What the Church Can Learn from the Anonymous
God is full of surprises, which is a good thing, I suppose, because this means that my limits are not his limits. God is not domesticated—he will do as he wishes with no need for me to sign off on his agenda. And I am discovering that from time to time God wishes for me to go back to school—sometimes this schooling is the formal, classroom sort, but at other times it is a less formal, often painful, but at least as important, kind of formative experience. Since 2007, when our younger son was hospitalized for depression during his first semester of college, I have been getting signed up, often against my will, for periodic courses taught by God. Within a year of our son’s release from the hospital and his return to our home, we realized that he was an alcoholic. He has since gone through outpatient treatment in 2008 and two month-long rounds of inpatient treatment in 2010 and again this year.
These courses have opened up a whole new world to me that I likely never would have experienced and had hardly even been aware of. I now find myself among “the Anonymous” support groups—Open Meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and the meetings of Al Anon. Though I would not have chosen to go to this “school,” it is good that I am among the Anonymous because in these meetings I often, though not always, find good theology. Theology that I, and the Church, need to learn. Here are some things that the Church can learn from the Anonymous:
Among the Anonymous “what is said here stays here.” Among the Anonymous it is safe to speak openly about what is wrong with you, to be real and to be truthful. It is about “owning your stuff.” It is about admitting that you have trouble, that you are in trouble, and that sometimes you are trouble. The Church can learn something about confession (Jas 5:16) from the Anonymous.
The Anonymous realize that they cannot survive without “one another.” Sitting in the circle of the Anonymous I have begun to see in new light Christian instruction to “receive one another” (Rom 15:7), to “comfort one another” (2 Cor 13:11), to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2), to “bear with one another” (Eph 4:2), to “encourage one another” (1 Thess 5:11), and to “show hospitality to one another” (1 Pet 4:9). The Church can learn something about “one another” ways from the Anonymous.
Various Anonymous groups meet every day of the week and, in some places, every hour of the day. The Anonymous emphasize showing up again and again and again for your own sake and for the sake of others. Each Anonymous meeting closes with a prayer and then a plea, voiced in unison, to “keep coming back….” The Church can learn about the value of frequent encouragement (Heb 3:13) and attendance (Heb 10:25) from the Anonymous.
Anonymous groups offer wisdom to the individuals who gather. I hear in these meetings the seasoned voices of women and men who have struggled, cried, and prayed their way to serenity, having asked for and gained much wisdom (Jas 1:5). This hard-earned wisdom serves as a repository for others who struggle. The Church can learn something about the importance of “wisdom from above” (Jas 3:17) from the Anonymous.
Some of the best theology in the book of Jonah comes from a couple of unexpected sources. First, in the midst of a fierce storm a sea captain rebukes his napping runaway passenger for not praying since, “Perhaps the god will give a thought to us…” (Jonah 1:6 ESV). The words of this sea captain offer Jonah a theology of prayer from an unexpected source. Then, after Jonah preaches in Nineveh, the king leads his people in repentance, declaring, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger…” (Jonah 3:9). Though Jonah is well aware of God’s gracious ways (Jonah 4:2), Nineveh’s king is not the first person that one might expect to refresh Jonah’s theology of grace.
Just as Jonah may not have expected to learn theology from the sea captain or the Ninevite king, I did not enter the circle of the Anonymous expecting to be schooled in theology. But I am finding it to be a helpful course of study.