I was making some toast for breakfast the other morning when I heard someone on the radio talking about the start of the season of Lent. “Here it is again” he said, “summoning me once more to reflect on and change how I live my life.” It set me thinking about change.
I remembered a day some years ago when I showed a small group of church leaders around a Twelve Step Day Treatment Centre that I was involved with. They saw the facilities, heard about the programme structure and met with some honest, articulate people in early recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. The visitors seemed to be impressed by the changes these people spoke about and the new spiritual pathway that they were treading.
It turned out that Frank, an Anglican (Episcopalian) priest was not completely convinced and in our closing discussion he aired his doubts. “I can see that their lives have improved for the better compared with when they were drinking or taking drugs,” he said, “but aren’t they just replacing one addiction with another by attending AA or NA meetings all the time instead?”
There were many answers I could have given, but I was beaten to it. Ellie, a Methodist deacon responded quickly with a passionate and perceptive reply.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “Don’t you see Frank, this isn’t just a change, this is transformation. It’s so much more radical.”
The conversation moved on, but I was intrigued by Ellie’s profound answer and talked to her about it later, when the others had left. She elaborated on her comments.
“As I see it, getting into recovery is not a minor adjustment in life and neither is a decision to follow the way of Jesus. They both involve a fundamental change of mind about how we deal with the mess of our lives because the coping strategies we’ve been using are not working and our eyes are finally opened to see it.”
This was certainly my experience and seemed to fit with how twelve step recovery works. As Step One puts it, “our lives had become unmanageable.” In other words, we’ve got to admit we’re broken before we can begin to be made whole. The change required to do this is a paradigm shift, or transformation as Ellie put it, because it’s not just the addictive behaviour that has to change but our whole perspective and existing assumptions about life too – how we view and react to ourselves, other people, events and everything around us. The same goes for following the way of Jesus. No wonder that’s sometimes referred to as conversion.
“So what about Frank’s assertion that people in recovery are just switching to another slightly less damaging addiction by going to meetings?” I asked her. “I imagine he attends church far more often than most people go to AA meetings but I don’t think he’s addicted to it.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” said Ellie with a laugh. “As I see it, attending AA or Church meetings are only the outward signs of the inner transformation and not the change itself. People attend these meetings because of the inner change and because they help us to commit to and maintain the change by spending time with other like-minded individuals. They can show us how to deal with the damaging addictive behaviour, mistakes, sins or whatever it may be in a different way, one which is far better thought out.”
Again, this rang true for me. I was keen to find out more.
“Transformation is definitely about embracing the new but isn’t it also about letting go of the old ways of thinking and behaving?” I said. “In recovery this is most obviously seen by stopping drinking or drug taking, but really it goes much deeper than this and is about a change in all behaviours. So many people in long term recovery have said to me that after a while the addictive substance or process is no longer the problem, it’s much deeper things like anger, resentment, ego, self-pity and fear which need to be dealt with.”
“Yes,” said Ellie. “Jesus certainly saw the need for this inner transformation, not just in his teaching about a new way of living where we love our neighbour, but in recognising that our problem lies deep within, wrong reactions and conduct come from our hearts and unless these are transformed, everything else is superficial and cosmetic. Time after time in the gospel accounts of his encounters with people, Jesus talked about this deeper, inner transformation which we need to undergo and his offer to help us find this new way.”
“Exactly!” I said. “We let go of the familiar old patterns and enter a new world, the counter-intuitive one of the Sermon on the Mount where we give to receive, we become great by serving and we surrender in order to become free. Twelve step recovery is full of this counter-intuitive behaviour too, but it doesn’t come easily.”
“It certainly doesn’t,” said Ellie. “Have you read any Richard Rohr?”
“I love his stuff,” I replied, “I’m sure friends of mine get sick of me mentioning him.”
“You may already know this quote then,” she said. “Rohr says something along the lines of spiritual transformation being the process of letting go and living in a confusing dark space for a while, allowing yourself to be spat up on a new and unexpected shore. That’s why Jonah in the belly of the whale is such an important symbol.”
I’d not heard that but I liked it. Going into recovery really is like a period of darkness before entering a new land. Fortunately there are people who’ve now become familiar with that new land who are ready and willing to welcome the newcomers and help them to find their way around. All part of the new life of service. The same goes for those following the way of Jesus. The Kingdom of God that he spoke about is very new and very different from how we naturally think, what we thought we knew and the ways of living that we had become familiar with.
The sound of the toaster popping up brought me back to the present day. The man on the radio was right. We do need to be summoned periodically to reflect on and change how we live our lives, because new places and pathways quickly become routine and familiar. Lent offers us this time for self-reflection, when we dig into the layers of our hearts and minds and find the inner seams of unhealthy thinking and behaviour towards God, others and ourselves and set about correcting them.
I thought about one final comment Ellie had made.
“We can get too caught up in thinking it’s all about us. Whilst we play our part in the process, transformational change is not really about us and what we do. God chooses to ‘co-produce’ it with us as they say these days, so we do play a part, but in the end, transformation is all about God’s grace working in us.” She paused and then laughed. “I’d love to talk to you about grace because it’s one of my favourite subjects, but we’ll have to come back to it another time. My car is on a meter and I really don’t want another parking ticket!”
Sadly, we never did have that conversation about grace but I received an email from her a few days later thanking me for the visit which gave me a flavour of how change and grace are connected. At the bottom of her message there was a quote by Ann Lamott, writer, follower of Jesus and recovering addict. “I do not understand the mystery of grace, only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
Much as I’d like to be instantly transformed into a new way of love and self-giving, it’s going to be a life-long process. Fortunately, Lent is here again, suffused with grace, to shake me from my lethargy and to challenge me once more to follow more closely in the way of Jesus.