No one comes into a meeting of any 12 Step Group on a winning streak. We are there because we have hit the bottom. In the early days of AA, before treatment centers became popular, it was a common occurrence that a meeting would have a number of people in attendance who were just days, sometimes hours, away from their last binge, desperately wanting not to go back out, but powerless to stop themselves. We still see it often enough in meetings: this pain of early recovery. Not only are we coming to the realization that we have made a mess of our lives and hurt those we love, but often we are also not well mentally or emotionally, often with wild mood swings, deep depression and sadness at what we have done and who we have become. Worse, we no longer have our old friend alcohol, or whatever our addiction was, to help medicate the pain and forget about all our troubles. You can take the rum out of a fruitcake but you still have a fruitcake, as we sometimes say. We still have the pain of the disease but we no longer have the old medicine. An AA Meeting is the last house on the block, for the alcoholic knows that if he cannot get it, if he cannot find a way to stop the downward cycle, he is doomed to jails, institutions and asylums at best, and death at worst.
I recall vividly my first sponsor, watching my resistance to the hard work of early recovery, remarking to me, “Maybe you are not really one of us… You seem to have it all figured out, and you seem to think you can do it your way. I suggest you leave these rooms and go take your plans out for a test drive. Do a little more drinking, go back to your old life, and see how it goes for you.” I recall the empty feeling in my stomach at the thought of having to face my mess of a life on my own, for I knew that it would only be a few short days or weeks before I was again turning to alcohol and unconsciousness to cover up my pain and run from my problems. “No, no, no,” I protested, genuinely panicked that I was about to be kicked out of the Program. “I need help. I need you guys. Don’t send me away. Tell me what to do and I will do it.” It is difficult to describe how terrified I was at the prospect that I might be beyond the help of even those in recovery. These guys were my last hope. I had to get this thing.
And while, ironically, those in recovery are often a jovial lot, there is nonetheless an underlying seriousness of purpose, a focus on the important things, one that never goes away. We all know that we are but one drink, one drug, one roll of the dice, one sexual escapade away from disaster, and we never forget it. We know that our only insurance against the first drink is a vigorous program of recovery. This is a shared and intentional concept. It is our stock in trade, and it is the reason that we say that the newcomer to recovery is the most important person in the room.
This clarity about our real condition also means that we must let go of the “look good” that so often dominated our lives before recovery. We can no longer be afraid to tell the emotional truth about our lives to our colleagues, even if that truth is ugly. You cannot simultaneously save your ass and save your face, is the not-so-elegant way it is sometimes styled. This means that, if a man is facing fear or insecurity in his job, he has to get to a meeting and talk about it; if a woman is chronically depressed, she has to be honest about that. If we are tempted to drink, or to dishonesty, or to sexual intrigue, or to head to the casino, we have to say so. If we are broke, or in debt, or cannot control our anger at home, or find we cannot remain faithful in our marriages, we have to get help; and that means we must talk about it. We have to get these things out in the open even if– maybe especially because– we think they make us look bad in the eyes of others. We must let go of the concern about what others will think of us.
Now, turning to the life of faith, Christians know at least we know it intellectually that, without the saving grace of God in Christ, we are spiritually dead, cut off from the light and love of God, alone and empty. We know it from Scripture, and from the teachings of the Saints down through the centuries, and we know it if we are honest enough to admit it from observing our own lives and experiences.
But, how many of us can really say we feel safe in our church to be open about our brokenness and sinfulness, especially in front of our brothers and sisters in the Faith? Are we really free to talk about all this? I wonder, could the fine young pastor at the community bible church down the street really walk into his men’s fellowship and talk about his sexual struggles, or his compulsive sports gambling? Could the devout woman who heads up the altar guild for the Catholic Church across town confide in friends there that she is struggling with deep, dark depression, and she has no joy in life, feels no love for the Lord, and is full of hopelessness and despair? Too often, in all these scenarios, I think the answer is no; that kind of honesty is not really expected, maybe not even welcomed, and certainly not practiced, in most churches.
For most of us in the churches, we still seem stuck, still in denial, about what to do with such deep and dark brokenness in our midst. We just wish the Elephant would go quietly away. But of course Elephants never do.
This prevalent reluctance to be real and honest within our church communities raises the very real question of what the Christian Church is, and what it is for? Are our churches really havens for sinners who want to become saints, or are they a species of a religious social club, a place where nice people go to show that they are nice, and perhaps to learn to be even nicer. If the latter, then I’m out. I don’t especially want to be “nice”—I tried it for decades and it made me a hypocrite; I want to be authentic, even in brokenness, and I want to be authentically changed by the Grace of Christ.
But even so, it is that fear of looking bad, or the constant worry about what others think of us that drives us to keep our darker selves secret from one another.
I often observe how important reputation is in the churches. Now, certainly, while a life well-lived, deserving of honor and respect, is plainly a laudable goal, yet it is the faithful life well-lived that we are called to pursue– not a focus on honor or respect, and certainly not on reputation.
And faithful life well lived begins with honesty, mutual honesty, about our true condition. Remember the old adage: shared strengths build walls; shared weaknesses build bridges. We must become free to let others in on who we really are, dark demons and all. We must let go of the “look good.”
The problem is that we do not really consider ourselves, as the recovering addict does, just on the other side of the abyss. We are like desert Hebrews with short memories– we forget how bad it was in slavery; we do not think of ourselves, as St Paul did, as the most broken of all sinners; or to use the image from Solzhenitsyn — we do not really believe that the great divide between good and evil runs, not between nations or ideologies, but through every human heart, including mine.
Now, of course there is a huge difference between a genuine conviction of our true condition of brokenness and need, on the one hand, and shame, on the other. And so it probably needs to be said that shame and false guilt can and do emotionally cripple many of us– and that God wants no part of that for us. But still, I wonder whether so many years and so much thinking about building a positive self-esteem at all costs have led many Christians to conclude, too lightly and too simplistically, that “I’m OK, you’re OK.” But, ultimately, at the spiritual level at least, I’m not OK and probably, truth be told, neither are you. That is the message of the prophets and the preachers down through the ages, of John the Baptist, and St Paul and St Peter, of St John and the other evangelists. It is even the message of Jesus. We are not okay. We are broken and we need to be healed.
So while I am not suggesting that we artificially heap shame upon ourselves, or that we dwell on the past in hopeless guilt and morbidity, yet I do say that we must be clear, like the alcoholic remembering what it was like to be in his cups, that we need help. And, as our friends the addicts are grateful that the last house on the block is reserved for them, we Christians can rejoice that there is another place, just across the street, for us, another “last house on the block” that gladly takes us in—the Christian Church.
So let us Christians learn from our brothers and sisters in recovery the lessons of authenticity, even—especially—about our true inner brokenness. For only then, only in a Fellowship of the Broken, can we be healed. After all, it is not the healthy who need a doctor.