Tag Archives: Recovery

That they might lovely be | Sermon for Advent 3

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.

“Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” – I think that verse from the hymn “My Song is Love Unknown” is the single best description of the Incarnation that I have ever heard.

In Advent, the Church prepares to celebrate that great mystery of Incarnation: God becoming a human child out of love for us, living among us in order to make us children of God.

Mary’s rejoicing on this Gaudete Sunday (“gaudete” means rejoice) comes from her knowledge of the God of her ancestors.

In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), she sings of the God who:

has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly

 [who] has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty

Mary knows that God shows love to the loveless, and she willingly participates in that work by saying “yes” to God and by bearing Jesus, the Son of God, in her womb.

Love to the loveless shown

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, born at nearly the same time to Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth, is in prison.

This is the same John who last week berated the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to the Jordan to receive his baptism of repentance: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

John is a wild-haired but clear-eyed prophet and he is all too aware of how unlovely people are. The loveless act badly, and he calls them to do better. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”

But he’s been waiting his whole life to see the kingdom, and now he’s in jail and in peril of his life, so he sends word to Jesus by his disciples.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ answer to his cousin is cryptic, but it points to God’s purposes:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. (Matt. 11:4-6)

The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor – notice that being poor is even worse in this catalog than being dead! – all of these have good news brought to them.

Love to the loveless shown. That’s how you’ll know the kingdom has come near, says Jesus.

That they might lovely be

Can you hear that good news for yourself?

What would it take to break through your blindness, your stumbling, your illness, your selective hearing, your deadened heart, and your feelings of scarcity and need?

What would help you hear good news?

For me, it was hearing a version of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, two summers ago.

A group called Theodicy Jazz Collective played for one of the Eucharists at the General Convention in Salt Lake City back in 2015. I followed a link to check them out, and I was moved to download more of their extraordinarily lovely music.

As I listened to their album Vespers, I was inspired to start sketching liturgical notes and outlines for “A Jazz Vespers for Recovery.” I’d love to help create and bring a service like that to the Fox Cities, and my head began swirling with the possibilities.

But their song “The Magnificat” checked my stride (and my pride) and brought tears to my eyes. The soprano began simply:

My soul magnifies the Lord
my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior
my soul magnifies the Lord,
for God looks on my loveliness with favor.

Can it be true? God looks on my loveliness with favor?

Even though part of me knew that I had simply misheard the lyric, the rest of me sat stunned and grateful.

My experience of recovery has been an experience of grace and repentance, of admitting my own powerlessness and discovering that God continually pours out blessings on me. All I have to do in response is follow “certain steps … which are suggested as a program of recovery” (Big Book 58-9).

My more recent experience accepting the bishop’s call to serve as a priest (after nearly 21 years as a deacon) has also been an experience of grace. I’ve spent most of this year working with other people to discern the strengths that will serve me and the church well and to look clearly at the weaknesses that still require my attention. God pours out blessings on me, and I must continue to turn toward him as I follow his unfolding invitation.

Like John the Baptist, I know only too well how unlovely I can be.

Like John, I usually know that I should point beyond myself and my own efforts to Jesus, the Son of God, who brings the good news of the kingdom.

Like John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary, I usually know to “proclaim the greatness of the Lord.”

But can it really be true that God looks on our loveliness with favor? Or, to sing Mary’s song correctly, that God looks on our lowliness with favor?

How can that be? Like Mary, I ponder that question in my heart.

Oh who am I?

The complete first verse of the hymn we started with goes like this:

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die?

Who am I indeed?

In Advent, we pray at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer that “when [the beloved Son] shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing” (BCP 378).

As we look forward to the Second Coming, we have a sense for what to expect based on Jesus’ first coming.

John’s question this morning comes fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. The good news is fulfilled, paradoxically, in Jesus’ death on the cross.

We heard that story on Christ the King Sunday just before Advent began.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41)

Who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

Too often, I am the mean thief deriding Jesus from the cross while also pleading, “Save me!” Too often, I am in trouble or filled with shame and fear.

But the good news is that I am not who say I am. The good news is that I am who I am who I am says I am.

Let me repeat that: I am who I am who I am says I am.

And what I am who I am says – what God says – what Jesus, the Son of God says – is that I am so lovely that he will go to any lengths to save me.

You are so lovely that God will go to any lengths to save you.

You are not what you say about yourself. You are not what others say about you. You are beloved, that you may be lovely.

This is the message of the Incarnation, which we prepare during Advent to celebrate at Christmas. This is the good news, to which we point with John the Baptist and for which we rejoice with Elizabeth and Mary.

The child born to Mary, Jesus – the Son of God, who died for us and rose again – looks on your lowliness with favor. You may without shame or fear rejoice to behold him at his appearing.

You are who God says you are, and you are lovely. Amen.

 

Image: Magnificat © Jan Richardson from The Advent Door.

Stay thirsty, my friends | Sermon for Proper 24C

At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin (where I serve as deacon) we’re in the middle of a six-week series of sermons on the Beatitudes, sayings of Jesus that are found in the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew.

Jesus is addressing Jews and Samaritans and Greeks, a mixed crowd of believers and non-believers, those who think they belong and those who have been told they don’t.

He says we are “blessed” – happy or fortunate – when we are poor in spirit, when we are meek, when we mourn. He’s announcing the coming of God’s kingdom, where things are as God intends them to be.

Today we’re on the fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Righteousness is when things are as God intends them to be.

Righteousness comes from the Greek word dikaiosune, meaning fairness or justice; my wife tells me that in German, the word for righteousness is like “richtig” – meaning that things are done correctly.

Righteousness is divine approval; what is deemed right by God.

Those who are righteous are those who are as they ought to be. Those who receive a righteous judgment are those who are treated justly, fairly, correctly – as God would have them treated.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, then, are those who eagerly desire to see everyone treated as God would treat them.

Fr. Aran told us two weeks ago about the rabbinical way of riffing on Scripture in what is called a “remez.” I want to riff on just one word, the word thirst – righteousness may feel like too big, too abstract a concept. Thirst we can understand.

A remez is the second of the four traditional levels of interpretation of the biblical text the historical, philosophical, homiletic, and mystical.

So here’s another philosophy – a remez – about thirst that you’ll recognize:

“Stay thirsty, my friends.”

The Most Interesting Man in the World does not really hunger or thirst for righteousness, does he? He thirsts for adventure and acclaim that set him apart from other people. In fact, with his recent well-publicized blast-off to Mars, he’s about as far apart from us as he can get.

dos_equis4-8-2016-20160408024411350

He’s more “up in heaven” than “down here on earth.”

The flip side of that beer commercial (on the day before my third sobriety anniversary) is a very down-to-earth story about Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Frustrated by the slow growth of the AA Fellowship, and anxious about the thousands of copies of his “Big Book” Alcoholics Anonymous remaining unsold in a warehouse, he spoke to Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who appeared at his New York apartment one cold, rainy evening in 1940. As the story goes,

Soon Bill was talking about all the steps and taking his fifth step (telling the exact nature of his wrongs) with this priest who had limped in from a storm. He told Father Ed about his anger, his impatience, his mounting dissatisfactions.

“Blessed are they,” Father Ed said, “who hunger and thirst.”

Bill replied, “Is there ever to be any satisfaction?”

Father Ed said, “Never. Never any. Keep on reaching – in time your reaching will find God’s goals, hidden in your own heart.”

He reminded Bill W., “You have made a decision to turn your life and your will over to God … you are not to sit in judgment on how God or the world is proceeding. You have only to keep the channels open … it is not up to you to decide how fast or how slowly AA develops … For whether the two of us like it or not, the world is undoubtedly proceeding as it should, in God’s good time.”

Father Ed basically describes the pattern of the Christian life, what we call the way of the Cross, and Bill began to learn that night that he had to turn his thirst for success and the approval of others toward self-sacrifice instead, putting down his own ambition in favor of working his own program, one day at a time.

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“We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

We Christians learn about the way of the Cross, what we call “the way of life and peace,” from Jesus himself, especially from the way we see him act as the end of his life and ministry draws near.

The Beatitudes come from the beginning of his ministry, where he is drawing large crowds.

But even before that beginning, just after his baptism, Jesus had to face a trial of temptation. He is alone in the desert and the Devil appears to him.

“You look hungry; why not make these stones into bread?”

Jesus realizes that he must turn his own hunger, his concern for his own life and ministry, his power as God’s beloved, which could just make him self-sufficient, into concern for others. He must aim his hunger elsewhere, as the Word of God will teach him.

His ministry must be about feeding others (and with overflowing baskets of bread, in fact) while he eats the bread of life from God’s word which, as Paul later reminds Timothy, “is useful for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

But at the end of his life, on the night before he died, he is once again all alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” Perhaps in his Agony he remembers his own parable “about the need to pray always and not lose heart.”

“I’m thirsty,” he says to the Father, “but I don’t want to drink this.”

“Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.” The prayer he taught to his disciples – the Lord’s Prayer which we pray daily in the church, the Lord’s Prayer that many AA meetings close with – rises to his own lips: “Thy will be done.”

Jesus must aim his eagerness for the Kingdom of God, finally, away from all success, away from the crowds, away from his closest friends, and toward the one final act in the drama of redemption which only he can perform.

He gives up his freedom. He is bound and arrested, tortured and mocked, beaten and finally crucified as though he were a murderer or a thief. He endures injustice and unfairness and what is not right for the sake of the whole world.

As he hangs from the cross, Jesus says with nearly his last breath, “I thirst.”

i-thirst

He aims what he thirsts for at the heart of the Father, and “earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God” (BCP 287).

+ + + + +

 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Being filled in the sense that Bill W.’s story and more importantly, the example of Jesus, suggests is less about the achievement and more about the process.

The fellowship is growing too slowly for the Wall Street money man’s tastes, but it’s not about him. He must work the Steps himself and stay humble.

The Devil is persuasive to a hungry man in the desert, but he resists the temptation to use his newfound power for himself only.

The cup is bitter, like “sour grapes that set one’s teeth on edge,” like sour wine mixed with gall, but the thirsty man drinks it so that God’s will for the whole world will be fulfilled.

Over time, and with constant practice, as we do our best to set aside our ambitions and focus on our own way of the Cross – as we try daily simply to carry out our ministries fully – we will find that our reaching and God’s goals have become one.

“It’s not up to you to decide … We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

Righteousness will come about not because we aim to “save the world” – which Christ Jesus has already done anyway “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (BCP 334) – but because we aim what we thirst for, our ambitions and desires, at what we can do for the sake of others today.

So, stay thirsty, my friends.

Amen.

12 Steps of Christmas | Eve of the Epiphany

Step Twelve – “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Morning Prayer for today can be found here. Since tonight is the Eve of the Epiphany, today is the 12th day of Christmas.

Thank you for joining me in these reflections on praying the Daily Office and practicing recovery; I hope you have found them useful.

Having had an awakening

The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. (Jonah 2:5-6)

Step Twelve begins with a recounting of the previous Steps and of our progress to date. It’s a little longer than the previous chapters in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, but I invite you to take a few minutes to read it.

Among other things, you will find that “alcoholics” are mentioned no more than 20 times in 20 short pages. The Twelve Steps are basically human wisdom about living by spiritual principles, though for us the essential starting point was a crisis brought on by our drinking.

It mattered little whether we had sat on the shore of life drinking ourselves into forgetfulness or had plunged in recklessly and willfully beyond our depth and ability. The result was the same—all of us had nearly perished in a sea of alcohol. (123-24)

Today, “we begin to practice all Twelve Steps of the program in our daily lives so that we and those about us may find emotional sobriety” (106).

Carry the message

As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. (Eph. 6:15)

The A.A. meeting that I attend each week opens with the Serenity Prayer and a moment of silence.

Then different people read three key texts: the Preamble, “How It Works” (the chapter from Alcoholics Anonymous that lays out the Twelve Steps), and the Twelve Traditions.

The last reader finishes with a “Responsibility Declaration”:

I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that, I am responsible.

The first part of “Twelve Step work” is to be willing to serve any alcoholic who still suffers. After all, we are people who are in recovery, and we have something that the alcoholic needs, so we must be ready to share that knowledge humbly at any time.

Many of the people I know “in the program” are truly generous with their time and talent in the service of others. My sponsor, for example, attends several meetings a week with the several people he sponsors at any given time. He also brings A.A. literature into the jail and prison system and arranges for newly-released prisoners to find a meeting close to home.

Just so in every church I have served, which is full of people willing and eager to go the extra mile in order to make visitors feel welcome, to reach out into the neighborhood with invitations, to feed the people who come several times a week for a meal, to teach classes, to visit the shut-ins.

The list of ways that we extend our hands to others is nearly endless.

Practice the principles

Now comes the biggest question yet. What about the practice of these principles in all our affairs? Can we love the whole pattern of living as eagerly as we do the small segment of it we discover when we try to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety? Can we bring the same spirit of love and tolerance into our sometimes deranged family lives that we bring to our A.A. group? Can we have the same kind of confidence and faith in these people who have been infected and sometimes crippled by our own illness that we have in our sponsors? Can we actually carry the A.A. spirit into our daily work? (111-12)

In an earlier post, I shared a couple of occasions when I realized that recovery practices — especially admitting fault promptly — were not just about alcoholism but about a new way of living.

Like other membership groups, A.A. and the church alike run the risk of turning inward.

If the church doesn’t connect Sunday with Monday, we go back into our daily lives and act no differently than those around us. If we attend lots of meetings but stay “in the rooms,” we may still be out of control in our daily lives.

Just like the song “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” we might sing that “They’ll know we are recovering by our sobriety.”

Just as the point of the Daily Office is not to check another prayer task off the eternal to-do list, neither does attending meetings alone secure any benefit for us. Both of them are examples of the “maintenance of our spiritual condition” that keeps us on the path of sobriety in our daily lives.

We pray the Daily Office not only to be in relationship with God, but also to equip us to see God at work in the world around us and to see Jesus “hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison” (Matt. 25:31-46).

We attend meetings not only to share the company of those who understand our problems, but also to help us live lives that are “sober and upright” in order to draw into our fellowship those who are still suffering.

A Prayer for Mission

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP 101)

12 Steps of Christmas | Monday

Step Eleven – “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, asking only for knowledge of His will and the power to carry that out.”

Morning Prayer for this Monday after the Second Sunday after Christmas can be found here.

Live wisely

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 5:15-20)

Step Eleven lies behind this whole series of posts, as it is where the life-giving practice of recovery meets the life-giving practice of the Daily Office.

Prayer and meditation are practices by which we seek to listen to what God is saying and by which we ask for the wisdom we need for the day.

The Daily Office is, of course, a form of prayer. It is not meditation per se, though it may be done meditatively.

There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation, and prayer. Taken separately, these practices can bring much relief and benefit. But when they are logically related and interwoven, the result is an unshakable foundation for life. (98)

The closest parallel between recovery and the Daily Office is the reading and re-reading of the basic texts.

Meeting after meeting, in A.A. we read from the “Big Book” Alcoholics Anonymous or from the slim volume Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions — to which we have been referring in this series of posts — or from any number of books written by the early founders of the fellowship, like As Bill Sees It.

Just so, in the Daily Office we read and re-read the basic texts of Christianity in the context of Morning and Evening Prayer.

The Psalms we pray every seven weeks. The Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, we read in course over a two-year period. The New Testament we read each year.

In both cases, we soak ourselves in the wisdom of our tradition, in the accumulated experience of those women and men who have gone before us.

 

Listen attentively

I will listen to what the LORD God is saying,
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him. (Ps. 85:8)

Meditation is the basic spiritual practice of sitting quietly in God’s presence and listening for God to speak to our situation.

The actual experience of meditation and prayer across the centuries is, of course, immense. The world’s libraries and places of worship are a treasure trove for all seekers. It is to be hoped that every A.A. who has a religious con- nection which emphasizes meditation will return to the practice of that devotion as never before. (98)

What Step Eleven describes on pages 99-100 as a practice for those unfamiliar with meditation is what the Christian tradition calls lectio divina, or holy reading.

That approach, like the study of the Big Book or the 12 and 12, begins with reading and re-reading a particular text (in this case the “Prayer of St. Francis” is given).

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen. (BCP 833)

However, lectio divina is less about intellectual study than it is about listening for God to speak through the text. Monastic teachers talk about lectio as “rumination,” like a cow chewing the cud to extract every ounce of nutrients out of the grass.

Another form of meditation better known in Eastern religions is simply to sit in silence, letting thoughts arise and fade away. Sometimes called “mindfulness meditation” or, in the Christian tradition “Centering Prayer,” this form of meditation accomplishes two things.

First, we practice the absolutely critical recovery skill of detaching from our thoughts. Thoughts arise and we do not engage them. How revolutionary for us addicts to realize that we do not have to act on every thought that arises! Meditation helps release us from what A.A. calls “stinking thinking.”

Second, and especially in Centering Prayer, we embody our trust in God (or our Higher Power) by sitting in the presence of the One who loves us. We begin to learn that we are valuable because of who we are, not because of what we do.

In meditation we may begin over time to experience that “daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).

Far from being a burden, practicing meditation is an oasis.

Live cheerfully

Finally, Step Eleven is the transition point between the discrete Steps that have come before and the days that stretch out ahead of us — “one day at a time.”

Tomorrow we will consider in Step Twelve how we “practice these principles in all our affairs,” but for today we ask only for knowledge of God’s will and the power to carry that out.

A Collect for the Renewal of Life

O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 99)

12 Steps of Christmas | Second Sunday in Christmas

Step Ten – “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong
promptly admitted it.”

Morning Prayer for this Second Sunday after Christmas can be found here.

Clothe yourselves with humility

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. (Col. 3:12-14)

In yesterday’s post on Step Nine I ran a little bit ahead of myself (a common symptom of addictive behavior) when I anticipated the focus of today’s Step Ten.

When we approach Step Ten we commence to put our A.A. way of living to practical use, day by day, in fair weather or foul. Then comes the acid test: can we stay sober, keep in emotional balance, and live to good purpose under all conditions? (88)

The habit of daily self-examination is one that dovetails nicely with the Daily Office, and this Step in particular has helped me appreciate the connection between recovery practices and the religious traditions I have known my whole life.

Confession of Sin

You’ll notice that the service of Morning Prayer that I linked to above does not include a Confession of Sin.

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen. (BCP 78)

My knowledge of liturgical history helps me understand that the Confession of Sin is optional in the Daily Office; it can be omitted, for example, during festive seasons like Christmas.

However, my practice of Step Ten has taught me that the Confession is not optional; it’s the daily self-examination that helps keep me on the road of recovery.

The quick inventory is aimed at our daily ups and downs, especially those where people or new events throw us off balance and tempt us to make mistakes.

… in thought, word, and deed …

… by what we have done …

… and by what we have left undone …

… we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

 

We need not be discouraged

What I have enjoyed learning as I practice recovery is how much the basic spiritual wisdom is the same.

In all these situations we need self-restraint, honest analysis of what is involved, a willingness to admit when the fault is ours, and an equal willingness to forgive when the fault is elsewhere. We need not be discouraged when we fall into the error of our old ways, for these disciplines are not easy. We shall look for progress, not for perfection. (91)

Daily we confess our sins, daily we resolve to do better, daily we admit that we cannot do it alone.

Daily we praise God and give thanks that we don’t have to.

Collect of the Day

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, you Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 214)

12 Steps of Christmas | Saturday

Step Nine – “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

Morning Prayer for this Saturday after the First Sunday of Christmas can be found here.

Who among you loves life *
and desires long life to enjoy prosperity?
Keep your tongue from evil-speaking *
and your lips from lying words.
Turn from evil and do good; *
seek peace and pursue it. (Ps. 34:12-14)

Step Nine, more than any other Step, I think, invites us into an entirely new way of living.

While laying out a sensible approach to making direct amends (perhaps for the very first time) to those whom we have harmed, Step NIne also reminds us that:

Of course, there is no pat answer which can fit all such dilemmas. But all of them do require a complete willingness to make amends as fast and as far as may be possible in a given set of conditions. (87)

Being willing to make amends “as fast and as far as possible” is the practice which really unlocked recovery for me.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Two incidents in my first year of recovery underscore how major a change this was.

First, because I spent a lot of time at home instead of on the road after losing my job, my wife and I had many more occasions to talk — about anything or nothing at all.

One evening, while she was making dinner, we were talking about money (which always triggered me) and I felt myself making my usual defensive responses. The same uncomfortable silence fell over the kitchen until I said, “I’m sorry about how I responded. Here’s what’s happening. Can we try this again?”

When I was working again, the second opportunity to practice making amends came my way.

I have always been a quick learner, a glib and articulate public speaker, but my new job required mastery of significantly more content than I previously had to work with.

When I was presenting to a colleague to demonstrate my competence, we came to a section of material I had neither studied nor prepared well. He very appropriately called me on the carpet, and I felt my cheeks burning with both shame and arrogance.

“How dare he challenge me?”

I took a breath and replied. “You’re right. I did not prepare as I should have. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”

To my astonishment, he accepted my apology and agreed to my request to demonstrate the material again the next day.

The generous response of most people to such quiet sincerity will often astonish us. Even our severest and most justified critics will frequently meet us more than halfway on the first trial. (84)

What recovery has taught me, first and foremost, is that I must take responsibility for my own actions and own up to them when I have harmed another person.

Don’t just “show up and throw up”

Some of the wisdom of Step Nine makes clear that early members of A.A. were professional salesmen, because their teaching is infused not only with insights into human relationships but also a sense of timing and appropriateness.

While we may be quite willing to reveal the very worst, we must be sure to remember that we cannot buy our own peace of mind at the expense of others. (84)

Experience taught the early members of the fellowship that there was a right time for most of the conversations that making direct amends would require.

We shall at once think of a few people who know all about our drinking, and who have been most affected by it. But even in these cases, we may need to use a little more discretion than we did with the family. We may not want to say anything for several weeks, or longer. First we will wish to be reasonably certain that we are on the A.A. beam. Then we are ready to go to these people, to tell them what A.A. is, and what we are trying to do. (84)

We may have an experience like I did, an admission of fault that was met with generosity. In those cases it is important not to think it’s “one and done,” but to remember this is a new way of living.

The temptation to skip the more humiliating and dreaded meetings that still remain may be great. We will often manufacture plausible excuses for dodging these issues entirely. Or we may just procrastinate, telling ourselves the time is not yet, when in reality we have already passed up many a fine chance to right a serious wrong. Let’s not talk prudence while practicing evasion. (85)

This Step is really asking us to act differently as well as to think differently. We are to be quick to admit fault, slow to place blame, eager to take the first step to restore a relationship.

Bearing with one another in love

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians asks for the same eagerness in acting on behalf of others.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1)

Paul is urging the Christians in Ephesus to practice unity, to live like they are one in Christ, united in one calling by the baptism they share.

Likewise, we in recovery are united by the common bonds of suffering and hope that we share. We also are to express that hope in action that seeks the best for others.

For the readiness to take the full consequences of our past acts, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is the very spirit of Step Nine. (87)

Collect of the Day

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

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)