In the movie Napoleon Dynamite, Uncle Rico is trying to recruit Kip into his plastic housewares distribution business. When he asks Kip what he is doing that afternoon and Kip replies “Nuthin’”, Uncle Rico imparts this bit of wisdom: “Well, you might as well do something while you’re doing nothing.” Over the past month or so I have found myself taking Uncle Rico’s advice. My work schedule changed so I often have a couple of hours open during the middle of the day, and when a co-worker needed a ride to his AA meeting (his license has been revoked), I decided to commit to driving him back and forth to his 12 step meeting. It turns out, there are more than a few people at these meetings who need rides, so lately I’ve been doing taxi duty. And it has been good for me.
Besides the songs, the one lesson I remember well from my Primary teachers is the one about the 4 R steps of repentance. That lesson has served me well over the years, even though I am still not very good at repenting. Usually my efforts go like this: I take the first step (Recognize) and acknowledge that I need to make a change in my life. I start to explore ways I can change and in that process I realize that the problem goes far deeper than I had first assumed, and that it will be much harder to change than I thought. At this point I take my own personal R step — Rationalize — and decide that the character attribute I started out to change really is a feature, not a bug, and go merrily on with my mediocre efforts at gospel living.
As I sit in the back of the room at the AA meeting, back by the folding table with the big coffee urn, and observe the people who are there for help, I have been impressed, over and over again, by the way they don’t allow themselves any rationalization. They stand up in front of everybody and acknowledge that they are a complete mess, at rock bottom and there are no excuses. This sense of brokenness, of being thoroughly fallen, is a useful insight for me and maybe it also is for other latter-day saints. We don’t like to think of ourselves as gross sinners; we are people who make unwise choices, or who have “imperfections”. Maybe that is why it is so easy for me to rationalize. Maybe I’m really like a drunk who likes to pretend that he is just a social drinker. There is some support in our tradition for this idea of complete fallenness. When Nephi says “Oh, wretched man that I am”, we recognize his awareness of his own mortality.
Another thing I have learned is that it is helpful to think of repentance as a continual process rather than a one-time event. Alcoholics don’t go to one meeting and think they are done. They realize that they are alcoholics and will be until the day they die, and that therefore they need to attend meetings regularly. As my friend put it, “I need to work the steps or die”. I’ve found that in my own lame efforts at repentance, I need to admit that I want it to be short and quick and painless. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that I am a sinner, a fallen man in a fallen world, and there is very little I can do on my own to change that. Maybe repentance will work better if I realize that I am dependent on the grace of God, I will be until the day I die, and I need to continually work the steps or inherit spiritual death.
Something which is very refreshing to me and which comes through quite clearly in AA is the idea that God will help these people in their troubles. The simple fact is that many of the people in the meeting have ruined everything about their lives that was every good or innocent or decent. They have wrecked every single one of their relationships with family or friends, they have wrecked their careers, they have done severe damage to the people around them. And yet they have confidence that God will help them. When we read in the Book of Mormon that God will bear with his people in their infirmities, when the angel asks Nephi if he knows the condescension of God, or when the Doctrine and Covenants teaches that the Son of Man has descended below everything, this must be what those scriptures mean. As Mormons, we are very familiar with a God who cannot look upon sin with any degree of allowance, or who will allow no unclean thing into his presence. But that isn’t the whole story. Perhaps it would be good for us to also contemplate this other divine characteristic, a God who is willing to descend with us to our lowest depths and get right down there in the sewer with us, if necessary, to help us with our problems, no matter how awful they are.
The other day as I was driving back to work from the meeting, my friend was fiddling with the AM dial on the car radio. He settled on a country song I had never heard before, and I thought I had heard them all. It was an oldie by Lacy J. Dalton, and her hard-edged voice sang these words, backed up by a honky-tonk piano:
“Well, I’m hell-bent on good times and I’m hard bound for glory.
I try to do right but in all the wrong ways.
I’m a high-rolling rambler, the worst kind of gambler,
I’m a beer-drinking Christian, but the good Lord loves strays.”