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Last night, as is my usual practice, I headed over to the local “8:05 Group” of Alcoholic Anonymous for my weekly does of 12 Step education.

For the record, just in case anyone is wondering, I don’t have the disease of alcoholism. I understand that God has allowed me the ability to have a beer or two and stop, unlike me friend who reminded me that if I took her out for a beer she’d drink 10 and throw up on my shoes. While there is some alcoholism in my extended family, enough to suggest that Al-Anon probably isn’t a bad idea, I’m not “qualified” to attend AA. However, I’ve been blessed to enter into relationship with a local group that has adopted me, knowing that I am using the 12 Steps to better understand Christian discipleship. And so on Saturday nights, when I should be finalizing the details on my sermon, I head over to a church basement to listen and learn.

While most of the time our Saturday meetings involve a speaker telling their story (making me come to a new appreciation for the power of testimony) we recently started a new format on the 1st Saturday in which we read one of the testimony stories in the back of the “Big Book” and then discuss it. While folks who hang out in the AA world are very familiar with the first half of the Big Book (the sections that describe the process of recovery), very often they miss out on the wealth of personal stories in the back which offer insight into the nature of our powerlessness and denial, and the power of AA to bring forth transformation. Last night we read together a story titled “Crossing the River of Denial” in which a woman shares her own story of thinking that alcoholism was someone else’s problem, not hers, and documenting  all the ways she stayed in denial about her situation.

It was in the course of that story, a story that resonated in our own inability to recognize our own brokenness and weakness and need for God’s grace, that a sentence jumped out at me that encapsulates what AA can teach the church. It was at the point where the woman had began her recovery, losing her job and status in the course of her transformation. She wrote:

I think that God knew that He had to show me early on that there was nothing a drink would make better. He showed me that His love and the power of the steps and the Fellowship could keep me from picking up a drink one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time, no matter what.

The words in bold above seem to me to represent one of the clearest and most easily understood descriptions of Christian discipleship in the context of a local church that I’ve experienced. As I read the sentence again and again, I realized that this threefold pattern represents how true discipleship (that is, discipleship that leads to transformation, wholeness, and serenity) is to be lived out in the world today. Moreover, as a person in the Wesleyan tradition, this pattern represents the practical successor to the Wesleyan Class Meeting, and is something that must be regained in our life together if we are to truly engage in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Of course, it all begins with God’s love — the amazing grace of Jesus Christ — which forms the foundation of our belief and practice. That is the starting place of everything we do — the love of God — which (according to Paul) is inseparable from us (Romans 8). While the 12 Steps represent a process for transformation and healing, the first steps are built on a belief in a God (Higher Power) who deeply loves us and is doing everything He can to reconcile us to Him. Our ability to admit our powerlessness and to surrender our lives to the power of God can only be done when we believe in a God who wants the best for us, a God who isn’t out to get us, yes a God whose love is more powerful than we can imagine.

But while God’s love is the foundation of all that comes, true healing requires a process for transformation. Certainly I believe that God has the power to miraculously transform all of us in an instant (instant sanctification, to use a term from the Holiness tradition). But for most of us, personal change comes through some sort of process. For alcoholics, addicts of all stripes, co-dependents, and still others that process involves working one’s way through a series of steps which lead one to recognize the need for surrender, address in tangible ways the consequences of our past actions, and grow personally through both an inward (meditation and prayer) and outward (service to others) focus. In the early Wesleyan tradition, this process involved holding fast to a set of “General Rules” which call followers of Jesus to avoid bad things, embrace doing good things, and engaging in a series of practices that helps one grow in the love of God and love of neighbor. In both cases, the process represents a means by which we cooperate with God (another good Wesleyan notion) to embrace our identity as beloved children of God and to cast aside those things which keep us from being fully who God created us to be in the first place. One of the reasons I remain a United Methodist is likewise a reason why the 12 Steps grab me — the belief that we are on a journey, moving on to perfection, in which a process or series of practices moves us along.

The third aspect of recovery/discipleship is something that the church has generally lost in the course of our personalized faith which lays out a Horatio Alger narrative in which one is supposed to be able to grow and succeed based on their determination and personal character rather than some sort of connection to a community. More and more in our modern world we’ve lost the value of what we Methodists call “The Connection,” that is the core belief that we are interconnected to one another and that our ability to be transformed is connected to your ability to be transformed. While we in the church seem to believe that discipleship is just about “me and Jesus,” our friends in the AA community know from personal experience that there is power in “the fellowship,” that is the coming together to authentically share each other’s experiences and grow and learn from them. An alcoholic that wants to quit quickly learns that the road to healing doesn’t come through locking one’s self up in a room with the Big Book (although, there are probably worse things to do!). No, new members of AA are often encouraged to do a “90 in 90,” that is, to attend 90 AA meetings in 90 days, recognizing that simply participating in the meeting has a power that facilitates transformation. New members of AA are encouraged strongly to obtain a sponsor, a mentor who has been through the process and can be a sounding board when one finds one’s self tempted from sobriety. AA understands and recognizes that transformation rarely happens alone, for it’s hard work and we need the support of one another along the way. Likewise, true discipleship requires an understanding that we need one another to truly grow in faith, and that presence with the community of faith may be as important as the daily prayer practice in the back room of your house. Howard Thurman, the pastor/theologian and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., once described church as the place where we share one another’s experiences of God, testing them against one another, and in doing so we obtain a fuller picture of God’s nature. That my friends is exactly what happens in the fellowship of AA, as people share from their hearts. They affirm this at the end of every meeting, in which they challenge one another to “keep coming back, it works if you work it!” What would it mean for the church if we likewise not only sent folks to serve, but included a reminder to return, for in returning we gain the grace and knowledge that allows us to go again and again?

Christian discipleship, for me (and I would suggest for all in the Wesleyan tradition) involves these three aspects: 1) A rootedness in the love of God; 2) an active process of practices which leads us to grow in the knowledge and love of God, and helps us to better love one another; and 3) a recognition that we are not in this alone, and that fellowship is a key practice which empowers us to help others.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Certainly our friends in AA get it. I wonder when we might fully get it as well?

anna-shrine-to-mothers-dayI confess that one of the things that has always eluded me is how Mother’s Day has become one of the high holy days in the life of the American church.

Don’t get me wrong . . . I like mothers as much as the next guy. For sure, this year’s Mother’s Day was a struggle in that it was the first time without my mom here on the earth, and walking through the card aisle at the local Rite Aid and realizing that I had no mom to send a card to made my heart sad. But my issue with the holiday lifting up mothers has little to do with my own emotions, and a lot to do with how easily this holiday can be one in which others can be hurt.

You see, what failed to get mentioned in church this past Sunday is how hurtful the entire topic of motherhood can be for some. In our desire to honor those have nurtured us, far too often we neglect the feelings of those whose image of mother is less than whole  . . . those who suffered both physical and mental abuse at the lack of touch and empathy from their moms. Still others want to be mothers, but for some reason the universe has conspired against them and in spite of every effort they are unable to bear children. And there are those who clearly know in their hearts that they have neither the gifts or call to be mothers, but are made to feel guilty be a church that far too often glorifies family and marriage over vocation, faithfulness, and singleness.

Of course, Mother’s Day is exalted because it’s a societal cash cow. The greeting card and gift industry have built this into something major in pursuit of a buck. They’ve manipulated our emotions, knowing that many of us carry around guilt over the way we’ve neglected our parents, and encouraging us to attempt to assuage that guilt through flowers, cards, and restaurant visits. In the church, we’ve come to build up Mother’s Day because very frankly it’s often good for worship attendance when the kids who’ve been away come back to try to make mom happy and go to church with her. I’ve been guilty myself of a campaign encouraging folks to “make mom happy and go to church.”

The problem, of course, is the disconnect between the holiday and those for whom the holiday is a struggle — and we in the church far too often only contribute to the problem. It’s that struggle that I faced this past Sunday in our own celebration of Mother’s Day.

What I tried to do — probably not successfully I should add — was attempt to help folks see that “mother” can be as much a role as a family birth identity. The fact is that I had a pretty good mom who did everything she could to care for me. At the same time, because of her own family history there were simply emotional needs she couldn’t meet — and so along the way I’ve had several surrogate “mothers” along the way. The persons may have been related or simply friends, but they provided guidance and nurture that helped me to grow to who I am today.

I would dare say that there are women (and maybe even some men) in our lives who fulfill the mothering role for us. Our birth mother’s may have been “Mommy Dearest” evil, but these persons came into our lives and picked up the slack, helping us in the journey to be more fully who God wants us to be. Some of these women have children of their own. Others have never had children, but in their love and support of others have fully embraced the identity of “mother.” Maybe we could be better served by focusing less on celebrating those who carried us in the womb for 9 months and focus instead on those who nurtured and raised us throughout our lives. Sometimes that may be the same person. Other times it’s not . . .  and we need to recognize those who lead us to fruitfulness.

The United Methodist Church attempted to deal with this by creating an alternative holiday in place of Mother’s Day — The Festival of the Christian Home. It’s a great ideal, but doesn’t face the cultural reality that Mother’s Day is now a societal norm which isn’t going away anytime soon. Maybe we’d be better served by simply acknowledging that the categories we’ve created for identifying others in our lives — mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters — are a lot less rigid and dependent on blood relations than we would make them out to be. Maybe we need to know that these roles are bigger than blood