Tag Archives: faith that works

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.

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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?