recovery under the big tent

recovery under the big tent

* this post is part of a week-long synchroblog hosted by big tent christianity, a collaborative event in raleigh september 9-13.  so many fun conversations will be had there, i’m sure.  i wish i could go, but it was just too much to pull off this fall.

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it’s a dingy church basement.  a single light bulb hangs from the ceiling.  gritty coffee with powdered creamer is being poured like water. a few friends are smoking a last cigarette before walking back inside.  the circle of metal folding chairs is average sized, not too big, not too small.   everyone takes their seats and the leader opens the meeting, reminding everyone of the common bond they all share, the reason why they are here–they are a bunch of church leaders admitting they are addicted to control and want to stop.  need to stop.  long to stop.  but they realize they can’t do it without some serious help.  some serious support from other recovering controlaholics who are experiencing sobriety & transformation in their own lives, their own churches.  the leader reads through the 12 steps out loud and opens the meeting for sharing each person’s experience, strength, and hope.  the first brave friend leans forward, takes a deep breath, “hi, i’m the church and i’m a controlaholic.”  and everyone warmly and knowingly chimes back, “hi, church.”

no question this is an extremely stereotypical view of a recovery meeting but it really was the first image that came to mind when i thought about this synchroblog.

yeah, i think “the church” has a control problem. its heart is not bad.  its intentions are not evil.  it doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking “i’m going to ruin a whole bunch of relationships today.” but like all addicts (which i believe we all are in some shape or form), it is often unaware of just how pervasive the problem is and how much damage its really doing with controlling-finger-pointing-we-know-we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong ways.  and the only way to change is to begin to break out of denial and humbly engage in a healing process that will move toward restoration in their relationship with others, God, themselves.  the 12 steps started by alcoholics anonymous can help with that.  every single person i know who has actively engaged in the 12 steps has changed.  they’ve given up unhealthy patterns that have been perpetuated for most of their lives, admitted the fear has been the root of most of their problems, and made amends & restored relationships that were thought to be ruined forever. they are trying to be humble and honest instead of prideful and controlling.  they are kind, compassionate, and empathetic in a way that those who haven’t experienced this level of healing tend to not be.  they continue to learn instead of think they have anything mastered.

to me, the beatitudes is one of my favorite pieces of scripture because it is the place where Jesus turns the ways of the world (and the religious systems) upside down.  based on the beatitudes, the 12 steps seem to kind of do that, too.  they are a movement away from self-centeredness & pride & being right & feeling-good-at-all-costs to a life of sacrifice, humility, and serving others.  i think the beatitudes and the 12 steps are helpful toward becoming a more healthy, kind, compassionate, sacrificial, humble, accepting, loving people.  and i have no doubt that the world would be different if entire systems–not only individuals–would actually follow some of these Jesus-centered principles.

when i heard about big tent christianity’s focus, the first thing that came to mind was that for me it is a movement toward becoming a more healthy, kind, compassionate, sacrificial, humble, accepting, actively loving church. a movement toward living out the beatitudes in practice not just theory.  as we all know, the world is aching for redemption, for hope, for restorative justice, for real, tangible, life-giving love. it’s time for the church to change its controlling ways, to get in touch with the damage we’ve done and begin the painful but beautiful redemptive work of learning to live out of a new place.   real change takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of focus, a lot of letting God work. but it’s so possible.

the question big tent christianity is asking is:

  • what does big tent christianity mean to you? what does it look like in your context?  what are your hopes and dreams for the church?”

to me, big tent christianity means collectively letting go of our prideful, controlling ways and learning that the world doesn’t just spin around us.  it’s about a wider view, an open-handed view, a more trusting view that God is bigger and deeper and wider than we’ve maybe ever known.  it’s about less fear & more freedom. it’s a soft heart & willing hands and feet, open to the Holy Spirit’s movement.  it’s about corporately becoming known as people who incarnate Jesus in really wild, unexplainable, tangible ways so that others are kind of left wondering “who in the world are those crazy people?  why are they so kind? so loving? so willing to advocate? so present in the muck and the mire of real life? “

in my context of our little eclectic faith community, the refuge, the big tent looks like inclusive diverse community where all are welcome, no matter how put together or messed up.  where questions don’t scare anyone away and we don’t have to have all of the answers.  where people are learning to love and be loved by Jesus.  where we are trying to make advocates, not buildings.  where everyone has a voice.  where men and women live, love and lead alongside each other equally.  where shame loses its power & hope seeps in. where people can practice.  and like an AA meeting, it’s not slick or pretty or big or all that exciting.  it’s just a wild hodge-podge of people seeking God’s hope & help and passing it on to others in small, simple ways.  and while we are thankful for where we are today, we still have so much to keep learning.

i am a huge dreamer when it comes to church.  i know there are many who are done with “christianity” and i can see why.  they love Jesus & long to follow his ways but are sick & tired of the systems that keep giving him a bad name.  i am still one of those ecclesial dreamers who is deeply passionate about what could bei think the way out of the mess we’ve created as a system is to break out of denial, bend our knee, and admit that we have been a scared, controlling system for too long & we are tired of living this way.  we need help, we need change, we need trust, we need healing, we need Jesus.

many are afraid of the healing & recovery metaphor as far too psychological, too addict-y, too annoyingly hard to actually do.  i understand. but i’ll hold to what i’ve seen & experienced up close and personal in my own life and in the lives of many other people over the years who have taken the first step and admitted they needed help and wanted life to be different.  our hearts changed. our lives changed.  our families changed.  and hopefully are continuing to change.  and the more i think about it, the more clear i feel that this kind of humble, healing work for “the church” has absolutely no down-side (except that those still addicted to control will be mad at us for changing).  yeah, i have no doubt that a less controlling-finger-pointing-we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong church would emerge.  a more humble, honest, interdependent, compassionate church would emerge.

and that’s my hope for big tent christianity. that’s my hope for me. that through these upcoming years we’d shed our reputation as scared, angry, controlaholics and become “those crazy people who started working their $*!&!~^$(!  and put their money where their mouth was & have really changed. look at the beautiful work that they are doing so freely, so humbly. it looks an awful lot like Jesus.”

as always, i’d love to hear your thoughts on this & what big tent christianity might mean to you.

* * * * *
ps:  for those of you who may not be familiar with the 12 steps, here they are, along with the beatitudes.  as you reflect upon them, think about how the world might be different if corporately”the church” followed these principles.

1.    We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors and that our lives had become unmanageable.
2.    Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3.    Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
4.    Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
5.    Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
6.    Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
7.    Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
8.    Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
9.    Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
10.  Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
11.  Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out
12.  Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

* * * * *

blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

– matthew 5:3-10

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Giving up control is the only way love can exist. Love and control can never coexist. They are mutually exclusive. The 12 steps or any recovery is the key to breaking out of the denial we all, individually and as a church, are blinded by.”he whop says he has no sin is deceiving himself.” Taking others control/power or giving up our control/power (our responsibilities) has plagued mankind and the church from it’s very existence. Even Jesus just walked alongside the disciples. He didn’t try to control them, though He certainly could have. Can His church do any less? Should they try to do any more?

  • Kathy,
    As a fellow ecclesial dreamer, I share your hope and loved this post! I agree with you about the 12 steps (as a traveler and a watcher) and think we’d all do well to walk through them as a church.

    My post is pointing to some of the same things you are. I believe we have the tools in front of us we just don’t use them!

    grace and peace,

  • wish you were everywhere—one of my closest friends’ husbands just died in a hot trailer on his own detoxing in an attempt to get sober for a son’s wedding. He had been in and out of rehab 7 times. He is now free.
    Found you on synchroblog at Big Tent

  • Omigosh…..thank you for this! We have given Jesus a bad rap by the things we have done in the church over the years……………I love Mercy triumps over judgement!!! and would rather err in mercy anyday! …….Jesus, forgive us, the church…………..and may we be about those things listed in bold in your blog.

  • Hmm…. in a nutshell, more focused and concerned with letting people know God is for them – not mad at them. That he wants them for who they are…. and let GOd worry about the part (if any) that need “fixed”.

  • mike – thanks for your beautiful thoughts. letting go of control is awfully hard to do, but oh so beautiful…

    liz – i am so glad we can dream together. it is a true joy and privilege to have met you out here in wacky blogland a few years ago and to stay in touch. very excited about the synchroblog, too. let’s keep dreaming!

    big tent christianity
    – thanks for putting this together, one of these days i’m going to read all these great posts people have written.

    chad – thanks so much. i really appreciate what you shared, too. i do believe that we have what we need, it’s just too scary to actually do it. healing & real transformation is definitely risky & not playing it safe, that’s for sure. peace to you in the beautiful work that you do.

    kathy – oh thank you so much for taking time to comment, my heart just felt so sick when i read about your friend. the church should be the safest, most shame-free, healing place on earth. i am so sorry for you and your dear friend’s loss. it does make me even more passionate about our community & creating a safe space for those who are desperate & longing for hope & support & healing. peace to you from afar. thanks for stopping by.

    christine – thanks for the link love. you’re one of my fav bloggers, too.

    judy – thanks for reading and sharing. yes, i am so with you on mercy triumphing over judgment. peace and love to you & tell vivian hi for me!

    katherine – yeah, such a core thing that is somehow so missing for so many. i often say that it’s interesting that on the whole christians are the most insecure, least-feeling-loved-and-truly-accepted-and-peaceful-and-free people. something is so wrong with that. t’s why theology really does matter, what we believe about God’s heart for people. thanks as always for sharing.

  • my sentiments exactly – all about humility, not about being right but about serving people regardless of where they are at and no one has arrived at anything anyway other than being forgiven.

  • Kathy, how is BTX relevant to the common and daunting issues facing mankind? By your post, not so much, at least as I read it.

    In my opinion, such issues should be a central focus of BTX.

  • cynthia – thanks for commenting, looking forward to some fun in october in denver! humility seems to be the word, the practice, the thing that’s the hardest to do. guess that’s why the first beatitude & the first step go so well together.

    christine – i really enjoyed your post.

    joe – this was just one angle that i took; there are so many other posts that address so many of the other angles. i do believe, though, that as the tent widens and we focus on what we have in common instead of how we are different, that many will come together to work on social justice issues together across a much wider spectrum. faith & nonfaith entities partnering together on behalf of the greater good is happening more than we know but there’s much more work to be done. that’s my hope. but it’s impossible to do without humility.


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