Bonding through Brokenness

How congregations can lead the way on the journey of recovery

by Heather Kopp

I’ve never worked harder at anything than being a secret Christian drunk. By day, I wrote and edited books about things like parenting and prayer. By night, I glugged from a stash of wine hidden in the bowels of my closet. And in between, I made frequent covert trips to the liquor store to replenish my supply and labored to discretely dispose of the empties.

It was exhausting and demoralizing. Caught in an endless cycle of shame and remorse, I was determined to hide the real extent of my drinking—and of my problem—from everyone, including my husband and kids.

I felt like the loneliest girl in the world.

Then one day came surrender. Then came the excruciating step into the light. Then came reaching out for help through treatment. Then came regular attendance at a 12 Step recovery group. Then came … confusion.

It started the day I sat down in a meeting next to a red-bearded man in a cowboy hat. As soon as the meeting was open for discussion, he introduced himself as Danny, choked up, and began to sob. I listened with growing horror as he explained that the night before, his 15-year-old son had shot himself in the head and died.

“I didn’t know what to do, so I came here,” Danny said, swiping at tears.

Even as my heart broke for this man’s loss, I couldn’t believe my ears. His son died just last night and so he came to a recovery meeting today? Didn’t he have a family? A church? A therapist? A best friend? It just seemed so odd to me that he should be sitting here so soon after such an unimaginable tragedy.

As Danny quietly wept and the meeting continued around me, I listened while people spoke gently about how they themselves had handled calamity and loss without having to drink. Some people wept discreetly. Others touched Danny’s back as they walked past him to get coffee. The love and compassion in the room was palpable. And I finally got it: Danny is here because this is his family.

In the weeks and months to come, I realized Danny wasn’t unique. These folks didn’t know each other only through these meetings. They had formed tight-knit friendships that happened largely outside of these rooms. They helped one another move, or went bowling, or played poker together. They hosted each other on holidays and celebrated sobriety milestones as “birthdays.”

They helped one another grieve.

They clearly loved each other.

You’d think a caring, close-knit community like this would feel at least vaguely familiar to me; that it might be reminiscent of church in some way, or of small groups I’d been part of. But the particular brand of love and loyalty that seemed to flow so easily in this room wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced, inside or outside of church.

Which made no sense to me. How could a bunch of addicts and alcoholics manage to succeed at creating the kind of intimate fellowship so many of my Christian groups had tried to achieve and failed?

I didn’t know it then, but my confusion led to a beautiful mystery that would take years to unfold.

Miguel provided the next clue.

One rainy day afternoon, I was tempted to stay home from my usual meeting. But on the off chance that someone might say something I needed to hear, I dragged myself down there. I was trying to practice a new willingness to learn from people I might have disregarded in the past.

People like Miguel.

When he first spoke up, I didn’t recognize him as a regular. He was Hispanic, mid-twenties, small in stature, and handsome in a sweet way.

“My name is Miguel,” he said, “and I’m an alcoholic.”

Then, in halting English, he told everyone how grateful he was to God that he was sober and free. “Before, I never used to pray or go to church,” he explained. “I didn’t have good ideas about God.”

He went on to tell us that he worked in construction, where everyone drank and did drugs. He used to do the same, often using the on-site port-a-potty to smoke marijuana and drink hard liquor.

Now, he still spends time in the port-a-potty, but he goes there to beg God to help him stay sober. “There’s a tiny mirror on the inside of the door of the port-a-potty,” he said. “I go and look at me in the mirror every day and I say, ‘Miguel, you no want to drink or do drugs! Think about your wife! Think about your baby!’”

Around the circle, laughter broke out at the absurd picture of Miguel scolding himself in an outhouse mirror. But Miguel wanted to press his point home. “I make you laugh, maybe,” he said, “but the port-a-potty is my sanctuary.”

And I had come so close to skipping this meeting!

Later, reflecting on what Miguel said, I realized it hadn’t once occurred to me to wonder exactly which God Miguel was referring to. Or if the God of his understanding matched up with mine.

It seemed wrong to ask or even care.

And then it hit me. Maybe the depth of community I experienced in recovery, but rarely in church, had something to do with the inclusive nature of the meetings. Here, it was safe to be honest about your journey with God, because it was impossible to be “wrong.” Here, the basis for acceptance began and ended with a mutual need for healing, which led to honesty and connection.

These days, I still think what happens in recovery is in many ways a wonder, but my bafflement about the power of this community has passed. I think I get it now, and I think it’s really pretty simple. It’s definitely something Jesus understood: People bond more deeply over shared brokenness than they do over shared beliefs.

I have a couple theories about why this is the case.

When folks gather in church around a strict system of beliefs, the price of acceptance in the group is usually agreement, which means the greatest value—stated or not—is being right, which in turn invites conformity.

But when people gather in recovery around a shared need for healing, the price of acceptance in the group is usually vulnerability, which means the greatest value—stated or not—is being real, which in turn invites community.

I’m not saying recovery or support groups are good and church groups are bad. As institutions, they serve completely differently purposes. Let’s also agree that many churches do work hard to provide the kind of openness and safety that invite intimate fellowship. And of course, beliefs and brokenness aren’t mutually exclusive; you can embrace both, and most Christians I know try to do this.

That said, though, I think many churches could learn something from recovery groups about how to create safe places where authentic community can happen. And perhaps a good place to start is admitting how often too many of us Christians care more about what people believe than we do about loving them.

When “right beliefs” become the basis for inclusion in our fellowships, some of the most broken among us don’t feel welcome. And those who do are much less likely to be honest about their doubts, fears, and failures.

In retrospect, I’m sure this explains why a couple years into my sobriety, my husband, Dave, and I stepped up our search for a church that felt safe and inclusive. That valued being real over being right. It took us three years, but we finally found that spiritual home.

Last year, our church invited us to facilitate a month of adult Sunday school classes around the topic of addiction, recovery, and faith. The first Sunday, I shared my journey from out-of-control drinking to grateful sobriety. Another Sunday, Dave shared what it was like to be married to a raging drunk. We looked at the (dismaying) statistics about the prevalence of addiction. We looked at Scripture (Paul had a thing or two to say about doing—over and over again—the very thing he hated).

Given the vulnerable nature of the topic, it was such a relief to know no one was evaluating our spiritual correctness or critiquing our beliefs. We simply spoke from our hearts, and people responded in kind.

Which got me wondering what might happen if we did this sort of thing in church more often. Maybe sharing our actual stories with each other on a regular basis would help foster the kind of rich spiritual community that leads to a deep sense of connection.

Today, I’m no longer the loneliest girl in the world. Sure, some of my closest friends used to snort coke, wake up with one stranger after another, and dance on tabletops in bars. But I have never felt more loved, accepted, and happy.

Not long ago, I found myself thinking about this topic in the context of the crucifixion. I was struck by the realization that God allowed his Son to die, beaten and broken on the cross. And I wondered if he did this in part because he knows we bond more deeply over shared brokenness than we do over shared beliefs—not just with each other, but with God, too.

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