The Troublemakers

pope-francis-touching-disabled-manAs Michael Gerson points out in his opinion piece in the Washington Post, what is compelling about this “trouble-maker,” Pope Francis, is his understanding that the Christian faith has a bias, a soft-spot, if you will, for the downtrodden, the outcast, the broken.

This, of course, is why Christianity and the Twelve Step programs of recovery have so much in common: they are both designed to reach those who most need help: the least, the last and the lost.  It is not the healthy who need a doctor, said Jesus, but the sick, and this is why I have come.

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Arguing with the Author: The Futility and Necessity of Wrestling with God

“Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.’”
–CS Lewis, The Horse and His Boy.

Aslan-Narnia-320x480In my last post, I talked about Story, and the ways in which God is a story-telling God. I used the rooms of recovery as an example of how our friends the recovering addicts have discovered that Story is the most powerful way to learn about the ways in which God works in the lives of everyday people sickened with the disease of addiction.  The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is composed of two parts: the first 164 pages lays out the “Program” of how the earliest AAs recovered from the fatal disease of alcoholism; but then the second section, which may be even more powerful to read, consists of several hundred pages of stories—dozens and dozens of stories about individual recoveries. The Bible, too, for all of the misconceptions, even amongst Christians, that it is some kind of theological or ethical treatise, is really a collection of stories about God and God’s people, and in and through those stories we can see the Macro-Story: “How God Intervened in History and Saved His People, Parts I and II.”

I concluded in this last blog that it must be the nature of God to be a Story-telling God, and that it is in and through our own stories that we can know God and begin to discover how God is working in our lives.  We are, in some very real ways, hardwired for Story, and will do well to think of our own lives in terms of the story that God is writing with and through us.

Lovely. Terrific. Yay for God; yay for me.

But there’s a catch.  Sometimes the story falls apart. Sometimes the Author seems to be out to lunch. Earthquakes bury children; wicked dictators gas their own people; whole peoples starve to death in one part of the world while self-absorbed consumerism thrives elsewhere.  What in hell happened to the Story?  What kind of Author is this, anyway?

I ask because my wife is dying, and I’m angry about it. Really angry. Like, take-a-baseball-bat-to-a-tree-angry, like, stand-outside-at-midnight-and-roar-at-the-stars-angry. Like, gonna-burn-my-Bible-angry.

This was not the plan. This was not supposed to be part of the Story. Last July, when Sabine and I stood in our lovely garden, surrounded by family and friends, enveloped in the blazing summer sunshine, when we exchanged solemn vows—each of us having overcome broken hearts and broken dreams to trust again, to love again, to say “I do and I will” again—on that day, a fatal diagnosis within five months was no part of the what we thought would be the Plot of the Story.

And even then. Even then. Even if fatal illness had to be part of the Story…how about giving us a few years, fer cryin out loud?  How about giving the illness to me—who is older, who has lived five lifetimes already, whose child is already grown and out the door??  I could go now; I’d be okay with that.  But not Sabine. Not this lovely, kind, generous woman with so much to give the world, not Sabine with her terrific but vulnerable 13 year-old daughter who simply idolizes her mother.  No no no—me, not her. ME NOT HER.  What are you doing, God?? Why is this happening to her, God?

***

In one of the Narnia stories, quoted above, Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensie children, who in many ways has the tenderest relationship with Aslan, the mighty Lion-King of Narnia, is bewailing the fate of some other character for whom all has not gone well.  She argues with Aslan—something one really does not do, if one understands Who Aslan is.  But she argues anyway, trying to understand the what-ifs, the whys… and Aslan gently but firmly closes the discussion by saying, “I am telling you your own story, child; no one is told any story but their own.”

I think of that often, when I get baseball-bat angry and demand of God some answers… it is then that I hear, “No one is told any story but his own.”  And, with Lucy, I almost say, “okay, Aslan; whatever you say.”

I start to say it; I really do. But then I pick up the baseball bat again. I become Jacob, wrestling with God, Jacob, whose name in Hebrew means “he who struggles with God.”  And I wrestle all night until I lie spent in the dawn, and again I hear, “No one is told any story but his own.” I start to call bullshit and then I go silent, and I remember…

When all is said and done, I am a Christian because the Gospel, the Good News, tells me that I do not suffer alone, and that those I love do not suffer alone. “Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the Bible; I suppose “God is Love” is the next shortest.  “Jesus wept” and “God is love” together summarize the entire incarnational theology of the Christian God. And so we follow a crucified Lord, we worship a suffering God.  Our Savior cried out in the Garden, and then—in His own baseball-bat moment—cried out again on the Cross, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  So far as we know He got no answer.  Neither, apparently, do I.

Children starve, and are eaten by earthquakes, or choke to death on nerve gas.  A beautiful woman dies in the prime of her life by a cruel and heartless disease that chews up the body and gnaws on the soul.  And Aslan died on a Stone Tablet.  The Story says that He is with us, his children, when we die on ours. And that He will be with those we love when they die on theirs.

But no one is told any Story but his own.

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Stories and the Story-telling God

The story–from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace–is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.
–Ursula Le Guin

134170985_istockphoto_thinkstockIn the rooms of recovery, where alcoholics and addicts of all types gather to share their experience, strength and hope, stories are the medium of the message. They are the way that those in recovery talk about the disease of addiction and the remedy for that disease.  Anyone who has ever been to such a meeting will attest that, other than a few standard readings, and a few short prayers, it is through stories that we relate to one another and move past our pasts—“our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now,” to quote the AA Big Book.  More times than I can count have I sat in meetings and heard incredible stories of addiction and chaos, emptiness and desperation, rescue, recovery and new life. And it is the stories, more than anything else, that stay with me.

In point of fact, the 12 Steps themselves are phrased, not in the language of philosophical or spiritual principles, but rather in words of story, of experience:  “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable” (First Step); We “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” (Third Step); We “made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others” (Ninth Step), to mention just three of the Twelve Steps, all of which are phrased in the past (storied) tense.

In fact, the way recovering addicts learn and grow, it seems, is not primarily by attempting to implement abstract principles, personal or philosophical, ie, “the secret to recovery is to be of service,” or “what I must do is to understand when my mind is operating in a self-defeating pattern,” or other such ideas. Rather, it is by hearing, and then emulating, the stories of others.

I remember hearing one guy, Greg, with many years of recovery, telling the story of a complex business transaction he had entered into, only to learn a few days later of another, better, opportunity. He chose to stay with his original commitment.  A few months later, the second, more attractive, company went bankrupt. Had he decided to break his commitment, he, too, would have been dragged down. The point of all this was when he highlighted his own story by saying, “but there was never any doubt in my mind that I would keep my commitment; after twenty years in recovery, I would crawl over broken glass to keep my word—because for much of my life my word meant nothing, and now it does.”  Ever since I heard that story nearly a decade ago, when I am confronted with a situation that tests my honesty, I remember Greg’s story and his summary—far moreso than any abstract principle about the centrality of honesty in a program of recovery—and I, too, try to crawl over broken glass to keep my word.

Of course, I there is nothing especially unique about the fact that the rooms of recovery are filled with story-tellers, except that the stories are so powerful and gritty. Indeed, in my three-fold life as a man in recovery, a trial lawyer, and a lay-theologian, I see over and over again that it is mostly through stories that most human beings live and move and have their being.  Barbara Allen Burke’s wonderful blog I Am Story (from which I borrowed the Ursula LeGuin quote above) is built around this reality. Says Barbara:

As human beings, we are all–every single one of us–in the story-making business.  We tell stories to entertain each other at dinner parties. We pay good money to watch stories in theaters and cinemas that help us experience love or terror, excitement or redemption. We share stories to illustrate what we find valuable, meaningful for even funny.  We are, at a very basic level, the stories we tell.

Building on this idea, I would say that if Christians stop to think about it, it is through stories, far more than through abstract theology or doctrine, that our Faith has been given to us. This idea, though simple, is often lost in theological discussions, debates and arguments. Now, I am all in favor of learning theology—I spent a decade getting a master’s degree in theology, one course at a time fer cryin’ out loud—but academic theology and theoretical doctrine are picture frames, accenting and defining the Gospel Picture, they are not themselves the Picture.

Christians don’t often enough consider the implications of the fact that the Bible is, first and foremost, a collection of stories about God’s people and how God has interacted with and intervened in human, and humans’, history.  Indeed, it can be said that biblical stories consist of both the “Macro-Story”—what might be called, “How God Intervened in History and Saved His People, Parts I and II”—as well as thousands of “micro-stories” about individuals and communities encountering each other, and the world, and God, which, taken together, make up the Macro-Story. We learn who Christ is, first through the Gospels—the stories about Jesus—and only secondarily by reading what the earliest Christians thought and did in response to him, or the later theologians and saints.

Even Jesus himself taught in terms of parables, sometimes to the consternation of the Pharisees and others who tried to pin him down on fine points of doctrine. “Then Jesus told them the following parable,” is the opening line to dozens of passages from the New Testament.  And of course the entire Book of Acts is the story of the early Church, its heroes and villains.

Great Christian thinkers, too, have noted this story-telling aspect of our faith. The great Karl Barth—arguably the most important Protestant theologian of the 20th Century—in speaking of New Testament ethics, stressed over and over again that we are to learn our ethics, not as if the Bible were a handbook of ethical principles, but rather by reading about, and emulating, the ways in which the faithful amongst God’s people conducted themselves in relation to God and humanity. In fact, there is an entire school of theology that developed in the 20th Century called “narrative theology” that considers how it is that God reveals Himself to His people through stories, and how God’s people are in fact “hardwired” for stories and story-telling.

Let us, then celebrate our own stories, and those of those we love, as a way of imitating our Lord and our God.

It seems fitting to close this post with an excerpt from a story, one of my favorite novels, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the story of an aristocratic Catholic family in England in the 1920s and 30s, and their eccentric youngest son, Sebastian.  Here, Sebastian is trying to get his agnostic Protestant friend Charles Ryder, the book’s narrator, to understand what it is to be a Catholic in England.  Along the way, he reveals something very profound about himself—how it is that he believes.

We never discussed the matter [of Sebastian’s being a Catholic] until on the second Sunday at Brideshead, when Father Phipps had left us and we sat in the colonnade with the newspapers, he surprised me by saying:

‘Oh dear, it’s very difficult being a Catholic.’
‘Does it make much difference to you?’
‘Of course. All the time.’
‘Well, I can’t say I’ve noticed it. You don’t seem very much more virtuous than me.’
‘Oh, I’m very, very much wickeder,’ said Sebastian indignantly.
‘I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?’
‘Is it nonsense? I wish it were.’
‘But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.’
‘Can’t I?’
‘I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.’
‘Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.’
‘But, Sebastian, you can’t believe things because they’re lovely ideas!’
‘Well, I do. That’s how I believe.’

Sebastian was onto something, however improbable it might be that this naïve and simple fellow understood it: that it is through stories that we come to know ourselves, and the universe, and the meaning of things. And, yes, there is a part of us that is hardwired, built—created—to receive stories, and tell them, and to be changed by them.  After all, we were created in the image and likeness of God, who is, it seems a story-telling God.

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On Harbors and High Seas: What Ships are Meant to Do

It don’t take much to see what is wrong with a thing, but it takes some good eyesight to come up with what to do about it.
–Will Rogers

Let’s get out of the problem and into the solution.
–Twelve Step Slogan

Deliver us, O Lord, from the presumption of coming to this Thy table for pardon only and not for renewal, for solace only and not for strength….
–Anglican Book of Common Prayer

paper_painting_PB49_lRecently I was in a meeting of recovering alcoholics where, one after another, people talked about what was going on in their lives, especially about what they were struggling with. One man talked about his fear around his rapidly expanding business, about how he is afraid the growth and success won’t last, about how he is afraid to set boundaries with his employees, lest some of the more talented ones might leave, about how he tosses and turns at night worrying, worrying.  Another person talked about how she is stuck in a depressive funk, how she cannot get up in the morning, she cannot get motivated to get much done, about the hopelessness she feels about her life.  Another talked about his ongoing battles with his ex-spouse, and about how unfair the divorce courts are. And on and on it went.  Now, remember that no one comes into a Twelve Step fellowship on a winning streak.  People come to AA, or NA, or GA, or any of the other programs because their lives are falling apart, because they are in trouble with the law, or with their families, or because their health is failing because they have abused their bodies for so long, or whatever else is the crisis of the day.  So it’s no surprise that there are always plenty of people to talk about the tough stuff.

Great. Glad to hear that people can talk freely about what is really going on, and can forget about looking good in front of peers. I have previously written in this blog about the importance—for Twelve-Steppers and for Christians—of being able to let go of the “look good” and get real with others about our struggles. “You can’t at the same time save your ass and save your face” is how my brothers in recovery say it with their typical light touch.

But about halfway through this recent meeting, as people were going on and on about the hard parts of their lives, one old timer, who has seen more than his share of heartache and of life’s battles, finally thundered out: “Shit. I must be in the wrong place. I thought I was at a Twelve-Step meeting: you know, a place where we come to get answers to our problems, to get a design for living that really works, to get a step-by-step guide through our problems into the sunlight of the Spirit, so that we can be happy, joyous and free and be of service to others.  But I guess I must’ve stumbled into some sort of group therapy where the goal is to see who is the most miserable.” Silence. The kind of silence that reverberates when the truth has just been spoken, and found a home.

Now I totally get that there is a necessary place and time for just talking it out, for knowing that I am safe in this place and with these people to admit my darkest secrets, to confess that I am afraid, that I don’t know how, that I am in pain.  I have written about this over and over again as one of the most powerful things that make the Twelve-Step programs work, one of the things that, as I have suggested, the Christian churches need to relearn: one of the lessons that Christians can learn from our friends the addicts.

But just as important as having a place to go to talk about the problems is having a place to go where we will be encouraged to live into the solutions.  The old geezer is in one sense right: God wants us to be happy, joyous and free, so that we can be of service to others and we can enjoy the incredible gifts He has given us.

Or, as the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it, in a prayer read just after Holy Communion: “Deliver us, O Lord, from the presumption of coming to this Thy table for pardon only and not for renewal, for solace only and not for strength….”

Or, as we say in my daytime job (working with those who have been sexually abused as children), “we want to help you go from being a victim to being a survivor to being a thriver. We don’t want you to stay stuck; there are no answers there.”

But it takes a lot of effort, a lot of footwork, tremendous lift-off energy, to get out of the stuck places, to leave what is familiar, to begin to practice new habits.  It is often so much easier to simply wallow in our own self-pity.

And so it is that both the Twelve-Step programs and the basic message of the Gospel is the same: there is a way out, a better life, a Pearl of Great Price, waiting for you. But the way is hard, and narrow, and surrounded with demons and dragons. There are crosses and crucifixions involved.  Often it is not pretty.  And only you can decide if you want to live differently, if you are willing to do the hard work, the footwork, one step at a time, one day at a time.  Only you can decide whether you want to stay stuck in the problem or to live in the solution.  Living in the solution is infinitely better, richer, more joyous and free.  But it is harder; for sure, it is harder.

Put differently, as CS Lewis once said, “ships are safest when in harbor; but that is not what ships are built for.”

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“Why Don’t Matter. What Matters.”—Wisdom from Rose

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

–The Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Neibuhr.

‘Why’ don’t matter. ‘What’ matters.

–Rose Wilkins.

art106yovotercnn1When I was a boy growing up in Arkansas, the most important person in my life, in very real ways, was Rose. Now, I have written about Rose before; she was our “colored” (that was the phrase) “maid” (so was that), but she was so much more than our colored maid. She was really the woman who raised me on a day-to-day basis, at least for my childhood years. Only about 30 years old herself, with a half-dozen kids of her own, active in her church and in the local chapter of the NAACP, she nonetheless gave much of her very great energy and faith to raising the Clark kids. This was welcome to us, for my mother was not well, struggling as she did for decades with alcoholism, and my father was often away for business reasons. But it was also welcome simply because Rose was Rose. Being a black woman in the South in the 1960s, she was thoroughly patient, and being a woman of deep Christian faith, she was full of the love and joy of Jesus, and she told us about that. I still remember her quoting Scripture to us, singing hymns, and—I wonder what this must have been like for this fundamentalist Baptist woman—drilling us in our Episcopal Church Catechism. She would laugh and laugh as we tried to memorize all those “high-fallutin’ words to describe the Gospel of Jesus.”  But then, that’s what Rose generally did: laugh and laugh.  Joy and laughter were for her as easy as breathing.

Even after we moved away from Arkansas, and from Rose, our family, especially my sister—who is better about these things than I am—stayed in regular contact with Rose.  But a few years ago when she was dying, all of us took turns going back to Little Rock to see her and to say goodbye.  I remember during one of those visits, she and I were talking about how our lives had passed, the good and the bad (hers mostly good; mine not so much).  I asked her about some bit of tragedy, either in her life or mine, I can’t now remember.  Eventually I said something like, “I just don’t understand why these things have to happen.” Well. She almost jumped out of her chair—quite a feat for a then-invalid woman of great size—and fairly shouted at me:  “No, no, no.  You DO NOT ask that question. ‘Why’ don’t matter. ‘Why gets the big booby prize for questions. ‘Why’ don’t matter. ‘What’ matters.” “Uh,” I cleverly responded, “What does that mean?”  “It MEANS,” she said, now uncharacteristically stern, “that God don’t care two bits about us knowing why something happens. God cares about what we do about it. So ‘Why’ don’t matter. ‘What’ matters. What you do about it matters.”

I don’t know if Rose knew the Serenity Prayer; I kind of doubt it.  But she surely was saying the same thing that Niebuhr was saying when he wrote the Serenity Prayer, the same thing that millions of alcoholics and addicts say every day in the rooms of recovery.  Help me accept the things I cannot change (‘Why’ don’t matter) and give me the courage to change the things I can (‘What’ matters; What you do about it matters).

I think about both the Serenity Prayer and about “Why Don’t Matter; What Matters” every day these days, as my own family struggles with my wife’s rapidly progressing ALS disease.  Why must such a lovely person struggle with such a horrible disease? Why must our beautiful daughter be left without her mother just as she enters her teenage years? Why am I losing my beloved wife, partner and best friend just as our life together gets underway? 

Now, the fact that philosophers and theologians have struggled with such questions of human suffering for millennia does not change my conviction that the most profound theological and philosophical answer to the question of human suffering has been given to me by a simple black woman who loved Jesus, and by a simple prayer (albeit written by a complex man) that has become the lifeline for washed out and broken addicts and alcoholics for decades: Why Don’t Matter. What Matters.  The serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can. The hard fact is that I cannot change the reality that my wife is ill with a terminal disease. I just cannot do a single thing to change that.  Argh.  AARRRGGGHHH.  But I can decide what I do in response: whether I act in wise and loving ways, whether I bring my best self to every day, whether I allow myself to grieve and feel the pain, as I must, whether I have enough guts to walk with her, really walk with her, through this, whether I summon up the joy and gratitude of my life as a gift to our daughter on a daily basis.  These are the things I can change.  These are the things that matter.

And so I have started using Rose’s construct in hard conversations. Anytime someone who is struggling—in addiction or recovery, in faith and church circles—asks me any version of the “why” question, I am turning to Rose, and Neibuhr, for the answer: Why don’t matter; what matters. The courage to change the things we can.

A corollary to this wisdom has to do with the gift of community.  Some Christians I know are fond of saying that “God will not give you something you cannot handle.”  The answer to this is: bullshit.  First of all, I’m not sure that God “gives” us suffering, but that’s another story, and a long theological treatise. But even assuming that God “gives” such things, then it surely is true that God always gives us things we cannot handle–but then God gives us the gift of community as a way to get through them, precisely because we cannot handle them alone. This is why there is no such thing as a solitary Christian, or a lone recovering addict. In fact, if one were going to ask the “why” question (which we are of course not allowed to do) then one could even suppose that one of the purposes of suffering is so that we are forced into the arms of our loving communities—families, churches, recovery fellowships—to ask for help, to remember that we are not alone.  After all, the entire Gospel of Christ is an incarnational story: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The God of the Universe came, not to remove our suffering or to take it to some far away place, but rather simply to be with us in it. That is an idea, too, that Rose would like. In fact, it may have been Rose who first taught it to me. May God bless her dear departed soul.

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The Addicts and the Mystics: Lessons from the Twelve Steppers for Christians Who Would Pray

“As thou art in church or in cell, that same frame of mind carry out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness.”

–Meister Eckhart.

For the Kingdom of God is within you.”

–Jesus.

“One day at a time.” As I have written in these blogs, this is such a profound idea for the recovering addict and, at least for people I know in recovery, wholly transformative.  No one I know who has gotten sober from addiction has done so without learning how do one day at a time. And, as I recently wrote about, beyond the days of early recovery, practicing this habit is the only way that, even now, twenty-plus years clean and sober, I can meaningfully respond to profound sadness, such as the family tragedy of a terminal illness. So “one day at a time” is both a practical tool and a spiritual truth for getting and staying sober, and for living life on life’s terms, at least for this addict.

But recently I have come to see another way in which this idea of consciously dwelling in this day only can transform the spiritual life. It is the simple idea that, when it comes to the inner life of prayer, “one day at a time” and the discipline and practice that it implies, is exactly what the great teachers of prayer have been saying all along.

I have tried for three decades now, at least tried intermittently, to pray. Now by “prayer” I here mean some sustained and intimate meditation or contemplative prayer, some awakening to and dwelling in the inner places of the heart, where God is to be found, such that I may take those profound mysteries with me into the world of busyness and madness, hope and despair.  Sometimes I have begun to make progress, but like a novice skier who picks up too much speed and then sits down on his skiis lest he lose control, I have sat down on my momentum out of fear of what comes next.  I simply have not had the guts to press on, daily, habitually, through the scary places.  But I have spent enough time reading great mystics, and very occasionally doing what they suggest, to know that there is a deep and sacred place to which I may go at any time, to abide there in Love and Peace, and that this place is utterly transformative of my entire world. After I have centered there and been touched by Mercy itself, I see differently, I love more deeply, I understand more, I am more alive and conscious—all as opposed to my more normal and prosaic plodding through the day, half-seeing, poorly loving, confusion and understanding in equal portion.

So this transformative practice of the presence of God is what I mean by prayer.  And it is worth pursuing.  It is the purpose of our being, of that I am convinced. It is, in the words of Jesus, the pearl of great price.

By the way, the mystics I have read and would heartily recommend include Thomas Merton, the Catholic Trappist monk who was so prolific (New Seeds of Contemplation, Thoughts in Solitude, Contemplative Prayer), the Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (Beginning to Pray), Fr Henri Nouwen (Clowning in Rome, Genesee Diary, the Wounded Healer), Richard Foster, the contemporary Quaker writer (Celebration of Discipline), the old professor CS Lewis (Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, Reflections on the Psalms), medieval Brother Lawrence, [Practice of the Presence of God], and the anonymous Russian classic The Way of the Pilgrim.  I have also tried to dwell with the some of the other, more ancient teachers of mystical prayer—Meister Eckhart, Thomas A’Kempis, St Theresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, among others—but at least at the time I read them I was too much the toddler, too feeble and too scared to dwell very long in the depths of their teachings. But all of these, too, talk about the incremental process and the firm resolve it takes to learn to pray deeply.

Recently I picked up the readily accessible Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion, and in just the first few chapters I was struck by this wise Quaker’s approach to prayer. It was in the early pages that I discovered that he, too, is a proponent of prayer in daily portions. He insists that we only reach the deeper, quiet union with God which we so desire by humble and persistent effort, repeated over and over again, habitually, incrementally, and—surprise, surprise!—one day at a time.

Before I set out what Thomas Kelly has to say about the daily way of prayer, I should quote his description of the natural response of our hearts to contemplative prayer, the reason that we are drawn to it, why it is worth all this effort:

flamesBlog“The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.  The secret places of the heart cease to be our noisy workshop…. In brief intervals of overpowering visitation we are able to carry the sanctuary frame of mind out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness, and in a hyper-aesthesia of the soul, we see all mankind tinged with deeper shadows and touched with Galilean glories.  Powerfully are the springs of our will moved to an abandon of singing love toward God; powerfully are we moved to a new and overwhelming love toward time-blinded men and all creation. In this Center of Creation all things are ours, and we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.  We are owned men, ready to run and not be weary, to walk and never grown faint.”

“Owned men” (and women, obviously). Well now, there’s a phrase that once would have sent me running (“NO ONE owns me, by damn…I am master of my own destiny and no one is going to tell me otherwise”…yada-yada-yada). To my surprise, though, the phrase now accurately describes what I most want: to be owned of God.

Now, lest we get carried away in some kind of grandiose fantasy that any of this will happen quickly or completely, Kelly gives caution. “The light soon fades, the will weakens, the humdrum returns. Can we stay this fading? No, nor should we try, for we must learn the disciplines of His will and pass beyond this first lesson of His Grace…. Continuously renewed immediacy, not receding memory of the Divine touch, lies at the base of religious living.”

And he makes clear that the way of “continuous renewal” is a daily, habitual, exercise of the will towards God in prayer—not some stupendous, dazzling, once for all transformation:  “What is here urged are [daily] internal practices and habits of the mind. What is here urged are secret habits of unceasing orientation of the deeps of our being….What is here urged are inward practices of the mind at the deepest level, letting it swing like a needle to the polestar of the soul.”

Not only daily increments does Kelly emphasize, but also the enormous commitment that such a practice demands.  Referring to John Woolman, a Quaker mystic, we are told that Woolman “resolved so to order his outward affairs, so to adjust his business burdens, that nothing, absolutely nothing would crowd out his prime attendance upon the Inward Principle.” 

I have to say that as I read these words, my mind was drawn first, not to my Christian friends, but to my friends in recovery, surprising as that may be. This is surely not because all recovering addicts are great mystics—though some are.  But I thought about my brothers and sisters in recovery as I read Thomas Kelly because for the recovering addict or alcoholic, nothing—absolutely nothing—takes a higher priority than the spiritual and practical business of recovery. The recovering addict knows she or he must be fierce about making sure that he or she takes care of first things first, day by day, for unless that happens, sooner or later, he or she will drink or use again, and then lose everything that matters: family, friends, work—everything. This we addicts know better than any other fact in the world, like a child who has been badly burned knows not to touch the stove anymore, and this we are fiercely determined to remember—of course remembering it every day, one day at a time.

So it was that as I read these words of Thomas Kelly’s about the life of prayer, I was reminded again of first priorities, practiced daily, incrementally, habitually.  As the recovering alcoholic lives one day at a time—and, before she knows it, celebrates a year of recovery, or five, or twenty—so Thomas Kelly is here saying that only incrementally, habitually, humbly, daily, do we progress in the life of prayer, but that the peace and joy of the great sanctuary of the soul is absolutely worth the daily effort and discipline.

fountains-laybrothersrefectory-sNow, in one way, this way of building the habit of prayer is really not too surprising.  Anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit or put on a new one knows the tremendous “liftoff energy” that it takes.  Whether we are trying to get into physical shape through exercise, to stop procrastinating on work commitments, to stop swearing or gossiping—or to break a fatal addiction—it is apparent that it all must begin by making a definite decision and then taking the necessary action for today.  Then, tomorrow, we re-make the decision and do the action again.  And again the next day. And again.  Over and over until the decision and action are such a part of what we do and who we are that the decision and action are like second nature. They are like a habit. They are a habit. And we have donned that habit and it has become a part of us and we a part of it, and it defines us and we define it, over and over again on a daily basis.  We are “owned” by it.

Of course it takes a long, long time of daily, incremental work, of one-day-at-a-time practice to become owned men and women. And by “practice” I do not mean “trying to get better at” but, rather, praxis, as in the Greek, meaning a practical application of a theory, doing that which we have previously only theorized about.  We only develop habits by doing them, not by talking, reading, thinking or—(NOTE TO SELF)—writing about them.

So it is that Thomas Kelly—and our friends the recovering addicts—are telling us that if we would pray, if we would know the inner joy and adoration that Testament to Devotion and so many other great works of prayer describe, we must begin with a simple, humble, decision: “today I will pray.” That decision is then followed by equally simple, humble action: to pray as best we are able, with whatever light we have.  We do our best to pray honestly and listen deeply.  And then, when we are finished, we go on about our day, hopefully lit from within, seeing, understanding, loving.  And then the next day we do it all again.  One day at a time.

 

 

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“Those Damn Christians”– Observations from “Bill W and Dr Bob,” a play by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey, performed by Coho Productions.

aaReaders will know by now that the purpose of this blog is to see what people of Christian faith can learn from our brothers and sisters the recovering addicts.  I have written about how the “Gospel of Bill W”—my shorthand for spiritual lessons of the Twelve Step recovery programs—can teach Christians about a deep acceptance of our own brokenness and our need for “salvation,” about the advantages of evangelization based on “attraction rather than promotion,” about the slow and steady process of “sanctification for the rest of us,” and other such themes.  Recently, though, I had a chance to see the whole thing conversely, ie the view of the Christians as seen by the original members of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is not an especially flattering view, and in this I expect that we Christians can learn some things about ourselves.

Through a serendipitous set of circumstances a few months ago, it happened that my business partners and I were given an opportunity to sponsor a local production of the Off-Broadway play “Bill W and Dr Bob,” the story of the alcoholic suffering, friendship and recovery program of Bill Wilson and Dr Robert Smith, the two men who “founded” Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930’s.  The story has been well-chronicled elsewhere, including Susan Cheever’s excellent biography My Name is Bill.  But the play, written by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey, sticks pretty close to the version set out in the text of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, often known as the “Big Book” of AA, written anonymously but now known to have been largely the handiwork of Bill W.

Bill_Wilson,_Founder_AAThe short version is this: Bill Wilson, an egotistical, energetic and entrepreneurial stockbroker from New York is repeatedly defeated by alcohol. Despite his own familial experience with alcoholic disasters, he is unable to manage his drinking, and so, again and again, he loses jobs, opportunities, friendships and very nearly his marriage because of alcohol.  Finally, after years and years, and a half dozen crushing disasters in his life, he has a kind of spiritual awakening in a asylum hospital bed, and becomes convinced that the only way he can stay sober is to try to help other suffering drinkers.  After an often amusing series of failures in his efforts to find and help alcoholics, he stumbles upon a washed up surgeon on Akron, Ohio, Dr Robert Smith, who is not only a confirmed drunkard but a confirmed—and determined—atheist.  Dr Bob’s wife Ann, devout and faithful, tries again and again to save him through prayer and the intervention of her Christian friends in the “Oxford Group,” a revivalist organization popular in those days, whose purpose was to reach out to the un-churched and offer them the Gospel.

Now, Dr Bob—not an unkind or uncharitable man, even when drinking—is repeatedly put off by the air of moral superiority that he finds in Christians. This is epitomized when, finally desperate enough in his alcoholism to agree to attend an Oxford Group fellowship meeting, hears one man, named “T Henry,” declare that, as to the “four absolutes” of the Oxford Group—absolute humility, absolute purity, absolute honesty, and absolute love—he “pretty much has it in the bag” as to at least three of them, with “absolute love” being the only “absolute” that he has failed to master.  The audience to the play sees Dr Bob’s incredulous face as he hears T Henry spout about his purity, honesty and humility, and we are with Bob as we sit dubiously wondering how someone who claims absolute purity and honesty can also be absolutely humble.

The theme of God and religion runs all through the play, and indeed ran all through the early days of AA, causing as much disagreement and controversy as any single subject.  Though it is not clear in the play, Bill and—eventually—Bob, too, comes to see that the gift of sobriety is a spiritual miracle, and that only by surrendering to something greater than one’s self can the suffering alcoholic be released—and that this must be a key part of any recovery program.  Eventually, the founders of AA settled upon the idea of a Higher Power and even termed it “God” in the first several of the Twelve Steps. But they also realized that many alcoholics had had awful experiences with organized religion, and that their new program of recovery needed to find a balance between stressing the spiritual underpinnings of recovery as they had experienced it, on the one hand, and yet not forcing upon these poor souls religious constructs that had so much baggage for them.  And so the architects of AA worked out the idea that each recovering alcoholic should decide for himself who, or what, would be the bearer and source of this “Higher Power.”  Now, this decision has come in for more than a little criticism from certain Christian quarters over the decades—though the most remarkable fact is that the vast majority of Christian churches have always recognized the hand of God in AA’s way of recovery, and have supported AA and other Twelve Step fellowships in various ways, most often by offering space for such groups to meet.

But in the early days, none of this was sure, or certain; after all, these guys were making it up as they went along: they had no roadmap except their own experience.

It is not so much the resolution of the “God question” in early AA, however, that I here want to explore, but rather the way in which the Christians were—and often still are—perceived by alcoholics and addicts struggling to find answers for their brokenness.  In short, those who are at the end of their rope and desperate for answers because they have been so completely defeated by addiction are often put off by two things about Christians.

First is the attitude of moral superiority that Christians often carry, especially in relation to someone like a still-suffering alcoholic or addict.  The Christian too often acts as if the addict is simply weak, lacking willpower, or short of moral capital; in sum, that the alcoholic or addict is just not a very good person.  Now, we alcoholics and addicts will be the first to admit that, in our disease, we very often act badly, do stupid and destructive and immoral things, that we are veritable tornadoes of chaos and selfishness.  And yet, we still know—and Christians who read their Scriptures should know—that, at our core, we addicts have the capacity to be good people, or at least redeemed people, with a life of happiness, joy, freedom and service.  For Christianity—and Judaism long before that—has always taught that all of us are created in the image and likeness of God, and so are of infinite and precious worth.  Surely if Jesus himself lived out any lesson over and over again, it is that God has special and forgiving love for the broken, the sinner, the outcast. But the attitude of the Christians too often is more Pharisaical than Christian in this idea that the practicing addict is simply morally deficient.

The second mistake that Christians make in interaction with practicing alcoholics or addicts is the simplistic and off-putting attitude that if that addict would simply accept and trust Christ, all his problems would go away.  As we see in the play Bill W and Dr Bob, the Christians are the last ones who “get” that what is ailing the alcoholic is not simply that he is not a Christian. In the play, Ann and her Christian friends pray and pray that Dr Bob will be saved.  But as the audience in the play sees—and as 75 years of experience since the founding of AA has shown—what is needed for the practicing addict is a combination of a vital spiritual awakening and practical guidance from other addicts about how to climb out of the gutter.  Indeed, in the play, it is only when Bill and Bob figure out that what they need in order to recover, and stay recovered, and what other alcoholics will need, is to be heard by another someone who has “been there,” someone who has over and over again been defeated in his attempts to stop drinking, despite all efforts, prayer and willpower.

The idea that what the alcoholic or addict needs is simply to “become a Christian” makes no more sense to someone who understands addiction than the idea that, say, a person suffering from cancer simply needs to become a Christian to be healed.

Now my brother and sisters in the evangelical world can rest assured that nothing I have written here is meant to denigrate vital spiritual conversions: I have had two: once at age 18 when I recommitted my life to Christ, and once at age 34 when I surrendered my addictions to God and crawled on my prodigal knees back to my Father’s house.  I know and love the power of Christ to save those in distress and darkness, whether that happens through a Damascus Road-style conversion or a long, slow metanoia.  But I also have seen, for over twenty years now, that, for most practicing addicts, the spiritual experience they need usually begins not with someone preaching Jesus to them, but rather with another addict sharing his or her experience, strength and hope in recovery.  God, after all, is big enough to step out of the way while this miracle occurs: for, although God is the author of all miracles, God does not need to take credit for all of them.   For some of them—say, for the alcoholic or addict getting up out of the gutter with the help of another addict—God is content to stay behind the scenes… to stay, in a word, anonymous.

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