On Tuesday night of Holy Week, I sat under fluorescent lights at a plastic folding table and gripped a styrofoam cup of bad coffee. Around the room sat men from all walks of life. Respectable businessmen, craftsmen and laborers, men living in a residential rehab or halfway house, and me: a young clergyman who looks like he has it all together.

At that meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, I received a small metal chip (“heavy metal” as we call it in the program) signifying five years of continuous sobriety.

I’ve written about my recovery before in the Food and Drink Issue of The Mockingbird. In that piece, I wrote about the gritty journey that led to me taking my last drink in the middle of my first year of seminary in 2013. What I have learned in five years of meetings and conversations with other alcoholics can be condensed into two statements that apply to everyone, not just alcoholics:

  1. All is grace.
  2. You can get off the elevator at any time.
All is grace.

When I received my five-year chip, I told the gathered group that my sobriety is a miracle. I mean a real miracle. When I got sober I could not imagine going one day without a drink, let alone five years. I could not imagine a life without alcohol, which had become my god. I oriented my life around it and offered everything at its altar. I was willing to sacrifice friends, family, and personal wellbeing for the chance to worship the debilitating deity. Worship in the seminary chapel was flat as I longed for one day in the inebriating inner courts of my lord.

Five-years ago I was given a miraculous chance to change. I saw that I was caught in the grips of sin and that I could not save myself. I was bound by a power greater than myself and could finally see my predicament. In the language of the program, I could admit that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable.

This realization was not surprising once it entered my consciousness. In fact, it hit me like Gospel. Fleming Rutledge says of this phenomenon, “Properly understood, the knowledge of one’s sinful condition comes as good, even joyful knowledge.” (Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, pg. 173)

This knowledge could only come through grace. Left to my own devices, I would still be drinking (and most likely drunk). There were many mornings in those last days when I woke up and said to myself in the mirror, “You are an alcoholic.”, but as the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “Self-knowledge availed us nothing.”

On that day, five-years ago, grace broke through the haze. God did for me what I could not do for myself.

Which led to the second realization.

You can get off the elevator at any time.

There is a myth that you have to hit rock-bottom to get sober. This myth says that you have to lose everything before you are broken enough to reach out for help. While this is true for some, it doesn’t have to be. You do not have to ride the elevator all the way down, you can get off at any floor.

We are all broken.

We all hit our personal rock bottoms at different times and places. For some, it is in a jail cell and for others, it is in a seminary dorm room. For some, rock bottom comes with a diagnosis or a death and for others, it comes in the drive-thru line or sitting in a coffee shop. The point is not where the realization of your powerlessness comes but that it comes.

Just like all is grace, God is always ready to welcome the prodigal (that’s you) home. You don’t have to sleep in the pigpen tonight–but you will until you realize that you can’t save yourself. Until you accept that your best thinking has gotten you to a place of despair, destruction, and hopelessness. Easier said than done, I know.

In the program, we say that everyone’s rock bottom is at a different height. This is true of life in general. The Buddhists get it partially right when they proclaim that life is suffering. What they fail to realize is that One has suffered on our behalf.

The calendar lined up beautifully this year and put my sobriety anniversary in the middle of Holy Week. As the Church remembers the rock-bottom path of Jesus to the cross, I remembered my own moment of dereliction. I remembered the hopelessness I felt and the sweetness of the grace I found in a church basement five years ago. I remembered the sin that entangled me and the powerlessness I felt.

The secret I found in those meetings is no secret at all: all is grace and you can step off the elevator at any moment. I look back on five years of sobriety strung together one day at a time living in this truth, which is the same pattern that Christ calls us to in the Christian life.

The power of Alcoholics Anonymous is that no one sitting around those tables has time for the superficial. Much like the Church, each person in recovery knows that their life has been saved through a strength that is not their own. In the “B.S. free zone” of an AA meeting, each person is there to stay sober (and alive) for one more day.

The truth of Holy Week (and AA) is this: We cannot save ourselves and we don’t have to. That work has already been done. Salvation is found only in whole-hearted surrender.

So pull up a chair, pour a cup of bad coffee, and join the club. The elevator doors are open.