Friday, April 7, 2017

Longing for a New Spirit

My sermon last Sunday is dedicated to all people who live with addiction, whether in recovery or still longing for a new spirit. Here is more-or-less what I shared along with the readings.
Love with Courage,

First Reading: from The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham

If we can accept the reality of our imperfection, the fact that we are put together funny, that we are, by our very nature, limited and thus do not have absolute control over our lives, we are taking the tentative steps that are all that we can take on the pilgrimage that is spirituality. Once we accept the common denominator of our own imperfection, once we begin to put into practice the belief that imperfection is the reality we have most in common with all other people, then the defenses that deceive us begin to fall away, and we can begin to see ourselves and others as we all really are. 

A spirituality of imperfection is always aware of the inevitability of suffering. As Simon Tugwell noted in his analysis of the Ways of Imperfection, ‘The first work of grace is simply to enable us to begin to understand what is wrong.’ And one of the first things that is ‘wrong’ is that we are not ‘in control;’ we do not have all the answers. The reality of that lack of control, the sheer truth of our powerlessness in the face of it, makes available the fundamental spiritual insight that insists on the necessity of kenosis, the ancient Greek word that signifies ‘emptying out.” Expressed in modern vocabulary, kenosis points to the need for ‘surrender,” or, in the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘hitting bottom.” In the process of kenosis… comes the realization that by ourselves, we are lost.

Second Reading: from The Inward Journey by Howard Thurman 
At times when the strain is heaviest upon us,
And our tired nerves cry out in many-tongued pain
Because the flow of love is choked far below the deep recesses of the heart,
We seek with cravings firm and hard
The strength to break the dam
That we may live again in love's warm stream.
We want more love; and more and more
Until at last, we are restored and made anew!
Or so it seems.
But when we are closer drawn to [the source of our love],
And in its radiance stand revealed,
The meaning of our need informs our minds.
“More love,” we cried; as if love could be weighted, measured, bundled, tied.
As if with perfect wisdom we could say—to one, a little love; to another, an added portion;
And on and on until all debts were paid
With no one left behind.
We can see the tragic blunder of our cry
Not for more love our hungry cravings seek
But more power to love.

For 25 years I’ve witnessed how friends, colleagues, and parishioners have struggled with the ravages of addiction. And for 25 years, I’ve witnessed how many friends, colleagues, and parishioners who are in recovery all share in a profound community of wisdom and support that characterizes the recovery movement. 

I believe the recovery movement has a lot to teach about spirituality. I am grateful for Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham of today’s reading for clarifying a lot for me. As they note, spirituality involves not just talking, not just reading or considering, not even just doing something: it involves actually experiencing life in a new way. Spirituality makes possible—makes one capable of—specific kinds of experience. Experiences of release, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, and deep peace, in a word, experiences of transformation.

This month we are exploring what it means to be a community of transformation. A few weeks ago when I began reflecting on transformation, I found it difficult. I was feeling stuck in the winter of the soul. Sleeping through the night hasn’t been easy to do consistently. During one of those sleepless nights I fretted about whether I’d have anything meaningful to say about transformation, and a voice said, “Pray. Pray for transformation.” And in that instant, my breathing deepened and I said, “Yes, that’s the first step towards transformation.” It is to be honest with where we are at, what we are struggling with, identify what we need to pay attention to, and let go, pray, surrender. Often, transformation is preceded by a journey through the dark night of the soul. It is a natural part of the human journey to feel lost or despairing, especially in this era. I’d say it is a necessary part of the journey.

This morning I’d like to focus on what we can learn from the profound transformation that addicts of all kinds have discovered through the recovery movement. 

Addiction is a pernicious reality of life. Between 10 and 25% of all Americans will suffer addiction depending on whose measuring. Addiction isn’t just with alcohol or drugs, it also emerges in gambling, sex, and pornography. And not only do addicts suffer but so do the families and close friends of those who compulsively engage in self-destructive behaviors, refuse to recognize their problem, and develop emotional dysfunction and lose interpersonal relationships. 

Addiction is literally a brain disease that is a function of how the brain is wired. Fortunately the brain is an extraordinary organ capable of new pathways being developed. And this requires relationships that invite real honesty, a community of transformation and often medical attention if not intervention. This morning I’d like to share the history and wisdom of the recovery movement as both an illustration and purveyor of transformation.

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by Bill Wilson and Robert Smith in 1935 or as they are referred to in AA circles, Bill W and Dr. Bob. It all began when Bill’s former drinking buddy Paul Ebey came to see him at his New York City home and Ebey refused the glass of whiskey Bill poured him and instead assured Bill that it’s possible to get off the bottle. And so Bill accompanied Ebey to the religious services of what was called the Oxford Group led by a Lutheran minister. There was a lot of praying and preaching and crying, and there was a clear message that to overcome alcohol addiction you need religion. But it was the informal gathering afterward that Bill found more helpful. Four or five of these ex-drunks headed to a diner to talk for hours. There he could see, they could share honestly. They could tell one another the most horrendous accounts of their drinking and then laugh unashamedly, recognizing they shared profound imperfection. This taste of community provided something they could not do alone: to stay sober.

I’m inclined to say that Alcoholics Anonymous truly began when Bill was on a business trip in Akron, Ohio when a business deal fell through. He was in the Mayflower Hotel with only ten dollars in his pocket. He paced back and forth in the hotel lobby past the door that led to the hotel’s bar. As he paced, he saw a glass-enclosed sign next to the pay phone. The sign was a local church directory with the names of churches and ministers and church times. Bill chose called one minister at random. Rev. Walter Tunks answered and Bill explained he was an alcoholic from New York City and to keep from drinking it was vital that he talk with another alcoholic. Rev. Tunks gave him then names and numbers. The first nine calls went nowhere, but on the tenth, a woman answered and promptly gave him instructions to the home of Dr. Robert Smith, a prominent Akron surgeon whose drinking had ruined his reputation. 

When Bill Wilson met the alcoholic doctor, he immediately explained that he was not there to help Smith but to help himself, that he needed someone who could understand his situation. He shared his story and described the obsession that had forced him to go on drinking. He shared his fears that his alcoholism was leading him to insanity or death.

It wasn’t long before Dr. Bob was speaking as frankly and unashamedly. When they parted late that night, they knew something had radically changed in them both. Bill was struck that when he shared of his own imperfection, he had no judgment of the other. This was so different than being in the religious group where he and he was sure others felt judged when being preached to. Instead this discovery of mutual sharing with compassion led them to accept one another and invite others into what they had discovered with one another.

Within a year, 100 alcoholics were in their ranks, from Ohio and New York. The following year Bill Wilson wrote a book about the principles of AA that first outlined the twelve steps of recovery. There’s a poignant passage in talking about the ninth step. The ninth step is to make amends to all those one has injured wherever possible, except where to do so would harm them or others. This passage is often referred to as the promises. It reads:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

To know this kind of transformation takes radical self honesty, and this kind of honesty is what is cultivated in the open sharing of stories among people who know the same demons. 

I appreciate how the American Psychological Association summarizes the twelve step program as a process that involves:
admitting that one cannot control one's alcoholism, addiction or compulsion;
recognizing a higher power or something beyond one’s own will that can give strength;
examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member);
making amends for these errors;
learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior;
helping others who suffer from the same alcoholism, addictions or compulsions.

Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham wrote what is a most important book. It is called The Spirituality of Imperfection. The subtitle is Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, but it is essentially a celebration of the profound wisdom of the recovery movement that is also expressed in ancient traditions. As they note: “To listen to members of Alcoholics Anonymous telling their stories is to hear described—but more importantly to witness and even perhaps to experience—three levels of the experience of release. First and most obviously comes release from the addiction itself, from the obsession with the chemical and its effects. Second comes release from what Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as the root of our troubles: self-centeredness. Lives centered wholly on the self begin to shift perspective and look outward, reaching out to the other people with genuine generosity. And third comes release from denial, from the fear and dishonesty of self-deception, from the dire realization that one does not even know who one is. Lives dominated by self-deception begin to discover the reality of a self that is real but limited, limited but real.”

It is important to note that alcoholics and addicts are not the only people who experience release, nor are they the only ones who need this experience. We are all susceptible to obsessions, self-centeredness, and self-deception. Opening up to release, surrendering to something larger than our own ego, each and everyone of us can experience transformation. But here’s the thing, such opening is catalyzed by connection and most frequently human connection. As adherents of AA have discovered, the telling of their own stories and listening to the stories of others is a potent way of opening up to the possibility of real transformation. 

Here’s another crazy thing: release begins to happen when we lay aside the idea that we can plan our own spirituality or transformation or plan for the spirituality or transformation of anyone else. Each of us has got to open up to it. I believe transformation begins when we recognize that we are in need of surrendering ourselves to something larger than our own will, larger than ourselves. I believe that I cannot will myself to transformation and neither can you. A rigorous self-help regimen can hone your skills of personal mastery but ultimately for us to know the experience of release, release from our craving selves, and the accompanying deep gratitude and humility and deep peace, for us to know these life-saving experiences, we must make way for what I’d call grace, amazing grace. 

No matter what we may identify as the source of grace, what is clear is that grace happens. And when we shift our attention and get real about our own imperfections and limitations, we increase the odds of grace happening. 

As we begin the month of April, if you’re not feeling connected to the source of transformation, know that you are not alone. It is natural to feel lost or despairing especially in this day of age. But also know there’s spiritual work you can do. Get real about your own struggles, your limitations, your imperfections and listen closely to others who have come to terms with theirs. After the service people if you or someone you love struggles with addiction, I encourage you to visit the table of our Mental Health Awareness Team where members here can share their experience of recovery with alcohol, drugs, and pornography. You’ll recognize them by their hats. They’re called MyHAT!

Every Sunday night at Gale House, Gale House is the green house next door to Unity Temple, there is a Quad A meeting, Quad A stands for Alcoholics Anonymous for Agnostics and Atheists. They, like many of us, don’t affirm a supernatural god, and yet they recognize the need for surrender for the sake of release and transformation. 

The wisdom of the recovery movement provides a spirituality that transcends theology. It is in the practice of honest storytelling that we come to accept the imperfections of both ourselves and others. As noted earlier, “If we can accept the reality of our imperfection, the fact that we are put together funny, that we are, by our very nature, limited and thus do not have absolute control over our lives, we are taking the tentative steps that are all that we can take on the pilgrimage that is spirituality. Once we accept the common denominator of our own imperfection, once we begin to put into practice the belief that imperfection is the reality we have most in common with all other people, then the defenses that deceive us begin to fall away, and we can begin to see ourselves and others as we all really are.”

May this congregation function as a community of transformation where our shared spirituality opens us up to experiences that allow us release from our base cravings and where we wake up to the reality that it is not more love our our hungry cravings seek but more power to love.

Blessed be. Amen.

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