“Recovery and Unitarian Universalism” by Mark W. Harris –

 October 28, 2012  – First Parish of Watertown

 Call to Worship – from Kalidasa

Look to this day:

For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of beauty.

For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today well-lived, makes
Every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;

Reading – from Ironweed by William Kennedy


Sermon –  “Recovery and Unitarian Universalism”


What is the relationship between recovery from addiction and Unitarian Universalism?  Recovery can be a complex topic, as addiction takes many forms, not only alcohol and drugs, but money, gambling, sex, eating, and maybe even love can consume people, as Robert Palmer once sang in “Addicted to Love.” We may start out enjoying something recreationally, but then we begin to feel the hold this habit has upon us, and can’t shake it, and in the end, it may control us. We must have it, we think, or else we cannot get through the day or even the hour.  Last Friday, Andrea and I saw the documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.”  It is not about the famed Marie Antoinette, who exemplified the luxury and extravagance of the court of Louis XVI. This new Queen is a contemporary consumer of all manner of clothes and furniture and ornamental baubles.  The queen is Jackie Siegel, who with her husband David made a fortune in the time-share industry. This is luxury living in resorts for a week every other year that David’s company sells to those who cannot afford them.  The real Versailles taught us that unchecked excess cannot last, but the Siegels didn’t understand that history lesson.  They thought their flow of cheap money would go on forever.  They wanted more and more.  This addiction played out through their plan to construct the largest house in America, a replica of the French palace. Then the economic crash came when the house was only partly constructed.  The business empire collapsed when people stopped paying for their condos. The Siegels had to fire their staff.   The family’s economic fall means they can only afford to shop at Wal-Mart, but their Christmas shopping is still an ode to excess, as several shopping carts keep filling.  She insists on buying multiple copies of board games so each child may have one, rather than purchasing just one for the family.  She is out of control with only her desires to live by.  We begin to see that this couple is the exemplar of a culture of addiction, where people are encouraged to want more, even if they cannot afford it.  Will the Siegels see that they are addicted, or deluded, or do they believe that tomorrow it will all be better?  The documentary ends with the addiction still raging, even though the money has dried up.

We see how an addiction can grip us and hold us slave to its desires.  But perhaps your family has its own story, or tale of addiction.  My own family stories are filled with many drunkalogs, and I readily admit that I have what might be called an addictive personality.  My own story of addiction is most present when I recall my twenty-five years of smoking cigarettes.  It started as something I learned from my father, which I perceived as a cool, and certainly manly thing to do.  Even baseball players advertized cigarettes in those days. Slowly I smoked more and more, and soon all the time.  While I smoked with the knowledge that it was bad for me, that was undergirded by the excuse that I would quit when I got older. I would do anything for a cigarette.  If I ran out, late at night, I would drive to the store to get some, even leaving my son alone. If money was tight, it didn’t matter; there was always money for cigarettes. I even remember lighting butts that were already smoked because the need was so intense, for one little hit of nicotine.  When I promised Andrea I would quit, I said it would happen as soon as we had children, implying that it was a bad example to smoke around them. However, my son Joel was 13 at the time I said that. I finally did quit after Levi was born.  But it took a few false starts, a few times of sneaking cigarettes, some lying to myself, but finally the habit was kicked. Then one day a few years later, I walked up Marshall Street and suddenly no longer huffed and puffed.  I noticed the terrible smell on the bodies and clothes of others for the first time. I thought to myself:  I once smelled like that.  I even tried a cigarette once.  It was the worst thing I ever tasted. I was free.

Addiction is probably something most of us can identify with, because even if we don’t have an addiction in our own history, we all know a family member or friends who cannot control his/her habit. At some point we made a choice.  I am going to do something about this.  It may have been a small step at first, and we may even have done some backsliding, but we got there with no more excuses, no more lying and no more covering up.  Some years ago when Levi was little, we visited Martin Luther King’s birthplace in Atlanta.  During that visit, Levi took his first steps walking by myself, right up the front stairs of the birthplace, perhaps just as MLK did.  Dr. King once said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”   Today I want to suggest that recovery in Unitarian Universalism is a journey of faith. How can we free a captive soul from its past, and from our tendency to go it alone in life? Perhaps we can see some of those first steps of freeing the soul in the novel Ironweed. Francis Phelan has returned home to Albany, New York in 1938. He has wandered from place to place shirking his family responsibilities and his violent past that includes the accidental killing of his son. The novel takes its title from the ironweed plant; a wildflower with a tough stem that is difficult to break. Francis wants to reconcile himself with his actions from the past.  In the reading we meet Oscar an old bar tender friend of Francis.’ Francis recognizes that this is a blood brother, who like him had promises that were unkept.  They have been drunk to the pain of their life, but now Francis returns to recognize the need to make amends, the need to see others as fellow travelers each carrying their own scars.

The first step of recovery in Unitarian Universalism has to do with discovering a faith where we are encouraged to define ourselves rather than be defined by others.  There is a story about a fool who went to see the rabbi, and said: “I know I am a fool, rabbi, but I don’t know what to do about it. Please advise me what to do.”  “Ah, my son, he said, if you know you’re a fool, then you surely are no fool.”  But the man was confounded by this, and asked the rabbi, “Then, why does everybody say I am a fool.” The rabbi pondered this and said, “If you yourself don’t understand that you’re a fool, but only listen to what people say, then you surely are a fool.”

Throughout our history, Unitarian Universalism has been the sanctuary for those who have been spiritually damaged by faiths that tried to define them.  Our ranks are populated by “recovering” Catholics and Protestants, all individuals who have tried to fit their experience of life and learning into the cup of salvation that these faiths imparted to them: believe this or do this, and you will please God.  Unfortunately, those attempts to define us have made us feel guilty or shameful about the beliefs or identity that we came to believe were true about our life and nature.  Recognizing that what others say as truth has damaged our ability to think, to love, to even see ourselves as worthy beings. But at least we have taken that first step of seeing it is false, and we left that religious faith, and found this one that says, come on, be a fool, but be your own fool.

But there must be more than a first step. Many years ago the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous were in correspondence with the great psychologist Carl Jung.  Although Jung rejected conventional religious expressions and beliefs, he believed there was an essential connection between recovery and spirituality.  He said that the craving for a drink was the equivalent of a spiritual thirst for wholeness.  Alcohol in Latin is “spiritus.”  So it means the most wonderful spiritual experience, a union with God, is also a substance that will poison your system and destroy you.  It is what we think will empower us to get through the day. It is that high.  It takes away the pain of life.  These are all the things we think alcohol will do for us. So how do we get in touch with that spirit? What UUism did for people initially was invite them to reject the authority of their old religions, and feel the power inherent in their own ability to search for faith. But the emphasis all too often was in the rejecting the old ways of God and Jesus by being angry or negative about the past.  So they could not reconcile to it, forgive anyone who was part of it, or especially see what was good in it.  They perhaps did not go back to the old faith, but they did not articulate any new one either.  They were sort of like dry drunks.  They had stopped drinking, but they were so hung up on the anger they felt at the dogma, the priest, the pope or whomever, they might just as well have remained Catholic.  Nothing had changed.

Alcoholics Anonymous discovered many years ago that the best way to achieve recovery was to throw out the old way of living, and follow a new way of life.  This was not easy for Unitarian Universalists because we tend to rationalize that we can control everything. I have seen with most of my relatives how hard it is to admit it when you feel bad.  They drank so they would not have to feel the pain of sorrow or loneliness or failure, but they could never acknowledge the pain. The method of achieving spiritual wholeness in AA, is through telling your story. What did your life used to be like, and what happened? In the context of addiction, like Francis, everything went wrong, you could not handle your responsibilities, or you suffered job loss, terrible anxiety, or family pressures and you started drinking.  It went out of control and spiraled downward.

Yet once we gain the courage to tell our stories we find that addiction is the great equalizer that UUs are not immune to.  All our education does not keep us from wanting that next drink.  The spiritual recovery begins when we truly leave the old faith or the addiction behind and resolve that we are no longer going to live in isolation.  This comes with telling our story.  When we are addicted to something. We try to reason our way out of it. We say I can keep it under control with just a few drinks. But trying to fight our addiction by ourselves is awfully isolating. So too our UU faith has promoted spiritual isolation because it has encouraged us to go it alone, or figure out faith for ourselves. We think we are strong, rational beings who can understand and overcome anything because we are such smart people. Recovery means we have an opportunity spiritually to reconnect with each other and the world.  Whether in recovery from addiction or in UUism you cannot do this alone.

What we especially learn when we share our stories is that we are imperfect beings. Spirituality is not another name for becoming a perfect person who is immune from making mistakes or is holier than thou. We should never imply that you can achieve perfection. Like recovery, we can never say I am now better.  Instead, we are always working on it, always struggling.  Instead, the AA understanding of recovery and the path to spiritual growth is not a road to perfection.  It is rather a way of life that accepts imperfection as imperfection. So no one is trying to prove to the other how much more they are doing to save the world, or how much greener they are than the next person. I am afraid that even here at First Parish we have sometimes appeared to be implying to you that you can always do more – give more money, reduce your carbon footprint, or change the world.  One thing that AA can teach us is that spiritual growth is not about constructing a mutual admiration society of how great we all are. The members know that what they share is common weakness, and it humbles them, but also makes them more understanding, more tolerant and more forgiving than most.  They know they do not have everything under control.  If I have it all, all talents, all gifts, all skills, then there is nothing I can learn from you.  But if each of us is flawed in some significant way then there is s an opportunity for us to learn from each other.  I may learn from your sense of humor, or your ability to listen, or your talent for organizing things, but none of us has all these abilities because, if we are honest we realize our common flawed nature.

If anything prevents a UU from embracing the AA path to spiritual recovery, it is the notion of giving yourself over to a higher power.  Many of us refuse to give any credence to the idea of there being any higher power. We react that this implies that you must give up your own power to some non existent God who is suppose to control everything, but in fact does not exist.  It puts many of us right back where we started from with the recovering Catholics and Protestants railing angrily at the past. But I think this is a misunderstanding. We forget that AA says give yourself over to God, as you understand him or her.  While some don’t want to think of God in any shape or form, the bottom line is simply the affirmation that it’s not me who is controlling everything. While all of us need to be responsible adults who use our skills, pay our bills and live lives with respect for others and the earth we walk upon, this understanding of God is that in our imperfections, we need others and cannot either go it alone, or live wholly unto ourselves always in control of everything, taking care of everything, and always being right and perfect.  UUs often do not handle the concept of being powerless very well, but a little awe, wonder, and reverence for our smallness in the vast ocean of creation and time might offer us some spiritual humility rather than an extra dose of hubris.

When Lynn asked me to preach on the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and recovery as experienced in AA, I was not quite sure what I would say. In some ways it is a difficult subject for me because alcohol is always on my mind due to the large number of alcoholics who are members of my family, and my own struggles with how much to drink or not drink based in my fears of being like those who have gone before me.  There is much to learn from a spiritual program that says slow down your yearning to do and be more all the time, and savor life’s beauty one day at a time.  Slow down your urge to get it all right and have it all before you die, but instead find eternity in the grain of sand, and the magic of this moment together.  I think part of our uncomfortable reaction to AA is that we are often stuck in an “I” religion, where we make everything self-referential.

When Lynn and I were talking, she defined God, or G – O – D as Group of Drunks.

UUs need to move from a religion that celebrates personal fulfillment and isolated religious journeying to celebrating a religion that sees God, not in a higher power out there, but as the inner power of the community that we give our hearts and souls to. Together we are a group of imperfect souls who when we find each other in community and share our common imperfections find a greater strength that is God, or the holy.  Together we can do much, but alone we are powerless to control anything. I know Lynn has found meaning in Joseph Campbell’s ideas of heroic myths.  Campbell drew on Carl Jung as well. Campbell discovered an archetypal journey, and would have us each find our story in the hero’s journey.  That may sound like a self-involved search, but in truth, we find ourselves and our spiritual path in telling our stories to each other. But it requires “each other.”  In the each other we see the pain of those journeys, and cry out from lonesome hearts to each other, hoping to find true intimacy that will take us home to a place where we are known and treasured. A couple of weeks ago we felt Margaret’s pain at being rejected by the fellowshipped committee.  Last week I spoke about the pain of letting go of those we love.  We each lose much during the journey because we are imperfect beings who make mistakes and ultimately die, but we create communities of compassion called churches where we tell our stories, and share the pain. Out of that pain we find meaning once again in a common strength we gain from the sharing. Perhaps we call that common strength G O D, or something like it. You are that community of recovery.  You are that fellowship of imperfection.  It is up to you to make G O D dwell in our midst.


Closing Words – from Miguel de Unamuno


Spiritual love is born of sorrow . . . For men and women love one another with a spiritual love only when they have suffered the same sorrow together, when through long days they have ploughed the stony ground buried beneath the common yoke of a common grief. It is then that they know one another and feel one another and feel with one another in their common anguish, and so thus they pity one another and love one another.  For to love is to pity; and if bodies are united by pleasure, souls are united by pain . . . To love with the spirit is to pity, and he who pities most loves most.