An Inside Job

I love browsing in flea markets and junk shops. You just never know when there may be something of value hidden in the midst of all the tat and rubbish. It’s kind of ironic, really, because over recent years I’ve come to realise that my inner life also contains a great deal of clutter and trash. I may try to convince myself or others that it is a tidy, well organised place, full of unique pieces – interesting curios and charming antiques if you like, but unfortunately, it’s not really like that. Inside, there’s the cluttered rubbish of a junk shop – wrong ways of thinking, distorted memories and beliefs, long held resentments and unhelpful patterns of behaviour. I suspect too that I’m not alone in this if conversations with a few close friends or comments that I’ve read are anything to go by. As the author CS Lewis said, “on looking inside myself I found a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears and a harem of fondled hatreds.”

Jesus was well aware of our inner mess and was never fooled by those who were presenting themselves as neat and well-ordered. He responded in different ways. To the scribes and pharisees, self-righteous and proud, he was scathing: “Hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” On other occasions he was more sensitive, though just as clear about the problem. For example, when a rich man came to him asking what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus was gentle in his response when the man said that he had kept all the commandments since he was a boy. Jesus told him to go and sell all that he possessed, which got to the heart of the man’s inner problem – his wealth was a false source of security, an idol in the place of God, sadly too much for him to let go of at that point in his life. On yet another occasion Jesus spelt it out for us all when he said that “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come.”

Twelve step recovery is also very clear about our inner mess, and it is probably fair to say that the bulk of the programme is about addressing this mess rather than the specific addiction. There is a clear recognition that it is the accumulated rubbish in our lives which not only pushes us towards addiction but keeps us there and creates wrong ways of living. This may be a result of things done to us, traumas suffered even, or it may be a consequence of incorrect ways of coping with the ups and downs of life, bad decisions we’ve made and wrong actions on our part. Whatever the cause, the result is the same and dealing with our inner mess is the stuff of almost half of the twelve steps, beginning with Step Four’s “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” followed up in quick succession by the next two steps where we admit to “God, ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” moving on to a point where we are “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” It is a way of living which deals with the rubbish in our lives that many of us would prefer to bury away from the scrutiny of others.

Because it’s an inside job, we must reply upon and co-operate with God, our Higher Power to do this work within us. Prayer and meditation is the central, golden thread through which we seek knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry it out. This is of course not a one-off event but a daily practice, which ultimately becomes a lifelong way of living. It’s not a solo flight either. We don’t have to do it alone – in fact we were never meant to. We need others to help us, through confession, spiritual direction, sponsorship, discipling, mentoring or even just plain and honest conversations and sharing over a cup of coffee.

Unlike Twelve Step Recovery, much of Christianity has now become a private faith, something that is just between ourselves and God, but when we do involve others and share something about our inner junk – our “dead bones and uncleanness” – we begin to find freedom and healing. This is helped by the fact that we not only find an acceptance from the other person about this part of ourselves and the things we have done/think which shame us, but invariably an acknowledgement by them that they are pretty much the same. We are not alone.

As jobs go, inner change is a slow business. At times it can be disheartening, because once we are aware of our inner mess, we tend to continue to notice the junk more than anything else. “All you can do is create a space for transformation to happen, for grace and love to enter,” says Ekhart Tolle.  When we do, these mysterious currents of God’s Spirit get to work within us, highlighting our beautiful and valuable inner treasures to other people who are helped and blessed by them, even if we aren’t aware of it. Miraculously, when we change, the world changes a little bit too.

A Morning Prayer

Someone recently showed me a powerful quotation – the sort which stops you in your tracks. It went thus: “Christianity is a lifestyle – a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared and loving. Unfortunately, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself.” This stunning critique by the Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr seems to get to the heart of why we Christians have so often failed to transform society as Jesus intended. If, by the way, you’re about to question that, go read the Sermon on the Mount first and see the manifesto for lifestyle change which Jesus proposed. It’s radical stuff. Not just The Beatitudes (which themselves are a call to new and positive action), but the subsequent teachings about loving our enemies, giving to the needy, forgiving those who wrong us, not judging others and living a day at a time, trusting in God’s daily provision for us.

Twelve step programmes of recovery are also about lifestyle change. Yes, they’re about stopping an addiction, but ultimately, they’re about living a happy, joyous and fulfilled life by behaving in a totally different way, one day at a time. The Big Book of AA (p84) describes the process in detail. “We continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment and fear.  When they crop up, we ask God at once to remove them. We discuss them with someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone.  Then we resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help. Love and tolerance of others is our code.”  As one of the sayings within recovery puts it, “You can’t think yourself into a new way of living, you have to live your way into a new way of thinking.”

One of the best ways any of us can do this, is to start each morning with a prayer, committing ourselves afresh to this different way of living and asking for help to carry it out. For those in recovery this is Step 11 work (“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with the God of our understanding”), which is probably the most easily neglected or side-stepped part of the programme. There are of course countless prayers we can use but here is a simple one which helps me to begin each day with fresh resolve to live it well and live it in the right way.

Searching for Soul Food

The strawberries I’ve eaten this summer have been a big disappointment. Though bright red and as beautiful looking as ever, they taste weak and watery, not delivering that massive hit of flavour which should leave you reaching for the next berry, the one after that and so on, a conveyor belt of pure strawberry pleasure.

It reminds me of my experiences attending church. I usually go with great expectations, but if I’m honest, services generally don’t hit the sweet spot I’d hoped for. It doesn’t really matter how hard I try or what style of service it is either, other people around me always seem to be getting a lot more out of it than I do, as if their bowls of strawberries are packed with flavour, whilst mine is not. Some of these people appear to be in a state of ecstatic rapture, some exude an aura of quiet holiness, others have the intense look of desert hermits but unfortunately, I’m not as transfixed. It’s not the fault of those leading or taking part in the services and I have the best of intentions, genuinely wanting something profound to happen, but invariably I end up distracted by a wandering mind or I’m just plain bored. Inevitably I feel rather shallow and unspiritual as a result, but somehow, inexorably, I’m drawn back, week after week.

I was helped enormously with this problem by a friend in Twelve Step Recovery who talked to me in passing about an AA meeting he’d just attended. “It was awful,” he said. “I wanted to walk out, listening to some of the ridiculous stuff that was being said.” This intrigued me because neither he nor anybody else I know who attends meetings had ever said anything like that to me before. My friends in recovery are all wise, honest, perceptive people and I imagined the meetings they attended would be full of sassy folk like them, pouring out words of understanding and insight from loving hearts. I probed, wanting to find out more. He laughed at my naivety. “You’ve been to meetings,” he said. “You know its not all love and enlightenment. A lot is quite boring and there’s a fair bit of unchallenged nonsense spoken too. Whatever my feelings may be though, I stick around and continue to turn up at the meetings because it’s all I’ve got, and somehow the five percent that’s really good helps me to stay clean and sober.”

I thought about my church-going experiences. The parts which pass me by or I miss through not concentrating and mentally drifting off certainly aren’t nonsense, but perhaps it’s okay for me to stop worrying about them. Maybe there’s never going to be an earthquake, wind and fire, or at least, until there is, why not concentrate instead on listening for the still small voice in the five percent that does do something for me. On the days when I can’t even get as high as five percent, I need to remember that always, always I come away feeling better in mind and spirit than when I arrived. Something happens deep within. The still small voice may not be audible, but I’m reminded that I am connected, part of a motley shoal of people that is swimming against the prevailing current. I get fed with tiny morsels of spiritual micro-protein and wisdom. I recognise the need to be still and to receive God’s love whether that is through sharing the Peace, receiving the Eucharist or conversations over coffee afterwards.  Jesus said “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” I know that I’m hungry and need food from the table, provided by the Bread of Life, so I’ll just keep on turning up to receive this in any way I can and in any place where I find it. As they say in Twelve Step meetings, “Keep coming back, it works if you work it.”

Broken Vessels – the Mystery of Redemption

Whilst walking the dog, I’ve recently begun to collect those small fragments of broken pottery that are so inexplicably present in gardens, streams in the woods and on beaches. It fascinates me how they ended up there and I like speculating about the unknown history of these small worthless pieces, imagining the larger functional item they were once a part of and the owners who used and perhaps treasured them. I may use the fragments I’ve found as mosaic pieces surrounding a central mirror, giving them a purpose and value once more. As far as I know, and rather disappointingly, there isn’t a Japanese word for this, in the manner of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold which highlights and embraces the flaws and imperfections, creating an even more beautiful piece of art than before it was broken.

The spiritual parallel is not difficult to see in the life and teachings Jesus and in Twelve Step Recovery. The idea that God is interested in broken people and somehow, mysteriously, uses our flaws and imperfections to make something more beautiful and valuable than it was before, lies deep within these ways of living. Our initial surrender and trust in God’s will and purpose for our lives allows this transformational work to take place. Jesus constantly talked about how he had come for the lost, the sick and the lame – the equivalent of those broken, pieces of pottery – transforming us into new people, with fresh meaning and purpose. (His deeply flawed disciples illustrate this perfectly). These flaws in our nature become the marks that make us special, like the knot in a piece of timber which the master craftsman turns into a feature on a table-top or bowl, a thing more beautiful than it would have been without it. It is part of the topsy-turvy world of the Kingdom where loss is really gain, giving is receiving and brokenness becomes redemptive. And redemption is God’s core business with human beings. In one of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge Novels, Harriet a non-believing sculptor explains the mystery of the relationship between the creator and their creation. “No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work …..it’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of the distortion and beauty out of all the mess. You love the work and you suffer with it and always – always – you’re slaving away against all the odds to make everything come right”.

A few years ago, some fascinating research from Connecticut showed that after more than five years in recovery within Twelve Step Programmes, people were contributing more to society and the world around them than if they’d not had an addiction in the first place. They were more generous, more grateful, more sacrificial, more willing than the average person or the way they had been prior to their addiction. We see this to be true in the lives of pretty much anybody regularly attending Twelve Step Meetings and working the programme, whether it is the woman alcoholic who only used to leave her house once a day to buy drink at the corner store, forbidden from seeing her grandchildren who has now become a wonderful, caring grandmother working on reception at the local community centre; the heroin addicted artist who produced nothing for years but is now reconciled with their parents and painting stunning and profound pictures, or the crack addict now repairing cars, volunteering on a helpline and supporting his kids.  

Broken vessels made useful and beautiful. It’s both that simple and that profound. We may not always feel like we’re beautiful and useful and we may only see our flaws and failures, but we can each be part of the redemptive, transformational work of God going on all around us. We remain flawed and imperfect, but we are never useless, “because God uses broken people like you and me to reach broken people like you and me.”

On the Frontline – learning from Covid

It now feels like a very long time ago that Coronavirus so rudely kicked down the front doors of our comfortable, stable, well-planned lives and unceremoniously marched on in.  At long last, nearly eighteen months later, many of the worst affected countries are finally lifting their lockdowns and easing the various restrictions put in place to limit the virus’s rapid and seemingly relentless spread. It is noticeable, however that this gradual relaxation has been accompanied by signs of the usual human tendency to forget what we’ve been through and the lessons we thought that we’d learned, as we rush headlong to bury ourselves once again in what Heather King calls “the low-level anaesthetic haze of distractions and false gods.” There’s an old Irish blessing which says, “May you never forget what is worth remembering, nor ever remember what is best forgotten.” Maybe now is a good time for us to take stock and reflect on the things that we thought we’d learned during the Covid Pandemic but are now in danger of forgetting. We need to remember what is worth remembering.

Over the first six months of the pandemic there was a lot of talk about both love and suffering. Love was perhaps most clearly seen in the work of many of the frontline health and social care staff whose self-sacrificing care for the ill, lonely and dying went far beyond their job descriptions or professional expectations. Other essential workers, all too often the lowest paid people in our communities served us with immense dedication and love, keeping shelves stocked, food supplied, garbage cleared, fuel flowing and transport running. With schools and workplaces shut, families suddenly found themselves living close to one another 24/7 which required them to discover new depths of love, patience and tolerance. Love was also to be seen in many small acts of kindness for others in need in the community. People looked out for neighbours who were old or vulnerable, significant increases were seen in donations and contributions to local food banks and meal services, help was offered to those who could not manage. Little kindnesses of many sorts abounded. We discovered the truth of Mother Theresa’s words: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Communities flourished and we dreamed of a greener, cleaner, more loving world.

The virus also caused much suffering too. Not just the premature and often painful death of nearly four million people world-wide, but also those who were acutely ill and survived, as well as relatives who suffered as their loved ones died alone and without the opportunity to say a final goodbye. Those who have developed ‘long-covid’ continue to suffer in painful and extreme ways.  Elsewhere, many people with other health conditions suffered from temporarily inferior services and slower treatment as resources were shifted to fighting the virus. And all around us the poor, those in overcrowded living conditions, those in households where there was domestic violence, suffered even more than normal. Some experienced a double or triple whammy of these and other sources of suffering.

The majority of us, may not have experienced such extremes and instead found ourselves stuck in the lockdown hinterland of reduced options, dull routines and loss of purpose as its duration dragged on beyond any of our expectations. We just longed to get back to normal, whatever that new normal would look like. Yet, our eyes had been opened to a global vulnerability, and maybe we’d never have quite the same self-assuredness ever again.

Love and suffering have always been the most significant means by which we achieve spiritual growth. People in recovery know this and Jesus taught and consistently lived this truth. Addiction itself causes “acute and constant” suffering to both the addict and those around them and arguably the turning point is when the prolonged suffering caused by the addiction becomes too great to carry on. As the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions says, “Until now, our lives had been largely devoted to running from pain and problems. We fled from them as from a plague.  We never wanted to deal with the fact of suffering. Escape via the bottle was always our solution. Character-building through suffering might be alright for the saints, but it certainly didn’t appeal to us.”

The road to recovery is painful. The simple fact of living without a substance or process that we have always relied upon and having to stand without it, emotionally naked before the world is hard. Recovery is also painful because it requires change, most significantly the loss of ego which comes from our surrender. But wherever there is pain and suffering, love is usually there too, lurking in the shadows in the form of other people for whom this is a way of living and service. As the Big Book of AA says, “Love and tolerance of others is now our code.” In twelve step recovery, people find themselves drawn to others by acts of love; the duty which begin as a requirement of the programme ultimately develops into a way of life for the individual who gradually becomes loving and giving rather than selfish and taking.

The single most important message of Jesus was that God loves each of us and as a result will do anything to bring us back into his light. Anne Lamott says, “Sometimes I think God loves the ones who most desperately ache and are most desperately lost – his or her wildest, most messed-up children – the way you’d ache and love a screwed-up rebel daughter in juvenile hall.” The two great commandments of Jesus urge us to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. No soft sentimental love this, but a diamond hard centre of being, made so by the intense forces of costly self-sacrifice and suffering. As children of God we are to fill our lives with such love for God and others. Never one to ask anything of others that he did not do himself, Jesus lived this love to the full and experienced the process of dying to self. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it cannot bear great fruit.” His brutal death brought great love and extreme suffering together in one final cataclysmic yet ultimately triumphant event.

None of this is news to most regular readers of this blog and certainly not to anyone with a strong recovery from addiction or Christian faith. One of the golden threads running through both is that love and suffering are our great teachers. But because we sometimes lose focus and our ego seeks to reassert itself from being in its rightful place and constantly tries to Edge God Out, it always pays to do a spiritual health check on how we’re doing, remembering that we so easily fall prey to self-deception. No time is better for doing this check than right now when things are starting to return to “normal.”

As I’ve said previously in these blog posts, I’m a real coward and will do my utmost to avoid pain and suffering if I can, but I am also a realist who knows it’s a fact of life and that somehow, at some point it will come knocking. In the meantime, whether suffering or not, we can always work at being better at loving others. So, the question is, each day, how can we better love those around us, not just by what we do but also by what we don’t do. Not saying the unkind, uncharitable things but only speaking words that encourage, build up and bring life. Giving the nicest and the best – not just the cheapest or most convenient, sharing the things we hold dear, sacrificing our time, comfort and ease. It’s the kind of love which has no price tag on it. Such love is steady and slow work, changing us without us ever knowing it’s happening. Life may sometimes feel dull or purposeless but the challenge to love those around us means that each day and in every situation, we are all called to be frontline workers. “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and in the life to come.” (Henri Nouwen)

Crazy Busy – addicted to activity

It’s been a strange few months since Covid 19 kicked in earlier this year. For many of us who didn’t have to work longer, harder hours, lockdown acted like the click of a hypnotist’s fingers, snapping us out of our trances to reveal hidden, damaging behaviours and addictions. Suddenly, as work and social activities slowed right up or stopped completely, we could see our part in society’s addiction to consumption, travel and perpetual economic growth, which results in the relentless exploitation of the natural world. Revealed too were our personal addictions to shopping, thrills and work. Above all, we discovered that one of our greatest dependencies was constant, ceaseless activity and busyness.

Being busy, aiming to achieve and do well in whatever we take on is an easy trap to fall into, because like all addictions there are plenty of pay-offs. People applaud us for it and they appear to like us more for taking on additional responsibilities or helping out. Busyness makes us feel good about ourselves and our identity is positively defined by a sense of achievement for what we do. The busier we are, the more we believe in the lie that our worth is defined by the things that we do. Given further opportunities to become even busier, we grab them, people pleasers to the end, desperate to bolster our fragile self-esteem. If anybody suggests that we are too busy, our immediate response is that we are simply doing our duty. The activities we do have to be done and if we don’t do them, who will? Denial is another good defence, usually with an example of someone even busier than us. This is rather like an alcoholic who says he’s not an alcoholic because he knows people who drink far more than he does. We can always find that busier person too, but in doing so we ignore the words of Jesus to “first take the log out of our own eye”. He knew that each of us has a huge blind spot preventing us from seeing our own damaging behaviours.

When lockdown really took hold and it was no longer possible to be busy in the ways we normally were, there was a frantic search for alternatives. In a frenzy of activity, people were setting up WhatsApp groups, arranging Zoom meetings and engaging in social media as if all our lives depended upon it. Which in some ways they did, because we still needed our fix. Fortunately though, over time, many of us began to accept our new situation and very gradually relaxed into it, like cranked up passengers boarding a plane who finally calm down an hour or two into the flight.

We had time to think and reflect. We began to discover that perhaps ceaseless activity wasn’t always good for us. Taking time to do things more slowly brought its own rewards. Simply being still could feel good too. Walking along deserted, traffic-free roads we noticed the trees coming into leaf, saw the different blossoms come and go, heard the birds sing and rejoiced in the fresh pollution-free air, all of which brought us calmness and harmony. We were reminded of our smallness in the great spread of things and realised that our planet would generally do very well without us. We found time to step back and see the needs of those around us. And the most liberating feeling of all was the rock-solid reason we had for not being busy. We required no lame excuse and had no sense of failure for an unfinished job or for letting someone else down. It wasn’t our fault. We had to stop and in spite having stopped, we were still okay.

Jesus completely understood the problem of busyness and overactivity. He resisted the temptation to become a busy, people pleaser.  After feeding five thousand plus hungry people, Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “immediately” headed off into the hills to pray. No waiting around to soak up the success. He knew that he wasn’t defined by his activity or by what people said about him. Time and again he sought out quiet places where he could stop and be still. He would have known Psalm 46 which says “Be still and know that I am God,” so he sought out time to be alone with God. Prayer was an essential part of this blow against the tyranny of busyness. The idea of “sabbath rest” was familiar to Jesus too, which helps to build a time of stillness and rest into the rhythm of our lives. But knowing our tendency to make everything legalistic and rule bound, Jesus was quite clear that this day of rest was made for us and for our benefit, not the other way around. We are to welcome and enjoy it, not be ruled by it. Such a break from our busyness will rarely come when we have finished our work – the truth is, if we wait to finish before we stop, we will probably never stop, because there will always be something else we want or need to do. Because of this we must build into our lives these enforced breaks and periods of stillness and rest.

Within the 12-step tradition, there is also a recognition that overly busy lives are not healthy. Activity is clearly an important part of recovery but so too is stillness and quiet. Step 11 provides the opportunity: “We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Often this is the least understood and most difficult step of all because people confuse a spiritual practice with religion and shy away from it or fail to engage with it properly. Which misses the benefits the step can bring. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation speaking of step 11 says “you can pray or meditate by being still, quiet, stopping, reflecting and listening to your thoughts. You can plan your day in an orderly way. Ask yourself, God, or a higher power for the right answers to get you through the day.” Which is so helpful to all of us. Building this into our daily routine is good, even when we are busy – especially when we are busy. In the words of St Francis de Sales, “Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.”

As we start to become active again post-lockdown, there is the risk of us picking up where we left off and becoming overly busy again. Fortunately, the gradual return to normality will help and the fact that we are not going back to the same old way of living but a new, different normal. Actively monitoring our busyness is a good idea, as is waiting, reflecting and praying before committing to new requests or activities, recognising with humility that we are not essential to the operation of the Universe and that life will go on without us. Learning to stop, rest, pray and meditate are vital, because only in stopping and giving God our undivided attention do our hearts discover that we are loved by God irrespective of what we do or don’t do. It’s all about a love that is freely given, not duty, busyness or success that we are required to do in order to earn that love. As Richard Rohr says, “The people who know God well – mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God – always meet a lover, not a dictator.” If Covid 19 helps us to discover this, then it is possible that the worst of times can become for us the best of times.

‘Crazy-busy’ is a great armour, it’s a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us. Brene Brown

As soon as we are alone, inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distraction manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important. Henri J.M. Nouwen

Busyness allows us to avoid the deepest questions of our souls. It keeps us at arm’s length from our truest, most authentic selves. And when we don’t know our deepest, most authentic selves, we can’t know what work and what role God has for us in this world. Michelle DeRusha

The way to develop inner peace through meditation begins with the recognition that the destroyer of inner peace is not some external foe, but is within us. Therefore, the solution is within us too. Dalai Lama

Do the Next Right Thing – letting go and letting GOD

We were about 5 hours into the walk when the mist came down. Silent, damp and seemingly impenetrable. Doubt began to fill our minds, every bit as engulfing as the mist. Increasingly unsure of where we were and where we should be going, we stopped and stood still, afraid to make a move in any direction. We had not reached this point of the walk with strong legs and clear minds either. Peat BogMy friend and I had already endured several hours of trudging through cold, biting rain flecked with sleet and a further hour clambering through ancient peat bogs which had at times left us struggling on all fours in order to get out. As we stood in the April mist, trying not to panic, the route where previously there had been other walkers and a fairly clear path, was no longer straightforward. Even using our map and compass was difficult, something that is so easy to do when it’s dry and sunny and you already know the right way. After some calm discussion and marking where we had been, we took some tentative steps forward into the mist and the unknown. Fifteen anxious minutes later we were very relieved to reach a trig point, which not only confirmed our position but revealed two young women who had already made it there. After a break for hot tea and some photographs, we headed off together from this point of security in the agreed right direction. In another twenty minutes we found a rough track and began to descend, emerging soon after into the April daylight. Although we were only about half-way, we sensed with relief that it was going to be alright.

As we all know, life can be very like that walk. We are faced with a dilemma or a difficult decision to make but have no idea what we should do next or in which direction we should go. Nothing seems clear. There are many wise and pithy sayings within 12 Step fellowships, but none is more helpful than the injunction for us to “do the next right thing.” The beauty of it is that it provides no master-plan, no glib answers, no being told by someone what you should do or where you should go – just the assurance that somewhere deep within, if you search for the answer, you will find the next right thing to do. It might be a tiny step forward, very tentatively made, but having taken that step, the premise is that you will then know the next right step. And the next. And so on. It’s easy to pick holes in this saying when you’re sitting in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee and not a care in the world, but amazingly, when you’re in the thick of it, a reminder to “do the next right thing” really does seem to help. If we seek it, we seem to find an internal compass which can help to guide us, like the compass we used to find our way out of the Northumberland mist. Perhaps this compass is really God with us and within us, ever present and guiding us in the right direction to go, as well as giving us the courage to take that next tentative step forward.

It seems to me that “doing the next right thing” doesn’t just apply to the big decisions and difficult choices which we face from time to time. We are constantly making all sorts of choices in our daily life which have implications for us and for others. It is estimated that we make more than 30,000 choices every day!  Decisions to make, goals to set and expectations to meet. In early recovery it can feel particularly overwhelming to have so many decisions to make. Life can suddenly feel even more complicated than it was feeding an addiction. No wonder the Big Book of AA says “we earnestly pray for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity and for strength to do the right thing.” This is a prayer for us all. Of course, there are times when we ignore this advice, times when we do what we want and dress it up in our minds as doing the right thing, or times when we just plain get it wrong. When we recognise that we have done this, doing the next right thing is invariably to acknowledge our errors to God and those involved, making amends where necessary. We can get back on track by “earnestly praying for the right ideal” and for “strength to do it”. As Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, everyone who seeks finds and to those who knock, the door will be opened.” It does open and we do receive.

Although Jesus is never quoted as using the expression “do the next right thing,” he lived in this way and encouraged others to practice it too. Living it meant that he remained in the moment, responding to the next thing he needed to do. On his way to the dying Lazarus and on another occasion to Jairus’s daughter who was very ill, Jesus was side-tracked by other calls on his time and compassion. But was he side-tracked or just doing the next right thing? At that point Lazarus and the little girl were not his immediate priority, their time was to come. And how! Elsewhere in the gospels we see that when Jesus knew what he should be doing, he could not be deflected – Peter’s insistence that there was another way than the road to death in Jerusalem was met with a vigorous rebuff – only someone who knew what they should be doing next would not be swayed by that sweeter alternative suggestion. The hours Jesus spent alone in prayer were the reason why he was clear about what he should be doing. Praying “for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity and for strength to do the right thing.”

Living in this way, in complete assurance of what he was to do next is a wonderful template for how we might live our lives. In his conversations with the people he met, Jesus never provided them with a detailed road-map for their lives, he simply helped them to do the next right thing. After raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead he told the little girl’s parents to give her something to eat. He did not offer them a treatise on parenting. The madman living in the cemetery who was restored to his right mind was told to return to his village to share the good news. Lepers he healed were told to present themselves to the priest, which was the prescribed way of enabling them to re-join society. No road-map or grand plan, simply the next right thing.

Doing the next right thing is about every day and every situation not just the stuck times when we are lost in the mist. At all times and in all places we simply need to do the next right thing. Our personal road-maps for life may give us comfort, but as the recent months of Covid 19 lockdown have shown, we are not in control of nearly as much in our lives as we like to believe. Many of our plans and grand designs have been made obsolete or at least put on hold. All we can really seek to do is the next right thing. As we let go of our plotting and planning and our attempts to strong-arm God into rubber-stamping our own ideas and projects, we find something amazing happens. Not only do we relax into each day and the things that we do, living much more in the moment, but something more wonderful and beautiful than we could ever have imagined will emerge from the steps and actions we take. God’s handiwork is always the most stunning.

The House of the Rising Son : An Easter Reflection

I love early morning during the spring and summer months. I used to attribute it to happy memories of doing a paper round as a boy which required a 5.30am start and then a first job where I worked early shifts. But the more I reflect upon it, the more I think that it is because there is something deeply sacred in the early morning, which we are better attuned to so soon after waking and before the hustle and bustle of the day takes over.  We hear the birds singing, we feel a freshness in the air and smell the sweet fragrance of the new day. With the dawn there comes not only the light of day but a lightening of the heart too. The messes of yesterday and the spectres of the night are washed away by a sense of hope and possibility that this new day can offer. It is, as the Celtic Christians might have put it, a thin place, where heaven and earth are very close.

Our own experiences and memories of being out early in the morning make some of the post Easter stories of Jesus all the more accessible.  There is the Easter Sunday resurrection story when before sunrise a group of women went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. Shortly afterwards Mary Magdalene met the risen Jesus and didn’t recognise him in the half-light after dawn, her eyes full of tears as she mourned the one who had given her the love and respect she had found nowhere else. Some days later there was another dawn encounter, this time for some of the disciples returning tired from a fruitless night-fishing trip, to find the risen Jesus on the beach welcoming them with a cooked breakfast. New days, new beginnings, new hopes.

One of the highlights of my whole year is the dawn Easter Service, where we meet in the darkness of Newcastle’s old Castle Keep, ascending during the service to tEaster Dawn 1ahe rooftop where the fire is kindled and the paschal Candle lit as the sun starts to rise. This year we were not able to hold the service, but the glorious sunrise last year remained in my memory and the sadness about not celebrating the resurrection story in that way does not detract from the wonder of Easter. And that wonder is not limited to Easter Day but carries on in the days and weeks afterwards. For many outside the Church, Easter is done and dusted when the last Easter egg is consumed, but in the Church we continue to celebrate the season of Eastertide over subsequent weeks, discovering that the resurrected Jesus continues to bring us hope and joy, turning our sorrow into rejoicing. Reminding us that the downward path we have so often reflected upon in these blog posts is in fact part of the topsy turvy reality in the Kingdom of Heaven where we lose to gain, give to receive and die in order to truly live. Revealing that our systems of merit, worth and just deserts are not the ways the God of grace works at all. Showing us too that it is not about grim suffering and endurance but about finding joy, hope and happiness that go deep into the centre of our being as we discover who we really are and our hearts truest desires.

This understanding suffuses 12 step programmes and practice. Letting the old habits and addictions die is necessary in order to live, surrendering control to our higher power brings new life and service to others brings joy and happiness. As the Big Book of AA says of the steps, “The joy of living is the theme of AA’s Twelfth Step, and action is its key word.” Elsewhere it affirms that “We are sure God wants us to be happy, joyous and free.” Bill W tells his own story of recovery later in the book and says that “I was to know happiness, peace and usefulness in a way of life that is, incredibly, more wonderful as time passes.” Countless people in 12 step recovery still say the same: “I never knew my life could be so happy”, “I feel as if I’ve truly found who I was always meant to be and that gives me a wonderful feeling of happiness and joy”. “Every day in recovery is one of joyful discovery and the hope that others may find this too.” “All the pain and misery of my addiction has given way to a new life which just gets better every day”. So resurrection is alive and well!

Eastertide is all about continuing to celebrate this resurrection hope and joy. “May you know the Joy of Easter”, we are told in the liturgy. Many of these blog posts may present life as one big struggle through the mess and problems (self-inflicted and imposed) that life brings. Which I believe to be true, but I also believe in resurrection, the hope this brings out of the pain and struggle and the joy that life holds now. Yes now, not in some distant future. Time after time, Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven being here now. It has arrived. And with it comes joy, laughter and happiness. Not for show, not for the future, but now. Joy of living – of celebrating the beauty of nature, the awesomeness of the night sky, the complexity and order of the natural world, the tastes, sights, sounds and smells which bring us moments of delight throughout each day. Joy in the service of others, all unique and valuable individuals, each one fearfully and wonderfully made. Joy in the presence of God all around and within. Joy in and through resurrection. May we all discover that joy and continue to live it this Eastertide.

Joy is based on the spiritual knowledge that, while the world we live in is shrouded in darkness, God has overcome the world. Henri J.M. Nouwen

A joyful life is made up of joyful moments gracefully strung together. Brene Brown

Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

If you can’t find joy in the path you are on and what you are working toward now, how do you expect to find joy once you get there? Anonymous

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy. Tagore

Adversity, illness, and death are real and inevitable. We choose whether to add to these unavoidable facts of life with the suffering that we create in our own minds and hearts -the chosen suffering. The more we make a different choice, to heal our own suffering, the more we can turn to others and help to address their suffering with the laughter-filled, tear-stained eyes of the heart. And the more we turn away from our self-regard to wipe the tears from the eyes of another, the more, incredibly, we are able to hear, to heal, and to transcend our own suffering. This is the true secret to joy. Dalai Lama

The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s Kingdom. It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. NT Wright

 

 

Pathways : Restoration instead of Despair

J and P had been in recovery together for about 3 years. Although they had very different backgrounds, both attended the same 12 step meetings and they had the same sponsor. Within hours of one other, both relapsed – though not together. Their sponsor had seen it coming for them both, but neither believed his warnings about what might happen. Afterwards, the outcomes were very different. As a result of what he did, J was overwhelmed by remorse and shame. Rejected by those who had encouraged his actions he could see no way out and his desperation spiralled into deep self-loathing and isolation. He killed himself. P, however, was also full of remorse and shame but stumbled on, meeting with others, admitting what had happened and then finally meeting with his sponsor who showed he did not judge him for what happened and helped P to forgive himself. P went on to live a life of great purpose and achievement.

In the gospels, J and P also had choices to make and falls to recover from, as we see in the stories of Judas and Peter, two disciples of Jesus. Both failed him in the last hours of his life, failures that Jesus saw coming and warned them about in advance, but which neither managed to avoid. Afterwards, each of them realised very quickly what they had done wrong and both were filled with immense grief and remorse. Judas, went back to those to whom he had betrayed Jesus and acknowledged his sin, but there was no mercy or forgiveness to be found there and they rejected him and turned him away. Desperate and alone, Judas went out and hanged himself. Peter, however, took a very different pathway. He remained with his friends who probably knew full well what he had done, but sticking around was the only option he could see. Two days later, his hopes were raised by the account of the risen Jesus given by some of the women who had also been followers, and then some days later Peter was met by the resurrected Jesus who offered him forgiveness and restitution in a beautiful and moving account in John 21. The most wonderful part of that story, is the fact that Jesus had cooked breakfast on the beach prior to meeting the small group of his followers, attending to their physical, bodily needs before taking Peter to one side, to forgive and restore him. So, for Jesus, the denial wasn’t even the number one priority when he met Peter again – he was already forgiven! True grace and mercy. I am absolutely convinced that if Judas had been able to stay around long enough to meet with Jesus again, he too would have received forgiveness and been fully restored.

The reality of course, is that we all mess up like Peter and Judas. And we all know the deep sense of failure and self-torment when we do. It can feel like a living hell. In the story of Judas we really do get the sense of a suffering soul. Over the centuries, he has been vilified and despised by most within the church, with all manner of eternal tortures and punishments suggested for him, but nothing can compare with that awful deep chasm of despair he felt when he realised what he had done and saw no hope of redemption. Peter, for his part has always been a figure we can identify with – he says foolish things, he behaves in irrational and blindly emotional ways, he seems to have little self-awareness at times he most needs it, which most of us can recognise in ourselves. How many of us recall conversations or things we have done which we replay in our mind over and over again, making us blush with embarrassment or feel hopelessly shamed. So, when we have genuinely done wrong and messed up, Peter’s restoration is our hope of restoration too. And our personal torment until we are restored, is the greatest punishment of all. Those who are working a programme of recovery know this better than most of us. Failures and slips can become significant relapses, which offer a destructive pathway and require a turning back onto the original pathway through reconnection, honest admission and restoration. A difficult but necessary process.

The golden thread of failure and restoration is woven throughout the Bible, though perhaps most clearly shown in the lives of people who met Jesus. Almost every character is shown as a transformed sinner, someone who does it wrong before they ever do it right. “We have erred and strayed from your ways”, says the general confession, from which none of us are exempt. And even when they and we get back onto the right pathway, we all will inevitably go wrong again (and again), “through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.” It seems that this is not just one of those things, but is the way it has to be, for us to learn to let go of our self-assured, self-interested ways of living. As Richard Rohr says, “We must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say. We must be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide. It is the necessary pattern”.  It is only our addictions, our failures to do things right (or sins), death or major loss, serious illness, broken relationships or lost dreams which really bring us to the point where we recognise that not only is the pathway we are on the wrong one but the roadmap we have been using cannot help us find our way back. We have run out of solutions and “our lives have become unmanageable.” At this point we either despair or we turn to look for a place or a person who has the answers. In 12 step recovery this is our higher power; Jesus used other language for the same solution declaring that he offered the thirsty living water from a source which would never dry up, a new way of living and being.

This Holy Week, as we remember and contemplate the path which Jesus trod, leading to his rigged trial and execution, including betrayal and denial by friends who just hours before had shared in the first ever Eucharist, we are reminded that this is a downwards path for us all. Both those in 12 step recovery and followers of Jesus understand this and live it out in their daily lives. It is counter-intuitive, like so much of the golden thread within Jesus’ teaching and 12 step recovery.  In life there is no glory without pain – would that it were otherwise! There is no Easter Day without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But as the resurrection of Easter Day shows and establishes for all to see, not only can we survive the downward path and the pain we experience in our lives, but we can rise up and grow from the tragedies and failures of our imperfection. We win by losing. We are Easter people.

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song. Pope John Paul II

Religion is for people who are afraid of hell, spirituality is for people who have already been there. Anonymous

Whenever God restores something, He restores it to a place greater than it was before. Bill Johnson

Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth. Anonymous

Where do we even start on the daily walk of restoration and awakening? We start where we are. Anne Lamott

In my recovery, I learned that the pain of my defects is the very substance God uses to cleanse my character and to set me free. Alcoholics Anonymous, Daily Reflections: A Book of Reflections by A.A. Members for A.A Members 

Christ is building His kingdom with earth’s broken things. Men want only the strong, the successful, the victorious, the unbroken, in building their kingdoms; but God is the God of the unsuccessful, of those who have failed. He can lift earth’s saddest failure up to heaven’s glory. J.R. Miller

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  The Big Book Step 2

The pattern of the prodigal is: rebellion, ruin, repentance, reconciliation, restoration. Edwin Louis Cole

In the light of the new understanding that I have found in A.A., I have been able to interpret that defeat and that failure and that shame as seeds of victory. Because it was only through feeling defeat and feeling failure, the inability to cope with my life and with alcohol, that I was able to surrender and accept the fact that I had this disease and that I had to learn to live again without alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous,, 4th Edition