Sunday, August 13, 2006

Church Outside the Bottle

About a month ago now I went one Sunday night with a friend to an AA meeting in Santa Monica. I am not an alcoholic, merely your average broken dude. The difference between myself and the other folks at this meeting is that I am foolish enough to need an AA meeting as a reminder. The next day I shared with my good friends Eric and Audrey (husband and wife - me? merely a girlfriend would be a plus) about my experience, and want to share it with my cyber-freinds as well. According to Eric's emotional reaction while explaining it to the congretation the next day while leading worship, he was moved. I hope it is as moving for you as well.

There are no illusions at an AA meeting. Reality reigns at those things. You are there because you've ruined your life through addiction. You're addicted because you're broken. You're on the path of restoration. As I talked with a couple of people in the parking lot before the meeting, I found this new environment of openenss, reality (often-times referred to as "down to earth") and hope both refreshing and terrifying. It was a jolt to my system, but one well needed and, a moment later, well recieved. I thought, "Huh, isn't THIS what the CHURCH is supposed to be!?" I think the church has traded its reality of broken acceptance for an optimistic kind of ilusion, "It'll get better, if only...", or "God, please fix all of my problems." And why NOT such a trade? Its so much more comfortable this way! Until you enter that atmosphere of warmth, compassion, openness and truth at an AA meeting.

I wish I could remember the names of the young woman and older man who shared their stories. First was the woman; I think she was about twenty-seven (and she was beautiful). Her story didn't seem so abnormal or moving, up to a certain point. Her partents were divorced when she was a young child, leaving her under the illusion of abandonment. She started partying early on, as a cover up to the ilusion. To be accepted. To get people to like her. "That was my thing. I was the party girl. It's how I was known." She was a smart girl, made it through High School with good grades, into college. Partied some more. Realized she had a problem when she awoke one morning on an unknown bathroom floor with Jungle Juice vomit all over herself. In desparation she called both parents from two different locations, both half-way across the country.

The illusion that she was unloved and therefore abandoned was "somewhat shattered" at that moment when both parents were there with her at school, LOVINGLY SUPPORTING her, within two days of her phone call. This is why I was moved to chill bumps and a small tear. She entered AA, and has since had struggles. I remember one moment when something difficult happened (wish I remember what), and she drove to the liquor store. Sitting in her car outside the store, she called her sponsor, thinking, "If she doesn't answer, I'm going in there and buying a bottle of Vodka." She answered. God works in funny ways when we actually have to, AS A COMMUNITY, RELY on others who are just as broken and hurt as ourselves! Another good lesson for the church. Its a reality check that requires some faith in a loving God.

The night she met her sponsor to-be, she was explaining her struggles to her new friend, and her friend said, "Get down on your knees, on the pavement, right now, and pray to God to help you and give the strength. 'Cause you're gonna need it." Her immediate thought was, "Oh my God, I can't believe I'm getting down on my knees on this pavement." Her next thought was, "Yeah, she's right, I'm gonna need His help; cause I can't do it MYSELF." So she prayed. She's been sober since. A good lesson in what prayer REALLY is. A good lesson in what truth really is. Why does the Church dwell so much on stubbornly affirming "absolute truth", while forgetting the mirroring truths of her brokeness in His strenth?

When she finished her story, there was a fifteen minute break. I went over and told the young woman how moved I was by her story. "How long have you been sober?" "Oh no, I'm not an addict. I'm just a broken dude, a Christian. Luckily God loves me. Thanks so much for sharing your story. It was very moving." I walked out to the parking lot, and found myself astonished at how the air of truth in our brokenenss amidst the hope of restoration put a color of commonness and unity on people of such variety. Grey-haired black homeless-looking man wearing a ragged tank top. Beautiful young black woman with curly hair and make-up, talking and smiling on her cell phone. Quite spirited punk-rocker type with dyed-black hair and covered in tattoos. Two of them were having a conversation at one point during the break and all thee of them interacted in some way with the other two as well. In a very "down to earth" way, of course. There is no illusion at an AA meeting. There is no pretense. There's a difference between being who you are and judging others by it as if the identity onto which you grasp is the standard by which the cosmos holds together.

At one point I saw a short and stumpy guy with a spikey mohawk and covered in tattoos having a very open and friendly conversation with an youthful, lean, athletic and handsome surfer-lookin' dude in a collared shirt and nice shorts. Then as I was sitting down after the break, I found myself next to the lean athletic surfer dude. In this context of a lack of pretense or illusion with this guy, who I then found out was from a rich family in a gated community, said to me at one point in our conversation about God (a very easy conversation to have in this environment), "Yeah, dude, for me my god was my bong or my bowl. When was I gonna take that next hit, man? When was I gonna be able to get HIGH!?" He was able to say this simply because he knew that at that time in his life it was ruled by his bong. What bongs are we smoking at the church, while pretending to burn incence to God? Why does it so often seem pretentious and "fake"? Why is this so often an outsider's first complaint when LEAVING the church?

The next guy who shared opened his story by smilingly saying, "There's nothing I like better than a few handsome young men right behind me!" That threw me for a loop, but I learned another lesson that night about acceptance of self and others. By the end of the night I, normally at least a small bit homophobic (although much less than most of my other non-gay dude-friends; by "homophobic" here I don't mean judgemental, have known quite a few gay folks, I mean that once I accidentally joined a gay gymn and was very uncomfortable being "checked out", by dudes, while working out, and was also uncomfortable with the half naked pictures of dudes from gay magazines in the locker room), would have been more than comfortable giving that guy a big hug. In fact, by the time he was done sharing his story, that's exactly what I wanted to do! At this point I don't remember a lot of his story, but I do remember that his like-thirty years of sobriety gave the kind of perspective that broadens the vision of the soul to things like life and death, true and deep pain and true and deep joy, and true and deep community.

One night, after he had been sober for a number of years, on his way out of the very parking lot where we had just had a break, he met a big black prostitue. She was drunk, but that night fell not to sleep but to her knees in prayer. Nine years later, after hearing that she had been drinking again at some point during that nine years, he then reunited at that same block of pavement. "I haven't seen you in NINE years! I thought you were DEAD!" "You too. I had given up! But here you are!" And this fat and funny gay man then at this point of the story proceeded to hug this big black former-prostitute. The picture in my mind gave me chill bumps.

The many dead freinds of his from AA, the many affirmations that his own addiction "is just a symptom" (feminine boys aren't easily accepted by even family; once his brother even tried to drown him in a nearby lake), were his many reminders that life is not fun and games, but its our DEATH that's at stake! Carpe deim, I think it goes. I think of a cross. It's forgotten when what we really hold dear, what's really at stake, is the nightly nine-oclock sitcom and the yearly relaxing Margharita in Cancoon. When I told Eric and Audrey about my experience at AA, I said that I found it to be not only a good model for the church to re-learn certain things, but so wholistic in its vision and breadth, that it seemed to be better than the church at being the church! As I think back on it, I still think the church can learn from AA a thing or two about brokenenss, weakness, illusion, truth, strength and hope. Over time, however, what has recurred most in my memory in relation to my time at the AA meeting is its reminder of MY OWN borkeness, weakness, and illusion - in the face of the truth, strength, faith and hope of GOD Allmighty. This truth comes ONLY from God; this is why the moment of my brokeness is the moment of my full love and acceptance.

Beautiful beautiful post, Jason. I go every single Saturday morning that I possibly can to a 12 step meeting in La Canada. It's my spiritual anchor. The program is Al-Anon, which is for people who have alcoholics in their families or their lives (long story about who got me to the meeting, another time)but the 12 steps and the spiritual philosophy are exactly the same as AA. I can only say that my experience of the power of the acceptance of personal brokenness and the willingness to surrender to God that 12 Step is all about is identical to yours. I work the first three steps every day: I am powerless over (fill in the blank); there is a God who can help me; I'm handing it over to Him.
Hi Jason. Tom suggested I read your post. It is indeed a beautiful view of AA - of which I am a grateful member.

Thanks for sharing this.

Hello. Originally, I followed your comment on Tom's site to get here. At first I saw the length of the post and moved on. Then I saw Flip suggest reading it and I came back.

I'm glad I did. My realizations from your writing and your AA experience: 1) We're all broken; confession is good for the soul. 2) On this Earth, we're all connected. And if (it seems like) we're not, we need to be. We must get involved to find our support group. 3) Acceptance of others is critical in order for us to accept ourselves.

Thanks. Great thoughts!
Tracked this through Flip and was glad I did. Sort if gets to the difference between religion which I sometimes have and faith which I am trying to discover within.
Thanks everyone for your comments. Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. I've been in Africa. Paul and Nate, I left comments on your pages...
Thanks for this post.

What does it mean for the church to "learn" brokenness??? It strikes me as an ongoing process: I am open and broken by God's grace. Then I seek to build on my brokenness and create a life-structure that honors him. Then I turn that structure into some sort of idol that displaces the first love. Then God usually demolishes the idol. Then I come to God in brokenness. Then I am open and broken by God's grace....

Doesn't the church, as a whole, seem to go through this similar process? A cycle of sorts???

Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I see what you mean, and I think you have a point. I think though, if you look at the context of what I was saying, I was sort of referring particularly to what I felt the church can model after AA, which was instituted by broken Christians. I think that, even if the church DOES go through the process you describe, it can still learn a thing or two from AA. Have you ever been to an AA meething? They are wonderful; it was such a HUGE blessing for me!

I do think, though, that, generally, the American church is pretty clueless on brokenness. At leas publicly, and for the most part. I mean, take the Ted Haggard story, for example. That's a little extreme, I suppose. But everyone is so surprised and shocked and angry and outraged and "I can't believe the hypocracy and deciption!" C'mon people! You're probably hurthing worse than that guy! I know I have at points in my life! And I know I fail deeply too...

As another example, I am having a conversation elsewhere right now with a Thomistic-theologian student-pastor-guy. Everything is so systematic and answered-out for him. There's not much room for brokenness in the message that comes across through such an extreme system of doctrine and ortho-doxy. It's one thing to HAVE doctrine and orthodoxy; its another for it to BE the message the way it is in the American church. The message then goes like this: "You better get this right and measure up against this-here 'right doctrine', or else, well, you know. And whatever you don, don't laugh, cry or show emotion...or much less BROKENNESS. That will make it far more difficult to rationally, mechanically and coldly meet the requirements of the doctrines that you KNOW you MUST follow!"

OR, as another avenue to my point...take the church in Kenya. Brokenness is easy for them. Death, despair and "brokenness" is all around them. If you climb a hill in a town there early in the morning, what you hear is children crying. If you're in a typical American household at a comparable time, what you hear is children yelling at their parents to get what they want.

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