by Dale and Juanita Ryan
Welcome to Spiritual Kindergarten!
It was Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, who first referred to the Twelve Steps as a “spiritual kindergarten.” He was emphasizing that the Twelve Steps were designed to help us learn–and put into practice–the most basic spiritual truths. Spiritual Kindergarten is about the fundamentals of the spiritual life. It is first lessons. First steps. It is a back-to-basics, entry-level introduction to spiritual disciplines that unfortunately can be easily forgotten when we move on to more “advanced” concerns.
We know what it is like to forget the basics. It happens easily enough. It is all too easy to get excited about some new idea or trend and then find that we have lost touch with the most basic of things. But Christian spirituality has always placed a high value on the basics. Thomas Merton, in his book Contemplative Prayer, summarizes this well:
One cannot begin to face the real difficulties of the life of prayer and meditation unless one is first perfectly content to be a beginner and really experience himself as one who knows little or nothing, and has a desperate need to learn the bare rudiments….We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!
Jesus made the same point when he talked about the importance of being like children:
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14).
Jesus consistently honored and respected the simplest and most basic expressions of trust.
It is in this spirit that we invite you to enroll in Spiritual Kindergarten. Because it is for beginners, you don’t have to worry about whether or not you are good enough, or smart enough, or ready enough to enroll. Whether you are an old-timer with the Twelve Steps or you have never seen them before–whether you have been a Christian for years or you are just starting to search for a meaningful spirituality–we believe that Spiritual Kindergarten can be helpful to you.
The Twelve Steps are best known, of course, as a collection of spiritual disciplines that have been helpful to people recovering from addictions. Whether the addiction is to alcohol, drugs, work, food, sex, “fixing” other people, or to anything else, the Twelve Steps offer the building blocks for a saner, freer, more grace-full way of life. If you struggle with one or more of these addictions, the Twelve Steps offer a spiritual path to the hope of freedom from addiction’s destructive trap.
You do not, however, need to be an addict to benefit from the Twelve Steps. The simple spiritual wisdom of the Twelve Steps can be helpful even if you do not struggle with an obvious addiction. We are all caught in fears, in defenses, and in patterns of behavior that are hurtful to ourselves and to others. These things often play a role in our lives that are very much like addictions. For example, we do the same things over and over again, expecting different results. We often find that we do things that we really don’t want to do–even things we have promised not to do. The Apostle Paul, one of the leaders of the early Christian community, talked about this dynamic when he said: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). Whether you have an obvious addiction or, like the Apostle Paul, you struggle with the gap between your intentions and your actual behavior, the Twelve Steps offer the building blocks for a life-changing spiritual awakening.
As you anticipate using this book and working the Twelve Steps, it may be helpful to think about the Steps in four stages.
- Stage one: peace with God. The first three Steps are focused on laying the foundation for peace in our relationship with God. We begin with the recognition that something has gone very wrong in our lives. Things are not as they should be. We need God’s help. In this stage of the journey we admit our need for God, acknowledge God’s power to help us, and make the decision to turn our lives over to God’s care.
- Stage two: peace with ourselves. The next four of the Twelve Steps focus on laying the foundation for peace with ourselves. We inventory our lives. We take responsibility for our behavior. We come to the end of resentments, blame, avoidance, minimizing, and other self-protective strategies. We learn and put into practice new levels of honesty.
Stage three: peace with others. In Steps Eight, Nine, and Ten we turn our attention to doing the things that will make it possible for us to experience greater peace in our relationships with other people. Here we learn to practice the spiritual discipline of making amends for the harm we have done and find in this process the foundation for peaceful relationships.
- Stage four: keeping the peace. Finally, in the last two Steps, we focus on actions that will allow us to maintain the peace that we have begun to experience as a result of our work in the earlier stages. We seek God’s guidance and surrender to God’s loving will. We learn to practice the honesty, humility, love, and trust that we have been cultivating every day, in all that we do. And we share the hope of a spiritual awakening with others.
We are convinced that the Bible can be a significant resource for understanding and working the Twelve Steps. We know that if you have experienced any form of spiritual abuse or have had the Bible used against you, you may find it difficult to imagine that the Bible could be helpful reading in Spiritual Kindergarten. However, the Twelve Steps have deep roots in Scripture. We encourage you to approach these texts with an open heart. It is our prayer that you will experience in these texts a surprisingly grace-full God.
It is important to emphasize that there is nothing magical about the Twelve Steps. They do not lead to a quick transformation that makes everything better. The Twelve Steps are not even a cure for alcoholism–or for anything else. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous makes a much more modest claim for the Twelve Steps: “We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.” The Steps are tools for maintaining a healthy spiritual condition. Collectively they represent a path–a style of life–that can make it possible for us to receive from God the healing, the wisdom, and the grace we seek.
It is also important to know that the Twelve Steps are not the Twelve Concepts. They are not the Twelve Ideas or the Twelve Truths. They are twelve steps to take, twelve disciplines to practice, twelve activities to do. The focus is on action, not on ideas. You do the steps. If you merely believe the ideas that are found in the Twelve Steps, you cannot expect the desired results. As you work on each of the Twelve Steps in this workbook, we encourage you to focus on action. Ask yourself, How can I do this today? We have included a section at the end of each chapter to help you start finding ways to do that Step. As you put each step into action, your faith in God’s loving assistance will grow stronger.
We want to encourage you, if at all possible, to use this book as a member of a group. It is the action orientation of the Twelve Steps that makes group participation so helpful. Step One begins with the word “we” for a reason. We can learn about the Steps by ourselves. But the strength and staying power needed for real change is much easier to acquire when we have group support. We encourage you to do whatever you need to do to find a community of people who can share the experience of Spiritual Kindergarten with you.
Our prayer is that you will find in Spiritual Kindergarten a grace-full path to travel and that, along the way, you will grow deep and satisfying relationships–with God, with yourself, and with others.
May you come to know yourself to be God’s dearly loved child.
May your roots sink deeply into the rich soil of God’s love.