God uses us to help each other,
lending our minds out.
It was poet Robert Browning who penned those words, and when I quote those lines, I add that God also uses our hearts, our hands, our feet, our checkbooks and our acquired wisdom along the way.
God knows, I need all the help I can get.
God knows that it’s good for me to help others, too.
Nowhere does Browning’s line apply more aptly than in the healing work that goes on among the fellowship of recovering people who are working the Twelve Steps.
Now and then, life has a way of inviting me back to the Twelve Steps. I wish I could say that I go gladly and eagerly, but the truth is that it is usually a new challenge that pushes me back to a program of recovery that works for me.
(Please know that the word “challenge” in the above paragraph is a euphemism.)
It’s been over four decades since I was first introduced to the Twelve Steps by a friend who had found Al-Anon, pushed there by tragedy and heartache. She brought the Steps to my house, insisting that I could not tell anyone that I had seen them, for the “anonymous” part of the program of recovery was vital. She was so insistent on my protection of the anonymity of the program, in fact, that she wasn’t going to let me copy the steps.
However, I instantly felt a resonance with the Steps, and I knew that I had to have a copy of them. We argued, mildly, but I was as insistent about having the Steps for myself as she was insistent that they belonged only to those in Alcoholics Anonymous. Finally my friend relented, but I had to promise that I would never tell anyone where I had gotten them.
My friend didn’t think I needed those Steps since substance abuse wasn’t a problem for me or a family member. What I saw, however, was that in the declaration of the very first First Step, which declares a powerlessness over alcohol, you could substitute any number of things over which you could be powerless – emotions, relationships, people, habits, behaviors. Whether my friend initially saw my point or whether I wore her down, I don’t know, but that event changed my life.
So it was that I took those Steps and began to “work” the program every day while my infant daughter napped.
How could my friend and I have known that there would come a time when the Twelve Steps were available for everyone, anywhere?
Google the two words, “Twelve Steps”, and then step back to be amazed at what you can find on the internet!
Who could have imagined that in only a few years, the term “codependency” would be coined to express and define a condition that could taint and torture human relationships?
Who could have foreseen a time when something like “work addiction” would send a person into treatment? And how did people determine the guidelines for something called “love addiction”?
Who could have imagined that there would be a time when the “recovery” section of any large bookstore would include many shelves of books addressing the issues of addiction to work or love?
Who first used the term “religious addict”, anyway, and what is the line between a healthy or toxic relationship with work, religion or relationships?
My friend finally took me to meet with some of her friends who were in Al-Anon, but I had to promise that I would not divulge that the friends were members of Al-Anon. I wanted to meet them and talk with them enough that nothing could have made me break my friend’s trust or theirs. Later, I finally found a sponsor who would work with me, week by week, unpacking the truth of the Steps for my life.
My sponsor, a recovering alcoholic, often lamented that it was easier to work with a drunk, as she put it, than with me – for my “gods” were other people, and serving those gods and serving the god of “good works” is an addiction for which people get rewarded.
I’ve said on this website and publically that my spirituality and spiritual practices rest on a four-legged stool, and that one of the legs is the Twelve Steps, originally intended for Alcoholics Anonymous. I am forever indebted to what is called “the program” for providing me the tools and a process of discovering serenity, courage and wisdom.
How could I ever have known, starting out, how important the Serenity Prayer would be in my life, or how much I would rely on the slogans of recovering people, such as “First Things First,” “Keep It Simple” and “Let Go and Let God” in daily life and in crisis? How many times have I reminded myself to “do the next thing indicated”?
I’ve learned a lot, working the Twelve Steps over a lifetime, and part of what I have learned is that no plan is perfect, including the Steps. Being a fundamentalist about the Steps is as counterproductive to me as being a fundamentalist in my religious life. The Steps, like doctrine, point the way to the Source and are not, in and of themselves, the Source, and it is important for me to know that and say it.
You won’t find me saying that the Steps or my ways of practicing my religion are the only ways in which people find their way to wholeness or to God. However, the Steps have worked well for me, and so it is that I return to them now.
Perhaps the process, written on this blog over the next several weeks, might be meaningful to some of you.
I hope that if it is, you’ll come along, responding if and how and when something resonates within your own life.
In my book on suffering, Sitting Strong: Wrestling with the Ornery God, I wrote that recovery can be compared to the ash heap on which the Old Testament character Job sat, wrestling with his old image of God and a new understanding that was being born within him, an image of God who didn’t demand sacrifices and good deeds so much as God whose presence was within.
It was in that book that I defined different kinds of “Job experiences” and explored the idea of suffering as “standing under something until you can understand it”. I posited the idea that we are to carry that which is ours to carry – a sorrow, a tragedy, a character defect, an experience – until we wrest the meaning of that thing which has brought us to our knees or knocked us on our faces. The recovery process is very much a Job experience, and in working the program, we carry our own process, standing under that which is hard and unmanageable until we understand it — and in doing so, we are transformed.
When I was introduced to the Twelve Steps on that long-ago day, I knew instinctively, intuitively and immediately that the Steps were biblical, and because of my belief system and my own personal values, that was important to me then, and it is now. It was important to me that the Steps work harmoniously and with integrity with my own Christian faith, which is vitally meaningful and important to me.
I knew in my heart that the Steps were life-giving and in these years of working and teaching the Steps, I have learned that they provide a way in which the mystery of the Living Christ can do for us what Jesus did when he healed, transformed, liberated and empowered persons whom he encountered in his earthly ministry.
So it was that I stepped out on a lifetime journey, knowing at a deep level that the Steps were a sure path, a trustworthy process and a way to do what poet Wendell Berry says when he suggests that we “practice resurrection.”
In the Introduction to Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr writes these words, words he calls “counterintuitive wisdom”:
We suffer to get well.
We surrender to win.
We die to live.
We give it away to keep it.
I entitle the series “Practicing Resurrection”, borrowing a challenge from one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry, in his poem by that name.
What about you?
Are you curious about the Twelve Steps, or are you committed to them?
Have you been drawn to them before, or are you cautious about them?
Are you sick and tired of some of your own counterproductive or self-destructive habits?
Are you weary of your own character defect?
Is someone else’s character defect, unacknowledged and untreated, wearing you down?
I have some friends who have been turned off by recovery programs, and I have friends who have been turned off by church. Perhaps you are one of those. If so, I understand being turned off by zealots or by people who can talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk.
Perhaps, though, there are some of you who, like I, periodically run or drift or fall into something that qualifies as “that thing (person, habit, circumstance) I cannot change” and are struggling to get up and go again, one day at a time.
Perhaps there are some of you who might be curious about what life might look like if you figured out how to practice resurrection.
If so, I invite you to join me in this exploration of the Twelve Steps. It may take twelve weeks, but I’m guessing it will take longer.
However long it takes, I hope to learn more and more about what it means to practice resurrection.
And I think that practicing resurrection has a whole lot to do with living in a state of grace.
For now, then, and always….grace to you –