by Dale Ryan
With a brief prayer of gratitude for Bill (which is not his real name,) who chose a doorknob as his Higher Power and got a thirty-day chip at the first AA meeting I attended in the winter of 1983 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In 1983, I was in seminary studying to become a pastor. Ministry was a second career for me. Prior to going to seminary, I had earned my PhD in biochemistry and taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It became clear fairly early in that career, however, that it was not going to be my final destination. I was called to ministry, so I went to seminary. When I started seminary I had done no work on any of my “issues.” (Issues? Not sure what you’re talking about.) I was just a good Christian, committed, faithful, doing the right things—“No problem here.” I was going to learn how to be helpful to all the other people who so desperately needed assistance with their issues.
The first AA group I attended was to fulfill the requirements for a class in pastoral care. I went because I wanted to get a good grade in the class. I remember a bit about that semester. I had just completed a lengthy paper on the Christology of Maximus the Confessor. Maximus was a theologian and monk who was tried as a heretic in 658 because he refused to accept the monothelite views which were favored by the emperor at that time in Constantinople. My paper was very thoughtful. Full of serious, multi-syllabic words in several languages. Deep. I remember thinking that I was really into advanced Christian stuff. Now that I think about it, actually, the “advanced Christian stuff ” was exactly what I was hoping to acquire in seminary. I wasn’t all that interested in the introductory Christian stuff.
So, as you may have guessed by now, I arrived at my first AA meeting with a fairly significant deficit in the spiritual humility department. I don’t think spiritual humility was much of a priority for me at the time. I wanted to know all the right answers to all the right questions. I wanted to be smart enough, competent enough, gifted enough, and whatever enough to be a really good pastor. That’s not the kind of goal that a person with even a modicum of spiritual humility is likely to pursue.
I arrived at my first AA meeting early and with a bad attitude. I didn’t know how this could possibly be helpful to me in my goal of becoming an advanced Christian. The meeting was in the basement of a downtown building that had seen better days. There were cheap folding chairs in a circle and coffee brewing on a folding table off to the side. I sat down on one of the chairs. It became obvious to me (almost immediately) that this was not going to be a meeting for Betty Ford graduates. It was a street drunk meeting: pretty hard-core, down-and-almost-out alkies, and lots of homeless folks.
Because I arrived early, I had some time to think (and be anxious) before the meeting started. I remember distracting myself by mentally reviewing my arguments about monothelite Christology in the paper about Maximus. I remember feeling good about the work I had done, and I remember thinking (even as I write this thirty years later, it’s still embarrassing!): I went to seminary to learn about God. And I’m pretty sure that I already know more about God than anybody who is going to show up in this room. So what am I doing here?
The only thing I remember about the meeting is a guy who I will call Bill. Bill got a thirty-day chip that night. He was pretty scruffy looking. The streets had taken their toll. But he had been sober for thirty days. When he came forward to pick up his thirty-day chip, he was given the opportunity to speak for two minutes.
I don’t remember exactly what Bill said. He was not an accomplished public speaker. He wasn’t very clear. But he said something like: My best thinking stole the last thirty years of my life. Can’t say I understand it, but seems like something’s changed. I couldn’t figure out what to choose as my Higher Power, so I chose a doorknob. And I’ve been sober now for thirty days. Go figure. I’m a grateful drunk.
There was actually more information in Bill’s body language and non-verbal cues than in his words. It was obvious that this was a man who had experienced something. He might not have known the word “grace,” but that’s what I saw. I saw a man who had experienced grace for the first time in his life.
He was radiant with it. Overflowing with it. Hopeful. Eager for more.
Before going on, I should probably say a word about the “doorknob” part of the story. If you are in AA or any other twelve-step fellowship, you probably already get this. But it’s pretty confusing to other people. It just sounds completely crazy. So let me be clear: nobody, absolutely nobody, really thinks that a doorknob is a very good choice for a Higher Power. It’s a kind of an inside joke. It’s what you say when you are completely clueless and know that you are completely clueless. Roughly translated it means: I haven’t got the slightest idea who or what might be available to help me, but I’ve completely come to the end of self-reliance. I can’t do this. So if there is a Higher Power who is willing to restore me to sanity, I’m available to be helped. I know that may not sound like a whole lot of faith to some people. But it was enough faith to turn Bill’s life upside down. It was his mustard seed of faith. The smallest amount imaginable.
Thankfully, God was paying attention and didn’t insist that Bill produce a larger quantity of faith before coming close and doing what needed to be done.
It was obvious to me that Bill had experienced something remarkable. He had not been able to string together more than a couple of days of sobriety in thirty years, but that day he was thirty days sober. And he knew—with absolutely certainty—that he was not the one who had made that happen. His sobriety was something he had received, not something he had accomplished. He had experienced grace. Raw, undeniable, miraculous, knock-your-socks-off, unbelievable grace. He didn’t have many words for it yet. But he had the thing to which those words refer. He was at the beginning of a spiritual awakening, and it obviously felt good.
I don’t think I paid any attention after Bill sat down. I don’t remember anything else about that meeting. I do remember sitting there with a very strange emerging awareness. It first arose as a question: How can it be that Bill, who knows absolutely nothing about God, can be having such a powerful and grace-full experience of God while I, a person definitely into the advanced Christian kind of stuff, am so completely miserable?
You see, at that time in my life I had precious little experience with grace of the kind Bill was experiencing. I knew, of course, all about grace. I had all the words that Bill didn’t yet know. Big multi-syllabic words. I knew the subtleties, the complexities, the nuances, the disputes. I could have written a very nice advanced Christian essay about the fine points of the Doctrine of Grace. But there was nothing in my life to compare with the experience that Bill was living.
Looking back, it is quite clear to me that there was a dissonance, a gap, between the God of my formal theology—the God which appeared in my “statement of faith”—and the god who I actually lived with—the god who I woke up to in the morning, the god who shaped my daily life. It is possible to have a thoroughly orthodox formal theology, the kind that would get you an “A” on a theology exam in seminary or Bible school, and yet actually worship and serve a very different kind of deity. It is possible to get grace right in theory and still be driven relentlessly by the need to get everything right because the god we actually worship and serve is very different from the deity of our formal convictions.
From an early age I have had the kinds of ideas about God that most Christians would find perfectly acceptable. But the deity I actually served for most of my life, my actual Higher Power, was what I call the god-of-impossible-expectations. This god is the kind of stern-faced, unapproachable deity who has little to say beyond: You should try harder, or, That’s not good enough. This impossible-to-please deity was an idol that I had crafted for myself primarily out of my experiences in childhood.
The god-of-impossible-expectations, it turns out, is a worse choice for a Higher Power than a doorknob. Much worse. Firstly, a doorknob doesn’t constantly yell at you, nor does it spend all day writing down every mistake you make, every impure thought, every shortcoming. And secondly, a doorknob has the distinct advantage of not being “me.” It is at least outside of me. Other than me. But the god-of-impossible- expectations, like many other gods who are not God, was entirely a psychological construct created by me, owned by me, and in residence deep within me. Its main job appears to have been the distribution of shame and fear. And it seemed to have an infinite supply of shame and fear to distribute. It was the voice which drove my relentless quest to get everything right, to have all the right answers to all the right questions, to be without fault. This deity did not distribute grace. It was too busy reminding me of how undeserving I was to receive any of it.
Sitting in that room, mid-winter in Minneapolis, as Bill’s words rattled around in my obsessional brain, something became clear. I awoke to something. It was the first of a series of moments-of-clarity that changed my life. Moments of clarity are almost always difficult to explain. I can’t fully explain this one. The best I can do is to say that I “heard” something like this: If you are not able to somehow find the spiritual humility to learn from Bill, you will be doomed to a life of trying—trying harder and trying your hardest to please an impossible-to-please god. All I can say is that the plain, simple truth was that a guy who had chosen a doorknob as his Higher Power had something that I knew I needed. Desperately needed. It was something about spiritual humility, something about the futility of self-reliance, something about letting God be God.
My idolatrous attachment to the god-of-impossible-expectations was not miraculously removed that day. It took a long time to throw that bum out, to clean house. But it probably also took quite a while for Bill’s sobriety to become stable. We both needed a one-day-at-a-time experience of grace. And that, thankfully, is exactly what was available to both of us when we got out of the way.
Thank You for Bill.
Thank You for sending him to that meeting.
Thank You for having him say what I needed to hear.
Thank You for helping Bill stay sober
when he didn’t know anything about You.
When he was blind,
You led him down unfamiliar paths.
Thank You for helping me
when I thought I knew everything about You.
When I was blind,
You led me down unfamiliar paths.
Both of us, in our blindness, needed You desperately.
And there You were.
You woke us up.
I am still one-day-at-a-time grateful.