Ward Ewing Key Note at the First International Secular AA Conference

Reverend Ward Ewing Chair Emeritus of the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous spoke at the first International Conference of Secular AA, which in November 2014 was known as We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention. Today we are posting the recording of his talk and the written transcript. 

00:11: Thank you.

[applause]

00:20: My name is Ward and I’m a friend of AA.

00:25: And I have been privileged, incredibly privileged, to serve as a trustee with the General Service Office, to serve as the chair of the board. I am also, as, I guess, the title kinda gives it away, an ordained Episcopal minister, and spent 12 years as Dean and President of the General Theological Seminary in New York city. I always thought they got me as a trustee because I was cheap.

[laughter]

00:55: All it cost was a subway ride back and forth. Anyway, I also wanna thank the committee for inviting me. I know they took some risk in doing that, and I know some people have some questions about that, a non-alcoholic minister keynoting? And I’ve had a wonderful time. And this has been a wonderful week for me. And I’m gonna share some of my own reactions and growth from this week in a little later, but I just wanna thank you all, just a wonderful weekend. I keep saying it’s a week. It feels like a week, doesn’t it?

[laughter]

01:41: I began my journey with Alcoholics Anonymous in 1975 when I took a job in a small congregation in Louisville, Kentucky. Being a small congregation, I think, and maybe my own age, in my early 30s, I began to see alcohol as a problem for many of the families. I heard stories from children about drinking in their homes, and I knew I didn’t know anything about this disease. I since have learned that I really probably knew more than I thought ’cause I was a really good enabler. I could help people feel good after they had had some really bad incidents.

[laughter]

02:24: That’s gone.

[chuckle]

02:29: So I knew I needed to learn something, and I decided that what I needed was a little expert advice. So I started attending open AA meetings ’cause I thought you all would know more about this than anybody else, and I still think that’s true. Some of you who are here, it’s amazing how… The length of sobriety that I hear from folks. Remember those days, smoking was pretty heavy in the rooms of AA. In fact, I’ve discovered… I mean, I’m going to open meetings, they’re nearly all speaker meetings, and if I was sitting in the back of the room, I couldn’t see the speaker.

[laughter]

03:04: I would get home at night and I would say, “Jenny, I’m home!” And she would say, “I know, I smell you. Take your clothes off and leave ’em outside.” A very mixed message.

[laughter]

03:25: I began my involvement with the steps about a year later when a member of the parish, Willy, walked into my office and said, “Ward… ” This is a title you’re gonna love. “Ward, you’re the spiritual expert, right?”

[laughter]

03:42: I really don’t think I answered that. But he said, “I’m out of touch with God and the last time I was out of touch with my higher power I drank, and if I drink again, I may die, and I want you to put me back in touch with God.” Yeah, oh, God. Thank you.

[laughter]

04:02: Well, I knew that I really… Even then, I knew I couldn’t do that. And so we talked and had a couple of conversations and I decided that what we really needed, again, was to bring in the experts, members of AA. And we set up a group of six or seven who would meet every Tuesday afternoon. We brought in an official AA meeting, ’cause I was there. Would meet every Tuesday afternoon at 4 o’clock to talk about spiritual issues in their lives, whatever that meant. That group changed my life. A little something about clergy and kind of… I hope this will make you a little compassionate for the poor suckers.

[laughter]

05:00: Congregations, parishioners want clergy to be good.

[laughter]

05:06: Yeah.

05:07: They do not want clergy to be honest.

[laughter]

05:13: That’s a hard place and I think that’s part of the reason we see so many clergy crash and burn to try to live up to that, because what you do, since you can’t be honest, and they want you to be good, well, then you are a phony. You pretend, you fake it. And that’s a terrible place to be. But in this group, they didn’t give a damn about what I had done, what I thought, what I felt, as long as I did the best I could at being honest about what I thought, what I felt, what I’d done. And that honesty, that kind of sharing is so… And you all know this, but that is so freeing and life-giving. I don’t think we talked about theology a lot, actually. We shared something called experience, strength, and hope. And I began to grow in a self-knowledge and a self-acceptance that continued to this day. That was not a new… It was not a brand new thing, but since that time, it’s been nurtured by the 12 Steps, and it’s been my life support for the last 37 years. I learned that I need to strive for rigorous honesty, that being phony is deathly. I learned… My wife loved this, I learned the only inventory I can take is my own.

[laughter]

06:46: I learned that I can truly change only one person, and that’s hard enough, and that’s myself. And I learned to let go. That’s been one of the hardest things. I’m a high achiever and high achievers don’t let go very easily, but I learned to let go. And I thank you for that. Some of you from New York, a couple of you have even asked, have seen in the New York Times about a teacher strike at a seminary, in New York, General Theological Seminary. That’s where I worked. It’s somewhat painful, but a friend called me the other day and said, “You hear what’s going on at the cemetery?” I mean, “Seminary?” Excuse.

[laughter]

07:31: Whoa.

[laughter

07:31: Whoa, whoa.

[laughter]

07:40: That’s a slip that’ll come back on us.

[laughter]

07:47: I said, “Actually, I don’t.” I let go of that. And I’m out having fun with a bunch of friends who don’t drink. And I thank you for that. I really don’t know what’s going on and it’s really relieving. You helped me learn to let go. In fact, one of the conversations today with Roger C, I realized that it is through this fellowship that I have let go of the need for a clear and certain theology. What a gift that is. Thank you. And I learned to take it one day at a time. Again, for a achievement-oriented human being, that’s tough. I learned to work on anger, self-pity. Isn’t that the worst?

[laughter]

08:39: And I’m seek to be open, to listen, to grow. Those are all gifts that you have given me and I thank you. You’ve probably figured out by now, I may not be like all the other clergy you know. I live in Tennessee now that I’m retired. We live in the family home, which is about 15 miles from Dayton. Y’all heard of Dayton? Scopes Trial? Monkey Trial? My father was there as a teenager. This is fundamentalist country. In my country of East Tennessee, and in much of the Southeast, the churches know the truth. Now, they don’t agree with each other about what the truth is, but they know it.

[laughter]

09:35: And if you don’t agree with them, then to hell with you. To me, that does not feel like faith, that feels like fear. And religion plus fear leads to judgment, to division, to the damaging of education, to destructive behaviors, to damaging of our civil structure, and the Southeast is working as hard and as fast as it can to become a Third World country.

10:10: And I think a lot of that is that combination of religion and fear. I told myself, “No religion bashing tonight.”

[laughter]

[applause]

10:24: Let me say one… I wrote here, so I can say one thing and not be bashing anymore.

[laughter]

10:32: I’m very disturbed by religious institutions that believe they know the truth and use that to determine who is in and who is out and then seek to impose their brand of truth on others. That deeply concerns me, it leads to arrogance, to division, to campaigns, to persecution, to crusades, to wars, and we are in the midst of one of the most horrible times in terms of the role of religion in the Middle East today. So you can see why I tell my friends I’m more comfortable with you than with most of my colleagues in Southeast, Tennessee… In the Southeast of the United States. Y’all are more fun.

[laughter]

11:27: That sounded familiar.

[laughter]

11:33: You also can see why I am so strongly opposed to religion creeping into AA. Theology divides and encourages arrogance and judgment. Some of the worst battles in human history are because… Are fought, at least, in the name of theology. AA must remain open to anyone of any belief, who wants to stop drinking. There’s one criteria for membership, we all know that, the desire to stop drinking. That’s the only criteria, not belief, not belief in God, not atheism, not any other qualification, the desire to stop drinking, and we have to keep those doors open wide.

[applause]

12:20: So let me share just a few reflections about this weekend. I keep thinking it’s a week.

[laughter]

12:31: Some of the things I’ve learned, I’ve learned the difficulty many of you have with the word, spirituality. I’d love to fix this for you.

[laughter]

12:45 : Right? I wanna draw a line between spirituality and religion that’s stronger than any wall that’s been built in human history. But I’ve also learned the only person I can fix is me, right? So y’all have to muddle through and figure that one out.

[laughter]

13:06: But I can appreciate that the word spirituality can be very painful for many of you, because it’s been a way for religion and for beliefs to sneak into the fellowship and together, frankly, we share the deep concern that that will be destructive. I’ve heard the frustration that many of you have experienced with judgment from others, with delisting, with basic literature that implies, “After all, you will eventually find God.” Oh, I wanna say thank you for one thing. I have never liked chapter four.

[laughter]

[applause

13:49: I just…

[applause]

13:54: And I’ve always been afraid to say that.

[laughter]

[applause]

14:03: I will. And now I know there’s a group that shares my conviction.

[laughter]

14:11: And I thank you for that. I’ve been impressed with the optimism that I hear about this movement, particularly from Roger C and Joe C. And I’m gonna try to express that optimism, it’s not in their words, I didn’t get ’em written down, it’s in my words. But in my words, I think what they have described, and from others of you, that this movement is about broadening the fellowship. It’s a movement within AA that has already begun because there was a need to broaden the fellowship, to widen the doors. And you didn’t make it happen, and you’re not gonna make it come to a successful conclusion, but you’re a part of it and you will influence how it comes about.

15:04: It’s a wave of inclusion and you’re riding the wave, but the wave started out there and it’s gonna land somewhere in the future. My experience has been that AA is the most inclusive organization or group that I’ve ever been associated with. It was way ahead of the curve with African Americans, two years after the first meeting, with women joining the group, with GLBT, with Hispanics. But somehow this issue has been more difficult. But one would be crazy to bet against full inclusion of all people in AA because it has always been an inclusive community, and that’s just where it’s going and you all a part of that and gonna help make that happen.

16:01: You’re probably not gonna see the end, I won’t, I’m old. And you didn’t start it, but what a wonderful, wonderful time to be a part of this group in this community. And I’ve picked up some wonderful insights, just little nuggets that may show up in my preaching, if I ever preach.

[laughter]

16:29: Spirit, definition of spirit, that which is within each of us that’s capable of change. I love that. Spirituality, chopping wood and towing water. Yeah, you bet, I chop wood, I heat with wood. That’s spirituality. I’ll remember that next time I’m out splitting oak.

[laughter]

16:55: And this one will really preach, humility, the honest recognition that I, that one cannot do it alone, that we have to ask for help. I’ve preached a dozen sermons on humility that I’m gonna have to go back and revise.

[laughter]

17:10: Why didn’t I think of that? It’s so clear. Duh.

[laughter]

17:20: It’s dangerous to give a preacher an hour. I’m just…

[laughter]

17:25: Okay, ’cause I wanna talk a little bit about the 12 Steps.

17:32 Audience Member: No.

[laughter]

17:33 : No, no.

[laughter]

17:39: I do so as one who has used the steps as my primary spiritual program. But, as you know, not as one who has done so out of an addiction to substance. That means my perspective will be different from yours, and there is some positive characteristics in that and some negative. And I’ll let you sift that through. As I’ve listened this weekend, I hear the strong commitment to the unity of AA. This is AA. You are members, no matter what central offices say, and you know that. There’s no question about it. But we have some communication problems. How can those who have theistic beliefs, and those for whom such beliefs are untenable share about the power of this program of recovery? I’d like to fix that.

[laughter]

18:39: But I know that’s not for me to fix. But I do wanna share some thoughts about what I see is the common ground that we might share, and what that might look like. I’ve been encouraged to say these words by a little book that I read a couple of weeks ago called, “Common Sense Recovery” by Adam C. I believe our approaches are very similar, but they come from very different perspectives.

19:11: And so with his encouragement or actually with his book’s encouragement, I share my thoughts about the power of this program of recovery. It’s known by everyone in the fellowship who’s sober today. It’s not theoretical, so any understanding of this power must come out of experience, not religion, not sectarian theology, experience. And I believe this is possible because the 12 steps themselves are essentially experiential. They came out of the experience of the early members, and they have been refined through the experience of millions. So where do we begin? I think meetings.

19:56: October 2012, as most of you are aware, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and the surrounding areas, inflicting incredible damage. The week before Sandy hit landfall, the world service meeting of AA was held in Rye, New York Saturday, Sunday, and Monday of that same… Of the weekend before Sandy hit, the General Service Board also met in Rye. Isn’t that an appropriate place for AA to meet in Rye, New York?

[laughter]

20:33: We cancelled Monday’s meeting. And instead, had the board meeting on Sunday night, 45 minutes, shortest board meeting on record. Many of the trustees were able to leave Monday morning, but many of the international delegates to the World Service Meeting, and about half of the trustees were unable to get out. When Sandy hit, it left the hotel with no power, no water. The GSO staff assisted as much as they could, but it was a difficult situation. The crews that were working to repair the electrical damage in the area also moved into the darkened hotel.

21:11: The second night, after two rigorous long days working under extremely difficult conditions, one of the workers was particularly hostile…

[laughter]

21:26: Toward the hotel management, toward other workers, and toward those trustees and delegates who were stranded in the hotel off. And in his tirade, he asked, “What the hell are you doing here anyway?” And someone explained who they were, that they were stranded because flights could not be resumed. “God,” he said. “I could sure use a meeting myself right now.”

[laughter]

21:57: Yes, he was a friend of Bills…

[laughter]

22:01: So candles were found. A few flashlights still worked, and they had a meeting right there in the lobby of the darkened hotel. And an hour later, the worker was relaxed, tired, and pleasant.

[laughter]

22:21: Meetings change lives. So what is it about meetings that allow them to do that? What is it about meetings that make it possible for one to stop drinking? What is it about meetings that do what personal efforts, what strong wills, what psychologists, and therapists, what righteous religious cannot do? Well, I don’t believe any full answer is possible, especially for me. But I listen to your stories. I see members’ lives change. I see the personal growth that moves from being self-absorbed to becoming an almost unthinking servant of the still suffering alcoholics, and I recognize that this process is a mystery. But in the final analysis, it is experienced. And it’s experienced by millions, and it’s experienced in meetings. So what is it about meetings that makes this impossible possible for millions of alcoholics?

23:24: Before I try to explore this question directly, I’ll turn to some insights about groups that come from sociology, current business theory, and current biblical studies. Every group, every institution, a football team, a business, a group that builds habitat for humanity homes, a church, a recovery group, even a nation, every group has an outer aspect, which is the visible organization, the members, maybe the buildings that they own.

24:02: Every group has an outer aspect and an inner aspect, an unseen, invisible, collection of the values, the dreams and the mores of the people involved. Those involved presently and those who were previously involved. This inner nature is not some separate, heavenly entity but it is an invisible reality of the material organization. Yesterday, the comment about esprit de corps in the marines was an example of what I’m trying to talk about. Now, perhaps it’s because I am an ordained minister, I tend to prefer the word spirit to the word culture, but I hope you will not be offended that I use culture and spirit interchangeably.

24:52: Whichever word we use, the spirit, the culture of a group or an organization is an invisible reality that exists as an integral part of the organization and that is a principle theory in all business reform theory today. What is important here is that this spirit, this culture of an organization is more than a personification of certain aspects of the group or institution, it has strong power to influence the members of the group. In other words, terms like mob spirit or team spirit describe realities that come into existence when a mob or a team forms and causes people to act in ways that they never believed themselves capable of acting. If you’ve ever played team sports, you know there are times when the team is up and the performance is above what anybody thought they could do, and there are times when the team’s down and the performance and the decisions are awful.

26:00: The job of the coach is not only to help the players improve their skills and develop a game plan, the job of the coach is also to nurture a positive team spirit. Groups have an invisible reality that has power over the members. Now our modern tendency to ignore the culture of an organization as a force within the organization leads us to underestimate the strength of this invisible guiding power. Because the institution usually anecdotes and outlasts the members, it develops and imposes a set of traditions, expectations, beliefs, and values on everyone in the group, usually unspoken, unacknowledged and even unconscious. This invisible network of influences constrains behavior far more rigidly than any printed set of rules ever would. I think this conference is a case in point. The need to resist what I would call a small teacherision in AA, a tradition of faith in a deity, the very need to resist that affirms the existence of the influence of this invisible spirit of this fellowship. Why do lawyers wear suits? Why do people apologize when they swear in front of clergy?

[laughter]

27:34: Why is success equated with a higher salary? The spirit of institutions, the spirit of society governs dress, social class, behavior, life expectations, even the choice of a partner. Every organization, formal or informal, contains a spirit, a culture, that is a powerful guiding source for the organization.

27:57: What I experienced in my little group of recovering alcoholics that met every Tuesday afternoon was a spirit of honesty. There was one primary concern and that was that we be honest with one another, with our lives, our doubts, our experience, our insights. And for the first time in my life, no one cared what I did, only that I tried to be as honest as possible with myself and with them. No one had to say that out loud, we never discussed it. We all knew it. And that spirit was freeing and transforming. And, in my experience, in a healthy AA group, there is a spirit of acceptance, of accountability, of truth, of gratitude, and of love, and that spirit, that culture is in fact a power greater than the individual members. I would suggest to you that it is that spirit which makes the impossible possible.

28:56: It is that spirit which is able to do what personal effort, strong will, psychologists, therapists, and righteous religious are unable to do. And you know this, you’ve experienced it. So I would like to refer to this spirit of the group as the spirit of AA because while it is the experience in the group, it’s larger than any single group. It includes the experience of our founders. It’s pragmatic, it’s based on the experience of what has worked and what has not worked. It is the experience of current members, it’s more diverse than any one group which it may explain why we have so many meetings.

[chuckle]

29:38: And yet, there are qualities of the spirit of AA that are universal and this is what makes it work. And so I beg your indulgence while a non-member looks at the spirit of AA. And I wanna begin with what I think is central and that’s hope. When a person attends his or her first AA meeting, they do not come seeking to receive spiritual enlightenment.

[laughter]

30:09: And you’re supposed to laugh at that, thank you.

[laughter]

30:12: They come because they hurt. They come because they feel defeated. They come because their life is in shambles. They may even have a desire to stop drinking but it’s more likely a desire to be able to drink like others who do not have this disease. They come because they have failed again and again to control their drinking and to control everyone and everything around them. They come filled with remorse and shame, and often self-loathing. Suicide attempts are a part of an awful lot of stories. And frequently, they’re pretty drunk at that first meeting. They’re hopeless and helpless, and you know this better than I do.

30:52: They come to a group where the heart may be touched and hope may be found, and it is through the haze of their own pain they hear a story, because the way we communicate this spirit is through the sharing of stories. And it’s their story, but the teller is sober and happy and free and even healthy. And when the newcomer can identify with the story, hope is born. If that person has lived through what I have lived through and is now living sober, maybe, just maybe, I can too. Now, that does not mean that all you have to do show up for a meeting and allow the spirit of hope to restore your sanity…

[laughter]

31:36: And you’re fine ever after. You know it’s not that simple. You have to come back, again and again. And you have to take some risks with the group. To surrender involves the risk of being vulnerable and honest with the group. And without such a risk, one never knows the power of the fellowship. And so the second quality of the spirit of AA that I would focus on is the importance of honesty. We all know about denial. Denial is believing sincerely that which is absolutely not true

[laughter]

32:14: Right? It’s not rationalization. It’s not lying or pretending. Denial is absolutely believing. I need a drink because my boss is irrational or my spouse is insensitive, or my children are out of control. And for our alcoholic, at that first meeting, less I’d add lies, rationalization, self-imaging that has become such a part of the life, honesty is hard. Hell, it’s hard after 20 years! It’s hard to know what really is true and it’s hard to speak that truth to another. And long before one gets to that fearless moral inventory, the honesty in the group has begun to challenge the person to seek truth about self. And if there’s any single aspect of the spirit of AA that challenges people, especially the newcomers, it is that necessity to be as honest as possible.

33:17: I attend only open meetings, most of them are speaker meetings, but what I experience in these meetings is honest disclosure, honest disclosure about drinking and about how the program has worked for them. When I attend open discussion meetings, I’m always impressed by the lack of cross talk and by the intense level of listening. And I’ve come to understand that listening is one of the keys to recovery. We listen to hear truth, not dogmatic theological, mathematical, philosophical, or scientific truth. We listen to hear truth about feelings, about faults, about sneaky motivations, personal truth, fearless honesty. “Identify, don’t compare,” you tell me. You may be surprised to know that that works for me as well as for those who suffer from this cunning and baffling disease. This combination of rigorous honesty and the necessity of listening has three clear results. The newcomer, as well as those who’ve been attending for many years, begin to know themselves better. They’re not unique. Everyone, and this is, I think, the real grounds for the unity in this fellowship, everyone is one drink away from a drunk. Secondly, they begin to know that they’re not alone. Others are willing to listen on the phone or whenever, to provide help in any appropriate way.

34:53: Recently, I heard the story from Bill F who attended several meetings and continued to struggle. It just wasn’t connecting. And in his sharing, he said, “One night, a member gave me a ride home. And when we got home, the member said, “What are your plans for the evening?” And I said, “Well, I think I’ll have a little pot.”

[laughter]

35:20: His friend responded, “We don’t do pot in AA.” And Bill heard for the first time, he says, the word “we.” And for the first time, thought, “I belong. I’m a member, I found a home.” And he saw that as the moment when he began to work his program and the program began to connect for him. He knew he was not alone. The third thing that happens with this combination of honesty is that the newcomer begins to know if he or she wants to find… Begins to know that if he or she wants to find sobriety, it will require work. Come to meetings, get a sponsor, work the steps. It requires interior work about how one really feels and what one really thinks. And as one lives and grows in the group, perception changes. One gives up drinking thinking and begins to see the world as it is. One begins to see self as we truly are. The move from drunk to healthy is dramatic on the outside, but I find it even more dramatic on the inside. “Begin to deal with feelings.” I love this statement, and we heard it yesterday. The good news about sobriety is you begin to get in touch with your feelings. The bad news about sobriety is you begin to get in touch with your feelings.

36:51: A friend of mine, a close friend in this fellowship said to me, “The secret of life is living life as it truly is and giving thanks for the good you find each day.” Why didn’t I think of that?

[laughter]

37:07: That’s fabulous. And this is why this fellowship is so important for me. Nowhere else have I been challenged in such a loving way to strive for honesty, to listen for the wisdom of others, and to work toward emotional health. And I thank you. I believe this fundamental personal experience is a movement from being self-directed, I can control my drinking, I am strong, I need to control you, to being directed by a power greater than self. It is a movement toward recognition that we are not God, and we cannot control the lives of others, or even our own life, and seeking such control actually makes life unmanageable. It’s a movement toward letting go of all that baggage and accepting that we must begin in a new way living… A new way of living that is directed by this power that is beyond self, and one begins to be freed from the bondage of self and begins to live in relationship with others. And that first step for most is getting a sponsor.

38:11: The act of getting a sponsor involves letting go, letting go of self-direction. In retrospect, it’s a no brainer, but I know it’s a major step when one gets that first sponsor. And as one grows in the process to recovery, it’s toward the 12th step. If steps four to seven are about healing self, then 8-11 are about right relationship with others and with the world as it is. This is the growth that all human beings must make, from self as center of the universe to recognition that the world does not revolve around us. And as we grow up, find a vocation, marry, have children, whether you’re an alcoholic or not, we learn that we truly fulfill ourselves only with and through others. And y’all know that. What a wonderful gift for everyone in this fellowship. The first lesson that Bill W learned was that the only way he could stay sober was to share with another drunk with the desire to assist that person. That’s why he made that call in the hotel in Akron, to keep himself from taking that first drink. He needed to share with another drunk. And it is something of a mystery of why that works, but we all know it does.

39:32: There are many ways that one has gotten in the fellowship of the spiritual journey from king baby to mature being, human beings. Listening means letting go of the desire to be the center and becoming open to the wisdom of the fellowship. Sharing with another drunk allows one to become less judgmental of self as well as others. And then there is resentment. Number one offender. Resentment is so totally self-focused. We become so wrapped up in how we have been wronged, whether it’s real or imagined. To recover necessarily requires learning to let go of resentment. And you’ve taught me it’s about focus. Do I focus on how others have violated my being, my good actions, or do I focus on the many gifts that others have given me? If getting a sponsor is an early act of letting go, serving as someone’s sponsor is an act of giving of self that will strengthen one’s sobriety even further. A friend of mine once told me, “When we sponsor someone, we sometimes desire good for another more than we do even for ourselves.” And that desire ends up doing us good by bringing out the best in us. One of the clearest lessons from AA is that helping others helps self. The journey of recovery calls us to enlarge our vision and grow in selfless love. And as long as we live, that journey is never finished.

41:06: The last quality of the spirit of AA that I would like to talk about is gratitude. Over the last few years, on the general service board, most of my contact with members of the fellowship has been with people who have 15-40 years of sobriety. And if there’s a single characteristic that I would use to describe them, it’s gratitude. I think this focus on gratitude is one of the greatest gifts that I’ve received from this fellowship. I have received so many gifts in this life. I’m surrounded by love on every side. I never even saw that before I was out of college. And all I have to do is open my eyes, and see the gifts, and see the love, and gratefully receive it. I had no friends. I have no friends from high school, from college days, because I was so intense on my own achievement.

42:05: I quote from Ernie Kurtz in Katherine Ketcham’s new book, “Experiencing Spirituality”, the hallmark of recovery of spirituality is gratitude. In fact, gratitude may be a synonym for recovery.” That is so good. Hope, truth, honesty, letting go, acceptance, loving others is a way of loving self, gratitude. These are spiritual realities that are a part of the spirit of AA. There are more. I haven’t even mentioned things like unity, caring, the message, purpose, self-support, anonymity, and we could go on. These qualities, this culture is invisible, it’s intangible. These are spiritual realities. They are difficult, maybe even impossible to define. But we experience them. Just so are our lives changed in form by this invisible culture, this spirit of AA, that is a integral part of the fellowship. It is an experiential spirituality. It’s pragmatic. It’s known through living. And frankly, this is what really matters. A newcomer, caught by hope, sharing of one story, seeking above all to be truthful, letting go of the desire to be self-directed, choosing a sponsor, identifying with another who is both different and yet the same, discovering the gifts that have been given, becoming happy, joyous and free, all made possible by the spirit of AA, unseen, indescribable, but known through experience.

43:47: I said that I seek common ground from members of this fellowship who cannot accept belief in a transcendent deity and those who do. I believe the common ground will be found in a common experience and that experience is shaped and formed by the culture of AA, an invisible reality that has great power over the members of this fellowship. This collective power of AA is greater than any single person or group. It makes the impossible possible. The power can be discovered within a person but it is also beyond the person. It is an inner resource and it is a collective power. Many in AA refer to this invisible reality, this culture, this spirit, as a higher power, as God. Others who cannot bring themselves to compromise their rational understandings to believe in some sort of a deity still experience the power of this invisible reality within the AA groups. And I would suggest that since all members of the fellowship are influenced by this invisible power, the differences between those who wish to call it God and those who would choose a different name like emotional power or culture, the differences between them are tiny compared to the shared experience. What we believe about something is far less important to living than what we experience. Experience is what transforms us. Belief is in the head. It’s our attempt to explain the experience.

45:31: Experience trumps explanation. I’m gonna say that again.

[laughter]

45:36: Experience trumps explanation. And I believe that the dialogue between those who are religious and those who are free thinking agnostics and atheists in AA can bear much fruit. I believe the common ground of experience provides the basis for that conversation. I say this as a religious person, whose spiritual life has been strengthened and sustained by this program, by this fellowship, I have gained much this weekend, as well, and I am truly grateful for the gifts that you have given me. I humbly, humbly give thanks that I have been privileged in the most wonderful way to be a part of this fellowship. Thank you.

[applause]

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  1. Gerald June 18, 2018 at 3:59 am - Reply

    Really enjoyed the transcript. Happy that AABB magazine invites believers to share; great that he was a speaker at the convention.

    I’m an expert only on my own personal recovery journey, but even my understanding of that changes over the years 🙂

    Sure, I know the BB backwards and forwards, and I recommend following the instructions AND having your own personal experience with the program, as described.

    But I also say, *** Stay a.w.a.y. *** from the recovery know-it-all’s who want to fix you (control you) 🙂

    And I just love to hear this same message from believers. There are plenty of believers in 12-step that know that “experience trumps explanation.” And thank goodness for them. They made me feel safe when I was new. Believers who followed the spirit of the BB and 12&12 – love & service, humility & gratitude – made me feel safe the first ten years or so till I could stand on my own feet as a non-believer.

    Thanks,

    Gerald

  2. life-j June 17, 2018 at 11:14 am - Reply

    But now, having woken up a bit more, I would like to comment further on ‘experience trumps explanation’ – this is actually important, and not even primarily individually, as Ewing uses it, but overall, for the whole fellowship, in a whole different way:

    Here Bill Wilson decides, after a couple of years to *explain the experience* – and that’s where it got all off track. He had made some great discoveries on how alcoholics interact with each other, and trust each other, and can support each other – the “experience” – and then he sat down to write the big book on how god did it all – “the explanation”.

    It’s time we wrestle the two apart

  3. life-j June 17, 2018 at 10:32 am - Reply

    Hmm, I wasn’t quite awake when I sat down at the computer, and I confess the last thing I wanted this Sunday morning was to “experience Trump’s explanation”.

    Anyway, this was good. I’ve always liked rev Ewing. Two or three fewer references to god would have been sufficient, but he really has a way of explaining things that pulls us together rather than apart.

    • John S June 17, 2018 at 10:35 am Reply

      LOL. Doris had me change the title. It seems the word “trump” engenders a reaction in people which is not always pleasant. 🙂

  4. XBarbarian June 17, 2018 at 9:20 am - Reply

    a good read.. and good talk. funny how good stuff.. often comes from folks we wouldn’t expect.

    open minds are good recovery tools.

  5. Thomas Brinson June 17, 2018 at 8:50 am - Reply

    Indeed, John, thanks for posting the transcript and the recording of Rev. Ewing’s keynote address at the Santa Monica 2014 Secular AA Convention. It was inspirational then to hear it in person, and it remains so today to read it again.

    And thanks for posting all of the speakers from previous conventions — this is a marvelous way for us to prepare for the August 24-26 2018 ICSAA Conference in Toronto.

    • John S June 17, 2018 at 9:10 am Reply

      It’s fun to look back at past conferences. I made many great friends at both the Santa Monica and Austin Conference. There were also some great panels and workshops that we will be posting. At ICSAA this August, the speakers, workshops and panels will also be recorded and posted here. It’s a great way to archive our history.

  6. Larry K June 17, 2018 at 7:03 am - Reply

    This was a good post for fathers’ day.

    Not because it is about fathers, but because it is about nurturing.

    Thank you Ward.  I hope to meet you some day and thank you in person.

     

    Larry

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