THE TWELVE STEPS AND SPIRITUAL FORMATION
I’ve been marinating in the Twelve Steps for the past year. They revolutionized my life many years ago, and they are doing it again, this time with help of Fr. Richard Rohr and his book Breathing Under Water, Spirituality and the Twelve Steps.
Anyone who has seriously turned to the Twelve Steps has been in grave, even life-threatening pain. I know I was. But our culture disdains pain; we are always looking for a way to avoid it, medicate it, cover it up, or deny pain. And yet pain is valuable. The book Where is God When it Hurts? by Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand taught me long ago that pain’s function is to save us. We wouldn’t go to the doctor if we weren’t in pain. We wouldn’t even lift our hand off a hot burner, unless the heat caused pain. We wouldn’t seek counsel for our broken relationships, if those interactions (or the memories of those interactions) didn’t cause pain. So, I’ve learned to respect and be grateful for pain.
Recently, a comment about pain and its first cousin, suffering, in the book Breathing Under Water has given me even more to think about. Rohr says: “Deep communion and dear compassion is formed much more by shared pain than by shared pleasure” (pg.123). When I asked a group of people who had spent 12 weeks together thinking about their spiritual journey as expressed by the Twelve Steps, they agreed with the statement. One woman said that in her experience, shared pain enhances times of shared pleasure. Fun is more fun with people who are authentic and real.
Becoming trusting enough to share our pain or caring enough to listen to another’s pain (without trying to fix it) are rare gifts that we can give each other. But we don’t have those gifts to give unless we have received them ourselves in a safe place where we feel loved and accepted by others. The best Twelve Step groups know that and practice that.
But what about in the Church? In an article in Conversations, A Forum for Authentic Transformation (Spring/Summer, 2010), author Jan Johnson reports that when she was assigned to write an article on what the Twelve Steps have to say about transformation, the editorial team said, “Every church lobby should have a sign that says, ‘Go downstairs for change; stay upstairs to stay the same.'” When Jan winced, one editor said, “We want to focus on the fact that there’s real honesty and acceptance in the basement (where Alcoholics Anonymous meets) as well has an understanding that transformation has to be worked out).” Jan goes on to say in her article, “Within healthy twelve-step groups, grace is played out among members.” And, as my group has learned, the promise of grace makes sharing pain and building community much easier.
So here are some questions for our churches. When we think of building community, do we think about sharing pain? Do we plan as enthusiastically for opportunities for building honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability as we plan potlucks and picnics and outings and Christmas programs? Can we promise visitors that here they will find a place to share their hurts and grief as in addition to promising that here they will be warmly welcomed? Do we teach our children and youth that truth-telling, forgiveness, and reckless generosity are part of following Christ? And if we did, would their parents be on board? Do we train our small groups in the spiritual disciplines of confession, making amends, and gratitude? Do we believe that admission of wrong drives community and that the discipline of silence creates space for grace? Or do we allow mean-spirited judgmentalism and legalism to squelch honest expression and kill authentic community?
These are hard questions. Making the ordinary congregation a place of “deep communion” and “dear compassion” is a hard task. Jesus called his disciples to hard tasks; we are not excluded from that call personally or corporately.