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12 Steps to Freedom....

2021 is the centenary of the birth of an organisation that became known as the ‘Oxford Group’ (later renamed ‘Moral Re-Armament’ and now ‘Initiatives of Change’ ) a name I suspect most of us may be unfamiliar with. It was established by a Lutheran -Frank Buchman -after he had a religious experience whilst attending a Keswick Convention in Cumbria and talking of that experience, he said:

I asked God to change me, and He told me to put things right (with people). It produced in me a vibrant feeling, as though a strong current of life had suddenly been poured into me and afterwards a dazed sense of a great spiritual shaking up

The Oxford Group’s aim was a ‘Christian revolution for remaking the world’ and for that to happen people had to change and the only way to start that is with yourself. Its motto was ‘When man listens, God speaks, ; when man obeys, God acts and when people change, nations change’. The Group had huge influence throughout the world but perhaps its single biggest contribution was in how it facilitated one of the most impactful life- saving fellowships in history – that of ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ (AA).

In the 1930s an alcoholic, Bill Wilson, attended a series of Oxford Group meetings  and when later in hospital he cried out “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let  Him show  Himself!”. He then had the sensation of a bright light, a feeling of ecstasy and a new serenity. Bill Wilson never drank again in the remaining 37 years of his life. With a fellow alcoholic , Bill Smith, they were able with the Oxford Group to keep 100 alcoholics ‘dry’. Realising that alcoholism was not a failure of will power or morals, but actually an illness, they set up what become ‘AA’. It has been an incredible success treating millions of people in its near 90 year history and have saved countless lives that would have been loss to the awful addiction that is alcohol.

One of the main reasons for its success was the ’12 Step’ programme that Bill Wilson and Bill Smith introduced just after WWII which is their group’s ‘bible’.  There are exactly 12 for a good reason- Bill Wilson in particular knew that God was crucial to the recovering addict and clearly saw the Christian analogy – there were 12 Disciples, it was at the age of 12 that Jesus was found talking to elders in the Temple, there are 12 legions of angels, the New Jerusalem will be built of 12 foundation stones and of course Jacob had 12 sons -the 12 tribes of Israel etc.

The 12 Steps, amongst other things, require the sufferer to admit :

  • they are powerless over alcohol;
  • that a power greater than themselves can restore them;
  • to turn their lives over to the care of God (as they understand Him);
  • admit to God, themselves and to one other person (their Sponsor) their faults and to atone for them;
  • to allow God to remove their shortcomings;
  • to seek through prayer to improve their relationship with God
  • to practice these principles and carry the message to other alcoholics

The 12 Steps have been such a success in healing peoples’ lives that other healthcare programmes now utilise it including organisations such as ‘Gamblers Anonymous’, ‘Narcotics Anonymous’ & Al Anon’ (for families and friends of alcoholics).

This is what can happen when a group of Christians  get together to ‘remake the world’- great things can happen!

Let's Hope!

As you read this I am hoping that we will either be looking forward to celebrating England winning the Euro 2020 Championships and our first competitive competition since 1966 or we will have already done it! I use the word ‘hoping’ as at the time of writing, we have yet to play Denmark in the Semi Final so this might be yet another footballing false dawn. One of the inspiring parts of the Euro 2020 coverage is that it has shown again that one of the few things that bring us as a nation together is representative sport – over 80% of people watching any TV recently have been watching the England games.

During the recent Euro 2020 Quarter Final against the Ukraine, BBC Host Gary Lineker was getting worried that England were doing too well, and he summed up his feelings by saying: “It’s the hope that kills you”. For those not familiar with this football saying, it really means that as a fan you can get very close to success – winning a league title, avoiding relegation or in this case winning a major tournament, but quite often you get ‘pipped at the post’ or lose in the final- and that hope of achieving something is the killer.

In a lot of ways this sums up the British (and especially the English) national character – if you ask say, an American or an Australian how they are feeling and the chances are they will say something like “I’m feeling good”, “Things are good” or just “Awesome!”. Ask a Brit that and you will get someone saying “Not too bad” or “Could be worse” . We might call it ‘British understatement’ but in truth I think we tend to expect the worst and frankly we are not good when things go really well- for that go across the Atlantic. We tend to be at our best in a crisis when our backs are against the wall – think of Dunkirk, or The Blitz, or 1970s Power Cuts or maybe even the Pandemic, which often saw us excel in helping out our friends or neighbours.

As Christians though we flip that attitude on its head- because it is the Hope that not kills us but rather the opposite – it inspires and drives us on in our faith -St Paul talks about Hope as something that “…does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). To me, that means the promise that God has made to us is because He loves and cares for us, and we sense that through the Holy Spirit which we carry within our souls. That Hope is certain – for instance we can never be sure England as a football team will win anything substantial – but we are assured of our salvation through Jesus’ promise:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement but has passed from death to life (John 5:24)

That promise is our rock and something we are assured about, and we want to others to hear that Good News so they too can know Jesus and his salvation- but a England Euro 2020 Championship win would also be ‘not bad’!

Get Used To Different!

One of the most effective and joyous examples of Christian Discipleship has been the outstanding Jesus mini- series The Chosen as it has clocked up close to 200m views (its aim is to reach 2 billion views and it will surely get there), and it is having a real impact in transforming peoples lives. It has a mantra or mission statement if you will, of Get Used To Different.

I think that is really useful at the moment because, in order to heal the world’s many and multiple divisions, society has to understand and respect people who are ‘different’ in one form or another- as difficult as that may be to do.

For so many mainstream Christians, the idea of embracing someone or something that is ‘other’ can be really difficult and history has shown that. In the past the Church and Christians have condemned  Rock ‘n’ Roll (“ sinful, deranged, demonic and ‘the devil’s music’”), in the 1960s the late great preacher Billy Graham campaigned against women wearing the mini skirt (for fear that it would tempt men too much), in the 1970s Christians formed the Festival of Light and with the likes of Mary Whitehouse attempted to ban things that ranged from episodes of Tom & Jerry & Dr Who (both too violent) to Chuck Berry’s song ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ (too naughty). In later decades, some Christians saw global diseases such as HIV AIDs as some kind of wrath that God had inflicted the world with, and then in the 1990s churches tried to ban and burn the Harry Potter series of books, despite the clear Christian influence in them.

The strange thing is that in the Gospels, Jesus was always ‘doing different’. He rarely went for the safe and trusted ‘traditional’ route. Look at the disciples He chose – a tax collector who was someone the local community would have hated as Matthew was demanding taxes on behalf of the Roman Empire who were despised as an occupying force. Fishermen who were people of the sea, rough and ready characters who were unlikely to be amongst the most learned of individuals. Jesus spent his time with prostitutes, Samaritans (also despised), lepers, people like Mary Magdalene who had severe mental health issues, paralytics -the list goes on.

Jesus was drawn to those in society who were forsaken, marginalised and who through their lives had stumbled and fallen. For those who were broken, Jesus loved, and He redeemed them.

If our faith and our church is to recover itself to allow us to help heal the world we need to embrace those people in our society who are ‘other’, who are ‘different’ to us in some way or another. That may be people not just of a different race, gender, sexuality, or (dis)ability. It could be someone who is adopted, bereaved, lonely, isolated, broke, or scared. As we look around our world in 2021, we should ask ourselves who are the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers, the paralytics of our time?

Jesus ‘did different’. So should we!

"I am His-I am redeemed"

Coming out of Easter, I think it is an apt time to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ ultimate Victory on the cross and how people responded to the Sacrifice he made for all. It’s always struck me that the crucifixion scene is a tale of great doubt but also of amazing faith.

The male disciples were, nowhere to be seen. Their ‘rock’ (Peter) denied knowing Jesus 3 times rather than admit having ever known Him. The only disciple who may have been at the cross was “the disciple beloved by Jesus” (John 20:2) who is never identified but could have been John the Evangelist. What the Gospels do tell us though is that there were “many women” (Matthew 27:55-56) following  and supporting him through his mission and who were there right at the very end. In fact, there could have been as many as 5 Marys present at the cross (Jesus’ mother, the mother of James and Joseph, the mother of Zebedee’s sons, Mary of Clopas and Mary Magdalene). And of course, the resurrected Jesus was first seen by 3 women (Joanna, Mary-the mother of James and Mary Magdalene), and they were also the ones to tell the disciples the Good News even though they again doubted.

It’s Mary Magdalene though I would like to focus on, as I think she is an incredible example of how Jesus transforms peoples’ lives if they just let Him. This especially hit home with the excellent and first ever multi season show about Jesus- The Chosen- which started its 2nd series over Easter and it is free to watch-so binge on Jesus!

As you can see from the video above or here: Mary Magdalene explains what Jesus did for her to Nicodemus the Pharisee - Bing video, this is the scene where Nicodemus the Pharisee sees Mary after he tried to heal her from her affliction (7 demons had been got out) , and then meets her a few days later delighted but surprised to see her fully restored and ‘born again’.

When Mary talks about what has happened to her she simply states:

It was someone else (who cured her), He (Jesus) said ‘I am his-I am redeemed’”.

When Nicodemus asks who it was who healed her, she tells him:

“I don’t know his name but even if I did, I would not tell you…the time for Man to know has not yet come”.

Mary explains: “ I was one way and now I am completely different, and the thing that happened in between was Him, so yes, I will know Him for the rest of my life”.

For Mary she went from someone with little or no quality of life, possessed by demons, who needed to be exorcised, and became a new person. It has been a common but almost certainly false myth that Mary had been a prostitute but there is no evidence of that in the Gospels, and that instead she had what we would now call serious mental health problems.

Mary became a senior confidante and follower of Jesus and was hugely instrumental in the really big moments of human history- at the crucifixion, the burial and finally the Resurrection.

I am reminded of the kind of emotions she must have experienced, when she was redeemed, by the song I Don’t Know How To Love Him from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) where Mary sings:

“ I don’t know how to love him, what to do, how to move  him. I’ve been changed, yes really changed. In these past few days, when I’ve seen myself, I seem like someone else”.

Those of us fortunate to have experienced the Lord will know how she felt, because we are transformed. Like Mary, we were once “one way” but now we are “completely different”. Say Amen to that!