Nov 8, 2010

Permission To Speak Freely

I’m out on a mini tour with author Anne Jackson and musician Solveig Leithaug to support Anne’s new book, “Permission to Speak Freely.” Her book was borne out of a question she posted on her blog a couple years ago: “What is the one thing you feel you can’t say in church?” Within a week she had over 500 responses. People wrote about their addictions to porn, alcohol and food. They were afraid to talk about homosexuality or poverty or social justice. A man said after his wife divorced him, his church rejected him too.

The response to Anne’s blog was so tremendous that CNN picked up the story. (Apparently it’s news to the world that church people don’t feel safe in church. Is it news to you?)

It got her thinking more deeply, and so she decided to turn it into a book. She asked readers to send those secrets on cards, art, however they felt led. And so her book, Permission to Speak Freely, became a compilation of original art, poetry and stories. Not just Anne’s stories but those who wrote in.

And now we are on the road, turning that groundswell into a live event. In the first half, Anne, Solveig and I share our dirty little secrets: sexual abuse, spouse’s addictions; alcohol, porn and food addictions; divorce and depression. The longer we hid, the sicker we got. But when we got honest, we began to heal. In the second half we hold a Q & A for the audience to ask questions.

We’ve only had two events so far: one at a modest church in a working class town, another at a wealthy church in an über-rich suburb. The attendees may have looked different from the outside, but their inner lives were so similar.  I know because of what they’ve shared during Q & A. One teenage girl said her cousins had stolen her ‘innocence’ and she wanted it back. A woman shared how, when husband abandoned her, she went on a sex-spree to numb out. Four young women from a 12-step program showed up, including a 23-year old who had been a prostitute to support her meth habit. A man told the crowd he was the abusive, addict spouse we’d talked about. Another man shared he was in recovery from porn, but it had cost him his marriage. It was astounding to hear people open up and get free. It’s a privilege to witness it, and I pray this kind of honesty becomes commonplace in church.

But why isn’t it? Why don’t we feel safe in church? I doubt we are afraid of telling God our secrets: he already knows them. Maybe we are we afraid of other people: those people who show up to church all scrubbed-holy and put-together. Maybe they do have it all together; maybe they just act like it, or maybe we just think they do. It’s easy to compare their outsides to our insides, and think, “if they knew the real me, they’d reject me.” And sometimes they have rejected us. But church, of all places, should be the one safe place where we can own the sick truth about ourselves. Jesus said he came to heal the sick, not the healthy.

I learned a phrase in 12-step meetings: “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” In other words, if you can admit your secrets to someone, you can heal. Wouldn’t it be great if church looked like one big S.A. Meeting? Sinners Anonymous? I don’t mean we should lie around, wallowing in our brokenness and using it as an excuse not to get better. (I’ve been to that church). We need to move on from that and become productive members of society. But it starts with bringing those secrets into the light.

I also learned another thing in the 12 steps: don’t share your secrets with someone who doesn’t understand them. Share them with someone who’s been there, done that and doesn't lord it over you but says, "oh yeah, me too.”

Last Sunday our church had a 12-step forum after the service.  Those of us in Program talked about what we got out of it, and how it differed from church. For me, confessing my sins didn't zap me into heaI had to walk that out in my life and my behavior. I liken it to this: you want to lose 15 pounds. What works better? Telling yourself you’re fat and need to lose weight, or making up a food plan that you can follow? That’s how the 12 steps have worked for me: working with a sponsor who has been there too, and helps me work through the specific steps.  I don't to a 12-step meeting and expect them to believe what I believe or practice how I practice. I go to program for program. I go to church for church. I need both.

So could we speak freely and openly at church? Yes and no. I don’t think the Sunday morning service would work as a communal confessional. The Sunday service is about turning our attention to the divine, not ourselves.But that doesn’t mean we can’t create a safe place at church for people to open up. Our church does have a midweek healing service that is intimate, safe, and we have a time to share with each other. Many churches have adopted the “Celebrate Recovery” program, a program like the 12 steps but with a specific Christian spirituality. I haven’t done CR. I like the original twelve steps, and I like interacting with people of all kinds of faiths. But some might prefer the CR program.

In any event, the Church needs to become a safe place to speak freely. We need to allow people to come: dirty or clean, healthy or sick, holy or messed up. It’s the sick that need a physician, not those who are well, or who act like it.

“A bruised read he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

For more information on the tour visit the Permission to Speak Freely website. To book the tour at your joint, contact Jim Chaffee at Chaffee Management


Mel said...

Thanks, Susan for this post. I really appreciated speaking to you in St. Louis a while back when you were at Windsor with Donald Miller. I'm a big fan of Anne as well and I'm reading her book right now. You said something to me that night that helped me so much, reminding me to have my grateful list everyday. You said even if it was only being grateful for hot coffee in the morning! I don't like coffee, but I've found lots of other things to be grateful for! My devastation that night was so consuming having just come out of a horrible church experience and I will never forget the comfort I felt in that one small moment. It was another step forward. It's been a while now since that moment of hurt and I feel very different. Very grateful if that makes any sense. I don't live in a haze of unawareness anymore and I continue to change in ways that don't even make sense to me sometimes! Thanks for that moment, it made a difference. When we reach out to one another in moments of sadness it makes a difference. For me every little moment over the past two years kept me from turning my back and walking away from it all! Thanks for that and for the hug...maybe you knew that night how close I was to giving up. Since that time I've learned to look to God for all I need and not put people on pedestals. I'm different because of that hurt and I wouldn't trade my relationship with God today for anything else. I'm very grateful for you, Susan! Thank you!

Ed Blonski said...

I really like your comment "I go to program for program. I go to church for church. I need both."

I agree that the worship service should NOT be the "communal confessional." But the Church should, be because worship is PART of the church and not THE Church.

God loves us just the way we are, but He refuses to leave us that way (Max Lucado). The Church should follow in His footsteps.

Josh said...

Great blog post. Keep up the good work. We need more of this in the world. Thanks. :)

Joe Sewell said...

Maybe Anne's shown you my "contribution" to the book. I know you've seen it. Anyhow, it is sickening that the people of God don't act like the people of God. Anyhow, a full-bore "Amen!" to your entire message.

I like to present the book to others, though, as at least one of 2 challenges to those who "don't identify" with the ideas in the book. First, realize that this IS how people feel. If you cannot identify with it, be thankful, but don't put down those who do! Second, don't BE one of the people that we feel unsafe around! Learn to sympathize, not condemn or come anywhere close to it! Don't push into our lives, but don't shove us away into some corner where YOU feel "safe."

Simone Says... said...

have fun on the road. hope you carry your beautiful message to many people.

Evelyn said...

Amazing post! Yes, the church does need to be a place where we can speak freely. All through the Gospels we read about people coming as they were to Jesus, and finding new life!

I agree, we need the church AND the 12-step meetings.

D.J. Hughes said...

"The Sunday service is about turning our attention to the divine, not ourselves.But that doesn’t mean we can’t create a safe place at church for people to open up."

Well said.

I just finished your memoir "Angry Conversations...". Thanks for your gutsy honesty. We need more of that in church!

I read your bio. Do you still teach at APU?

Susan Isaacs said...

Hi DJ: Glad you enjoyed the book! Yes, I teach at APU part time. This semester I'm teaching screenwriting. Next semester, sketch comedy. Do you teach there or are you an alum?

D.J. Hughes said...


Yes, I'm an alum. I'd like to teach Freshman Writing Seminar there sometime. We'll see.

Thanks for the recommendation on Anne Jackson's new book. I'll have to pick one up.

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