I’m finishing Susan Cheever’s biography of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, My Name Is Bill. For those who enjoy distinctively American biography and the intersection between spirituality and cultural history, Cheever’s book is outstanding and interesting.
It’s also a great prompt for those who are living through a “church crisis” and feeling spiritually homeless.
That would be me in the middle of that crisis, and best I can tell from my email, thousands and thousands of others are on the same bus.
It’s not that I don’t have a home church where people love me, or that I’m a church consumer who can’t be satisfied with the coffee bar and kickin’ worship band at the local megachurch, or that I am so theologically sophisticated that I can’t stand to listen to any preacher who isn’t more interesting than N.T. Wright.
No, my spiritual “aloneness” crisis is something inside of me. It just isn’t syncing with the churches around me. I feel like I’m sitting in a huge commercial for a product I don’t want to buy anymore. (Not Jesus, but the current version of the Christian life as its sold by evangelicals in general.) I haven’t abandoned the church. I just feel like I’m an alien visitor listening to a lot of that sound the adults make in the Charlie Brown cartoons.
Which brings me to Alcoholics Anonymous. When I was a pastor, our church started an outreach to alcoholics with a ministry called Alcoholics for Christ. A recovering alcoholic and committed Christian in my church had long experience in AA and was excited about what we could do with AC. So through him, I was introduced to AA and AC meetings in the Louisville area. I attended meetings of all kinds in various places on a regular basis.
And I kept saying, “I like this better than church.”
Well, not always. I’m not talking about the smoking or the crudeness or the generic spirituality. No, I’m talking about two things.
The stories. The stories are human stories. Remarkably similar. Sometimes boring. Sometimes compelling. All recognizable. All full of brokenness, human tragedy and humor. Stories about the breakthrough of grace in the midst of the worst messes we can make of life. But they are “our” stories; even for non-alcoholic, but otherwise addicted persons like myself.
The other thing was the experience of community. In those rooms, community was pursued and community happened. It was clumsy and awkward, and sometimes it wasn’t at all pretty. It could make you wince. But it was the real deal. People opened the door of their real lives, let some of the ugliness out, and everyone respected and loved one another through it all.
Not what we Christians call community, which is an orchestrated ritual of convincing ourselves we’ve done a lot of things we actually haven’t come near doing. No, this was community that moved in and toward the center of those Twelve Steps and Traditions: sobriety as a gift of spirituality found in common.
Now I would love to add a lot of Jesus and the Gospel to this experience. Celebrate Recovery and similar ministries do exactly that. But as it was, it was something that drew me in and made me wonder if I was looking at a movement much more similar to Jesus than what I experience on Sundays?
AA started with Bill W and Dr. Bob meeting for what was supposed to be a 15 minute talk where a former drinker encouraged a struggling alcoholic. It turned into hours, into a friendship and eventually into a movement with a life of its own.
The “secret” those founders discovered between themselves is something that Christians should know by heart. Sin, Grace, Gospel, Community, the Work of the Spirit.
We have a story in Jesus and that story allows us to open up our closets and tell the truth. What would happen if Christians told the truth? To one another? To ourselves? To the Christian community?
Our stories are important. The Gospels are full of the awareness that God knows the whole story of the woman at the well and the tax collectors by the roadside. He knows it all, and loves us in Jesus with a fierce, unstoppable love.
Community can happen. Maybe not at the scheduled times and places, but at the times and places the Holy Spirit creates. How much does the Spirit long for more of those Bill and Dr. Bob movements to be born out of such small beginnings of genuine community.
So I may feel “homeless,” but the Holy Spirit is creating the church in all kinds of two and three person settings. He’s opening the closets, giving us community, showing us what it’s like to be loved safely and loved anyway.
My prayer isn’t that I will find the church. I’ve had plenty of that. I want the Holy Spirit to make me the beginning of the Jesus-story believing community that tells its stories to the world. I want what Jesus wanted when he poured out his spirit on those disciples to happen in and through me, to whoever is thirsty, lost and alone.
Does someone have 15 minutes? Let’s get something started and see where Jesus takes it.
[Note: If you plan to badmouth AA, CR etc. in the comments, save your time. I’m not going to publish you.]