- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
I want to tell you about Mike. Mike was a classmate of mine in high school. Mike was one of those kids who was never in a lot of trouble but just always had a bit of an edge to him and how he acted. Some of that was undoubtedly tied to what was going on at home for him. He lived down the street from me and his dad worked with mine at IBM but Mike’s dad was one of the upper level execs in for IBM in Boulder and their lifestyle reflected that. Their house was HUGE, they were members of the Boulder Country Club and it seemed their cars were always brand new. They were also active members of a big church in downtown Boulder where Mike’s dad was a deacon and his mom was an elder. Mike had an older brother who was in my sister’s grade named Tim – 2 years ahead.
Tim was the prototypical “perfect student.” He was fit, handsome, popular, was a letterman in both football and basketball and got great grades. He was voted homecoming king, prom king, etc. He was recruited by and eventually signed to a football scholarship to play at the University of Colorado.
I was in a few classes with Mike when we started high school together in the 10th grade and Mike had to deal with the comparisons from teachers to what his brother was like, including a few times where teachers commented about how they hoped Mike would do just as well as Tim had done. Mike would always respond with some kind of comment like, “sure, yeah.”
As we got to our senior year, Mike was on a path of just not feeling like he knew what he wanted, where he was going, or anything like that. Unlike Tim, there were no scholarship offers, there was no recruitment. And Mike consistently talked about how he didn’t want to go to college – he just wanted to get out of Boulder as quickly as he could. Sometime during our senior year, Mike told his parents that he wasn’t going to college and that he was just going to go check out the world after graduation. He just wanted to try to find himself. Apparently, he asked his parents for some of the money that they had saved for him for college to be able to go and do this. And his parents said yes and gave it to him with the agreement that he at least finish out his senior year.
But as soon as we graduated, Mike was gone. He was at graduation but he told me that day that he was getting on a plane to Europe the next day. This was in the years before social media so there was no instagram or twitter or anything else for someone to be able to follow where he was or what he was doing. He just kind of fell off the map. A friend did get a postcard along the way from Mike saying that he was in Amsterdam and was having an amazing time but didn’t give any details. A few months later, my dad asked Mike’s dad at one point at IBM about how Mike was doing and Mike’s dad responded in a way that made it clear that they didn’t want to talk about it. There was definitely an edge of deep concern and anger there.
A few years passed and Tim graduated with an economics degree and had played all four years for CU on the football team – he was mostly a backup but he was there for some of the best years in CU’s football history. I thought about Mike from time to time but without cell phones and in 1993 email was still in its very early stages of use so I didn’t have a way of keeping in touch. It was my junior year when I happened to be at home doing laundry (as college students tend to do) and the phone rang (no caller ID at the time). I answered it and a person said that it was a collect call for me from Amsterdam from a person named Mike and asked if I would accept the charges which I did.
A soon as I said hello, I heard someone on the other line who didn’t sound like the Mike I knew a few years before. His voice was slow and deliberate like he was struggling to even put words together. There was an edge of panic to his words. He said that he was scared because he was in Amsterdam and he was out of money. He told me that he had been drinking and doing drugs through most of high school and then just ramped that up when he left for Europe. He said that he never really traveled around Europe but got to Amsterdam and that was it. He said that he couldn’t stop and didn’t know what to do. He shared that the reason he called me was that my phone number was only a few digits off from his and he didn’t think he could call his parents. He was afraid of how they’d respond when he told them what was happening. He said that he was scared and didn’t know what to do.
Mike was at rock bottom as AA would call it. He had come to a place of feeling that he was out of control, that something else had taken control of his life and was destroying his life. He was powerless over it and his life had become unmanageable.
We’ll come back to Mike next week and what was next for him.
When we hear about someone hitting rock bottom, it is often a story like that of Mike’s. Everything has fallen apart. In one of my internships in seminary, I worked with a guy named Phil whose first introduction to the group was “Hi, I’m Phil and I’m an alcoholic.” I remember thinking at the time something like “really, that’s the first thing you want to share with us?” Over the next 8 months in our group together, I learned how that was the central story of Phil’s life and how he needed to keep recovery at the center of his life because he didn’t want to go back to the place he once was – when he hit rock bottom. When he realized he was powerless over alcohol and that his life had become unmanageable, that was when he was able to begin to change.
This is the first of the twelve steps – We admitted we were powerless over _______ —that our lives had become unmanageable.
Now, you might be sitting there saying to yourself, “but I’m not an alcoholic, I’m not an addict…why are we talking about this?”
The reason is that we are all addicts in some way. We all have something in our lives that controls us, against which we are powerless. It is that which is within us that leads us to act in ways that we know aren’t right. It is that which pushes us to see others not in the ways that God sees them. It is that which frustrates us when we can’t change. What I am talking about is not the actions in and of themselves because those actions – the things we say, the actions we take (or don’t take), the prejudices we harbor, and so much more – these are the symptoms of the deeper issue. That deeper issue is what the Bible calls sin. And sin affects all of us. As we heard in the passage in Romans 3 that was read a few minutes ago, “ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Not some have, but ALL have.
Sin is a reality for all of us. But the thing is that we often want to just focus on the exteriors thinking that will change what is happening within. But anyone who has ever experienced a major life transformation will tell you…change starts from within.
In 12 step programs, the way to recovery is not just trying to deal with the exterior actions but the deeper change within that begins with coming to a place where one recognizes that they have allowed something else to control them that is ultimately leading them down an unhealthy, untenable, broken and breaking path.
The twelve steps is not just for people addicted to substances or actions (narcotics, alcohol, food, pornography) but for all of us because ultimately the way of Jesus is not about just changing our exterior actions but instead transformation of what is at the core of our being. The work of God within us is about moving us from a place of sin and brokenness to a place of wholeness and grace-filled living.
The first step not only of the twelve steps but the way of Jesus is the hardest and the one that trips up more people than any other. It is the step where we recognize that there is something that is controlling us that is not God and that we recognize that we are powerless to change that thing. So often, we want to change the exteriors in ourselves or in others. That’s why it is far easier to point to “issues” rather than deep transformation. It is easier to point at the sinful actions in ourselves or in others rather than dig deep into the sinful nature within each of us.
Richard Rohr, in his book, “Breathing Under Water” says this about us (when he says ego, he’s referring to a similar idea of our deeper nature)…
The ego always insists on moral high ground, or as Paul brilliantly puts it in Romans 7, “sin takes advantage of commandments to mislead me, and through obeying commandments kills me.”. This is a really quite extraordinary piece of insight on Paul’s part, one which I would not believe myself were the disguise not so common (e.g., celibate priests focusing on birth control and abortion as the core of evil, heterosexuals seeing gay marriage as the ultimate threat to society, liberals invested in some current political correctness while living lives of rather total isolation from the actual suffering of the world, Bible thumpers ignoring most of the Bible when it asks them to change, a nation of immigrants being anti-immigrant, etc.). We see that the ego is still in charge, and it just wears different disguises on both the Left and on the Right side of most groups and most issues. It is the imperial ego that has to go, and only powerlessness can do the job correctly.
To rephrase Rohr, it is our sinful nature that has to go and that going starts with powerlessness.
The way of Jesus starts here, at the bottom step and goes from there. Paul wrote, “I am glad for weaknesses, constraints, and distress for Christ’s sake, for it is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 10). He reported that Christ had said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 9), just as Jesus was first resurrected already on the cross. Chained in his jail cell, Paul writes to the Philippians and dares to say to them, “What I once considered an asset I now consider a disadvantage” (Philippians 3: 7). St. Terese of Liseaux said, “It is enough to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself, like a child, into God’s arms.” The way of weakness, of powerlessness…these are the way of Jesus. That’s why the Gospels reflect the reality that the people Jesus most identified with and affirmed were those who were at rock bottom, those who were in touch with their weakness, those who knew their powerlessness.
But here’s the thing…this isn’t something I can convince you of. This is something you have to experience on your own. A lot of preachers will stand and try to convince people of their sin and hammer it over their heads until they raise their hands and pray a prayer. But that’s not how true change works. True change works when it starts within us when we come to a place where we recognize that we don’t have all the answers and we need someone or something beyond ourselves. Sometimes that comes through something like addiction. Sometimes that comes through external events such as a significant loss or a painful experience. Sometimes that comes through finding you are in a place where the path you are on is untenable. That’s the place I found myself nearly 6 years ago – crying out to God at 2am in my basement from the deepest core of my being that I was tired of feeling that way. That was my rock bottom – a place of total desperation calling out to God for something, anything. Again, Rohr puts it well, “Until and unless there is a person, situation, event, idea, conflict, or relationship that you cannot “manage,” you will never find the True Manager.” That true manager? God.
Have you been in such a place? Are you in one now? Even if that place or that time was years ago, it isn’t too late to change. It isn’t too late to make that first step of admitting your powerlessness and that life is unmanageable. And it is ok to acknowledge our powerlessness. It is ok to admit that we don’t have all the answers. It is ok to say that we aren’t perfect and we are in need of others and of God. It is ok to admit there is someone/something bigger and stronger than any of us. It is ok to admit that we are in a pit and don’t know the way out.
The amazing news is that there are eleven more steps. That’s why I love starting this series with Epiphany Sunday – a day when the story is about something far bigger than anything we can imagine. A star leading a group of people on a long journey to a tiny child promised to be the king of all. The ultimate message in that story is that God’s up to something far bigger. And that is the truth for each of us – God wants to do something far more than just changing our external actions. God wants to transform us from the inside out so that we can be a part of the transformation of our world. This is but the first step in the way of Jesus – starting at the bottom and looking up to the God who leads us to the next step, and the next, and the next.
My name is Ed, and I am a sinner and every day I am in need of God.