I was invited to a birthday party. A hunched-over 70-something Scottish gentleman from my church family was turning 34. With that kind of math, who wouldn’t want to go? So I dragged my 13-year-old son along and we made our way to one of the shadiest parts of town for Derek’s “cake”: the celebration of his 34 years of sobriety.
The room was full. Derek sat down front in his best suit that looked like it hadn’t been dry-cleaned since 1983. There were grey-haired businessmen and tattooed young men all buff and imposing. There were worn older women and young gals with rings in their noses.
One of these young women was called forward. She reluctantly meandered to the podium, confessed her name and addiction, and spoke words of adulation and respect for my brother in Christ who had impacted her journey toward sobriety.
The parade of heartfelt appreciations went on for a long time. Then Derek spoke. He talked about losing his marriage and livelihood to alcohol and how Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) rescued him. But, more than that, Derek – who needed to be chided from the back to “speak up!” -declared with soft surety that the God of his understanding, Jesus Christ, was the source of his hope and redemption. Applause. Cake.
Then cigarettes, some latent grumbling about something messed up in social services, and the throng dispersed into the cool night to continue the battle.
My son and I sat there. He just needed to soak this in, smell the humanity of it all, and shake the hand of an overcomer. I watched the room and hummed a lament.
Why are our churches not more like this?
Every follower of Jesus should go to AA. Never mind if you’re a teetotaller. Seriously. Go.
Here’s what I’m learning from AA that every church should learn:
Life is too short for male-bovine-excrement.
I’d use the other word, but you’d all write letters and that would sadly underline the point.
My brothers and sisters in Christ who have been through AA have learned to speak from a poverty of spirit, a humility that humbles the proud, and that is thoroughly refreshing. They also see quickly through pretense because they’ve seen and tried it all.
I’m tired of church life that can’t go there. Aren’t you?
Life requires help.
We need God’s help. AA takes you there immediately.
There is the expectation within AA that you will serve and help others on the way. It is an intergenerational affair of interdependence. This awareness of neediness challenges our individualism and even the way we structure our churches.
Furthermore, the AA community is never closed. Countless discreet gatherings scattered everywhere provide an open welcome where even the ready “backslider” is embraced.
I’m tired of church life that talks about dependence and mutuality, but doesn’t really practise it. Aren’t you?
Life is messy, let’s just admit it.
Derek’s life is far from perfect, but he’s one of the best members of our Sunday morning welcome team, and his presence in the front row is a sermon to me.
The journey to a “cake” is no piece of cake, but taking just one more step is enough. In AA, the mess isn’t celebrated – in some “let’s go on sinning that grace may abound” perversion – but neither is it denied.
I’m tired of church life that is too often an exercise in denial. Aren’t you?
Now, AA is not everything, but in the hinterland that has become the North American church, with all our protests and pretending, don’t you think there’s something to learn from Derek?
—Phil Wagler is proud to call Derek a brother in Christ. Come and be welcomed by him some Sunday morning at Gracepoint Community Church, Surrey, B.C. This article first appeared in “Outside the box,” Phil’s regular column, in the Canadian Mennonite Oct. 14, 2013.