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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Breaking Good – freedom from shame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All We Have Is Now – living in the day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving The Chain Gang – love overcomes legalism

Growing up, I learned a lot about legalism. Our family were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a dissenting fundamentalist sect which spelled hard-line in capital letters. Whatever the reasons and blessings which might have come from this group’s formation a century or so before, these seemed to have been long lost by the time I grew up within its stifling confines in the 1960’s. This was a time of change and revolution in society, which made the members even more guarded about change or dissent within their own ranks. A strong streak of Victorian morality ran through it all, ironic really, because that was never the most moral or upright of times. The legalism I experienced was based on fundamentalist bible teaching which extended to include dress code, hair length, wearing of hats for women, unacceptable social activities including cinema, entertainment and so on.  I remember my Dad, (no shrinking violet himself), being yelled at on the steps of the meeting hall by a five-foot nothing member with a Yorkshire accent, holding an attaché case containing a bible big enough to kill a cat. My Dad he said, was unfit to be a member or a father because of the shortness of my sister’s skirt and his unwillingness to be corrected in allowing this. Whatever the man thought he was doing, to me as a kid, it seemed very aggressive and deeply personal.

Compliance with the rules meant inclusion and acceptance within the sect. Non-compliance could mean being ostracised (as happened to one widower who remarried too soon to an outsider), or in serious cases lead to exclusion and being asked to leave the “assembly,” as groups referred to themselves. This usually meant attending a different meeting in another town that was deemed less strict, there being a hierarchy of strictness – open, closed or exclusive – impermeable strata between which there was no communication or association. Like the Soviet and East German states of the time, most members were good at spotting modernisers, reformers or heretics and skilled at reinforcing the ideology. Underpinning it all was the overpowering fear of going to hell when you died, spelled out in graphic terms on a weekly basis. As a child this was scary stuff and very easily shackles you onto the chain gang. Looking back, it is also amazing how a group of christian people could still manage to slip meanness, gossip, cruelty and pride underneath the radar of their strict code of conduct. I never did become a member, in spite of the pressure, but when I left home I discovered that I could leave the meeting, the people and their beliefs, but they did not leave me. I was still shackled and left with a narrow, mean-spirited picture of God along with a whole range of unhealthy religion-based fears and anxieties. Maybe that’s what I’m still really recovering from.

Legalism is an attempt to gain favour with God or impress people by doing certain things or avoiding others. It might seem to be a means to become a better person and a marker of progress but it goes sour and turns into pride and self-righteousness the moment we think we’ve attained it. Jesus hated legalism and had more conflicts with the legalists of his day than any other group. Usually these were the religious leaders. He often seemed to seek conflict as he challenged them openly, deliberately flouted their rules and refused to comply with many of their required but unnecessary behaviours. His challenge ultimately led them to kill him. Jesus objection to them was that their rule-based living not only utterly distorted the image of God, but it placed emphasis on the outside or external things rather than what was going on inside our hearts which could not be fixed so easily. He illustrated this by calling some legalists of his time whitewashed tombs – clean and bright on the outside but dead and putrefying inside.  Constantly he met, touched and ate with the people regarded as immoral and unclean by the legalists, because these were the people who were ready to hear what he had to say. Flawed and broken, spat out by the religious system, they were in exactly the right place to be able to receive him.

Bill W and the early founders of AA, also flawed and broken, were very influenced by the Oxford Group, a Christian organisation which shaped many of the basic practices of current 12 step fellowships – surrender, moral inventories, making restitution or amends, sharing stories, restoration of sanity, etc. A central plank of the Oxford Group’s approach to change their conduct were the four absolutes – moral standards of absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love, guidelines to help determine whether a course of action was directed by God. Fortunately, Bill W could see that because these absolutes of conduct were impossible to attain, trying to follow them created an unhealthy legalistic framework that would only make recovering alcoholics feel like failures and more than likely serve to reinforce their drinking. All that was necessary was absolute honesty because this exposed any rule-based system and the flawed attempt to make ourselves seem good by following this or blaming others for our situation. Absolute honesty makes everything possible, because we are not pretending to be anything other than we are. No false self, no glittering image. With absolute honesty, each of the twelve steps works. This is true for all of us. Until we seek to be honest with ourselves, about ourselves, our progress is always going to be limited whether that is recovering from addiction or simply managing our lives and learning to grow and change.  Ultimately it is honesty in accepting that it is an inside job which we can’t do ourselves, surrendering instead to a God who wants to restore us and work from the inside out.

When I limped back to God, many years after my childhood experiences, I found a lot of what I had learned still sitting on the mantelpiece waiting for me. However God does not have a checklist, eager to catch me out and punish me.  I have had to unlearn this on a daily basis, challenge those distorted lessons about God, rules and regulations, claiming instead God’s love and grace. At the same time it’s also been necessary to start to deal with the loitering resentments I carried about those early years. The life and teachings of Jesus are always the corrective lens. It is never about winning approval or earning God’s love. I never can. But that is okay because it is freely and lavishly given, which is what grace is always about. There are many helpers along the way and light-bulb moments. Like the AA member who said that his higher power really liked him. What, God might actually like me?! And the picture of God in the story of The Shack powerfully counters so much of my childhood learning. In it God is shown to be “particularly fond” of each of us, without exception. God is love. Accepting this, and living a life of gratitude and surrender to this love, helps us at last to leave behind the chain gang of legalism.

Spiritual connection and engagement is not built on compliance, it’s the product of love, belonging, and vulnerability.  Brené Brown

 Your ego is a great technician. It cannot be creative. It goes in for methods and techniques and produces holy people who are rigid, consistent, mechanical, lifeless as intolerant of others as they are of themselves – violent people the very opposite of holiness and love. The type of spiritual people who, conscious of their spirituality then proceed to crucify the Messiah”. Anthony de Mello

 Most of what I had been taught by Christian clergy was that I was created by God, but was bad because of something some chick did in the Garden of Eden, and that I should try really hard to be good so that God, who is an angry bastard, won’t punish me. Grace had nothing to do with it. I hadn’t learned about grace from the church. But I did learn about it from sober drunks who managed to stop drinking by giving their will over to the care of God and who then tried like hell to live a life according to spiritual principles. What the drunks taught me was that there was a power greater than myself who could be a source of restoration, and that higher power, it ends up, is not me. Nadia Bolz-Weber

The Big, The Bold, The Beautiful and The Blue – lessons in applied spirituality

I recently attended a meeting to talk about what a course in applied spirituality might look like. We were a small but disparate group – Buddhists, Christians and Atheists, people in both mental health and addiction recovery, a priest, academics, as well as shameless tailgaters like me who wanted to learn from the collective wisdom. We met in a cosy but windowless room in a dry-bar in Newcastle, watched over by an experienced and perceptive looking blue toy rabbit, which sat beside me on one of the sofas. Quite appropriate really because we spent a couple of interesting hours chasing rabbits. We talked about love, trust, connectedness and hope, all seemingly hallmarks of a spiritual life, but we struggled to define exactly what we understood by spirituality, because it’s big stuff and it meant something different to each of us. I’ve thought about it a lot since and here are a few reflections based on my own experiences and understanding.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve step programmes see the importance of practical or applied spirituality. The foreword to “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” written by Bill W, says that “AA’s Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practised as a way of life can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole”.  These spiritual principles are far removed from religious practice and are based around non-material realities or experiences which can underpin everyday living. Jesus constantly talked about spiritual principles and the inner life. He condemned the many religious practices of his day and especially those people in authority who used religion for their own ends of power, pleasure (status, worthiness, looking the part, etc) or security.

Perhaps the most radical of the teachings of Jesus are found in the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus outlined his bold manifesto for a new way of living, underpinned by a reality beyond the material world of self-interest and self gain. The topsy-turvy world of Jesus runs utterly counter to the world we live in and into which we have all been programmed or indoctrinated, all of our lives. This material world view tells us that to be rich we need to accumulate and look after ourselves, making security, pleasure and power important guiding principles of living. Not so, said Jesus. True spiritual living is always about letting go; it’s subtraction and not addition. In the spiritual pathway he introduces, the first shall be last, those who mourn shall be blessed, it is better to give than to receive, suffering is the way to greatness, forgive and we shall be forgiven. Or as 12 steppers often say, to keep it you’ve got to give it away, and you surrender in order to gain. These spiritual principles or ways of living are counter-intuitive, part of the Golden Thread, which Christians and people in 12 step recovery have in common.

Accepting this counter-intuitive, topsy-turvy world of Jesus is challenging. It is just so radical. The part of me that longs for social justice, that has a bias towards the poor and which wants to protect and care for the vulnerable, rejoices and cheers from the stands when I read the Sermon on the Mount. Yes! God is on the side of the broken and the destitute. But whatever my intentions, actually living it out is a whole lot harder, because I am so caught up with a material way of thinking and operating. Do I really believe that the love and care of God will be sufficient if I do begin to let go? My thoughts and actions are unerringly and largely unconsciously linked to the old mindset of power, pleasure or security (usually disguised as apparently self-less and benevolent intentions). In the account of his wilderness temptation, Jesus spotted and vehemently rejected these ways of behaving as a short cut to glory. Recognition, surrender and letting go does not come naturally to me or I suspect, to most of us. People with alcohol or drug problems get backed into a corner where they can do no other – the rest of us can be equally bankrupt but manage to retain a veneer of being okay and continue to run our lives without truly following this new spiritual pathway. And ironically, religion is particularly susceptible to the old way of thinking and behaving. In Christianity this is most visibly seen in the way churches and people in them function. Obvious really, because we all continue to carry these old patterns of thought and behaviour into everything we do.

It is for this reason that we must consciously seek to renew our minds and practice living in the new way. It is a daily activity but a lifetime project. Those in 12 Step Recovery talk a lot about working their programme, but many of us Christians sit back hoping that with the help of some prayer and devotional readings the Spirit will change us. But following Jesus is not a passive activity like a moving corridor at an airport onto which we step, waiting to be delivered at the other end without any participation ourselves. We have to play our part and co-operate with God in changing us. Because I have a blind spot and don’t recognise my tendency to slip back to the material way of thinking, along with its cosy and easy preferences, I need to consciously act in a counter-intuitive way by practicing forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, trust, giving away, etc, on a daily basis to counter the way I’ve always done it. God does the work in us but we must be willing, humble and active participants.

The Sermon on the Mount is not just a beautiful dream. My experience and that of countless others who seek to embrace these upside-down principles is that as we follow this spiritual pathway we find a contentedness and joy which the old one we were taught to operate by couldn’t provide. We can never get enough power, pleasure or security to make us any more than fleetingly happy, we just can’t. But boy did we try. Counter-intuitively, surrender and the rejection of these as guiding principles for living allows us to become happier and more fulfilled than we ever were previously. Less really does become more. Okay, we mess up often and lose our way, which usually teaches us far more than when things go well, but, as they say, it’s about progress not perfection. Ask the blue rabbit, I think he knew that all the time.

“Discovering who you really are is only possible when you stop aiming for it. When you turn your back and walk away, embracing instead a life of compassion, love, and even suffering and death, then and only then can you discover your true identity. It is like the magical door in many a children’s story; you can only find it when you stop looking.”  Paula Gooder

“The Church too is a group of sinful, confused, anguished people constantly tempted by the powers of lust and greed and always entangled in rivalry and competition.” Henri Nouwen

 “Spirituality is a mixed-up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down toboggan ride of unexpected turns, surprise bumps and bone shattering crashes … a life ruined by a Jesus who loves us right into his arms.” Mike Yaconelli

 “Think about how others feel. Practice being kind to others. For those who want to take the advanced course, practice kindness anonymously. Do something caring or compassionate for someone without ever telling anyone.”  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

Nothing’s Perfect

I spent a long time thinking about starting this blog. Not procrastinating, just thinking. But the longer I’ve thought about it, the harder it’s been to get started, because whilst I have had plenty of ideas for content, my planning about how it will develop has lacked a coherent shape or sense of direction. I was also waiting for a name that would say it all, preferably one that was witty and clever too. It didn’t come.

And then I remembered. Nothing’s perfect.  So, note to self, acknowledge that this isn’t going to be perfect or that I’ll know where it’s going to lead. And accept it. Because this is going to be about the journey rather than the destination or the outcome of it all. Which is appropriate really because the blog has arisen because of things that have happened on my spiritual journey and in particular the collision of two worlds – Christianity and 12 step recovery, the result of which is still sprinkling me with liberal quantities of stardust and for which I will be forever grateful.

It shouldn’t have been a collision really, because they share the same DNA, the founders of AA basing their programme on most of the key beliefs of the 19th century evangelical Oxford Group, which in turn was influenced by celebrated Christian thinkers such as John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. Through Bill W and Dr Bob, their understanding helped to shine a light into the nature of addiction and provide a way of living substance free. Because the beauty and the strength of 12 step fellowships is not just that they help people to get clean and sober but that they offer a way of living that works for everyone, addict or not, because it deals with the rubbish in our lives that many of us would prefer to bury deep in our internal landfills. So amazingly, 12 Step Recovery can now shine a light into the lives of individual Christians and the church community, providing a way of living that is honest, open and accountable, stripping Christianity back to the basic teachings of Jesus, whilst helping to shed the trappings of organisational self-preservation along the way.

This blog will explore the common themes, stories and narratives that 12 step spirituality has to teach Christians and what Christian teaching, or at least the way of Jesus has to share with those in recovery. This is the Golden Thread, the truth within the teachings of Jesus which offers to set us free and transform us. Because both of these ways of living are about transformation. About leaving behind the old ways of living, which didn’t work and which brought us unhappiness and pain, entering into a new way of living, a journey which enables us to grow into the people we were truly meant to be.

Recently I was privileged to attend an exhibition in Newcastle’s Anglican Cathedral held by Artists in Recovery. This was not a display of well-meaning artwork as a sort of therapy which helped addicts to get well. It was high quality, skilled and deeply moving artwork produced by people in recovery who were well, and their wellness allowed them to be the creative people they were always meant to be.  Their recovery not only allows them to become those people but weaves into the creative processes the pain and struggle of their lives, adding to the depth, intensity and beauty of their work. This is part of what I believe Jesus talks about when he says that he came to give us life in all its fullness. Many, many times I’ve heard people in recovery say they didn’t think life could be this good. Abundant life. That is what is on offer. It’s what Christianity is about too, but so often it can get lost in the line of duty, going to church, contributing, doing your best, earning merit, being okay (even if you’re not), keeping the show on the road. Its not empty and its not without value but all too often its not abundant living and its not what the way of Jesus taught. So join me on this journey of discovery and growth, contribute to it too by sharing your stories and experiences. And see how the Golden Thread can transform our lives.

“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen

“When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” Brennan Manning