Sermon Series, The Twelve Steps. Step Two

“Step Two: Came to Believe that a power Greater than Ourselves could restore us to sanity”

Too often, the gospel of Jesus Christ is presented in the colors and textures of pure emotion. We are moved by a story told by a professional story-teller and by the music- “Just as I am”- wrapping itself around our hearts like a golden rope and pulling us toward an altar. Or we are skillfully, predictably made afraid by those who understand the terrific motivator that Fear can be. Eternal Fires and roaring lions seeking whom they may destroy are shouted about and we are made afraid to do anything but obey the preacher shaming us to walk the aisle, and trust Jesus. Trust Jesus or burn in hell.

One of the many lessons I’ve learned from prisoners is how temporary those kinds of emotional and fear-based reactions often are. Some guys have walked the aisle 5 times, 10 times, 20 times hoping that salvation will somehow stick this time. But then the emotions of the words get tramped under the realities of daily life, and the burden of being afraid of Jesus, rather than in love with him, become too overwhelming.

Some have called the Twelve Steps America’s greatest contribution to the gospel message. It is described that way because the Steps are indeed pragmatic, like so much of American culture. You know- build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Americans have traditionally seen a need, and endeavored to find a solution to satisfy that need. A good thing. What the Twelve Step program does for many people is make the Gospel believable, relevant, practical, and workable.

When Bill W. and Dr. Bob began talking together about their shared drinking problems in the early 1930s, in Akron, they discovered they were able to do together what they had not been able to do by themselves: make it through one more day without drinking, make it through another day without succumbing to their dependencies, their sin.  So they kept talking, and others began to join in the conversation. Some of those who were part of those early meetings could not overcome their dependency and dropped out. But some stayed, became clean and sober, and took the message beyond Akron and into the world.

Dr. Bob and Bill W., and millions of persons since, discovered the freedom of saying those important first words out loud, “I am powerless over alcohol.” They admitted it to each other, “We are powerless over those things we have come to be sinfully dependent upon, and our lives have become unmanageable.”

That was Step One.

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over our dependencies – that our lives had become unmanageable.

Saying those words is so countercultural, so difficult in a culture that says we must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, or simply “think positive” and everything will magically be better.

Saying those words- “I am powerless”- leads automatically to a second set of words almost as difficult to say: “I need help.” It’s as if a door- a door in heaven?- opens when we finally step out of the way.

It’s also like the prodigal son in Luke 15. The young, arrogant, know-it-all, temporarily wealthy, full-of-himself son, ran out of himself. Standing in pig slop, hungry, willing to eat even what the pigs were eating, he..

17 …came to himself [and] he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father.”

The insanity of his self-perceptions had led him to a life that was completely out of control- unmanageable! He’d come to step one.

And now: Step Two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

The son knew that of himself, he’d blown it, badly. But a shimmering, vague but real next step had just become possible for him. “So he went off to his father..” When he came to himself, when he realized his insanity, a door opened- a door of hope.

He had no intentions of going to his father with the same false attitude with which he had left his father. He wanted to return as a hired hand, a sinner who had amends to make, forgiveness to beg.

It can be, especially in retrospect, the most exciting, enlightening, but terribly difficult times of one’s life.

C.S. Lewis said that we were all born with a God-shaped vacuum in our souls. He said that we are all prone to try to fill that emptiness with all kinds of..stuff, in an effort to calm the empty echos rising from it. In order to try to calm the rumblings of living outside of God’s love, God’s community with God and others, we are prone, almost helpless in our arrogance to avoid, or to stop cramming all kinds of self-medications into that raw and bleeding hole.

Some choose the gauze of drugs or alcohol. My own objects of choice were Jim and Budweiser 16 ouncers. Others choose to eat themselves into love, or even then void themselves when that false love becomes guilt, or be promiscuous in the also false love of eroticism, or to buy a sick semblance of love with power and money, or enter into some apartness from God that affirms “I can do it myself!” or “I don’t need you!” or “I didn’t ask to be born!” or “Life’s not fair!” ..

Yadda, yadda, yadda..

The self-affirmations and self lies are as old as the Garden of Eden when everybody tried to blame everybody else for their own failure.

The terrible problem is that those things that we once chose to partake in, indulge in, soon stop being choices. They become compulsions, ways of life, addictions. In our retreat from God, we are overwhelmed by new gods. And we become slaves to them.

But then, one day we find ourselves standing in the mud of a pigpen- whatever our personal pigpen might be. And it is there, at the bottom, at the place where there is no place lower to go- there in the stink, the wasted money, the broken promises, the put-aside vows, the severed relationships, the hurt and the heartache..there, in the middle of all that.. something wonderful and mysterious can begin to happen.  Something causes us, for a moment, to “come back to ourselves”- in the language of the prodigal son.

In the words of a favorite rabbi of mine, Rabbi Steinsaltz: “At a certain point we make decisions not only about what we are going to do but about what we are going to desire.”[i]

We make a new decision, a decision born of hanging on to the end of a frazzled rope, yes, a decision that that initially might involve only the tiniest seed- a mustard seed- of understanding and belief: We come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.”

We begin to move- a single tiny and tentative step, onto a path of yearning. In the pigpen, the prodigal son knew there was something better, and he yearned for it.

Yearning is the song of that god-shaped vacuum inside of us all. We long for the love that will complete us, the forgiveness that will restore us. Yearning, longing for, crying out for something greater than ourselves- that yearning is not merely an invitation to God; that yearning is God.

That longing for God, that longing which comes even before we are able toname God as that for which we long, is so difficult to capture in words. But perhaps, we can hear it in a story..

It is near dusk as the Sabbath ebbed away in the small Russian village of Berdichev. The disciples were gathered. The rabbi Levi Isaac  – holiest teacher – rises to speak. He wants to explain to his disciples not the wonder of creation, or the mystery of the Creation, but merely that God is the inside of the inside, the  life force of the universe, and that therefore each one of our lives matters.
He begins his talk with an elegant teaching from the Talmud demonstrating the reality of God.
“Do you understand?” he asks.
“No,” they answer…heads hanging, looking embarrassingly at the floor.


He then takes them on a dance of light, intricately weaving the mysteries of theTorah , which illuminate God’s presence in the world.
“Do you understand?” he asks again.
“No,” they answer…heads low.


In desperation he begins to tell stories, tales revealing great mysteries.
“Now do you understand?” he asks once more?
“No,” they answer, heads still hanging.


So he becomes very quiet and begins to sing a melody of yearning, of longing, of pining. For a few moments he sings alone, then one, then another joins in, till they become one voice.


Yearning.
Pining.
Longing.


Levi Isaac did not need to ask. Their heads rose. They understood.

The yearning,  the longing in all of us for community- community with others, with God. It’s a longing, a desire that may lay neglected and dormant for years, covered over by our pride, or buckets of beer, or mountains of food, or syringes full of holy hell. But that yearning, that cry against the horrors of loneliness, the calling out from the vacuum in our lives, that is God. That is God with us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even before we know it.

It is not about an emotional plea from the pulpit that brings us to a true recognition of the power greater than ourselves; it is not about being shamed or frightened into a relationship with the God who can restore us to sanity. It is about God’s presence right now, God’s desire for community with us no matter who/where/or what we are. It is about the yearning.

The yearning you may feel right now- that there has to be something more. The longing you might have for that which you cannot yet name but which you know is there. The emptiness that even here, right here in church, can felt as raw and empty..that yearning, that longing, that emptiness..your perception of it, that’s God.

Psalm 42

1 As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
3 My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

We finish today with a song, I call it the step 2 hymn. It is born of the Psalm I just read. As you hear the words, as we sing the words, feel the God near, beside, within. The God of love and grace, yes, but also the God of sanity..

Page 2025 in The Faith We Sing hymnal, turn there and sing with me..

As the deer pants for the water,
So my soul longs after Thee.
You alone are my heart’s desire,
And I long to worship Thee.

You alone are my strength,
My shield;
To You alone may my spirit yield.
You alone are my heart’s desire,
And I long to worship Thee.

You’re my friend
And You are my brother
Even though You are a King.
I love You more than any other,
So much more than anything.

You alone are my strength,
My shield;
To You alone may my spirit yeild.
You alone are my heart’s desire,
And I long to worship Thee.

 

Let us pray together:

Father, God, Abba.. In our yearning, you are there. In our thirst, you are the Living Waters. In our insanities, you are the Clarifying Light, the holy of holies, the true source of our healing and wholeness.

Give us courage when the steps we take toward you are tiny and tentative. You alone are our strength, our shield, our heart’s desire..

And we long to worship you.

Amen


[i] Adin Steinsaltz, Parabola magazine, Summer 2006 issue, p. 61

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