On Sunday nights my wife and I spend the evening quietly chatting, reading, etc – for some reason this past Sunday night we were drawn to a TV program ‘To Hell and Back!’ We were both deeply impacted by what we witnessed.
It documents the story of a number of individuals with serious addictions, exposed to a program at a facility in Cape Town (I think). The individuals are from different backgrounds with differing stories to tell, addictions and states of desperation. The addictions include cocaine, gay sex, bulimia and drugs, prostitution for drugs (as I remember), gambling and eating. One largish Afrikaner man has an eating addiction and testifies how the last thing he thinks of at night is what he would eat for breakfast in the morning! The facility is not a ‘Christian’ one, but focuses on ‘spirituality’ rather than ‘religion.’ The staff seem very capable, empathetic yet firm.
Here is the thing that struck us. In one scene the ‘patients’ tell their story of immense personal pain, abandonment, emotional and sexual abuse, immorality, craving, etc. As they share their invididual stories my wife and I are deeply moved – so are the participants in the therapy group. They listen intently to each other, ‘hear’ what the other person is saying, quietly sob with those who are weeping, laugh when someone shares something funny, assure each other of personal respect and support and express love by embrace. There seems to be no judgment, condemnation, negative criticism or snobbishness – only unconditional acceptance, support and community (or ‘fellowship,’ which many believers neither grasp nor practise). I whisper to my wife, ‘This is true church!’ Yes, they haven’t specifically gathered in the name of Jesus or Christendom, but they have at least started and concluded their sessions with ‘The Serenity Prayer’: ‘God, give me the grace to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference’ (a loose rendering: see my footnote).
In our local house churches we have experienced times like that. Traditional church structures don’t make community easy or even possible. Dozens have shared with me how they have ‘attended church’ lonely and left lonely.
Two Scriptures come to mind:
- Jam. 5:13-20. The NIV heads this section ‘The Prayer of Faith.’ I think it’s wider and deeper than that – one commentary heads it ‘Care for the Sick’ and ‘Care for the Lost.’ Much better. James’ Letter instructs the earliest believers how to live in difficult circumstances. It still exhorts the church to collect sinners and struggling people, point them back to Christ and his wisdom and then stand by them in their journey. Yes, we could write volumes on each of these difficult verses (even dangerous, if misunderstood), but listen to v. 16 in the MSG paraphrase, ‘Make this your common practice (cf Acts 2:42ff): Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may live together whole and healed.’ The Greek paraptoma = ‘sins’ but also ‘slips’ and ‘lapses:’ hands up those who have not in some way sinned or slipped or lapsed this past week??
- Rom. 15:7. In the context of ‘The Weak and the Strong,’ Paul exhorts his readers to ‘Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you… Consider Jesus’ eternal, unconditional, unmerited, gracious, fierce, never-say-die love for us. How can we then judge, condemn and disassociate ourselves from others whose ‘addictions’ may be more overt than ours?
Yes, it can be done!
- Read Bonhoeffer’s little classic ‘The Life Together.’ It explores faith and community in the Germany of the 1930’s and 1940’s. It describes the unique fellowship of students in an underground seminary during those horror Nazi years. It gives practical advice on how community can be sustained in families and groups, yours and mine.
- Read Brennan Manning’s ‘All Is Grace.’ How this ragamuffin, anti-establishment Roman Catholic priest was pursued by God through years of brokenness and alcohol addiction. How he facilitated a group called ‘The Notorious Sinners,’ which established bonds of love that continue to this day (Brennan passed away a few weeks ago). How he and others took over a delapidated river-front house in Alabama, where shrimp fishermen could gather nightly to enjoy a meal, fellowship, sing, get a message, party and share the eucharist. Manning’s message over 50 years was simply this: ‘God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as he should be.’
- Consider the wonderful work of AA, whose operating principles often have much in common with biblical ones.
For the Lord’s sake, the Church’s sake, our own and others’ sake, a lost world’s sake, let’s ‘do our damndest’ (got your attention!?) to ‘devote ourselves to the fellowship,’ i.e. ‘the life together’ (Acts 2:42). Even if you have to leave a dead church and start all over again.
[Footnote: The ‘Serenity Prayer’ was not composed by Francis of Assisi as I always thought, but by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who first put the circulating oral form to paper in 1943. It was included in a Federal Council of Churches Guide for army chaplains and servicemen in 1944. Check out the interesting, fuller version on Google]