4 December 2011
The Second Sunday of Advent
Well, we’re entering the Advent season, and we heard today from the Gospel of Mark how John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, and made straight paths for him. “I baptize you with water,” John said, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
That’s an interesting theme – the idea that we sometimes enter a crucial turning point in our lives, and we know it because there’s a herald, a voice crying out – or just someone who says, “Listen to me, but don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m God. Why, I’m not even worthy to untie God’s sandals. I can make it easier for you to find God, and then I’ll get out of the way.”
We also notice that John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. Mark tells us, “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” So confession and repentance are part of Advent too. We heed the herald’s call, confess and receive forgiveness, and then . . . wait for the one who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit.
Ten days from now, I will commemorate 30 years of sobriety in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. For those of you who may not be too familiar with AA, I should explain that the “anonymous” part of “Alcoholics Anonymous” is traditionally understood to refer to staying anonymous at the level of public discourse – books, interviews, TV, the Internet, etc. – and doesn’t refer to friends and community, unless you want it to. So I’m not breaking any traditions by letting you all know something I’m delighted and grateful about: Thanks to AA, I haven’t found it necessary to take a drink or a drug since I was the unimaginable age of 27.
Now, for me, AA was my Advent season. The 12 Steps were like John the Baptist, telling me to confess my sins and repent. Actually, nobody in AA would ever put it that way, which is a good thing because, if they had, I would have been SO out the door! But I was asked to admit that I had a serious physical, emotional, and spiritual illness that had to be dealt with before ANYTHING else could happen – certainly before any spiritual progress could be made. I’m not saying that if you’re an active alcoholic or drug addict, you can’t see God. A lot of books have been written about the role of intoxication in inducing mystic visions. But I think it’s fair to say that whatever vision of God you do have, it’s going to be very difficult to hang onto it and follow any kind of spiritual discipline.
So for me, AA made a straight path, if you’ll pardon the pun. It cleared the junk out of the road, gave me a GPS system, and offered me about ten thousand stories from people who’d gone down the same path with excellent results. But where did this path lead? Why, to Seekers.
Alcoholics Anonymous is definitely not a religious program. Nothing in its literature or traditions suggests that recovering alcoholics need to join a worship congregation. The two founders of AA, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, were both Christians, and quite fervent Christians, but they had had no luck at all using a church – or even a personal relationship with Jesus – to get themselves sober. They knew better than to try to convince drunks to show up on Sundays and take an abstinence pledge. This isn’t controversial at all: AA, as its mission statement says, “is not allied with any sect, denomination, organization, or institution.”
But . . . AA does call itself a “spiritual program”; the 12 steps of recovery make several references to “God as we understood him”; and there is a huge collective wisdom within the program that recovering alcoholics who don’t find some kind of Higher Power, something bigger than themselves to hang on to and believe in, stand a much poorer chance of staying sober, or, if they do, of living happy lives without alcohol.
Now the next thing I’m going to say is a little controversial, even within AA. I believe that AA, like John the Baptist, represents a path, not a destination. I believe that the point of staying sober and going to meetings and working the 12 steps is to take me somewhere else – to offer me something that AA itself wisely does not even try to offer. I think AA is the straightest path I know to lead people to being part of God’s community on earth, however they may understand that.
The reason I call this controversial is that there are many longtime AA members who would not agree, who find everything they need within the rooms of AA. They aren’t affiliated with any religion, don’t go to church or temple or mosque, don’t have a personal relationship with any deity. They are staying sober just fine, helping others, and are active in the program. What’s wrong with that? In many cases, nothing at all. But in many others, a kind of ossification sets in, along with a knee-jerk suspiciousness of any answers that don’t come from the approved AA literature. We have a name for these folks in AA – they’re called “bleeding deacons.” They tend to be people with long-term sobriety but whose lives seem to exhibit a kind of constriction or testy conservatism. They tend to believe they know it all, and woe betide anyone who suggests that AA is supposed to open doors, not close them.
And of course this may sound familiar to plenty of you who aren’t recovering alcoholics. Isn’t this the danger of smug, unthinking membership in a worship community too? The kind of religious practice that says, “We’ve got all the answers, and if you disagree . . . well, you just might be going to hell.”
My own experience has been very different. As I gain more insights into spirituality, and as I continue year after year to recommit to Seekers Church, I’ve come to see that “being religious” or “believing in God” is no longer for me about some creed or inner conviction of salvation. It’s about community. It’s about hanging around with other people who have made the same commitments I have. It’s about tolerating and loving people who are part of this Body of Christ. As the Rev. Lillian Daniel says, “There’s nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or, heaven forbid, disagree with you.”
I should clarify one thing: When I say that for me AA is a path, not a destination, that doesn’t mean I can stop going to AA meetings or working the steps or sponsoring newcomers in the program, just because I’ve also found Seekers. If I were to stop doing all those things, I’d run a pretty good risk of getting drunk, because no one is ever cured of alcoholism, and AA is the specific treatment I need to keep my disease in remission. AA is not in the religion business, and Seekers Church is not in the alcoholism treatment business. Some of us need both, but that doesn’t make them interchangeable.
I’m trying to find words for something that is bigger than any human organization – bigger than AA, bigger than Seekers, bigger than Christianity. That something I choose to call God. We find paths that lead us farther and farther along, and at every step we’re tempted to mistake the path for the destination. We want to stay there in the Jordan River, cleansed of our sins and feeling pretty good about ourselves. We think, “If I’m a good AA member, I’m doing everything I need to do” or “Now that I’m in Seekers, I’m going to find all my spiritual answers here” or “Christianity is the one and only, permanent, final story about who God is.” None of these beliefs is true, yet at various points in my life I’ve clung to them, because I want things to be simple. I want checklists, timetables, yes-or-no questions. I want a permanent baptism of plain old water. But the search for God, for the meaning of my own life, does not end in any human institution or body of knowledge. The Holy Spirit is not what the baptism of repentance offers. We still have to wait for God’s call. That can be heard in many places, but God herself is – at least for me – a constantly beckoning presence that urges us, in the words of the old song, “Farther along . . .” Or, as Peter puts it in today’s reading, “In keeping with God’s promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth.”
So when I commemorate my 30 years of sobriety this month, I am remembering a journey, not a destination. I so wish I could really put myself back inside that 27-year-old who had his first sober day in December 1981! Like many drunks and addicts, my memories of the final years of active drinking are as riddled with holes as an old blanket. I see the photos, I listen to the songs I wrote, I read the old letters . . . but try as I may, it’s like I’m watching someone else, a foolish, unhappy man who simply can’t get what he needs from his old friends alcohol and marijuana. The closest I’ve been able to come to really feeling what that young man felt, the night he walked into his first AA meeting, is when I listen to the Merle Haggard song “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.” There’s a jauntiness and desperation to the music that doesn’t succeed in hiding the pain, the loss, the confusion of where to turn next. Because you see, the singer is trying to forget something, but it’s not working. I suppose most people assume it’s a woman, but Merle never says so. For me, the memory that kept coming around was of something that I now realize was a vision of God.
At first I used drugs and alcohol to enhance those strange, fantastic glimpses of something beyond – a world of beauty, truth, and love that could seem realer than anything in so-called real life. And then, as my so-called real life became increasingly chaotic and painful, I reversed course, and drank myself into unconsciousness every night because I wanted to forget I’d ever hoped for anything better. Like a jilted lover, I refused to admit I ever cared about God, and I would tell anyone who asked that spiritual experiences were neurotic delusions.
So it’s not as if I got sober in order to reconnect with God. That idea, in December 1981, would have struck me as hilarious, and offensive. Indeed, I viewed the spiritual language that AA uses with a disdain that barely concealed the anxiety I felt over being asked to reconsider a whole world of experience I thought I had debunked. Even Carl Jung’s words, quoted in the basic AA text, the Big Book, weren’t enough to make spirituality seem respectable, and certainly not necessary for me. Yet here is what Jung wrote, well before AA was founded: “Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.”
Like millions of recovering alcoholics before and after me, I came to understand how such an intense “rearrangement” is possible. Some of us get it little by little, some of us all at once. For me, as I’ve said, it felt like a journey, first Advent, and then Christmas. My decision to follow Christ came almost five years after I got sober. And it was another 15 years before I was ready to make a commitment to Seekers Church.
Seekers is yet another journey, and it has a particular meaning and importance for me, just as AA does. I’m an orphan. My parents died 10 years ago, I have no brothers or sisters. All my aunts and uncles are gone too. I know of a few cousins, and am very fond of one of them, but that’s it as far as biological family goes. And of course I’ve never fathered children. Katie and I have each other, and that’s a great gift, but I’d be doing her a real disservice by asking her to substitute for my departed family.
No, Seekers Church is my family. Each year I make an unequivocal commitment to hang in there with you guys no matter what, and to pray that you’ll do the same for me. I could name 20 places I’d rather live than the Washington area – and that’s just in the United States. But I stay here because of the Seekers community. I’m not saying there aren’t other wonderful churches to be found elsewhere. But none of those churches happen to contain Jesse or Liz or Glen or Ken, and so they are not my family.
Seekers is an incredible and I hope permanent blessing in my life, and so is Alcoholics Anonymous, and so is Jesus Christ. But none of these paths is the destination. There is no stopping place – not in this life, anyway. As Henri Nouwen says, “Finding the treasure is only the beginning of the search.”
My prayer for this Advent season is that, no matter how blessed I feel by the spiritual communities who have embraced me, I still remain willing to hear God’s call, urging me farther along. May I never mistake water for Holy Spirit, and may I always remember to keep looking forward.