My Name is Paul and I’m an Alcoholic, Step 2

One Thursday each month I will share a post on one of the 12 Steps. Last month, I wrote about Step 1. Recovery is an area of life that 12 Step groups have done amazing work with, yet many churches (and other community groups) struggle to know what to do. My hope is that this series will help those who are not in recovery learn more about their friends and family members who are in recovery. I welcome any feedback, questions, and concerns you may have!

“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Step 2

“To clergymen, doctors, friends, and families, the alcoholic who means well and tries hard is a heartbreaking riddle…. We supposed we had humility when really we hadn’t. We supposed we had been serious about religious practices when upon honest appraisal, we found we had been only superficial. Or, going to the other extreme, we had wallowed in emotionalism and had mistaken it for true religious feeling. In both cases, we had been asking something for nothing. The fact was we really hadn’t cleaned house so that the grace of God could enter us and expel the obsession” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, 32).

One of the more difficult admissions to make on the road to recovery is that you are not strong enough to do it on your own. In fact, trying to manage life on your own is often what gets you to the place called Rock Bottom.

Many people come to AA with no religious background. Others have a background of pain and betrayal. Others have been church-goers their entire lives. All of them have this in common:

They need to find a higher power.

Everyone in recovery needs a power outside themselves that is greater than they are. I need something, someone, other than me and stronger than me. For many in recovery, God is a scary concept. So they will rely on the AA group as their Higher Power. And you know what? That’s okay. Because at this point in the recovery process, what the alcoholic or addict needs is to know that someone out there understands restoring sanity.

It has been my experience that many in the church struggle with understanding why recovering addicts need a “Higher Power.” Why can’t they just talk about God and Jesus?

What we must remember is that AA (or any other traditional 12 Step group) is not an evangelistic tool. AA is not church. AA is not a religious community. It was never intended to be. And I pray it never becomes that.

To come to AA, it does not matter if you are Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, or Agnostic. People from all of those groups come together for one reason: to find sobriety. Referring to God (whom Bill Wilson believed in and had a relationship with) as Higher Power is not an attack on Christianity or an endorsement of agnosticism. Rather, it is a way to tell all people, “Come here and let us build community around our common cause: sobriety and a restoration of sanity.”

But how can this apply to Christians in need of recovery? Aren’t they being blasphemous by saying “Higher Power” instead of Jesus? Aren’t they denying Christ by not acknowledging their relationship with Him every time they attend a meeting?

I hope not; otherwise, I’m in serious trouble. (hashtag: heavy sarcasm)

So how can non-addicts, specifically church-going non-addicts, be supportive in this process, especially when one’s relationship with God is involved?

First, remember how difficult a time this is for the recovering person. I am a preacher’s kid. I went to a Bible college and majored in ministry. I worked at two different churches while in college (plus two others where I did summer internships). I left school to become a full-time preacher in the northeast.

And I had no real personal relationship with God.

I knew exactly what He could do. In fact, that is why I very intentionally never prayed for help from God. I knew He would give it and I did not want Him to. This left me very disconnected. I was like the person in the above paragraph: doing all the motions, experiencing all the emotions, but being empty because I was expecting something for nothing.

It was hard for me to admit that I needed to go through AA to connect with God and Jesus on a personal level. Yet, it was through AA that I learned I needed to come to God, humble myself, and seek to follow His will for my life; not my own will.

That is not an easy admission for someone who grew up in the church and thought he had all the answers. And I am not alone in that experience. If you know someone early in recovery, do not heap guilt on them because YOU don’t think their relationship with God is not strong enough. We know it’s not strong enough. That’s why we are seeking it now.

Second, find ways to help cultivate an atmosphere of relationship and communion with God inside the church. Churches often do a great job talking about God. Churches often do a great job motivating and moving people emotionally. Churches often do a great job helping other people. But too often, those things are done without nurturing a relationship with the One it is all done for.

In writing about the use of spiritual gifts in I Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says the existence of gifts combined with an absence of love is useless—full of sound and fury signifying nothing (a clanging gong). Churches must begin cultivating and nurturing the relational aspects of what it means to be a Christ-follower before creating an expectation of knowledge and behavior. As we build better, more intimate relationships with Jesus and with other members of our church community, the struggle against addiction will start long before a person reaches rock bottom.

Third, remember that we acknowledge Jesus by our lives and actions without needing to be overtly evangelistic. Francis of Assisi summed this up the best when he said, “Preach the Gospel always, use words if necessary.” Everyone I have a relationship with in AA knows about my relationship with Jesus; even though I have rarely talked about Him during a meeting. In AA meetings, I work on maintaining my sobriety and growing closer to my Higher Power. In my personal relationships, I can talk more specifically about my own faith.

Christians exploring their relationship with God during the early stages of recovery are not betraying their faith by talking about a Higher Power. Instead, they are struggling with finding a relationship they never truly had; at least not on a deep enough level. If you want to lend support, explore with them. Ask the same questions they are asking. Truly walk alongside one another.

*I am not addressing Celebrate Recovery in this post, but it is a helpful Bible-based 12 step program.

**The Francis of Assisi quote is possibly not a direct quote from any of his actual writings, even though it is often attributed to him.

State Legislatures and Pharisees: A Call to Consistency

Last week, I asked the question, “What do people see when they see us?” What witness are we bearing to the world by our words and actions? As Christians, when people watch us what are they learning about Jesus?

Then Arizona goes and provides an example of what I was trying to talk about. (Kansas also attempted something similar, yet the bill did not stick.)*

Why do I think the Arizona bill is a bad idea? At the very least, it is inconsistent. Let me explain.

For the sake of this post, we will assume the traditional teaching on homosexual behavior is correct—that is, it is sinful. Even if we acknowledge the Bible says nothing about orientation, there are some passages (in the New Testament, not just the Leviticus one) that seem to indicate a man sleeping with a man as he would a woman is not acceptable.

If that is the case, Christians who accept that teaching may feel the practice of their faith is being negatively affected if they serve gay and lesbian couples. If a Christian owns a family restaurant and they believe “family” is male and female partner with or without children, serving a male and male partner would be uncomfortable at the least; sinful at the worst.

But here is where the inconsistency comes into play.

That particular owner knows very little, or even nothing, about the private lives of his or her patrons. If the law is going to be written that allows a Christian business owner to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples on the basis of religious belief, will we also write a law that allows Christian business owners to refuse service to people who have cheated on their taxes? Or lied by eating the cookies and drinking the milk left out for Santa Claus? What about the single parents who are single because they were the ones to violate the marriage covenant by having an affair?

Do you know the name for a group of people who exclude others because they are sinful or not holy enough? Pharisees. That group of people so focused on religious right-ness Jesus called them whitewashed tombs full of dead people’s bones. In other words: they were doing everything right, but had become entirely useless.

If we are going to be a witness for Christ in this world, we need to be welcoming and inviting the world into our midst. If we are going to create community, then we must actually create community.

If you own a business and someone comes in who is living a life of sin, what should you do?

You should serve them.

You should love them.

You should set an example for them.

But do not shut the door on them. Unless, of course, you are willing to shut the door on everyone else; yourself included.

So what’s going to happen to Arizona? Social media will blow up with people on both sides. Tourist revenue will drop dramatically. The NFL will threaten to move Super Bowl XLIX to another city.

And a group of people that is marginalized and victimized will feel even more alienated from the very people who were called to love God and love people.

What does the world see when they see those who claim the name of Christ?

I hope they see Jesus.

 

*Although these are actions of state legislatures, mainstream evangelical churches have allowed themselves to be co-opted by conservative political groups so much that the perception is the two are one and the same. Whether true or not, perception is often stronger than reality.

“Jesus Wants The Rose”

If I remember correctly, I was around 16 when I preached my first full-fledged sermon. That was almost 23 years ago.

I have not been preaching full-time since then (about 5 years was full-time), but as I consider the churches I have worked for and the places I have been asked to speak, I know that I have easily preached over 500 times. Which compared to full-time preachers is not a big deal, but still…that number is fairly significant.

I share that only to say this: I have said a lot of crap that I wish I could take back.

Lest you think I am being too hard on myself, I am certain that if I were to preach another 500 sermons I would say the same thing. I am changing. I am growing. I am developing.

And that is a good thing. (Who said, “If the person you disagree with the most is not yourself many years ago, then you aren’t growing”?)

One of those things I wish I could go back to and un-say has to do with the idea of redemption. I used to use emotional manipulation to twist a certain response out of my audience. I really wanted to harp on how wretched we all were. Sure, I got to the whole “redemption” thing, but my point was to emphasize the negative, get you all twisted about it, and throw you a lifeline that you had to cling to.

And I was wrong.

That is not redemption. That is not Gospel.

That is a preacher trying to pad his baptism numbers.

And this also plays out in a different way in our churches today. At my local church, Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker is teaching a class for parents on how to talk with our children about sexuality. In this week’s class, we talked about the messages our children (especially our daughters) are receiving about sex.

One of those messages is that if there is a mistake, a slip-up, a sin, then you are now damaged goods. You are broken. You are shamed.

Maybe we throw redemption in there somewhere. But likely, any message of redemption comes with a preface that says, “Since you are so messed up, perhaps you will get lucky enough to find someone who might still love you.”

And that is not redemption. It is nothing more than ugly. And wrong. And sinful.

Redemption needs to be reclaimed in our churches. The message of redemption that is beautiful and wonderful and Gospel!

When Jesus called His disciples, He looked at them and said, “Follow me.”

When Jesus met with the woman at the well, He mentioned her five husbands but did not make her feel guilty for her life. Instead, she became inspired to run into her town to tell everyone about this Messiah.

When Jesus was brought face to face with a woman caught in the act of adultery, He waited until everyone was gone before He simply said, “Go and leave your life of sin.”

When Saul had his Damascus road experience, Jesus said, “It is me you are persecuting. Go and wait.” And wait he did. And the scales fell from his eyes.

The message of redemption does not necessitate that we talk about how messed up we were. Yes, we were dead in our transgressions and sin. Yes, we struggle with the flesh. But life in the Spirit has set us free from the law of sin and death. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

Remember the vision Peter had before Cornelius invited him to his house? Peter saw all the unclean animals and even though he was told to eat, he protested. “I cannot touch what is unclean.”

But they weren’t unclean anymore! They had been redeemed! Their identity was changed!

I saw the following video clip recently. It offers an incredible message. I encourage you to watch and think about how we talk about sin and redemption. If sin gets more press, we are doing something wrong. We must proclaim redemption. Jesus wants the rose.

 

 

You may be hurting. You may have regret. You may have been told you are no good. If so, you are right where Jesus wants you. Because He wants you. Right now. Where you are.

And that is the message of redemption.

What Do People See When They See You?

What witness is the church projecting to the world?

In other words, when the communities around us look at us, what do they see?

We hope they see a group of people committed to loving God and loving people. We hope they see charitable donations and volunteer work. We hope they see hospitals, schools, and other institutions created for the benefit of helping other people.

Unfortunately, what they often see is much less pleasant.

The Christian community has done a great job promoting “truth.” However, we have often done a terrible job promoting relationships.

_________________________

Last year, Christians rose to the occasion to support Dan Cathey and Chick-fil-A. Earlier this year, Christians rose to the occasion to support Phil Robertson and the Duck Commander brand. Across the country, Christians rise up to picket Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics. Social media has made these stands easier to take: we can post status updates and pictures that declare we will no longer purchase certain products; we can call people out by name and say they are the voices we need to ignore.

It is done in the name of truth.

But what does the world see?

The world sees that same sex attraction and abortion are unforgivable in the eyes of the church. They see that if you have ever experienced or even considered these things you are not welcome; they see they must be silent and not share their struggles. (What may be even worse is that people within the church who experience same sex attraction or have had an abortion need to work even harder at keeping those things a secret; they must suffer in silence.)

The world goes on to see other things. Not only do they realize same sex attraction and abortion are unforgivable, they begin to recognize that only certain sins attain that kind of status. By looking at the Christians who make up churches, they see that gluttony is permitted. They see that bickering and arguing is often encouraged. They see that gossip and putting people down is a prevalent practice. They may even begin to suspect that greed and hoarding are allowed.

Coveting? Not a problem. Womanizing? We can overlook that. Pride? It’s not that big a deal.

But same sex attraction? Abortion? Addiction? Being poor? Sorry. These are the things that are not allowed.

And what the world sees is that Christians pick and choose their battles and arbitrarily decide who is good enough to be in and who is not.

The world sees the person with multiple sexual partners speaking up against homosexuality.

The world sees the multi-million dollar building go up in the suburbs while the adequate building downtown sits empty.

The world sees the individual running up a bar tab on Saturday night lamenting over the way drugs and alcohol are terrorizing our youth.

The world sees the Christian in the field of science saying other Christians who do not believe in a literal six day creation are going to hell.

The world sees the church supporting the candidate who has worked for tax benefits for corporations while taking money away from services devoted to helping the poor.

_________________________

Is this a fair assessment? Is it right?

Maybe. Maybe not. But it does not matter. Why?

We have fought so hard to proclaim ourselves as right we have forgotten what it means to be loving.

Was it wrong for people to support Chick-fil-A or Duck Commander? Not necessarily. Was it wrong to care more for a corporation or a TV show than for the people who were hurt by the words that were said? Absolutely.

Is it wrong to oppose abortion or to call for a literal reading and understanding of the book of Genesis? Not necessarily. Is it wrong to treat people as anathema because they are on the other side of the argument? Absolutely.

I am all for truth. I am all for studying to gain knowledge. But when my quest for the truth takes precedence over the people I am in relationship with, my journey has gone off track. Have you ever paid really close attention to Jesus or the Apostle Paul when they got angry? Who were they angry with? Evolutionists? Abortion doctors? LGBTQQIA activists?

No. They were angry with the people inside the walls of the church (or synagogue, or temple, or whatever). They were angry that the witness for Jesus had been altered into a witness to come off as “right.”

_________________________

What witness is the church projecting to the world?

Let us make it one of love. Let us make it one of welcome. Let us make it one of humble service. Let us make it one of walking side by side and arm in arm.

Let us make it a witness of being a people who are broken, hurting, and messed up; a people in need of truth.

And let’s let Jesus take care of the rest.

To Dare Greatly

Throughout this year, I will be sharing one book review each month. I am not a professional book reviewer, but I would like to share my thoughts about some of the books I have read recently that have impacted my life in meaningful ways. This week’s book is Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. Do yourself a favor and read this book soon! You can purchase it here:

 http://www.amazon.com/Daring-Greatly-Courage-Vulnerable-Transforms/dp/1592407331

“Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.”

Brene Brown has put together one of the most meddling books I have ever read. I rarely think a book is a must-read for everybody, but this is one of those books.

Brown has done extensive qualitative, grounded-theory research for over a decade. That research has resulted in this book as well as two of the most viewed TED talks. Brown has found that as human beings we long for connection. In order to attain connection we need to overcome shame and become vulnerable on the way to achieving wholehearted living.

Sounds easy, right?

Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound easy. Which is good, because it is not.

This book is helpful on a number of levels. Let me explain how it is helpful for me.

First, I desire to help churches learn how to interact more effectively with people in addiction and recovery. The way to do that is for churches to become more vulnerable. 12 step groups do a great job with this and churches have a lot to learn. But beyond the vulnerability, both churches and addicts need to learn how to deal with and move beyond shame. As Brown writes, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”

Churches need to speak about addiction more. In fact, churches need to speak about sin more. Church is not the place to avoid talking about the real daily struggles Christians face. It is the place where we must address these struggles and learn how to deal with them together; as a community.

Second, I am married. My wife and I have celebrated 16 anniversaries. Our marriage would be perfect if not for two things: me and her (but mostly me!). Any relationship can be difficult, but a marriage has many issues. Sharing your life closely and intimately with one other person is not easy. It is important to continue working to avoid shame and secrecy. Brown’s book could easily serve as a conversation starter for married couples, whether they are newlywed or celebrating their 50th anniversary.

Third, Brown dedicates an entire chapter to parenting. When our children are young we can either provide them with the tools to overcome experiences of shame in their lives or we can (sometimes unintentionally) heap shame on them that will last a lifetime. For example, Brown talks about the difference between the two phrases “you are bad” and “you did something bad.” There are so many small words and actions that have profound impacts on our children.

I was late to the game reading this book. After hearing only positive feedback from my family and friends who had read it, I was highly anticipating what I would find. And I was not disappointed. It will be a tremendous blessing to you if you can read and struggle with the information Brown offers in this book.