MODERN LITURGY, Volume 18, No. 2, March 1991
A.A. AND PREACHING: TELLING YOUR STORY
by Edward Sellner
One Sunday evening in July 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered an address to the senior: class of the Harvard Divinity School. It was evidently the kind of address that caused some consternation among his listeners for the sage from Concord, Massachusetts was not invited back to Harvard for another thirty years.In his presentation that night, Emerson spoke of a certain preacher .”who sorely tempted me to say I would go to church no more.” As he so vividly describes the scene:
“A snow-storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real, the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him into the beautiful meteor of snow. He had lived in vain. He had not one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.”
Emerson goes on to conclude that the major aspect of the preacher’s profession, “namely, to convert life into truth,” the man had not learned. According to Emerson, “the true preacher can be know by this, that he deals out to the people his life – life passed through the fire of thought.”
Emerson, of course, was not the first – nor the last – to listen to a sermon in which the life and personality of a given preacher are completely absent. He did have the gift of articulating for many of us what constitutes effective preaching. He helps us by analyzing, in his own poetic way, why the words of preachers or homilists frequently are so quickly forgotton after they have sat down.
Without a good story or some dimension of storytelling that reveals the learning that has taken place in the preacher’s own life, his or her reflections remain ethereal, abstract, spectral, creating little fire and not much light.
Alcoholics Anonymous and storytelling
A non-denominational, non-ecclesial organization which recognizes the value of storytelling for spiritual growth as an important dynamic of mentoring is Alcoholics Anonymous. Although many persons and events contributed to the formation of A.A., it began quite simply with two people revealing to each other who they were. Two people openly and honestly acknowledged their struggles through sharing their life stories.
As Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of A.A., later wrote in the book which gave the fellowship its name: “The spark that was to flare into the first A.A. group was struck at Akron, Ohio, in June 1935, during a talk between a New York stockbroker and an Akron physician.” Somehow during that talk a bridge was formed leading away from experiences of isolation, alienation, and loneliness to new experiences of community, fellowship, and common bonds. In that simple event of sharing, A.A. grew to a world–wide organization and discovered its own definition and purpose:
“Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.”
The two men involved in that encounter Bill Wilson, the stockbroker, and Dr. Bob Smith, the physician, became the co-founders of A.A. Both of these men, after their meeting that night, began to use an approach to helping other alcoholics stay sober which Bill had learned earlier. Hospitalized numerous times for his alcoholism, a disease little understood by society or the medical profession at that time, he had cried out for help one night in desperation to a God whose existence he had previously denied. Years later he described what happened:
“Suddenly the place seemed to light up, blinding white. I knew only ecstasy and seemed on a mountain. A great wind blew, enveloping, and penetrating me. To me, it was not of air, but of Spirit. Blazing, there came the tremendous thought, “You are a free man.”
Whatever occured that night in his hospital bed, the experience changed Bill’s life dramatically. Discharged from the hospital, he maintained his sobriety and gave expression to his new-found faith by joining the Christian evangelical movement called the Oxford Group at Calvary Mission in New York.
Instead of evangelizing to anyone who came along, however, Bill concentrated his efforts on reaching out to alcoholics like himself. Enthused about his own conversion experience, he evidently preached at people, telling them what they had to do to be saved. This approach had little or no positive effect upon his alcoholic listeners, and may even have contributed to their drinking more!
At the end of six months no one whom Bill had tried to help had sobered up. Finally, a friend of Bill’s, Dr. William Silkworth, advised Bill to simply tell his story about drinking and how his life was changed by following the basic precepts of the Oxford Group, so that others could identify their stories with his.
This simple method of storytelling was to become for Bill and A.A. the most effective way of helping people like themselves. The language used would shift from “sin” which the Oxford Group emphasized to “sickness” which named many alcoholics’ experience of drinking, and the way of transmitting hope was to be found with those stories shared.
A.A. historian Ernest Kurtz says that this storytelling is in fact “the practice and indeed the essential dynamic of A.A.” It is the way members of A.A. minister to each other and help guarantee their ongoing recovery.
Forms of storytelling in A.A.
More than fifty years after Bill Wilson’s and Dr. Bob’s initial meeting, storytelling in A.A. takes a variety of forms. Following Bill Wilson’s example, it is used, first of all, any time an intervention is made by a recovering alcoholic to stop someone else whose alcoholism or abusive use of drugs is destroying his or her life. In those encounters, frequently when someone is especially defensive and hostile about his or her drinking (as Dr. Bob was when he first met Bill Wilson). A.A. says the best thing to do is simply share your story with the other person of how the Twelve Steps have changed your own life.
As Bill Wilson advised, based on his experience of what works: “Never talk down to an alcoholic from any moral or spiritual hilltop; simply lay out the kit of spiritual tools for his inspection. Show him how they worked with you. Offer him friendship and fellowship.”
This same approach to storytelling is used by family members when they seek to confront the alcoholic about the destructive effect of that person’s drinking. Rather than merely pointing an accusing finger at the person who may be suffering from alcoholism or chemical dependency, they share their stories with their loved one of their own experience of powerlessness over his or her abusive drinking and behavior. Frequently through Alanon (an organization especially for family members), these family members share how they themselves have found help.
Both forms of intervention are based upon the philosophy of A.A. which in effect advises: Don’t try to play God in people’s lives by taking responsibility for their recovery. Definitely don’t try to get them to change out of guilt or shame, since they already have plenty of that! Befriend them, first by acknowledging and accepting your own form of powerlessness. Then, when you’ve begun to experience change by facing your own struggles, tell your story of how that change came about. Only in that form of exchange is hope born.
Once the individual is receptive to seeking help and joins A.A. or, because of the serious progression of his or her disease, has been placed in a rehabilitation program where alcoholism or chemical dependency can be diagnosed and treated, storytelling becomes a significant part of ongoing recovery. A.A. presupposes (again based upon its experience of what works) that ongoing recovery and sobriety are not states that can be maintained alone; that ongoing positive change needs a community of caring people who find help for themselves by helping others stay sober.
So in a series of weekly, sometimes daily meetings available to anyone, different recovering alcoholics tell their stories of spiritual, emotional, and physical breakdown and how they were changed by following the steps of A.A. Anyone who attends these meetings knows that this is not a maudlin or self-indulgent exercise in guilt or shame. Most often the meeting becomes a humorous, sympathetic, and hopeful telling of what progress can be made one day at a time. This form of witnessing to the mysterious, spiritual power which has brought about that change, reminds every listener of their own passage to a new level of self-acceptance and to a new spirituality which now has meaning for them.
Another form of storytelling encouraged by A.A. is found in its tradition of people acting as “sponsors” to other recovering alcoholics. According to A.A., a sponsor is simply “an alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program (who) shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through A.A.”
What is presupposed about an effective sponsor (or, really, any kind of mentor) is not the length of recovery or the “success” of the one doing the sponsoring. What is important are certain qualities that the sponsor possesses: a deep respect for the other person who is seeking help, a willingness to make one’s life available even when it may be very inconvenient, and a commitment to ongoing change in one’s own life that is shared mutually. All of these qualities, of course, could be identified with simply being a friend whose courage to be vulnerable and to share one’s own life and struggles invites another to do the same.
Storytelling and effective preaching
So what does A.A. and its storytelling have to do with preaching, with what Emerson describes as the preacher’s task of converting life into truth? What can we learn from A.A. about improving our own approach to breaking open the scriptures and sharing their message of hope with Christians?
If we look more closely at A.A.’s storytelling traditions, certain principles can be discerned that have implications for anyone who is called upon to preach.
First, as Bill Wilson discovered, people do not respond by being preached at – no matter how theologically sound our message is, how well prepared and articulate we are in its delivery, nor even how personally enthusiastic we are about its content. When members of the congregation have the experience of being preached at or being adressed from some sort of spiritual mountaintop that is entirely foreign to them, they receive the distinct impression that the preacher is (or feels) somehow superior to everyone else. Even worse, they may come to believe that the Christian message has nothing to do with their lives. Such an approach can have a debilitating effect upon the listeners. It frequently produces guilt, shame, hostility, and, sometimes most deadly of all, apathy.
If Christian preaching is about the fullness of life, such a deadening approach does not help others appreciate the sacred dimension of all life, beginning with their own. No wonder, in such circumstances, people are tempted, as was Emerson, not to come to church again. No wonder some parishoners’ minds and eyes wander to the windows to find something beautiful and inspiring.
Secondly, people do respond positively and thus are more open to the preacher’s message when they perceive, as A.A. recommends, the preacher to some degree as a friend and fellow-sufferer. They will respond to someone who is struggling like they are to live the holy life and to personally integrate the meaning of the Christian gospels. All preaching is a form of spiritual mentoring, of helping others discover intimations of God’s call and to discern a personal response.
As in other mentoring relationships, unless some level of trust and even affection is present between preacher and his or her listeners, there will be little receptivity to the preacher’s message, and thus probably very little learning or discernment. The perception of the preacher as a friend who cares about them and a person willing to share what has been learned in his or her own school of suffering can make all the difference.
Third, stories are a way of making a connection, of creating bonds between the preacher and the congregation that allow the Word of God to touch people’s hearts. Such a connection only happens when the preacher personalizes the Gospel message by telling stories from his or her life. By speaking from his or her own experiences, the preacher somehow taps into the experiences of others. To reflect upon the meaning of the scriptures for today in light of stories from life is to invite others to do the same. We, in effect, encourage others to value their own experiences as worthwhile and revelatory.
Dare to be vulnerable
People listen to the preacher when he or she begins to speak honestly about life’s great struggles: the search for holiness and wisdom, forgiveness and compassion, intimacy with God. Minds and eyes do stop wandering, and silence is frequently hard when a preacher starts to tell a story, especially when the preacher dares to be vulnerable and speak from the heart. This language of the heart, A.A. knows from years of experience, is perhaps the most effective way of getting others to listen and respond, for it evokes from them attentiveness and, in the midst of their own struggles, hope that meaning will be found. Our Judeo-Christian spiritual traditions recognize this tool. As St. Francis de Sales, a wisdom figure whose ministry touched many lives, once said, “in the end only the language of the heart can ever reach another heart.”
All of this, of course, presupposes a great deal of the preacher. A good sermon is more than the ability to tell the “right” story so that a connection can be made. Rather, as A.A. presupposes, any truly effective message depends upon the lived spirituality and credibility of the storyteller’s life; that is, the preacher’s own commitment to change and willingness to risk.
To preach the gospel effectively today, One’s own life must be immersed in a spirituality of conversion and reconciliation that starts with oneself. It begins with the acknowledgement of one’s own human limitations and need for God. It is rooted in community, for the preacher recognizes, as does A.A., how much we all depend upon each other as mentors and friends. Such a spirituality is manifest in a collaborative life-style arising from the conviction that quiet example is frequently more influential than words, and that wisdom itself is found in all God’s People – even before the preacher gets up to preach.
Most of all, the spirituality of the preacher is characterized by gratitude for what his or her life experiences have taught. The preacher has come to see, as did the early desert Christians, that one’s struggles are precisely where God’s presence is revealed and where the soul is matured and purified. “Our God is a consuming fire,” the desert mother Syncletica tells us. “Hence we ought to light the divine fire in our-selves with labor and with tears.”
By lovingly embracing those struggles and through our reflection upon them, converting them into truth, we help light the holy fire in others. We become, as Emerson reminds us, what the truly effective preacher is meant to be: someone whose storytelling deals out life – a life passed through the fire of thought.