THE UNITED CHURCH OBSERVER, Vol. 54(11):2+, May, 1991
Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous provide the mainline
churches with an example of bringing together
people from all walks of life.
by Rev. Barry Morris
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them – MATTHEW 18:20
We can hardly affirm that the church monopolizes the Christian faith, the Gospel, or any visible form of the good news. Rather, the good news, evangelism, has many traces and is evident in various places.
Sometimes, the veil or disguise lifts and we are on hand to see fresh forms for the breathing of the Spirit – whereby change occurs, healing beckons and partisanship with the poor emerges.
Less often, the good news of God’s embracing activity is not recognized and in a determined effort to be faithful, we cling to the familiar and pray that others will do likewise.
There are other places than the church wherein the Spirit blows, embraces, and directs.
Alcoholics Anonymous (or any of its equivalent 12-step groups such as Narcotics Anonymous or Adult Children of Alcoholics) is one place where the promise of the longed-for new meets up with the aches, pains and utter weariness of the old.
For many, the trek to a first A.A. meeting is very long, the last of many steps and dead-end turns in the road. Only when pride is literally smashed, or completely out of energy, may one turn to an A.A. group.
The decision to attend and seriously take part, for a lifetime of solid work, comes when all else has failed. It may have been recommended countless times by friends, family, work-mates, recovering addicts, ministers or counselors.
Lots of us are running on empty; few of us admit it publicly and, just as openly, work on it for life. But when we do this there is good news. We are home, among others who have arrived or are arriving, with, the promise of renewal daily.
Of course, A.A. groups and traditions are not new, being over 50 years old. Profoundly spiritual, the 12-step programs are the first cousins to the life, work and disciplines of the Christian family, as well as some other major faith traditions.
In a typical meeting, one can expect to hear and receive confession, assurances of pardon, intercessions, celebrations for years, months or weeks of sobriety, tested experience from old-timers and closure with Reinhold Niebuhr’s balanced and steadfastly durable prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Please note, though, that the 12 step groups do not overtly contend to replace or unroot the church and the Sunday service. For indeed, many clergy, lay leaders, ordinary lay members and sympathetic Christians – some on sabbatical or out on the trail exploring – Know first hand the benifits of A.A. groups.
Likewise, many within the 12 step groups use the church for meetings, sponsors, for their crucial fifth step (sharing past wrongs or violations with each other) and for general support, advocacy or referral and follow through.
The Christian family, however, is more likely aiming to be dominant, and may feel threatened by these self-help groups.
Where the 12 step groups get very specific and thus very practical, the churches tend to go on being very general and remotely relevant to addictions and daily struggles.
Where 12 step groups quite naturally integrate people from many walks, levels or classes of life, as well as visible minorities, single or coupled people, we in the organized church circle tend to remain splintered, fragmented and expressive of denominationalism.
Where we tend to engage in very abstract God-talk except in intimate and honest prayer, the 12 step groups speak of God concretely: as power, as hope and as friend (despite the fact that they use the common-denominator term “Higher Power”).
There is much to learn from Alcoholics Anonymous, but there is also much to learn in another related place where the Spirit blows freshly, intensely and fiercely these days.
Native, or first people, are recovering their culture through songs, dancing, story-telling, crafts, legends and vital, nourishing liturgies. There is a return-to-the-land theme and there are land claim battles; together, cultural recovery and just land claims can make for an inclusive justice for all, including the former colonizing whites or Europeans.
We know now that time is precious. But how much will there be, and will there be enough for what lies ahead of us?
Oh to live, and live justly with dignity. May the 12 step and aboriginal traditions help us, beholding the glory of the Lord, humand fully alive and unveiled.