In my experience growing up in evangelical circles, generally speaking, repentance was understood as an individual choice that was done or not done in a moment. The power to make this choice came, if at all, directly from God (the Holy Spirit) to the individual. That’s simply what repentance was and how it happened. One sealed the deal by walking an aisle, or raising one’s hand (with all heads bowed and eyes closed) or telling someone about our decision. Then it was up to whatever measure of individual, God-given willpower one had to “walk it out,” just me and Jesus.
One of the things that I have come to deeply appreciate in 12-step/support group wisdom and practice is the recognition that repentance–real change of one’s life that sticks–is generally neither instantaneous nor ‘lone-ranger’ style; it’s slow and, more importantly, communal. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the 12 steps are themselves 12 “steps” to effective repentance and that the meetings are there to “support” each person in this most challenging of all processes.
Here’s my question to my fellow church folk out there: How do you do repentance? Solo or communal? Do you have a Christian community, large or small, that actually encourages you to admit failures and take steps to repent/change without shaming you? In other words, do you have a community to run to for help as you are faced with your failures, or do you generally attempt to implement/pursue change alone?
There’s a long story here, but I’m going to skip to the end (maybe give a pre-quel later). 🙂 The other day, I was emailing a friend, Pat Loughery, and said this in response to a question he asked me:
The actual shape of my life day to day matters so much more than I used to think. Realizing this has brought me to more of a “one day at a time” approach, and makes me more appreciative of friends who support me in really pursuing a life of love.
When I typed the last three words, an idea–and a strong motivation–to start a support group built around the purpose of pursuing a life of love, in the way of Christ, hit me hard. I spoke to a few close friends about it, and a couple of other folks that I think the Spirit highlighted for me. We had our first meeting this last Tuesday, and I was really, really encouraged, and I think many were.
For those who aren’t familiar with support groups, the below outline may not give a clear enough idea of what we do (and why and how), but I figured I’d post it anyway. I’m a little jazzed, too, that after having just our first meeting and giving out this outline, someone else volunteered to facilitate the next meeting. Here’s to Love.
LIFE OF LOVE GROUP – Proposed Meeting Format
A Support Group for People Who’s Highest Goal Is To Make Real Progress in Living a Life of Love in the Way of Jesus
- Hangout, snacks, etc.
- At the appointed time, the facilitator calls everyone to the meeting; someone reads: “The purpose of this group is to support each other as we seek to live lives of greater love in the way of Jesus. The desire for such progress in love is the only requirement for membership.”
- Someone reads a scripture chosen by the facilitator in keeping with our purpose. (e.g., I Cor. 13, various I John passages, various Psalms, John 3:16, etc.).
- If there are any newcomers, the facilitator gives basic outline for the meeting and the closing time.
- The facilitator (i) introduces a time of silence to give everyone the opportunity to stop, think and/or pray, and (ii) closes the time with a simple “Amen” or the serenity prayer or another appropriate prayer to the group’s purpose, whether scripted or spontaneous.
- If there are relatively new people, the facilitator may go over the basic rules of the discussion time, which are born out of our common purpose: +++ Respect for other members: This is a space for people to “work out their own rescue” from lovelessness in the presence of God and others. Each person is chiefly responsible for his or her own progress in love or the lack of it, therefore, each person is welcome to share or not in turn as they deem best. Feelings and/or personal experience are preferable to theory. No hard rules on length, but we want in general to be considerate so that others also have time to be heard. Listening is our primary way to love each other in the discussion time. So that each of us can avail ourselves of this time without being shamed, we do not give feedback or advice to other members unless they specifically ask for it (even then, it may be best not to give it during discussion, but rather to share your own experience and pray!). Affirmations or gratitude for what someone else has shared is always welcome. +++ Confidentiality: Everything said in the meeting is confidential, and will not be disclosed to others.
- The facilitator introduces the topic of discussion as well as the freedom (and encouragement!) to deviate from the topic. Each person is encouraged to talk about whatever they feel will help them make progress in love. If there are any (relatively) newcomers, the facilitator should ask each person to introduce themselves by first names at their turn to share. More than one “round” of discussion is totally fine, as are additional, related topics or questions by the facilitator until time is up.
- At the agreed time, the facilitator announces the end of discussion time, invites all to make note of any particular items that they want to “take away” for their own progress, allows each person a quick opportunity to share their take away or not.
- [optional] Time of singing to God. The facilitator encourages people to approach this time within the context of our goal of learning to love God and receive love from him. Try not to simply sing out of habit. Each person is free to sing, , listen, stand, sit, kneel, etc. as each deems helpful toward our goal.
- Close by leading all in the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23 or other group prayer appropriate to the purpose. The facilitator encourages anyone who wants to pray further or receive prayer to do so. Same for discussion, snacks, helping to clean up, or leaving the meeting.
Elizabeth O’Connor, via Inward-Outward, on the fear of being hurt; truly one of Evil’s better tactics to divide and conquer:
Somehow we keep our lives so well hidden from one another that we do not guess that we are not alone. Distrust is among our subtle illnesses. We were given hearts for “reciprocal trust,” but fear has built high walls. We are afraid of being hurt, and when we talk, we make ourselves vulnerable. What we say can be used against us or betray our loyalty to another, and so we add isolation to our own burden and the burden of others.
Like the Vineyard, 12 step groups also put an unusually high value on the practice of honesty and see it as a fundamental way to welcome God’s grace and power. In fact, in my opinion, support groups see it as more valuable than the Vineyard. The AA saying, “you’re only as sick as your secrets” sums up the extent that honesty is connected to healing in recovery. The several embodiments of this value in 12-step practice are really too many to name in a blog post. They begin with step one of the twelve steps, and really never let up: “We admitted” are the first two words of step one. Recovery begins with being honest about having a problem (breaking out of denial—a form of dishonesty). The sole purpose of the confidentiality given to what is said at meetings and to sponsors is to encourage and protect this foundational practice of honesty.
In fact, it is not overstating to say that honesty with oneself, with God, with another human being are the foundation of the program. Further, this isn’t just an amorphous value, either. The honesty in which 12-steppers see God as particularly present is often painfully specific—about the totality of one’s defeat by addiction (step 1), about the addict’s inability to manage his or her life (step 1), about the insanity he or she has been operating in (step 2), and about everything the recovering person has done wrong (steps 4, 5). Steps 1, 5, and 10 actually contain the word “admit.” The steps hit their challenging high point in step 9, in which amends are made for all past wrongs. Then step 10 makes such admissions and amends a way of life going forward, as does the 12th, as the recovering addict seeks to “practice these principles in all [his or her] affairs.”
And the meetings themselves also reveal the value placed on honesty in support groups. Several meetings are devoted as venues for honest sharing of one’s experience with others, including especially one’s failures.
The opening lines of chapter 5 of the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous) summarizes well the importance of the practice of honesty in the program:
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”
It is ironic that the sacrament of confession to one another–being honest to ourselves, to others and to God about our failures–is really what the support groups have fully embraced even while most Christian traditions (which gave it to the support groups in the first place) have all but abandoned the practice. It’s fair to say, in fact, that even while Catholic churches in the West still practice and hold confession as a sacrament, support groups–not churches–are the ones mining the depths of this practice for all its power—for humility, for release from the past, for relational health and encouragement, and for real growth and transformation—practicing it both widely and deeply within their ranks, resulting in healing for millions of the most broken around the world.
I think I’m gonna stop numbering the AA, Church and Mission of God series. It’s an overrated feature.
I could have just called what follows The Post of the Month from I-Monk, but it’s also a reason we’re taking a different approach, informed by AA among others, as we seek authentic transformation along the lines of Jesus. I recommend taking in the whole post.
[T]he model of Christian spiritual formation now extent in worship is one that sees the 40 minute information dump as the primary means of spiritual growth. The sermon, the sermon and the sermon from the preacher, the theologian and the teacher. Plus a daily quiet time. That’s evangelical spiritual formation in a nutshell. . .
It’s hit me like a ton of bricks this past year: the blogosphere is full of voices that think we are all a bunch of big brains, and nothing more. We need more information. More data. More sermons. More books. More facts. More lectures. We are what we think. We are what we hear, read and think. So open up those brains and pour it in…after an appropriate prayer. . .
What thousands of evangelicals are experiencing is not a call from the Holy Spirit to become an overstuffed theological brain with a vocabulary that can only be decoded by a committee of seminary professors and a reading list that looks like the “atonement” shelf at a seminary bookstore.
No, they- we- are longing for authentic humanness in the Gospel. A full and genuine human experience. Normal human life as God created and recreated it. Not more information in a competition to quote the most scripture and do the best imitation of a walking apologetics class. Not more religion of the (fill in the blank) _______ sort. No….humanness made alive in the incarnation. Created, incarnated, redeemed, resurrected humanity.
UPDATE: And check out this conversation on recycled sermons at Jesus Creed. Same problem, but on the supply side of the equation.
This is a post in search of language, and still in the early stages, but I’m just gonna work this one out publicly. So feel free to help me out as I try to make sense of the glasses I was nearly born wearing and the ones I’m wearing now.
Growing up, I was told more times than I can recall about Jesus’ death and resurrection (for which I am grateful). I was told more than anything that believing that he died for my sins and was raised was the key to being justified (and I had to tell another human being about it to really complete the process). This faith in the cross and resurrection was focused on the judgment which would determine where I would spend eternity after I died. The cross and resurrection of Jesus made the biggest difference for people, or not, at the judgment. This was the story of Christianity that I was given, and I wanted it to be my story too. Let me say now that I don’t disagree with the truth of that story even now as an adult. It is, though, to use the phrase of Scot Mcknight, “right, but not right enough.”
By contrast, AA’s 12 steps focus on a different kind of belief in God, and I’m not referring to the more anonymous “Higher Power” label. Even if we stick Jesus himself into the Higher Power role, as many Christians who work the steps do, the focus of the steps simply isn’t on what happens in the afterlife. That’s not the focus of their program (which emerged from a western church whose focus wasn’t transformation). AAs say in step three that they turn “[their] will and [their] lives over to the care of God.” AA’s focus is turning today over to God, this life, one day at a time, because this life is what they need help with. The “promises” AA makes to those who work the program are true and beautiful, but have nothing to do with the afterlife. This life is the hell that alcoholics and their families know, and they want rescue from it, or better, deliverance through it. So they turn the reins of this life over to God, become “entirely willing” to change and serve others, believing or at least hoping that God’s managment will yield better results than theirs has. They pick up their cross and follow, today, letting tomorrow worry about itself.
It is obvious to me, now, that AA’s are focused on appropriating the power of Jesus’ way of life–a life lived under the management and care of the Father for the benefit of others over self, a daily cross-shaped or “cruciform” life, while evangelicals are more focused on appropriating the power of Jesus’ substitutionary death, particularly as it pertains to whether one is justified before God at the final judgment. Of course, how we think about and plan for the future has bearing on the present, and vice-versa.
Todd Hunter has said that John Wimber gave Jesus back to him, in terms of Jesus’ ministry of healing, and that Dallas Willard gave Jesus back to him in terms of his teaching. Hefty gifts, and I would echo Todd’s thankfulness. I want to add my own thanks to Michael Gorman, and to a lesser extent, Tom Wright, for giving Jesus back to me in terms of his cross and resurrection as the key to life in this age and the next. Thanks to them, I can see how AA’s aim to transform this life is best accomplished through participating in Jesus’ cross and resurrection ourselves, which the AA program, I believe, often leads folks to do implicitly rather than explicitly. And it is this participating in Jesus’ cross and resurrection, allowing ourselves to submit to the death of our self-run life and be raised to life in Christ and not merely believing its historicity, that the apostle Paul has in mind when he tells us to trust or have faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our daily or even hour by hour participation in the cross will simultaneously result in the transformation that AA’s are pursuing and the justification that my evangelical brothers and sisters are announcing, and more besides. The fruit of participation in the cross is the ultimate both/and–followed by an ellipsis (!) which at least contains all the graces of God that each of the various Christian traditions have highlighted and likely more besides.
The following is one of several posts on all kinds of spiritual practices (including especially the every-day, not seen as spiritual variety) that Christine Sine has organized at her blog. Whether you like my contribution or not, I highly recommend the series.
What a powerful phrase. What an underrated, nonreligious way–available to us all–to cooperate with God’s work in this world. It’s truly amazing what all can be accomplished by a good apology. For the one apologizing, the process can (momentarily) defeat one’s pride, halt one’s cooperation with destructive forces and begin one’s cooperation with God. In apologizing, we overcome our fear of judgment; become vulnerable to another person, and we become truly free from our past. By themselves, those are pretty significant outcomes–and that’s just for the person apologizing. But simultaneously and more importantly, for the one receiving an apology, the process can be the best available aid to their healing, the opportunity to lose bitterness and pain, and to have their sense of value and what is right and “normal” to be (re)aligned with God’s ideas instead of something much less. The apology changes the culture into which it is uttered. It resets the standard of conduct in a relationship from a perverted state, but only by risking the messenger, not the hearer(s). The apology is literally a powerhouse for progress in the inward and outward work of God, and occasions for its use are everywhere, every day: at home, at work, with our spouses, friends, neighbors, and children. Yet, for all its power and frequent opportunity, it is not common, and it is not hard to imagine why. To apologize goes against the core of all we are and seek apart from Christ.
Now, don’t misunderstand me; when I say “apology,” I’m not just talking about words. I’ve been married 14 years. My relationship with my wife is better now than it has ever been and practicing the apology has been absolutely critical to that. I’ve heard and given more apologies than I can remember. My marriage has taught me the crucial role that attitude and body language plays in the messy yet beautiful and deeply necessary work of apologizing for failings, large and small. Words alone are often insufficient. The apology, done rightly, is a whole mind, body and soul experience, not to mention whatever it takes to arrange for restitution, to whatever extent possible. When it comes to apologizing, we’ve either secured at least 51% of our heart, mind, body and tone of voice in the work, or we’re doing something other than apologizing. And usually that “something else” is defending or justifying or avenging ourselves, no matter what our words are.
I wonder–I know countless fights and arguments have been avoided by the practice of apologizing; how many divorces been avoided? Church splits? Wars?
It’s not hard, when I take time to think about it, for me to realize the central role that apologizing must play in my tasks as a husband, father, lawyer, especially as these must be shaped in light of God’s mission. Unfortunately, it is also amazingly easy to forget this central role, especially in the rough and tumble of work, of dealing with children and the pressures of each day. To apologize is to open ourselves to attack, to provide others with the justification to judge us, give them the ammunition they could use to fire at us, and I, at least, am often so tired and scared of being attacked.
So, towards the goal of remembering how critical apologizing is to the mission of God and overcoming fear and pride, I sometimes take a few seconds or minutes (especially if I realize I need to apologize and don’t want to) and think about any one of the following amazing facts. I’d encourage anyone to do the same:
Deep and lasting relationships are only available to those who are willing to apologize.
Like any loving parent of warring siblings, Jesus always cares more about me apologizing to the specific people I’ve hurt than he does about any offering I may give to him, regardless of what the prized practices of church may be.
I’m either gathering things together with Jesus, or I’m scattering them further apart. I can’t be part of the ministry of reconciliation and not apologize.
No one trusts people who never apologize, nor should they.
Even if everyone else abandons me for my failings, Jesus won’t, so don’t sweat it.
Helping others at personal risk to one’s self is the way Jesus loves.
I recently led our church through a series on the 12 steps (made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous) as a possible community rule for Christians. Almost without exception, the step that is the most intimidating to people, even to experienced Christians, is step 9 (it certainly was to me!), which is making amends to everyone we’ve harmed. The fact that this step is almost universally intimidating to Christians tells me something. We obviously have left many apologies unsaid, many of our own wrongs un-righted, even though we’ve confessed them to God, even as we work in ministries to right the wrongs of others. We don’t see how Jesus prioritizes our apologizing to people for our wrongs over most other gifts we could bring him. Of course he does so for everyone’s sake, including our own.