In a previous post, I wrote a little about my experience with 12 step recovery and the Friends Church. I tried to show AA and NA at their best, not malign them as some cult as many web sites tend to. I also made the assertion that many of the principals in the 12 steps and Traditions that enable AA and NA to be so effective were borrowed from the church by the founders of AA, and that the church has suffered much from losing its own forgotten wisdom. It is time to borrow these things back, and re-adapt them into the ethos of our churches. If you missed it, I encourage you to read the previous post linked above. Following it, Micah Bales, the author of the Quaker blog The Lambs War, thoughtfully responded to that post with his post that sought to connect with how some of this would look in his own community of faith. It was an online conversation that connected and engaged so many streams of my life, and one I would love to begin anew. Unfortunately, as the end of the semester insanity began to boil over a bit, my response to his got lost in the fray. In this post I want to flesh out a little more what that looks like in the context of a community by highlighting a few the positive aspects of the culture that is created by living out these principals of recovery in the church.
The Newcomer is the Most Important Person in the Room
In the church, there is supposed to be a downward race to the bottom. As Jesus said, “The person who is least among you is the greatest.” In recovery groups, this is recognizable and tangible, not something spoken of in the nostalgic terms of idealism. The person who walks through the door of an AA meeting and who likely does not know anything yet about living “in the solution,” is given a formal opportunity to state their name and be welcomed by the group. Often, as people share their stories, they also speak directly to the newcomer by name. Many of those who share “re-welcome” the newcomer, invite them to listen, explain their hopes that they would hear some of their story there, or something else that would keep them coming back. Newcomers are constantly reminded they are wanted and welcome. People even say things like “glad you showed up tonight, even “welcome home.” They make sure the newcomers realize that they are the most important person in the room (actually saying that), that the group exists for them, and that the struggles they are currently facing that brought them through that door are the most important thing going on in the life of the group.
I was asked once to be a member of the welcoming committee of my church. It was a lot of fun meeting new people, making sure they knew they were noticed, sitting next to these newcomers at church and introducing them to people. But it made me wonder why we have to ask people to be responsible for this. Why is it that new people are regularly ignored? It is so easy to busily say hello to old friends we already know and completely neglect the newcomer. Often, we miss hearing their story because we are so focused on making sure they hear ours. One thing a church in recovery needs desperately is to tear down the walls of cliquey-ness that value people more on what they have to offer rather than just loving people where they are at. We need to break through the blinders of seeing human potential in relation to the great “worship machine” and compassionately be available in the moment with these strangers God invites into our meetings. If we really want to be a church that is relevant to the world outside our doors, let us at least “practice” on those who are new that venture within them. We need to be willing to sit with someone else, talk with someone else, listen to someone else. We need to try and figure out what makes them tick and what they are passionate about. We need to hear their story and engage it, not simply learn enough to classify their “worth” by where they work, and who they are related to that matters to us. It is as if we are saying between the lines, “you are only important because of what you produce, what class you are, and what important people in my life you matter to.” If someone is hurting and looking for answers, formalities are not going to help them. Also, they should not be forced to prove that they will keep coming back before we will listen to their struggles and care about who they really are. This brings me to the next thing…
People in recovery groups are radically honest. Radical honesty is an ingredient in any conception of a childlike faith, but it is not one we want to really deal with in church. People at AA often openly question my beliefs, tell me my religion is worthless, or see my ministry as some kind of manipulation attempt, but I wouldn’t trade that for courteous passivity on my worst day. At least anti-religious people know what they don’t believe and are willing to get passionate about it. Radical honesty makes room for what is in a person’s heart to come out. I remember wanting to punch this biker guy in the face when he caricatured my desire to be a youth pastor with those of a pedophilic priest. Reflecting back on our conversation later, it seemed clear that he was wounded by Christianity, not merely being a jerk. Under the veil of superficiality at church, people keep baggage in white washed tombs that will never see the light of day, and never be prayed about in community. While many people in the church are not comfortable with radical honesty, it is the basis of any true relationship, and the main component of trust.
Barna called the church a mile wide and an inch deep. The reason this is so is because we have made it something more like the Rotary Club than the church of the Living God. For the church to be a true community, we must get past “hello” and “the weather” and be willing to wrestle with sin together in safety. It is virtually guaranteed that this will make us uncomfortable. Truth stings, but like that trip to the dentist chair, some pain can be redemptive and is necessary for the un-redemptive pain to end. We must all chose whether we will deal with pain alone–isolated by fear and pride–or whether we will share that pain in community and bear each others burdens in prayer. This might even lead to –gasp–confession, which we have all but done away with in the Quaker church. Superficiality really is the curse of our age. To be a church in recovery we must learn not to silence the prophets, dreamers, and “bull in a china shop’s for God” among us. We must not table certain questions or hide our doubts. An inconvenient truth is far better than denial on any day of the week. We speak often in the church of “authentic relationships,” but then sweep tensions under the rug of false peace, rather than endure the pain of breaking beneath what festers below the surface of our communities. Healing will not come otherwise. As in Friedberg’s theory, if we are not careful we can look a lot like a bunch of anxious people turning against those brave enough to share the truth with us.
Spiritual Progress rather than Spiritual Perfection
One thing I have grown to appreciate about AA is its reluctance to adopt a “theology of arrival.” At times, the church does not embrace a teachable spirit, whether that works out in legalism that errs toward the Right or the Left. I was talking with a friend recently about models of spiritual growth and conversion. My friend Kate pointed out that most people’s journey to God involves a process that starts with acceptance/membership, then moves to changing behavior, and finally toward a change of beliefs, yet the church pushes the opposite view, one in which beliefs must change first, then behavior, and them acceptance/membership is offered. This forces people to have all their ducks in a row before we are willing to commit! And worse yet, it forces people to expect from themselves the fruits of a life lived by the Spirit overnight. We should not be surprised that someone would come away from that experience wounded by legalism, burned by superficiality, or feeling judgment from the church. I felt that way as a new Christian who smoked. I felt that unless I got that particular addiction fixed right away, that I was a big disappointment to God. This actually had nothing to do with anyone telling me I should quit (they didn’t have to), but as I tried and failed over and over, it became easier to just fake success. I expected an instantaneous change, but it actually came slowly and painfully a few years later. What I actually needed was a Christian in my life who would not treat me like a leper because I still struggled with addiction. Now I will happily stand next to that smoker brave enough to do so openly. I would rather pick up cigarette butts and clean out smelly ashtrays in the parking lot than to push someone to deal with a problem God has not yet initiated. Progress is enough, even if it is inward and hard to measure. Let us trust God to convict people of sin, and simply be faithful when they come and ask us about how to walk that road to freedom.
Wanting “What Someone Else has to Offer”
In recovery groups, there is an expectation for both accountability and discipleship. Because people often come into the group fresh from desperate circumstances, each new person receives a piece of paper that has been passed around until it is transformed into a “phone list.” A newcomer who is brave enough to admit so will literally walk away from a meeting with the phone number of everyone in the room of their same gender. Right off the bat at an AA meeting, there is the possibility for those who attend that someone who struggles may call you some time soon, and not just to shoot the breeze, but possibly to help them dump a bunch of booze down their sink to stay sober yet another day. Imagine if church were like this! It probably would be if we were actually a safe community who could be trusted not to gossip.
What is more, there is an expectation that someone new who sees God working in your life might ask you into a discipleship-esque relationship called “sponsorship.” You, of course can say no, and the arrangement can end at any time, but there is a strong culture of mentoring in recovery groups. It is ok-no expected- that every person in the program would both be a sponsor and be someone else’s’ sponsor, when they heal enough to be able to do so and give back. As they often say, “You can only keep what you have by giving it away.” We are called to lose our lives, for Christ’s sake, in order to find them, not to shop around for churches that offer us just the right programs for us to consume. I would be willing to bet people are taking their high schooler’s elsewhere, not because we don’t have enough summer camps and fog machines, but because we are pretty crummy at discipleship.
I personally know people who have had AA’s unique brand of discipleship functioning in their lives for decades. While this is far from a perfect system of discipleship, the very DNA of recovery groups hinges on a system of the older passing wisdom onto the younger. Why is it that in the church, mentoring and discipleship are seen as optional? Should we really be surprised that the church is declining, if the odds of finding any formal discipleship/disciple-making relationship are around 100 to one? A recovering church is one that invites this relationship, one that invests in people to better and empower them, and that intentionally holds out a hand so that no one (short of their own desire to do so) falls through the cracks. People often look down on the Navigators for their bible memorization system of discipleship, but what do we offer instead? Jesus had disciples follow Him around for a few years… both Jesus and George Fox sent people out by twos, but what are we supposed to do in the Friends Church if we seriously want discipleship in our lives? Hopefully we can do more than handing someone a pamphlet, or even a great book. That surely cannot be our Quaker discipleship “model.”
Living One Day at a Time
I am a future oriented person. This trait, the ability to anticipate and “game theory” the future, and to intuitively adapt in real time, is a celebrated one. There are of course good things about how God created my mind to function with a future orientation. We definitely need vision casters and dreamers. After all, you don’t throw a football to where a running back is, but where he/she will be. Yet there is something a bit like that “old timey” Quaker simplicity in AA’s focus on living one day at a time, even one moment at a time. One of my favorite Quakers, Thomas Kelly, helped me to see this, but recovery groups actually live and breathe it. To a person in recovery, dependence on God’s grace is a living, breathing, moment by moment reality. In recovery, tomorrow’s sobriety is guaranteed to no one and many people I have known and loved have died, ended up in prison, or even gone completely insane because of poor choices that stemmed from one really bad day’s frustrations.
In the church, we do not live one day at a time, it is all about the five year plan. We repeat Jesus’ words about “tomorrow having enough trouble all its own” yet we seem completely incapable of living in the now. We look fondly on our Quaker heritage and legacy, or we gaze into our crystal balls about the next big thing, but we have precious little attention span for the moment. While even the most desperate recovering drug addict has a plan for the future, I love being a part of a people who hold things so loosely. A people who will drop everything to help someone who is reaching out. A people desperately hoping to be faithful when the opportunity to do “the next right thing” presents itself in our lives One hallmark of a church in recovery, is that it refuses to take itself too seriously, and refuses to take the future more seriously than the present.
All we really have is now, tomorrow will take care of itself. Having a budget or an order of service is fine, but we as a people of faith need to relearn how to steward one day at a time. When our structures become cogs in a mindless “worship machine,” we have lost this. When we attempt to guilt people into “committing” to a certain committee because “we have always done it that way” we have lost more than we realize. God may be calling us to lay down our sermon series or liturgy, He may want us to do something radically different. It is a no brainer that we should give Him permission. It is time to die a daily death to tomorrow today, for as any recovery addict or alcoholic knows, most of the things in our heads we dreaded about tomorrow often never come to pass anyway.
These are just a few observation of things the Friends movement and wider church could gain from fostering an ethos of recovery, a reawakening of the awareness of what it means to experience salvation in the present moment. It is not an exhaustive list by any means. If you are a Quaker, or other tribe of Christian who has experienced following Christ through a 12 step recovery program, what might you add?