03/27/15

Present and Future Blessings

© Bruce Rolff | 123RF.com

© Bruce Rolff | 123RF.com

The Beatitudes are named and structured after the Greek word makarios, meaning someone who is the privileged recipient of divine favor. It is also a literary form found in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, the book of Psalms opens with a beatitude: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The greatest concentration of beatitudes in the Old Testament is within the Psalms and the Wisdom literature. Robert Guelich indicated there were 44 examples of beatitudes in the New Testament, primarily in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Jesus begins his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount by underlining the various ways his disciples have and will receive divine favor. Both the poor in spirit (5:3) and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (5:10) receive the kingdom of heaven now, in this present time. The others—in between—have a future promise of fulfillment. Beginning and ending with the same expression is a stylistic device called an inclusion, according to D.A. Carson. So then the present and future blessings are all part of the same theme—the kingdom of heaven. Craig Blomberg said: “Complete fulfillment of Jesus’ promises often requires waiting for the age to come.”

Implied in the Greek word for blessing, is having a right relationship with God and enjoying fellowship with Him. Instead of focusing on what we are to do, the Beatitudes describe the blessings. The obligations or expectations in this relationship come later on in the Sermon on the Mount. Sinclair Ferguson commented that the blessings also weren’t new teaching or revelation. Jesus took some of the themes from the Psalms and Isaiah and applying them to the disciples. “He was pointing out what God’s word tells us is the blessed life.”

Several commentators have noted where Matthew has eight beatitudes, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain only has four (Luke 6:20-22). Another difference is how Matthew’s blessings are all in the third person (5:3-10), where Luke’s are in the second person. Biblical scholars have given a variety of explanations, but it seems to me the best is to see the two sermons not as edited versions of the same one, but as two occasions where Jesus used the “beatitude” approach. So those who receive divine favor are poor in spirit, mourners, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.

The poor in spirit are those who recognize their spiritual bondage. They are conscious of their sin debt, which separates them from God. All they can do is “cry for mercy, and depend upon the Lord.” D.A. Carson said poverty of spirit was: “The personal acknowledgement of spiritual bankruptcy. . . . The conscious confession of unworth before God.” Note how Carson’s thoughts reflect the process of coming to believe in the first two Steps.

Poverty of spirit becomes a general confession of a man’s need for God, a humble admission of impotence without him. Poverty of spirit may end in a Gideon vanquishing the enemy hosts; but it begins with a Gideon who first affirms he is incapable of the task [powerless], and who insists that if the Lord does not go with him he would very much prefer to stay home and thresh grain.

The mourners grieve the evil and sin they see in themselves and the world around them. The meek are “humble, gentle and not aggressive.” These are not typical qualities of the movers and shakers of this age. But in the age to come, they will lead the meek to come into the possession of what the movers and shakers sought to possess in this age—the earth.

Meekness as humility is throughout the A.A. Big Book. Bill W. said that when making a Third Step with an understanding person, if it was “honestly and humbly made,” it could sometimes have a very great effect at once. Working the Steps meant relying upon God rather than ourselves. “To the extent that we do as we think He would have us, and humbly relay on Him, does He enable us to match calamity with serenity.” The process of the first three Steps is one of admitting spiritual bondage to alcohol and turning it over to God. The Third Step prayer in the Big Book reads:

God, I offer myself to Thee—to build with me and do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!

By combining hunger and thirst in 5:6, Jesus intensifies the sense of longing after righteousness—the quality of judicial correctness or justice, with a focus on redemptive action. This righteousness is then seen in granting mercy to others; being pure in heart; being a peacemaker.

Mercy is being concerned about other people in their need; being compassionate. Those who show others mercy will be granted mercy. The final judgment comes to mind here: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

In January of 1953, a man in the Huntsville Texas prison reflected in the Grapevine (“From Within These Walls”) on how A.A. helped him and others gain a new conception towards those who were distressed. He said the alcoholic prisoner tended to look upon the world through “a mist of resentments.” The desire for revenge poisoned the life of the person who cherished it. Revenge begets revenge, he said. “While forgiveness melts the stony heart and brings reconciliations.” If anyone were to ask him what was the most inherent and conclusive proof from the Gospels that Jesus understood humanity, he would point to the Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Being pure was to be free from moral guilt. Leon Morris noted this is the only time in the New Testament where purity is predicated of the heart. “To be pure in heart is to be pure throughout.” And in the age to come they will see God, reversing the separation to goes back to the Garden of Eden. The Greek word for peacemaker occurs only here in the New Testament and refers to someone who works to restore peace between people; who seeks reconciliation or amends with others. They will be called sons of God. Craig Blomberg said: “Others will identify them as God’s true ambassadors, as those being conformed to his likeness.”

Becoming a peacemaker is embedded within the Eleventh Step. In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. suggested the St. Francis Peace Prayer as a beginning for meditation and prayer in Step Eleven  (See “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace” for more on the Peace Prayer and A.A.)

There are many other ways that the Beatitudes and 12 Step recovery are associated. If you start your own study, you will discover them. This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applied to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

03/13/15

Light in the Spiritual Darkness

© Noel Powell | 123RF.com

© Noel Powell | 123RF.com

In his commentary on Matthew, Craig Blomberg thought that no other religious discourse in history has attracted the attention devoted to the Sermon on the Mount. Both Christians and non-Christians alike have admired the teaching contained here. Leo Tolstoy believed the Sermon on the Mount was the true gospel of Christ and centered his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You on what it taught. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King were influenced by Tolstoy’s teachings on nonviolence in that work. Gandhi reportedly said that when he read the Sermon on the Mount, it “went straight to my heart.” Dr. Bob, one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), said that the Sermon on the Mount was one of the “absolutely essential” passages of Scripture in the early days of A.A., before the Big Book was written. It is this last association that I want to explore here.

According to Sinclair Ferguson, the Sermon on the Mount is not about an ideal life in an ideal world. Rather, it is about “kingdom life in a fallen world.” In a similar way, the 12 Step recovery program is about sober life in a drinking world.  Whether you are trying to live out a kingdom life or a sober life, they both call for radical lifestyle changes within their respective worlds.

At times, there has been some cross-pollination between those two worlds. When Bill W. introduced Sam Shoemaker at the 20th anniversary convention for A.A., he said that “It is through Sam Shoemaker that most of A.A.’s spiritual principles have come.” In his talk, Shoemaker said he thought the great need of our time was for a vast, world-wide spiritual awakening. He believed that A.A. was one of the great signs of that spiritual awakening. He thought that A.A. had indirectly derived its “inspiration and impetus” from the insights and beliefs of the church. And he hoped the reverse would be true. “Perhaps the time has come for the church to be reawakened and revitalized by the insights and practices found in A.A.”

The Sermon on the Mount seems to be one of those places where A.A. was cross-pollinated with some of the insights from Scripture. Here are a few examples. In the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, it says that resentment is a “number one” offender. “It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease.” Three separate sections of the Sermon on the Mount could be relevant. There is one on anger (5:21-26); one on retaliation (5:38-42); and one on loving your enemies (5:43-48). Oh, and one of the Beatitudes (5:7): “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

The A.A. website said there is nothing concrete to point to when or where the saying “one day at a time” became one of the slogans of A.A. It could have originated with the Oxford Group; or it could have been originated with Bill and Dr. Bob. In the A.A. book, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers (p. 282), Dr. Bob is quoted as saying: “‘Easy Does It’ means you take it a day at a time.” A.A. historian Dick B. wrote that Anne Smith, Dr. Bob’s wife, mentioned “one day at a time” in her notebook. Both Anne, Dr. Bob and Bill W. were active with the Oxford Group in the 1930s. In his book, The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, Dick B. reported that one of Dr. Bob’s early sponsees, Clarence S. said Dr. Bob told him the concept for one day at a time came from Matthew 6:34.

The principle of anonymity, which is so important to A.A. (it’s even part of the program’s name, Alcoholics Anonymous), can be found here as well. The forms of piety (giving alms, prayer and fasting) that Jesus addressed in Matthew six are all tied together with anonymity. In his book Turning Point, Dick B. made the same point and even cited where Bill W. wrote on the importance of anonymity as he sought to convince A.A. to adopt what would become the Twelve Traditions. First appearing in the Grapevine in November of 1948, and then gathered into the A.A. published book, The Language of the Heart, Bill W. began his essay on Tradition Twelve:

One may say that anonymity is the spiritual base, the sure key to all the rest of our Traditions. It has come to stand for prudence and, most importantly, for self-effacement. . . . In it we see the cornerstone of our security as a movement; at a deeper spiritual level it points us to still greater self-renunciation.”

Matthew began the Sermon on the Mount simply. When Jesus saw the crowds following him, he went up onto a hill (or mountain) and sat down, signally to his disciples that he was getting ready to teach them. So they gathered round him (Matthew 5:1-2). The Greek word translated here as disciple meant someone who was learning through instruction; someone who was an apprentice. We might even suggest it could refer to a sponsee in 12 Step recovery.

There seems to be a careful, intentional structure to the Sermon on the Mount. There is a beginning (5:1-2) and ending (7:28-29) to frame his teaching. The Beatitudes (5:3-12) and the “salt and light” passage (5:13-16) serve as an introduction. Matthew 5:17-20 declares the righteousness required by those who would follow Jesus—they have to be more righteous than the most religious sect of his time, the Pharisees.

Then within a series of six antithetical teachings on anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and loving your enemies, Jesus contrasts his teaching with “what they have heard” in Matthew 5:21-48. Beginning in chapter six, Jesus contrasted true and hypocritical piety (6:1-18). Next he turns to address social and personal issues regarding money (6:19-24), how we will live (6:25-34), and how we should treat others (7:1-12).

Jesus then ended his Sermon by urging his listeners to enter into life (7:13-14). The gate leading to destruction is wide and its way easy. But the gate leading to life is narrow and the way is hard. He cautions them to watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing. You’ll know them by their fruits. Those who enter the narrow gate are those who do the will of the Father—and not necessarily those who did many works in His name. If you hear his words and do them, you will have a solid foundation.

On November 10, 1948, General Omar Bradley gave an address in celebration of Armistice Day. His words fit here as well as speaking to the timeliness of spending time reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount.

With the monstrous weapons man already has, humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world by its moral adolescents. Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it. We have many men of science; too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Man is stumbling blindly through a spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death. The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.

You can find a series of further articles that look at passages from the Sermon on the Mount under the category link by that name. This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery.

03/6/15

One Day at a Time

© Field of tiger lilies by elwynn | stockfresh.com

© Field of tiger lilies by elwynn | stockfresh.com

“There may be greater sins than worry, but very certainly there is no more disabling sin.”  (William Barclay)

In his book Running Scared, Ed Welch pointed out how many psychiatric conditions have to do with fear. There was a time, he said, when you were either psychotic or neurotic. “Psychotic meant that your were out of touch with reality and afraid; neurotic meant that you were in touch with reality and afraid.” Today there are many more shades of fear and anxiety. Within the DSM-5, there are 22 distinctly coded conditions just within the section on Anxiety Disorders.

Welch observed how various medications or psychological treatments, such as systematic desensitization, focus on thinking or bodily responses to fear and anxiety. But he suspected there was a deeper reality to our fears and worries. “Listen to your fears and you hear them speak about things that have personal meaning to you. They appear to be attached to things we value.” So to understand fear and anxiety, we have to look at ourselves, and the way we interpret our situations.

Within the short space of nine verses in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34), there are three commands for us to not be anxious. We are encouraged to not be anxious about our life or about our future. Jesus underlines the pointlessness of anxiety here, while providing good reasons for trusting God. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament put it this way: “Worry is unnecessary. God has lifted it from man.”

There are also three “therefores” that initiated those commands, whose purpose was to connect the paragraph or passage to what was just said. So the command to not be anxious about our life in verse 25 connects back to what Jesus said in verse 24: “You cannot serve two masters”—God and money. Verse 31’s “therefore”—don’t be anxious about what to eat, drink or wear—proceeds from the discussion in verses 26 through 30 about how God provides for the birds, flowers and grasses.

Look at how God provides for the insignificant things of his creation. The birds never go hungry or thirsty—yet they cannot sow, reap or gather into barns. The wild flowers, which cannot clothe themselves in finery, are more beautiful than King Solomon in all his glory. If God is careful to provide for them, will He not do much more for you? “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’”

These worries are what drive the “Gentiles,” those who don’t know or trust in God. When you are anxious, you are forgetting the one whom you serve. Robert Mounce said in his commentary on Matthew: “Worry is practical atheism and an affront to God.” Verse 33 is then the climax of the passage: our first priority should be to seek out the kingdom of God and his righteousness. As Craig Blomberg said: “When priorities regarding treasures in heaven and on earth are right, God will provide for fundamental human needs.”

Worry does not accomplish anything. Anxiety is futile. It cannot add a single hour to your life. The future we try to provide for is not in our hands. “Whatever happens will be under God’s control.”

The final “therefore” then leads us to the logical inference from previous ones. If we aren’t to be anxious about our life, what we are to eat, wear or drink, then we aren’t to be anxious about the future. “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” In other words, live one day at a time.

This advice is heavily steeped within the culture and life of recovery. An early AA Grapevine article  (“Yesterday … Today and Tomorrow,” July 1942, vol.2, no. 2) commented that it was not the experience of today that drove people mad. Rather, it was remorse for something that happened yesterday and the dread of what will come tomorrow. “Let us, therefore live but one day at a time.” In “Garden Variety” Sara S. said she was a garden-variety alcoholic. “I know that one day at a time my life is becoming all that God intended it to be.” J. S. R. of Philadelphia commented in “Sidebar,” published in the October 1954 (vol. 11, no. 5) issue:

When I decided to stay sober one day at a time, I had no idea what an impact this would have on my life. As time progresses it becomes obvious that I live one day at a time. This is a very great consolation. No longer do I project bridges into the future, nor am I particularly concerned about yesterday. I do concern myself about today’s effort and sometimes it isn’t a very pretty picture; however, with proper training along simple lines as advocated in the very essence of AA, I have no fear.

Leon Morris observed that when an individual lives one day at a time, they defeat anxiety. A shallow thinker might conclude from Matthew 6:33 (But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.) that a believer will have a smooth path through life. But that is not what Jesus is saying. All people have trouble. But there is “all the difference in the world between facing the problems we meet with firm faith in our heavenly Father and facing them with anxiety.”

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

01/16/15

Whatever You Treasure Has Your Heart

“Greed is a fat demon with a small mouth and whatever you feed it is never enough.” (Janwillem van de Wetering)

The following passage contrasts the pursuit of material wealth to that of heavenly riches. Modern wealth or treasure often means possessing “money” or valuables containing precious metals. So many English translations since William Tyndale use “rust” to translate a Greek word which can also mean: “eating” or “consuming.”  Following this sense, the word translated “money” in verse 25 is better understood as more broadly as material wealth.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.  (Matthew 6:19-25)

Wealth to the audience who heard the Sermon on the Mount would have more likely been excess provisions of food and resources like cloth. So vermin or insects that would get into your stored grain and materials could destroy or ruin your treasure. Thieves could also steal it from you. But earthly treasures can also be things that bring an individual power, prestige or wealth. So there is a broad range of things that we can covet or “store” up that would qualify as earthly treasure.

And here lies the first bombshell of the passage: whatever you treasure has your heart.

The next two verses, 6:22-23, can be difficult to understand. The metaphor of the eye being the lamp to our body doesn’t speak clearly to a modern audience. Craig Blomberg, suggests that it is a restatement of the previous paragraph. So the meaning is that the way people handle their finances affects every part of their lives:

Just as the “heart” (v. 21) forms the center of one’s affections and commitments, the “eyes” enable the whole person to see. Good and bad eyes probably parallel a good and bad heart and thus refer, respectively, to storing up treasures in heaven versus storing them up on earth.

I think that Jesus is extending his statement about treasure, rather than just restating it. In his time, as today, it would likely have been understood that extreme examples of greed were ungodly. But there is nothing morally wrong with trying to improve your financial status, is there? So saying: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”, could have been readily affirmed—but not fully understood. His hearers, then and now, could have missed a crucial point.

So Jesus extends and clarifies his statement about treasure by using another metaphor, how the eye is the lamp of the body; the eye lets in light. Here, as Leon Morris observed, there is a spiritual parallel with Jesus speaking of the eye as the source of light to the body. So, if you have “good,” healthy eyes, your body has light. If your eye is not healthy, you will be in darkness. So far Jesus has described the one half of the metaphor that everyone knows—blind people are in darkness. The second half of the metaphor now equates “light” entering a person as spiritual or moral “darkness,” and then declared “how great is the darkness” if the “light” that enters you is “darkness!”

It asks the question, “What do you have your eye on?” If your eye is on some kind of treasure, that is where your heart is. If your eye is on the things of God, then your body is full of the light of God. If your eye is on other things, you have let “darkness” in—and how great is that darkness! So, no one can serve two masters; you cannot serve God and earthly treasure in any form.

Twelve Step recovery is steeped in the knowledge that pursuing earthly treasures leads to destruction. In the “Step Seven” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. noted how alcoholics for thousands of years have been demanding more than their share of security, prestige—the things of material achievement or earthly treasure. Success meant dreaming of more; frustration or failure meant drinking for oblivion. “Never was there enough of what we thought we wanted.” Never was there “thought of making honesty, tolerance, and true love of man and God the daily basis of living.”

As long as individuals attempted to live by their own strength and intelligence, a working faith was impossible. “This was true even when we believed that God existed.” Here, the Twelve Stepper and the follower of Christ stand in agreement: “We could actually have earnest religious beliefs which remained barren because we were still trying to play God ourselves.” As long as we place self-reliance first, a genuine reliance on God was impossible. “That basic idea of all humility, a desire to seek and do God’s will, was missing.” Whatever you treasure has your heart.

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

12/12/14

Humility Through Anonymity

Stockfresh image by tashatuvango

Stockfresh image by tashatuvango

“We live in a world where anonymity is the key to keeping yourself.” (Quotes About Anonymity, Dominic Riccitello)

Matthew 6:16 -18 applies the principle of anonymity to fasting, the third and final aspect of personal piety discussed in this passage of the Sermon on the Mount. As with the first two (almsgiving and prayer), fasting was supposed to be done anonymously. But as D. A. Carson pointed out, what began as spiritual self-discipline, was eventually prostituted into pompous self-righteousness. “What was once a sign of humiliation became a sign of self-righteous self-display.” So Jesus is saying here that if you made a public show of your fasting, then you have all the reward you are going to get. It wasn’t a true act of piety.

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

A self-righteous day of fasting at that time meant you would intentionally neglect your appearance. But this was more than just a bad hair day. Your hair wasn’t to be brushed or combed; your face wasn’t to be washed—you get the picture. And by doing this, EVERYONE WOULD KNOW WHAT YOU WERE DOING—without having to say a word. The look on your face and the way you were dressed was enough to let everyone know how “spiritual” you were by fasting that day. This kind of false humility can be found in a wide variety of human activities.

D. A. Carson observed: “Almost anything that is supposed to serve as an outward sign of an inward attitude can be cheapened by this hypocritical piety.” The truth of Carson’s observation has been embodied within the Eleventh Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.): “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.” Personal anonymity meant that A.A. was saying, “It wished to publicize its principles and its work, but not its individual members.”

Bill W. observed that A.A.’s Eleventh Tradition was much more than a sound public relations policy or an institutional denial of self-seeking. It was “a constant and practical reminder that personal ambition has no place in A.A.” Anonymity is further embedded in A.A. within their Twelfth Tradition: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”

Here again is the foundation of what Jesus was teaching in Matthew 6 on anonymity: Do not mix self-promotion with personal piety or spirituality. D. A. Carson voiced a helpful question for individuals who think they may be doing just that:

Who am I trying to please by my religious practices? Honest reflection on that question can produce most disquieting results. If it does, then a large part of the solution is to start practicing piety in the secret intimacy of the Lord’s presence.

Again, Bill W. captured this truth in the opening statement to his essay on the Twelfth Step: “The spiritual substance of anonymity is sacrifice.” Bill went on to describe how A.A. learned that “anonymity is real humility at work.” Moved by the spirit of anonymity, its members try to give up their natural desire for distinction both within A.A. and before the general public. “We are sure that humility, expressed by anonymity, is the greatest safeguard that Alcoholics Anonymous can ever have.”

Humility is a safeguard for the church as well as A.A. Jonathan Edwards said that humility prepares the mind for divine light, clears the eye to look at things as they truly are, and keeps believers out of the devil’s reach. Another Puritan, Thomas Brooks said: “God delights most to dwell with the humble, for they do most prize and best improve his precious presence.” Remember that your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And finally, we of Alcoholics Anonymous [and the church of Christ] believe that the principle of anonymity has an immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all (the long form of Tradition Twelve).

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

 

10/3/14

A Daily Reprieve

Our Father who art in heaven, (help me not to take a drink today), Hallowed be thy name, (yes, let your name be thrice hallowed for the sobriety you have given me.) Thy kingdom come, (my part in your kingdom is sobriety), Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, (for me, let your will be that I do not drink today),Give us this day our daily bread, (your bread is your good will to me, an alcoholic), And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, (we are forgiven only if we forgive others as our inventory shows), Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, (my chief evil is the use of booze), (Keep me sober today), Amen.

The above paragraph was from “Grass Roots Opinion,” an article in the January 1952 edition of the Grapevine, the journal for Alcoholics Anonymous. A previous post, “Our Pappa Who Art in Heaven,” reflected on honoring God and His kingdom in the first part of the Lord’s Prayer. In what follows, we petition the Lord for our daily needs: bread, debt forgiveness, and protection from temptation.

Give us this day our daily bread.” Biblical scholars have had a lot to say about the Greek word usually translated “daily” in the Lord’s Prayer, epiousios. This is often the case when there is only one occurrence of the word in the New Testament, as with the word here. Werner Forester, in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, suggested that the meaning of the phrase “daily bread” is adequately given as: “The bread which we need, give us to-day (day by day).”

In Alcoholics Anonymous Bill W. wrote that the alcoholic is never cured of alcoholism. “What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities.” This is also the spiritual condition of the believer in Christ. In this life, we are never “cured” of sin. Yet we may have a daily reprieve when we ask daily how we can best serve God: “Thy will (not mine) be done.”

A little further on in Matthew 6, Jesus elaborates on how we should not be anxious about our daily life—what we eat, drink or wear: “Your heavenly father knows you need them all,” so take one day at a time (Matthew 6:32, 34). Verse 6:34 actually says: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”, but the paraphrase “one day at a time,” commonly heard in 12 Step recovery, clearly fits in both verses, 6:11 and 6:34.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The word translated as debt here refers to a moral obligation or sin, as the Lord’s Prayer is given in Luke 11:4, “and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” Whether sin or debt, the principle here is that our forgiveness by God is correlated to how we forgive others. Verses 14-15 repeat the thinking of verse 12 and add the negative consequences of failing to forgive others, your Father will not forgive you.

Unforgiveness in recovery is understood as holding on to resentment. Alcoholics Anonymous, the A.A. Big Book, says that resentment, “destroys more alcoholics than anything else. . . . It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. . . . We found that it is fatal. . . . If we were to live, we had to be free of anger.” The people who wronged us were spiritually sick—like we were. So we asked God to help us show them tolerance, pity and patience. “God save me from being angry. Thy will be done.”

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  God does not tempt us, as James 1:13 teaches, so the original meaning here was more like “don’t allow us to succumb to temptation” or “don’t abandon us to temptation.” The parallelism of the second clause here—deliver us from evil—reinforces the sense that we are pleading for God to protect us from temptation.

There is a dispute as to whether or not the Greek word for “evil” here should be translated “the evil one” (the devil) or just plain old impersonal “evil.” Either one is grammatically possible. But functionally, the point is moot. Whether there is an “evil one” or simply just “evil” we need God to keep us from it. There is also something to be said for sometimes praying to be delivered from “evil” and at other times praying to be delivered from the “evil one.”

The struggle of resisting temptation to sin or to drink and/or use drugs can often feel experientially like we struggle against a personality; an evil one. There is a malevolent force that plots against us; a roaring lion who seeks to devour us (1 Peter 5:8). If we submit ourselves to God and resist the evil one, he will flee from us (James 4:7).

I was intrigued to discover that in the second issue of the Grapevine, July of 1944, was a recommendation for other A.A. members to read the Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. “Readers will laugh at the shrewd portrayal of soft spots, alibis and rationalizations suggested by Screwtape in the battle between His Father, Satan, and The Enemy, God.”  Both A.A.s and followers of Christ can relate to the battle illustrated there.

Please Lord. Deliver us this day from the evil one—whether that is alcohol or another drug; Satan or our own evil desires.

Where in your life are you in need of a reprieve?

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

09/26/14

Our Papa Who Art in Heaven

© Master2 | Dreamstime.com - Lord's Prayer In Internal Passageway Photo

© Master2 | Dreamstime.com – Lord’s Prayer In Internal Passageway Photo

Verses 9 to 13 in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew are familiar to anyone in Christian churches as “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” Emmet Fox said it was “the most important of all Christian documents;” the best known and most often quoted of all the teachings of Jesus. Easily memorized, it has been recited publically and privately from the early days of the church. “It is indeed, the one common denominator of all the Christian churches.” The Lord’s Prayer is a model for our praying—“Pray then like this.” (Matt. 6:9) It also has parallels to the principles of recovery embedded in Twelve Steps.

In Matthew 6:1, Jesus cautioned his hearers against public displays of righteousness. Essentially he said that if you make a public display of being pious, you aren’t really being spiritual. He then proceeded to look at the three main aspects of Jewish piety: giving to charity (2-4), prayer (5-15) and fasting (16-18).

Matthew 6:5-8 begins: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.”  Here is the second thing to unlearn if you want to practice true spirituality—don’t make a big show out of praying! In fact, find a way to pray in secret. God sees you. Also, don’t babble on and on, thinking that because you have a lot to say, God is impressed with your eloquence—He isn’t. Then Jesus drops a bomb: “Your Papa knows what you need before you ask him.”

New Testament scholars suggest that when the Greek word for Father appears in the Gospel prayers, the Aramaic word  ’abba was originally used in conversation. ’Abba was the equivalent of an infant babbling “Papa” to his father. To his audience, Jesus was suggesting an uncomfortably familiar form of address to God in prayer. Pious Jews wouldn’t even spell God’s name completely, and Jesus was referring to him as ’abba! One commentator said “Christians should consider God as accessible as the most loving human parent.” The hypocrites used flowery, eloquent language when they prayed. Jesus says don’t be like them—come to papa, who already knows what you need.

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Our Father links the person praying to all other believers. I am reminded here that the first word of the First Step is also plural, We, connecting the individual alcoholic to all others in A.A. The intimacy of praying to ’abba is counterbalanced by His presence in heaven. We can come into the presence of the creator of the universe, knowing He is our ’abba. We can approach the God of the universe in all our prayers.

In the chapter “We Agnostics,” of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. wrote that alcoholics were faced with a crisis they could not postpone or evade. They were confronted with the question of faith. “God either is, or He isn’t. What was our choice to be?” Wilson went on to say that deep down in every person was the fundamental idea of God. Faith in some kind of God was a part of being human. “We found the Great Reality deep down within us.”  The God of heaven was near to us. In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Bill ended his essay with the following declaration: “When we drew near to Him He disclosed Himself to us!”

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When Jesus heard that John the Baptist was imprisoned, he began preaching as John had in Matthew 3:2, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 4:17)  So here in verse 6:10, we are to pray that God’s will be done as perfectly on earth as it is in heaven. Leon Morris said: “In heaven God’s will is perfectly done now, for there is nothing in heaven to hinder it, and the prayer looks for a similar state of affairs here on earth.” Not our will, but God’s will be done.

I hear an echo of surrender to the will of God in A.A.’s Third Step here, where the individual is called to submit their will and life to the care of God as they understand Him. In the entry for August 26th, Twenty-Four Hours a Day said that if we still cling to something, we must sincerely ask for God’s help to let go of it. “We must say: ‘My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad.’” The last paragraph of the “Step Three” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions says:

In all times of emotional disturbance or indecision, we can pause, ask for quiet, and in the stillness simply say: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Thy will, not mine, be done.”

We’re not finished yet with our look at the Lord’s Prayer, but will stop here for now. Part of true spirituality is recognizing that we can approach the Creator of the universe in prayer as simply and as easily as an infant approaches his or her “papa.” And our attitude in prayer should be for God’s will to be done. I often use the Serenity Prayer in counseling to help people discern the will of God in their life. When I do, I encourage them to not only say it, but to work and apply it. Because if they do, then God’s will shall be done on earth.

Do you approach God in prayer as if you are approaching a loving Father?

See the second part of this reflection on the Lord’s Prayer in “A Daily Reprieve.”

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

08/29/14

Don’t Blow Your Own Horn

The spiritual substance of anonymity is sacrifice. . . . Moved by the spirit of anonymity, we try to give up our natural desires for personal distinction. . . . We are sure that humility, expressed by anonymity, is the greatest safeguard that [we] can ever have.”

Matthew 6:1 cautions against the practice of a public display of righteousness or piety, because if you do, that is all the reward you get. Verses 2 to 18 then looks at three basics aspects of Jewish piety: almsgiving or charity (2-4), prayer (5-15) and fasting (16-18). These three are representative of all other “acts of righteousness.” The message is clear. If you make a public display of your piety, you aren’t actually being pious.

There wasn’t social security or welfare in Biblical times. Deuteronomy 15:11 said there would always be poor people. “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” So voluntary charity and contributions to the poor were one of the three most important demonstrations of Jewish piety. But when you gave to charity, Jesus said, don’t make a big deal about it—don’t blow your own horn. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” (Matt 6:1)

Individuals who didn’t give anonymously were fake—they were play-acting. They were hypocrites.  Their words and actions were done for effect and not truly because they had a concern for others. What they were really trying to do was gain a reputation for righteousness. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.” (Matt 6:2)

The Mishnah (the written record of the Judaism’s Oral Torah) spoke of a “Chamber of Secrets” in the temple where the devout Jew could leave gifts in privacy. The poor of a good family would come later to receive help without knowing who their benefactor was.  Leon Morris in his commentary on Matthew noted that the Torah said: “A man who gives charity in secret is greater than Moses our Teacher.” So someone making a big deal about giving to charity was violating the spirit of the commandment in Deuteronomy at the same time they were fulfilling the letter of the commandment. “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matt 6:3)

The standard set by Jesus here in the Sermon on the Mount out-midrased even the Chamber of Secrets in the temple: Give so anonymously that even your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing! There was no wiggle-room. When you made a public display of your giving, you were not being charitable.

D. A. Carson referred to this as “pseudo-piety.” Christians, he said, must not delude themselves that all giving is pleasing to God, or that giving itself is an act of righteousness. “The human heart is too crafty to allow so simple a suggestion to stand.” Anonymous piety or spirituality neutralizes the instinctual action of the human heart to say: “Look at me!” And anonymous spirituality is the heart of Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, A.A.

One of the spiritual parallels between A.A. and the church is the teaching on anonymity found within Matthew 6:1-4 and A.A.’s Twelfth Tradition: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” Both Twelve Step recovery and biblical Christianity see anonymity as essential for true spirituality. The above opening quote was from Bill Wilson’s essay on Tradition Twelve in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. The only change was where I substituted the word “we” for “Alcoholics Anonymous” in the original essay.

In July of 1955 Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal minister, spoke at the convention commemorating the 20th anniversary of A.A.’s founding. He believed A.A. was one of the great signs of spiritual awakening in our time. Shoemaker also thought A.A. had indirectly drawn its inspiration and motivation from the insights and beliefs of the church. When Bill Wilson had introduced Sam to the convention, Wilson acknowledged that Shoemaker himself was the connection between A.A. and the church: “It is through Sam Shoemaker that most of A.A.’s spiritual principles have come.” In his closing remarks, Shoemaker said:

Perhaps the time has come for the church to be reawakened and revitalized by the insights and practices found in A.A. I don’t know any fields of human endeavor in which the Twelve Steps are not applicable and helpful. I believe A.A. may yet have a much wider effect upon the world of our day than it has already had and may contribute greatly to the spiritual awakening which is on the way.”

One of the best ways someone can be reawakened and revitalized is by applying the A.A. principle of anonymity to their spiritual life. The discussion here looked at how it was applied by Jesus in his teaching on alms giving. But anonymity is relevant to all other expressions of piety—even prayer and fasting. Don’t let your left hand know what your right one is doing! Practice your piety before God, not other people. Don’t blow your own horn.

Where could you apply the principle of anonymity to your spiritual life?

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

08/15/14

Judging Others is a Two-Way Street

“To escape looking at the wrongs we have done another, we resentfully focus on the wrong he has done us.” Bill Wilson wrote this in his Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions essay on Step Eight. But the wisdom of these words applies to all of us who resentfully judge others. In the Sermon on the Mount, it seems that Jesus agrees with Bill.

In Matthew 7:1-6, Jesus taught about the consequences of judging others. In essence, he begins by saying in verses one and two: “First you have to realize that if you aren’t judgmental of others, then you won’t be judged harshly yourself.” This discussion seems to be a more narrow application of the golden rule set forth in verse 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Doing to others what you want them to do to you summarizes the spiritual teaching of the Scriptures on how we should relate to others. Another way this is expressed is by the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” originally found in Leviticus 19:9. In Matthew 22:39, Jesus said that loving your neighbor was the second greatest commandment after loving God.

The word translated as “judge” in Matthew 7:1-2, krinõ, is used with the sense that the act of judgment is done in order to somehow influence the life and behavior of another. Judging is then a two-way street. When you judge others, you are saying to God that you also want to be judged or influenced by Him. So be careful in your judgment of others, because you’ll get the same thing back. What goes around, comes around.

In the next three verses Jesus uses hyperbole (the speck and log language) to illustrate what too often happens with judgment aimed at influencing others.  In his commentary on Matthew, Craig Blomberg said we often criticize others when we have much more serious shortcomings in our own lives. Particularly when we treat fellow believers (brothers) that way, we are hypocrites; phonies or pretenders. Nevertheless, we are not off the hook entirely. “Rather, once we have dealt with our own sins, we are then in a position gently and lovingly to confront and try to restore others who have erred.”

In counseling, I simplify this teaching by telling people the following. Whenever you find yourself wanting to point a finger at someone else, stop and look at yourself first. There may be one finger pointing at the other person, but there are three fingers pointing back to you.  What’s going on with you that you want to point a finger at someone else?

Verse six is an odd expression, and perhaps even opposed to what Jesus has just said in verses one through five. It seems that he is addressing the opposite extreme to what came before. In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus addressed the error of being too harsh when judging others. Here he cautions against being too lax. So you can think of what is being said by adding the phrase On the one hand …” before 7:1-5; and then “But on the other hand …”before verse six.

There is a literary structure called a chiasm in verse six, that was used in both biblical Greek and Hebrew to reinforce the message of what was being said. A chiasm (or chiasmus) is a writing style that uses a specific repetitive pattern for emphasis. So the chiastic structure of verse six would be:

“Do not give what is holy to the dogs,

and do not throw your pearls in front of pigs,

lest they trample them with their feet

and [lest they, the dogs] turn and tear you to pieces.”

This then communicates more sensibly that the dogs are doing the turning and tearing, while the pigs are doing the trampling. Craig Blomberg noted how the terms “dogs” and “pigs” were both regularly used as derogatory epithets for Gentiles in ancient Judaism. There is also the possibility that Jesus is quoting or paraphrasing a proverb, much as we hear the saying “don’t cast your pearls before swine” used in modern English. Jesus thus commands us here not to give what is holy, what is from God, to dogs and pigs; they won’t appreciate it.

There seems to be a contrasting parallel here between “brothers” and “dogs,” which is similar to that of the “wise” and “fools” (or scoffers) in Proverbs. So then here Jesus is giving advice similar to that found in Proverbs 13:1 (and other passages): “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.” Then the Matthew passage is saying, don’t be judgmental of others or think of yourself as better than them. Take care of your own faults before trying to point out where someone else has a problem.  You get back what you give to others. On the other hand, be careful to whom you give advice. They may turn on you or totally disregard what you have to say.

 

Where have you found yourself pointing a finger at someone else and what they did?

 

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”