Transformation

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.

Faithful Friends

A little while ago, someone I knew was going through a difficult time with his drinking. In order to offer him some support and help, I introduced him to a few friends of mine who are recovering alcoholics and part of AA fellowships. I was sure they’d do their best but I was quite amazed by the generosity and kindness they showed him, dropping things they were doing and changing their plans, prioritising his needs and requirements over their own convenience and comfort. They wanted him to get into recovery and to sort his life out and they did their best to help him in ways that he couldn’t do himself, accepting him and his problems, easing his path and making it clear that he was not alone and that he and his life mattered. They were kind, understanding and compassionate, behaving in a way that can only be called loving. When I thanked them, they dismissed it as nothing – or at least only Step 12 stuff of taking the message to others, but their genuine, generous actions touched me deeply.

It reminded me of the story in the gospels of both Mark and Luke where Jesus was teaching a crowd who had come to visit him at the house where he was living. There were so many people that there was no room for anyone else to get in or even stand in the doorway. Along came four men carrying a friend of theirs who was paralyzed and unable to walk. They were desperate to bring him to Jesus so that he could be healed. Undeterred by the large crowd, they carried their friend up to the roof using external stairs and proceeded to dig through the roof in order to create a hole big enough to lower the mat on which their friend lay so that it came to rest at the feet of Jesus. Jesus commended the men’s faith on behalf of their friend, forgave the man his sins and then to prove a point to the critical religious folk watching, healed the man. He doesn’t ask the man whether he has faith, his friends appear to have answered that question already. Their faith was sufficient. This story doesn’t stand alone either, there are many other examples in the gospels where Jesus healed someone because of another person’s faith.

How we care for our friends and our faith on their behalf seems to play a more important part in the process of change than our individualistic way of thinking allows. If we look around us, there is always someone we can help, be it a relative, friend or acquaintance who might require our support and encouragement, who needs someone to believe in them and have faith on their behalf. Strangely, it can often be easier to pray and have faith on behalf of others than it is for ourselves, maybe that’s because this is the way it’s meant to be. As we saw in a recent blog, we’re created to co-operate with one another, not compete. As we turn our eyes towards the needs of others and away from our own personal concerns, our self-obsessed way of thinking begins to reduce, giving becomes more important than receiving and love finally comes to town.

Loving God,

We pray in faith for our friends.

Bring your restoring presence to the dark places in their lives.

Bring your hope to their hearts when they feel defeated.

Bring your love and healing mercies when they are in pain.

Bring them safety and comfort when they are fearful and lonely.

Bring them through this hard time to a new place of freedom and light.

Amen

The Mystery of Spiritual Growth

It was a warm afternoon in June. I was on a Zoom call and we were already an hour into a Steering Group Meeting when the agenda moved on to Item Eight – Key Performance Indicators. I groaned inwardly. Never a subject for the fainthearted, especially on a sunny Friday afternoon, setting KPIs and agreeing outputs and outcomes for projects involving people can be like buying something from a souk. A lot of haggling with no certainty as to what the product really is or what numbers to come up with. KPIs are a useful business tool and for some years now have also been an important requirement of many charity funders, but we were discussing a new project about spiritual nurture and growth for those on the margins – how do you develop a performance measure for that? As Albert Einstein remarked, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Drifting off into a brief flight of fancy, I began wondering what exactly Jesus had in mind at the start of his ministry – a new spiritual project if ever there was one. What would the KPIs or planned outputs and outcomes have been like?

  • The programme will be of three years duration
  • It will be self-funded – the lead will be responsible for finding supporters to maintain the programme to ensure long-term sustainability
  • Twelve volunteers will be taught and mentored as disciples to lead the programme
  • At least 90% of these disciples will complete the programme and continue to deliver after the lead has left
  • 50% of those hearing the message will feel that their life has improved as a result

Of course, it was nothing like this. What Jesus did say was that “the Spirit blows where it will” and his measure of success was not about numbers or impressive outputs but about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God and signposting people towards it. This Kingdom was likened to yeast or the growth of a seed – slow, steady and secretive. We know too from Jesus’s parable of the sower, that even when the seed does grow, its development into a fruit bearing plant is far from guaranteed. The outputs and outcomes are never certain and always varied. Elsewhere, in a story in which Jesus healed ten lepers, only one of them subsequently bothered to return to thank him – few funders or commissioners would be happy with a 10% outcome on “follow-up” conversations! 

Looking at the style of Jesus’s ministry, it’s surprising to see so many in the Church obsessed by the numbers game. Perhaps we’ve bought into the KPI business model too wholeheartedly, wanting to appear dynamic and aspirational for our mission, or maybe numbers are seen as a proxy measure of success and an expectation that more people equals increased income for the church –neither of which were concerns for Jesus.

The origin of the spiritually based Twelve Step Programmes of Recovery is mainly Christian and unsurprisingly they don’t tend to deliver predictable, defined numbers either. “Show us your evidence base” is the current mantra of Addiction Treatment Commissioners in the UK, yet people were getting well and recovering by working the Twelve Step Programme long before there was any other formal alcohol treatment available and when there was, some early efforts involved giving alcoholics doses of LSD! Twelve Step Recovery is not predictable, but as we’ve already seen, if the Spirit blows where it wills, why would a spiritual programme of recovery be easy to predict? God’s work always retains some element of mystery. As a manager of a Twelve Step Treatment Centre once said to me, “We do all the standard assessments about motivation and suitability for our programme, but in the end, we really don’t know who will recover and who won’t. If someone wants to change, then that’s good enough for us to start with.”

Millions of people bear testimony to the fact that they have become sober and their lives have been transformed by working a 12 step programme, arguably one of the greatest public health developments of the last century and because it is a spiritual programme, one of the most profound revival programmes too. Central to one of the 12 Traditions of AA is that notion that the message of recovery is conveyed by “attraction not promotion,” in other words, seeing the transformation in the lives of real people, not through a page full of promotional outcomes and statistics. We see this transformation in the lives and writings of Christians in recovery such as Brennan Manning, Nadia Bolz Weber, Heather King, Ian Morgan Cron and Anne Lamott who have a spiritual integrity which is deeply attractive because their faith and view of the world and themselves is brutally honest yet gentle, speaking truthfully to the reader’s own life and always pointing them to a God of immense love who is in the business of redemption and transformation.

We are all on a journey of the Spirit whether it is upstairs in the Chancel on a Sunday morning or downstairs in the Basement on a weekday evening at a Twelve Step meeting. God is there in the midst of our brokenness, meeting us with arms outstretched to bring us home. We are fellow pilgrims and travel together on our journey to this holy place. Measure that if you will.

An Inside Job

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

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

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

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

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

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