With millions set free from the ravages of uncontrollable drinking, who among us cannot be thankful for the gift of Alcoholics Anonymous? Many of us have friends, family, and co-workers who are alive and well today because of the miracle of the 12 Steps. Over the years, I have had the privilege of doing a number of ‘5th Steps’ with people in recovery. I have always come away from those experiences with a deepened sense of gratitude for the amazing gift of life.
One of the perhaps unexpected spin-offs of AA has been the dozens of recovery groups who apply the 12 Steps to all kinds of addictions and challenges, including overeating, narcotics, sexual brokenness, emotional dysfunctions, and gambling dependencies. One of the fastest-growing spin-offs is the ACOA movement for Adult Children of Alcoholics. There is even a specifically Christ-centered expression based on the beatitudes called ‘Celebrate Recovery’ that over 400,000 have already participated in.
Where did these amazing 12 Steps come from, in the first place? They were written by Bill W who had been mentored towards a life-changing faith by the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker. Dr. Sam, as he was known affectionately in AA circles, had a profound impact on the spiritual awakening of Bill W.
As Bill W tells it in ‘AA Comes of Age’, he went with his friend Ebby to Dr. Sam’s Calvary Church Mission. “There were some hymns and prayers. Then Tex, the leader, exhorted us. Only Jesus could save, he said. Somehow this statement did not jar me. Certain men got up and gave testimonials. Numb as I was, I felt interest and excitement rising. Then came the call. Some men were starting forward to the rail. Unaccountably impelled, I started too…I knelt among the shaking penitents. Maybe then and there, for the first time, I was penitent too. Something touched me. I guess it was more than that. I was hit. I felt a wild impulse to talk. Jumping to my feet, I began…Ebby, who at first had been embarrassed to death, told me with relief that I had done all right and had ‘given my life to God.’”
Bill W said that ‘It was from Sam that co-founder Dr. Bob and I in the beginning absorbed most of the principles that were afterwards embodied in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, steps that express the heart of AA’s way of life.’ Bill W went on to say that Dr. Sam ‘gave us the concrete knowledge of about what we could do about (alcoholism)’ and that Dr. Sam ‘passed on the spiritual keys by which we were liberated’. Dr Sam, according to Bill W, ‘has been the connecting link’. Dr Sam even hosted the first AA meetings in his Calvary Episcopal (Anglican) Church Hall in New York.
Even though Dr. Sam was not an alcoholic, he had unusual insights into the human condition that drew alcoholics to him. Reminiscing about the first time that he met Dr. Sam, Bill W said: ‘I can still see him standing there before the lectern. His utter honesty, his tremendous forthrightness, struck me deep. I shall never forget it.’ According to Bill W, Dr. Sam ‘always called a spade a spade, and his blazing eagerness, earnestness, and crystal clarity drove home his message point by point…Here was a man quite as willing to talk about his own sins as about anybody else’s.’
The author of twenty-eight books, Dr. Sam was named as one of the ten greatest preachers in North America. He challenged all of the backward failings of humanity with fierceness, wit and relevancy. But Dr. Sam was never pessimistic or despairing.
Upon Dr. Sam’s death, the late Billy Graham said: ‘Words cannot express adequately the sense of personal loss I have felt at the home-coming of our beloved Sam. What a blessing it has been for me to talk and especially pray with this giant among men. I doubt that any man in our generation has made a greater impact for God on the Christian world than did Sam Shoemaker’.
Many 12 Step groups around the world pray both the Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s prayer. Both prayers are about ‘letting Go and letting God’. According to Bill W, breakthroughs happen when “…we can surrender and truly feel, ‘Thy will, not mine, be done’”. It is so hard to let go. Yet as we work the twelve steps, as we admit our powerlessness, as we turn our lives and will over to the care of God, as we seek only for the knowledge of God’s will, then miracles can happen.
As Dr. Sam said to the 20th Anniversary AA Convention, “Prayer is not trying to get God to change His will. It is trying to find out what His will is, to align ourselves or realign ourselves with His purpose for the world and for us. When we let willfulness cool out of us, God can get His will across to us as far as we need to see ahead of us. Dante said, ‘In His will is our peace’.”
Dr. Sam concluded his address to the 20th Anniversary AA Convention by saying: “I thank God that the church has so widely associated itself with AA, because I think AA people need the church for personal stabilization and growth, but also because I think that the church needs AA as a continuous spur to greater aliveness and expectation and power.” “Perhaps the time has come”, said Dr. Sam, “for the church to be reawakened and revitalized by the insights and practices found in AA.”
My prayer for those reading this article is that as with Bill W and Dr. Sam, God may make each of us a channel of his peace, his serenity and his sobriety.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the North Shore News/Deep Cove Crier
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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