I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting the other day. And yes, I understand that is kind of an interesting way to start a column.
Basically, I have a friend who is getting her Master’s degree in Counseling, and she needed to observe a meeting for class, so I said I’d go with her.
Anyway, sitting in AA is like being in the upper room at Pentecost. I’ve never experienced anything like the early church, not until I went to AA, at least; but I swear to you, sitting in that smoky trailer in a tiny town in Georgia, surrounded by hungry, thirsty, shattered souls that treated community and God like the alcohol they craved, had an eerie feeling that this was exactly the way Jesus intended it.
You need to know right off the bat the purpose of this column isn’t to bash the church. It’s easy to bash fallen things because everything is fallen. It’s really quite cliché. And, just like I would never tell my best friend that his wife is a whore, I would never do that to the bride of Christ.
But, as I sat in that room, as each person who stood up admitted he or she was an alcoholic, as those who gathered said “Hello, ____” to the alcoholic all welcoming and loving, and the speaker that evening talked teary-eyed about the warm, smooth burn of Smirnoff vodka that tore up his esophagus and family, I felt like a mannequin in a room overflowing with life. Yes, life.
The people in that room were so transparent, so broken, yet so alive because they had each other and hope in a higher being. Mannequins have hearts of polystyrene and just kind of sit in a window all day alone wearing Ralph Lauren or J.Crew to look good. They are really some of the loneliest people I’ve ever seen.
How miserable would it be to be a mannequin? As you look back on the day, all you did was wear a plaid button-up with chinos as people looked at you and said, “Whoa! I want that!” Every once in a while, someone undresses you, which is a little humiliating (depending on the person undressing you), and that’s as much interaction as you get.
There are a lot of mannequins in relationships. And a lot of mannequins in marriage. We’re all so afraid of vulnerability, we choose to sit in a department store, alone, gathering dust, exhausting ourselves trying to look good. And mannequins do look good, dressed in their Sunday best, but there’s really nothing to them, just thick plastic with detachable legs.
There are a lot of mannequins in the church, too. And it has nothing to do with the church, because it’s the people inside the AA meeting that made that smoky trailer such a lovely place.
I concluded that day that broken people are some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. One guy we met went to AA meetings at different locations almost every night, to stay connected to the vine, so to speak. He understood that without community, without AA, he would surely fall. These people were not prideful people, too embarrassed to admit their shortcomings, too worried about looking good in a department store window. These people were broken, beautiful people that needed each other and needed God.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day looked good in a window display. But it was the prostitutes and adulterers and tax collectors who needed Jesus. The Pharisees had religion. But the sinners had relationships. Religion without relationship, both with God and each other, is nothing more than a plaid button-up. Religion is a headache of a thing. Relationship is quite messy and life-changing.
Every Labor Day weekend, I go to a church softball tournament in Roanoke, Va., to gather stories for a book project. The tournament has been going on for 30-some years, and all the money goes to missionaries in Paraguay, and people travel from all over the south and midwest because the community at the tournament means so much to them. Sometimes, the summer storm clouds make their way past the Blue Ridge Mountains, fall into the Roanoke Valley, and there’s a sense that God, in all of His splendor, is coming to meet you.
And that’s exactly the way I feel all the time in Roanoke, that God is coming to meet me. I usually end up crying in Roanoke because the stories I encounter are so beautiful—broken, but beautiful—like the drug addict who got saved at the tournament 20-some years ago and now has his own ministry in Nicaragua, or the umpire who worked the tournament for years before coming to the end of his brokenness and realizing he needed Christ, or the Paraguayan missionary who’s wife and son died in a car wreck on the way to finalize adoption papers for their daughter, who is still doing ministry because his love for Jesus trumps his understanding of his circumstances.
Broken stories are, really, the most beautiful ones. And so are broken people.
I watched Flight recently, starring Denzel Washington. It’s a little inappropriate at parts, but I promise you, it’s good. It’s about an alcoholic who is so desperately trying to look good he can’t admit he’s an alcoholic. He’s a mannequin, basically.
At the end, however, the character Washington plays admits his alcoholism, that he was drunk when piloting the aircraft that crashed at the start of the movie, and ends up going to prison. There, he says one of my favorite quotes to his fellow inmates:
“This is going to sound real stupid coming from a man in prison,” he says. “But for the first time in my life, I’m free.”
This column appeared in the May 2013 DigiMag.