Sinners Anonymous: Less Church, More Recovery

sobrietychipsNoah 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 us? 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.

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