I‘m a good pastor’s kid: cradle roll, Sunday school, Vacation Bible school, the whole nine yards. I never went crazy or rebelled. I grew up in a well-adjusted home and didn’t get tripped up by the land mines that can wreak havoc on so many lives. I was a good church kid who hung around with other good church kids. Life was good. I spent my first decade of ministry in churches full of “good church people.” It was easy and comfortable. It was what I knew.
I’ve never had a problem with getting out in the world. I’ve just never had a compelling invitation to interact with those on the margins. That was before I discovered Recovery House, a local in-treatment facility for women overcoming drug and alcohol addictions. I was invited to go once a month and spend a few hours with the women there. They come to our worship services every week and sit on the second row. Long story short, these women have blown up my world in a beautiful way. Here are seven truths I’ve learned by hanging out with addicts for the past three years:
1. Real Ministry is Messy.
I’ve had numerous conversations with women whose husbands were addicts who refused to go to rehab. What’s the better option: advocating divorce for their future sobriety or saving the marriage by allowing the husbands to drag their wives back into addiction once they get out of rehab? These are not problems with simple, clean solutions.
2. Pastoring is Incomplete Until You Step Out From Behind the Pulpit.
It’s easy to solve the problems of the world from behind the safety glass of the pulpit. But ministry is made complete when the rough edges of life rub off on you, when your suit gets a little scuffed up, when you’re face to face with a problem bigger than a quick reference to a Bible verse. Two years ago I met a young woman named Jennifer* at Recovery House. She grew up in church and knew the Bible.
Behind her smiling veneer she hid the pain of a past abortion and an alcohol addiction that couldn’t make the pain go away. Jennifer found healing at Recovery House and her husband at an Alcoholics Anonymous support group. Jennifer, her husband, and their beautiful baby boy are now active in our church. I’ve been through the valley with Jennifer. I didn’t blush at the baggage. All the sermon platitudes of grace and mercy were incomplete for Jennifer until she realized that they applied to her in spite of her past mistakes.
3. Personal Sin Affects Others.
This heartbreaking reality is thrust on me every time I sit down and learn the stories of the women at Recovery House. Some grew up in drug-infested homes, some in pastor’s homes, but their sin never stays contained with them. So many addicts I worked with were moms. They have kids scattered around, some within the state, and are desperately trying to keep their own personal house of cards from collapsing.
I remember Karen from a year ago. A local girl whose mom was a drug addict and in and out of prison, all Karen ever knew growing up was a life of drugs. The last time she saw her mom was in jail. They were both serving separate sentences but happened to be at the same facility. That’s her family reunion. Karen finished her 90 days, but can’t seem to break the generational cycle of drug addiction.
4. The Gospel isn’t Just Academic Theory. It’s a Tangible Hope.
Seminary was a blessing for me, but being surrounded only by a bunch of maturing Christians made the hope of the gospel seem purely abstract and academic.
The beauty of the gospel radiates against the backdrop of the darkest sins. After an attempt to take her own life, Rhonda, a Native American who grew up on a reservation where alcoholism and hopelessness abounded, was ordered to rehab. Rhonda found God at Recovery House and Mt. Vernon Church. Two years ago she shared her story with our entire church. She couldn’t stop smiling.
5. Jesus Hung Out With the Likes of These.
Associating with addicts might seem objectionable, but I can’t escape the fact that Jesus would have jumped at the chance to be with these women.
Around six months ago, I met a middle-aged woman named Clara. She’d lived a rough life, with multiple arrests and abusive relationships.
Usually I ask the women to open up about their lives, but I had to ask Clara to stop before she shared too much. She was under investigation for the murder of her abusive boyfriend. I cannot say that I was comfortable sitting that close to a murderer, but these are the people that Jesus hung out with.
6. Love Truly Does Cover Over a Multitude of Sins.
Two girls, Rachel and Brittany, recently came through Recovery House. Both grew up outside of Christianity with an almost violent antipathy for the church. When they learned that Recovery House went to Mt. Vernon Church every Sunday as part of their entry program, they both seriously considered walking out of rehab and calling it quits.
They both now love the church. Rachel has given her life to Christ and has brought her mom to church. Brittany is on her way. Easter weekend, Brittany made a special request to Recovery House to be off-campus to volunteer all morning at our Easter Egg Hunt.
What made the difference? The love from our church’s host team that greeted them when they got out of their van every week, from church members coming up and making them feel valued in spite of their addictions, from several of our women who go to Recovery House during the month and teach a variety of life skills, from me investing time to get to know them and answer whatever spiritual questions they have. Love makes the difference.
As much as I’ve been able to teach the Recovery House women the past three years, they’ve taught me so much more. They are walking examples of the power of the gospel, the promises of Scripture come to life. I thank God for every one of them.
*Names are changed to protect their identity.