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

Mercy, Mercy – radical kindness to all

I’ve recently completed an annual spiritual practice that I do at the same time every year. It’s a long way from a desert retreat or 30-day Ignatian spiritual exercises (and a lot cheaper too) but my day of learning never fails to teach and remind me about important things in life. About acceptance and compassion, but especially about mercy.

I live just a mile or so away from the route of the Great North Run, the biggest half marathon in the World, which began in 1981.  I ran in the first three and in several others since, but I am no longer running. As a club runner I trained hard and prided myself on achieving the best times I could, always striving to do better. Whenever I wasn’t running, I’d go along to watch, seeing the elite athletes and supporting the club runners who I knew. I didn’t bother to stay and watch the fun runners who were running at a more sedate pace. After I stopped running, I no longer went to watch the race, but over the last few years I’ve started to go along again and now watch all of the runners go past. I tend to go to a point close to the Tyne Bridge where they’ve run about 2 miles. I started to cheer on runners I didn’t know, calling out their names or those of the charity for whom they were running to raise money and trying to encourage them. But I found myself introducing a very rigid (and unlovely) selection process as to who I’d cheer for. I would never cheer on anyone walking so early in the race. They didn’t deserve my encouragement nor did the ones who clearly hadn’t trained. Even those jogging ever so slowly got my cheers and words of support. And I’d pick my preferred charities – the bigger more organised ones seemed less deserving than the small ones.

When I discovered that I was doing this, I was quite shocked, even more so when I discovered it went very deep. I applied this mean-spirited, conditional and judgemental approach to a lot of other situations and people I came across, not just fun runners, but including of course, judgements about myself. It seems that I’m not alone in this sort of thinking. As Brennan Manning observed in his book The Wisdom of Tenderness, each of us lives in a world of our own, the world of our own mind. “How often we’re narrow, cold, haughty and unforgiving. Above all else we are judgmental, happy to believe appearances, impute motives and interpret behaviours with nothing but the slightest scraps of evidence to back it up.”

Jesus was very clear about the wrongness of this behaviour. In the story of the Good Samaritan, answering the question as to who our neighbour is, Jesus shows that the real neighbour is the one who cared for the beaten man and showed him mercy. The Samaritan may have had a host of reasons for not helping the victim or thinking he did not deserve help, as two previous religious figures had done, but he didn’t – he showed mercy and cared for the man without any conditions. Elsewhere Jesus is even more explicit when he says “Judge not, so that you yourselves are not judged”. Throughout his life he showed acceptance to the most judged and vilified people of his time – prostitutes, lepers, disabled, tax collectors, adulterers, beggars and so on. He himself experienced judgement and unkindness much of his life; as a young child he and his parents were refugees, as an adult he was consistently misunderstood, rejected and threatened by his own people. His trial and death were unfair and brutal.

The point of Jesus’s teaching is not just that we should seek to be merciful and non-judgmental, but that in doing this we reflect the character of God. “Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful” he said. God is not the big, bad villain we think but our compassionate, loving, merciful ever hopeful creator who only ever wants to restore and embrace us, most especially those who feel far away. God is the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan who binds our wounds, the employer who pays over the odds.

Learning to be accepting and non-judgemental seems to be intrinsic to the 12 Step programme too. Not only is there a recognition that we’re all in the same boat, all helpless addicts without a hope, but a deeply compassionate, merciful streak to all, even the difficult, awkward and contrary ones. The Big Book talks about having survived a common peril, regardless of who we are and having found a common solution. This is a solution where “there are no fees to pay, no axes to grind, no people to please, no lectures to be endured.” In the telling of stories and hearing different and common experiences there is a recognition that none of us is in a position to judge the other, because underneath it all we’re no different at all. We are all walking through this life with bandages and a limp.

Since in wider society we are conditioned to assess, categorise and judge almost all of the time (clothes, class, gender, age, job, weight, skin colour, income, ethnicity, religion, education level, etc) we have to work hard to overcome these prejudices. It seems to be like a little used muscle that only grows with practice, training and cultivation. As Anne Lamott says, “Mercy means that we no longer constantly judge everybody’s large and tiny failures, foolish hearts, dubious convictions, and inevitable bad behaviour. We will never do this perfectly, but how do we do it better?” The Just For Today Card is a useful way of improving our behaviour by practising kindness, compassion and above all showing mercy. This is the mercy that I know I need from my fellow beings and above all from God for all my slips, errant behaviour and sometimes downright nastiness. I don’t deserve it and maybe others I meet don’t either, but mercy is never about just deserts. Encouraging those runners (and walkers) in the Great North Run is not about what they do or don’t deserve. It’s a gift, and when I saw the increase in pace, smile or look of gratitude on the faces of those I encouraged this year who would not in the past have made the cut, I realised that they were bandaged and in need of my support. And in that brief moment there was connection and the Kingdom of God became real to us both.

Mercy, mercy, looking for mercy. Peter Gabriel

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Jesus of Nazareth

Mercy is the stuff you give to people that don’t deserve it. Joyce Meyer

Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved………The good news is that God has such low standards, and reaches out to those of us who are often not lovable and offers us a chance to come back in from the storm of drama and toxic thoughts. Anne Lamott

Most of us were taught that God would love us, if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change. Richard Rohr

Compassion is not a virtue — it is a commitment. It’s not something we have or don’t have — it’s something we choose to practice. Brené Brown

Strong Souls – growth through suffering

I recently had the privilege of working as a volunteer at the World Transplant Games which were held near to where I live. Taking part in a whole range of sporting activities were hundreds of amazing people from all over the world who had received major organ transplants, along with living donors and family members who had agreed to donate organs from a loved one who had died. They brought with them gratitude, hope, acceptance, generosity, a sense of living in the day and an openness to others. Some of the conversations and connections that I had, will stay with me for a long time to come. A woman who radiated joy and laughter told me a little of her story. She had received a kidney transplant as a child but had a difficult early adult life in an abusive marriage.  The marriage ended but she later met someone who was also a transplant recipient with whom she was together for 8 happy years. Sadly, he died recently. As she showed me a beautiful ring with a blue stone made from his ashes, she said, with a smile, but with tears in her eyes, “It’s been a terrible year, but I wouldn’t change a thing about that or any of my life. I have been so blessed”.

Over the 10 days of the Games, I felt as if I was bathing in a tide of kindness and love, so very different from the way the world usually feels, and in stark contrast to the self-seeking and dishonesty which is pervading so much of public life in these dark days. The Transplant Community that I was allowed to become friends with, reminded me of the Recovery Community in the values and behaviours which those within them showed, and whose company proved to be a blessing for those around them.

It made me think that perhaps these two groups similarities were in large part a result of the pain, suffering and struggles they had experienced and the second chance of life which they felt they had received.  Each day was a bonus and as such was to be appreciated. I have met other people such as cancer survivors, asylum seekers and former political prisoners, who are also very remarkable people, gentle, grateful and generous, living in the day. Suffering and pain makes us vulnerable and when we are vulnerable, our barriers are down and we are more open to the spiritual side of life and able to hear the gentle whisper of God.

This is absolutely not to say that suffering is a good thing or that we should seek to suffer and endure pain. The process is descriptive not prescriptive. Unfortunately though, pain, struggle and suffering is an inevitable part of each of our lives – we get ill, loved ones die, bad things happen. The writer Tennessee Williams said “Don’t look forward to the day you stop suffering, because when it comes you’ll know you’re dead.” Some people face immense suffering and hardship, disproportionately so, but as a friend of mine in recovery says, we all suffer, and there is no league table of pain and suffering.  At times we may not even realise that what we are going through is indeed suffering. Everyone’s pain is unique to them and at times may seem insurmountable, yet somehow we discover that there is a way to handle the darkness, a way that only we can find, and through this struggle, we grow and develop an inner strength and beauty. And whatever our situation, we can always make ourselves available to those who suffer, sharing their darkness. And in this sharing we are inevitably blessed, as the topsy turvy world of the Kingdom of God is revealed once more.

People in recovery are very familiar with pain and suffering. AA and NA recognise that addiction and use of alcohol and other substances is a way of escaping from pain and suffering – especially (and perversely) the pain and suffering caused by the addiction. The bottle, pill or powder is always a way to avoid it, however temporary the respite.  The AA Big Book talks a lot about the suffering of the alcoholic, and meetings often remember “those that still suffer inside and outside of the rooms”. Stories and shares are full of pain and suffering – addiction, relapse, family breakdown, divorce, jail, prison, unemployment, suicide, ill-health. But as the book “12 Steps and 12 Traditions” says, any experienced person in AA will “report that out of every season of grief or suffering, when the hand of God seemed heavy or unjust, new lessons for living were learned, new resources of courage were uncovered.” The process is a complex interplay of many things – humility, surrender, honesty, giving, loss of ego, prayer and meditation, with a realisation that we must seek to accept and embrace the pathway we are on, with only the power to take the next step on our journey.

Jesus certainly knew all about pain and suffering. He experienced early life as a refugee and later lived in an occupied land, knew grief at the death of loved ones, was constantly misunderstood, faced rejection by his own people, opposition from the religious teachers and civic authorities and was finally put to death because he refused to stop preaching good news. His death was unjust, brutal and barbaric. Throughout his teaching ministry he identified with Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the suffering servant. Yet he was full of forgiveness, love and acceptance of others, even at the most extreme points in his life.  But his life shows that suffering is not pointless and that hope is woven throughout, just as surely as Easter Sunday followed Good Friday.

As an inveterate coward, I do not relish the prospect of suffering and as I advance into the later years of my life, the downward pathway of old age looms large and unattractive. Loss of health, loss of choice, loss of control and surrender. The surrender that every alcoholic or addict learns they must do when they first come into the programme. And surrendering to what lies ahead becomes the ultimate test of faith. Not a weak, defeatist view that nothing can be changed but an active faith that God steps into the suffering with us, takes it on himself and walks through it with us, as the famous ‘Footsteps’ poem reminds us. The words of Brennan Manning offer an honest yet hope-filled lifeline onto to which we can hold. “Suffering, failure, loneliness, sorrow, discouragement, and death will be part of your journey, but the Kingdom of God will conquer all these horrors. No evil can resist grace forever.”

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars. Khalil Gibran

The most beautiful people I have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future. Nelson Mandela

Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind. Aristotle

Some people awaken spiritually without ever coming into contact with any meditation technique or any spiritual teaching. They may awaken simply because they can’t stand the suffering anymore. Eckhart Tolle

We have the tendency to run away from suffering and to look for happiness. But, in fact, if you have not suffered, you have no chance to experience real happiness. Thich Nhat Hanh

I began to understand that suffering and disappointments and melancholy are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity but to mature and transfigure us.”  Hermann Hesse

If pain doesn’t lead to humility, you have wasted your suffering.” Katerina Stoykova Klemer

When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool. Chinua Achebe

All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming. Helen Keller

The Constant Gardener – enabling spiritual growth

It’s a busy time of the year down at my allotment.  I share the plot of rented land with a couple of friends and right now the fruit and vegetables are at their most productive. This year the combination of warm sun, heavy rains and damp, muggy air have not only benefitted the crops but also made it a paradise for numerous weeds and uninvited plants. For some unknown reason, the weeds grow more rapidly and far more profusely than the strawberries, chard, beans, beetroot and leeks that I am trying to grow. 20190731_122803Regular work is required to keep the weeds under control. Since I don’t always do this weeding as frequently as I ought to, the plot as a whole quickly becomes a jungle of assorted greenery instead of neat rows of plants, growing in well defined beds and borders. It’s easy to despair and abandon the fight, letting everything grow together in the hope that it’ll sort itself out in the end.  Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Making the most of the well composted and fed soil that was meant for the crops, the weeds flower and spread their seeds around the plot long before my crops have matured, guaranteeing me the same problem for years to come, unless I do something about it.

The parallel for our own lives is not hard to see, partly because many of us are familiar with Jesus’s stories of crops and weeds along with good and bad soil. The parable of the sower which is recorded in three of the gospels, is particularly well known, with the seed failing to germinate, growing poorly or flourishing, depending on the soil conditions where it had been sown. This is exactly what does happen – plants sown on the edges or growing close by are smaller and much less productive than those in the central, more fertile areas; plants with weeds around them have to compete for light, water and nutrients and also grow far less well than those in cleared ground. Those in weed-free, well-watered and composted areas are by far the most productive. Likewise, in our own lives we need good fertile environments in which to thrive and an absence of things which choke or stifle our spiritual growth.

In twelve step programmes the need to deal with these impediments to growth is a vital part of recovery, dealt with most clearly in steps 5,6 and 7. Making a moral inventory is a revealing process, showing us just how widespread and deep our wrongs and failings are. It is not the more glaring shortcomings we have that shock but the small hidden things, including our negative responses to the events of our lives. I came to see how many and how deep my resentments were towards people and circumstances of life – recent and long past.  Because we are powerless to move on from or eliminate these things ourselves, we have to ask God, our Higher Power to remove these character defects and shortcomings. We must not only remove the weeds and clear the ground, but as I know only too well from both my allotment and my own life, we need to continue to manage them, because weeds continue to grow. Sometimes too it takes time to completely get rid of the deep roots of established weeds in our lives which can grow back. We need to find some way to reflect on and keep on top of these things. So it is no wonder that step 10 helps us to do this by “continuing to take a personal inventory and when we are wrong promptly admitting it”.  Handing things over to our Higher Power is always central, and a reminder that our lives remain unmanageable if we try to do it alone. But neither Recovery nor following Jesus are passive activities and we have to play our part not least in wanting things to change. As they say in the rooms, “we alone can do it, but we cannot do it alone”.

I am not sure that there is the same amount of work put into deep reflection, admission and clearing of ground by many of us Christians as there is by those in recovery. Admit your wrongs and move on via a quick general confession is often the process and too much time dwelling on your failings is seen as beating yourself up rather than basking in the grace of forgiveness and new life. Of course this can happen, with guilt trapping us in an unhealthy whirlpool of despair, far removed from the freedom which Jesus promised. But like weeding, the purpose is to clear the ground, not feel bad that weeds have grown and as a general rule some sort of moral inventory is a helpful and productive thing to do periodically, preferably with the support of a spiritual mentor or guide, who will help us to avoid unhealthy levels of guilt. As the Desert Fathers discovered, true spirituality begins with the acceptance of our own flaws and limitations and in the compassion that emerges from this self-knowledge – compassion towards ourselves, towards others and towards all of humanity. We are all beautiful but flawed and we are all in this together.

As well as slowly clearing the ground (and it really can be slow work), we also need to water and feed the ground of our lives to make them fertile. We must dig deep wells to find the things which feed and nurture us, like the living water which Jesus said flowed from him. Serving others and helping the stranger is a sure yet mysterious way to receive nourishment and spiritual blessing. Step 11 talks of prayer and meditation as being a means of helping us to improve our conscious contact with God, seeking guidance and help with our lives. Jesus’s life and ministry was totally reliant upon prayer and time spent alone with God, enabling him to be obedient to his calling, proclaiming the Kingdom of God here on earth.

A common prayer in 12 step circles is the Set Aside Prayer. I forget who it was I read who developed this into a fuller prayer which helped me so much (Heather King, I think), and which in turn I have amended to capture the things which my moral inventory revealed were the weeds of my life which will choke the growing seed if I do not seek to manage or remove them on a daily basis. So, with grateful thanks to whoever it was who wrote the first version, here is my take on the Set Aside Prayer.

“Loving God, please set aside everything I know or think I know about spirituality, religion and faith that has become formulaic or gets in the way of new understanding. Set aside every idea that has frightened, threatened or angered me. Set aside everything that’s been forced down my throat, that’s inconsistent, that manipulates me. Set aside all my resentments and the ease with which I find and harbour new ones. Set aside my desire to be in control and my discomfort when I’m not. Set aside my tendency to see things through the lens of my emotions of the moment. Set aside my constant judging and categorisation of other people. Set aside my worry and anxiety about almost everything. Set aside my plotting and planning about how I’d like things to be and my unconscious expectations that things should be perfect. Set aside my addictions, my doubts, my guilt, my shame, my jealousy, my rage, my intolerance. Set aside all these things and anything else which prevent me from having a loving heart, an open mind and a fresh experience of you today. Amen.”

 Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade. – Rudyard Kipling

 If your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life. Bill Watterson

 Most people don’t have the willingness to break bad habits. They have a lot of excuses and they talk like victims. Carlos Santana

 Don’t let your sins turn into bad habits. Saint Teresa of Avila

 When you find yourself in need of spiritual nourishment, it is in the opportunities to serve others that you will find the abundance you seek. Steve Maraboli

 There are two types of seeds in the mind: those that create anger, fear, frustration, jealousy, hatred and those that create love, compassion, equanimity and joy. Spirituality is germination and sprouting of the second group and transforming the first group. Amit Ray

Becoming like Christ is a long, slow process of growth. Rick Warren

The Christian who has stopped repenting has stopped growing. A W Pink

When Love Comes to Town

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

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

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

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

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

Love is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come. Henri Nouwen

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

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

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

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

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

On Gratitude Street – with grateful thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gratitude-Word-Cloud

 

The Parable of the Fruit – God provides

Ambulance John came to the Food Co-op this week. We hadn’t seen him for a while. He brought with him two sacks of apples and some bananas which were a welcome addition to the fruit we were giving out that day. John drives a beaten-up old ambulance, crudely painted in a shade of dark green and collects food, clothes and furniture from many undisclosed sources which he then takes to charities and people he discovers are in need. How he found us or where he comes from remain a mystery, and for some reason, those of us helping to run the Co-op like to keep it that way. His coming and going is about as predictable as the national lottery winning numbers. Who knows when he will return – he blows where he wills.

The Food Co-op in Bensham is based on the beautiful, humanising model of food pantries begun by Sarah Miles in San Francisco, recounted in her book Take This Bread. The Co-op is as far removed from the conventional UK food bank as we can make it; lots of fresh vegetables, people are members rather than recipients and they choose their own produce, most of the volunteer helpers are also members and access to the weekly co-op is for as long as anyone needs it. Like the first of Sarah’s food pantries at St Gregory of Nyssa, we operate out of a church (the only place willing to offer us rent free space) but unlike California, the North East of England does not have a ready supply of cheap fresh fruit. Prices are too high for us to buy it in for the increasing number of members and their hungry families. Fruit may seem like a luxury, not one of the staples of life, but I can buy fruit when I want to, so, in the spirit of loving our neighbour as ourselves, our view at the Co-op is that we want the people who come to us to get fruit too.

Sourcing it has been another matter. We contacted the obvious people – supermarkets and wholesalers who may have surplus, but generally they failed to reply. The few who did were already supplying their surplus fruit to horse and pony sanctuaries. We thought that a local factory which produces fruit juices for the UK market might be able to offer us fruit at cost price but they didn’t respond to our letters or calls, and neither did their parent company, a multi-national concern with a high level of Corporate Social Responsibility. One or two of us prayed and we continued to look for a supplier, a connection to a guaranteed supply of fruit. But we never found one.

I don’t know when it was that we realised that although we didn’t have this guaranteed weekly supply, fruit was arriving every week. And it was always enough. It never came from the same sources – sometimes an unexpected supermarket surplus, sometime Fareshare, sometimes a cheap offer at the wholesalers and often it came as small individual donations. Fruit pileMy controlling, organised mind-set wanted a nice tidy, planned supply of fruit for the next few years, but instead, God supplied what we needed, when we needed it. No more and no less. And what variety! Over the last couple of months alone we have had plums, peaches, apples, limes, grapes, pears, melons, bananas, mangos, blackberries, strawberries, lemons, raspberries, oranges and pineapples!

Inevitably, this brings us back to that whole question of living in the day and trusting in God to provide us with the resources we need at the time we need them, rather than fretting ahead and wanting everything sorted out in advance. The antithesis of fear and worry is always faith and trust. Constantly I have to learn and re-learn the words of Jesus that we should not worry about what to eat or drink as God provides for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field and cares much more than this for us. It’s all about trust. As it says in the Big Book, “We trust infinite God rather than our finite selves.” “We never apologize to anyone for depending upon our Creator. We can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness. Paradoxically, it is the way of strength. The verdict of the ages is that faith means courage. All people of faith have courage. They trust their God.”  To me, this faith and trust is not found in the doctrines, dogmas and creeds of religion but rather in placing my trust in a God of love and grace. Where I discover this God, or more to the point, where God chooses to appear is irrelevant – it could be in nature, in the Eucharist, in the kindness of a stranger, in a 12-step meeting or in the arrival of much needed fruit. As Richard Rohr so brilliantly (and uncharacteristically simply) says, “the gospel is not primarily a set of facts but a way of seeing and a way of being in the world because of God. Jesus speaks to the heart, saying (1) God is on your side; (2) God can be trusted; (3) the universe is safe and benevolent; (4) trust yourselves, one another and God; (5) there is no reason to be afraid; (6) it’s all heading toward something good! He does this primarily by touch, relationship, healing and parables.”

As we enter the months of winter, my challenge will be to trust that we will continue to receive what we need at the Co-op when we need it, including fruit. And of course holding on to this trust applies to every other aspect of my life too. I don’t begin to understand how it works, or how I can explain places of atrocity, warfare and starvation and how God’s love and provision is found there, but somehow, I believe it is. But we can only bloom where we are planted and that is all each of us is here to do. So next time you eat an apple or a banana remember this parable of the fruit, reaffirm your trust in God’s care and provision for you and keep on blooming.

You say to God, “I have never seen you provide for me.” God says to you, “You have never trusted Me.” Corallie Buchanan

God will always provide; it just might look different from what we had in mind.  Anonymous

Miracles happen everyday. Change your perception of what a miracle is and you’ll see them all around you. Jon Bon Jovi

When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go.  Henri Nouwen

My trust in God flows out of the experience of his loving me, day in and day out, whether the day is stormy or fair, whether I’m sick or in good health, whether I’m in a state of grace or disgrace. He comes to me where I live and loves me as I am. Brennan Manning

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