G.O.D.

One of the few popular TV commercials in the UK at the moment, is a series of adverts for a large chain of opticians. People doing various jobs or activities get them woefully wrong without realising it, because they have poor, uncorrected vision. A shepherd shears his dog instead of the sheep, a vet checks the heart-beat of a fur hat instead of a cat, and so on. Specsavers catIf only they’d gone to the opticians! In a recent one, a joiner puts a back door on upside down, so that the cat-flap is at the top. The workman finishes the job and goes on his way, unaware of his mistake, whilst the mystified cat sits there gazing up at the unreachable cat-flap.

All too often in life we don’t see things very clearly and need a corrective. Jesus’s teaching and example was all about offering us this new focus and clarity. Consistently, he showed what a distorted picture we had, and still have about God. Whether it is the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, the farmer employing labourers, the hen protecting its chicks or the bridegroom and his guests, the stories Jesus told us about God are always correctives, giving us a picture of a God who offers acceptance, protection, care and inclusion. This is most perfectly captured in the story of the prodigal son, where the Father waits longingly for his lost son to return, rejoicing and celebrating when he does, offering forgiveness and reconciliation without a moment’s thought. The essence of that relationship – and all of the other parables Jesus told us about God, is one of unconditional love.

The corrective was needed – and continues to be required because we so often see God as very far from loving. We project onto God our own experiences of parents and those in authority, or our own attitudes and feelings towards ourselves. God becomes angry, punitive and vindictive, constantly disappointed in us, and we live our lives in fear, flight, anger and denial. In the Garden of Eden story in Genesis, the cunning serpent twisted Adam and Eve’s knowledge and understanding by depicting God as rule based, mean, controlling and prohibiting, a picture they completely buy into, abandoning in the process their real experience of God which was one of love and care. We do this today, and end up hiding or feeling angry, avoiding God in name, thought and conversation. A friend of mine who works in a twelve-step treatment centre once told me  that he could say almost anything to the new people entering the programme or use any swear word and it wouldn’t get the response that he gets when mentioning the word God. “ I can guarantee that it will offend someone in the room.”

For all that, there seems to be something very interesting at work amongst those who, with gritted teeth, stick with the twelve-step programme and somehow manage to deal with the God bit. Since it’s prescriptive rather than descriptive, believing in “a Power greater than ourselves” whatever or whoever that might be and “turning our lives over to this God of our own understanding,” is all that is required. Nobody has written about this better than Glenn Chestnut. He talked to a lot of old timers in AA, NA and other 12 step groups, who discovered a higher power of their own understanding in spite of the fact that many were atheists or bitterly opposed to organised religion. They learned to pray, developed strong spiritual lives, and had sustained recovery as a result.  More recently, Nadia Bolz-Weber says that she was helped in her early recovery by an elderly woman who told her that “this isn’t about religion, honey, you just have to find a higher power that you can do business with.” Having been brought up within a guilt-based church system, the real revelation to Nadia was that this woman’s relationship with God was functional, not doctrinal. The God she knew was the key to her staying sober.

Now it might be said that people are simply making God in their own image, but here’s the thing. What I find consistently true amongst all my friends and acquaintances in twelve-step recovery is that their higher power, the God of their understanding, is always kind, loving and accepting, though never in a cotton candy type of way. As one of them put it, “My higher power really likes me”. That is most definitely not the case for a good many mainstream Christians in churches today. God is the angry traffic cop just waiting to pull you over, the heartless judge, the disappointed probation officer, the vindictive jailer. The analogies with authority figures in our legal systems are no coincidence because so much of organised religion is about laws, rules, conformity and appeasing an angry God. I’ve seen it, heard it and if I’m honest, battled with these notions of God most of my life because that’s what I was brought up with. So if I’m given the choice between the higher power of the twelve-steppers which is benevolent and loving, wanting only the best for that person, or the harsh, angry God, constantly disappointed in me which lurks in mind – and I’m pretty sure a good many other people’s minds in churches or brought up in church, then I’ll take their God every time.

That’s why I cling on to the life and teachings of Jesus. Because in him everything comes together. He not only told us about the true nature of God, but in his life and death he showed it. And its really pretty simple. GOD IS LOVE. If that’s not always easy to hang on to or if it becomes tarnished by the love that we’ve received which is often very conditional indeed, then think on this. 1 Corinthians 13 is St Paul’s inspirational account of love. If we replace the word love with the word God, then our distorted picture is corrected, and finally we can begin to see more clearly, the true nature of God.

“God is patient, God is kind, God is not jealous, God is not boastful, God is not rude, God is not proud, God does not demand her own way, God keeps no record of being wronged, God does not rejoice at injustice, God rejoices when the truth wins out, God never gives up, God never loses faith, God is always hopeful, God endures through every circumstance.”

 If we all have different finger-prints, it is not so surprising that we should also have our own way of knowing and understanding God. We are all making the same journey, but the route is different for each and we have to discover it in freedom. Gerard W Hughes

 I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees. Anne Lamott

 Until you meet a benevolent God and a benevolent universe, until you realize that the foundation of all is love, you will not be at home in this world.  Richard Rohr

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.  St Augustine

The great thing to remember is that though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not. C.S. Lewis

 God is the father who watches and waits for his children, runs out to meet them, embraces them, pleads with them, begs and urges them to come home. Henri Nouwen

 

When Love Comes to Town

Sometimes just a few words that someone says to us can have a profound impact on our life.  A number of years ago, I met some incredible women who ran a centre in the USA which helped to transform the lives of women working on the streets. They offered them warm, safe houses to live in, help to deal with their addictions followed by education and employment opportunities when they had recovered. Many of the workers had been through the programme themselves. I got into conversation with one woman called Rochelle, intrigued by what made their programme so successful. I expected some well-established psychological approach within a structured programme, quietly hoping that it would accord with my own views about what did and didn’t work. I was in for a surprise. She just smiled and in her deep southern drawl told it to me straight. “Our approach is simple. We just luuurv them well”.

In another context, I might have dismissed this as well-meaning but hopelessly simplistic, but Rochelle and the others I met were extremely credible witnesses to the programme’s success, their own lives having been transformed through the power of love. Plus, she struck me as the sort of person not to pick an argument with! That brief conversation set me on a long process of reflection and conversations about love as a means of healing. There were many people I knew in the organisation where I worked who were employed in caring or therapeutic roles, running amazing projects, including one which also helped sex workers. With my newly opened eyes, I could see that love was undoubtedly at the heart of their practice – but they shied away from the word when I mentioned it. They understood that it meant agapé and not romantic love yet felt uncomfortable with the idea that they were loving the people they were helping. To them it seemed kind of wishy washy, unprofessional and unsophisticated – a long way from the confident and assured use of the word by Rochelle. As a description of what people do, Unconditional Positive Regard gets in under the professional radar, but not love!

Yet Rochelle and her friends were onto something. Researchers at St. George’s Hospital in London have found that oxytocin, a hormone naturally produced by the brain and often called the “love hormone” for its anti-anxiety effect, can help opiate addicts avoid relapse and remain clean. The hormone is most closely associated with childbirth and breastfeeding, but Oxytocin is also released through warmth, touch and affectionate connection. Other research has demonstrated the damage that lack of love does to a person’s wellbeing and healthy development as well as the positive effects of love on reducing stress, anxiety, depression and improving the immune system. Brené Brown who so often gets to the nub of what is going on in our damaged and broken lives and relationships puts it like this: “Love will never be certain, but after collecting thousands of stories, I’m willing to call this a fact: A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all men, women, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.”

All of this presents a big challenge to me in how I live my life and do my work. Where does love figure in my actions, my intentions and my thoughts, wherever I might be and whatever I might be doing? As ever, I try (with a mixed degree of success) to make my reference point the life and teachings of Jesus. For him, love is at the heart of it all and pretty much everything he did and said was about love, because he came to show and reflect the love of God for all.  As Brennan Manning puts it so well, “Through meal-sharing, preaching, teaching and healing, Jesus acted out his understanding of God’s indiscriminate love  – a love that causes the sun to rise on bad people as well as good, and rain to fall on honest and dishonest people alike.” At times he can seem a bit snippy with his dim-witted disciples (or rather, the men, because the women consistently grasped what he was saying so much more quickly,) but he loved them all to the end – and beyond. He always believed in them, always thought the best, never kept a tally of their mistakes and always forgave them when they didn’t quite hit the mark. Jesus says that everything boils down to two things – loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves. And the God of love he pointed us to, leads the way every time.

The Big Book of AA says that “Love and tolerance of others is our code.” In his last major address to AA groups, Dr. Bob said he believed that the Twelve Steps, when reduced to their essence, could be summed up in the phrase “love and service.” Over the years I’ve heard it said that in Twelve Step meetings there’s a lot of talk about service, but nobody ever talks about love. If this really is the case, it may actually be okay, because talking about love is not love. Talk is cheap, but love can be costly because it is about doing something. Like riding a bike, love only works when you start pedalling. And truth be told, I see a lot of love in the rooms and amongst people in the fellowships – welcome, acceptance, long-suffering, understanding, giving, sacrifice and compassion. Wounded healers at work, dispensing love.

Love is

This blog site has covered some big themes so far, but none comes bigger than love. It truly is the golden thread woven into the whole tapestry of life. When all the ephemera is stripped away, our life work seems to be about learning to love. Learning to love God, learning to love our neighbour and learning to love ourselves. And because it’s what life’s journey is about, anything I say is only ever going to be a hazy impression of what love really is. Furthermore our understanding is always going to be changing and evolving.

But what I do know is this. Whether as the provider of a professional caring service or the recipient of one, someone with close family and friends who I want to love, or simply in the many casual encounters of the day, it is always possible to try to suffuse these relationships with love. We may not always get it right – in fact usually we don’t, but that should never stop us aspiring to the ideal of love.

So as it stands today, these are currently my top ten ways of trying to love people well, learned in the main from the way others have loved me:

  1. Welcome them at all times whether they are new to you or well-known and smile because it’s hard not to feel better when someone smiles at us. On occasions, a smile from a stranger has brightened my whole day.
  2. Allow them to be themselves – and accept them for who they are even if this is irritating and the tolerance isn’t reciprocated. It might seem that the world would be a better place if more people were like me, but its not true. It would be a nightmare.
  3. Don’t judge, label or categorise people and always think the best of them. This is very hard and especially difficult to avoid doing when discussing them or their actions later with other people. Gossip can be such a juicy morsel. But it’s not loving.
  4. Overlook small mistakes, errors or offences and don’t feel the need to mention these to them. Or indeed to anyone else.
  5. Be patient with them – on occasions this may involve counting to ten before speaking – or in my case counting to fifty or more.
  6. Look to their needs with acts of kindness. Think: what would I want others to do for me in this situation? They may or may not need to know we’ve done them a kindness, it depends on what it is. And the good news is that acts of kindness make us feel better too.
  7. Eat with them or at the very least have a tea or coffee with them. Somehow, eating together breaks down barriers. Jesus knew this and frequently did so with people who for whatever reason were hungry for inclusion and connection.
  8. Appreciate them for what they do and who they are – everything that makes them unique. Tell them they are valued and appreciated. Life is short and it’s too late to do it at their funerals.
  9. Pray for them and don’t feel the need to tell them that’s what we’re doing.
  10. Take time to love ourselves and connect with our core self. This may happen best in times of quiet, meditation and solitude when for a brief moment we stop listening to our chattering minds and receive the loving acceptance of who we really are, by a loving God of infinite compassion.

Love is, as Rochelle said, very simple. But it will take us a life-time to master it.

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you do. C.S. Lewis

You don’t love someone because they’re perfect, you love them in spite of the fact that they’re not. Jodi Picoult

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 the life to come. Henri Nouwen

Unconditional love does exist – it just has an 8 second shelf-life. Anne Lamott

When we love ourselves, we fill our lives with activities that put smiles on our faces. These are the things that make our hearts and our souls sing.  Elizabeth Kubler Ross

 Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Jesus Christ

It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get. Confucius

I was a sailor, I was lost at sea, I was under the waves before love rescued me. I was a fighter, I could turn on a thread, Now I stand accused of the things I’ve said. When love comes to town I’m gonna jump that train, When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that flame, Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down, But I did what I did before love came to town.  U2

Untold Stories – sharing our journey

I’ve just finished reading a really enjoyable story. It was so good that I looked forward to picking up the book at every possible opportunity, but now that I’ve finished it, I’m left feeling a little bereft, because it’s ended. Stories have the power to hold us, envelop us and affect our minds and emotions at a deep level. Whether it is in the form of a book, a film, a play or a spoken narrative, everybody loves a good story.

Telling stories is an ancient art. Whether through an oral telling, pictures on cave walls or the written word, stories provide a timeless link to ancient traditions, legends, myths and history and help to define who we are as individuals and a culture. It is reckoned that there are more than 100,000 new works of fiction published in English alone each year and a Stanford university academic estimates that an all-time total of nearly 5 million works of fiction have now been published. Comedy, science fiction, romance, mystery, historical, thriller or detective; graphic, short, long or tall – you name it and it’s out there. The shortest ever story contains just six words. “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn”. It’s reputed to be the work of Ernest Hemingway, though this is a story in itself; Hemingway is said to have written it in order to win a lunchtime bet with journalists, sadly a tale which is now believed to be untrue.

Stories teach us about who we are, about right and wrong, about how to act wisely and the dangers of acting foolishly. Through stories, we share emotions and feelings of joy, sorrow, hardships and failures and we find common ground with other people so that we can connect and communicate with them – in spite of our apparent differences.

Story is important in 12 step recovery. The Big Book is full of stories, including those of the founder members Bill W and Dr Bob, followed by more than 40 other stories. As Bill W says, these stories are the written equivalent of hearing speakers at an AA meeting.  The format is simple; “Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.”  In meetings, people “share” what has happened to them and the difference now, which not only serves a purpose for them, reminding them of where they once were and how they began to recover, but also helps others to recognise that what they thought was their own private and personal struggle, is in fact common to many others. Understanding this makes it easier to overcome the guilt and shame of things done or left undone. Sharing stories reveals, encourages, supports and frees up both the teller and the listener. The more truth the story holds, the greater the benefit, because truth is the nugget of gold within any story we read, hear or tell.

Jesus was a great story teller. He drew on everyday situations around him and his listeners to tell his stories; things such as farming, fishing, building, weather, birds and animals, losing things, families. His stories recounted events that could have happened in the daily lives of the people who first heard them. Anyone could readily identify with the roles people filled, the work that they did, the relationships that were broken and restored, the losses they sustained and the joy that they experienced. He most often told his stories as parables – short fictitious stories that illustrated a moral message or a religious principle – truths that had to be sought by those with a mind to do so. The parables of Jesus stress the great themes of the Kingdom of God – “the big picture” as Richard Rohr has helpfully termed it. Jesus’s stories often begin with the phrase The Kingdom of God is like…… wheat and weeds, mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl, fishing net, an unforgiving servant, workers in the vineyard, a wedding banquet.  Jesus’ parables teach listeners that God reaches out to them with kindness and compassion. They are about the love, grace, and mercy of God to each and every one of us, regardless of who we are or what we might have done – but they also contain a challenge about how we respond and how we live our lives.

Stories engage our attention and help us to step out of our own shoes and experience somebody else’s emotions, actions and decisions. It is interesting to see how we are drawn to somebody when they tell their story. Writers such as Nadia Bolz-Weber and Anne Lamott use personal stories to great effect, fusing their 12 step recovery with following in the way of Jesus, resulting in candid, truth filled writing which shows their flaws and wounds but radiates a deep beauty and attractiveness.

For many years I was ashamed of my story. I kept much of it to myself and only handed out selected parts when I felt safe. It felt as if my story, especially my childhood were my fault and I’d be judged on it. It was a mixed-up confusion of fear, shame, guilt and pride. But as I heard others share their stories and felt only love and compassion towards them as they did so, it has made it easier to begin to share my own story. And when I have done so, some people identify with parts of the story and even more movingly, the others show compassion and non-judgment. By telling our stories, we are letting others know that it’s okay to be honest about who we were, who we are, and who we have the potential of becoming. I recently met a homeless woman who told her story in coloured chalk on the pavement of the City Pavement story updwnwhere she lived. Her courage in telling her story in such a beautiful way was very moving  and brought compassion and connection. When we make ourselves vulnerable like she did and choose to speak up about our struggles and who we are, we’re no longer allowing them to have any power over us, rejecting the shame we feel they contain and the self-hatred that can result. God stands with us in this and rather than condemning us, works through our story. Letting go of what we always held onto so closely can be what heals us the most, and incredibly, helps others who hear our story to find healing too. So let’s not be afraid of who we are or of starting to tell our stories. As the author Neil Gaiman says, “The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”

A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving. J R R Tolkien

Wherever my story takes me, however dark and difficult the theme, there is always some hope and redemption, not because readers like happy endings, but because I am an optimist at heart. I know the sun will rise in the morning, that there is a light at the end of every tunnel. Michael Morpurgo

Writing is telling the truth. Anne Lamott

In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act. George Orwell

In The Power Zone – the spiritual risks from personal power

I recently read an interesting piece by Brennan Manning, a recovering alcoholic who wrote some fine Christian books marked through with 12 step wisdom. In it he said that most of our personal battles are about us seeking security, pleasure or power. Whilst I willingly plead guilty to the first two, it has taken me a lot longer to recognise that I am also guilty of wanting power – the speck in other people’s eyes is always much easier to see than the log in my own. Most of the time I do a fairly good job of convincing myself (and maybe others) that I am a fair and benevolent person who shares what power I have and only wants a little power in order to add to the greater good. Which is true. But there is a less comfortable side, because power is always about control – control of what I want, what I do, what I experience, what I have. The corollary of this is controlling others so that these and perhaps more hidden needs of mine get met. It is very hard to see where the cross-over between wanting to do good and benefit others becomes a justification to satisfy my personal needs for power and control.

The reason I can get glimpses of my interest in power through the cloak of innocence that normally hides it, is that other people come clean about their own relationship with power and I see myself in their stories. Sometimes too, people close to me have the courage to shed a spotlight of objectivity onto my actions and self-perceptions. The reality is that I do want power and when I don’t have it, I’m envious of those who do, whether through their schooling, their jobs, their connections, their political positions or through their income, wealth and resources, especially when they seem to misuse it – measured of course by my yardstick of what’s right and wrong. Even as I write (and perhaps because I am writing on this subject) I am wrestling with a decision about my continued membership of a group which has moved away from doing the things which first got me involved and which I no longer really believe in. Do I leave and move on? I am beginning see that it is the power and prestige of membership which is the biggest attraction to my remaining. And of course the silky voice of temptation provides me with a number of very reasonable justifications for doing nothing and staying put.

We cannot get away from the harmfulness of power. Power does change us, and power can corrupt us. Where there is abuse, it always exists in the shadow of power; power that is misused, deliberately and through ignorance or weakness.  Physical and sexual abuse, racial abuse, exclusion of individuals and groups who do not fit in, the creation of actions and behaviours to gain compliance are all based on power dynamics. Power structures underpin the Church, and the emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse of countless individuals over the centuries bear witness to the damage that misused power can cause. Power inflates our egos and self-importance – research has shown that individuals rise to positions of authority by being collaborative and selfless but once they reach a high rung on the leadership ladder, many become coercive, impulsive and self-centred.

In the 12 step fellowships, there is a strong recognition of the damaging nature of power. The grounded checks of the 12 traditions have helped to safeguard the programmes from the excesses of power. As tradition 2 says, “our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” There are no chiefs in AA or NA, no central directives or authority, no managing group or Board. No opportunity for power to be misused. Group conscience decides what individual meetings will do and everyone is entitled to their opinion. Most people would say that this is a recipe for anarchy and yet it works in 12 step fellowships – the core principles of AA remain as they were 80 years ago and it is because it is uncorrupted by power that it remains as effective as ever with no agenda except to carry the message.

Jesus had a unique take on power. He saw the abuses of power, he declined to accept the trappings of power and many of the accounts of his life in the gospels relate to the verbal duels he had with the religious authorities who held enormous power, in spite of the Roman occupation of Palestine. Eventually he was killed because he challenged these powerful and influential men who saw him as a threat. In the account of his wilderness temptations early in his ministry, he rejected power as a way of being, let alone how he would communicate his message, and he consistently rejected the offer of power over the three years that he taught and healed. Even in the days and hours leading up to his death he refused to buy into it. Towards the end he rebuked Peter for using a sword, he did not try to ingratiate himself with the High Priest, Pontius Pilate the Governor or King Herod, and he accepted the nails and the hours of dying agonisingly on a wooden cross. Jesus came into the world to share a new type of power – power based upon compassion, honesty, sharing and transparency that the world has never really liked. He was the Servant King. And sadly, in spite of this example, Christianity has yet to redefine power in the way that Jesus showed us.

None of this is to say that power in itself is inherently bad or indeed that any society has ever existed without a power structure of sorts, but if power corrupts as it surely does, then institutions and individuals need to create safeguards to prevent the harm that unchecked power will cause. So how do we build in actions, checks and systems to prevent us misusing the power we have?  Firstly, since a sense of power is associated with a growing urge to gratify our own desires, an easy starting point is to question whether we ever use our positions of power to feed the other two areas of indulgence (security and pleasure) identified by Brennan Manning.  As a starting point, resisting the temptation to gratify our desires would massively reduce the destructive impact of power in every context, personal and institutional. Building in some sort of system of review and reflection on our actions is useful. We are more likely to abuse power when we don’t have anyone who will constructively criticise our actions, so having someone outside our positions of power (a mentor, sponsor, spiritual director) who we are honest with and accountable to and who is not afraid to give us honest feedback is so important. As Anne Lamott bluntly says, “Since we can’t heal our own sick mind with our own sick mind, we need to consult somebody else’s sick mind to help us.” It is undoubtedly true that when we have to explain our actions to someone else, we will think twice about what we do. (so long as we can manage to avoid trying to manipulate or control them to give us the answer we want!) External checks are necessary too for large organisations. Finally, and possibly most important of all, we need to be servants in everything we do. Whatever our position but most especially if we hold a position of power, serving others with compassion, consideration and kindness will help to stop us becoming self-absorbed and seeing other people as objects to use for our own ends. As Jesus said to his disciples on the evening before his death, after he had taken on the role of a common servant and washed their feet, “ I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  Power based on service that is shaped by compassion, honesty and sharing becomes benign and the power of love overrules the love of power, making the world a better place.

Constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. Montesquieu

 Whenever the world throws rose petals at you, which thrill and seduce the ego, beware. Anne Lamott

 Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other. Carl Jung

 Good people tend to be naïve about power; bad people aren’t – they know it’s all about power. Richard Rohr

 The story being told in ‘Star Wars’ is a classic one. Every few hundred years, the story is retold because we have a tendency to do the same things over and over again. Power corrupts, and when you’re in charge, you start doing things that you think are right, but they’re actually not. George Lucas

 Power always thinks that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws. John Adams

 

Forgiveness is The Fragrance of Violets

One of my all-time favourite films is Get Carter. It is a 1970’s cult movie, set within a few miles of where I live and full of memorable lines and great acting performances. getcarter poster 2The story follows a London gangster, Jack Carter played by Michael Caine who travels back to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, his home town to investigate the events surrounding his brother Frank’s supposedly accidental death. He becomes increasingly convinced that his brother was murdered and ruthlessly interrogates those who may know something, with his mind set only on revenge. It ends violently with his own death, but not before he has dealt with those whom he holds responsible for his brother’s death.

The list of revenge movies is long and illustrious – Gladiator, Kill Bill, Cape Fear, Old Boy, Mad Max, to name but a few. Forgiveness on the other hand, is not a theme that sets the pulse racing nor does it offer easy promotional headlines or glamorous images. Interestingly, the stories about forgiveness that do exist are nearly always about real people who forgive – Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela. It’s as if we can’t invent a story about someone who sees forgiveness as the way to live. It’s just too implausible. Across cultures and over time, revenge and retaliation are regarded as just and right – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Its all about strength, dignity and pride to enforce justice by means of revenge.

The movies may glamorise the idea of revenge and build up the vengeful into heroic characters, but deep down we know that this is not true. Death in the pursuit of revenge is not a glorious end, but a sad defeat in the course of a fruitless quest. Through the lives of those who eschew vengeance and violence, we discover that forgiveness is not weak or character-less, nor are they door-mats for those who do wrong; in fact they appear to be strong and attractive people whose lives continue to inspire and influence us long after they have died. The greatest example of course is Jesus.  He preached against our so-called justice and revenge – we are to love our enemies, return good for evil, offer blessing for curse and forgive those who wrong us without limit. Jesus did not just preach forgiveness and the way of peace but practiced it throughout his life – and even at his death, when he prayed to God for forgiveness of those who nailed him to the cross.

Jesus’s teaching about forgiveness is not simply about creating healthy and whole relationships with one another, but offers us a radical corrective to our distorted image of God and forgiveness. Instead of a vengeful, angry God, bent on hunting us down, he shows us a God who loves us passionately and looks for us along the highways and byways, to forgive us and restore our fractured, fear-based relationship to one of love and trust. He is the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son overwhelmed by love and longing for his son. To follow the way of Jesus is to love with all our hearts, forgive as God forgives and to trust that this is the pathway to wholeness and peace. Forgiveness should therefore be generously and constantly extended to all, with no strings attached. This is right at the heart of a Christian life. The Lord’s Prayer, the pattern of prayer Jesus taught us to use, asks God for forgiveness for what we have done wrong, as we forgive others who do wrong to us. Forgiveness and forgiving, both of which we need and must do, are inextricably intertwined.

Forgiveness is central to good recovery too. In the course of addiction, there is a lot of collateral damage and many people get hurt. As those who have done wrong to others and also people who have been hurt by others we are left to carry a lot of emotional baggage that hinders the process of recovery. (Which is true for everyone, both in and out of recovery.) Step 8 in the Twelve Step Programme says that “we made a list of all the persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them”. Step 9 makes amends to those we wronged and Step 10 helps us to continue to behave in a right way towards others. Much of this is about seeking forgiveness but we also need to grant forgiveness to those who have done us wrong, and this is generally a good deal harder than asking for forgiveness.

Over recent years we have learned a lot about forgiveness as we see the wrongs of national and civil wars, tribal and religious conflict and individual fanaticism lead to atrocities and extreme acts of harm done to others. Personal examples of forgiveness have always taught and inspired but formal procedures and processes are important too. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are a form of restorative justice aimed at the healing of a whole community or nation, broken apart by violence and oppression. Restorative Justice seeks to bring together offender and victim to offer a place for repentance and forgiveness. This allows both parties to move forward more positively. Much has been learned from these Commissions about the process of forgiveness. Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town, who chaired the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has subsequently written about the four steps to forgiving and healing:

  1. Telling the Story
  2. Naming the Hurt
  3. Granting Forgiveness
  4. Renewing or Releasing the Relationship

Ideally, it is a two-way process but this is not always possible. Thankfully so too, because if forgiving depended upon the culprit owning up, then the victim would always be at their mercy and remain bound in the shackles of victimhood. Mandela prison releaseArchbishop Tutu says that “Forgiving is a gift to the forgiver as well as to the perpetrator. As the victim, you offer the gift of your forgiving to the perpetrator who may or may not appropriate the gift but it has been offered and thereby it liberates the victim. It would be grossly unfair to the victim to be dependent on the whim of the perpetrator. It would make him or her a victim twice over. The gift has been given. It is up to the intended recipient to appropriate it. The outside air is fresh and invigorating and it is always there. If you are in a dank and stuffy room you can enjoy that fresh air if you open the windows. It is up to you.” This, it seems to me is equally true for the wrong-doer when they ask for forgiveness and it is not given. They can do no more, but it in no way lessens the importance of what they have done in releasing them. Many people who have undertaken steps 8 and 9 can vouch for the truth of this when their attempts to make amends and admit their wrongs have not been accepted. It still allows them to move forward in the process. Meanwhile the one who was wronged is also on a pathway which may ultimately lead to them accepting the gift and breathing freely of the clean air of forgiveness. Not to do so will only hurt themselves. As is so often said in recovery about carrying wrongs and resentments, we are allowing the wrong-doer to live rent free in our heads. It can help to remember that everybody has experience as both a doer of wrongs and a recipient of wrongs. Dealing with our part in both of these helps us to remain emotionally and spiritually healthy.

All of this makes forgiving seem like a simple process but we all know from experience that it is far from easy. As C.S. Lewis says, ‘Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.’ Even if we grasp on an intellectual level that it is good for us and in our own interests, we do not have a switch to flick which makes us forgive. It is a process, a deep hurt that takes time to deal with. And this can be a hard road, which may take us some time to travel. But travel it we must if we are to become whole and free. And we can be inspired by the stories of those who have been able to forgive, especially those ordinary people who have suffered appalling wrongs and shown extraordinary forgiveness to those who have hurt them. In doing so they send ripples of hope across the world. Because in the end peace in our hearts and peace in the world will never be achieved by revenge and resentment. Forgiveness is the only way and love is always at its centre.

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. Mark Twain

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. Mahatma Gandhi

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
Nelson Mandela

Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning. Desmond Tutu

The dying can teach us much about genuine forgiveness. They do not think, “I have been so right, and in being so right, I can see how wrong you have been. In my bigness I will forgive you.” They think, “You’ve made mistakes and so have I. Who hasn’t? But I no longer want to define you by your mistakes or have myself be defined by mine.” Elizabeth Kubler Ross

Dark Hydraulic Forces – the power of addiction

When I was young, there was a widespread craze amongst children for keeping ginger beer plants. My memory of them is less about the ginger beer that they produced and more about their relentless growth and expansion. Truth be told they were not plants at all; essentially they were a combination of water, ginger, lemon, yeast and sugar. The “plant” or more accurately the yeast, required “feeding” every day with sugar to keep the growth and fermentation process going. Every week or so, the contents were added to a few litres of warm water and sugar, strained and bottled to provide enough ginger beer for several months. But the plant lived on in the strained residue which had now doubled in size, so it had to be split and half of it given away.  In the early days most kids were delighted to accept the gift of a ginger beer plant, but with its exponential growth, it wasn’t long before everyone had one; tense, hyper-vigilant parents barred all offers of further plants. Eventually, like all crazes, it died out, and the manufacture of ginger beer is now mainly done by big manufacturers and artisanal brewers.

The relentless advance of the ginger beer plant is very reminiscent of addiction. It doesn’t stay sweet and manageable but gets bigger and bigger until it takes over. Addiction is not just a bad habit, it’s a progressive illness, that untreated can be fatal. What makes it even more insidious is that even if someone is no longer feeding the addiction, it retains its potential to wreak catastrophic damage if the person does try to use the substance again or re-continues the addictive behaviour. Anyone who has been around addicts has seen this happen. Last week I was talking to a man who had been sober for 11 months when that old voice in his head told him he was so well and so established in his recovery that he could safely start drinking again. He couldn’t. He now says that the addiction and the battle to stop is far worse than it was the last time. Another friend was sober for over 6 years when he took a drink to help him through a life crisis. The speed of his descent into a terrifying and utterly chaotic state was frightening. The lovely, gentle, warm man that I knew was replaced by a desperate, wild un-man, hell-bent on self-destruction. Dr Jeckyl was no longer at home and Mr Hyde was well and truly in control. Thankfully, he got to be clean and sober again, and incredibly has built on the experiences to create a stronger recovery than before, revealing a tender, wise and humble person. Even just a few minutes in his company makes me feel uplifted and blessed. Looking back, however, he is still horrified by the speed of his relapse and the nightmare of those months.

Jesus talks very interestingly and with great insight about things which are very akin to addiction and relapse, using the language of his time. “When an evil spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, I will return to the house I left. When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put into order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more evil than itself and they go and live there. And the final condition of the person is worse than it was before”.  Jesus’s explanation, whether taken literally or as a metaphor conveys the power and force of darkness and evil. This is never truer than in addiction where achievements and assets from a period of abstinence and stability are washed away by the incoming torrent of a relapse.

So are we helpless in the face of this? Not at all, but we need to recognise that all addiction as a form of evil has immense power for harm and once we have been gripped by it, we cannot overestimate the risk it will always pose for us. As Jesus said on another occasion, we need to be ruthless with the things that can drag us down or make us vulnerable to going off-course. So it has to be “No!” to the addiction we used to have, and No to anything else with addictive potential that we might use as a substitute, which can become worse than the first experience. In addition to this vigilance, we need to hand things over to God, a power that is greater than ourselves, follow a programme for life which we work on a daily basis, look outward by helping others and cultivate friendships with people who may see more clearly than us the signs of dangerous thinking and behaviour.

What is true for addiction is true for life in general. Whilst these dark forces pose a threat, sources of light and power can help us to overcome the darkness and to live happy, grateful and hopeful lives each and every day. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.”  That is the good news which Jesus proclaimed. He had come to bring light; to set the prisoner free, to loose the captive’s chains and to announce that the Kingdom of heaven is here, within us.

 You can get the monkey off your back, but the circus never leaves town.  Anne Lamott

It is 10 years since I used drugs or alcohol and my life has improved immeasurably. I have a job, a house, a cat, good friendships and, generally, a bright outlook… The price of this is constant vigilance because the disease of addiction is not rational.  Russell Brand

 Every worthy act is difficult. Ascent is always difficult. Descent is easy and often slippery. Mahatma Gandhi

Sometimes we motivate ourselves by thinking of what we want to become. Sometimes we motivate ourselves by thinking about who we don’t ever want to be again.  Shane Niemeyer

Recovery didn’t open the gates of heaven and let me in. Recovery opened the gates of hell and let me out! Anonymous

 

 

Open Eyes:Open Minds – Miracles in Life

One of my favourite accounts of the people who met Jesus, comes in chapter 9 of St John’s gospel. Weighing in at 41 verses and covering the whole chapter, it is a good deal longer than most far better-known stories of Jesus’s life. The story comes in three parts: in Act 1, Jesus restores the sight of a man who had been born blind; Act 2 sees the man being cross-questioned by the religious leaders about his blindness and healing, whilst the final Act is a second meeting between Jesus and the man, with a discussion about the spiritual life. The story is all about light and dark, seeing and not seeing.

Whilst Jesus is of course the central character in the story, which includes one of his most memorable all-time lines when he says “ I am the light of the World,”  the man who is healed gets my nomination for best supporting actor. He is open and hungry for whatever Jesus can give him and positively uppity with the religious leaders.

The story goes something like this. Jesus and his disciples are walking along the road and see a blind beggar. The disciples ask whether it is the man’s fault or that of his parents that he was born blind. Neither, said Jesus – it is simply an opportunity for the power of God to be displayed in his life. He then proceeds to heal the man in a theatrical and visually powerful way. Jesus spits in the dust and makes a paste which he applies to the man’s closed eyes. He then sends him off to wash in a nearby pool and carries on his way. The man does what he is told. No discussion or debate – he just does it. As soon as he washes in the pool, he is able to see.

Neighbours and those who had previously seen the man begging argue as to whether he was the same person or not. Some said he was just a look-alike. “I am that man,” he insists. “Okay,” they say, “if you really are the same person, how come you can see?” So he tells them what happened. “The man called Jesus did it; he made some mud, put it on my eyes, told me to wash in a nearby pool and then I could see.” Their response deliberately ignores what the man has said about the miracle that has happened. “So where is he now then?” they ask. He doesn’t know.

Next, they take him to the religious leaders who cross-question him. They already had strong views about Jesus. They regarded him as a rebellious upstart, flouting their authority and teaching, whilst mixing with the worst elements in society and seemingly enjoying their company. Once again he has overstepped the line, because he healed the man on the sabbath, a day when the religious authorities say that no work should be done. Elsewhere Jesus tells them that they are wrong, doing good on the sabbath is never a bad thing. Here however, there is no sign of Jesus so they have to make do with the man. He tells them what happened. Straight and simple. Instead of believing in the miracle, they doubt that he was really blind. It’s just a trick. So they send for his parents. When they arrive, you get a strong sense of a frightened elderly couple, wanting to be honest about the fact that their son had been blind all his life and could now miraculously see, but desperate to avoid offending such powerful and vindictive officials by saying the wrong thing. So they pass the buck. “He was born blind but we don’t know how he can see again. He is of age – ask him yourself”.

Re-enter the ex-blind man from stage left. The religious leaders start off by telling him Jesus is a sinner – implying that the man needs to choose his words carefully. But nothing is going to stop him now. “I don’t know anything about that,” he says, “but one thing I do know is that I was blind, but now I can see”. Get out of that! Alright they say, if you know so much, how did he manage to restore your sight? So he tells them the miraculous story once again and with a nice touch at the end, asks whether they want to become his disciples since they’re so interested in hearing the story.  It doesn’t go down well! They hurl insults at him – “You’re his follower, not us. We follow Moses who God spoke to, not this fellow. We don’t even know where he comes from.”

This is the blind man’s finest hour. He is not to be silenced and you can hear his sarcastic tone as he replies – “How remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from and yet he healed my blindness. Nobody ever heard of a man born blind being healed. If this man were not from God he could do nothing!”  That does it. “How dare you lecture us!” they say and proceed to throw him out of the temple.

Jesus hears about the exchange and the outcome. He finds the man and declares himself to be from God. The man’s response is immediate and he becomes a follower. Jesus then uses the opportunity to use blindness as a metaphor for the spiritual life. His work, he said was to give sight to the spiritually blind, and with a pointed dig at the religious leaders, he was there to show that those who thought they could see, were in fact blind.

If you strip away all the detail, what is really astounding about this story is that a man who was born blind receives his sight and people don’t believe, or rather, don’t want to believe. Miracles really don’t get much bigger than this but both the local population and the religious authorities go out of their way to avoid believing what had happened. Why was this? I think that like so much of what Jesus said and did, he offended their sensibilities, challenged their comfortable views of the world, highlighted the misuse of power and showed how hopelessly lost and blind they really were. The blind man could see reality, the so called enlightened religious leaders could not.

So what of today? Would people believe? Miracles 2Interestingly, recent surveys in the UK have shown that 60% of adults believe in miracles, even though those who would claim to have any sort of religious faith is far lower. An amazing 72% of people aged 18 to 24 believe miracles can happen — more than any other age group. Figures are even higher in the United States. One of the greatest and most consistent miracles of our time is how people with severe addictions have had their lives saved by following a 12-step programme of recovery. So God is still restoring sight to the blind. Not only have their lives been saved, but they live life in a new and different way – life in all its fullness was how Jesus described it, because they have had their spiritual sight restored. And in the most interesting parallel to the story in John’s gospel, there are many doubters of these miracles; those within the treatment establishment, who take offence at the self-help, spiritual nature of this programme. “What place does the idea of God have in treatment provision?” they say. “This only works for a small number of people”. Academics too have their doubts and demand “an evidence base” when there are hundreds of recovered people now well, against all the odds, a walking, talking evidence base. “Isn’t going to AA meetings just another addiction” someone in the church once said to me, oblivious to the fact that they probably attended as many church services a week as most people in recovery attend meetings, yet they would never see this as an addiction or sign of weakness. So the miracle is ignored. But it doesn’t go away. Like the light, salt, and yeast that crop up repeatedly in the stories of Jesus, people in recovery are quietly, steadily and miraculously playing their part in God’s big plan of restoration, the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked about. Research has shown that 5 years into sobriety, people in 12 step fellowships are contributing more to society than others who have never had an addiction.

Miracles happen, but for all this, there is something of the doubter in all of us. Offended by things which don’t fit our given perspective or philosophy, what are the miracles that we don’t see and maybe go out of our way to ignore? God has a track record of helping the blind to see, so our prayer must be for our eyes to be opened too, so that we are able to see the miracles taking place in us and around us, each moment of every day.

 Miracles happen every day; change your perception of what a miracle is and you’ll see them all around you. Jon Bon Jovi

 Miracles are not contrary to nature, only contrary to what we know about nature. St Augustine

 Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see.  Freddie Mercury/Queen

 There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle or you can live as if everything is a miracle. Albert Einstein

Miracles happen every day. Not just in remote country villages or at holy sites halfway across the globe, but here, in our own lives. Deepak Chopra

Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see. C. S. Lewis

 I was waiting for the miracle, for the miracle to come. Leonard Cohen

 

Changes – actively choosing a different way of living

Of all the recorded sayings of Jesus, none seems to be more relevant to the problem of addiction than the question he asked of a paralyzed man. “Do you really want to get well?”  At first reading, it seems a little crazy – I mean who doesn’t want to get well? But on reflection it makes a lot of sense, especially when the words were spoken to someone who had been ill for a long time and who had become so used to the life and ways that this had necessitated. The account by St John says that the man had been an invalid for 38 years; doubtless he still talked about getting well, but he probably no longer really expected it and was comfortably stuck in a mindset that fitted his circumstances. Jesus recognised that the man was going to have to let go of things he was used to and familiar with in order to embrace the new direction his life was going to take. Things were going to be turned upside down by getting well – did he really want that?

The man wasn’t unusual, nor are people with addictions, because we all have this tendency to prefer to stick with our unhealthy, unhelpful mindset and behaviours, even when we can see that they’re not good for us. The unknown is scary and we don’t want to let go of the securities, the comforts, the safety of our current situation and behaviours, even the destructive ones. These may be our addictions, resentments, selfish habits, blaming, self-pity and misery, entrenched behaviours and ways of being – things that appear to bring us some sort of comfort or pay-off, whereas changing or stopping them poses a threat. We may not even be aware that these things exist in our lives, or they may appear to be our best friends or just harmless security blankets. Do we really want to let go of them? Change doesn’t come easy and we have to be up for it. As the old joke goes, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” “One, but the light bulb has to really want to change”.

Since it is all about our thinking and our behaviours which keep us trapped and because telling other people that they don’t want to change is so open to abuse, we are really best placed to regularly ask this question of ourselves, generally with the help of a trusted other who can sensitively pose the question. And the question Jesus seems to be asking the man, which we need to ask ourselves when we have a problem, is how desperate is he to embrace change and do things differently? Is he willing to give up everything he knows from his 38 years of living with his illness and learn everything anew?  To lose what control he believes he has and opt instead for an unknown future?  Will he take the leap of faith? Because like a parachute jump, once you’re out of the plane, there is no going back!

I know that there have been occasions and situations in my life when I haven’t wanted to change or move on. I have held onto activities, behaviours and resentments which prevent progress or healing. Like charms on a bracelet, these resentments and mind-sets seem friendly and alluring, but if we could see them for what they are, we’d see instead a set of handcuffs shackling us to a static, unsatisfying, possibly even self-destructive life. Instead of eating a beautiful crisp apple, we are swallowing a mouthful of ash, all the while trying to convince ourselves that it really does have a very strong apple flavour. But the process of change is hard; sometimes the best we can do is to say that we want to want to change.

For addicts in recovery, none of this is very earth shattering. They know it because they’ve been there. “Do you really want to recover?” Yes and no. And it’s true for us all. Fortunately, the hound of heaven doesn’t give up and the persistent footsteps are never far away. It may be desperation, a breaking point, rock bottom, reaching the end of our rope or it could just be a recognition that what we are doing isn’t really working anymore. Like walkers who’ve lost our way we may have to retrace our steps to find the old path, but more often than not we discover that we are embarking on a new pathway, where we take the next tentative steps on our pilgrim journey. In the parables of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is often likened to a banquet, a wedding or a party. The choice is simple – are we going to stick to the ordinary, mundane ways in which we feel safely in control or do we choose instead to go to the celebration that we don’t yet fully understand.

On the precipice of any great change, we can see with terrifying clarity the familiar firm footing we stand to lose, but we fill the abyss of the unfamiliar before us with dread at the potential loss rather than jubilation over the potential gain of gladnesses and gratifications we fail to envision because we haven’t yet experienced them. Maria Popova

(Turn and face the strange) Ch-ch-Changes, Just gonna have to be a different man; Time may change me, But I can’t trace time. David Bowie

In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or step back into safety. Abraham Maslow

I put a pound in a change machine. Nothing changed.  Anonymous.

Spirit-led people never stop growing and changing and recognizing the new moment of opportunity. How strange to think that so much of religion became a worship of the status quo, until you remember that the one thing the ego hates and fears more than anything else is change.  Richard Rohr

I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better. Georg C. Lichtenberg

 

On Gratitude Street – with grateful thanks

A couple of weeks ago I overheard a young woman I know talking to herself. She was saying how very fortunate she was to have friends who cared for her and expressing gratitude for the many good things in her life. Knowing a little about her situation I am aware that she has had a very troubled life. A professional woman, she fled her own country a few years ago, with her son and young daughter following persecution, violence and torture, arriving in the UK with nothing but the clothes they wore. Life here hasn’t been easy, and the road ahead is very uncertain, yet she was still able to reflect on her current situation with thankfulness and gratitude. I found it very humbling.

Gratitude is about an acceptance of things as they are and being thankful for what we have. It sees life and all we have as a gift. This is in stark contrast with a mindset that is not content and which always wants things in our life to change. This often includes those around us changing too. Living in a consumer society doesn’t help, since this cultivates discontentment; the idea that what we have now isn’t sufficient and that if we had a better, newer, smarter something or other, we would be happier and more fulfilled. And of course, we could then be grateful. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this. Neither new stuff nor anything else we do such as drinking or drugging to make us feel better or happier can do so more than fleetingly, so we’re never really content, grateful and happy for what we’ve got. Resentments and self-pity can become even greater obstacles. It becomes all too easy to live our lives without ever really reaching a place of gratitude.

Of course, it can be hard to be grateful amidst the humdrum stuff of life, and even harder when difficult, painful things happen to us and to others. Sometimes, with the passage of time we may be able look back and see blessings that arose as a consequence of bad times and be grateful, because mostly we learn through our failure and suffering, not through success. Sometimes though, pain and struggle do not have an obvious purpose or meaning. Gratitude is not about living on a pink cloud or cultivating a false and dishonest positivity. Instead it means realising the power we have to reframe how we see a problem or difficulty and turning it into something more positive for which we can be grateful. Or we can look back or forward to some other things for which we can be grateful. In the midst of the bad stuff, our lives have still been blessed. It is hard for others to show us this or tell us – we have to be open to discovering it for ourselves. Like the young woman I overheard, we can actively decide to be grateful whenever we can; grateful for the glimmers of light, the small joys, blessings and fulfilments that we continue to experience along the way. God is at work around and through us to make something beautiful from the mundane and the messy bits of life – and just believing that, is something for which we can be grateful.

When Jesus healed a group of ten lepers only one of them returned to thank him – a reminder to us that if we seek the gratitude of others for things we do, we’d better get used to working with small percentages! Jesus talked a great deal about God’s loving care, knowing what we need and providing for us. About our relationship with him being as a father who only gives us good things. He sought to encourage a loving, trusting, grateful relationship with God. Giving thanks in all things. And this gratitude is not for the benefit of all those around us; it’s a quiet inner thanksgiving to God for what we receive. It’s a relational thing and a mind-set which always has us openly facing towards God, not turning away.

Gratitude is an important part of recovery too, replacing self-pity and blame which help to sustain addiction. There is gratitude for another chance of life, trusting that all will be well in the end. Seeing good in people and circumstances, concentrating on these rather than the negatives and accepting things as gifts. Gratitude is all about having the right mind-set which helps us to think less about ourselves, develops humility and gives us a much more positive perspective on life.  Seeing our glass as half full not half empty. As a narrative on step ten says, “we seek to have an honest regret for harms we have done, a genuine gratitude for blessings we have received and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow.”

Today on the first day of a New Year, as I look out of the window from where I am sitting, sipping a mug of tea, I can see the sun shining brightly in a pale blue winter sky. From the warmth of my home, I watch Geoffrey, the neighbour’s cat walk briskly down the street with an unusual sense of purpose. A child is laughing and the occasional bird flies past the window heading for a roof or treetop perch. This very ordinary scene becomes truly extra-ordinary when I stop and think about what it entails and suddenly I am full of gratitude. I have sight, hearing, warmth and security, but would I have been thankful for these simple, taken-for-granted things if I weren’t writing this piece about gratitude? I doubt it.

It’s been said that gratitude is a decision of the will, and if it’s a decision of the will, the choice to be grateful or not rests firmly and squarely with each of us. So, although New Year’s resolutions are not really my thing, I’m going to break with this and pledge to practice gratitude every day in 2019. Gratitude for the small and simple things of life, gratitude for the many wonderful people I know, gratitude for the pleasures of living, gratitude about my circumstances – even when they’re not great and I can’t see how things are going to work out. And of course, gratitude for God’s love. If I stick to doing this, I hope that there will be more joy, beauty and happiness in my life and perhaps the world around me may be that little bit better too.

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. John Milton

I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness – it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude. Brene Brown

To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Thomas Merton

It is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up. Eckhart Toll

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. John F. Kennedy

Gratitude-Word-Cloud

 

Guerrilla Gardening – spreading kindness

It takes a brave person to give up everything and voluntarily rely upon the help of others to achieve a goal. The Kindness of Strangers is a book by Mike McIntyre, a journalist from California, who, feeling unfulfilled and trapped by his safe life, left his job and without any money, travelled coast to coast across the United States, relying upon other people’s acts of kindness to help him. To make it even more challenging he refused to accept gifts of money. Kindness of StrangersSix weeks later, having met many wonderful, kind people, he completed his life-changing journey, having travelled 4233 miles, across 14 states, getting 82 rides, 78 meals, 5 loads of laundry and a round of golf! He noticed how often it was people with very little, or those who had experienced terrible, tragic events in their lives who not only took the risk to help him but gave with immense generosity too. The book’s real strength lies in the way he introduces us to these people and how their kindness comes to touch our lives too.

Kindness is the outworking of loving our neighbour as ourselves, which Jesus spoke of as the second great commandment. Jesus is constantly referred to as showing compassion to people he meets and to all those with great need whom he healed, taught and fed. His stories too were often about the importance of showing kindness, compassion and generosity to others – the good Samaritan, the parable of the sheep and goats, and when he received an act of great kindness from a repentant woman who poured expensive perfume on him, he predicted that her story would be told for ever. Kindness is also one of the nine fruit of the spirit mentioned by St Paul.

Central as compassion and kindness are within the teachings of Jesus, they are by no means the monopoly of those following his way. Kindness is encouraged within all the World’s great religions, but it is not even exclusive to religion, for those with no religious beliefs at all embrace the importance of kindness and look for ways to practice it.  Kindness seems to transcend all people, beliefs and nations and research suggests that positive relationships and kindness are at the heart of our health and well-being.

A recent report from the Carnegie Trust argues that nowadays many people feel an increasing sense of risk in engaging with others and asking for or giving help. As a result, there is a tendency to use more formal routes to help those in need, and we measure kindness in contribution to organised charity rather than our individual interactions with people. Unfortunately, these charitable organisations are also increasingly preoccupied by risk, which together with growing levels of bureaucracy, regulation, performance indicators and professional detachment, crowds out everyday kindnesses and the intuitive nature of kindness. This certainly resonates with my experiences. I can only think it fortunate that the Good Samaritan didn’t have to risk assess, impact evaluate, time-manage or outcome measure his involvement with the victim of robbers he found by the roadside! He just helped him. The Carnegie report concludes that those things which ‘get in the way’ need to be balanced with a greater confidence and support in the value of trust, goodwill, affection, warmth, gentleness and concern.

Within the 12-step tradition, kindness is seen as an important way of helping us to stop being so self-absorbed, enabling us to look beyond ourselves. If we are thinking about other people, which requires some imagination, empathy and most important of all, action, then we are taking time out from just thinking about ourselves. At this point it is worth noting that there are those who say that in helping others or being kind to them, we are still self-absorbed and preoccupied with our feelings, and are only acting in this way in order to feel good about ourselves. Well, this may or may not be true, but even if there is no such thing as altruism, (which I dispute), I would still always choose to live in a world where people are kind to one another and do good things for others, whatever their underlying reason for doing so. When Mike McIntyre was feeling guilty for putting on people who often had very little, one of those who had helped him said, “Mike, on this trip keep in mind that when people give you something, there’s always a reason for it. They have their own motivations for helping you.” Compassion, helping and kindness are virtues whatever the motivation. Period.

Kindness has a ripple effect. When somebody does an act of kindness, it can not only affect both the doer and the receiver in personal, emotional ways, but it also affects other people who hear the story. At a surface level we may be impressed at the kindness somebody has shown, but at a much deeper spiritual level we are moved by the way the actions unlock something much more profound about ourselves and our lives together. Kindness promotes connectedness and this I think is touching on what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven. So, as well as doing acts of kindness, we need to speak about acts of kindness too, rippling the effects more widely afield.

Acts of kindness are unilateral and radical. In a world where so much isn’t in our control, we have complete license to do acts of kindness, to pretty much whoever we want, whenever we want to do them. A year or two ago I did a bit of guerrilla gardening. I used to walk to work across an uninspiring trading estate, which apart from a few spring bulbs and flowering trees, had little in the way of natural beauty amidst the roads, offices and factories. I made small dried cakes of compost, fertilizer and seeds and deposited them on the muddy verges and derelict sites. Being an inherent coward, I didn’t hurl them like grenades or Molotov cocktails in case some lurking security guard challenged me. Rather like prisoners of war in the Great Escape who dropped waste soil from their escape tunnels down their sleeves or trouser legs whilst walking around the compound, I would furtively release the flower bombs from my pockets without breaking stride, all the while looking in a completely different direction. This approach did mean that my aim and the distance achieved were not all they might have been but in time there was some success. It was not the greening of the estate with fields of flowers drawing astonished crowds as I had fantasised, but flowers did grow and maybe in time more will appear as they seed themselves and dormant seeds begin to sprout. In the same way, random acts of kindness each day can spread the seeds of hope, love and connectedness which will flower and in time spread more widely.

Finally, acts of kindness do not require a lot of resources. Sure, we can give gifts or money away, but kindness is not really about the size or scale of the act. Jesus commended the poor widow for what she gave, not because of the size of her gift but because she gave out of what little she had. Kindness is all about the thought and willingness to think about the needs of others, to put ourselves out, or give up a bit of time, comfort or security for the sake of someone else.

Hearing about acts of kindness or reading about them in Mike McIntyre’s book, I know that I tend to see myself as the generous giver. But the reality is almost certainly a little different. Would I really take a stranger into my house or find the time to accompany him to a café and pay for his food and enjoy his company, or do I regard it as too risky, myself as too busy or else find one of a myriad of other excuses for passing by on the other side. In a crowd of people I know, do I go to talk to the person who seems alone or do I stay safe and look after my own wants? Do I worry that an act of kindness will seem foolish or weak? If I am to break out of such self-interest, self-absorption and fear I need people, methods or tools to help challenge me to step out of my comfort zone and do more acts of kindness that may have a cost to me. The ‘Just for Today’ Card popular amongst all 12 step fellowships, with its many actions that we can manage to do for one day, can be a very helpful tool. Part of it offers both an active suggestion for kindness and a reactive way of behaving kindly: “Just for today I will do somebody a good turn and not get found out; if anybody knows of it, it will not count…… Just for today I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt; they may be hurt, but today I will not show it.” Both actions are more challenging to do than they sound, and in trying to do them they reveal a great deal to us about who we are and how we relate to those around us. And they will both help us to be more kind. We may want to have a month of kindness – thirty days which can have a lasting effect upon how we look to the needs of others. Or it may be an outworking of Christmas goodwill, or a New Year’s resolution. How we help ourselves to start matters much less than actually doing random acts of kindness whenever we can. In doing them we become guerrilla gardeners of kindness, helping to make a brighter, better world.

Kind hearts are the gardens. Kind thoughts are the roots. Kind words are the blossoms. Kind deeds are the fruits. 19th Century children’s rhyme

Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again. Og Mandino

A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. Amelia Earhart

A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses. Chinese Proverb

Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless. Mother Teresa

Suffering is only intolerable when nobody cares. I continually see that faith in God and his care is made infinitely easier by faith in someone who has shown kindness and sympathy. Dame Cicely Saunders

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