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.

A Morning Prayer

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

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

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

Crazy Busy – addicted to activity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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