Lent 2: Steps 2 and 3

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”

Step 2: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

In the church world, they say that every preacher really only has one – maybe two – sermons in them. When I first heard this I was horrified. I thought surely I can come up with a multitude of sermons on a variety of subjects. But the longer I am in ministry I have to admit that I really do have one sermon. It’s not that I don’t preach on a variety of subjects. More that I have one message that for me is the message that I want my listeners to hear. So I repeat that message in many ways and with many stories, but it is still the same sermon.

The risk of talking about the 12 Steps during Lent is that I’m giving up my secret about my one sermon. Because my one sermon is the third step: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

So there you have it. I hope now that you know my one sermon you’ll keep coming to church anyway.

Last week we talked about Step 1: admitting what things in our lives had power over us and recognizing the unmanageability in our lives. This week the steps lead us to consider a Higher Power, and invite us to turn to that Higher Power for our solution. Step 2 reads that we came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step 3 instructs us to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.

Now one could maybe assume that those of us sitting in church have already come here believing in God, but that’s not really an assumption I’m comfortable making. We have excellent food at our potlucks at Beloved, so maybe that’s why you come. Or maybe you love the music or the friendship, but perhaps you just aren’t sure how you feel about God, or you have trouble finding language for your belief system.  I think it’s ok to be not totally sure about how you feel about God. I think it’s ok to have questions. And I think that these two steps can be an invitation for all of us to explore who God is and how God can play a role in our lives.

One of the things I have always loved most about the third step is that it allows us to form a God of our own understanding. And you’ll notice the language – we turn our will and lives over to the care of God. We aren’t turning our lives over to the judgement of God, or the anger of God or the wrath of God. Instead we are giving our lives to someone who will care for us. My reading of scripture has also always led me to believe that I am cared for and loved by God, but I’ll also admit that some passages of scripture have caused me some confusion as I make my way to that understanding. In those moments, this step has reminded me that my own experience of God can be my greatest informant about God. And when I read scripture through the lens of my own experience, it helps me to understand the messages in a way that helps me to feel more whole and less confused.

Abraham’s story is a great example of that for me, and is a wonderful passage of scripture to explore the first two steps.  First, a quick recap on his story: Abraham is getting on in life and has settled into his retirement with his wife Sarah who he never had children with when suddenly God speaks to him and tells him to pack up shop and hit the road. God wants him to move to a new land, and in return for his faithfulness promises that Sarah will have a child. This seems a little unbelievable to Abraham and Sarah who thought that ship had sailed, but their experience of God’s message in that moment was so clear that they believe it – they believe God will restore them to sanity – and they do as they are asked.

As is so often the case though, God’s promise doesn’t come through immediately, and Abraham gets a little impatient. He and Sarah try to take matters into their own hands, and they make some questionable decisions. The passage we read above comes after their attempt at taking back the control. God speaks to Abraham again, reminding him of his promise. God tells Abraham to look at the stars and says “See this number? So shall your descendants be.”

I’ve always really appreciated Abraham’s willingness to change his whole life to follow God’s will. I think in our own lives sometimes we hope that God’s will for us is going to be just a little thing – maybe a small adjustment to our daily practice or treatment of ourselves or others. And sometimes that is what God is asking of us. Other times we’re asked to do what Abraham has been asked – total life change. Those changes can be scary and unsettling, but in my own experience have led to such incredible blessings.

I have also always appreciated the way Abraham becomes totally skeptical and tries to take control into his own hands. Because how many times have I done the same thing??? How many times have I said to God “ok, the road is clear and I’m going to walk it” and then I get halfway down the road and nothing seems clear anymore and I get confused and tired and instead of trusting the process I start to mess with it myself?

I can’t say specifically, but let’s just leave it at a lot of times.

Notice what happens in the story though: God does not punish Abraham for doubting him. God does not take back his promise. Instead God offers a gentle reminder of what he has in store for Abraham, and renews his promise in this beautiful way.

We are not punished for our human inclination to want to be in control. Instead we are gently reminded that we aren’t in control. We are reminded that God is in charge. We are reminded that we always have the option of turning our lives over to the care of God, and that when we do – blessings abound.

The homework for this week is to get yourself a God box – it can be a box of any size or design. Each time you find yourself trying to control something (and remember the way control can manifest itself – worry, obsession, managing, etc) go ahead and write it down on a slip of paper and put it inside the God box. Physically turn it over to God.

Once you’ve done that, go ahead and pay attention to how often you mentally try to take whatever you’ve written back from God. It’s always entertaining to go through the process of giving our lives over to God and then noticing our Abraham moments where we try to take them back.

Remember, we have the option at any time to turn our will and our lives over to God so that we might be restored to sanity – we just have to take it.

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First Lent, First Step

If it is easier for you to listen to this post instead of reading it, here you go!

 

Luke 4:1-13

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

 

Step 1: We admitted that we are powerless [over alcohol] and our lives have become unmanageable.

 

I want to start this by explaining a little bit of my own connection to the 12 Steps. When I was 20 years old I started attending Alanon meetings. Both of my parents were alcoholics, and as I was trying to navigate adult relationships (specifically one of a romantic nature) I was starting to feel like perhaps my upbringing in an alcoholic family system was starting to play a role in my thoughts, feelings, and actions.

While I had been exposed to the 12 Steps through family members before, I couldn’t believe the impact they had on me as I started going to meetings myself. I can say without hesitation that I would leave a meeting, and for reasons I couldn’t even totally explain life would just be a little bit easier. I learned about how I can’t control other people (in Alanon we often change “alcohol” to “people, places, and things” in the first step), I learned the importance of keeping my side of the street clean, and I learned about putting my whole life in God’s hands. It was truly life changing.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure I should also mention that I haven’t been to a meeting in a long time. So I want to reiterate what I said in my last post. I’m doing this because I believe that the 12 Steps are wonderful tools to draw us closer to God and to set the stage for a spiritual awakening. But I am not an expert and we are not working the 12 Steps together during Lent. I simply want you to know more about them, so you can do with them as you please.

So that’s where I’m coming from when I say the 12 Steps have had a profound impact on my life. I grew to love them through family members who changed their lives through AA and NA, and I experienced them myself. The tools I learned in Alanon still inform so much of my life today.

This week we’ll begin with the Step 1 and only Step 1. Honestly we could spend all of Lent on this step but I thought I’d mix it up a little. The very first part of this program is as follows: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.

 I think it’s important to reiterate that “alcohol” can be filled in with almost anything else. For a long time for me this was most useful by substituting “people”. I was powerless over other people. It’s so easy to believe you can change someone else, and so hard to fully realize that the only person you can change is yourself. But again –it could be anything. You could be powerless over sugar, shopping, social media, drugs, food, alcohol…the list goes on and on. I’m not suggesting everyone is an addict, but I am saying that it’s part of the human condition to think that we can be in control of things when really we just can’t.

Trying to control things we can’t control though – well that’s when we wind up in the wilderness. Which is where we find Jesus in our scripture this week. Here he is for forty days and nights with no food and he is constantly being tempted by the devil. The devil wants him to believe he has the power, constantly trying to lure him in.

Now I want to stop for a second and say that I get a little tripped up when we talk about the devil because I’m not actually sure if I believe in evil as one being the way we talk about it in scripture. So because I’m not sure about that, I try not to speak definitively about Satan. But I do think that evil is real, and that temptation is real. And I know all too well the feeling of being exhausted and overwhelmed trying to get out of the wilderness when suddenly some kind of short cut pops up and causes me to believe that there’s an easier way out rather than doing the hard work. How many times have I tried to calm myself down at the end of a tough day with a new outfit, a glass of wine, or a tray of brownies? And I’m not saying one glass of wine is Satan – but I am saying that if we aren’t careful and we constantly rely on these outside things to make us well, then suddenly life might start to look a little unmanageable.

That’s where the second half of this Step helps us to determine if we are in the wilderness. Because we look around and see that life is starting to look really unmanageable.

Unmanageability can be a slippery subject too. There are certainly lots of very real reasons why life can become unmanageable. But we have to be cautious about always having excuses for why our lives continue to unravel. The beauty of the first step is that it can help us to identify when life is unmanageable because of our own behaviors and choices. Maybe life is unmanageable for me because I have a baby right now and he doesn’t always sleep well. But maybe life is unmanageable because I stay up really late every night because I need “me” time because my attempts at caring for myself during the day aren’t really all that caring. Time on Facebook does not help me to feel deeply connected to God the way exercise, meditation, or even a nap does. But damned if I don’t scroll my newsfeed in the few quiet moments I have every day. Friends – I am powerless over Facebook and it is causing my life to become unmanageable.

So our work is to take a look around and see where our lives might be unraveling. We might not be as strong as Jesus who is able to so quickly see through Satan’s allure and point only to God. But with practice we might be better able to recognize the temptation for a quick fix that will only serve to make us feel worse about ourselves in the long run, and maybe that recognition can help us to make a better decision.

This week, I want to invite you spend some time thinking about the two parts of this step. First, what are you trying to control in your life that you simply cannot control? And second, where are you seeing glimpses of unmanageability? If you are seeing glimpses of unmanageability, maybe consider whether or not the two might be connected.

This work might lead you to a major “aha” moment in your life. More likely, it might help you to realize something new about how you try to make people, places, and things fill the space in your life that only God can fill.

Next week we’ll spend more time talking about how God can fill that space. But this week, take a look around and see if maybe you find yourself in the wilderness. Then consider how you might have gotten there.

 

 

 

 

 

Lent and the 12 Steps

If you’d rather listen to this blog post (a large part of which was my Ash Wednesday Sermon) instead of reading it, you may do so here:

 

On Tuesday night of this week I had the honor of being the guest preacher at St. Augustine’s Church on the URI campus for their monthly Recovery Eucharist. The Archdeacon of our Diocese, Jan Grinnell, created this service to provide a church experience for people who have experience with the 12 Steps. The liturgy is a lovely blend of Episcopal language and the language used “in the halls” of meetings. Because I have been blessed by 12 Step Programs personally and through my loved ones, I have been invited to preach on a couple of occasions at this service.

The service uses the readings from the previous Sunday, and so we were once again hearing the story of the Transfiguration with Jesus, Elijah, Moses, Peter, James, and John. In my preaching I talked about what it’s like to have a spiritual awakening of that magnitude and then have to come back down off the mountain. I talked about how hard it is to recreate our mountaintop experiences as much as we try, but if we keep at our daily connection with God after those experiences we inevitably set ourselves up for another awakening down the road.

You can watch the sermon here https://staugustineuri.org/sermons/. I wish my stole wasn’t crooked, but this is a chronic issue for me.

One of the ways I weaved recovery language into my sermon was by talking about the 11th and 12th Steps as part of how we keep connecting with God after our spiritual awakenings. The 11th Step is as follows:

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his will in our lives and the power to carry that out.

 Now I was still digging the Transfiguration at that point, but I also knew that I was on the eve of Ash Wednesday and the start of our Lenten Season at church. And I have a haaaaaard time with Lent as much as I love it. Anytime we start talking about things like “discipline and “repentance” and “self-denial” I start to get a little wigged out. It feels like the kind of oppressive religion that I have tried to so desperately to get away from – a religion that is laden with guilt and obligation instead of joy and abundance.

As a result of my uncertainty about Lent I am constantly searching for other language to use around this time. I need to re-invent Lent for myself in order to live into it more fully. As I preached on Tuesday night about the 11th Step, I couldn’t help but think that it offers us wording that can help to broaden and enhance the language the church uses. Because when I have taken on a Lenten discipline, this is exactly what has happened to me: I have improved my conscious contact with God. Giving something up for Lent jolts me out of my complacency and reminds me that I am in a different season. A season where I am invited to be more connected to God and less connected to the things that distract me from God.

Last year I posted Brené Brown’s video about the power of vulnerability. In it she talks about how she noticed in her research that people who believed they were worthy of love and belonging had something in common: they lived whole-heartedly. And what allowed them to live whole-heartedly was their willingness to be vulnerable. She talked about how because we are afraid of vulnerability – or bad feelings in general – we tend to numb those things out. But when we numb out the bad feelings, we can’t help but numb out the good ones too.

There are so many ways that we can choose to numb ourselves to our feelings and what is happening around us. I love Brené’s call to be vulnerable. It echoes the Invitation to Lent that we read at our Ash Wednesday service. Lent invites us to stop what we are doing, to take stock of who we are and what our relationship with God looks like. Lent invites us to REPENT: to turn back to God who yearns to be close to us. Admitting the ways that we have let down ourselves and others takes vulnerability. But that vulnerability offers us the opportunity to bask in God’s loving mercy and forgiveness. This process of repentance allows us to be whole-hearted – and why wouldn’t we want that for ourselves?

Last year I spent some time inviting the folks I go to church with to take on a Lenten discipline (even though the word makes me cringe every time!). I will invite my church family to do that again this year, as I have had such positive experiences taking one on myself. But this year, in addition to just asking people to take something on, I’d like to offer a concrete way for people to improve their conscious contact with God during this Lenten season.

So I have a plan. Because my life has been so profoundly impacted by the 12 Step Program, and because those steps have helped me improve my own conscious contact with God, I’m going to spend Lent explaining and unpacking the steps in my sermons on Sunday. Call it a “Lenten Preaching Series” if you will, except that sounds a little too fancy for me.

Each week I’ll talk about one or a few of the steps as it pertains to our scripture readings. And then….wait for it… I’ll offer some homework.

WHAT? Homework in church?

I know, but it won’t be that bad. It will be an invitation to think about something, reflect on your life and your behavior, and try to grow yourself a little bit. My hope is that the homework will help you improve your conscious contact with God.

For anyone who can’t be at church during Lent I’ll go ahead and post a version of the sermon and the “homework” here on the blog, so you can participate even if you can’t get yourself to Pascoag.

A couple of quick things about this idea:

  1. I am not doing this just for people who have addictions. The Steps are applicable to every part of life and I am quite sure they have something to offer you in your life right now.
  2. To be clear, we will NOT be working through the 12 Steps over 5 weeks of Lent. I encourage anyone that wants to work the Steps for real to do so, in a program and with support from other people in that program. It will change your life. But it takes way more than 5 weeks.

So the purpose of this activity is simply to give you a Lenten project that’s a little more tangible. Because I mean it when I invite you to a Holy Lent.

I invite you, through prayer and meditation, to improve your conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for you and the power to carry that out.