Fostering Ambitious Humility
Last week, I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with a friend. He had shared with me multiple times how much the program means to him and how it has completely transformed his life. Although he is a Christian, and attends church regularly, he said that there is something about his AA group that makes it as much as a spiritual home for him as his own church. Because I was interested in why he would say such a thing, he invited me to come and see for myself.
Truth be told, I had a lot of anxiety about going. I didn’t sleep much the night before, maybe because I like to drink wine enough to make me a terrible Baptist.
I was also worried about what I would say if I was asked to speak. Thankfully, that fear was quickly put to rest. My friend informed me that only people who are in recovery are allowed to share at such gatherings. Those who are not in recovery are welcome to attend as observers but must refrain from talking.
That rule alone added even more to the respect I had already felt for AA. What do I really have to say to people whose journey I am not sharing, whose stories I have not listened to, and to whom I have given no help. It made all the sense in the world to me that such a person should remain silent and listen.
It didn’t take long before I understood why my friend had such a deep appreciation for these people and how this group had become his “spiritual home.” To a person, they were brutally honest about how their lives had become unmanageable because of their addiction to alcohol. I heard one heartbreaking story after another. That type of honesty and generous sharing is hard to come by. But I heard something else as well.
I heard a profound humility that made me feel safe. Through their stories, they admitted that they were completely dependent on a Power greater than themselves to survive. This wasn’t a game. It was life or death. And that group, that program, was the only thing keeping them from slipping back into the darkness that could consume them on any given day.
As I reflected on that experience, I began to reminisce on why I became a Christian in the first place. I was a highly-anxious teenager who was worried about my grades, about getting into Stanford (which didn’t happen), about finding a girlfriend, and living up to my family’s expectations of me.
When I heard the words, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these thing shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33), it was like being offered a double dose of Prozac. A peace came over me that I couldn’t describe, but I knew I wanted to have it the rest of my life. When my coach invited me to trust Christ for everything, I couldn’t respond fast enough. I wanted in. I was desperate!
I think there is something missing when we forget how different life was before we knew Christ. If you were like me, you were desperate to escape some type of crisis, something that was derailing your life from peace and purpose. I know some people have more noble motivations than desperation, like wanting to make society a more just place, but I think personal need is a fine place to start, but more important than that, a great posture to maintain your whole life long.
I think that’s why AA is such a transformative community for so many people. The first step is to admit that one’s life has become unmanageable. There’s no pretense that one can take even a step on the journey of recovery without help from a Higher Power and the people who are walking alongside them. That’s the posture every time AA people meet, and what has made it so compelling. Come as you are, but also admit your total need.
Last month, I wrote about how fun it was as a child to jump on and off a merry-go-round with friends, each of us pushing in the same direction and taking turns riding on the whirling platform. Feeling the wind on our faces and the sheer joy of creating such momentum together was worth far more than any of the little pushes any one of us contributed to get it moving. I related this experience to the now-famous metaphor for organizational change, Jim Collin’s “flywheel effect,” and, of course, to the transformation we are seeking as a presbytery.
As I was writing that article, my colleague and friend, Forrest, shared with me that he had written a similar article several years ago, but he had taken it a bit farther. He had enumerated twelve elements that were necessary to get the flywheel whirling and to sustain the transformation a presbytery seeks. “Prayer” was number one, of course! But close behind it was a phrase I had never heard before.
He said, “We need to foster ‘ambitious humility.’” I like that a lot. By fostering ambitious humility we protect ourselves from thinking too highly of our own ideas and open ourselves up to the collective support and wisdom of our community.
The fact of the matter is that no one has a lock on how to be the “next church” right now. Our culture and society have changed so much it has become increasingly necessary to run disciplined experiments to see what connects with people and what doesn’t.
In such a context, we find ourselves dependent on the Holy Spirit to guide us and on the support of our brothers and sisters in Christ to have our backs as we step out in faith. As much as we’d like to project that we “have everything under control,” I think we’d be much better off to admit that church life has become unmanageable and we are completely dependent on God’s help to sustain us.
I guess that’s the feeling I had when I attended my friend’s AA group, a complete abandonment of pride and utter dependency on God, and on one another, to give them sobriety for that day. No one was more important than any other person in the room. They all had a story and every one of them believed that without God’s intervention and without each other they would certainly be lost.
As we journey to the cross this Lenten season, perhaps we could learn a thing or two from our sisters and brothers in AA. The ground is level at the foot of the cross and the only way we can approach it is on our knees.
“Ambitious humility”: I like it for the Church and I like it for me.
Photos by Erin Dunigan