by Matt Russell
Jerry first came to Mercy Street, our church in Houston, Texas, with his AA home group. Like most regulars, he settled into his weekly spot in the fellowship hall (back-left). He listened intently, didn’t sing many of the worship songs, but participated in the “Recovery and Spirituality” group that followed worship. Jerry was on the van ministry that picked up folks from various halfway houses in the city. He was a congregant that any pastor would love to have–consistent, eager to serve, and generous. He brought a slew of friends with him each week.
Jerry was also Jewish. He was a member of a local temple and embraced his religion and heritage with affection.
Over the years this type of ecclesial fusion has become quite common at Mercy Street. There are Catholics who still go to mass on Sunday but never miss a Saturday night. We also have folks who were raised Southern Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterian and Pentecostal (and a host of other denominations) who quit going to church when they got hurt or when their using got too bad. There are Buddhists, agnostics, and folks who will tell you that they are “spiritual, not religious.” They all come together Saturday night to work out their faith and recovery in the context of our community.
I’m not exactly sure how this happened, but early in our formation Mercy Street became known as a safe place for the countless “spiritual refugees” in Houston’s recovery community. What most of these people needed was a church that would fully embrace their past and would support them in their spiritual journey. They needed a community that would ask as many questions as it was prepared to answer. They longed for a place of worship that had room for doubt, not as contrary to faith, but as the very pathway of faith.
I found the candor and authenticity of those showing up to be as refreshing as it was startling. These folks were not liturgically housebroken or religiously savvy. On the contrary, many were messy, loud and opinionated. But they came with spiritual hunger and were prepared to wrestle with the “Jesus question” and the claims of the gospel in profound ways. I rapidly began to see that we (the church) needed them—their honesty, recovery, service and dysfunction—as much as they needed the church.
But Jerry, you’re a Jew
One night after the service Jerry approached me with a broad smile and said, “Matt, I’d like to join Mercy Street.” With deep pastoral insight that can only come from a freshly minted United Methodist ordination, I responded, “But Jerry, you’re a Jew!” Jerry’s smile turned into a belly laugh, and he said, “Nice observation, preacher-boy” (which he has called me ever since this exchange), “but I want to join this place. I’ve been in temple all my life but have never been a part of a community that brings my spirit alive like this one, and I want to join.”
In the minutes that followed, I explained to him the best I could the theology of the church–that the church was an extension of Jesus’ ongoing ministry of reconciliation to the world; that those who joined the church were joining themselves to this person who was God and who proclaimed to be the messiah and savior not only of the Jews but of the entire world; that membership in the church was a move toward solidarity with Jesus in the world.
Jerry tilted his head slightly and said, “Matt, I’ve got a lot of questions about Jesus, but I’m open and committed to work those out at Mercy Street. All I know is that since I’ve been coming, there are pieces of my recovery and spirit that are fitting together in ways that I can’t yet explain.”
“Plus,” he went on to say, “when people join this community, you ask them to commit to the church with their prayers, presence, gifts and service. I do all of these already; I just want to make it official.”
Each month people would come forward during the greeting time in the church service and would partner with us on their spiritual journey through the vows of our United Methodist tradition. The vows in our tradition presume that people have made an affirmation of faith. Although Jerry had not yet done this, he was a living example of the vows of membership both in his recovery and in the life of our community.
When I met Jerry, his outgoing and gregarious personality made it easy for us to become friends. He was warm, inviting and full of faith questions. Early on he told me the story of how alcohol had ruined two marriages, a few jobs, countless friendships and had left him with a lifetime of bad memories. And then he told me how, through the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, he had been able to reclaim much of what had been lost. He told me that AA had given him not only recovery but also restoration. What I would understand only later was that the person of Jesus was incognito within the process of Jerry’s recovery. The Spirit of the risen Christ, who is the basis by which all humanity is transformed, stood silently connected to Jerry as he made his way up from the bottom of his addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous had provided a safe place for him to confess things that were long hidden in the shadows of his life. The fellowship had given him courage to face his character defects, to speak honestly about his life, to take responsibility for his actions, and to begin the process of making amends. All the while, the person of Jesus was present to Jerry in the different aspects of the program–in the forgiveness, in the honesty, in the amends.
What Jerry needed now was a place to ask his questions about the nature and character of Jesus, not as an outsider but as a participant, not as an undocumented seeker but as one who was willing to uphold the commitments of the church while he asked his questions and worked out his faith and recovery. His desire for membership in our community was a desire to take hold of what had already taken hold of him.
It was the distance that bothered Jerry–the requirement of mental assent to a doctrinal statement before he could intimately and intentionally experience the risen Jesus in the life of the community. Jerry was bucking against the fact that his faithful and faith-filled process of questioning and contending with Jesus had to take place at an institutional distance, one that his heart and experience had defied. What bothered him was the church’s need for him to logically assert what his spirit was still attempting to integrate. For Jerry, the process of integrating his recovery and his discovery of Jesus needed to take place within the very relationships that constituted the visible presence of Jesus–the body of Christ.
At the bottom of Jerry’s struggle was the issue of belonging. Could he belong to the community of Jesus, working out his faith and recovery inside the church? Toward the end of our conversation he said, “Matt, I need to get my hands dirty with this, and I can’t do it at a distance or on the sidelines.”
Although my mouth did not say it again, all I could think over and over again was, But Jerry, you’re a Jew….
Jerry and I parted that night with the agreement that I would think about his proposition and that we would pick up the conversation in the following weeks. I walked away with an image of Jerry’s sleeves rolled up–and saw in that image the person of Jesus, his sleeves rolled up too, hands dirty, side-by-side with Jerry.
Room for real people?
Jerry’s questioning, his relentless pursuit of God, his commitment to contending with Jesus the Messiah, and his utter audacity to think he could do this at such a proximal space to Jesus within the life of our community–well, it confused me. I was raised in the shadow of the Four Spiritual Laws. I knew the graduated phases that allowed a person to gain intimate access to Jesus. Jerry and the other addicts that were showing up were getting these out of order! As a young pastor wrestling with all of these questions, I knew I was not interested in “dumbing down” the gospel message at Mercy Street. I was committed to orthodoxy, to the historical claims of our faith. But Jerry’s request left my spirit hungry to offer more than a merely historical faith. I grew up in an evangelical church and learned early on that while agreement with doctrinal statements could produce conformity, it could not produce transformation.
I knew this because it was my story. I had believed in Jesus for years. Heck, I gave my life to him during at least two summer camps and a few of the August revivals in our church! I could recite the Apostles’ Creed in my sleep. I had memorized the book of James, the Sermon on the Mount, and countless Psalms by the eighth grade. I was a model evangelical youth but with a burgeoning secret addiction that would control my life for years. All the belief that I could muster was not strong enough to defeat the shadows in my life. My issue was not conformity or a lack of belief–I had that in spades. My problem was that I was clueless about how to be transformed and how to persist in the way of transformation. Belief and agreement with doctrinal statements about Jesus were not enough.
Jerry’s request would not let go of me. I began to wonder if, amid its profound tendency toward abstraction, theology (and particularly ecclesiology) had room for human beings. In other words, could the church accommodate (and not just in the basement) people struggling with profound issues of humanity and faith? These questions would not let me off the hook with any of the pat answers I was prepared to offer.
Belonging and believing
The philosopher Michael Polanyi once wrote that “our believing is conditioned at its source by our belonging.”1 He suggested that what we come to know and believe is embedded within the experiences of our relationships. It is therefore within the context and process of our relationships that we “come to believe.” An example of this is the word grace. I can analyze that word for you and give you its theological meaning, but these offerings would only point toward a concept–and not very well. It is the stories we tell of our encounters with grace that move us beyond abstraction and into the beauty of these experiences. Grace is just a five-letter word until I tell you my experience about being lost in darkness, painfully alone in my addiction, and how God found me through an encounter with another addict at a coffee shop. It was that day that grace moved beyond theology and became autobiography. And the movement from knowing about grace to encountering and being undone by grace is everything. For years I had talked about the concept of grace, written about it, preached about it–but when it showed up across the table from me in the form of John S., I was forever changed.
This movement from knowledge to encounter is huge. As a pastor, my deepest desire is not to get the folks in my church to agree on information about Christ, but to encounter and to be drawn into the life and being of Christ. It is the encounter with the living God that produces the right thoughts about God. When we flip this truth, when we make creeds (“I believe”) the only door by which people may enter, we end up with a lot of people who will conform to a belief system but may never enter into the process of transformation. People line the pews of churches across our country every Sunday and assent to claims of faith that they have yet to experience. Our churches are full of people who believe in God the Father, Almighty Maker of heaven and earth, yet stay actively unchanged. People may be able to recite the Nicene Creed, yet resist the risen Christ at core issues of their humanity. Right “beliefs” have not produced transformational living. While affirmations of faith provide the historical context of our faith and are essential within the process, they are impotent to produce change. And change is precisely the point. When we make propositional statements about Christ the starting point of our faith, we can easily end up moving away from the very Christ of whom our statements speak. When we turn the statements about God into the criteria for access to God, we pretend to examine Christ at arm’s length. But our faith ultimately cannot be examined at a distance; it has to be experienced, entered into and lived.
As I thought about Jerry’s request, I began to wonder if there was a wideness within the process of belonging that we needed to examine within our context at Mercy Street. If these addicts truly had met Christ clothed in the guise of Alcoholics Anonymous, then what did that mean? If the person of Jesus was embedded within the movement from darkness to light, from shame to grace, then how could our community honor the activity of the Spirit in the life of recovering addicts?
Come and see
It was Jesus’ invitation in the Gospels to come and see and then, later, his question, “Who do you say that I am?” that began to open up the landscape of the gospel for me. When Jesus invited his disciples to “come and see” or to “follow me,” it was not as if these men and women had a clear picture of who Jesus was and the exact nature of what they were being called into. Each of them stepped into this process with their own agendas and an array of ideas about who Jesus was and what he had come to do. Some followed because this Rabbi invited ragamuffins into his circle, others followed with the hope that Rome would be violently overthrown, but they all had it wrong. It was the years they spent with Jesus, day-in and day-out, that revealed who he was. The scandalous truth that God had put on flesh and become human was revealed within the intimate encounter of belonging.
Jesus did not start by asking, “Who do you say that I am?” or “What do you believe?” That came later. He began with an open invitation: “Come and see.” What they saw was the sick healed, the hungry fed, the wind and waves calmed, the lost found, sins forgiven and the dead raised. It was through the “coming and seeing” that they came to believe. Their belonging to Jesus did not start with statements about the virgin birth, the Trinity, or the cosmos. Through the very process of encountering, contending with, befriending, questioning and knowing Jesus, they came to believe that he was Savior and Lord. How could it be any different two thousand years later?
One of the more striking stories in the Gospels is the story of Thomas. After Jesus is crucified, the disciples are on the run for fear of the authorities and are hiding throughout Jerusalem. Three days after the disciples went underground, word starts to spread that Jesus has risen from the dead. When Thomas hears this he says, “I won’t believe it until I can touch the wounds on his body.” The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus walks through a wall to get to Thomas and says in effect, “Go for it, brother! I’m going to give you what you asked for; touch me and see that I am alive!” Thomas does, and falling to his knees makes this incredible statement: “My Lord and my God!” All my life I have heard this man derided as “Doubting Thomas,” but it is not Jesus who gives him this nickname. On the contrary, he offers Thomas something he can touch, feel and wrestle with in the very midst of his questioning and doubt. It was the encounter with the risen Lord that gave birth to Thomas’ belief.
The problem for many people is that when they come to the church and attempt to touch Jesus in a way that moves beyond seeking (but like Thomas, is still teeming with doubt and questioning), they are promptly asked, “Who do you say that I am?” How can they affirm what they have yet to put words to and encounter within the life of the Church? How can they say “my Lord and my God” without the same access and relationship with Jesus that Thomas had?
Many of the people in the Mercy Street community have told me that their experience with church was like trying to get into an exclusive hip-hop club, one that is partitioned off by a red rope and a bouncer. They are not on the “guest list.” If these recovering drunks wanted behind the rope, if they wanted to belong, they had to say the right words. The healing life of Jesus is sequestered behind the words. And the words–the correct theological assent, the undistorted meaning in correct combination–unlock not only the presence of Jesus but also the acceptance of the community.
But this is not what I see Jesus doing in the Gospels. He invites these men and women to discipleship with the invitation to “come and see.” I find it interesting that it is not until three years into discipleship that Jesus gets around to asking, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Recounting this event, the Gospel of Matthew tells us how, after a few disciples stumble through attempting to answer this question, Jesus rephrases it, making it much more personal: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjonah because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-17, NASB). In other words, “Peter, this is not book knowledge or something you are reciting, but something you have come to know through day-in, day-out revelation of who I am.” But, as is the temptation with all of us, shortly after this exchange Peter retreats back into his own abstract ideas and agenda of who the Messiah is by telling Jesus that there is no way he is going to Jerusalem to die–at least not if Peter has anything to do with it! Faith is anything but a straight line for any of us.
Christ as community
As I befriended recovering men and women, it was evident that many had experienced, as Step 12 says, a “spiritual awakening as a result of these steps.” The same Spirit who had awakened them was now leading them to the person of Jesus within the life of the church. They were coming to church in response to the activity of the Holy Spirit, who invited them to “come and see” the God of their own understanding whose face is Jesus. They had encountered the presence of Christ in the incognito of the Program. The question is, Are we willing to get our hands as dirty as Jesus does? Can our community honor what the Spirit is doing in the life of these people?
As our community, leadership and staff wrestled with the two phrases “Come and see” and “Who do you say that I am?,” we began to ask questions about what it means to belong and what constitutes membership at Mercy Street. Traditionally, within the life of the church, membership has signaled the end of a process, a process in which a person seeks, questions, believes, receives Christ, and only then is invited to join the community. At Mercy Street our experience is that for many, membership is just the beginning. We have discovered that the formal ritual of belonging often becomes the conduit by which the name of Jesus and the presence of Jesus come together. As a result of this process, we opened up the aperture of membership. Affirmation of faith is not the criteria for membership within our community. This process allows people like Jerry who are still laboring with questions of Jesus’ divinity and the cost of discipleship to do so as part of the very relationships that constitute the body of Christ. As such, it mimics biblical discipleship.
If Dietrich Bonhoeffer is correct and “Christ exists as community,”2 then the process of belonging to the community seems indissolvably bound to the process of coming to believe that Jesus is Lord. At Mercy Street, this movement has become critically linked to the essential question of Christianity: “Who are you, Jesus?” As members given to each other, these men and women work this question out together from the posture of access, intimacy, and belonging. As this happens, the hidden presence of the God that embraced them within recovery begins to emerge and be known as Jesus of Nazareth, who rose from the dead.
As our community worked these theological questions out, we struggled with the reality that Jesus cannot be solely interpreted from one individual’s experience any more than he can be interpreted from history. There must be a cohesive continuity between what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “historical Christ” and the “present Christ.”2 In other words, the encounter with the Spirit of the living God clothed in the redemption of the Program was intended to lead these addicts to the same clarity that Peter had after belonging to Jesus for three years. Therefore it is in the sacrament of baptism that many of these recovering addicts respond to the question: “Who do you say that I am?” It is within the ritual of water and covenant that these men and women move beyond the incognito to be identified with the name by which we are all saved–Jesus. Traditionally, baptism has been the criterion for joining the Church. In our experience, membership begins the process of answering “Who are you, Jesus?,” and baptism is the culmination of that process whereby people are able to confess–not only with their mouths but also with their lives–“You are Christ, the Son of the living God.”
The descending church
What I have discovered as the pastor of a church full of recovering addicts is that Christ was pursuing these folks long before their booze was gone, they reached bottom, and the track marks on their arms healed. Christ pursued these addicts long before they knew his name or acknowledged his presence. The same Jesus who “went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19, King James Version; both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed say “descended into hell”) also descended into the depth and darkness of their addiction and was bound to them in redemption. As they entered recovery, it was the presence of Christ who stood behind the words “God of your own understanding,” beckoning them to take the next step. What these addicts were desperate for was a community that would meet them at the same level of depth, authenticity, and dysfunction that the Program had. What they needed was a community in which to belong, in order for the “God of their own understanding” to emerge as the same Christ who exists as community. For the church to stand in solidarity with the world that God loves and gave himself to, it must be willing to commit itself to those who walk through its doors–not merely as “souls to save,” but as treasured companions, teachers, friends and guides. It must be willing to descend to the same depths that Jesus has. To elicit fixed and final affirmations of faith as the only door by which people can belong creates an exclusive space that Christ himself did not and will not inhabit.
1. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1958), 322.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theology of the Sociology of the Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 182.
3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 43.