Category Archives: 12 Steps of Christmas

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.

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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.

12 Steps of Christmas | Introduction

Before we begin with Step One and Morning Prayer on Christmas Day, here’s a little background information about the Daily Office, the 12 Steps, and my plan for this series that you may find helpful.

About the Daily Office

From the beginning, Christians, like their Jewish forebears, have prayed at set times of the day. (See Acts 3:1, for example.)

Over the centuries, and especially with the rise of monastic communities, Christians gathered to pray as often as seven times a day (emulating Psalm 119:164).

That sevenfold monastic pattern was simplified during the Reformation, and in the Church of England became two “offices” of Morning and Evening Prayer.

The Roman Catholic Church may refer to these prayers as the Liturgy of the Hours, the Orthodox Churches may refer to them as divine services or divine offices, and the Episcopal Church (to which I belong) refers to them as the Daily Office.

Whatever differences there may be — in number of services, times of the day, selections from Scripture to be read at certain times — there is a basic pattern to the Daily Office that’s pretty common.

The Psalter – Reading from the Psalms has for centuries been the foundation of daily prayer.

In the Episcopal Church, the 150 psalms are read at Morning and Evening Prayer on a seven-week cycle.

The Lessons – Readings from the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament) and from the New Testament are next. In some churches, those readings are relatively short (maybe just a verse or two) and may be called “chapters.”

In the Episcopal Church, we have inherited a tradition of reading a lot of Scripture in the Daily Office. Over the course of two years, we read most of the Old Testament once and the whole New Testament twice.

The schedule of what Psalms and Scripture lessons are to be read on a particular day is called the “lectionary.”

The Prayers – Beginning with the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for our own needs and those of others and we give thanks to God for the blessings we enjoy.

In the Episcopal Church, there are special prayers called “collects” that set themes for every Sunday of the year, for days of the week, and for special occasions. At each office, we commonly read two or three of these collects.

About the 12 Steps

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, according to the history timeline on the AA website, date to 1938 and to the early experience of the first members.

They are “a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”

The 12 Steps were codified from the “Big Book” titled Alcoholics Anonymous, which also includes stories sharing members’ experience, strength, and hope.

You can read the 12 Steps in short form or in the longer form of the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

About this blog

I’ve been praying the Daily Office for about 23 years now, since before my ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and I’ve been writing and teaching about it for many years.

I’ve only been practicing recovery for a little over two years now, since becoming sober in October 2013.

Three things really stand out for me as I compare the two practices:

The first thing that struck me about AA meetings is the regular reading and re-reading of the Big Book and of the “12 and 12.”

This constant return to the basic texts of AA has a lot in common with the practice of the Daily Office.

Year after year, season after season, week after week, “one day at a time,” the words of the basic texts — Bible or Big Book — soak into your imagination, and you begin a process of incorporating their wisdom into your daily living.

The second thing that I discovered is that both AA and the church talk about similar spiritual practices; we just call them by different names. For example, what AA calls a “daily self-inventory” the church calls “Confession of Sin.”

And third, both practices are done not because you feel like it, but because it’s time to do it.

We pray Morning Prayer each day at 6 am because that’s the time to do it; we go to an AA meeting on Friday evenings because that’s the time to do it. We can enjoy a “daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).

The 12 Steps of Christmas

Each day during the 12 Days of Christmas, we will read one of the 12 steps and pray the Daily Office with its psalms and Bible lessons as appointed in the lectionary.

From the resonances between them, perhaps some wisdom will emerge that will help in our “spiritual awakening.”

I look forward to having you join me in the process for the next 12 days, and I invite you to share in the conversation by adding your comments.

Merry Christmas!

12 Steps of Christmas | About

Inspired by the name of an event — “The 12 Steps of Christmas” — that I recently attended at the Solutions Recovery Club in Oshkosh, I will offer reflections on the 12 Steps and the daily office each day of the Christmas season.

I will start with an introductory post on Christmas Eve, December 24, and then posts on Steps 1 through 12 from Christmas Day through the Eve of the Epiphany, January 5.

I’ve been praying the Daily Office — Morning and Evening Prayer — for about 23 years now, but I’ve been practicing recovery for only a little more than two.

Being in recovery has helped me understand what Richard Rohr refers to as “the coded Gospel” of the 12 Steps, and it has revitalized both my prayer practice and my spiritual life.

You don’t have to know anything about the Daily Office or the 12 Steps to join in.

Here are two quick resources that will help you follow along:

Forward Movement offers Daily Prayer Anytime, where you can get the prayers and readings for the Daily Office according to the use of the Episcopal Church (which I serve as an ordained minister).

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are available online as PDF files in short form and in the fuller form of the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

Please consider joining me in these reflections by offering your own comments as you read each day’s post, and please share this blog with anyone else you think might enjoy this walk through the season.