“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
This past Thursday, our 12-Step study group compared a few preachy platitudes to the practical promises of 12-step spirituality and recovery. I probably don’t have to tell you that there is some pretty bad (and potentially harmful) theology out there in both sanctuaries where churches do their teaching and the church basements where recovery fellowships do the same. Bad theology is usually a result of generations of misunderstood story or a desire to use scripture as a weapon rather than a tool or a lack of responsible scholarship or just plain old laziness! People think they understand what is written in front of them but they don’t take the time to mine the truth from a lesson, or from those who have done that work. Some of the platitudes we talked about were things like, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” and “With God all things are possible!” and of course a hundred forms of the prosperity gospel that suggests that financial success is the will of God for Christians. The problem with platitudes (besides the fact that they are just not so!) is that when life is lived and human beings are human beings and the predictions and easy answers do not come true—those who are left NOT gracefully handling that which is in front of them, those whose dream or vision did NOT come to fruition, and those who remain in poverty or unemployed or without homes or any number of others conditions that our society deems evidence of personal ruin—are left believing that somehow they are the failure. They think they were just not emotionally well or resilient enough, or they believe they did not pray the right way, or they didn’t give enough money to the church or they just are not faithful enough! If the underlying theology of your faith suggests that your success reflects God’s love and action on your behalf—then what does it say about God’s love if you are not successful? Ugh.
In comparison, I appreciate the practical nature of the 12 Step program of action which promises a ‘spiritual awakening’ that is defined as a change to the way you respond to life. It does not promise material success. It does not promise that crappy things will not happen to you. It does not promise that life, or recovery, will be easy. In fact from the beginning the simple 12 step program of action calls for hard work and constant vigilance. But, most addicts need and appreciate knowing what is expected and a clearly defined path with easy to follow directions that have worked for millions for decades. The set of rules for living taught me to act like a responsible grown up (something I seemed to have missed when I was actually becoming a grown up), treat myself and other people with respect and led me to a happy and healthy relationship with God. Sound familiar?
In the gospel lesson from John this week, we hear Jesus promise that when we keep his commandments to love God and Neighbor, we are wrapped in God’s love. Jesus goes on in this lesson to talk about his disciples becoming his friends, so there is a new depth of relationship and a quality of love he is teaching the disciples about in this periscope. But it begins with the simple fact that when we do as he asks, when we obey the great commandments—the result is a simple pathway to the greatest love. The image of abiding in Jesus’ love, dwelling together through our commitment to love, being held and standing in God’s love form a powerful invitation to the kind of community and shared path that makes 12 step programs so effective. Jesus promises a peaceful place to abide in God’s love when we love God and neighbor through worship, praise, mission and service.
‘The Promises’ from the program of action are these: “If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.”
Practically speaking, the promises are the same. Do the 12 steps and change everything, find God, sanity, peace, freedom, fellowship, love. Do the commandments and abide in love. It’s really the same thing. I pray that just for today, no one promises you a rose garden or financial success or an easy platitude to the challenges in your life. There are no easy answers and sometimes life sucks—even when Jesus is in your heart. Spiritual formation takes effort and, as some one once said, faith without works is dead! But when we stay on the path, we get to abide in God’s love and that means that even when it sucks God is there, with us, loving us anyway.
With blessing and prayer, Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade 5/8/15