The 12 Steps of Advent
This year, I couldn’t wait for the first Sunday of Advent. As a lover of the Christian Liturgical Calendar (and a nerd), I look forward to the start of the Christian new year, when the church stoles turn from green to purple and families come forward to light the Advent wreath candles.
But my love for Advent and its place in the Liturgical Calendar go far beyond colors and candlelight. I have learned that Advent--the season of anticipation--is not so much a candy cane sugar rush countdown to Christmas. It is a time to sit in our sorrow and brokenness as we wait on the Lord’s coming. Or, to put it in Dr. Seuss terms, it looks a lot more like the Grinch’s lonely man cave on Mount Crumpit than the boisterous Whobilation festival.
Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren painted a beautiful picture of this in her recent New York Times Op-Ed: "To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness.”
As I reflect on 2019, I ask God which people and experiences He put in my life that “held space for my grief” this year. Immediately I think of my experience attending the Cocaine Anonymous group that meets at the St. Jude Oak Cliff office. I attended not as a recovering addict, but as a counseling grad student, hoping to get credit for my Group Therapy class. Upon arriving, I quickly realized that my role was not to be an objective observer. That night the group was discussing Steps 6 and 7 of the Twelve Steps.
Step Six: We're entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
I listened as a group of men shared boldly about their shortcomings - their selfishness, dishonesty, and resentment. The group leader Jim Epperson pointed out that, “Behind every instance of anger for us is always fear.” The room filled with nods and “amens.” Men twice my age who had lived through the destruction that addiction can cause sat there, nodding, ready to talk about their fears.
Step Seven: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings
“Results aren’t my business,” Jim urged us. He shared a metaphor used often in recovery. A picture of a large, cold room with a single fire burning in the furthest corner. Our only job as broken human beings? Move closer to the fire. The closer we position ourselves to God, the more we can experience the fullness of his grace in our lives. I sat there thinking, “But is it really that simple? I call myself a Christian and do my best to stay rooted in God’s word. But sometimes I feel pretty darn cold. Sometimes I feel so far from God that I start to wonder if He’s chosen to forget me.”
And then one man spoke up and shared that he reached out to his mom for the first time in 20 years. I could hear in his voice how terrified he was to take that step. But trusting God’s promises, he did it. And she was thrilled. God restored their broken relationship. Just as I was subtly tilting my head to force the tears back into my eyes, he read us a text message his mom sent him that day. It was filled with life-giving words about how proud she was of her son. As you probably guessed, the tears came right back.
In that small room, crowded shoulder to shoulder with men clutching their Big Books and Dr. Peppers, I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit more tangibly than I had in a very long time. God moved through those men to point me to His redemptive power. But he also pointed me to my shared identity with the men next to me--that assurance that I was not alone. That in each of their recovery stories, I could hear echoes of my own story -- of strained relationships, learning to surrender, and taking one step closer to the fire, even when it feels like there is no hope.
At the end, we circled up to close in prayer. Two men waved me in, put their arms over my shoulders, and one man called out, “Whose Father?” We all responded in unison, “Our Father, who art in Heaven” (you know the rest). With our arms wrapped around each other, we asked God to remove our defects, using the words Jesus once taught his disciples.
I left the CA meeting with about a dozen new friends and an epiphany. I realized that the 12 Steps aren’t all that different from the Christian Liturgical Calendar. In a world of disorder and distraction, they both root us. They both provide a framework for us to make sense of our lives and our humanity. They both urge us to take a good, hard look at our sin--not to shame ourselves, but to point us to a far greater story. A story of a baby born in a manger, who took on our defects 2,000 years before we were even born.
My prayer this Advent is that God will continue to create space for us to sit in our cosmic ache--to stare boldly into our character defects, and to find rest in the steps and rhythms of the Christian life that guide us to our one true source of recovery: King Jesus, born on Christmas day.