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?
In the course of teaching Greek (both classical and Koine) the past 34 years I’ve found that translating Greek into English is a very different enterprise from understanding what the text means. A translation may at times sound very erudite, but to be relevant and beneficial the text must be understood — and then applied. One of my greatest challenges as a teacher has been to get my students to see the need to give up theological jargon when translating from Greek into English. If we can use simpler and clearer words to express the truths of Scripture, then by all means let’s do so. Why, for example, should we render Rom. 12:11 “distribute to the needs of the saints” when “share what you have with God’s people who are in need” will do the job and is much clearer? Or why should we insist that the purpose of pastor-teachers is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry” when we can say “to prepare God’s people for works of service”? If all we do is parrot the standard English versions while translating from English to Greek, I’m afraid we’ll end up with nothing but another secret religious society. If insisting on the use of theological jargon actually helped people to become more obedient to the Word of God, I’d say do it at all costs. But is there any evidence that it does?
To admit this inadequacy honestly can be very intimidating to the teacher. It means, in fact, that we can no longer be content to offer courses in Greek exegesis that fail to include serious self-examination.
We lose meaning and truth and community when we take a universally understood concept like “service” and consistently prefer to translate it as “ministry” when the concept shows up in the scriptures. Stop it! I still remember when I quoted Jesus to a law school buddy like this “Father, forgive them, cause they don’t know what they’re doing.” He had heard that comment from Jesus many, many times (in the yoda-speak version–who talks like that?!?), but he said he had never really heard what Jesus was saying until I said it like that. Think about that folks. Why had this man who had attended so many services and heard that text quoted never “heard” it? How many other messages have we failed to deliver, I wonder? And this wasn’t a listener issue, as if he lacked ears that wanted to hear Jesus. It was because in church, we’re proud of our mastery of Christian-ese and we revere the yoda-speak of so many translations like a badge of honor. It’s not. It’s a reason for shame. Building or maintaining barriers to God’s message that aren’t necessary, or saying his message in ways that only insiders can understand when we don’t have to is nothing to be proud of. It’s trying to mark our churches off as ‘separate’ and more mature, more reverent, more godly by our religious sounding language. It’s going the way of the Pharisee.
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 mentioned in the last post that I wanted to give some practices that AA’s and/or Vineyard folks think of sacramentally, even though neither camp really uses that term. I’m using the term here to refer to any activity or even disposition in which these camps see God as uniquely and positively active. They are the bread-and-butter ways we can cooperate with God and his work among us. While both AA and the Vineyard tend to take a broad sacramental view of most of life, every movement has activities or dispositions which it prioritizes and which shape its life and service, and the Vineyard and support groups are no exceptions. This series isn’t intended to be exhaustive on the sacraments of these movements; I just want to highlight some practices or attitudes that have become very special to these two movements, which I deeply respect, and maybe give myself and others some of their “good infection” from the discussion. Feedback from all is welcome, particularly those who have some experience with one or more of these traditions.
The first sacrament I want to mention could fall under the broad category of ‘honesty’ which each group practices uniquely. This post will look at how the priority shapes the Vineyard; the next post will look at AA & honesty.
There are several ways that the practice of honesty shapes what Vineyard churches do and, more so, how they do it. The most obvious is the casual, come-as-you-are approach to dress, style of speech, and style of music. Even when performing the miraculous or experiencing intimacies with God the Vineyard is known for speaking in the native language of the people involved. The phrase “naturally supernatural” came to embody this value in the movement. Whether in teaching, healing, praying, singing, or expelling demons, no one needs to put on airs or be what they aren’t or speak in King James English or a different tone of voice. And tracking with the great commandments, transparency in the Vineyard is seen as facilitating close relationships among people as well as with God. Many critics of the Vineyard assume that all the above practices are marketing-driven. While it’s true that has played a role in varying degrees, churches and times, the value is more driven by a desire for true intimacy–people sharing what they really are–with God and others, and this value has shaped everything in the Vineyard movement.