Monthly Archives: December 2015

12 Steps of Christmas | Thursday

Step Seven – “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

The service for Morning Prayer on this Thursday after the First Sunday in Christmas can be found here.

The Gospel reading for this evening, which we will miss because the Eve of the Holy Name takes precedence, can be found here.

Do you want to be made well?

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” (John 5:2-8)

Jesus asks the sick man, “Do you want to be made well?”

Today in Step Seven we humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.

For many of us in recovery, “working the steps” doesn’t happen right away. We may spend a few months “working the program” first — attending meetings (perhaps every day to start), reading Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and hearing speakers share their stories of “experience, strength, and hope.”

It may be several months, in fact, before we find a sponsor and begin diligently working through the 12 Steps, talking with them about our powerlessness, admitting we can’t do it alone, taking stock of our failings and character defects.

But even so, eventually the day arrives and the question our sponsor puts to us now is just as abrupt as it was for the sick man lying by the pool at Beth-zatha.

“Do you want to be made well?”

So many excuses

“Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Like the man at the pool, sick for 38 years, up until now we have made so many excuses.

We now clearly see that we have been making unreasonable demands upon ourselves, upon others, and upon God.

The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear—primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded. Living upon a basis of unsatisfied demands, we were in a state of continual disturbance and frustration. (76)

It took me 46 years to realize that the serenity I wanted to acquire could not be bought, only received. It took me a lifetime to recognize how sick I was and finally to lay down the self-confidence, the pride, that kept me making excuses instead of asking for help.

A whole lifetime geared to self-centeredness cannot be set in reverse all at once.

Still goaded by sheer necessity, we reluctantly come to grips with those serious character flaws that made problem drinkers of us in the first place, flaws which must be dealt with to prevent a retreat into alcoholism once again.

The notion that we would still live our own lives, God helping a little now and then, began to evaporate. Many of us who had thought ourselves religious awoke to the limitations of this attitude. Refusing to place God first, we had deprived ourselves of His help. (73, 75)

Something like real peace of mind

The slow progress in early recovery works on us very subtly.

Week after week, meeting after meeting, day after day, we practice a new way of living.

Day after day, we try simply to avoid drinking and to do what is in front of us. Week after week, we “work the program” with others who are in the same boat. Meeting after meeting, we begin to share our stories, too.

We “keep coming back,” and discover that “it works if you work it.” (It’s probably a sign of how much I need them that these are the slogans that grate on me most.)

But when we have taken a square look at some of these defects, have discussed them with another, and have become willing to have them removed, our thinking about humility commences to have a wider meaning. By this time in all probability we have gained some measure of release from our more devastating handicaps. We enjoy moments in which there is something like real peace of mind. To those of us who have hitherto known only excitement, depression, or anxiety—in other words, to all of us—this newfound peace is a priceless gift. (74)

When you humbly ask God to remove your shortcomings, you are not only asking for a fuller measure of that peace you have tasted.

You are also asking to be made well, and you will soon be invited in Steps Eight and Nine to “stand up, take your mat and walk” — to put your newfound peace of mind into action.

In the Morning

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer 461)

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12 Steps of Christmas | Wednesday

Step Six – “Were entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character.”

The service of Morning Prayer for this Wednesday after the First Sunday in Christmas can be found here.

Once you start, you just can’t stop

Having been granted a perfect release from alcoholism, why then shouldn’t we be able to achieve by the same means a perfect release from every other difficulty or defect? This is a riddle of our existence, the full answer to which may be only in the mind of God. (64)

As I wrote recently on the blog of Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church, I carry with me two talismans of recovery.

The first is a medallion celebrating my sobriety; the second is a bracelet that was one of the last things I bought without telling my wife. It arrived in the mail the day I recognized my alcoholism.

2015-11-03 08.50.53

I am fortunate that the desire to drink was lifted from me right away. What Step Six helped me understand — and what the bracelet helps me to remember — is how important it is to practice the principles of recovery in all areas of my life.

In truth, I’m working two recovery programs right now. The harder of the two, really, is controlling my spending — and understanding the compulsions that drive it.

Making a beginning

Step Six notes that, “As [alcoholics] are humbled by the terrific beating administered by alcohol, the grace of God can enter them and expel their obsession …. But most of our other difficulties don’t fall under such a category at all” (64).

The trouble with applying recovery principles to our other character defects is that we still have to do many of them in the course of normal living. We still need to eat, to buy things, to strive for success at work, to be in relationship with others, and so on.

Unlike stopping drinking, we can’t really stop everything else.

Two other problems arise at this point, as Step Six explains. First, we actually love some of our defects; and second, eliminating all of our character defects would be perfection, and no one’s capable of that.

Help me, but not yet

According to Wikipedia,

As a youth [St.] Augustine lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, associating with young men who boasted of their sexual exploits. The need to gain their acceptance forced inexperienced boys like Augustine to seek or make up stories about sexual experiences.

It was during this period that he uttered his famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

Step Six puts it slightly differently in a long passage, but the wisdom is the same. How do these observations tally with your experience?

What we must recognize now is that we exult in some of our defects. We really love them. Who, for example, doesn’t like to feel just a little superior to the next fellow, or even quite a lot superior? Isn’t it true that we like to let greed masquerade as ambition? ….

Self-righteous anger also can be very enjoyable. In a perverse way we can actually take satisfaction from the fact that many people annoy us, for it brings a comfortable feeling of superiority. Gossip barbed with our anger, a polite form of murder by character assassination, has its satisfactions for us, too. Here we are not trying to help those we criticize; we are trying to proclaim our own righteousness.

When gluttony is less than ruinous, we have a milder word for that, too; we call it “taking our comfort.” We live in a world riddled with envy. To a greater or less degree, everybody is infected with it …. And how often we work hard with no better motive than to be secure and slothful later on — only we call that “retiring.” Consider, too, our talents for procrastination, which is really sloth in five syllables. (66-67)

Entering recovery reveals how deep our obsessions and compulsions run, how tightly woven they are into everything we do.

Aiming at perfection

Some put their trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we will call upon the Name of the LORD our God.
They collapse and fall down,
but we will arise and stand upright. (Ps. 20:7-8)

Day after day we are given the opportunity to arise and stand upright — over and over again.

In my case, I get to practice watching my spending all the time.

I travel on business, which allows me to live like the jet set (all within the company’s expense policy, but still). I get to enjoy travel, eat out regularly, and earn hotel points and airline miles. I enjoy the perks of traveling very much.

Truth is, though, that because I’m in a different city nearly every day, I’d get along just fine with one suit. No one will really know if I wear the same shirt two days in a row, or the same tie. I tend to wear the same two pairs of shoes with my suit, so perhaps I don’t really need another pair.

This thinking runs entirely counter to my “clothes-horse” sensibilities, to my desire to have whatever I want.

Learning to recognize the spiraling thinking that leads me to buy something I don’t really need, that doesn’t make me any happier, is hard work. Every day it crops up.

But that same spiraling thinking causes me distress in all other areas of life, too, so the work of paying attention pays back dividends beyond just my checking account balance.

Step Six invites us not just into recovery from alcoholism but into a whole new way of living, upright and awake.

Seen in this light, Step Six is still difficult, but not at all impossible. The only urgent thing is that we make a beginning, and keep trying.

If we would gain any real advantage in the use of this Step on problems other than alcohol, we shall need to make a brand new venture into open-mindedness. We shall need to raise our eyes toward perfection, and be ready to walk in that direction. It will seldom matter how haltingly we walk. The only question will be “Are we ready?” (68)

A Collect for Guidance

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

12 Steps of Christmas | Holy Innocents

Step Five – “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

The readings for the Eucharist on the Feast of the Holy Innocents can be found here. Additionally, the Gospel reading appointed for Morning Prayer is here.

This doesn’t feel like Christmas!

Having confronted the darkness inside us with John yesterday, we confront a ruler’s murderous rage and the killing of innocent children today.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, sure stirs up fierce reactions in us and in the society around us.

But as we considered in Step Four yesterday, we have done a lot of stirring up ourselves — causing grief and pain within ourselves and harm to those around us. Our moral inventory is a long list of the wrongs we have done to ourselves and to others.

holy-innocents-rachel-weeping

Today, Step Five invites us to take the next critical step in admitting our faults. We must talk to someone about them.

So intense, though, is our fear and reluctance to do this, that many A.A.’s at first try to bypass Step Five. We search for an easier way—which usually consists of the general and fairly painless admission that when drinking we were sometimes bad actors. Then, for good measure, we add dramatic descriptions of that part of our drinking behavior which our friends probably know about anyhow. But of the things which really bother and burn us, we say nothing. Certain distressing or humiliating memories, we tell ourselves, ought not be shared with anyone. These will remain our secret. Not a soul must ever know. We hope they’ll go to the grave with us. (55)

Along with good insight about the importance of spiritual counsel, Step Five also highlights two difficulties we will face in the process of making our confession real — for that is what we are talking about — and then of understanding what we must do next.

The first difficulty

Many people think they understand confession in a religious sense, but we too often caricature the worst examples of each other’s positions.

In the Roman Catholic Church, largely because it comprises half of the world’s Christians, the problem with confession to a priest — basically what Step Five is describing — is the sheer volume. If everyone really ought to confess before they go to Mass on Sunday, then priests have to hear too many confessions to make them very personal at all.

Until we actually sit down and talk aloud about what we have so long hidden, our willingness to clean house is still largely theoretical. When we are honest with another person, it confirms that we have been honest with ourselves and with God. (60)

Confession, or seeking the advice of a spiritual director, can have the benefit of making real the spiritual forgiveness we are promised in Jesus Christ. More than just going to the confessional booth, though, this may need to be a longer conversation with a priest or director.

Sometimes we simply need to say our sins out loud; and sometimes we simply need to hear from another person that we are forgiven before we can really believe it.

The second difficulty

For Protestants, the understanding that one has direct access to God through Christ, without the need for a human mediator — while true — may mean that Christians do not avail themselves of spiritual counsel and the assurance of forgiveness given by another human being

The second difficulty is this: what comes to us alone may be garbled by our own rationalization and wishful thinking. The benefit of talking to another person is that we can get his direct comment and counsel on our situation, and there can be no doubt in our minds what that advice is. (60)

While many Protestants participate in regular Bible studies or in accountability groups, simply talking about your struggles and getting advice from people close to you may not have the sacramental “heft” that enables you to believe Jesus’ assurance that you have been forgiven.

What must we do?

The Gospel reading at Morning Prayer is an example of “prophetic hyperbole” — Jesus is using exaggeration in order to make a point.

But Jesus’ point is clear: we must be bold and decisive in admitting our wrongs and working to eliminate them from our lives.

If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matt. 18:8-9)

Step Five couldn’t support this notion more fully:

Provided you hold back nothing, your sense of relief will mount from minute to minute. The dammed-up emotions of years break out of their confinement, and miraculously vanish as soon as they are exposed. As the pain subsides, a healing tranquillity takes its place. And when humility and serenity are so combined, something else of great moment is apt to occur. Many an A.A., once agnostic or atheistic, tells us that it was during this stage of Step Five that he first actually felt the presence of God. And even those who had faith already often become conscious of God as they never were before. (62)

So the process of speaking to another person about our wrongs gives us the opportunity to turn and make a new start on our lives.

But on this feast day of the Holy Innocents we must also be mindful that making Step Five also commits us to undoing the harm that our actions have brought to others — the process of making amends that is the subject of Steps Eight and Nine.

May your new start — begun with the honest admission of your wrongdoing — give you the strength to continue making the changes that are ahead of you.

As for me, I will live with integrity;
redeem me, O Lord, and have pity on me.

My foot stands on level ground;
in the full assembly will I bless the Lord. (Ps. 26:11-12)

12 Steps of Christmas | St. John the Evangelist

Step Four – “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

The readings for the Eucharist on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist can be found here.

We deceive ourselves

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Right away, in the first chapter of his first letter, John lays it out for us: either deceive ourselves or confess our sins.

Step Four similarly faces our defects head-on. When confronted with our out-of-control desires for sex, for security, for companionship, we realize that our instincts have turned into liabilities.

By discovering what our emotional deformities are, we can move toward their correction. Without a willing and persistent effort to do this, there can be little sobriety or contentment for us. Without a searching and fearless moral inventory, most of us have found that the faith which really works in daily living is still out of reach. (43)

If we say we have no liabilities, we deceive ourselves, but if we face them head-on we may have a chance at “the faith that really works.”

However,

This perverse soul-sickness is not pleasant to look upon. Instincts on rampage balk at investigation. The minute we make a serious attempt to probe them, we are liable to suffer severe reactions. (44)

Step Four is usually taken with a sponsor for this very reason. We need someone to walk us through a deliberate, step by step process — perhaps over several weeks, as my sponsor did — or else we’ll despair at tackling such a mess.

During those weeks, we go back and forth between darkness and light.

Light and darkness

In both the Gospel and the letters that bear his name, John speaks in terms of light and darkness.

“In the beginning was the Word,” we heard in yesterday’s Gospel. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1; 4-5).

Later in his Gospel, John observes that

This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:19)

And Jesus tells his disciples that

The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” (John 12:35-36)

Believing in the light, coming to the light, means we must act like seeing makes a difference. If we want to know where we are going, we must open our eyes.

The need for a list

But all this religious-sounding talk of light and darkness may keep us from doing the actual work of making a list of our own specific failings.

It feels easier to keep what’s hidden “in the dark,” so to speak, as if ignoring it would make the problem go away.

Now let’s ponder the need for a list of the more glaring personality defects all of us have in varying degrees. To those having religious training, such a list would set forth serious violations of moral principles. Some others will think of this list as defects of character. Still others will call it an index of maladjustments. Some will become quite annoyed if there is talk about immorality, let alone sin. But all who are in the least reasonable will agree upon one point: that there is plenty wrong with us alcoholics about which plenty will have to be done if we are to expect sobriety, progress, and any real ability to cope with life. (48)

If we are to become sober (not only free from drink but balanced in our behavior) we must face what we have done squarely.

My sponsor walked me through a series of actual checklists and had me fill them in, writing down specific actions, the names of specific people. It took several weeks to work through, and it was an ugly process.

 A wonderful, fruitful light

Looking at our own failings is hard, and we don’t like to do it.

Both [the newcomer’s] pride and his fear beat him back every time he tries to look within himself. Pride says, “You need not pass this way,” and Fear says, “You dare not look!” But the testimony of A.A.’s who have really tried a moral inventory is that pride and fear of this sort turn out to be bogeymen, nothing else. Once we have a complete willingness to take inventory, and exert ourselves to do the job thoroughly, a wonderful light falls upon this foggy scene. As we persist, a brand-new kind of confidence is born, and the sense of relief at finally facing ourselves is indescribable. These are the first fruits of Step Four.

Having filled in the checklists, I began to see them less as lists of dark behavior, but as work that was slowly bringing me into the light, bringing me toward real life.

John puts it this way: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8).

No longer servants but friends

Discipleship basically means a “willingness … to exert ourselves to do the job thoroughly.”

The defining character of John the Evangelist is that he is “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He enjoyed a special relationship of intimacy with Jesus beyond mere obedience.

st-john-and-christ-2014

Image from UKCopticIcons.com

At the Last Supper, Jesus widens the circle even further. He says to all of his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends” (John 15:15).

This intimacy strikes right at the root of the defects that manifest themselves in our addiction, as our thorough inventory makes clear:

The primary fact that we fail to recognize is our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being …. We have not once sought to be one in a family, to be a friend among friends, to be a worker among workers, to be a useful member of society. Always we tried to struggle to the top of the heap, or to hide underneath it. This self-centered behavior blocked a partnership relation with any one of those about us. Of true brotherhood we had small comprehension. (53)

How proud and arrogant and manipulative I was when I was drinking. People close to me tried to tell me, tried to show me time after time. But it wasn’t until by grace I was able to face facts myself that I could begin turning around.

We can become “a friend among friends” if we willingly face facts and are searching and fearless in addressing our failings.

“The light shines in the darkness,” says John about his friend Jesus, “and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Find someone who will walk with you, and then go ahead and shine the light into your dark corners.

12 Steps of Christmas | First Sunday in Christmas

Step Three – “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

The readings for the Holy Eucharist on this First Sunday after Christmas can be found here.

I’m preaching this morning at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin — so today’s reflection will sound a lot like the sermon that it is.

God as we understood Him

There is a supreme irony in reflecting on Step Three on this particular Sunday, given that the Gospel reading from John (which is always read on the First Sunday after Christmas) contains some of the most mind-blowing language about God contained anywhere in Scripture.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:1-18 passim)

So, let’s get this straight.

This baby, born in a feed trough in a stable to an unwed mother, is God.

This infant, born far from home because of a government requirement that everyone participate in a census, is Life.

This child, who will grow up to be a perfectly ordinary Jewish man living under Roman occupation, is Light.

This man, framed by religious leaders, arrested by soldiers, and killed by the state as a political criminal, is Grace.

What this man revealed to his friends by his life and teaching, is Truth.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, that has made him known.”

OK, that’s perfectly clear, then. Everyone understand?

Grace and truth

Here’s the spiritual heart of John’s magnificent prologue: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

What we thought we understood about God has been turned upside down.

What we thought was a set of perfectly sensible regulations and statutes and commandments and ordinances — rules that would set us apart as better than others — turns out not to help at all.

What we thought was life was really Law — and we can never live up to what the Law requires. The evidence of our failure is all around us, most especially in the cynical way we talk about principles and values and then just do whatever the hell we want.

Step Three asks us to consider how well our independence has served us. “This brave philosophy, wherein each man plays God, sounds good in the speaking, but it still has to meet the acid test: how well does it actually work?”

Should his own image in the mirror be too awful to contemplate (and it usually is), he might first take a look at the results normal people are getting from self-sufficiency. Everywhere he sees people filled with anger and fear, society breaking up into warring fragments. Each fragment says to the others, “We are right and you are wrong.” Every such pressure group, if it is strong enough, self-righteously imposes its will upon the rest. And everywhere the same thing is being done on an individual basis. The sum of all this mighty effort is less peace and less brotherhood than before. The philosophy of self-sufficiency is not paying off. Plainly enough, it is a bone-crushing juggernaut whose final achievement is ruin. (37)

Into this bitter, barren ruin is born a baby, and John asks us to believe that he is the creative Word of God come to live among us, full of glory, full of grace and truth.

Elsewhere in his Gospel, John says he has “written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Our independent, intellectual, self-sufficient selves balk at this idea.

The paradox of willingness and grace

The explanation of Step Three continues, “The more we become willing to depend upon a Higher Power, the more independent we actually are” (36).

What we start to realize is that when Law comes first, we can never succeed — we are crushed by our failure to live up to its demands.

But when grace comes first, we find that all we have to be is willing to take the next step. Our willingness helps us to exert ourselves in the tasks placed before us.

All of the Twelve Steps [what Richard Rohr refer to as “the coded Gospel”] require sustained and personal exertion to conform to their principles and so, we trust, to God’s will. It is when we try to make our will conform with God’s that we begin to use it rightly. (40)

The paradox of willingness is that depending upon God makes us more free.

The paradox of grace is that it makes us more willing to pay back what we owe to God who gave away everything — power, might, majesty, freedom, even his human life — in order to live among us, show us his truth, and reconcile us to himself and to each other.

In the words of my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.

O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.

The opening of John’s Gospel is another hymn: “From his fullness we have received, grace upon grace.” Grace comes first, and always has since the time that the Word was with God, making the light that shines in the darkness. Grace comes first.

All that God asks of us in return is that we be willing, willing to follow the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, as best as we can understand him, along “the way to a faith that works” (34).

I’m willing to try today. How about you?

12 Steps of Christmas | St. Stephen, deacon and martyr

Step Two – “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Morning Prayer for the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, can be found here.

My heart trusts in him, and I have been helped

December 26, on the Western Christian calendar, is the feast of St. Stephen, one of the first martyrs who witnessed to his faith in Jesus as Lord even in the face of death by stoning.

Stephen’s story, told in Acts 6-7, is about trusting in a new revelation of God. In this case, the revelation is that Jesus himself was God and was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.

His witness, the sermon Stephen preached indicting the Sanhedrin (the religious leaders of Jerusalem) for opposing the Holy Spirit, is a reinterpretation of Jewish history that they cannot stand for.

Stephen’s trust in the Son of God and in this new revelation is so complete that he is not afraid to die. He is filled with a power greater than himself.

Higher Power

Many people I have met in AA meetings talk about how difficult it was for them to accomplish  Step Two.

They struggled to believe in, let alone acknowledge the existence of “a Power greater than ourselves” — which (with a capital P, of course) would seem to refer to the God of Christianity, especially of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran churches so prevalent where I live.

I did not have that particular struggle. As a person brought up in the church and serving for 20 years as an ordained minister, I have always trusted in the existence of God.

But I’m not sure I ever trusted God to “restore me to sanity.”

What really struck me about Step Two was its suggestion that the AA group itself might serve as one’s “Higher Power” as far as recovery goes. The point is, the group has wisdom that I don’t. In that sense, they are greater than I am.

I do well to listen to their counsel, to their stories of “experience, strength, and hope,” to their trust in a Higher Power, as I deal with my own issues.

The wisdom of tradition

There are clear ties here, in my mind, to the traditions of the church and the humility that we might be called to exercise in the face of 2,000 years of the lived experience of the saints.

St. Stephen, the first to demonstrate such a powerful faith, is often pictured holding up a church. Perhaps we are sustained, held up, by the faith of those who came before us.

perseverar-em-Jesus-3We are not the first believers to struggle in our faith, or to suffer because of our belief, or to doubt the presence of God in our lives. We are not the first to face ridicule, or to feel dryness in our prayers, or to question the dogmas that are being pushed on us.

Humility simply means admitting that we might have something to learn from believers who have wisdom that we don’t.

Putting away all earthly anxieties

But more is needed than just learning from the AA group or the church’s traditions if our Higher Power is to  “restore us to sanity.”

What shines through the stories of recovery I have heard is transformed lives. People talk about a whole new way of living that is not based on fear or addiction, but on gratitude and sobriety.

What is even more remarkable is the way people long in recovery maintain their poise even in the face of repeated trials and the need to “keep working the program.” Some even make the astonishing claim that hitting rock bottom was the best thing that ever happened to them.

In the face of struggles and doubts, people in the group “completely give themselves to this simple program” (Big Book 58) which is laid out in the remaining Steps.

It may not be quite the same as facing death by stoning, but practicing recovery — especially coming to believe that a Power greater than ourselves will restore us to sanity — seems to call forth from people a willingness to face difficult situations and people head on but without anxiety.

May we, like Stephen, give ourselves completely to this Power greater than ourselves in trust that we will be restored.

Collect of the Day

We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

A Collect for Saturdays

Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

12 Steps of Christmas | Christmas Day

Step One – “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Today’s service of Morning Prayer for Christmas Day can be found here.

Humility

“Who cares to admit complete defeat? Practically no one, of course.”

So begins the explanation of Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous in the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (21).

In my own case, the fall was both abrupt and literal — from a successful performance at a client event in the morning to a bruising, drunken fall in front of clients and colleagues on the marble floor of the hotel lobby that evening.

The next day I flew home knowing I would be fired, then waited, head in my hands, to tell my wife the news.

I had, through my drinking, lost a job I loved and any self-respect and self-confidence I had clung to in the face of growing concerns about my alcohol use.

“Once this stark fact is accepted,” says Step One, “our bankruptcy as going human concerns is complete” (21).

Imitating God in his lowliness

According to the Christian tradition, humanity generally was pretty much bankrupt and definitely in need of God when God decided to send his Son to live as one of us. That’s the background to the Christmas feast that we celebrate today.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, answers his own question: “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly?”

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Humility, to Bonhoeffer, means “laying down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger.” It means imitating God by remaining lowly.

This resonates with the way early Christians like Paul described Jesus:

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited, 
   but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
    he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

“The glory of God precisely in his lowliness” is what we see in the manger at Christmas.

At Christmas God laid down all power, all honor, all reputation and became a human being, vulnerable just like us. Who are we to be anything but vulnerable like him?

Following Jesus in the way of the cross

This morning we have in Morning Prayer one of the juxtapositions that make the Daily Office such a rich source for reflection.

It is Christmas Day, and so in the first of the collects we speak of our gladness and joy and confidence in God.

Because it is also Friday, however, we immediately pray “that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

Collect of the Day

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A Collect for Fridays

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Humility is not a one-time admission that we get over and done with. Rather, it is an acceptance of our proper place in relationship to God and to other people, who may also be powerless, whose lives may also be unmanageable.

We do not remain bankrupt, however. The explanation of Step One continues: “Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be the firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built” (21).

While we do begin to build purposeful lives again, we must also recognize that our daily experience will continue to involve suffering and frustration.

But that is the pattern of falling and rising that Jesus laid down throughout his whole life, from the most humble beginnings as a baby born in poverty, to his preaching and teaching, and to his trial and execution for a crime he did not commit. As Christians we are called to follow him in that pattern of life, that way of the cross.

Like practicing the Christian faith,

Practicing A.A.’s remaining eleven Steps means the adoption of attitudes and actions that almost no alcoholic who is still drinking can imagine taking. Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant? Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done? Who cares anything about a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer? Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry A.A.’s message to the next sufferer? No, the average alcoholic, self-centered in the extreme, doesn’t care for this prospect—unless he has to do these things in order to stay alive himself. (24)

God, mercifully grant that we, imitating your lowliness and following Jesus in the way of the cross, may find these 12 Steps none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.