Throughout 2015, I’ll be hosting various writers, pastors, and counselors as they step into the Recovery Room. Here, we'll discuss the things that supplant inner sobriety, and connectedness to an abiding God. Couldn’t we all use a little recovery from something? Today, welcome Dr. A.J. Swoboda to the Recovery Room. A.J. is a professor (George Fox Seminary, Fuller Seminary), author, and pastor of Theophilus (theophiluschurch.com), a church in urban Portland, Oregon. His newest book, A Glorious Dark, is a wonderful read, and is available HERE or wherever fine books are sold. (GO GET IT!) He's also a great follow on Twitter!
Welcome A.J. to the Recovery Room.
The second page is the most important page.
A few years back, I remember coming across a story that Eugene Peterson recounts in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant. In the context of discussing his pastoral work, Peterson talks about those little, ominous, mysterious reports a pastor is often required to submit to their denominational leaders regarding the health of the church. Peterson’s reports consisted of two pages—a first page which included statistics about how the church was doing; and a second page where the pastor would discuss how they were doing personally.
As time went on, Peterson grew suspicious that the denominational leaders above him were merely reading the first page, overlooking the second page where the pastor revealed how they themselves were doing. To test his theory that they were ignoring his own health, he began inserting into his denominational reports a fictional alcoholism that was taking over his life. When a response never came, he soon began to inflate the problem. Not only, Peterson reported in subsequent reports, was he struggling with an alcohol addiction, he had begun to introduce drugs and sex into his church’s liturgy as a way to reflect the shifting attitudes in culture.
Peterson never got a response. The denomination never read the second page. Later he confronted the denominational leaders for their oversight.
Peterson’s story has always stirred me. And it aptly reveals a church culture that has grown more interested and attuned to numbers relating to church growth than it has in the stories of spiritual growth. In short, we value the first page (statistics) but not the second page (how we are).
The cost of this is that the health and well being of a pastor is often overlooked.
My second-page struggle with alcohol was anything but fictional. It was real. As a pastor, I endured a pronounced struggle with alcohol for a period of about three years. Part of my struggle, I came to find, was related to my own personal struggles in local church ministry life. In short, I had little to no emotional or spiritual infrastructure to deal with the things that come with pastoring a church. There is a reason my professor friend Dan teaches his seminary students that every pastor should be in counseling.
And so, through a particularly rough period of time, alcohol became my numbing agent; it helped me “get through.” Over the course of a few years, alcohol became a real—almost violent—struggle. When I faced my own demons—particularly, my struggle with alcohol—a lot came to the fore. Mostly, I experienced the good news of Jesus. It was in realizing my own powerlessness; so to speak, that the gospel made sense to me it hadn’t before.
I have come to find that people in AA incessantly use the word “powerlessness.” It is a word, I might add, that is most closely related to the gospel. The gospel and powerlessness go hand-in-hand. For the person who is truly powerless, a hand from the outside is the only hope they have. We can’t, I can’t, you can’t, pull yourself up by your own bootstrap. That isn’t gospel. The good news is only Jesus can resurrect—and that we don’t even have to pretend that we even have bootstraps to pull up. Bootstraps are unnecessary for the Christ-follower.
The gospel is for those who don’t even have bootstraps.
Generally, people will use Christianity either to: 1) put on make-up to help us make-believe nothing is wrong in our lives, or, 2) remove our make-up so that we might enter the presence of the Almighty as we are. [tweetherder]Christianity is not a way to Photoshop the pain out of our life.[/tweetherder]
Rather, it is by the cross that our pain becomes baptized into the love of God. In my new book, A Glorious Dark, I argue that we need all three days—Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday to fully experience Christianity as it was intended to be experienced. We can’t pick our favorite day. We need all of them.
The invitation is to come as we are.
Be careful with that, though. Come as you are: one of those catchy, shallow, saccharine church marketing phrases we preach to ourselves and use with great regularity but, in the end, don’t really mean. Or at least practice. None of us want people to come as they are. We want people to come as we want them to come and become what we want them to become. Really, it’s our sales-pitch to get people in the door. But it’s really bait and switch, ironically, that we might get people through the door so that they might be changed.
I don’t like saying come as you are if by saying that we are falsely advertising that through these doors you are not expected to change. Jesus’ Kingdom is not about remaining the same. Jesus’ Kingdom will wreck us. It’s fine if we say come as you are so long as we extend the same hospitality toward God as we do the neighbor. If we come as we are, and God comes as He is, I have a suspicion that only one of the two needs to change.
If we can come as we are, then God can come as He is. True hospitality doesn’t just make room for me, and you, it makes room for the one who made us too.
In my experience of struggling with alcohol, I could come to Jesus as I was. Turns out that Jesus refused to be silent as I came to him. He spoke to me. I had to move away from what I was doing. But he still loved me. He still loves me. And that is the secret good news for any of us who have lots of stuff on our second page that we are ashamed of. We can come as we are, but, God loves us to too much to let us leave the conversation the same.
God reads the second page of our lives. He doesn’t merely read the statistics page. He reads the whole report; and I might go on to say he reads the second page first. And when God does read our second page, he writes back. He enters in. He cares. Because he cares more about us than about what we produce, complete, and finish.
One might even say that the first page shall be last.
In this month's Tiny Letter (my once-a-month, insider newsletter delivered straight to your email), I'm discussing the Lenten season, the darkness of my heart, and the discipline of quiet reflection. If you sign up today, you'll receive a FREE DOWNLOAD of the song "Train Wreck." It's a song I wrote about pain, loss, and the love of God.