amends to the parties we’ve wronged. No, we camouflage, cloak, and cover up. Our desire to unveil the faults of others while concealing our own, is our most unforgivable attribute.

Maybe the power of the “fearless moral inventory” lies in our willingness to throw the lights on, to see that we’re not nearly as charming (or terrible) as we imagine. As Parker Palmer says in Let Your Life Speak (one of my favorite books on vocation), “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life tell me who I am.” When we can come to grips with who we are, we can extend true, grace-filled invitations for others to do the same.

I have a dream that we’ll stop pretending to be so damn contented and happy, and we’ll allow each other to be honest. Pretending to have it all together is exhausting and inhospitable. It doesn’t attract people, or at least it doesn’t attract the right people.

I still remember sitting in the back of that N. A. meeting and it being the first time I saw real diversity. There was only about twelve people or so, but there were bikers, a punker (it was 1980), a house mom, and an extremely well-dressed black guy sitting next to a homeless fellow.

I have a dream that we can be eschew the typical Sunday-morning segregation and we can attract the kind of people who just want to get well—because they’ll see that we just want to get well, too.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. chris c #

    Celebrate Recovery is a fine example of what the church could and SHOULD look like. I’ve been privileged to see this program hard at work in some congregations, and it provides and outlet for repentance and confession that so many churches don’t provide. I’ve also seen Celebrate Recovery falter and fail at my church because it’s not an environment that places a high priority on confession. Well written, sir…and great thoughts!

    May 6, 2014
  2. Jayson – YES! Thank you for sharing this – so my heart and also convicting. I could just hug you right now! 🙂
    cate b

    May 6, 2014
  3. Reblogged this on Let's Have Another Piece of Pie and commented:
    Dear fellow Christians – a must read. I was both convicted and full of joy over this fellow blogger’s words for the Church.
    cate b

    May 6, 2014
  4. It’s such an interesting concept that makes so much sense – it would be incredibly different/revolutionary/healing for the church to be more like a recovery group. No judgment, no condemnation, just understanding and love.
    Thanks for this! It’s definitely something that broadens my perspective on what the church “should” be.

    May 6, 2014
  5. Becky #

    I’d hug you if I could. Consider this reply a virtual one at the very least. I started attending Al-Anon before having the guts to walk down the hallway to AA. It was 2007. My life had turned to shit while I wasn’t looking. I had, decades earlier, given the proverbial finger to God and like any good prodigal on their way Home, I started seeing Him in the circle of addiction turned recovery. I agree with this post and am many of the words incarnate. I have had the terrifyingly painful grace to look at myself in the mirror. I will never be the same. By the grace of God go I into the presence of any “sinner”. Thank you again , Jayson.

    May 6, 2014
    • Yes, Yes, Yes

      This comment means so much to me. When the Pharisee looks at the woman awkwardly washing Jesus feet with her tears and begins chastising them, Jesus’ response is “those forgiven much love much.”

      That’s the problem with many in our churches, we don’t really see that we’ve been forgiven. And because we don’t, we don’t really love others.

      We have something to learn from those with messy histories.

      Thanks Becky, and cheers!

      May 6, 2014
  6. Having spoken with many former Catholics and other Christians, it does seem a shame that, instead of turning to the Church for mercy and healing, they only remember the priests and relatives who only offered judgment and demanded outward signs of piety. I’ll try to remember this point of view.

    May 6, 2014
  7. Kim #

    This post really hit home for me.
    I’ve had a weird relationship with religion for most of my life, and this kind of unspoken lack of transparency in the church is part of the reason why. When I first started going back to church–I was just baptized for the first time about a year and a half ago–and forming bonds with some of the folks there, a friend who’d been Christian all his life told me about some of the deeply flawed relationships he’d had with women in the past. When I wasn’t shocked, he said, “I love how you’re not phased by any of this!” I told him, “Remember, I’m from the secular world!”
    He didn’t quite get the joke, but my point was that with little history with the church, I had little reason in the past to pretend to be perfect or to pretend anyone else was perfect.
    Still, I also developed some harmful habits and patterns of thinking over the course of my life that I’m now working to un-do with Christ’s help, and sometimes have trouble being completely honest with my Christian community. (In fact, I sometimes more readily confess current or past sins with my non-religious friends because they often can relate and don’t seem to think it’s such a huge deal.) It’s odd that with all our talk of authenticity and intimate knowledge of how Christ is so kind and forgiving with even the most sinful creatures, we still have trouble being real with each other. It’s important to talk about how sin harms us and to reflect (to a healthy extent) on the reality of our sin, but hiding that sin from our brothers and sisters in Christ can be counterintuitive and sometimes ultimately harmful.
    So, thank you for writing this. I think it’s time for the church to talk about what it means to really be there for each other, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

    May 6, 2014
    • That’s so true. Also, when we can learn to be unphased about people’s pasts, they’ll learn to trust us when they fail in the future.

      And they will fail in the future.

      May 6, 2014
  8. froginparis #

    23 years ago I walked into just such a room: OA for bulimics/anorexics. From that moment on, I’ve prayed, challenged, questioned and bothered people of WHY for the love of mustard the Church isn’t like a 12 step program. Where experience, strength and hope are shared. Inventories are taken. Amends are offered only if they will not do more harm. True repentance and restoration can flow.

    Under that umbrella of true humility, community grows.

    May 6, 2014
  9. My pastor has actually said the same thing a few times from the pulpit. I wish the rest of our church would get on board. Great post!!

    May 6, 2014
  10. LuminousOne #

    I love this post, I remember after having had a few months in recovery I wanted so desperately to see this in my church and made the mistake of sharing this with people. Well let’s just say were it not for an awesome sermon every Sunday and having to work at said church I would not be there. It’s difficult to see the love and acceptance in the meetings and come out to silent scorn, condemnation and reproof at church. sigh. Thanks for this.

    May 6, 2014
  11. I totally get this. As someone who has frequented the rooms of NA and AA I do wish the church was more loving and accepting. The most judgement I’ve ever received about my past and my now as a single mom has been from the church.

    May 6, 2014
  12. Denise #

    Having taken a break from organized church for awhile, partially because I was sick of leadership pretending like they had it together, like there was some magical line they crossed when they “believed”, I’m desperately looking for this kind of community. I’m no longer interested in anything else. Thanks for sharing this. It does help give me hope that such communities exist.

    May 6, 2014
  13. Having dinner with a young man from my church last night, he felt safe enough to tell me how many times he has gotten drunk. I did not expect that. This post came back to mind when I felt that religious, self-impressing piety rise up and try to put him lower than me.

    May 8, 2014
  14. I knew this post was amazing and saved it until I had a chance to read it! I was right — this post is amazingly true and glaringly honest about “church folks” and our willingness to exclude the very people Christ embraces. I am both a member of Christ’s body and in recovery from two socially-unacceptable illnesses. I have decided that the most important relationships I can maintain are the ones with Christ and myself. After that, recovery is possible no matter what! – Mystic Michelle –

    June 4, 2014
  15. Jennifer #

    Digging through all of your blog posts and I stumble upon this. I almost choke on the lump that rises in my throat. I had been considering writing about my experience with this and my current church until our Pastor left and we became a bit out of sorts with an interim that has a difficult time engaging people and soothing the gaping wound that’s left.

    Truth, fact and reality? AA kept me sick. Why? Because I loved it so much that I began to pattern all of my behavior, even relapses, according to what I was hearing each night at 8 pm. in order to reaffirm what an alcoholic I was. I walked in there so broken and they literally squeezed me back together and “loved me until I could love myself”, AA cliche. I then left church altogether. I had arrived. I found the one place where I finally felt loved, and unconditionally accepted.

    During the multiple years that I spent in AA I gave up my eating disorder, smoking, recreational drugs, repaired broken relationships, learned how to be less selfish and more selfless and I healed, internally, emotionally.

    However, I never could marry AA doctrine with what I had been taught growing up. That gnawed at me. Even though I was not attending church, even though I was not living for Christ, even though so many other issues were resolved and I was getting well, I still looked in the mirror entirely dissatisfied with what would stare back at me. I knew God was calling me, reaching for me to draw me to Himself but I didn’t know how to go back. I tried a few times and felt so overwhelmingly judged that I swore it would never happen again!

    I moved with a boyfriend and attempted to set up camp in a new AA circle. It wasn’t quite home like my old group. I became increasingly depressed and shortly after moving, while my entire life looked like one glorious painting that was coming together so well, I began drinking. I holed myself up in closets, make-up streaking from all of my tears. I didn’t dare say aloud that I wanted to kill myself. I had spent enough time in the psych ward. I wasn’t going back. But, I wanted to kill myself.

    In a last ditch effort I tried the church that the neighbors pastored. Walking in I felt a nostalgia. The calm was akin to the comfort I felt at my old AA home group. They gathered me (and my children) in and squeezed tightly. It felt like they had been waiting for me all along. Their philosophy? Love people to Jesus. And they did. They loved me until I could see God’s love. I’d never attended a church where the “misfits” outweighed the “elite”. I do now and it’s magnificent.

    August 5, 2014
    • Thanks Jennifer, I love this so much. It’s nice to have someone confirm that I’m not entirely crazy . . .

      August 5, 2014

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