Saturday, March 05, 2005

A thought-provoking question...

In backtracking to see where folks visiting my blog were coming from, I found this post from Todd Hiestand's blog. In it he asks a simple, yet dramatic question: "What are you REALLY living for?"

I think it's a powerful question - one that people in general (and we in the church in particular) don't ask often enough, or answer honestly enough. I started to post the answer on his blog, and then thought that I really needed to answer the question here.

I come to this question with a couple frames of reference. Forgive me for rambling even more than the usual bit. (For relative newcomers, now you know where this blog gets its name...)

I come to this question first as a member of the community of recovery. My first day back in a church was on Reformation Sunday, 1990 - forty-some days before I got sober. But I really didn't get connected with a faith community until the first week of May, 2001 - so I was almost 5 months sober when I came to faith (literally, at Faith Lutheran Church in Prairie Village, KS).

As a recovering alcoholic, almost by definition I start my day out selfish, self-centered, and self-seeking. It's no big surprise - those are classic character defects of addictive personalities. I'm not proud of it, nor am I making excuses. But the truth is that even after an extended period of recovery, that's just where I boot-up. Absent the transforming love of God and the power of prayer, that's probably where I would spend my every conscious moment. Needless to say, that colors a lot of what I think and do...

You see, I'd love to tell you that I was drawn to Christian community out of a love for the truth I found in Jesus Christ...but it would be a big, fat lie. As a self-seeking person, I at least started off my Christian life just not wanting to be lonely. Truth be told, I desired their acceptance, and accepted their hospitality, long before I accepted their Savior.

I didn't come to Faith Lutheran because I was "a cradle Lutheran." In fact, I'd been away from church for half of my 34 years, at that point, and I'd been raised Catholic before that (even being "most valuable altar boy"). The only reason I came to that Lutheran church was because a fellow AA member was a member of that congregation, and he invited me to go with him. Left to myself, I never would have gone.

I came to that congregation in Kansas so broken, so "apart-from" that I really believed I would never, ever fit in. You see, all the folks in that church looked so good, on the outside...and I was so terribly broken on the inside. I made the classic mistake of comparing my "insides" with their "outsides," and decided that I'd probably never, ever fit in there. I was sure that if the folks in that church ever found out what kind of "damaged goods" they had on their hands, they would either run away screaming...or drive me from their midst. The fear of rejection almost made be quit going - because it would hurt less to reject them than for one more group to reject me.

The second Sunday I was there, I let it slip that I sang, sometimes, with my ex-wife. (Whoops...didn't mean to let them know I was divorced. Damn.) They skipped right over that little detail, and invited me to choir. (OK, that's a lie. There was no invitation, whatsover. Two ladies grabbed me, one on each arm; one of them said, "Last week, you were a visitor. This week, you're family," and they duck-walked me down to the choir room.) I hadn't read choral music since I graduated high school; it didn't matter to them. They simply said, "If you want to be here, you're welcome." And I was willing to be anywhere, with anyone, rather than be alone. So I stayed, and I sang.

Interestingly enough, that was exactly what the people in the 12-step communities told me, too. I didn't have to be good enough, sane enough, or anything-else enough to be in their meetings; if I wanted to stay sober that 24 hours, I was "in." Nothing more than willingness was required...

Over the next months, those church folks welcomed me over and over again - into Helpmates, a divorced/widowed support group; into Friends of Faith, a somewhat-"contemporary" worship music group; into Bible study; and into their homes. Their pastor, Tom Housholder, and his wife Delphine, became the surrogate parents I needed so desperately. I found the same welcome the prodigal son found in his father's arms - and I believed them, and their Savior. Like Naomi and Ruth, I'm not sure I had any faith of my own, but I decided along the line that "their God would be my God."

So my very first answer to "what are you REALLY living for?" became to be of service to the community that welcomed me, and to the Savior to whom they re-introduced me. Even when I'm filled with lust, greed, anger, and sloth, I know that's where I'm supposed to be.

The more I became a part of that community, however, the more I realized how different my faith experience was from most of theirs. Many, if not most, of them had grown up right, lived right, married right, and attended church all their lives. The halls that held their kids' first-communion pictures also held their own. I'd never had that kind of permanence; I'd attended 3 high-schools, and had more addresses in my first five years of sobriety than some of my church-mates had in four decades. Ninety-nine percent of them never knew what it was to "find faith in Jesus," because they had grown up believing they were saved. I had this hunger to be able to give away the gift that I'd received to those who were still outside the community of faith - an urgency they didn't share, because most of them didn't hang around with unchurched folks, period.

So my second answer to the question was to encourage and welcome unchurched and nominally-churched people - people like me - into the community of faith. And a third developed out of it: to share my experience, strength, and hope - as a follower of Christ and a person in recovery - about my journey of faith: where I've been struggled, where I've sailed-through, and how I've been carried by the God of my misunderstanding. I think that it's in my sharing of the very brokenness that I experience - even today - that the unchurched see us both as we are, and as we are called to be.

Much later - when I first started considering going to seminary - a friend introduced me to the poem that's at the end of this posting, called So I Stay Near The Door, by Rev. Sam Shoemaker (an early clergy friend of AA). If you've not encountered it before, it's worth reading...

Lastly, in the 2nd step of the 12-step program, it says [We] came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. A Jesuit priest in recovery once told me that sanity was "the ability to work, play, and love successfully, and in balance." I believe the pursuit of that - by itself - is a worthy goal for a lifetime. But combined with the others, they seem to strengthen and reinforce each other.

I also come to this question with more than 15 years as a student of Martin Luther. I've found much in the power of "justification by grace, through faith;" I've found my identity in the "both...and" of Luther's idea of "both saint and sinner;" and though I'll never be ordained by the ELCA, I'll always be a member of "the priesthood of all believers." These concepts, and so many others, form and frame my faith experience.

Sharing the faith I was given...helping to build and support the faith community in which I participate...learning to work, play, and love successfully and in balance. When I clear away all the external nonsense of my life - my sin, my addictions, my obsessions and fears - this is what God has left as my foundation.

And when I can stay focused on that, my life goes so much better. Which, in a completely self-serving, self-seeking way, still manages to point me toward God's will...which brings me full-circle, again...


Mike said...

i have recently come across your blog and this message has really been an encouragement. I am a pastor of a small church in Villa Park, Il and our church is just learning about the much needed art and passion of reaching out to our friends and family for Christ. The need to invite people to church, to value the belonging-before-believing idea, and to accept others unlike ourselves into the church family is so important in this society and your blog really fleshed it out. Thanks for sharing your journey.

wilsonian said...

You've much to teach the wider world. With the Lord's help, keep loving us, and sharing with us... we'll catch on eventually :)