Most of us are familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and the many other recovery groups that have followed its lead since it was founded in the 1930s. Whether you’ve had occasion to seek out a group yourself or know someone who has, the principles of AA are, to some extent, a part of our social fabric. What I didn’t know until recently was how firmly the origins of AA were connected to faith in God.
Over time, the intense focus on God that was part of AA’s early years has been diluted, as you can see if you read more recent editions of AA’s guide, the Big Book. God has become simply a “higher power.” The life-changing spiritual experience as the solution that would lead to sobriety got watered down, first to a “spiritual awakening” and then to a “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery.” The original Big Book was unabashed in using the Bible as one of its primary sources and unashamed to call God “Creator,” “Maker,” and “Father.”
AA has helped my brother Craig to achieve more than ten years of sobriety. But, I just began to learn all this when I happened to read a short biography of a man named Sam Shoemaker. Rev. Shoemaker was an Episcopal priest, and the Episcopal Church celebrates his life on January 31. His bio was included in their daily readings, which I often use for my morning devotions. Bill Wilson, a co-founder of AA, said this about Rev. Shoemaker: “It was from Sam Shoemaker that we absorbed most of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, steps that express the heart of AA’s way of life… He passed on the spiritual keys by which we were liberated.” Wilson went on to say that, early on, AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others directly from Sam Shoemaker and an evangelical Christian organization called the Oxford Group, which Shoemaker was part of.
This all intrigued me, and I started to explore AA’s history, people, and twelve-step program. The more I learned, the more I saw how closely it conforms to the steps we need to take, first to become a Christian and, then, to live a Christian life. The more I learned, the more useful the twelve steps seemed as tools for the season of Lent. Because, at its heart, Lent is a time of recovery—the recovery of our identity as children of God, saved by God’s love and our faith in Jesus. It’s a time of recovering our relationship with God. It’s a time of recovering from our own addictions, whatever they may be.
We tend to think of addictions in terms of things like drugs or alcohol, tobacco or gambling. But, if the many twelve-step programs in existence today are any indication, just about anything can become an addiction or, as our passage for today might call it, an idol. One web site I looked at listed more than forty 12-Step groups for those addicted to everything from cocaine to clutter. Even if we don’t call ourselves addicts, we are all likely to have at least one idol in our lives—something that competes for God’s place in our hearts.
In a talk Rev. Shoemaker gave at a Methodist Church in 1962, not long before he died, he told a story about a very proper woman who came to him, wanting him to talk to her daughter-in-law, who was an alcoholic. Shoemaker asked, “Why don’t you talk to her?” She said, “Well, you see, I’ve never had that problem.” Shoemaker replied, “Well, neither have I!”
“But, he continued, “you’ve been saying to God every Sunday morning of your life that you are a miserable offender. Do you mean it or not? Because if you’re a miserable offender along one line, you can understand a miserable offender along another one. It isn’t so much of a jump.”
Lent is the season we set aside to seriously look at how we are “miserable offenders.” Then, having identified our offenses—against God, against neighbor—we set about repenting. If you look up the word “repent” in the dictionary, it will be defined as feeling sorry. But in Scripture, repentance is much more than that. It means “to turn”—to turn away from our sin and turn to God. It means bringing our attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors into alignment with God’s expectations for right living. Finally, Lent is a season when we recommit ourselves to recovering a more Christ-like life—the life made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So, during the coming weeks of Lent, we’ll use AA’s original twelve steps as guides for our own recovery process. We won’t be taking them in order. Instead, we’ll explore them as they relate to the journey of faith. Today, we’ll focus on Steps 4 and 10. Step 4 is to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Step 10 is to “continue to take personal inventory and, when we are wrong, promptly admit it.”
Often, we try to cure the symptoms of our spiritual disease, rather than curing the disease itself. As we take stock of our lives, we need to look beyond the symptoms to get at what’s really going on in our souls. What is taking center stage in our lives? What do we value more than anything else? What is standing in the way of a full surrender to life in Christ? What earthly attachments need to die so that we are free to seek the things that are above?
The Colossians were being challenged by things in their world which were becoming stumbling blocks in their faith. Paul (or someone writing in his name after his death) wrote to them about this problem. They were already Christians. An earlier part of the letter celebrates their faith, hope, and love that were bearing fruit in the Colossian church.
But, there were some ideas and teachings floating around the community that were in opposition to the faith they had been taught. There were notions of ecstatic experiences and visions which would supposedly unite people with God. These ecstatic states could only be produced by strict observance of fasts and festivals, dietary rules and physical abasement. During these ecstasies, it was reported, believers could participate with the angels in their worship. Such experiences were said to confer a special knowledge, which elevated the participant above less enlightened believers.
None of this is consistent with the faith that had been handed on to the Colossians. It sounds good but, as the author (let’s just assume it was Paul) says in the verses just before our passage, “All these are simply human commands and teachings.” He continues, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.”
“Forget that stuff!” Paul says. Instead, he says, “If you’ve been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
When he says “if,” he’s not doubting their status as Christians. It would be better to read this “Since you’ve been raised with Christ, set your mind on the things of God.” Paul’s not questioning whether or not they’ve been raised with Christ. He’s not questioning the fact that, in their baptism, they’ve been buried with Christ and raised with him. Of course, they have! They already know God—through Christ! They’ve already been united with God—through Christ! Yes, there’s more to come; not everything has been revealed—yet. But that time will come, and it won’t come about through hanging out with angels.
“Therefore,” Paul says, “since you already have this faith–this hope—live like it!” Our faith is not a “pie in the sky when you die” kind of thing. It has ethical implications for our lives now. Paul gives some examples: put to death things like fornication (which doesn’t mean what it’s come to mean, but general sexual immorality and especially adultery and prostitution). Put to death impurity and passion—again, sexual sins better described as lust.
But, before we start feeling like we’re standing on secure moral ground here, Paul moves on to evil desire, which covers a multitude of sins. And then there’s greed, which Paul equates with idolatry, because what we’re greedy for is likely to be occupying the place God should have in our lives.
In fact, greed is the underpinning of all the other sins on the list so far, because it assumes that things and even other people exist simply for our own use and gratification. I think we may be more guilty of that kind of greed than we know—or want to admit. Think of all the health care workers who were put at unnecessary risk by people who refused to vaccinated against COVID, simply because they didn’t want to be. Think of people like nursing home and day care workers, whom we just expect to do the jobs that make our lives easier even if they’re overworked and underpaid. This kind of greed may soon begin to show up as prices rise in response to our actions against Russia, and we place our need for cheaper fuel over the needs of the Ukrainian people. If we’re willing to make a fearless moral inventory, each of us may find a streak of that greed in ourselves.
Paul gives some more examples: anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, lying to one another. He’s not talking about righteous anger that can fuel positive change. He’s talking about anger that explodes. He’s talking about actions and attitudes that are intended to harm someone else. He’s talking about language that hurts: slander, vilifying others, obscene language, foul language, shameful language—language that hurts other people.
Paul likes lists, but they are never exhaustive. We always need to look for the common thread that connects them. The common thread here is that all of these destroy relationships. Even if we never engage in a shameful physical act or allow a bad word to pass our lips, we may be guilty of sins which are just as destructive to other people and the connections between us. As Rev. Shoemaker of said in that talk to the Methodists, “I don’t see any difference between getting drunk on whisky or gin or beer and getting drunk on temper and lust and resentment and fear.” Paul is saying something very much like that. The gossip we pass along, the suspicion we cast someone’s way, the disrespectful joke we tell, or the disparaging comment we make is just as harmful as any of the sins Paul gives as examples. These are the kinds of things we may uncover when we fearlessly take stock in order to recover.
The truly fearless inventory called for by AA’s Step 4 has the potential to make us feel pretty bad about ourselves. I had a seminary classmate who was a Unitarian and was not a Christian. Sounds weird, I know, but I had classmates who were preparing to be mental health counselors or chaplains, and they came from many different backgrounds. Anyway, this young man shared with me that what he didn’t like about the Christian faith was that it was so focused on our sinfulness. As far as he was concerned, Christians were out to make people feel worthless. He especially hated the verse in Psalm 22 where the psalmist says, “I am a worm, and not human.”
But, what my classmate failed to understand is that taking stock of our lives and identifying our sins are not ends in themselves. They are just the first steps towards the repentance that leads to life—abundant life. We can’t turn away from the negative things in our lives until we know what they are. We can’t turn toward God if we don’t identify the things that are holding us back from a fuller, deeper, richer life with God. We identify our sins so we can ask J. to help us strip off our old self and clothe us in the new.
In the verses following our passage, Paul describes what this new clothing is made of: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, acceptance of each other, forgiveness for each other. “Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony,” Paul says. “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” This is the clothing, not of people who are worthless, but of people who are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.
That doesn’t mean that once we accept Jesus as our Lord and put on that new clothing, our work is done. As Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, we believe in the process of sanctification—a continuing process of growing in the knowledge and love of God. That continued growth demands a continuing attention to our behavior and attitudes. As AA’s Step 10 specifies, we “continue to take personal inventory and, when we are wrong, promptly admit it.” The life of faith is not a once-and-done proposition but one of regular self-examination, confession, and repentance—a turning from sin and renewed turning to God until that day when we are perfected in love.
During the season of Lent, we become more intentional about this process. We spend these weeks before Easter reflecting on the great gift of Jesus’ life and ministry. We prepare to watch, once again, as he gives his life for ours on the cross and frees us from the power of sin and gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to be a new creation, clothed in a new self. We prepare to celebrate his victory over death, which secures for us the promise of eternal life. Let us begin anew by making the searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves which will prepare us to do everything, in word and deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young