The Parable of the Fruit – God provides

Ambulance John came to the Food Co-op this week. We hadn’t seen him for a while. He brought with him two sacks of apples and some bananas which were a welcome addition to the fruit we were giving out that day. John drives a beaten-up old ambulance, crudely painted in a shade of dark green and collects food, clothes and furniture from many undisclosed sources which he then takes to charities and people he discovers are in need. How he found us or where he comes from remain a mystery, and for some reason, those of us helping to run the Co-op like to keep it that way. His coming and going is about as predictable as the national lottery winning numbers. Who knows when he will return – he blows where he wills.

The Food Co-op in Bensham is based on the beautiful, humanising model of food pantries begun by Sarah Miles in San Francisco, recounted in her book Take This Bread. The Co-op is as far removed from the conventional UK food bank as we can make it; lots of fresh vegetables, people are members rather than recipients and they choose their own produce, most of the volunteer helpers are also members and access to the weekly co-op is for as long as anyone needs it. Like the first of Sarah’s food pantries at St Gregory of Nyssa, we operate out of a church (the only place willing to offer us rent free space) but unlike California, the North East of England does not have a ready supply of cheap fresh fruit. Prices are too high for us to buy it in for the increasing number of members and their hungry families. Fruit may seem like a luxury, not one of the staples of life, but I can buy fruit when I want to, so, in the spirit of loving our neighbour as ourselves, our view at the Co-op is that we want the people who come to us to get fruit too.

Sourcing it has been another matter. We contacted the obvious people – supermarkets and wholesalers who may have surplus, but generally they failed to reply. The few who did were already supplying their surplus fruit to horse and pony sanctuaries. We thought that a local factory which produces fruit juices for the UK market might be able to offer us fruit at cost price but they didn’t respond to our letters or calls, and neither did their parent company, a multi-national concern with a high level of Corporate Social Responsibility. One or two of us prayed and we continued to look for a supplier, a connection to a guaranteed supply of fruit. But we never found one.

I don’t know when it was that we realised that although we didn’t have this guaranteed weekly supply, fruit was arriving every week. And it was always enough. It never came from the same sources – sometimes an unexpected supermarket surplus, sometime Fareshare, sometimes a cheap offer at the wholesalers and often it came as small individual donations. Fruit pileMy controlling, organised mind-set wanted a nice tidy, planned supply of fruit for the next few years, but instead, God supplied what we needed, when we needed it. No more and no less. And what variety! Over the last couple of months alone we have had plums, peaches, apples, limes, grapes, pears, melons, bananas, mangos, blackberries, strawberries, lemons, raspberries, oranges and pineapples!

Inevitably, this brings us back to that whole question of living in the day and trusting in God to provide us with the resources we need at the time we need them, rather than fretting ahead and wanting everything sorted out in advance. The antithesis of fear and worry is always faith and trust. Constantly I have to learn and re-learn the words of Jesus that we should not worry about what to eat or drink as God provides for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field and cares much more than this for us. It’s all about trust. As it says in the Big Book, “We trust infinite God rather than our finite selves.” “We never apologize to anyone for depending upon our Creator. We can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness. Paradoxically, it is the way of strength. The verdict of the ages is that faith means courage. All people of faith have courage. They trust their God.”  To me, this faith and trust is not found in the doctrines, dogmas and creeds of religion but rather in placing my trust in a God of love and grace. Where I discover this God, or more to the point, where God chooses to appear is irrelevant – it could be in nature, in the Eucharist, in the kindness of a stranger, in a 12-step meeting or in the arrival of much needed fruit. As Richard Rohr so brilliantly (and uncharacteristically simply) says, “the gospel is not primarily a set of facts but a way of seeing and a way of being in the world because of God. Jesus speaks to the heart, saying (1) God is on your side; (2) God can be trusted; (3) the universe is safe and benevolent; (4) trust yourselves, one another and God; (5) there is no reason to be afraid; (6) it’s all heading toward something good! He does this primarily by touch, relationship, healing and parables.”

As we enter the months of winter, my challenge will be to trust that we will continue to receive what we need at the Co-op when we need it, including fruit. And of course holding on to this trust applies to every other aspect of my life too. I don’t begin to understand how it works, or how I can explain places of atrocity, warfare and starvation and how God’s love and provision is found there, but somehow, I believe it is. But we can only bloom where we are planted and that is all each of us is here to do. So next time you eat an apple or a banana remember this parable of the fruit, reaffirm your trust in God’s care and provision for you and keep on blooming.

You say to God, “I have never seen you provide for me.” God says to you, “You have never trusted Me.” Corallie Buchanan

God will always provide; it just might look different from what we had in mind.  Anonymous

Miracles happen everyday. Change your perception of what a miracle is and you’ll see them all around you. Jon Bon Jovi

When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go.  Henri Nouwen

My trust in God flows out of the experience of his loving me, day in and day out, whether the day is stormy or fair, whether I’m sick or in good health, whether I’m in a state of grace or disgrace. He comes to me where I live and loves me as I am. Brennan Manning

Breaking Good – freedom from shame

The young woman stood there crying and shaking, barely noticing the soreness of her wrists or the stinging of the cuts and grazes on her legs from when the men had dragged her out of the house, just minutes before. She grabbed the loose sheet covering her body more closely around her and shut her eyes – but it didn’t help. She could still sense their angry, threatening presence close by and smell their hot breath and body odour. She was paralysed by fear and overwhelmed by feelings of shame.

The full account of this shocking story and the beautiful, sensitive way in which Jesus cared for this nameless woman, can be found in the gospel of St John. It is one of the many accounts of his meeting with individuals whose behaviour or circumstances were deemed sinful or shameful by the religious authorities and as a result censured by wider society.  Jesus’s response to these shamed people was to talk to them, touch them, eat with them and befriend them. Those self-same religious leaders had brought this woman to Jesus, demanding his opinion on what to do with her. She had allegedly been caught in the act of adultery, for which Jewish law at the time demanded death by stoning – for both partners. Predictably they brought no man to this face-off.  Had it been a set-up, a honey-trap to find a convenient victim? Or was it more likely, just a typical, everyday example of the way in which women were systematically discriminated against and the man allowed to leave. The religious leaders’ behaviour and language says everything about how they viewed the woman. “They made her stand before the group”.  “We are commanded to stone such women”. She was like an object and of no value, simply a pawn in the game of those who wanted to trap Jesus. He ignored their questions, bent down and started to write on the ground, choosing not to gaze or stare at the woman in the way the men who surrounded and accused her were already doing. But they kept on questioning him. “What do you say we should do to her?” If he said stone her, then he was flouting the Roman rulers who had sole authority about the death penalty. If he said not to stone her, then he would appear to be disobeying the religious law.  Finally, Jesus stood up and spoke directly to the accusers. “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” He bent down again and carried on writing in the ground. Gradually the arrogant, self-righteous men, clothed in all their religious finery, so keen to point the finger of shame at this woman, recognised their own spiritual nakedness before The Teacher, and slunk away, until none were left. It is only then that Jesus stands up and speaks directly and compassionately to the woman herself. Far from condemning her, he affirms her and sets her free from guilt and shame to lead a transformed life.

Guilt and shame are often spoken of in one breath and whilst far from distinct, there is nevertheless a difference. Guilt is feeling a sense of remorse for something we have done whereas shame is the feeling that if people knew what we had done or thought, they would no longer respect us, like us, care for us or love us.  Or as the ever enlightening Brené Brown puts it, Guilt is about saying to ourselves, “I did something bad,” whereas shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt is about our behaviour, shame is about who we are, and we tell ourselves that we are a bad person because of what we’ve done.  The woman in the story maybe felt guilt, but the way she was treated was all about shame – “we are commanded to stone such women”. Such women? To those accusing her, she hadn’t just done something bad, she was bad.

 Shame is perhaps a deeper emotion and as a result less easy to fix. It goes to the heart of living, the importance of feeling valued and above all of being loved. And this is deeply rooted in experiences of having been rejected because of things we have done in the past. In some cases this has been a subtle process, in other cases we are explicitly told that our actions have made it harder to love us or that we cannot be loved as much because of something we have done or intend to do. In consequence it can make us very preoccupied with appearing to be doing the right thing, to prevent people discovering the shaming things we do or think, so that the love we need and long for is not withdrawn.

In the popular TV series Breaking Bad, one of the most interesting relationships is that between mild mannered, underachieving chemistry teacher Walter White and his former pupil, less than competent drug dealer Jesse Pinkman. They team up to cook crystal meth, and make large amounts of money from doing so, but as the series develops we see Walter taking more extreme and increasingly brutal measures to protect the business, whilst Jesse has growing misgivings about each new step, plagued by guilt at what they have already done and shame at what his parents, younger brother and girlfriend will think of him. Pink Teddy BearHe even takes the blame for his brother’s cannabis to protect him from receiving the same shame and rejection that he has already experienced from his parents. Towards the end of the final series Jesse is overwhelmed by guilt and the “blood money” that he possesses. He attempts to deal with this by throwing a bag of money out of his car window and trying to give it away to people in need, or those to whom he has a connection. Whilst we may all use various means of anaesthetic or mental justifications and rationalisations to be like Walt and protect ourselves from feeling guilt and shame, in reality most of us are more like Jesse. Even if we pull it off, it is exhausting and ultimately can become overwhelming.

People in 12 step recovery seem to understand a lot about guilt and shame and the difference between them.  I would go so far as to say it is the only treatment or help for addiction that considers or even goes near these concepts – which possibly explains its success rate.  I’ve heard plenty of talk about guilt within Christianity, but not a lot about shame.  Which is kind of curious because now that I understand better what shame is, and can identify with the experience of being shamed, it seems to me that it’s a pretty central part of human social life. Even more to the point, as we’ve already seen, it appears to have been something that was well understood and opposed by Jesus. He never spoke of it directly, but his actions and behaviours were very intentional and were always about not shaming people. In the gospel accounts of his three years of active teaching, he met with people who were already marginalised and cut off because of shameful things. Sexual behaviours, financial misconduct, health conditions. And his consistent message was that these people were all okay. He accepted them, restored them and set them on a new path.  Jesus made a constant habit of sharing meals with all kinds of people so that the religious leaders regularly questioned whether he knew what sort of people they were. He did know and he didn’t care one jot – eating with them became a very public statement of their acceptance and worthiness.

As Christians, there can be an unconscious tendency for each of us to concentrate on polishing our glittering images and ensuring that our best side is always on display. To do otherwise makes us fear that we might be seen as bad Christians – extremely shaming, even though we know that none of us is perfect and accept the importance of regular confession and forgiveness (generally a safe private affair.) It’s also natural for us to avoid showing our ugly and broken bits because this is what we’ve done all our lives, yet the more we see others’ shiny selves, the harder it is to admit our own bad thoughts or actions and the more shame we feel. Within 12 step fellowships, people accept the reality of guilt and shame and in undertaking steps 4 and 5 admit the nature of their past actions to another trusted person (and to God). In doing so, they lay bare their real selves and discover that they are not shamed for what they have done and admitted, which offers great release. Perhaps such “confession” and honest sharing is something that Christians need to do more of, helping us to recognise ourselves for what we are without shame and so accept others without judging or shaming them. We can then be a vehicle for them to experience God’s grace and love.  As Henri Nouwen says, “Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

Shame says, because I am flawed I am unacceptable. Grace says, because I am flawed I am cherished. Anonymous

Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself. Anais Nin

You feel the shame, humiliation, and anger at being just another victim of prejudice, and at the same time, there’s the nagging worry that maybe… you’re just no good. Nina Simone

Even the President of the United States sometimes has to stand naked. Bob Dylan

I decided that the single most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed. Anne Lamott

All We Have Is Now – living in the day

One morning last week I saw a lovely sunrise. As the colours of pink, yellow and gold spread across the pale blue sky, I grabbed my phone to try to capture the beauty I could see. I failed dismally. And deep down I knew that I would. At the time, I was somewhere south of York, traveling on a train at around 120mph, so it wasn’t quite like standing in a field and experiencing the fresh smells of the earth, the cool air blowing across my face, or the sounds of animals and birds heralding the start of a new day. Nevertheless, the sky alone was immensely beautiful, a sacred moment to stop and savour. For some reason, I couldn’t just accept that moment joyfully and then, when it had passed, let it go. No, I had to try to retain and keep hold of it with a photograph.

I’m not alone in this. Go to any concert, fireworks display, or beauty spot and almost everybody is so busy trying to photograph and record the moment for the future that they’re barely present at the time itself. Earlier this year I was at a world-famous art gallery. I saw one man take a photograph of each painting followed by a photo of the information panel about that piece of art, before moving on to do the same with the next picture. He never once stopped to look at those stunning paintings by Van Gogh, Rembrant and Monet. But all of this is simply an external expression of an inner conversation that goes on in our heads most of the time. I have gone to rock concerts and been thrilled by the music and lighting, only to discover myself thinking ahead to what it will be like to tell my friends all about it, rather than just immersing myself in the experience. How crazy to be doing something really enjoyable, (that I had looked forward to) but wanting it to become a past event so that I could tell people about it in the future!

Living in the moment really isn’t something that we humans find easy to do. Animals, birds, fish, trees and flowers are present because they know no other. Young children also live in the moment until we teach and train them to do otherwise. Interestingly, many people who have life-threatening or terminal illness seem to rediscover the child’s ability to focus on the present. In doing so they can become inspirational people, celebrating the now. Generally however, our minds dwell in our past and our futures, constantly playing and re-playing our failures and successes, anticipating our hopes and dreams. For many of us, the future is not just plans and ideas; at the heart of our thinking about the future lies a whole heap of worry and anxiety. In anticipation of some forthcoming event or activity, I imagine every possible scenario, including – in fact highlighting – the most disastrous options possible. Whilst this means that I plan quite well for most contingencies, what a price to pay! It is exhausting! And my self-generated doomsday scenarios never do occur, (fortunately, because they can be of disaster movie proportions). Only one of the many outcomes I’ve considered could possibly happen anyway, and when the future event does come around, it is never, ever quite as I imagined it.  Worrying is an illusory comfort blanket, unnecessary and exhausting. Most important of all, it means missing out on the completeness and the joy that can be found in embracing the present. The past is gone, the future is always just that. Because in the words of the Flaming Lips, All We Have is Now.

All we have is nowPeople in 12 Step recovery get how important the present is – working the programme one day at a time is a central understanding. Rather than dwelling on the past or future, the only option for getting well is to focus on the present. “If we don’t take that first drink today, we’ll never take it, because it’s always today,” wrote Richmond Walker, author of 24 Hours A Day, AA’s first book of meditations. From its earliest days, AA built on this ‘one day at a time’ approach to recovery, though the source of this principle seems to have been lost in the mists of time. The early AA meetings were very influenced by the Oxford Group so possibly it came from there, and many of those meetings also included saying the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his followers. Give us today our daily bread – not tomorrow’s or next week’s bread – just what we need today. This prayer comes in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount manifesto. In it he saw the importance of living today and urged us to live in a trusting relationship with God each day, as the flowers and the birds do, rather than worrying ahead. “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” If we feel unsure and anxious about future events, it can help to remember that in the past we have always had the energy and resources to deal with any particular present moment when it arises. God gives us what we need, when we need it. If I need to do anything about the future now, then I should do it – for example, buying a train ticket in advance to secure a seat and the best price, but after that, letting go, and not worrying about whether the train will run to time, whether my seat might already be occupied and so on.  Whatever happens on the day of travel will be fine, because I will be able to cope with it at the time. We need to keep reminding ourselves of this to correct our false thinking and the compulsion to worry, affirming instead that we are precious and cared for, each and every day and that we will receive the resources and energy to cope with things as and when they arise. Life isn’t always sugar coated, but nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from this loving provision of God. We just need to let go and trustingly, surrender to it.

For the last 5 years or so I have practised mindfulness meditation and found it really helpful. Just taking time out to focus on my breathing, learning to take a step back from the busyness of everyday life and to be present to the moment. It has helped me to become aware of my incessant brain activity – the movies of my past and future playing with monotonous regularity, to the exclusion of the present. Meditation has also helped me to become just that little bit more aware of the times when I am getting preoccupied by the past or future, and the need to return to the moment.  Reminding myself of God’s loving care for me. As step 11 says, prayer and meditation is about “improving our conscious contact with God as we understand him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Being present enough to show gratitude for the many joys we can experience each day. Being present enough to pray when difficult situations arise, wanting to respond to that moment in the right way, humbly seeking ways in which to respond well and to bless others.

On the train home last week, there was also a glorious sunset, neatly book-ending my day. It was like the heart of a steel foundry furnace, stretched out across the sky. This time, instead of trying to capture or share the experience, I managed to simply accept it with a sense of wonder, full of gratitude for its beauty and a sense of transcendence. As I watched, the orange and red extravaganza gradually gave way to crimsons and purples before finally surrendering to the darkness of night.

Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Jesus of Nazareth

Life will be over sooner than we think. If we have bikes to ride and people to love, now is the time. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful. Henri Nouwen

Stop acting as if life is a rehearsal. Live this day as if it were your last. The past is over and gone. The future is not guaranteed.  Wayne Dyer