Fifth in series: 40 Days of Faith 2018
I love "The Wire” I recently started re-watching it because a behind the scenes Oral History was released, interviewing almost everyone involved in the show, and it just got me wishing I was back in that world And since I’m speaking today and I love “the Wire”, we’re going to watch a scene from it It’s one of the most moving scenes in the whole series to me. It’s two characters going to a 12 Step Meeting -- Bubbles (who is one of the show’s main characters) and his friend Johnny -- they are both addicted to heroin Just heads up: little bit of language in this clip https://youtu.be/qAakzl6s7QI
Here’s what I want to say today: Churches at their best are that 12-step meeting.
There is nothing special to draw your attention to that meeting. There is no incredible music, there is no coolness. It seems to be in some random church gym, with fold up chairs and a few volunteers to make it happen. One of the characters we follow, Johnny, doesn’t even want to be there.
But when everyone starts clapping as they hand out sobriety keychains, does a spirit take over you, like it does me? Do you get goosebumps? Do you feel some tears well up?
And then Bubbles (who if you watch the show you love) gets up, because for a moment there’s a hope and a promise there that grabs him. I just lose it. This is fictional. It’s not even real. But when I got to this scene the other day as I’ve begun re-watching the series, I was honestly just crying uncontrollably for a little bit.
Later in the episode, Bubbles and Johnny are using again. But, in the long narrative actually, Bubbles' story is one of the most redemptive in the series. Here in this episode in season one we witness his first step toward that redemption. And it’s the hopeful message of the 12-Step meeting that keeps him on the path.
That hopeful message to me is so beautiful and pure:
"Does anyone have 24 hrs or a sincere desire to live?" the volunteer asks.
That question is as real as life gets. That is not a cheap religious message. It is not an empty promise that, when dug into a bit, can’t be delivered on or falls apart. It is not in the least bit predatory or salesmen-ey. It’s not preying on someone vulnerable. It’s not taking advantage of someone just to have an inspiring story to tell or show off how amazing some minister or public servant is.
That question is as pure and deep as spirituality gets.
That wave you feel — even in a fictional story — when the clapping for others starts — especially for who they call “the most important people in the room” — that, I think, is God knitting people together in solidarity as they together try to do the hardest things life will ever present them.
When church gives people experiences like this, that is true spirituality.
Because here’s the thing: it’s not just substance abuse that can be helped by the 12 steps.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, who is a sort of historian of spirituality, argues that: the 12-step program (AA or NA or SA) first developed by Bill Wilson in the early 20th century is the greatest American contribution to the history of spirituality. Like, what’s more American than a step by step instruction manual? And, despite the many ways we can point to Americans and American culture mishandling spirituality and Jesus, this is actually an example of something that Americans excel at offering something really helpful to the world — making overcoming addiction feel do-able.
For the hardest sort of addiction you can imagine, like substance addiction, yes, BUT Rohr also says: what if you treated anything that’s not serving you as addiction? To use the religious word, what if you treated any sin in your life, big or small, as addiction? And tried to live the 12 steps as a lifestyle?
I want to read the 12 STEPS for us, and I want you to think not just about alcoholism or substance abuse or sex addiction, but call to mind anything in your life that feels like a high in the moment but then you realize it’s not serving you: the high feeling right or justified by passive aggressively letting someone have it the high of evading trouble by telling small lies the high of getting our way by manipulating people or situations the high of feeling an escape from our challenges by disappearing from our lives
Take a second and reflect on yourself...
- We admitted we were powerless over our addiction — that our lives had become unmanageable.
- We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
I wonder how that all hits you?
I mean, we could all be asked later by someone, how was church? And if we say: they told me I was an addict… that may not sound great…
But I want to say: I don’t actually think this is a downer of a message at all.
To me, the 12 step message feels like one deeply true message in a sea of messages trying to sell me something.
In that sense, I think it’s actually empowering.
On paper, my brother, who passed away almost three years ago now, was a screw-up and an alcoholic, and I was a good kid who ended up becoming a pastor.
But it’s my brother who had something to teach me, not the other way around.
He came to a point where he realized what was actually going to feed his life through the 12 Steps of AA.
And AA taught him how to pursue that humbly and courageously. I remember particularly his pursuit of steps 8 and 9 ("Make a list of all persons we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all... and then make direct amends to such people wherever possible.")
He reached out to me when he was in town one week to sit down over coffee. Not something we had ever done before. But we get together at a coffee shop, and he expresses specifically what he felt he had done that hurt me. He asks for my forgiveness. He looks me in the eye and tells me he loves me.
I look back on that time with my brother now, and realize it is one of the most spiritual things that has ever happened to me.
And getting that taste of what my brother discovered through the 12 steps has encouraged me to do a searching and fearless inventory of things in my own life that aren’t serving me: My need to be right and get my way, which leads to me manipulating people... My need to feel like I’m living up to my ideals, which leads to me shaming myself…
My brother’s example has taught me to treat those things in me like addictions… and to try to daily live the 12 steps as best I can. And the way that has changed me is not making me more of a downer It’s made me more joyful. It’s made me more relaxed. It’s made me more fun to be around, my wife would tell you.
There is a power in our embrace of our own powerlessness. It’s an unexpected power. It’s not one the world in general recognizes or puts on display. But it’s one that our hearts recognize intuitively, I think. I think It’s why I get emotional watching that scene from the wire. My heart recognizes something deep and true there
To me, the 12 steps are one of the greatest expression of Jesus’ Gospel. We’re in the middle of the 40 days of Lent, when churches prepare to mark Jesus’ death on the cross on Good Friday, and then resurrection on Easter — Jesus, on the cross, stands in solidarity with the powerlessness of humanity In telling us to “look to him on the Cross for life”, he tells us: look to our powerlessness for life And then Jesus' resurrection is God’s guarantee that he will back up that promise to give us life Should we make ourselves “entirely ready for God to remove our shortcomings and defects of character”, and “humbly ask him to do so”... He will meet us -- he will give us the power to carry out his good will for our lives The 12 steps is basically a way to, on a daily basis, live the death and resurrection of Jesus in our lives
St Paul wrote about this in one of his letters to the Corinthian church: I’m going to read basically a whole chapter here from this letter… which is a bit long… But I want us to see just how 12-Step-sounding Paul’s words are… it’s so powerful in that light:
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written: “I [God] will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I [God] will frustrate.” 20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
2 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. 6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”— [are] the things God has prepared for those who love him— 10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. Paul’s relationship with Jesus put him in touch with his powerlessness. And that wasn’t a terrible thing, that was an amazing and freeing and life-giving thing -- giving him a quality of life no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind conceived of He realized his life had become unmanageable. So he made friends with his powerlessness. And, in the words of the 12 steps, “having had a spiritual awakening as a result, he tried to carry that message to others, and to practice these principles in all his affairs.”
This is, sadly, not what churches are popular for offering: Churches, we think, are: here’s a course on morality… and here’s a message to scare or shock you into operating with as much will-power as you possibly can to avoid going outside the bounds of that "morality electric fence" But fear of a "morality electric fence” is only really good at keeping people who are “in” staying exactly where they are (out of fear), and keeping people who are “out” staying out. Movement or change or growth in human behavior is secondary in that approach to church. The way of 12-Step programs, the way of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, the death and resurrection of Jesus — these are about movement, growth, and change — not a morality electric fence. Churches at their best are like a 12-Step program
As a pastor, when people talk to me about wanting to grow or know God better, this is how I know how close they are to that. Does this person seem ready to treat their sin, big or small, like addiction?
And that’s not about seeming religious or appearing impressive. Just the opposite: the people I recognize are really ready for this are the people who I can tell aren’t trying to be impressive.
Rather, this is just about what actually works to lead to growth and closeness to God.
It is scary at first. You have to stand up and say I’m Vince and I’m an addict. And then you have to keep going to some equivalent of 12 step meetings (because you’re not special and no one can do it alone)...
But then we begin to experience that incredible quality of life God has prepared for us, which Paul described, and my brother taught me about, and the Wire gives me a picture of
If we here, the people of BLV, were a people experiencing that every day... Imagine how that would change us -- And therefore change the people around us and our neighborhoods and our city: Imagine how spiritual just coffee with a family member or friend could feel? Imagine what strong relationships we could build — How much more support we would feel How much more support we would feel ready to give Imagine how differently we would engage in our work how much healthier a work-life balance we would discover when we are fearlessly confronting our character flaws… Imagine how differently we would orient ourselves toward the poorest among us in our neighborhoods engaging the poor with solidarity, not just pity Imagine the reputation this church could have in Lincoln Square and the Brown Line area — Those people know how damn hard life can be and they are with me in that - they give out the spiritual equivalent of sobriety keychains and applause - They point me toward not a morality electric fence, but a God who is loving and eager to help me
Let me put the 12 steps back up for us, and encourage us again to reflect for a moment on ourselves And in that space I want to pray for us Would you stand with me? (focus on: humbly ask God to remove shortcomings)