My Uncle Bruce has a scratchy beard, works construction, drives a motorcycle and runs with a gang of other bikers, laughs with a loud, broken cackle and was an alcoholic for a long, long time. His story isn't unique; don't most families have someone who has overdone it with any number of things? I have another uncle who smokes weed in his yellow schoolbus in Yakima, plays the dijeridoo in a band called Blue Tropics, and has a son with a full-scalp tattoo and a pretty wife with depression problems. But he's never caused a problem. Bruce has. Alcohol controlled his life, and the elephant in the room of my grandparents' house during my childhood created a lot of tension. My mom tried hard to protect my little sister and me from the side effects of such an unhappy heart, and most of the time succeeded in being the buffer between him and the rest of the family. Which is why I didn't know how bad things had gotten until he decided to seek treatment.
Alcoholics Anonymous is famous for having 12 steps to freedom from addiction, and I was an observer from the bleachers as Bruce regained control over his life, one step at a time.
On one trek back over the mountains from Eastern Washington, I couldn't help but remark that Bruce and his longtime girlfriend Jeanette, who had also just finished AA, had taught me more about grace and true community that weekend than going to church had the entire year. The two of them had a tight-knit group of fellow bikers who were also in recovery, and I was amazed at how much they resembled what I'd always hoped the church would look like: they kept each other truthful and accountable. They stuck together. They were honest and kind and firm. They were a community in the fullest sense of the word, and admitted freely that they would not have survived without both AA and the mutual support of the group. They acknowledged their imperfections and continual need for grace, and didn't consider AA a one-shot fixit that cured them of everything that led them to alcoholism in the first place.
Church, on the other hand, seemed to be a place where most people had it all together and didn't let any cracks show. People knew the right answers, which was generally enough to get by (my friend Ryan and I laugh about how no matter what question you ask kids in Sunday School, they pop their hands up and yell, "JESUS!" It's funny until you realize that adults do the same thing, with fancier phrasing). And growing up I always had my "church" friends and my "real" friends-- the people who knew all about what I was really thinking and doing, around whom I could exhale and not edit myself before speaking. It's hard to ask questions in an exclusive club, and that sense of in vs. out made church feel constrictive.
I realized that what I really wanted out of church was what Bruce and Jeanette had found in AA: a group of people who have profoundly messed up and admit it to themselves and their Creator, who live in constant awareness of grace and how much it's worth, and hold each other's hands as they take those humble, stumbling steps towards the light.
Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, considers the mentality of AA groups so similar to that which should characterize the heart of genuine Christ-followers that he lists the twelve steps in his footnotes as a basis for developing true disciples. Here are the steps that my Uncle Bruce took to get sober:
1. We admit we are powerless over alcohol-- that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. We come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. We make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.
4. We make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. We admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. We become entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. We humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. We make a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.
9. We make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. We continue to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
What if this list of steps, when applied to a broader context of our entire lives and not just addictions, became a practical guide for shedding our pride and appearing humbly before God and each other? I get goosebumps just thinking about what this life would be like. I get shy when I think about how far from the standard I land. And I get hopeful when I remember that the process, like recovery from alcoholism, is messy and broken, but it's meant to be a journey. Christ asks us to be real, be humble, and be repentant. If that's so, then I want to go to church at AA. I think they really get it.