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Wisdom the Works, Part II

Change Perspective, Steps 4, 5, 6

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
February 28, 2016

Today is the third Sunday in Lent and our wilderness journey with Jesus brings us to an opportunity to face ourselves more clearly and begin the process of deep transformation.

The parable of the fig tree (Luke 13:6-9) is Jesus’ natural image for the necessary process of change. If your tree doesn’t grow figs, don’t just cut it down, irrigate and nurture it, give it a chance to bear fruit. But if it really isn’t productive, you may need to cut it down to make room for new growth. I don’t see this as condemnation of a whole person, but only of those aspect of character that one might find when making a searching and fearless moral inventory of oneself.

And the Letter from James suggests exactly how to proceed when those negative aspects of character are discovered.

Looking back, we began this journey three weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Lent, by facing the three temptations Jesus faced:
         1. Security at any cost (Bread from stones).
         2. Power over the world (Ruling with the ego’s (or the devil’s) help.
3. Easy answers (testing God by jumping off the top of the temple).
We learned that Jesus chose the path toward Beloved Community by saying no to those temptations.

Then we began to explore the first three of the twelve steps in all anonymous programs to discover how they might be tools we can all use to follow Jesus through this wilderness we call life.

We realized that we need to admit we are powerless over others and over much of our own behavior if we want to walk out of the wilderness of “the power over everything” mythology of our current culture; that we needed to discover a God big enough to restore even us to sanity; and that we needed to turn our will and our lives over to the care of that God of our understanding. Only then will we be ready to do that “searching and fearless moral inventory” of the 4th step.

Step 4 feels like the first action step and for people like me who just want to get things done, it was the most attractive. Let me focus on my faults, face my demons, make an inventory, quick! Let me do that! But there is a reason the steps are numbered and this is number 4! If we haven’t built a relationship with a God who is love, who is compassion, who is presence, who is big enough to heal us, then jumping to facing our failures is a guarantee of disaster!

And Step 4 is an inventory, not just a list of faults. I have a background in bookkeeping and know that an inventory is an asset! Granted, our faults and failures can be real liabilities, but a searching and fearless moral inventory will reveal both our strengths as well as our weaknesses.

This isn’t an opportunity to wallow in all that is wrong with us. But if you have never really focused on that log in your own eye, and have spent too much time pointing at the sliver in the eyes of others, it can feel overwhelming to admit that denial is not just a River in Egypt, but a way of life for most of us!

The first time I did my full 4th Step I got a babysitter for the kids, rented a cottage on Stinson Beach, and spent two days walking and thinking. I made four lists: A complete history of my life, the good experiences on one side, the bad on the other; and a list of choices I made in response to those experiences, the wise choices on one side, the negative choices on the other. When I was done I could see the patterns that had become my very bad habits as well as the strengths that grew out of my wiser decisions.

Jesus talked so much about the light. “I am the light of the world…You are children of the light.” When we can shine a light on our real selves we can be changed. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do it all by ourselves? But that would be like jumping off the temple all alone and Jesus said no to that. We need Step 5!

Step 5 requires us to admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Maybe you have a wonderful and close relationship with God. If you have really turned your will and your life over to God’s care, you will want to be honest with God about who you really are. Maybe this is hard to admit, but remember, God’s love and God’s grace are absolutely there to hold you through this.

Admitting these faults to ourselves can be just as hard. Blaming others, our parents, society, our genes, our upbringing, our friends, our enemies…is so much easier, and clearly the more popular choice. When we look in the mirror of our lives, there are plenty of people who we might think of as worse than us, or doing what we hate so clearly that we don’t notice they are doing what we do just a little more clearly. Breaking denial continues the work of step 4 by allowing us to really look at that inventory we just made and admit there are things that need changing.

Richard Rohr, in “Breathing Under Water” quotes his own Franciscan novice master as saying, “We must try to make it easier for others to love us.” This is the work.

Admitting the exact nature of our wrongs to another human being is the ultimate in humility for most of us. It is not the same thing as Catholic confession. Long time members of anonymous programs recommend you choose a sponsor, someone with years of experience, a peer in recovery and on the same path. Don’t choose a clergy person unless you can trust them to be non-judgmental. Don’t choose a spouse or your child since some of your inventory may well involve them. Celtic Christians called this person an “Anumkara,” a friend of the heart, a soul friend you can trust to hear what your heart is trying to say between all the words. I chose my sponsor to share those long lists with and when I was done she helped me to see the patterns my lists revealed.

And then it was time for Step 6! What comes next? Oh yes: Now it was time to become entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character!

What? I don’t get to start fixing me? How do I “become entirely ready”?  How will “God remove all these defects”? This is so counter-intuitive in our “To Do List” culture. How many “How to” books have you read in your lifetime? I must have read hundreds! I really struggle with this “turning things over” idea! Can’t I use my will to do “thy will”?

A lifetime of patterns require some serious shifts in perspective. We are back to that powerless thing again and its hard. We have to take time to look at what we have gained from our negative habits. There must be a reason we have lived this long doing things this way, even if we now see they don’t really work for us or represent our best selves, who we long to be.
If you have tried to change again and again and realize your way isn’t working, you may be almost ready to “Let Go and Let God.” If the God of your understanding is Love and Mercy and Grace…If you finally are sick and tired of being sick and tired…then perhaps you are ready…but are you entirely ready?... to have God remove ALL those defects? Who wants to be that good?

One of the biggest patterns in my life when I first entered AlAnon some 30 years ago was the willingness to sacrifice myself to the needs of others. It is a particularly typical problem for clergy. I have long felt there ought to be a “Pastors Anonymous” program. Don’t you pay me the big bucks to ensure that I will always be there for you, no matter what? But if I don’t take care of me, how can I really take care of you, or my children, or my life? Airplane logic applies: “First apply your own oxygen mask before attempting to put a mask on the person next to you.”

It took me a long time to see all the many ways that this sacrificial pattern was damaging my life and my relationships with others. I still discover myself offering to do more than I really can in some situations. I became willing to let God remove the defect. Then I see it happening again and I become willing again. It is a process – not an event.

But we have reached step 6 and are half way there. God’s love and wisdom and presence will carry us the rest of the way home.

May your Lenten journey be full of revelations of opportunities to grow and be transformed by the love of God into the creative, whole human being you have always longed to be!

And as they say in Twelve Step meetings:  ”Keep coming back! It works!