We’ve been talking about 12 Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Al Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, and so on, as a spiritual path. A spiritual path whose steps can be applicable to anyone who is seeking peace, seeking freedom from addictions or attachments that are keeping them from their deepest desire.
12 step programs begin with the recognition that we are powerless and that our lives have become unmanageable. We are not managing to find the peace/serenity that we most truly desire.
Whether it is a straightforward addiction, a socially acceptable preoccupation, or a neediness that we are trying to satisfy in our lives that keeps us from the peace and serenity we most fundamentally desire, we admit that we do not have it within ourselves to manage our lives toward that end.
That is, in essence, the life of addiction: the life of needing something that will not fulfill the needing, that ultimately drains our energy and consumes our life. It is living out of our ego (small self) and our ego’s attachments.
With that Step 1 realization, in Step 2 we come to believe that there is a higher power that can restore us to sanity. With that belief, with that hope that there is Love greater than our small selves that wants our healing, we surrender our lives to that greater Love – to God – as we understand God.
That’s Step 3. Step 4 is a courageous and searching moral inventory of ourselves. This is not a moralistic judgment leading to blame and punishment. Instead it is a kind of diagnosis. That higher power wants our healing, not judgment and blame and punishment. To find the right path toward healing for our particular troubles requires careful examination.
With that courageous and compassionate examination, we move on to step 5 which is to admit to ourselves, to God, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. As Richard Rohr, whose book on the 12 Step Spiritual Path has been helping us in this series, says, “Only mutual apology, healing, and forgiveness offer a sustainable future for humanity.”
This core of Jesus’ teaching is the path that reconnects us to love when we go astray. Sharing our stories of failure with another person frees us from shame and isolation and begins the restoration to a reconciled community.
Steps 6 and 7 go together: We were entirely ready to have God completely remove all these defects of character. Last week we looked at the question of whether we were really entirely ready, but this week we move to Step 7 in which we humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.
As our guide on this journey, Richard Rohr, looks at this step, he focuses on the importance of the two words HUMBLY ASK.
Of course, we might wonder why we need to ask. After all, God knows everything. Why is it important to ask? Are we trying to talk God into things? If we ask in the right way or with the right words, will we change God’s mind into doing what we want?
But think about this in terms of step 7’s asking God to remove our shortcomings: is there any reason to suppose that God does not already want our shortcoming removed? So what’s this prayer for?
Rohr’s quick answer is this: We ask not to change God but to change ourselves. We pray to form a living relationship, not to get things done.
And this brings us to the United Airlines fiasco from this past week. Rohr goes on to say, “The death of any relationship with anybody is to have s sense of entitlement. Any notion that “I deserve,” “I am owed,” “I have a right to,” “I am higher than you” absolutely undermines any notion of faith, hope, or love between the involved parties.”
That is exactly what we had on that airplane. A ticketholder bought a ticket. So he felt entitled to his seat. It’s one thing to exclude somebody before boarding, but quite another thing to take away a seat once someone is sitting in the seat he paid for. Plus, he has good, healing work to do the next morning and he has to be back home to do it. He’s a doctor! He’s entitled to stay on the plane.
And then, from United Airlines’ point of view, they have a contract – a contract with small print that almost no one reads or thinks about or pays any attention to whatsoever, but a contract nonetheless – that permits the airline to deny passage to a customer because it has overbooked the flight or for other reasons it deems necessary. And since United Airlines has a contract that allows them to deny passage they feel that they are entitled to make room for their flight crew that needed to get to Louisville. After all, if there is no flight crew for tomorrow’s airplane in Louisville, some other doctor will miss her patients. So they are entitled to drag him off the plane. He agreed to the contract when he bought his ticket.
And, of course, the airline tried to entice ticketholders to give up their seats by trying to buy them back at a premium. At least $800 and maybe a $1000 were offered, but no one was willing to make the trade.
But the possibility of buying someone out of their ticket underlines what is going on: it is a transaction that buys entitlement. And when offering the deals came to an end, the possibility of a transaction gone, polite offers disappeared and raw power came into play. The power of a physical body strapped into a seat with physical mass and police power with strength and determination and the force of law behind it.
And as my ever-insightful life partner, Martha, observed, none of those filming or watching were willing to set aside their entitlement to fly.
When entitlements contest, and bargaining runs its course, brute force is the next, logical, and only step. Again, as Rohr says: such a situation “absolutely undermines any notion of faith, hope, or love between the involved parties.”
Business is business. For buyers and sellers alike. It is not always so dramatic and it doesn’t always trend on twitter, but that’s the logic of buying and selling.
The logic, the practice, the encounter of humbly asking is different. True asking presupposes humility. Asking reveals a desire, instead of a demand.
And this brings us to the Easter story from the Bible that we read earlier.
Mary has gone to Jesus’ grave in mourning. She goes to mourn. And in her grief, in her vulnerability, in her recognition of her need to see that Jesus’ body has its proper dignity, she makes a request of this one she believes to be the gardener.
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
She does not act from a sense of entitlement, she makes no demand, instead she makes a request. She asks. She humbly asks.
Yes, she is confused. She does not understand the situation, as becomes clear almost immediately. But it is her asking out of her vulnerability that allows the reality to emerge for her. Asking out of vulnerability allows reality to emerge.
For, in his answer, the supposed gardener is revealed to be Jesus – risen from the dead.
Jesus replies to her. He simply says: “Mary.”
She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).
She recognizes him. And in that encounter we have a signal of the emergence of a new reality, a new way of life emerging. A way of life founded on gracious asking, mutual recognition.
Here in these verses, we see the posture, the template, for all true prayer. All true prayer arises from the deepest truest desire that God puts in us from the beginning – the deep desire for home for heaven, for divine union and in our anxiety in our fear and insecurity it can readily attach to the wrong object: a substance for addiction, a habit, a status, or a seat on an airplane or a flight operation schedule that drives us.
This desire that God has placed within our hearts from the beginning is deeper and more real than the transactional encounters of buying and selling which can easily be masks for the exercise of power.
It might be too much to ask right away that even in the huge anxiety of airports and airplanes and tired and frustrated crew and passengers that we can manage that prayerful posture of asking. But perhaps we can begin to be more mindful of this in our daily lives as we seek to live in ways to extend peace/serenity into our workplaces, neighborhoods, and homes.
As Richard Rohr puts it,
So it is important that you ask, seek, and knock to keep yourself in right relationship with Life Itself. Life is a gift, totally given to you without cost, every day of it, and every part of it. A daily and chosen “attitude of gratitude” will keep your hands open to expect that life allow that life, and receive life at ever-deeper levels of satisfaction…. Those who live with such open and humble hands receive life’s gifts…. To not ask is to take your own efforts, needs, and goals – and yourself – far too seriously. Consider if that is not true in your own life.
The so-called wisdom of this world is to take an inventory of our resources, our strength, and deploy power as needed to get what I want. My strength or position entitles me to whatever I can get.
The wisdom of the 12 step spiritual path begins with the recognition that I am powerless, that my life is unmanageable until I recognize that power greater than myself and place myself in the position of one who surrenders, who asks, humbly asks, to be healed, to be made whole, to be able to recognize and embrace the revelation of love that appears every day and in all places when I let go of my addictions and attachments.
Powerless opens us to wonder and mystery and receptivity and we ask. It invites us to step out from certainty and entitlement.
That encounter happened to Mary in a garden in ancient Jerusalem on the first Easter Sunday. It can just as well happen to us today.