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

Competition or Co-operation?

“I’m really grateful for one thing,” my brother said, “Dad taught us to be competitive and go in hard.” We were talking about my father and our upbringing, not long after his death. Even if this statement about him was true outside of the board games we used to play, his contribution was still only a small part of the big lie we are all told many times over, that life is about competing with other people and it pays to be ruthless in doing so. It is only in recent years that I have begun to see this lie for what it is, although changing the way I live is taking a whole lot longer.

From the start I want it to be clear that I’m not talking about winning at school sports, a game of monopoly or pool or even getting a job or wanting the football team you follow to win every match. Neither am I suggesting that wanting to achieve and excel at the things we do as individuals and in groups is wrong. What I am doing is kicking back against idea that absolutely everything in life is about competition and that this is an inevitable part of the evolutionary process. In other words, the notion that we are hard-wired to be competitive and competition is just another way of describing the survival of the fittest. Really? So the rush to get a seat on a crowded train or to be at the front of the dash into a store on the first day of the sales or to stockpile sugar, pasta, or flour is simply our need to provide for ourselves and those we care for? Even if there is a grain of truth in this, it quickly becomes a very unhealthy belief system to operate by, because the reality is that if I get what I want, this invariable results in someone else having less – no seat on the train, empty supermarket shelves and so on. The idea of competition and its alleged evolutionary source can so easily be an excuse or rationalisation for our selfish, greedy behaviour. What’s true for individuals is true for nations too. The current UK government has recently cut its overseas aid budget because it says the UK needs those resources more than other much poorer countries. When it’s got much richer, it will increase its aid budget again. Indeed.

Self-interest dressed up as competition could be seen in the subsistence farming economy of Jesus’s time – if a person accumulated crops in his barn and needed to build bigger barns to hold the grain then it was at the expense of others who had little or went without. No wonder Jesus’s parables often touched on this important area of life. His teachings suggest that we are meant to be in co-operation with God and with one another, not in competition, because there is plenty to go around. As beings created in God’s image, we have rationality and moral principles as our guide, not just survival and reproduction instincts. The early church at least was very much a community which had sharing and caring as its hallmark, following in the way of Jesus. It’s also a key element of recovery –we even talk about the recovery community. It’s not a competition about whose recovery is better or who is a better follower of Jesus.  In the latter case we are all poor at it and the whole point about grace and mercy is that they are freely given to all of us, not just those who earn it or achieve a certain level of merit. And how do we respond to this grace? We serve one another, as Jesus taught us to do and showed in his life as a Servant Leader.

I always remember being moved by the slightly corny yet profound school assembly story of heaven and hell. Both were places with plenty of food but people could only eat using six-foot-long spoons. In hell everyone went hungry because they could not get the food into their mouths but in heaven everyone was full because they fed each other. In 12 step recovery this idea of working together and being non-competitive is perfectly illustrated by the complete absence of hierarchy and positions of status. The emphasis on service is very strong – again the model of Jesus as servant leader, and his counter-intuitive message that to become great we must become the least and the servant of all.

Pushing ourselves and having a competitive spirit isn’t a bad thing but the real lie is that this is what defines us as people. It’s even been said that extreme acts of heroism or altruism are really just self-serving actions, a cynical view of someone’s self-sacrificial act of giving and love for another. Love is what make us truly human and that is what both Jesus’ teachings and 12 step recovery are both about – making us more fully who we are meant to be and less the isolated, fearful, addicted people that the competitive world creates and fuels.

Christmas is a reminder that Immanuel is God with us, not God against us or watching us or even letting us sort it out for ourselves. God is with us, co-operating, working together to make the Kingdom of God a reality, not just seasonal bonhomie but good will to all, now and always.

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.

Searching for Soul Food

The strawberries I’ve eaten this summer have been a big disappointment. Though bright red and as beautiful looking as ever, they taste weak and watery, not delivering that massive hit of flavour which should leave you reaching for the next berry, the one after that and so on, a conveyor belt of pure strawberry pleasure.

It reminds me of my experiences attending church. I usually go with great expectations, but if I’m honest, services generally don’t hit the sweet spot I’d hoped for. It doesn’t really matter how hard I try or what style of service it is either, other people around me always seem to be getting a lot more out of it than I do, as if their bowls of strawberries are packed with flavour, whilst mine is not. Some of these people appear to be in a state of ecstatic rapture, some exude an aura of quiet holiness, others have the intense look of desert hermits but unfortunately, I’m not as transfixed. It’s not the fault of those leading or taking part in the services and I have the best of intentions, genuinely wanting something profound to happen, but invariably I end up distracted by a wandering mind or I’m just plain bored. Inevitably I feel rather shallow and unspiritual as a result, but somehow, inexorably, I’m drawn back, week after week.

I was helped enormously with this problem by a friend in Twelve Step Recovery who talked to me in passing about an AA meeting he’d just attended. “It was awful,” he said. “I wanted to walk out, listening to some of the ridiculous stuff that was being said.” This intrigued me because neither he nor anybody else I know who attends meetings had ever said anything like that to me before. My friends in recovery are all wise, honest, perceptive people and I imagined the meetings they attended would be full of sassy folk like them, pouring out words of understanding and insight from loving hearts. I probed, wanting to find out more. He laughed at my naivety. “You’ve been to meetings,” he said. “You know its not all love and enlightenment. A lot is quite boring and there’s a fair bit of unchallenged nonsense spoken too. Whatever my feelings may be though, I stick around and continue to turn up at the meetings because it’s all I’ve got, and somehow the five percent that’s really good helps me to stay clean and sober.”

I thought about my church-going experiences. The parts which pass me by or I miss through not concentrating and mentally drifting off certainly aren’t nonsense, but perhaps it’s okay for me to stop worrying about them. Maybe there’s never going to be an earthquake, wind and fire, or at least, until there is, why not concentrate instead on listening for the still small voice in the five percent that does do something for me. On the days when I can’t even get as high as five percent, I need to remember that always, always I come away feeling better in mind and spirit than when I arrived. Something happens deep within. The still small voice may not be audible, but I’m reminded that I am connected, part of a motley shoal of people that is swimming against the prevailing current. I get fed with tiny morsels of spiritual micro-protein and wisdom. I recognise the need to be still and to receive God’s love whether that is through sharing the Peace, receiving the Eucharist or conversations over coffee afterwards.  Jesus said “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” I know that I’m hungry and need food from the table, provided by the Bread of Life, so I’ll just keep on turning up to receive this in any way I can and in any place where I find it. As they say in Twelve Step meetings, “Keep coming back, it works if you work it.”

On the Frontline – learning from Covid

It now feels like a very long time ago that Coronavirus so rudely kicked down the front doors of our comfortable, stable, well-planned lives and unceremoniously marched on in.  At long last, nearly eighteen months later, many of the worst affected countries are finally lifting their lockdowns and easing the various restrictions put in place to limit the virus’s rapid and seemingly relentless spread. It is noticeable, however that this gradual relaxation has been accompanied by signs of the usual human tendency to forget what we’ve been through and the lessons we thought that we’d learned, as we rush headlong to bury ourselves once again in what Heather King calls “the low-level anaesthetic haze of distractions and false gods.” There’s an old Irish blessing which says, “May you never forget what is worth remembering, nor ever remember what is best forgotten.” Maybe now is a good time for us to take stock and reflect on the things that we thought we’d learned during the Covid Pandemic but are now in danger of forgetting. We need to remember what is worth remembering.

Over the first six months of the pandemic there was a lot of talk about both love and suffering. Love was perhaps most clearly seen in the work of many of the frontline health and social care staff whose self-sacrificing care for the ill, lonely and dying went far beyond their job descriptions or professional expectations. Other essential workers, all too often the lowest paid people in our communities served us with immense dedication and love, keeping shelves stocked, food supplied, garbage cleared, fuel flowing and transport running. With schools and workplaces shut, families suddenly found themselves living close to one another 24/7 which required them to discover new depths of love, patience and tolerance. Love was also to be seen in many small acts of kindness for others in need in the community. People looked out for neighbours who were old or vulnerable, significant increases were seen in donations and contributions to local food banks and meal services, help was offered to those who could not manage. Little kindnesses of many sorts abounded. We discovered the truth of Mother Theresa’s words: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Communities flourished and we dreamed of a greener, cleaner, more loving world.

The virus also caused much suffering too. Not just the premature and often painful death of nearly four million people world-wide, but also those who were acutely ill and survived, as well as relatives who suffered as their loved ones died alone and without the opportunity to say a final goodbye. Those who have developed ‘long-covid’ continue to suffer in painful and extreme ways.  Elsewhere, many people with other health conditions suffered from temporarily inferior services and slower treatment as resources were shifted to fighting the virus. And all around us the poor, those in overcrowded living conditions, those in households where there was domestic violence, suffered even more than normal. Some experienced a double or triple whammy of these and other sources of suffering.

The majority of us, may not have experienced such extremes and instead found ourselves stuck in the lockdown hinterland of reduced options, dull routines and loss of purpose as its duration dragged on beyond any of our expectations. We just longed to get back to normal, whatever that new normal would look like. Yet, our eyes had been opened to a global vulnerability, and maybe we’d never have quite the same self-assuredness ever again.

Love and suffering have always been the most significant means by which we achieve spiritual growth. People in recovery know this and Jesus taught and consistently lived this truth. Addiction itself causes “acute and constant” suffering to both the addict and those around them and arguably the turning point is when the prolonged suffering caused by the addiction becomes too great to carry on. As the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions says, “Until now, our lives had been largely devoted to running from pain and problems. We fled from them as from a plague.  We never wanted to deal with the fact of suffering. Escape via the bottle was always our solution. Character-building through suffering might be alright for the saints, but it certainly didn’t appeal to us.”

The road to recovery is painful. The simple fact of living without a substance or process that we have always relied upon and having to stand without it, emotionally naked before the world is hard. Recovery is also painful because it requires change, most significantly the loss of ego which comes from our surrender. But wherever there is pain and suffering, love is usually there too, lurking in the shadows in the form of other people for whom this is a way of living and service. As the Big Book of AA says, “Love and tolerance of others is now our code.” In twelve step recovery, people find themselves drawn to others by acts of love; the duty which begin as a requirement of the programme ultimately develops into a way of life for the individual who gradually becomes loving and giving rather than selfish and taking.

The single most important message of Jesus was that God loves each of us and as a result will do anything to bring us back into his light. Anne Lamott says, “Sometimes I think God loves the ones who most desperately ache and are most desperately lost – his or her wildest, most messed-up children – the way you’d ache and love a screwed-up rebel daughter in juvenile hall.” The two great commandments of Jesus urge us to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. No soft, sentimental love this, but a diamond hard centre of being, made so by the intense forces of costly self-sacrifice and suffering. As children of God we are to fill our lives with such love for God and others. Never one to ask anything of others that he did not do himself, Jesus lived this love to the full and experienced the process of dying to self. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it cannot bear great fruit.” His brutal death brought great love and extreme suffering together in one final cataclysmic yet ultimately triumphant event.

None of this is news to most regular readers of this blog and certainly not to anyone with a strong recovery from addiction or Christian faith. One of the golden threads running through both is that love and suffering are our great teachers. But because we sometimes lose focus and our ego seeks to reassert itself from being in its rightful place and constantly tries to Edge God Out, it always pays to do a spiritual health check on how we’re doing, remembering that we so easily fall prey to self-deception. No time is better for doing this check than right now when things are starting to return to “normal.”

As I’ve said previously in these blog posts, I’m a real coward and will do my utmost to avoid pain and suffering if I can, but I am also a realist who knows it’s a fact of life and that somehow, at some point it will come knocking. In the meantime, whether suffering or not, we can always work at being better at loving others. So, the question is, each day, how can we better love those around us, not just by what we do but also by what we don’t do. Not saying the unkind, uncharitable things but only speaking words that encourage, build up and bring life. Giving the nicest and the best – not just the cheapest or most convenient, sharing the things we hold dear, sacrificing our time, comfort and ease. It’s the kind of love which has no price tag on it. Such love is steady and slow work, changing us without us ever knowing it’s happening. Life may sometimes feel dull or purposeless but the challenge to love those around us means that each day and in every situation, we are all called to be frontline workers. “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 in the life to come.” (Henri Nouwen)

The House of the Rising Son : An Easter Reflection

I love early morning during the spring and summer months. I used to attribute it to happy memories of doing a paper round as a boy which required a 5.30am start and then a first job where I worked early shifts. But the more I reflect upon it, the more I think that it is because there is something deeply sacred in the early morning, which we are better attuned to so soon after waking and before the hustle and bustle of the day takes over.  We hear the birds singing, we feel a freshness in the air and smell the sweet fragrance of the new day. With the dawn there comes not only the light of day but a lightening of the heart too. The messes of yesterday and the spectres of the night are washed away by a sense of hope and possibility that this new day can offer. It is, as the Celtic Christians might have put it, a thin place, where heaven and earth are very close.

Our own experiences and memories of being out early in the morning make some of the post Easter stories of Jesus all the more accessible.  There is the Easter Sunday resurrection story when before sunrise a group of women went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. Shortly afterwards Mary Magdalene met the risen Jesus and didn’t recognise him in the half-light after dawn, her eyes full of tears as she mourned the one who had given her the love and respect she had found nowhere else. Some days later there was another dawn encounter, this time for some of the disciples returning tired from a fruitless night-fishing trip, to find the risen Jesus on the beach welcoming them with a cooked breakfast. New days, new beginnings, new hopes.

One of the highlights of my whole year is the dawn Easter Service, where we meet in the darkness of Newcastle’s old Castle Keep, ascending during the service to tEaster Dawn 1ahe rooftop where the fire is kindled and the paschal Candle lit as the sun starts to rise. This year we were not able to hold the service, but the glorious sunrise last year remained in my memory and the sadness about not celebrating the resurrection story in that way does not detract from the wonder of Easter. And that wonder is not limited to Easter Day but carries on in the days and weeks afterwards. For many outside the Church, Easter is done and dusted when the last Easter egg is consumed, but in the Church we continue to celebrate the season of Eastertide over subsequent weeks, discovering that the resurrected Jesus continues to bring us hope and joy, turning our sorrow into rejoicing. Reminding us that the downward path we have so often reflected upon in these blog posts is in fact part of the topsy turvy reality in the Kingdom of Heaven where we lose to gain, give to receive and die in order to truly live. Revealing that our systems of merit, worth and just deserts are not the ways the God of grace works at all. Showing us too that it is not about grim suffering and endurance but about finding joy, hope and happiness that go deep into the centre of our being as we discover who we really are and our hearts truest desires.

This understanding suffuses 12 step programmes and practice. Letting the old habits and addictions die is necessary in order to live, surrendering control to our higher power brings new life and service to others brings joy and happiness. As the Big Book of AA says of the steps, “The joy of living is the theme of AA’s Twelfth Step, and action is its key word.” Elsewhere it affirms that “We are sure God wants us to be happy, joyous and free.” Bill W tells his own story of recovery later in the book and says that “I was to know happiness, peace and usefulness in a way of life that is, incredibly, more wonderful as time passes.” Countless people in 12 step recovery still say the same: “I never knew my life could be so happy”, “I feel as if I’ve truly found who I was always meant to be and that gives me a wonderful feeling of happiness and joy”. “Every day in recovery is one of joyful discovery and the hope that others may find this too.” “All the pain and misery of my addiction has given way to a new life which just gets better every day”. So resurrection is alive and well!

Eastertide is all about continuing to celebrate this resurrection hope and joy. “May you know the Joy of Easter”, we are told in the liturgy. Many of these blog posts may present life as one big struggle through the mess and problems (self-inflicted and imposed) that life brings. Which I believe to be true, but I also believe in resurrection, the hope this brings out of the pain and struggle and the joy that life holds now. Yes now, not in some distant future. Time after time, Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven being here now. It has arrived. And with it comes joy, laughter and happiness. Not for show, not for the future, but now. Joy of living – of celebrating the beauty of nature, the awesomeness of the night sky, the complexity and order of the natural world, the tastes, sights, sounds and smells which bring us moments of delight throughout each day. Joy in the service of others, all unique and valuable individuals, each one fearfully and wonderfully made. Joy in the presence of God all around and within. Joy in and through resurrection. May we all discover that joy and continue to live it this Eastertide.

Joy is based on the spiritual knowledge that, while the world we live in is shrouded in darkness, God has overcome the world. Henri J.M. Nouwen

A joyful life is made up of joyful moments gracefully strung together. Brene Brown

Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

If you can’t find joy in the path you are on and what you are working toward now, how do you expect to find joy once you get there? Anonymous

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy. Tagore

Adversity, illness, and death are real and inevitable. We choose whether to add to these unavoidable facts of life with the suffering that we create in our own minds and hearts -the chosen suffering. The more we make a different choice, to heal our own suffering, the more we can turn to others and help to address their suffering with the laughter-filled, tear-stained eyes of the heart. And the more we turn away from our self-regard to wipe the tears from the eyes of another, the more, incredibly, we are able to hear, to heal, and to transcend our own suffering. This is the true secret to joy. Dalai Lama

The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s Kingdom. It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. NT Wright

 

 

Pathways : Restoration instead of Despair

J and P had been in recovery together for about 3 years. Although they had very different backgrounds, both attended the same 12 step meetings and they had the same sponsor. Within hours of one other, both relapsed – though not together. Their sponsor had seen it coming for them both, but neither believed his warnings about what might happen. Afterwards, the outcomes were very different. As a result of what he did, J was overwhelmed by remorse and shame. Rejected by those who had encouraged his actions he could see no way out and his desperation spiralled into deep self-loathing and isolation. He killed himself. P, however, was also full of remorse and shame but stumbled on, meeting with others, admitting what had happened and then finally meeting with his sponsor who showed he did not judge him for what happened and helped P to forgive himself. P went on to live a life of great purpose and achievement.

In the gospels, J and P also had choices to make and falls to recover from, as we see in the stories of Judas and Peter, two disciples of Jesus. Both failed him in the last hours of his life, failures that Jesus saw coming and warned them about in advance, but which neither managed to avoid. Afterwards, each of them realised very quickly what they had done wrong and both were filled with immense grief and remorse. Judas, went back to those to whom he had betrayed Jesus and acknowledged his sin, but there was no mercy or forgiveness to be found there and they rejected him and turned him away. Desperate and alone, Judas went out and hanged himself. Peter, however, took a very different pathway. He remained with his friends who probably knew full well what he had done, but sticking around was the only option he could see. Two days later, his hopes were raised by the account of the risen Jesus given by some of the women who had also been followers, and then some days later Peter was met by the resurrected Jesus who offered him forgiveness and restitution in a beautiful and moving account in John 21. The most wonderful part of that story, is the fact that Jesus had cooked breakfast on the beach prior to meeting the small group of his followers, attending to their physical, bodily needs before taking Peter to one side, to forgive and restore him. So, for Jesus, the denial wasn’t even the number one priority when he met Peter again – he was already forgiven! True grace and mercy. I am absolutely convinced that if Judas had been able to stay around long enough to meet with Jesus again, he too would have received forgiveness and been fully restored.

The reality of course, is that we all mess up like Peter and Judas. And we all know the deep sense of failure and self-torment when we do. It can feel like a living hell. In the story of Judas we really do get the sense of a suffering soul. Over the centuries, he has been vilified and despised by most within the church, with all manner of eternal tortures and punishments suggested for him, but nothing can compare with that awful deep chasm of despair he felt when he realised what he had done and saw no hope of redemption. Peter, for his part has always been a figure we can identify with – he says foolish things, he behaves in irrational and blindly emotional ways, he seems to have little self-awareness at times he most needs it, which most of us can recognise in ourselves. How many of us recall conversations or things we have done which we replay in our mind over and over again, making us blush with embarrassment or feel hopelessly shamed. So, when we have genuinely done wrong and messed up, Peter’s restoration is our hope of restoration too. And our personal torment until we are restored, is the greatest punishment of all. Those who are working a programme of recovery know this better than most of us. Failures and slips can become significant relapses, which offer a destructive pathway and require a turning back onto the original pathway through reconnection, honest admission and restoration. A difficult but necessary process.

The golden thread of failure and restoration is woven throughout the Bible, though perhaps most clearly shown in the lives of people who met Jesus. Almost every character is shown as a transformed sinner, someone who does it wrong before they ever do it right. “We have erred and strayed from your ways”, says the general confession, from which none of us are exempt. And even when they and we get back onto the right pathway, we all will inevitably go wrong again (and again), “through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.” It seems that this is not just one of those things, but is the way it has to be, for us to learn to let go of our self-assured, self-interested ways of living. As Richard Rohr says, “We must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say. We must be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide. It is the necessary pattern”.  It is only our addictions, our failures to do things right (or sins), death or major loss, serious illness, broken relationships or lost dreams which really bring us to the point where we recognise that not only is the pathway we are on the wrong one but the roadmap we have been using cannot help us find our way back. We have run out of solutions and “our lives have become unmanageable.” At this point we either despair or we turn to look for a place or a person who has the answers. In 12 step recovery this is our higher power; Jesus used other language for the same solution declaring that he offered the thirsty living water from a source which would never dry up, a new way of living and being.

This Holy Week, as we remember and contemplate the path which Jesus trod, leading to his rigged trial and execution, including betrayal and denial by friends who just hours before had shared in the first ever Eucharist, we are reminded that this is a downwards path for us all. Both those in 12 step recovery and followers of Jesus understand this and live it out in their daily lives. It is counter-intuitive, like so much of the golden thread within Jesus’ teaching and 12 step recovery.  In life there is no glory without pain – would that it were otherwise! There is no Easter Day without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But as the resurrection of Easter Day shows and establishes for all to see, not only can we survive the downward path and the pain we experience in our lives, but we can rise up and grow from the tragedies and failures of our imperfection. We win by losing. We are Easter people.

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song. Pope John Paul II

Religion is for people who are afraid of hell, spirituality is for people who have already been there. Anonymous

Whenever God restores something, He restores it to a place greater than it was before. Bill Johnson

Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth. Anonymous

Where do we even start on the daily walk of restoration and awakening? We start where we are. Anne Lamott

In my recovery, I learned that the pain of my defects is the very substance God uses to cleanse my character and to set me free. Alcoholics Anonymous, Daily Reflections: A Book of Reflections by A.A. Members for A.A Members 

Christ is building His kingdom with earth’s broken things. Men want only the strong, the successful, the victorious, the unbroken, in building their kingdoms; but God is the God of the unsuccessful, of those who have failed. He can lift earth’s saddest failure up to heaven’s glory. J.R. Miller

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  The Big Book Step 2

The pattern of the prodigal is: rebellion, ruin, repentance, reconciliation, restoration. Edwin Louis Cole

In the light of the new understanding that I have found in A.A., I have been able to interpret that defeat and that failure and that shame as seeds of victory. Because it was only through feeling defeat and feeling failure, the inability to cope with my life and with alcohol, that I was able to surrender and accept the fact that I had this disease and that I had to learn to live again without alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous,, 4th Edition

Grace – Amazingly Amazing

“I was sitting in the boughs of a large sycamore tree on a hot, dusty day. The sun shone brightly and there was a shimmer of heat rising from the ground as I looked along the road and into the distance. There were people everywhere. It was like market day and festival all rolled into one. It had been quite an effort to climb the tree in the first place, as I’m not very tall, but once up, it was a good place to be, because nobody knew I was there. The leaves offered some protection from the sun and up high there was a very slight but welcome breeze, but I wasn’t there for a place of rest or shelter. I needed a good vantage point, and a secret one at that.  Nobody down there would want to rub shoulders with an outcast like me. For what it’s worth, the feeling was mutual.

I saw the entourage moving down the street in our direction a long time before the people on the ground below me could see. The crowds were especially dense at that point and their progress was slow. It was about 20 minutes or so before I could see the group really clearly because they kept stopping and getting side-tracked – a right royal walkabout. The Teacher was closely surrounded by his followers who seemed impatient to keep moving, overly protective and dismissive of those who wanted to see him, let alone speak. He didn’t seem to notice or care what these disciples thought. No matter, up in the tree I wouldn’t be getting in anyone’s way! There were quite a few of the religious leaders around him too, trying to engage him in conversation and generally lording it up as if the crowds had turned out to see them. No chance of that!

It was interesting watching everybody’s reaction to him, and the noise and clamour grew louder as the Teacher and his followers moved nearer. In the midst of the group I recognised a blind beggar who I passed in the street most days. He’d left his pitch and his bowl behind and was up on his feet, singing and dancing. No longer blind! Just as they were about to pass by, The Teacher stopped. He looked up into the tree, saw me in my hide-out, smiled, and spoke, calling me by my name and saying that he wanted to stay with me in my house. For some reason, I couldn’t get down the tree quickly enough and we talked as if we’d known each other for years. That meeting with the Teacher set my life off on a new path, one that I neither expected nor deserved but one for which I will always be grateful.”

This story of how the despised, cheating, collaborator and tax-collector Zacchaeus met Jesus and the changes that happened in his life as a result can be found in Mark 19 and are just one of the many examples of Jesus reaching out and blessing the least expected of people. Story after story about his life show acts of grace to so many people – thieves, poor, disabled, ostracised, foreigner, old, women and children, none of whom were deemed to be of much value by society at that time. And the parables or stories he told were ways of introducing and conveying the truth about God. A God in love with the world extending grace to all.

The blog in October 2019 looked at Mercy, which is closely related to Grace. But the distinction is important. Mercy is not getting something bad which we deserve, whereas grace is receiving something good that we don’t deserve. Grace is thus a much larger concept, and in turn is more amazing, more remarkable and more beautiful. We all need mercy in our lives and when we recognise this, we hope that people will show us mercy, but grace is like a great big bonus that we could never really ask for or expect. I see it a bit like this. If I am in a queue of traffic at a busy junction waiting to make a difficult turn, then the driver behind can show mercy by not getting impatient with me if I’m a bit slow and it takes me time to make the turn. But if a driver on the road I am trying to turn into stops to let me in, then he shows me grace. If we think about it, there is so much to be grateful for that is a result of grace.  And if this is hard to do, then a good starting point is to realise there’s always someone worse off than us simply because of where and when they were born. What we have is a gift, like life itself.

Jesus was, as the start of John’s gospel says, full of grace and truth, and told us about a God who was forever wanting to bless us, to extend grace and favour to each of us in our lives. As a follower of Jesus, I see God as the source of all the acts of grace in my life. Recovery too is also a place of grace. Becoming clean and sober always begins with an act of grace when the individual receives something of tremendous value that they don’t deserve in the light of the choices they have made and all the hurt they have caused other people. And neither do those who receive it merit it any more than other struggling addicts or alcoholics. It isn’t earned, nevertheless it happens. It is an act of grace.  Nadia Bolz Weber who straddles the 12-step recovery and Christian communities is her usual honest and incisive self in describing this Grace at work in her life. “Getting sober never felt like I had pulled myself up by my own spiritual bootstraps. It felt instead like I was on one path toward destruction and God pulled me off of it by the scruff of my collar, me hopelessly kicking and flailing and saying, ‘Screw you. I’ll take the destruction please.’ God looked at tiny, little red-faced me and said, ‘that’s adorable,’ and then plunked me down on an entirely different path.”

The very existence of the 12-step programme is a sign of grace – especially when you consider the flawed and broken people who helped AA to begin and to develop. Over the last 80+ years it has been a vehicle of grace to thousands and thousands of undeserving but beautiful people, who became transformed and carried the message, offering this grace filled programme to others, helping their souls to heal and placing faith in them until this belief became their own. Sobriety is obtained through “working the programme” but anybody who sees or experiences this transformation knows that something bigger and far more wonderful is at work here and that is Grace.

Fortunately, Grace does not come as a one-off thing – we need grace on a daily basis.  Zacchaeus experienced grace when Jesus called him and ate with him and we see the transformed behaviour of the tax collector as he made amends, repaying money he had stolen or wrongly taken. But if his addiction and attachment was to money and making a fast buck, then he will have needed daily grace to continue to live that new life of honesty and integrity. Just like us.

Jesus talked about grace and longed for those he met and still meets, to experience it. In his stories and parables and in the way he lived his life, God is always shown to be the giver of gifts for the most undeserving of recipients, the thrower of parties for the least likely of guests, the welcoming host for those with a record of trashing the places where they stay. As beneficiaries of such grace (or whatever else we may choose to call this mystery), we experience feelings of deep humility and gratitude, hallmarks of both a good recovery and of a well-founded Christian faith. But as ever there is a challenge. We must go and do likewise offering acts of mercy and grace to those we meet, loving the unlovely, giving to the undeserving and forgiving those who have wronged us. As we stumble along this path, usually with the most limited of success or even if we find ourselves side-tracked and self-obsessed once again, grace continues to come knocking at our door. Why? Because, that’s just what God’s grace does. In the words of Zaphod Beeblebrox, it’s amazingly amazing!

Christianity is not primarily a moral code but a grace-laden mystery; it is not essentially a philosophy of love but a love affair; it is not keeping rules with clenched fists but receiving a gift with open hands.  Brennan Manning

 I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. Anne Lamott

Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace—like saying “Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.” Nadia Bolz Weber

 We are captured by grace. Only after much mistrust and testing do we accept that we are accepted.  Richard Rohr

Back to Basics – keeping it simple

Going back to basics is a phrase beloved of sports coaches, especially if results aren’t going their way. Essentially they mean that remembering to do the simple foundational things properly is the key to getting the bigger things right. It’s not just true in sport but in many other things in life, including recovery and especially Christianity, where we can so often over-complicate things. We would do well to remember the basics and return to these on a regular basis.

In the teachings of Jesus, nowhere does he spell out the basics more clearly than in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, paralleled in what is sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.  He begins as he means to go on. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. The Kingdom of Heaven is central to Jesus’s manifesto; the focus of his work was to proclaim the arrival of this kingdom. But his kingdom is not of this world, as he told Pilate at his trial. His teaching on poverty of spirit shows this clearly. The world tells us that it is good to be rich in spirit – to be self-sufficient and not dependant on others, that God is a crutch for those who cannot cope alone, that we are in control of our destiny. But Jesus sees it very differently. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, he says, not the rich in spirit. The poor in spirit are those who recognise their need of God, their inability to do it alone, the mess that we make of our own lives (and other people’s) when we try to be self-sufficient. It is a humble acceptance of who we really are and how much we need God to help begin to make us complete.

Spiritual poverty, is right at the heart of 12 step thinking. It is Step 1. Absolute basics. An admission of powerlessness – over alcohol, drugs, gambling or what addictive behaviour has come to dominate and control our life – and invariably the lives of our family too. The lie that we are still in control is built on pride and dishonesty. The admission of powerlessness blows that notion apart. Spiritual poverty and embracing Steps 1 and 2 is not just an admission of powerlessness but is about humility, honesty and acceptance of our need of a power greater than ourselves to put this right. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that his message was for such as these, the sick who cannot cure themselves, not those who think there is no problem. In truth, his message is not just for the addict but for all of us with our false illusions of control and mastery, since we are all powerless and in need of a higher power to help us manage our lives. Like Step 1, all we need to do is admit how weak, vulnerable and messed up we are without this – the old way of functioning doesn’t work. It is a hard journey and process to recognise this and admit it to ourselves and others, because our default position is always one of self-sufficiency and a belief that we can fix ourselves.

Which is why we always need to keep returning to basics. People working a 12 step programme never come to the end. They keep working through the steps, including revisiting Step 1 long after first coming into recovery. Followers of Jesus also need to go back to the basics and poverty of spirit is an important starting point. However good my glittering image might be, recognising and owning my messed-up self, the one that only I truly know, is important. For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those of us who haven’t got it right – the addict, the sinner. It’s not for the fixed and the sorted. We are blessed because we have nothing but God, our higher power on which we can rely. This is the honesty and humility which helps us to take one day at a time, living in a right way, where we seek to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

Surrender your own poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to God. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon. Thomas Merton

How can we embrace poverty as a way to God when everyone around us wants to become rich? Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves: ‘What is my poverty?’ Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That’s the place where God wants to dwell! ‘How blessed are the poor,’ Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty. We are so inclined to cover up our poverty and ignore it that we often miss the opportunity to discover God, who dwells in it. Let’s dare to see our poverty as the land where our treasure is hidden. Henri J.M. Nouwen

The deeper we grow in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the poorer we become – the more we realize that everything in life is a gift. The tenor of our lives becomes one of humble and joyful thanksgiving. Awareness of our poverty and ineptitude causes us to rejoice in the gift of being called out of darkness into wondrous light and translated into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.  Brennan Manning