Before the early nineties, I had faith, but I didn’t use it much. I did what I learned in church. Like many liberals I liked the simplicity of summarizing everything we were supposed to do in life as love God, love neighbors, and love enemies, in that order. I frequently used that as a practical guide to look at what I was doing in some situation, and sometimes changed what I was doing to be more loving in one of those categories. I was always glad when I did that and also glad for the simple commandments of the gospels. It’s hard enough to love everyone, much less be burdened with a lot more rules beyond that. Of course many people don’t even have that much direction. Not everyone I worked with seemed to have a conscience.
In that way I lived my life as it seems most people live their lives, doing the best they can with what they know. What they believe they know makes a difference, whether they have liberal beliefs or conservative beliefs or something else, but the method is just the same for so many people. They see their lives as up to them to run, as best as they know how.
I only discovered differently because my marriage to an alcoholic was breaking up, and I figured I should go to Al-Anon to see what help I could get there. 12 steps turned out not to be what I thought it was. I thought it was a self-help group like one I attended briefly in college. It’s much more than that. It is a way of drawing close to God and relying on Him, not self-help at all. One thing it taught me was how to pray. Before this I knew some scripted prayers like the Lord’s Prayer and the Prayer of St. Francis, both of which had special meaning for me, and helped me when I prayed them. Without a script, I could pray for something simple, then wait and see if anything happens.
12 step prayers are not like that. Some people may pray them passively, but people who get the most out of the program aren’t passive about it at all. They are working their program, step by step, issue by issue that comes up in life as they do their program. There are not that many variations on having a life intertwined with alcoholism. The issues that come up are the same as have come up many times before. Books of daily readings are full of the same issues, with Bible verses or other readings that are helpful, and prayers that are meant to be used, to get help from God, not just to fill time.
The first three steps of 12 steps are about admitting one’s inability to manage some part of life on our own, but to accept that God can. The next four steps are about getting ready to have God remove our defects of character. The 7th step concludes those by humbly asking God to remove specific defects one has identified. I had a number of resentments and some envy I wanted to get rid of. Praying for God to do that changed my attitude toward prayer forever. In retrospect there were a couple of times before when I would say now that a prayer of mine was answered by something that happened in my life, maybe a couple of days later. This time was different.
There was one, longstanding resentment that I asked God to remove from me. It was gone in about 5 seconds on praying for this. I could feel it go. It was so strange that I tried to feel the resentment again. It was gone. I still knew that this person had done something wrong intellectually, but the bitterness was gone. I had tried to get over this a lot before, with reasoning how that would be good for me, how I’d like to put so much abuse in the distant past, by myself, with books, with a psychologist. Those things helped superficially, but if I was honest, as 12 steps calls one to be, I had a number of resentments of things that were truly bad acts, over which I’d be happy to rip someone a new one if there were no consequences to doing so, not exactly forgiveness. Of course, in the real world, there are always consequences, something that makes forgiveness appealing. How does one forgive something that is truly hurtful and wrong? Well, that’s something to be learned a different time, but this time was about learning that God could indeed remove the resentment left in this, through prayer. It was the first time I was certain prayer worked. A committed atheist might call it self-hypnosis or something. Fine, I’ll call it God. If such a power is completely within me and not supernatural, then I still want to draw close to it. That never has seemed to be the case. Things like this don’t happen whenever I want, but only when God wants.
Why is that? Why doesn’t God just fix things? Why do I have to ask? Actually I don’t think I do always have to ask, but if I feel uncertain, confused or at all alone, I can do something that I was never taught to do for that, pray. Pray and find that prayers are answered, often immediately. Pray and sense the presence of God building up during those times, even to the point where God is present in my consciousness all the time. Pray and learn what it means to live in the Spirit.
What a big difference a preposition can make. Many conservatives must see themselves as utterly faithful to God through living “by” the Spirit, “according to” the Spirit from whatever understanding their beliefs give them. Those who actually read the Bible must get to a verse like Romans 8:9 and skip right over the part about the necessity that the Spirit dwell in you. One can see that as abstract or mystical, or one can see that “dwell” and “in” are exactly the right words, not by reasoning one’s way there, but by experience, not to say that people must speak in tongues to belong to God, but to say that people must belong to God to belong to God, not belong to reason, a theology, a church, human leaders or whatever other idols a person has embraced.
The 8th and 9th steps are about making amends. The last 3 steps are about continuing to live one’s life by conscience, prayer and integrity. The 11th step is about improving one’s conscious contact with the God of one’s understanding through prayer and meditation, “praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out”. I’m sure everyone prays for more than that, but the 11th step is about seeking and accepting direction this way. How many people pray this way? I’d say I wish I knew, but I suspect very few people pray this way, but rather pray for God to help them do what they want to do, if they involve God at all.
I was listening to a cassette recently, something from before I bought my car with the CD player in 1997. It was Twila Paris’ Beyond a Dream album. On it is a song, “All my Heart”, which has this chorus:
All my love, all I do
All my heart belongs to You
All my life I go through
All my heart belongs to You
Twila Paris is a Bible-believing Christian. I am a liberal Christian. Yet there are many places in her songs where the Spirit swells within me, and I know we have the same faith in terms of devotion, though not beliefs. I could talk with someone like Twila Paris about living in the Spirit. She would understand.
At the same time, many liberals and conservatives won’t recognize this at all. The words may be familiar, but actually living this way is not. Sometimes I try to remember how I came to live this way. My spiritual experiences were impressive, but I was skeptical of them for a few years. Everyone told me I should be, so that seemed the right thing to do.
Then I did the 12 steps, including the 11th step, which one does forever. So I followed direction and direction and direction. Then I realized how much I belong to God. I wish it were a formula that everyone followed, instead of thinking flawed theologies matter or even rejecting flawed theologies. Only God matters, not some abstract and mysterious God, but the God who answers my prayers and is willing to be my God everyday, every moment.
I sometimes write that in ways that get the philosophically minded or biblically minded writing as if their way is better than mine. I don’t see that they have a way at all. I see people saying and doing things in a very natural way as they push the Bible or wax philosophically. That is a choice people can make, to live life naturally or live in the Spirit. It’s not that liberals do that one way and conservatives the other. It’s that some know to pray for direction and others think they have everything they need without that.
I think if everyone prayed for direction, it would change the world. Maybe I’m wrong, and everyone would hear what they want to hear. That’s not how it’s been for me. God often has surprised me with His direction. But I am sure of the power in this. I am also sure that those who thunder with their words, but don’t pray for direction are completely hollow. Maybe someday that will be common knowledge.