Not content to let two months go by without making a little headway on my M.Div degree, I signed up for two courses this summer — the first course is really a practicum project related to my ministerial internship, while the other is a pretty intense introduction to urban and social ministry; in fact, that’s the name of the course: Introduction to Urban & Social Ministry.
Each week we spend several hours visiting a multitude of ministry sites and service agencies, listening to staff, asking questions and talking with the people they serve. Though each organization has a unique mission statement and a slightly different target group of clientele, I think it’s fair to say that all of them are focused on making the world, and specifically central North Carolina, a little better representation of the Kingdom of God.
Several of our visits have been incredible, eye-opening experiences, but this week was particularly meaningful for me. We didn’t have a regular class session this Monday because of the holiday, but we were still assigned independent visits for the week. So Saturday night I found myself sitting in the back row of my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I needed to attend the meeting for class, but apart from school, this was an important moment for me as someone I am close to was celebrating a new Spiritual Birthday — the one-year anniversary of an addict’s last commitment to get clean and stop using. It was much more exciting, and more important, than celebrating a biological birthday.
As I sat through the meeting listening to speaker after speaker giving personal testimonies, reading passages from the NA book and encouraging one another through their struggles, I was struck by the simple honesty that pervaded the group. Every time someone stood to speak, whether it was to deliver a keynote speech or to ask a short question, the first words to come out were always “I’m David (or Charlie, or Bobbie or Rachel) and I’m an addict.” It didn’t matter if the speaker had gotten high that morning or if he had been clean for 30 years. There was not a stigma of shame or embarrassment associated with the label — something I’m sure takes many, many meetings like this to overcome — it was just the simple truth. “I’m a human, and I’m an addict.” These were authentic people.
I left the meeting that night wondering what the world would be like if everyone was as honest with themselves, and as authentic with others, as this group of humble addicts. I went home. I went to bed. Then I went to church.
Our Sunday school passage that day came from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:
For you all are sons of the light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. So then, we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But since we are of the day, we must stay sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, our hope for salvation.
For God did not destine us for wrath but for gaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that whether we are alert or asleep we will come to life together with him.
Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, just as you are in fact doing.1 Thessalonians 5:5-11 (NET)
Paul is writing to the church in response to questions the believers had about the Parousia, but his instructions are meant to be a guide for daily living at all times, not just in the final days.
The metaphor of light and darkness is an oft used one. In my experience, Christians like to think of living in the light as leading a righteous life; that is, avoiding the major pitfalls of sin and obeying God’s law to the letter. In contrast, being a child of darkness implies living a life marked by sin, day-in and day-out; a life totally separate from God and the law.
I think there may have been a little more depth to the “light” Paul spoke of than we tend to acknowledge; we have a way of trimming God down to size when he gets too big for our tastes. From time to time, we may fool ourselves into believing we are living righteously, pleasing God with our good works and outdoing those poor fools who still choose to walk around in darkness. I heard it said today that there are really only two kinds of people in the world: Baptists, and sinners. I’m afraid a handful of people from my own faith tradition aren’t the only ones to fall into this trap of ignorance. Such thinking proves at least one fact with absolute certainty — those who call themselves righteous have yet to stumble out of the dark their religion has pulled them down into.
I think the “light” Paul spoke of is best described not as righteousness, but as truth. Truth with God, truth with others, and especially truth with one’s self. Jesus has called us to live our lives within the truth of his Creation, of his Divinity, of his Humanity. We must accept the truth that we will never measure up to the righteousness of God, but we can accept his Grace and continue striving to live within his will for our lives.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that doesn’t put much value in authenticity or in truth. We put on different facades when we go to work, when we go to school, when we go to church, when we’re out with our friends and when we’re at home with our families. It’s expected of us, and those who don’t follow the status quo are often penalized for their lack of conformity.
What would happen to our world if our churches began to live and breath with the same spirit of honesty and truth that pushes that group of recovering addicts to better themselves, to value true fellowship over fleeting pleasure and to walk together on the journey that leads them closer to God? What would happen if before I got up to deliver the invocation this Sunday, I felt compelled to tell the congregation that “I’m David, and I am a sinner,”?
I think we would begin to see the light of Christ a little more clearly.