Tag Archives: sin

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.

Advertisements

Rejoicing, restored, redeemed, and reconciled

At Evening Prayer on this Easter Eve, we read from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (Romans 8:1-2)

For the 19th year now, I will carry the Paschal Candle into the darkened church tonight at the Great Vigil of Easter and sing the ancient Easter proclamation called the Exsultet (BCP 286).

Rejoice

What we do, as followers of Christ, is rejoice. Paul wrote to the Romans about the reason why: “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death.”

Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels,
and let your trumpets shout Salvation
for the victory of our mighty King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church,
and let your holy courts, in radiant light,
resound with the praises of your people.

Restored

Time bends in upon itself on this particular night. It is not only now, but also that Passover in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified, and even that first Passover in Egypt when God’s people escaped from slavery.

In God’s salvation history we are now and always experiencing restoration from bondage to grace and holiness.

This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel,
out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.
This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin,
and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell,
and rose victorious from the grave.

Redeemed and reconciled

We realize we are powerless to overcome our sins, but God can and will redeem us. We try to hide from God in our shame, but God sees through to our loveliness. We think we’re all alone, but God continually acts to reunite us with one another and all of creation.

How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us,
that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.
How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away.
It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn.
It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.
How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God.

That which God has purposed

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? (Romans 2:17-21)

There is a serious vein running through today’s lessons from Jeremiah and Isaiah through to Paul and Christ.

Jeremiah recounts God’s judgment on God’s people and on Jerusalem. “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor have I turned back” (Jer. 4:27-28).

God’s judgment is terrible, and he is unrelenting.

Except then comes the Canticle, the Second Song of Isaiah (Isa. 55:6-11), with its familiar words of reassurance:

For as rain and snow fall from the heavens
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth,
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word which goes forth from my mouth;
it will not return to me empty,
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed,
and prosper in that for which I sent it.

Christians, of course, read these words in the light of Christ the Word who “goes forth from God,” so to speak, and who accomplishes what God purposes.

What God purposes, we know from our vantage point post-Easter, is not desolation but restoration. God has “relented” once for all in Christ and continues to be present to us through the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide. How can we forget what God has done for us, has won for us, in Christ?

This is what frustrates Paul so much in his letter to the Romans. He basically asks, “Are you turning away from grace and back to the judgment under the law which cannot save?”

His question resonates with the prophets’ words. Are we turning away from restoration and teaching desolation? Are we preaching grace or sin?

Of course, it’s not an either/or thing. Grace freely given comes with a consciousness of sin. When I have been forgiven, I am acutely aware of exactly what I have done wrong. But the message from my forgiver — whether it’s my wife or the priest pronouncing God’s absolution on Sunday — is restoration, not condemnation.

Where in our lives do we still reflect a spirit of judgment, faces set in a disapproving frown? Where do we still dwell on faults more than freedom, quick to relay dirt and to dismiss others’ pain? Where do we still fail to preach the message of good news that animated Jesus and Paul and our forebears in this life in Christ?

Even worse, where does our judgmentalism and obsession with rectitude cause “the Name of God to be blasphemed” because of us (Rom. 2:24)? It’s happening all around us as people turn away from angry so-called “Christianity.” God forbid!

Like rain falling from the heavens is God’s grace falling on us, on all of us who “have no power in ourselves to help ourselves,” in the words of next Sunday’s Collect. What God has purposed is our restoration, our reconciliation with God, and our reaching out in love to the people around us.

What we can be sure of is that God’s word will prosper in us, will teach us, as we live out God’s restoring mission.

God hates nothing God has made

Pinned Insects

Collect for Ash Wednesday

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 217)

+ + + + +

Since late last year, following a serious lack of judgment at a company event, I have been on a disciplinary plan at work and have been seeing a counselor through our Employee Assistance Program.

Having my failings made visible is really uncomfortable — the first image that comes to my mind is an insect pinned to a board — but the process of dealing with the issues openly and with help from other people has led to some long-overdue changes in my life.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of discipline in the reading appointed for today.

Endure trials for the sake of discipline … [God] disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems unpleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:7, 10-11).

On Ash Wednesday, we rehearse the heart of the Christian message about sin and forgiveness.

God hates nothing God has made, even though we fall short of the mark again and again.

When we confess our sins and get them out in the open, when we allow others to help us deal with our failings, we open ourselves up to receive from “the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.”

Having received forgiveness, having been trained by discipline (not just once, but as often as it takes!), we in turn extend that forgiveness to those around us.

Yes, we are mortal — ashes to ashes, dust to dust — but we are God’s. “He himself has made us, and we are his” (Jubilate, BCP 83).

God hates nothing God has made, and God forgives the sins of all who are penitent.

Unworthy as I am, you will save me,
in accordance with your great mercy,
and I will praise you without ceasing all the days of my life.
For all the powers of heaven sing your praises,
and yours is the glory to ages of ages. Amen.
(Canticle 14, BCP 91)