New Years brings an understandable desire for us to review the year, and years, now passed, to be grateful for our blessings, to grow more honest about our shortcomings and regrets, and to make changes going forward. This desire, of course, often expresses itself in the beloved New Years resolutions which most of us make, almost all of which fall by the wayside as life presses in on us in the weeks and months ahead. Since the beginning of Advent and Christmas, I have been reading everything I see about resolutions, including some very thoughtful pieces, one of which, by Barbara Allen Burke ( http://iamstory.com/psychology/meaning/when-a-word-chooses-you/ ) emphasizes finding a word to center us as we go forward. Mine for this year is “celebrate,” which I will explain in a later post next week. For now, however, I want to reflect, using both the wisdom of the 12 Step Programs and Christian practices, on the idea of new beginnings.
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous talks powerfully about the gap between our new-found spiritual principles, and the undeniable fact that often, most of us don’t live up to those principles.
Do not be discouraged; no one among us has been able to achieve anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to spiritual progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection. (AA Big Book at p 60).
This passage often gets shortened in Program parlance to “progress, not perfection,” and this phrase is used to acknowledge a paradox: that we have made remarkable changes in our lives, from active addiction to recovery, from self-centered narcissism to a desire to live in service to others; and yet, at the same time, our default position, the raw material we are working with, is still our old nature—our addictive personalities and self-absorption. “We call it alcoholism, not alcohol-wasm,” is another way that we remind ourselves that, even in recovery, we are still at some level sick men and women. And keeping that reality before us, as a constant reminder of our true condition, is crucial for our spiritual path, to remind us of our constant dependence on our Higher Power and that it takes time for us to break old habits and form new ones. We in the recovery programs know that we cannot talk our way out of situations we behaved ourselves into; we must behave our way out.
Turning to the Christian life, we see through different lenses the same profound paradox (para-dox—a two-headed, often seemingly contradictory, truth) in play: first, that we once were lost to ourselves and to God, Prodigal Sons and Daughters away in a strange land squandering our inheritance on foolish things, and then we came to our senses and came home; in short, we once were lost and now are found. But second, that we are, in many ways, still lost, still not completely home, still trying to find our way. We are at once saved and redeemed, and yet still broken and in need of further healing. As with all paradoxes, both things are equally and simultaneously true: we are saved and redeemed and we are broken and lost. And it is to our great benefit to remember and embrace both sides of that paradox, difficult as that is for those of us who think in black and white terms.
This paradox can also be seen by a recollection of two very different Christian traditions and understandings of salvation—which for purposes of illustration I will oversimplify and call the “evangelical” and the “Catholic” traditions. The “evangelical approach is to emphasize that at our conversions, we were changed and redeemed, saved and healed. Salvation by grace and not by works. Meanwhile the “Catholic” way talks about the slow process of sanctification, which is done by a co-operative effort between us and God, a combination of grace and (increasingly good) works. But these two approaches need not be at war—centuries of theological dispute and wars of religion notwithstanding—for both are true, and both are equally true: we are saved and redeemed in our decision to turn our lives over to the care of God in Christ, and yet we have a long journey of sanctification ahead, with gradual changes, failures, renewals and more gradual changes, over and over again.
Here, once again, we Christians can learn from our brothers and sisters in recovery, who claim “spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection,” and do this by being honest about their past ugly lives and by their decisions to ask for help, as well as their ongoing patient, day by day, one-step-at-a-time plodding along. And so when it comes to something like a New Year and “resolutions,” the Gospel of Bill might suggest to Christians that we take one step at a time, that we claim progress not perfection, and that we live into the very great grace given us in Christ, one day at a time.
So do not be discouraged; no one among us has been able to achieve anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not (yet) saints. And the Gospel of Bill and the Gospel of Jesus both teach me this: I am not the man I want to be, and I am not the man I am going to be, but—thanks be to God in Christ—I am not the man I used to be. Amen and Amen.