In my last post, I wailed, mostly tongue in cheek, about how quick our culture is to rush past Thanksgiving into “Christmas,” and I reminded us that, for people of Christian faith, it is not Christmas yet. It is Advent, a sacred season of waiting expectantly for the good news that the Christ child will come among us, and that we should practice this waiting as a spiritual discipline, so that the fulfillment of the Promise will be even greater than the promise of the Promise.
Now all that assumed that the event for which we wait is filled with unremitting joy. But what happens when that for which we wait is full of fear and dread? I ask this because in the last few weeks it has become clear that someone I love dearly may be facing an unexpected illness. A member of our family may be very sick, and while we are going through all the tests and tests and tests, we wait. We wait, wanting the answers but not wanting them, hoping that some miracle will appear that will make all this just a bad dream. And so we wait.
So, what possible wisdom does the Gospel of Bill W—which is how I refer to the insights that Twelve Steps recovery can offer to Christians —have to offer?
Even as I ask this, I realize that all of a sudden I am not writing a blog. I am writing a prayer. I am reaching deep down to the wells of my faith for strength and wisdom, for some gift I hold onto, and to pass along, that will sustain us in this awful waiting. And so readers will forgive me if I preach to myself here, albeit publicly, trying to remind myself what I would say to any of you going through such a time.
The first reminder I take from my last post. Remember there that I described how it is that we addicts have a hard time staying in the moment, that we are inclined to the future and to the past, that the precious time of “now” is elusive to us. And the antidote to this aspect of our disease is to be found in the simple idea from AA that God calls each of us to live “one day at a time.” Just one day. We can do anything for one day. And when we have done that, then the next day we get up and do it again. We can do that, over and over again if necessary. And in that enforced discipline of staying focused on the present, we get through the current crisis and arrive at whatever is next.
Closely related to this practice of taking just one day at a time is the freedom from unnecessary anxiety that comes when we do so. I recall the comments of Michael J Fox, the courageous actor who has fought so nobly against Parkinson’s disease. They asked him how it is that he stays so positive and so content in the moment, even as his disease slowly progresses, and this is (more or less) what he said: “we decided early on that it makes no sense for us to assume the worst about what is coming. For if we do that, and if it does, in fact, come to pass, then we’ve lived the whole nightmare twice—once in the expectation of it and once in the fulfillment of it; but if it turns out not to be as grim as we had thought, well, then we went through all that agony for nothing.” Right. Right.
Next, the Gospel of Bill W always emphasizes the surprising gifts of gratitude. When we but open our eyes and our hands and receive the blessings of today, then we are overcome with gentle joy: a simple and beautiful rain, a warm fire and hot tea, the simple laughter from a board game, the fierceness of love and support offered by so many friends and family. Last Sunday in church, for another example, we went to the small healing chapel, just off the side of the main Cathedral, for prayers, where an elderly couple were waiting to lay hands on anyone suffering from illness. We approached and knelt, and they laid hands on us. After the prayers and tears, the old gentleman reached in his vest pocket—by the way, there are too few vests in the world for my tastes—and pulled out a beautiful, spotless, handkerchief, neatly folded, and offered it to us (too few gentlemen carrying handkerchiefs as well). “You keep this,” he gently said. What a touching and gentle gesture, and how it mattered to us in that moment. So at times like this we must be intentional about gratitude, and quite consciously remember to talk about our many gifts.
Finally, in times like this we experience anew the gift of community. I have learned in trouble how to “spread the stress around” to my brothers in recovery and to ask for help. I have never been through this thing—this illness of a loved one—quite like this before; but I know guys who have been. And so we are asking our friends and our networks for help: which is something that I, for one, did not know how to do when I first came into the rooms of recovery. I was too proud, too manly, too self-sufficient—or so I thought. That, too, makes it so much easier to get through something like this.
Advent waiting. It usually means expectant joy; it can also mean expectant fear. Mary, that patron saint of all who wait, undoubtedly had both great joy that she was carrying a special child as the Angel had promised, but also great dread and fear—will Joseph believe me? Will my family shun me? Will Herod find us? But either way, no matter what the joy or fear we see down the road, our response can be the same: we wait, expectantly and with gratitude, with hope and faith that, one day at a time, we will be okay. For in God’s eyes we are, as Isaiah reminds us, “precious, and honored, and beloved.” And as John tells us, we are not alone: for the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.