Jim Cogley: reflections Tues 12 Sept – Mon 18 Sept 2023

Tues Sept 12th – Western Christianity

The Truth Overshadowed

Western Christianity has evolved with many serious weaknesses. To name but a few: A focus on original sin at the expense of original mercy; preoccupation with guilt and unworthiness, more than on Divine forgiveness; personal struggle or will-power rather than surrender to grace; external observance and adherence to rules and regulations, as opposed to worship of the heart.

Viewed in the light of the Gospel, our Catholic religion became quite like the religion of the Pharisees that Christ denounced so vehemently. This was where the love of Law took precedence over the Law of Love and the love of Power diminished the power of love. While so much of the essence and transformative power of Christianity was lost over the centuries, its essence always seeped out in side streams and rivulets. One fine example is the 12 Step Programme of Alcoholics Anonymous that evolved outside of the formal boundaries of Christianity. Here we see the essential wisdom of the Gospel flourishing alongside the stagnant waters of formalised religious structures.

Wed Sept 13th – AA programme

The AA 12-Step Programme was created in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith with a lot of influence from the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. It is essentially a secular version of the Gospel where the language used is totally accessible to those of all faiths and even none. It is a powerful spiritual programme of radical discipline, that could equally be called discipleship. It has literally brought ‘Salvation’ to millions of lost and suffering souls. While entrenched in an archaic belief system the most devout believers can’t always hear its message, yet those who come from ‘rock bottom’ often respond wholeheartedly. Jesus did say to the Scribes and Pharisees that the prostitutes and sinners would find their kingdom path before those who thought they were first in the queue. In essence, the AA  Programme is ‘a spirituality of imperfection’ where the ones who have experienced their weakness, failure and vulnerability are most open to being recipients of the Good News. In painfully discovering their need of God they paradoxically discover their ‘blessedness’.

Thurs Sept 14th – Transformation

In our western church religion was far too identified with Information where answers were given long before questions were even asked. Essential Christianity is about transformation. This is where the AA Programme has really worked to change innumerable lives. While countless believers go to church regularly, with no expectation of being changed, and would be scandalised if a miracle happened, the AA followers not only expect change but know that their very survival depends upon it. Without the experience of a higher power their lives remain in an unmanageable state where no amount of will-power will suffice to restore their sense of sanity. In the surrender of their lives to a higher power they experience what the vast majority of church goers never experience even after a lifetime of faithful practice.

Fri Sept 15thSin & Addiction

At a practical level, the Gospel message of Jesus and the Twelve-Step message of Bill Wilson are largely the same. Addiction can be a metaphor for what the biblical tradition calls sin. In that tradition it is not simply about breaking the rules but more about falling short or missing the mark. This is imagery taken from the art of archery where the arrow, for some reason, fails to find its target. It is quite helpful to see sin, like addiction, as a destructive disease instead of something for which we’re culpable or punishable and that ‘makes God unhappy.’ If sin indeed makes God ‘unhappy,’ it is because God loves us, desires nothing more than our happiness, and wills the healing of our disease. 

Sat Sept 16th – Learnings

What has the AA programme to teach the traditional churches? First, those churches have to acknowledge the obvious; that there is little or no evidence of transformation happening within their hallowed walls. Lives are simply not being changed, except in very isolated incidents. At the same time the adherents of the AA programme do have direct experience of being drawn from darkness into light and from bondage into freedom. Their lives have literally been transformed and in a manner that is obvious to everyone. The message has reached them at the lowest point in their lives and in a language that they could understand. Herein lies a key. Traditional churches, in the main, still use religious language that is foreign to the vast majority. The religious language that was acceptable to an earlier generation will not make sense to the next and may even act as a turn-off. While the essential truths remain the same, how they are presented needs serious evaluation. Pearls fed to swine may be valuable but will only be trampled on by the animals that can’t find in them something worth eating!

Sun Sept 17th – Forgiveness – The Key to Freedom

I would like to share two stories of well-known figures that relate to the Gospel of today with its theme of forgiveness. The first relates to Nelson Mandela.

When Bill Clinton met Nelson Mandela for the first time, he had a question on his mind: ‘When you were released from prison, Mr. Mandela,’ the former President said, ‘I woke my daughter Chelsea at three o’clock in the morning. I wanted her to see this historic event.’ Then President Clinton zeroed in on his question: ‘As you marched from the cellblock across the yard to the gate of the prison, the camera focused in on your face. I have never seen such anger, and even hatred, in any man as was expressed on your face at that time. That’s not the Nelson Mandela I know today,’ said Clinton. ‘What was that about?’ Mandela answered, ‘I’m surprised that you saw that, and I regret that the cameras caught my anger. As I walked across the courtyard that day, I thought to myself, They’ve taken everything from you that matters. The cause is dead. My family is gone. My friends have been killed. Now they’re releasing you, but there’s nothing left for you out there.’ And I hated them for what they had taken from me. Then, I sensed an inner voice saying to me, ‘Nelson! For twenty-seven years you were their prisoner, but you were always a free man! Don’t allow them now to make you into a free man, only to turn you into their prisoner!’ You can never be free to be a whole person if you are unable to forgive. You see that, don’t you? There are many people who are imprisoned by their own anger, their own hurt, their own inability to let go of the past and move on.

The second relates to Gilbert and Sullivan, the dynamic duo of the stage. They created fun-filled musicals and light operas a generation ago, giving high school drama departments and community theatres plenty of material to dazzle and delight. Their names always appeared in tandem on the programs: Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore; Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience; Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado; Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. It was as if they were a married couple. Indeed, much of their career felt like that. It was only right that their names be wedded together in common speech.

At the height of their success, they even purchased a theatre together so that they could exert full creative control over their new works. Then came the nasty disagreement. Sullivan ordered the installation of new carpets. But when the bill arrived, Gilbert hit the roof at the cost and refused to share the payment. They argued and fought about it, and finally took the case to court. A legal judgment settled the claim, but it did nothing to heal the rift between them. These grown men never spoke to one another again as long as they lived. When Sullivan wrote the music for a new production, he would mail it to Gilbert. Then, when Gilbert finished the libretto, he would post it back to Sullivan again. Gilbert quarantined Sullivan in the prison of his mind, and Sullivan banished Gilbert from his social continent. Eventually, they each became warders for the prison of the other. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel are very pertinent. We are social creatures who cannot live in isolation. Yet, because of the sin and stupidity that trouble our human condition, we do not live well with those around us. That is why the German philosopher, Schopenhauer, compared us to porcupines trying to nest together on a cold winter’s night. We all need the heat but boy can we be prickly at times.

Mon Sept 18th – Surrender & Humility

Other areas where the traditional churches have so much to learn from the AA Programme are in relation to humility and surrender. The person suffering from an addiction has often had to reach rock bottom before they can humbly say ‘I am an alcoholic and my life is so unmanageable that only a higher power can restore me to sanity’. This is a contrite state where truth spoken in anguish is the herald of freedom. At this point there are no more hiding places, all the lies have been exposed and will-power has been declared bankrupt. The next stage is one of surrendering one’s life to a Higher Power or God as He/She is known to the person. In AA terms this is known as ‘letting go and letting God’; it is where will-power gives way to Divine grace. The will is still crucial, but now it is my will working in conjunction with Divine power, and so the miracle of transformation begins – all one day at a time. And it works!

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