June 25 | Taking the First Step





Taking the First Step
Text: Psalm 32:3-5a; Romans 7:15-20
Speaker: Joel Miller

According to M. Scott Peck, the psychiatrist best known for his book The Road Less Traveled, the greatest positive event of the 20th century occurred in Akron, Ohio.  I’ll say that again to make sure it registers: According to renowned psychiatrist Scott Peck, the greatest positive event of the 20th century occurred in Akron, Ohio.  The quote is from 1993, so for all you basketball fans out there, he was not making a prediction about the rise of Akron-born basketball great Lebron James who, as a 9 year old, still hadn’t quite perfected his jumpshot.

Here’s the full quote, from Peck’s book Further Along The Road Less Traveled:

I believe the greatest positive event of the 20th century occurred in Akron, Ohio…when Bill W. and Dr. Bob convened the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  It was not only the beginning of the self-help movement and the beginning of the integration of science and spirituality at a grass-roots level, but also the beginning of the community movement…which is going to be the salvation not only of alcoholics and addicts but of us all (p. 150).

As a native-born Ohioan I really like the idea of us having the most important anything.  Every bruised Buckeye needs a little ego boost now and then.  Whether or not you agree with the extent of these claims, it’s hard to argue with the fact that 12 Step communities have transformed and are transforming millions of lives.

One of those communities has met regularly at CMC since 2007, known by the name of the book they study, Hunger for Healing.  The subtitle of that book is “The Twelve Steps as a Classic Model For Christian Spiritual Growth.”

That group was the impetus for this six-week worship series.  

In the planning process, Julie Hart asked me a question that’s been good food for thought.  The question was Whether I, personally, will be approaching this as an insider or an outsider?

My answer to that question is a bit nuanced.  In my extended family and closest friend circles I have been spared the chaos and hardships addiction can bring.  So in that sense, I’m an outsider.

The most interaction I’ve had with folks living with addictions was during our time in Cincinnati when our house and the nearby Mennonite Church were located just a couple blocks from a railroad tracks that included a homeless encampment.  Many of those folks were regular attenders at our bi-monthly community meal we would serve in the church basement.  We became their spiritual community and they became our friends.  George and Teresa, Stan and Jan, Tommy Turtle, Jay, and many others.

Several of them died during our time there and the memorial services we held at the church were attended by folks who had little experience inside a church sanctuary among polite Mennonites. This was indicated by 1.) Lots of people packing into the front benches to be closest to the action, 2.) Various states of sobriety or lack thereof, and 3.) Loud displays of grief and emotion during the service.  It was all quite humanizing and beautiful.

But I know enough about how addiction works to know it doesn’t mean you have to be living in a tent and in need of a shower.  Addiction is quite skilled at passing for a “respectable,” middle class life.  Those experiences in Cincinnati made me wonder if I might be addicted to politeness, much to my detriment.   

Which connects to another way I would answer Julie’s question.  If we define addiction as becoming dependent on something that causes yourself and others harm, unable to stop the behavior despite one’s best intentions – if this is what addiction is, I think we’re all insiders.  We are, collectively, for example, addicted to fossil fuels, the violence that obtains them, and the explosion of consumer products they have produced.  We’re addicted to certain ways of thinking about the world and the little dopamine hits that confirm our rightness.  We’re addicted not just to substances, but as the Cherokee psychologist Anne Wilson Shaef pointed out decades ago, we are addicted to processes and patterns of behavior- which can have the same neurochemical patterns as other forms of addiction.

And, thankfully, they have the same way through.  The same “salvation,” as Scott Peck put it.  Not the kind of salvation where you escape the world.  The kind where you go deeper into it than you’ve ever been.  It’s that spiritual path outlined in the 12 Steps.  Consider for a moment what it would be like if humanity as a whole, or more realistically, a small group of folks, would confront our collective dependency on anything that causes harm by starting with that first step:

“We admitted we were powerless over ___let’s say pollution, or patriarchy___ – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

As Steve R will be sharing today and as others will be sharing in their testimonies in future weeks, this is all quite personal – for all of us.  So as we begin, I offer you the same question Julie offered me: Are you entering this conversation about the 12 Steps as an insider or an outsider?  Put a little differently, in what ways are you an outsider, and in what ways are you an insider?  And no matter how either of those are answered or how directly you do or don’t relate with addiction, How might the 12 Steps be a spiritual path for all of us?  That’s the focus on the Hunger for Healing group and that will be our focus.  The 12 Steps as a spiritual path.

We begin at the first step, which goes like this, substituting an open space for AAs original focus on alcohol:  “We admitted we were powerless over _____ – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

The operative verb here, the action word, is admitted.  That’s the thing that happens when one works the First Step. Admittting.  Which isn’t too complicated because anyone can do it, and it doesn’t yet involve the other actions called for by the other steps.  Admitting is also incredibly difficult because it involves telling the truth – first to yourself, then to others.  Admitting is as easy and as impossible as opening the door to the truth.

I like what James Finley has to say about this first action.  He writes:

The First Step, then, is admitting.. See, if you admit, you’re admitted. If you don’t admit, you’re not admitted. And, if you admit, you live; and if you don’t admit, you might die. So, what is it that makes admitting so extremely painful, and the very thing that’s so painful is the very thing that saves our lives? It would seem that the act of admitting is a great koan or a great riddle in our heart worth meditating on. It is this transformative point-of-entry that leads us ever deeper into the sobriety that we’re exploring.

The act of admitting sounds pretty close to what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans in a moment of vulnerable truth-telling.  Chapter 7, verse 15: “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  There you have it, straight from the quill of the guy who wrote a good chunk of the New Testament.  The beautiful thing about admitting is that you don’t have to understand your actions, or be able to see a way out.    

So maybe if we all admitted we don’t really know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, we’d be on to something.

As the first step frames it, there is something in particular we’re admitting – that we are powerless.  Before saying anything else about this, I’d like you to notice how this registers with you.  What is your gut reaction to admitting to powerlessness?  I’m imagining this can be felt in a couple pretty different ways.

If you’ve been told your whole life you don’t have any power, and treated accordingly, admitting to powerlessness might feel like succumbing to the lie that you have no worth.  One of the main critiques I’ve seen of the 12 Steps is that they focus on looking for power outside oneself rather than claiming the power you already have, that others have denied you.  Movements like Black Power and Queer Pride and Eco-Feminism have worked to reclaim the inherent dignity, beauty, and power held within each person and community.  When you’ve been disempowered your whole life, claiming the truth looks more like refusing to define yourself by the terms others have set.  

We have to honor that.  Period.

I also want do a Both/And, consider a way that admitting powerlessness can be liberating and truthful.  It gets back to James Finley’s comments about this all being a great koan or a great riddle.  Kind of like what Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Co. 12:10).  Or when Jesus tells his followers, “All who want to save their lives will lose them.  But all who lose their lives because of me will find them” (Matt. 16:25).

Losing the life you were trying to hold to, coming to terms with your own weakness, admitting powerlessness over your inability to change your life in the way you want to can be, paradoxically, the doorway into a new kind of power.  It takes personal agency to admit powerlessness.  Yet what is power except having agency?  No one but oneself can claim powerlessness as an act of empowerment.  It could be addiction, it could be bumping up against one’s limits to change oneself or change another person – good luck with that – or our inability to change the world in the way we would like.  Consciously releasing power can be the first step toward welcoming empowerment.  It changes the terms of power itself.  It’s the first step.

I want to highlight one other word from this first step, which is pretty easy to pass over but is the foundation of 12 Step Spirituality.  It’s the very first word: We.

Back to the early days of AA and its Ohio roots: Bill Wilson initially achieved sobriety through a personal spiritual experience, but he discovered that in order to stay sober he had to relate closely with other folks recovering from their illness.  After trying to help other alcoholics as a teacher or coach, a breakthrough finally occurred when Bill W. sat down one evening, in Akron, with Dr. Bob Smith and spoke as equals struggling with the same problem.

The 12 Steps would not be in existence without this essential component of group solidarity.

If you look down the 12 Steps you’ll notice that the others begin with action words and technically aren’t complete sentences in a graded English paper kind of way.  There is an implied “We” in front of each one, almost as if the whole list could start with We: and then list the 12 Steps.

The steps use the language of We and Our.  12 Step Spirituality occurs in the first person plural.

And that’s the kind of spirituality we live out.  This is a first person plural community, as is every other religious congregation worth its salt of the earth.  We are first person plural people who are both powerless and powerful, outsiders and insiders of this movement.  We, beloved children of God every one.