Ever since it's release, Heather Kopp's Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk has been getting great reviews.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that I love spiritual memoirs, I found myself avoiding this book. Upon further reflection, I realized this was because of some of my childhood memories.
One of my dad's cousins (who we'll call Frank) was a drunk. I use that term intentionally because although I'm sure he was an alcoholic, I never actually heard anyone say that. I did, however, hear plenty of people call him a drunk.
Throughout my childhood, my mom regularly hosted Thanksgiving. Each year after the family assembled, I remember people speculating as to whether or not Frank would show up and if so, how late and how drunk he'd be. Whenever he graced us with his presence, his arrival was met with a collective groan and a frantic putting away of whatever alcohol was on the table. The family put on a happy face and on the surface, treated Frank with kindness. Underneath that tenuous facade, however, I always suspected they were just tolerating Frank, deeply ashamed of his drinking.
Frank died when I was 14 before, I think, love ever really caught up with him.
Having this real-life experience with a drunk is, no doubt, partly why I shied away from reading about someone else's experience with alcohol. I think I also shied away from this book initially because, as someone who rarely drinks, I worried I wouldn't personally be able to connect with Heather's story.
Eventually, though, my love for memoirs trumped these fears and so I picked up the book. Even though it took me a while to get into it, I'm so glad I read it.
What distinguishes this book from others is Heather's authenticity. Despite the stigma drinking – let alone being an alcoholic – has in many Christian circles, Heather shares her story with breathtaking honesty. She unashamedly confronts many of the issues that make discussing alcoholism difficult, including the struggle some Christians have with how to even define it. In Heather's words, “As long as we defined the problem as sin, the solution pointed to God. But if the problem was an illness, the solution would point beyond the walls of the church, maybe toward the kind of treatment I was undergoing... Part of me preferred the simplicity and moral clarity of the sin paradigm. But if my alcoholism was purely a sin issue, why couldn't I win the battle?... The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that alcoholism wasn't a matter of sin or sickness, but both.”
Sober Mercies is at it's best when Heather shares the impact her experiences in AA had on her faith. Her comparisons between her experience in AA and the church were particularly thought-provoking. According to her, “The particular brand of love and loyalty that seemed to flow so easily here [at AA] wasn't like anything I'd ever experienced, inside or outside of church. But how could this be? How could a bunch of addicts and alcoholics manage to succeed at creating the kind of intimate fellowship so many of my Christian groups had tried to achieve and failed.” As a result of Heather's willingness to detail her brokenness, such a question comes off not as an indictment of the church but as a deep longing for the church to create more authentic community by embracing people's brokenness.
Ultimately, Heather's story is more than a story of shame and alcoholism. It's a stunning story of grace and redemption that any Christian can relate to.
As Heather concludes, “Grace had mattered to me mostly because it was a critical clause in my spiritual contract with God... If I was ever going to experience the kind of ongoing spiritual transformation I so desperately wanted, I would have to learn the difference between ascribing to a set of Christian beliefs that had no power to change me and clinging daily to an experience of God's love and grace that could.”
That's a lesson all Christ-followers need to learn and embrace.
Heather's story will help us do just that.