// rehab

syringepenSitting in my kitchen last night, having just got back from a week-long trip to Christian drug rehab charity Betel, my mother and I got talking about guilt – and specifically the culture of guilt that she grew up in. As a straightforward evangelical, she was brought up thinking in terms of ‘how many people saved’, ‘how much time spent praying’, ‘how much money given’, a standard that she was never able to measure up to – nobody could – and although God’s grace has softened that over time, those initial habits and ways of seeing are nonetheless hard to shake. We ended up talking about whether this was the best way of doing things, the best way of seeing things, and whether it was ever fair to call ourselves the ‘saved’ ones, especially given the mess that our church and its members are in. Many evangelicals have had this same conversation, and we find ways to beat the guilt, but all that seems to do it is the fact that we’re all apparently in the same boat…

It made a stark contrast to my time in Betel, an organisation in which almost everyone is a former drug addict. At some point, everyone in that place has hit bottom, realised that they can’t go on, and recognised their need for help. You buy coffee from a coffee shop staffed by a former addict, listen to sermons delivered by a former addict (who, incidentally, left school at the equivalent of Year 8, but has recently taught himself Biblical Hebrew, as you do), and travel into the drug camps to offer people a way out alongside pastors who are former addicts. Everyone has been broken, and they know where they’ve come from, know that they are still learning to live and relate all over again.

In Betel it is okay to be broken, because you’re surrounded by people who have been there, who are able to counsel you, who know what it’s like, and who will love you in spite of your brokenness, your appearance, or your smell.

The culture of guilt that my mother grew up in, and that, to some extent, I grew up in too, that comes from a very particular understanding of our purpose on this planet. It states that God is given glory by people being saved, and the aim is to get people saved so that God is glorified, and to do that we should be the most effective savers as possible, the most concise and educated and well-groomed people that we can be. Which is fine, except that it sort of doesn’t work; as, if you’re telling broken people that they need Jesus while you’ve apparently got it all sorted, then they’re naturally going to see that as impossible, unattainable: after all, they’re broken, and you’re sorted.

I’m not so sure that it doesn’t work in the opposite way. The small community that I’m a part of in Oxford have been reading through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians over the past year, a book that comes back again and again to the glory of weakness. It starts with mention of the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we may comfort others”; it moves on to Paul’s description of how he and his companions are “hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed”; and then, after all this, after Paul has listed how they’re still standing, how they’ve survived it all, he goes on to talk about the ‘thorn in his flesh’, and boasting in his weakness. For Paul, it’s as though there’s no point in faking, because his weakness is already glorious. God is glorified in his transformation, in the process of becoming holy, not just in the end result. At the end of the day, his letter seems to state, this isn’t about being a community of the sorted ones; this is about being a community of the broken, looking to the one who can save us. If you don’t class yourself as part of that, maybe it’s time to look again.

We are all sinners. It’s just that some of us are sinners in rehab.

We are all broken people. It’s just that some of us are getting the help we need. Learning how to relate to the world again, surrounded by people who know how hard it is, as they’ve been there, and they too are involved with that process. That’s what church should look like.

John’s first letter describes that kind of agape love, too, that “perfect love that casts out all fear”. It’s that kind of love I see in Betel, at the moment where ‘us and them’ breaks down – where it is okay to come in all your brokenness, Oxford student or high-school drop-out, and find that kind of unconditional love and support. Where it is okay to not be okay. You know, I don’t know about you, but I would love it if our churches were like that. I would love it if I was like that, too, and I’m learning – that people don’t need to be excluded just because they have issues, as we too have issues, we’re just slightly further along in the programme. We’re still addicts, addicted to the thought that God is not good, addicted to sin, and although we remember that we’re a “new creation”, we also know all too well where we’ve come from.

A friend of mine keeps using the phrase, “the only difference between a sinner and a saint is that the saint knows he’s a sinner.” I’m inclined to agree, and that puts me in a difficult position – aware that true engagement means becoming vulnerable, means admitting that my flaws and my struggles are the same as those of the guy sitting next to me and becoming less strong – losing my cool, in short. That’s where humility starts, but it would be easier to do that (not to mention healthier) if you joined me in that too. I don’t mean telling everyone everything; I don’t mean wallowing in self-pity or excessive introspection; but I do mean a fresh level of honesty, both in our lives and in our evangelism. Working at engaging. Asking “how are you?”, and then listening to the response. Standing by people in their pain, even when there are no words to comfort them. Modelling grace in the moments where I get it wrong, or when the worship band get it wrong, or when the guy up at the front gets it wrong.

Surely that’s what “perfect love, that casts out fear” looks like. Where people aren’t afraid of condemnation if they mess up, as before you open your mouth you recall the first time that you personally got that same thing wrong. Where you are not afraid to stand beside people in all their issues, brokenness and stench as you are aware of your being somebody who, to all intents and purposes, looks just the same as them. Where we are all working this out together. That’s what God’s love looks like, and there’s something glorious about that. Perhaps that’s what glory in weakness looks like, too.

I am another one who is emphatically not sorted, who is still working out how to live this life in step with God, and frequently getting it wrong, even after this much time.

Bear with me for the moment. I’ll get there in time.

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  1. good post… esp since i know the mother… brokenness is something I’m fighting for with the organisation I work for. There seems to be a culture of indomitable ability that I’m fighting against. I’m just ordinary. I get tired, irritable and I need a weekend. If I’m on the right track, everyone else is too. So, what’s with this work until we drop attitude? Do we get it from our reading of the Bible or do we get it from our culture? I think we get it from reading the Bible through our culture. Funny how the people who I work for (you know who they are) don’t seem to get that most of the time…

  2. Thanks, Tom. I’ve needed this.

    Looking forward to hearing more about Betel!

    • Liz
    • July 6th, 2009

    Yes. Deal me in. I suck at this but it’s where I want to be…
    🙂 thanks Tom.

    • Jess
    • July 14th, 2009

    Yup, Tom this blog is pretty swish! I loved this article on Rehab, something which seems very relevant for the glasses I am seeing the world through at the moment…stuff, so many people are getting torn apart trying to be the ‘together’ people,being good and right all the time. They don’t seem to be able to cope when they stuff up!!! I feel that some church’s also place huge emphesis on work ethics like your mate on the above comment points out. Need to realise that when people stuff up or fall short from expectations that perfect love is seeing them as a person, for who they are and not what they do… time to use that attitude towards people so that we can cast out one of the biggest fears of feeling not good enough and inadequate. Good thought prevoking stuff : D

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