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Wisdom the Works, Part IV

Continuous Improvement

Paul Anderson
Congregational Church of Belmont
March 13, 2016

When I first heard of the 12 steps I thought they were just for serious alcoholics and I didn’t think I knew any. Then I joined this church and for the first time I heard folks say out loud during this service that they were celebrating 5, 10, even 25 years of sobriety. Then friends and family were going to meetings and at some point I actually read the steps – but still didn’t see what they had to do with me.

Last year Margaret Cross gave me a book she thought I would like – Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the 12 Steps. Now I realize that the term “addict” applies to me – and probably you too – and it may have nothing to do with substance abuse.

An addiction is when one ingests a substance or engages in an activity that seems pleasurable but often requires more and more and sooner or later becomes compulsive, interfering with life but not resulting in LT happiness.

So I’m Paul and I’m an addict – to my view of the world and to my ego, which tells me that there is only one correct world view – and aren’t I lucky that that world view happens to be my own!

For the past 3 Sundays Kristi has covered Steps 1-9. In a nutshell:

  • 1-3 says I am powerless and need to turn my life over to a power greater than myself. I may think I have control over my life but on a regular basis I get reminders that I do not. To admit that requires humility.
  • 4-7 says we realize we are imperfect and that we acknowledge our faults – and not just to God in privacy but also to another human. Not easy. Also requires humility.
  • 8-9 says we have harmed others and we need to apologize and make amends. Requires what??? Yep – humility.

Of the 200+ words used in the 12 steps, “humility” in any form exists but once, yet it permeates them all.

What keeps us from being humble? Ego, which manifests itself as arrogance or just being right pretty much all the time. If I don’t feel peace within I know my ego is at play.

I think we are born perfect children of God. But as we grow forces from all directions cause us to build a shell around us for protection – which is our ego and makes us special in our own eyes and maybe even superior to others (because we are always right). Hopefully at some point we see this and begin chipping away at that shell, replacing ego with humility.

Ram Dass says “We’re in training to be nobody special. We spend the first half of life becoming somebody. Then we can work on becoming nobody, which is really somebody.” Repeat?

Steps 1-9, as difficult as they are, are just the first pass. Steps 10-12 tell us to do it again, don’t stop improving our conscious contact with our understanding of God, wake up and help others do the same. This is spiritual growth, beginning with humility. This is what I want religion to help me do – it is what most of us said we wanted when we talked about what we want from CCB a few years back.

At my best I’m able to get outside myself – like I’m on a little helicopter up there, looking down on myself to see how I am doing.

  • Am I being my lower or false self, with a small “s”, where I’m trying to be somebody, trying to look good, trying to show how smart I am, where my ego is in charge?
  • Or am I being my higher or true Self, with a capital “S”, where I’m working on becoming nobody, where my humility prevails?

What is the God of my understanding? Jesus said the kingdom of God is within. So maybe my understanding of God is my higher Self, or collectively, our higher Selves. I appreciate the fact that we in this congregation have no written creeds, which would include a shared understanding of what we mean by “God.” With this freedom, however, comes the responsibility to struggle with hard questions like this – what is my understanding of God? There is a downside when planning a service such as this – a good example happens often at choir practice when our individual understandings don’t match the words we are singing. Sometimes I think we need a written disclaimer: “The understanding of God as depicted in this anthem does not necessarily reflect the understandings of the singers.” Which applies also to this sermon.

The steps refer to our shortcomings, our wrongs, our defects. Which brings up another topic – sin. Maybe sin is not naughty behavior or bad thoughts. Maybe it is the illusion of separation from our higher Selves and thus others – when ego is in charge – and the bad behavior is just a symptom of that. Maybe prayer is not talking with a God up there but taking with your higher Self in an effort to grow in that direction.

Maybe God’s will is the will of our higher Self. Is that what we pray or meditate for? To access what is already there? To gather the courage to go for that, even though our ego is likely putting up huge resistance?

What could be a different understanding of God? I’m better at suggesting what God isn’t than at what God is. For sure I don’t see a god that causes tidal waves or earthquakes. Nancy Reagan reportedly said that in her later years God had forgotten her – probably not an uncommon sentiment. How sad! What kind of God would that be? What is another way to understand her suffering? How is it that some seem not to experience this?

“We see the world not as it is but as we are.” Or a variation: “We see God not as God is but as we are.” Maybe the better we’ve been able to access that higher Self the better we are able to deal with those big human questions like love and suffering and death and God, done through what Rohr calls contemplative prayer – which is private prayer.

Author Anne Lamott says there are three types of prayer – thank you, thank you, thank you; please, please, please; and wow! Maybe contemplative prayer includes some of this – some gratitude, some awe – like we might experience out in nature or listening to our favorite music. But the please part is not about getting what we want - rather it is about helping us discern what we really need, which our higher Self may already know.

Often our prayer is about relief from suffering. Rohr defines suffering very simply and to me surprisingly as "whenever you are not in control." How unique – it’s not just about physical or even emotional suffering. We say in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation” – maybe the big temptation is to get control – that was what all three temptations of Jesus were about in his 40 days in the wilderness. Which is what Lent is about – and by the way, there are only 2 weeks of Lent left. If you want some online support, Rohr offers a free daily meditation – or a weekly version if you don’t have that much control over your day.

Suffering is the most effective way whereby humans learn to trust, allow, and give up control to – guess what, a higher power. It is about emptying our cluttered minds and letting our hearts fill that void.

Some of us suffer from alcohol or drug abuse. Some of us suffer physically. I suggest that most of us suffer to some degree from not being in control. We hurt others in the process. When we hit bottom – when we get the wakeup call - hopefully we come to see we are powerless. Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to both destabilize and reveal our arrogance, our separateness, and our lack of compassion. If we don’t transform our pain we will invariably transfer it to others. We gotta work the steps.

Accessing our higher Self not only brings peace to our own souls but boosts others. When we replace with humilty our self protection and self-rightness we are able to truly practice the Golden Rule. And that is step 12 – having woken up – even a little bit and even if just for a moment – we carry this message to others and practice these principles in all our affairs – and that includes even conversations about our political differences.

Not easy. Again in Luke Jesus said “Simon, Simon, you must be sifted like wheat, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers” – (and sisters).


And when I fall short of that mark, when you notice that I might at the moment be in my lower self rather than my higher, please feel free to ask, preferably gently, “So Paul, how is working the steps going for you?”