Much of the last year was thread through with considerable loss. My brother, Dave, battled a fatal brain cancer for nearly eight years and he died this last January as the result of a fall that was due in large part to his disease. He would have been 58 years old this month.
In reaction to Dave’s quest to find a durable faith and supportive friends, I wrote a book called The Dave Test, which was just released by Abingdon Press. The book distills Dave’s quest into ten questions that any of us can ask ourselves, when we are in one of life’s hard places or when we are trying to support those we love. Whether that hard place revolves around divorce, death, unemployment, abuse, or illness, I hope that the questions I ask and the answers the book offers will help us all be a bit more available to one another.
In a recent interview for Patheos.com editor, Deborah Arca, asked, “Dave’s best and most valuable friends throughout his illness, ironically enough, were not his church folk. What were the qualities these unlikely companions in his suffering demonstrated that were lacking in his church community?”
My answer was this:
“Honesty, vulnerability, the ability to walk-wounded, and deep faith are probably the qualities at the top of the list. The two friends who were closest to Dave were both recovering alcoholics. So they had been to the bottom and found their way out. Far too many churches are places where people are expected to show up with the rough edges planed off or hidden, minds clear, and hearts aligned. We need to find new ways to welcome people who are struggling.”
Deborah’s questions were very helpful and I hope my answers were as well. But I’d like to elaborate on that answer a bit in a way that wasn’t possible in the interview and lay beyond the purpose of the book:I meant it when I said that far too many churches are places where people can’t bring their problems. There are plenty of churches that accommodate recovery programs, of course. And if you are in crisis in most cases you can call on the parish clergy. But such efforts — as good as they are — are seriously limited:
Understandably, recovery programs can only offer the most generic support. AA, for example, is an excellent program with Christian origins, but in order to address the larger needs of its constituency, AA confines its language about the struggle with addiction to the broadest possible categories.
If churches hope to integrate their ministry with outreach of this kind, they will need to learn how to offer wisdom that is more immediately integrated with their message. This doesn’t mean that support and recovery groups are a bad thing. Nor it does it mean that the people who attend those groups should be gang-pressed into church life. Anonymity is, in fact, often necessary to that process.
But as long as parishes restrict their efforts to recovery groups administered by outside organizations, such efforts will always be at arms-length and those who participate will always live on the fringes of the church’s life.
Such stand-alone efforts also rob churches of the opportunity to cultivate the spiritual wisdom that might arise out of confronting life’s ragged places together. If modern Christianity lacks a certain muscularity or reality, much of its superficiality can be traced to churches that dispense therapeutic help at arms-length, but lack the rigor and reality that comes from wading into life’s hard places.
That’s why people who suffer through divorce or lose a job are often forced to look for a new church or give up going at all. A church that can’t acknowledge life’s hard places or needs to lay blame will never walk very far with people who are struggling.