Nick at Night
By Fr. Bill Wigmore
(This sermon was delivered to a group recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.)
Once again, welcome.
The Big Book says that those of us who’ve had a lot of religious training, often have a harder time with this Program than those who’ve had none at all. And I can certainly relate to that.
I remember when I was about seven I had a religion teacher try to explain to our class who God the Father was and what he was like.
And this very kind & loving woman didn’t know that I came from an alcoholic home.
- She didn’t know that my Dad was both a bad alcoholic and a violent rager.
- Didn’t know that when my Old Man got drunk, he’d often as not beat the hell out of me or wash my mouth out with soap if I ever cursed at him for doing it.
And meaning well, she said to our class:
“You kids know what your own fathers are like –
Well, that’s sort of what God is like – only he’s bigger, more powerful …….and he knows every thing that you do.
And I screamed, “Holy S—, Lady – I’m as good as dead!
And then she washed my mouth out with soap too!
I’ve had my share of “authority issues” ever since!
And in tonight’s readings, we come across a phrase that might also pose a problem for some of us here. I know it can for me.
That phrase is “BORN AGAIN.”
When I hear it, there’s an old part of me deep inside that shutters.
It’s a phrase that somehow conjures up images of some hell-fire-and-damnation evangelizers that make me real uncomfortable.
All of a sudden, I’m sitting in a sweaty revival tent, and I have this image of one of these prophets of judgement and doom grabbing hold of me and shaking me while they shout:
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”
Some of those old feelings start to surge up – and I want to shout words back to them that’ll get my mouth washed out with soap one more time. Defiance dies hard.
And I don’t know if any of you can relate to any of these struggles – but if you can – then I hope tonight we can look at these words born again – but do it with an open mind – see if maybe we can’t salvage them – because the Big Book says that being born again is what has to happen to each one of us if we hope to stay sober. It calls it the new and triumphant arch through which we pass to freedom.
Now, this born-again business actually goes way back in AA history. Maybe you’ve heard of Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist who had an alcoholic patient back in the early ‘30’s. This patient of his just couldn’t get sober – and Jung finally told the guy that his only hope, his very last chance for recovery, was for him to undergo a spiritual conversion. Jung said he needed a psychic change – a felt-experience of being born again.
According to Jung, this born again experience isn’t necessary just for us addicts – He said it’s absolutely necessary for every human being to be born again – To move from the first half of life which is a building up of ego / into the second half of life which entails a necessary breaking down and letting go of that same ego.
And Jung says:
“What is a normal goal to the young person in the first half of life actually becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age.”
In other words – the lessons to be learned and the rules that govern them – are different for each half of life.
And in another writing, Jung warns about the same thing, but here he states it more poetically when he says:
“We can not live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning –
for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening –
and what in the morning was true will at evening actually become a lie.”
Jung believed that during the first half of life we must be about the business of building up our egos. We must become a separate person with our own separate identity. We need to distinguish ourselves and set ourselves apart – starting with separating from our mothers.
And it’s necessary when we are young that we say “No” and start asserting ourselves as free and independent selves. If you’ve ever been around a three year old who’s practicing these skills, he’ll drive you crazy, but we know what’s happening.
But if that kid is now 35 and he’s still throwing a temper tantrum whenever things don’t go his way – then he missed growing up somewhere along the way.
Special-ness is something else Jung says we need to experience during that first half of life.
We need to feel that we are special – be told by our caretakers that we are special –
- We need to feel that our families are special –
- and our religions are special
- and our countries are special–
And this is all part of what Jung called an inflation, a puffing-up of ourselves that we all need to experience. And if we don’t experience this, then he says there’s gonna be some damage done – especially in the trust area as there was in my case and as I think there is in many of us addicts.
But then, Jung continues: in the second half of life – usually starting with some major defeat – some crisis – hitting a bottom –then we enter into a new phase.
We enter into a necessary phase of ego reduction –
It’s a time of de-flation – of being brought down, or sometimes cut down to a more manageable size.
The inflation, if its left unchecked will make our lives unmanageable – we’ll be grandiose and immature – we’ll want what we want when we want it – and try to take it whenever we can –
– which is all very appropriate for a four year old and even maybe for a teen-ager but if I’ve only learned how to demand and how to be a taker, then in the second half of life, the book says we may wind up in places that society has designed especially for us.
We’ll earn a time out – maybe in a treatment center – or maybe an even longer time out in prison. Time out to learn another way.
Now the lessons reserved for the second half of life are taking the very things that made us feel special – and one by one, laying them aside & letting them go. – Learning to live life on life’s terms and no longer making incessant demands the way we did before.
- It’s still OK to feel that I’m special – but no more special than you.
- It’s still OK to feel my family and my country, and my religion are special – but no more so than yours.
- I’m not the one meant to be at the center any more – now God’s at the center. He is the Father – but we really are his children.
- The world begins anew – revolving not around me, but this time: around Him.
- And instead of asking what is that I can take out of life – my question becomes: what is it I’m here to contribute.
These are tough lessons and they’re often painful.
And maybe they’re especially tough for us addicts because many of never did get the security or the proper building up that we should have received during the first half – and so for us this letting go can often feel terrifying.
- How do I turn my life over to a father who I think is out to kill me?
- How do I trust that I’m good and loved by God when I’ve never let my guard down long enough to experience him as loving?
Tonight’s gospel, I think, speaks to some of these issues.
We meet a man by the name of Nicodemus
We’re told that Nicodemus is a Pharisee. And that means he knew a lot about what was written about God and he knew how to keep the laws of God.
This guy did the first half of life absolutely right – did it all by the book – but still, something is wrong.
He never developed a trusting, personal relationship with God.
He did everything right – but he still didn’t feel right.
So Nicodemus hears about this man Jesus – And there’s something about Jesus that attracts him. Something that Jesus has that Nicodemus lacks – so he comes to check him out for himself – but the reading says, he comes to see Jesus at night.
Now we’re left to guess why it was that he visited Jesus under cover of darkness.
Was Nick maybe ashamed to be going to see him?
If he was, then I can relate to him – and maybe you can too.
See, my sick, little ego mind often tells me I don’t need God’s help.
My inflated ego tells me I can handle whatever problems I’ve got without going to God.
- Just work harder or longer or smarter.
A lot of us – maybe especially us men – we always want to look macho. We want everyone to think we’ve got it all together;
or, at least, we’re right on the verge of getting it together…..
When we first started doing this communion service, it brought up some of those feelings in me. At first, part of me felt like one of those guys you see in the white shirts, with a bible in his back pocket, riding a bicycle through the neighborhood.
Like most people in recovery, I’m what we call shame based.
I got a heavy dose of it when I was a kid.
Sometimes my ego feels ashamed in coming to Jesus.
That’s a big lesson this story can teach us.
We all need help – a lot more help than we’re usually willing to admit. And when we do admit it – when we humble ourselves and ask for it – then we’re stepping into that second, & more mature half of life.
And so when Nick comes and he asks Jesus “what do I have to do to find what’s missing inside?”
Jesus says to him, “ No one can enter the second half of life without being reborn from above.”
Jesus, of course, is speaking on a spiritual level but Nicodemus is stuck on the physical.
So Jesus tries to explain what he means by this.
What’s born at the human level is human. But we’re more than just our physical bodies –we’re spirit – and our spirits won’t find rest until they connect with and find their rest in the Spirit we call GOD.
Jesus says God’s Spirit acts in our lives but it acts: sort of like the wind. And Jesus says we all know the physical wind is there by seeing the effects it produces.
Even though you can’t see it, the wind causes things to change.
It bends trees, it moves clouds, it sails the ships, and it lifts the eagle’s wings and lets her fly.
And just as we can’t see the wind, we can’t see God’s Spirit either;
but it’s there.
Jesus says, we’ll know God’s Spirit is there by seeing the effects it produces in us.
And so he tells Nick, That’s how it is with people who are born from above. They’re connected to God’s Spirit and when you’re connected, then you’ll see the effects of the Spirit at work in you.
Tonight’s Big Book reading says, we’ll know we’re in contact with Spirit, we’ll know we’ve entered that second half of life, when certain things start happening to us:
We’ll know we’re connected with Spirit:
“As we become less and less interested in ourselves, in our little plans and designs.”
We’ll know Spirit is acting.
“As more and more we become interested in seeing what we can contribute to life.”
We’ll know we’re in contact with Spirit.
“As we feel new power flow in, as we come to enjoy peace of mind, as we discover we can face life successfully, as we became conscious of His presence.”
We’ll know Spirit’s with us and at work.
As we begin to lose our fear of today, tomorrow or the hereafter.
Finally it says: We’ll know Spirit: When we are reborn.
Jesus is telling Nicodemus and he’s telling us that our main problem is that we haven’t entered the second half of life. If we’re still irritable, restless and discontented then we know we haven’t entered into this personal relationship with the Spirit of God.
Nicodemus needed to be born again – and so do we.
Now if any group ought to have a head start with this “born again” business, maybe it’s us.
See, we’re blessed with addiction.
We’re forced to find and enter into that second half of life maybe a little earlier than most. Jung talked about the change coming as a mid-life crisis usually around age 35 – but for some of us that crisis may come at 20 or 25 or 30.
We’ve all lived the BS life – — that means Before Sobriety.
It’s a life full of darkness and fear and pain – most of us know it well. And then the crisis comes and at last we get ‘sober.
We began to let God into our lives and the power we lacked starts coming in and doing its work in us.
Lack of power was our dilemma – connecting with God’s power is our solution – and that connection opens us up to living a whole new life.
Letting go and letting God can seem hard – but that’s a paradox – cause it’s really very simple.
When the pain of trying to do things our way gets to be too much for us – then we’re ready.
Then we stop asking, like a Pharisee: “How do I let go?
We just do it.
We wouldn’t ask: ‘How do I let go’ if someone tossed a hot coal into our hands – we’d let it go in an instant.
Like that Nike ad says, “Just do it.”
And when we do it – when we finally let go – then we take that step into the second half of life –
And it’s sort of like that little feather you might remember from the movie Forrest Gump.
The feather’s there at the start of the movie and it’s there again at the close.
And the wind comes and it gently lifts that little feather higher and higher –
and it holds it, and supports it, and it carries it through all the adventures and all the lessons that life has to teach it.
God’s Spirit is always there – just like the wind, Jesus says – it’s there to catch us – and hold us – and carry us to perfect freedom
That’s the journey Jesus invites us to.
For us it’s called recovery –
Let go, catch the wind – be born again –and come take the ride of a whole new life.
Copyright 2006 Bill Wigmore. Used by permission.