Heaven Is a 12-Step Meeting

A Person in Recovery is under No Illusions about their Ability to Control their Life

Connor Gwin / 11.19.20

It was a big weekend for baptisms and confirmations at our parish. By Sunday evening, I had reaffirmed the Baptismal Covenant from the Book of Common Prayer five times. At the end of the Covenant, the congregation is asked to uphold orthodox practices and beliefs of the Christian faith. The response to the handful of questions is short and to the point, “I will, with God’s help.” 

The idea is simple. The task of living a faithful Christian life is only possible with God’s help. That makes sense to me; it should be an open-and-shut case. 

On Monday, I was sitting in a twelve-step recovery meeting via Zoom. While I honestly miss the florescent lights of church basements and the tiny styrofoam cups of lukewarm coffee, it has been nice that many addiction recovery communities have been able to shift online. 

At the beginning of the meeting, people were recognized for various lengths of sobriety with a metal chip. One woman, who looked like your average, sweet older church woman, joyfully announced that she was celebrating twenty-seven years (!!) sober. As the gathered congregation of drunks clapped in our muted Zoom screens, one person unmuted and asked the question that is often asked when someone celebrates a milestone sobriety anniversary: “How did you do it?”

This question gives the honoree a chance to thank folks and give out a few nuggets of recovery wisdom, but in this meeting on Monday the joyful woman who got sober when I was in elementary school did something unusual.

She smiled and said simply, “I didn’t do it.” With that, she pointed straight up to the sky and muted herself again. 

A person in recovery is under no illusions about their ability to control their life. The first of the Twelve Steps says, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.” This, of course, is true for everyone and not just addicts. Our lives are unmanageable. We are powerless. We can fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. That is what most addicts do, for a while at least. Without fail, there comes a moment when we find ourselves in a ditch and the truth comes out. 

Unfortunately, if you don’t end up in the ditch, you can live an entire life pretending that you are in charge, that you have the power to manage your life. You make your plans and go about your business. Sure, you pray and ask God to be with you, but you are clear to ask God merely to keep up with you as you go about your day. 

This sounds good to our driven, American ears. We like to imagine God to be a nice, but absent step-father – willing to bail us out of jail perhaps but not overly involved.

The bad news for our ego, but Good News for who we actually are, God is not a “hands-off” God. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is in our business, active in history, and as close to us as our next heartbeat. Even more, God is giving us that next heartbeat. 

The Baptismal Covenant is a wonderful set of promises that root us in this ancient faith of the Church, but beneath the beautiful and lofty questions is that ever-present and dangerous temptation to box God out. 

If we are not careful, we end up thinking, “I will do all these things, and I will ask God to be with me and watch over me, but I will be the one running the show.” This line of thinking is so clear in many mainline churches that are really good at doing things for Jesus and are equally adept at burning people out.

If “I will” becomes the focus and “with God’s help” becomes a footnote, we are in trouble. Our lives are actually unmanageable. We are actually powerless. As Nick Lannon wrote, “Life is impossible!

At one of the weekend baptism services, I served as the preacher. My message was simple: Jesus told his followers to become like the little babies that we were set to baptize because babies are totally dependent. They are under no illusions that they are in control. They can literally do nothing but receive the gift of love and care. That all starts to change when kids become toddlers and start to develop the idea that they might just be in charge. The Christian life is the continual move back to the dependency of early childhood. It is the repeating process of being born again and again and again.

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says this, “We had to have God’s help. This is the how and why of it. First of all, we had to quit playing God. It didn’t work. Next, we decided that hereafter in this drama of life, God was going to be our Director. He is the Principal; we are His agents. He is the Father, and we are His children” (p. 62).

Whatever we do on earth, including taking our next breath, is by God’s will and not our own. Our lives are unmanageable. We are powerless. We are not God.

Thanks be to God. 

Alcoholics gather together and share stories to be reminded of what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now. We share our experience, strength, and hope because we don’t want to end up in the ditch again.

The Church has a similar mission. The trouble is that we can act like toddlers instead of babies. We can fool ourselves into thinking that we have more control than we do. We can trick ourselves into believing that “I will” is a complete response to the call of God, when in reality we can do nothing apart from God.

Like a 12-step meeting, the Church is called to be a place where we hear what we were like, what Jesus did, and what the world is like now. We have to hear that story over and over again. We have to proclaim that Good News every chance we get. We have to remind our people (and most of all, ourselves) that we can do nothing apart from God’s love, mercy, and care.

As I sat in my Zoom recovery meeting, I began to see a new vision of heaven:

Suppose heaven is a church basement and the choir of angels that greets you when you die is a congregation of drunks, drinking stale coffee and singing the same old song of God’s grace. Imagine you arrive under the bright white of the fluorescent lights, having lived out this Christian life that begins with baptism.  

“How did you do it?”, an angelic alcoholic asks. 

I didn’t,” you reply.

With a smile, you grab a styrofoam cup of coffee, pull up a metal folding chair, and join in the song.

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2 responses to “Heaven Is a 12-Step Meeting”

  1. Ian Olson says:

    Dang, Connor— you did good. This one hit me as the son of an alcoholic who still has had to learn that I can’t pull it off for myself ✨or✨ the people I love whose behaviors hurt themselves and me so much. Thank you for this!

  2. Don C. says:

    Thank you!! Perfect description!

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