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The One-Step Program Redux 1

Romans 7:14-25, from The Message


        I’m Vicki, and I am a sinner.

        No, no: Not that kind of sinner. Not the dramatic sins like murder, adultery, stealing or the other sins that many people seem to think are worse than the more common offenses against God, ourselves, and our neighbors.

        No, I’m a sinner of the worst kind: a run-of-the-mill sinner who—because my sins are so ordinary, so first-nature—doesn’t normally think of myself that way and so doesn’t realize (or refuses to admit) how badly I need God.

        My name is Vicki, and I do not love enough. I am not compassionate enough. I am not grateful enough. I am not tender enough or kind enough or friendly enough. You wanna know what’s really bad? I don’t pray enough. I don’t praise enough or listen enough. And, unfortunately, I am really good at the sin of thinking I am not enough. I work too much, as if that will give me worth. I’m much better than I should be at the sin of forgetting who and whose I am.

        At the same time, I am proud. I am envious. I am self-absorbed. I am too quick to anger and too slow to forgive. I am too ready to judge and too hesitant to reach out to others. I am too set in my ways and too likely to believe my way is the right way. I can drive myself to depression by thinking some silence or look or perceived slight is about me when, if truth be told, very little is about me. But I want things to be about me—except, of course, when that makes me uncomfortable.

        I could go on (and on). If I were to really conduct “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself, if I were to get serious about “admitting to God, to myself, and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs,” we would be here all day and all the way into next week—or next year.

        These are a few of the twelve wise, profound, and life-changing steps of Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous, a program that in its purest form is what Franciscan writer and teacher Richard Rohr praises as “the spirituality of imperfection.” It is so very different from the normal human way. It is different even from the traditional Christian way, which puts so much stock in “perfection, performance and willpower.”

        But the problem, and maybe my biggest sin, is that I have a hard time getting past even the first step of this program, the one where I’m supposed to admit that I am powerless over my sins and addictions, my woundedness and my ways of acting out—and that my life has become unmanageable because of them.

        You see, I would like to think I’m more-or-less self-sufficient. I would like to think that if I could just pray more or work smarter or try harder or read the right books or just be a better person, then I would get to the bottom of my to-do list (which NEVER happens); then I would break out of my self-defeating cycles; then my problems would be fixed, my life would be full, and I would be happy and free. Then I would be more deserving of the blessings I don’t have.

        As if that’s how it works.

        In my head I know it doesn’t work that way. I know, in my head, that it’s all about grace. I know, on some level, that salvation is an outside job, that God’s love is a free gift and that there’s nothing I need to do (or that I can do) to earn it.

        But I am a sinner, and so I’d like to have just a little more control than that. I know I can’t be perfect, but I’d at least like to get some credit for trying to be. I want to think that I can heal my wounds and solve my problems.

        But every once in a while—when something horrible drives me to my knees  or when I run out of distractions, when I am too tired to continue to carry the burden of being strong or wise or loving, when I can no longer deny my weaknesses and my needs or the reality of my brokenness—then I am forced to admit that I am not in control. Then I come face to face with my powerlessness.

        Like that guy Paul in the Bible, “I realize that I don’t have what it takes.” No matter how much I want and try to do the right thing, I can’t. Then I have to acknowledge the power of sin, which boils down to what Richard Rohr describes as “our own fake programs for happiness, which we keep using more and more to try to fill [the] God-shaped hole inside us.”

        In those bleak, rock-bottom moments, I have to admit that all my own my efforts to become a better person have failed, and that nothing but my own efforts will always fail.

        It feels pretty horrible—downright rotten, really.

        But everything from AA’s Twelve Steps to Buddhism, and everyone from all the Christian mystics to the Dalai Lama and, yes, even that great Jewish mystic, Jesus, says that this “experience of powerlessness is the absolutely necessary starting point for transformational healing.”

        Some call it surrender. Some say surrender, not success, is the true goal of the spiritual life. Others characterize this process as a letting go. The bestselling author Brene’ Brown says we must let go of our perfectionism and shame and, instead, embrace our vulnerability so that we might become our wholehearted, authentic selves.

        Jesus calls it the way of the cross.  Jesus talks about dying to our selves—our ways of doing things and the wrong thinking that separates us from God’s love—that we might live in the fullness of Spirit power.

        Whatever we call it, whatever tradition or teacher we follow, it’s hard.

        Because no sooner have I acknowledged my powerlessness, no sooner I have reached out for help, than once again I am working hard to do this powerlessness thing just right. To let go of everything but my sincere efforts to be more humble. To fill my life with books and meditations and devotions about emptiness. I could re-dedicate my life to loving God and my neighbors and my enemies, working for justice, trying to make peace, taking care of people, and giving myself away—

        And those are all good things.

        But if I double down instead of letting go, if I focus more on keeping my resolutions than inviting God to work wonders in my life,  if I keep chasing individual success more than relational peace, if I keep resisting the death of my precious ego self, before Iknow it I will have fallen back into that horribly seductive trap: thinking I can work my way to healing, thinking it’s all up to me, and then feeling disgusted with myself when I fall short.

        And before you know it—before I know it—I am doing it again: sinning, that is. I am trying a thousand different things—good things, mind you—to fill that hole that only God can fill, to heal wounds that only Love can heal, to find the new life—resurrection—that comes only from dying and letting go. I am trying to be good enough for God instead of surrendering to union with God.

        That’s when I start sounding like Paul again, saying, “I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me?”

        “The answer,” Paul says, is Yes. The answer, “thank God, is that Jesus Christ” can save me from this sin-sick, denial-driven, fear-fueled cycle of try to be better-and-fail, try still harder-and-feel worse.

        But how? I want to know I’m on the right path—but without feeling worn out by the effort. I want to know that I’m following all the right steps.

        Thank God, Jesus has a one-step program.

        That’s right: one step. One very big step that we have to take again and again and again.

Come to me, & rdquo;
he says, & ldquo;
all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens . Come to me, and lay them down . Stop all your struggling, and come to me . & rdquo;

        The one-step program might also be called the “come to Jesus” program.

        “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says, “and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.”

        It turns out this is a double yoke, and Jesus is already in the other side. He’s inviting us to surrender our separateness, to let go and let him help carry our burdens, to walk with him and let him show us the way to go. To discover that the burdens of loving and giving are light and life-giving.

        “Take my yoke upon you,” he says, “and you will find rest for your souls.” In other words, Stop trying to do it all by yourself. Lay down your burdens of busyness, productivity, and guilt-driven obligation. Lay down your “shoulds” and let love fuel your actions. Lay down your guilt and let love heal your soul. Stop thinking that receiving help is a sign of weakness, and open yourself to grace.

        “Come to me just as you are,” Jesus says, “and I will give you peace.”

        Put down your “I think I can” thinking and put on the yoke of God’s grace, he says. Put down your perfectionism and put on the yoke of God’s forgiveness. Lay down your power, and put on the yoke of surrender. Lay down your striving and put on the yoke of receiving. Lay down your sin and pick up a cross.

        Jesus’ one step is to let ourselves be loved by the One Lover, and to let that Love transform us from the inside out.

        Thanks be to God!

1 I preached a very similar version of this sermon in 2014. Since I needed to hear it again, I thought perhaps others might too.