A few weeks ago my friend, Mike, invited me to Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I went last night. I was to be a part of celebrating his 1-year clean and sober anniversary. He invited a number of us from imagine/Northampton. We all wanted to support and rejoice with his accomplishment. He has worked hard to get there. I know because I walked with him through some of his darkest, most frightening days.
It wasn't the first time I had been to a Recovery Group meeting. While not an addict myself, I had attended for various reasons prior. I have always found them deeply moving and utterly, refreshingly real. The human story is represented profoundly at these meetings all over the world.
Last night I realized, once again, that much of what occurs in these gatherings is what should occur when the church gathers, at least in terms of how people would do well relate frequently. I understand all of our life together is not to be a laboratory where we spend most of our time dissecting our failures together, but much of our shared life is actually pretty superficial, in my experience. For instance, you might be surprised how many husbands and wives have no idea at all how the other experiences Jesus from one day to the next. They live together! Such superficiality is compounded in most churches, I think it would be safe to say.
So last night the first thing I noticed was there is an obvious unity and connection in the room because everyone is going through, or has had the same battle with addiction. The way people talk about their struggle and the obvious joy people express clearly when someone reports fighting the good fight or even succeeding at the moment shows forth understanding and identification. People nod their heads when someone talks of what they are experiencing or what they are learning. They hoop and holler when someone reports progress or even that after a relapse they are back to get help. They love newcomers and venerate people who have stayed the course, sometimes for decades.
I wonder though, if we Jesus-followers experience a similar unity and connection when we gather with our brethren? Shouldn't we? We all are works in progress and gather around Jesus who ties us together in one family no matter our particular distinctions or backgrounds. Shouldn't the church be the community where we share the joys and sorrows of life most openly. Do we extend that invitation when we gather in small and large groups. Do we invite revealing our brokenness, shame, fear and guilt to one another? Or do we send subtle messages about "there might be a time and a place for that, but not at this service or bible study or program." I wonder.
I used to experience such connection regularly when we led Listening in Christ retreats and people would open up, even in the company of strangers. They seemed to feel it safe to do so, and it created bonds. People felt safe enough to risk being vulnerable.
That leads to my second observation. I witnessed a raw honesty in the room whether people were talking about self-hatred because of guilt and shame, or about how much they value being able to be "in the room," period There appeared no pretense or affectation . . . no posing or posturing. The rules of engagement fiercely promoted being yourself, warts and all. I got a sense of "we are all in the same boat, brother - ain't no reason to hide." People appeared to recognize they were there in that life had been a disaster because of their addiction: everyone has a similar story in a sense so why try to dress it up?
So isn't the church the place where raw honesty should be invited, honored as precious, and seen as a key element of the "normal Christian life?" Aren't we all radically broken sinners saved by grace? We were utterly lost before we were found? No one has arrived while still on the planet? Shouldn't we encourage honest disclosure when, as Brennan Manning says as ragamuffins "our cheese keeps falling off our crackers?" So why the commonplace pretense when we gather that everything is fine, and if you are screwed up you better "get right with God, brother," or "go see pastor about it." People report to me and I have experienced we tend to have little patience for people whose lives often "become unmanageable." Shouldn't church be characterized by the freedom to be raw and honest when life upends us and it is our fault.
Lastly, the community gathered last night seemed to understand that by being present, hope for a better life was possible. They voiced no romantic illusions about getting better quickly. Too many of them had failed miserably at life and relationships, and responsibilities and giving or accepting real love. It felt people really saw each meeting they attended (some had been to more than one yesterday), was a lifeline and maybe over time, a true way out of the mess they were in. This was their community and at least for today, the hope of recovery was possible.
I think many of us have viewed church as a lifeline, especially in times of crisis, but I wonder as weeks turn into months and months into years, if we become complacent with the sustaining miracle we have experienced in being saved by Christ. We grow comfortable with the spiritual routines and church culture we experience, and it all settles into the predictable, thus losing the power to enchant and bring us to our knees in gratitude time and time again. The people I was with last night live on a knife's edge and know at any moment they can fall off and pursue chaos. Do we feel that way daily or are we much too at ease with following Jesus. He is safe, accepting and nice to us. We just need to do what we're already doing and everything will be fine. Really?
If you have never been, I exhort you to attend an AA, NA, OA or SA meeting as a supporter. You will see what I am talking about. Church happens there and it will change you.