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.”

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

 

 

Serving Others – humility and sacrifice

Recently I heard a news report about a politician who was standing down from office. “He has served his community for more than thirty years”, the reporter said. It set me to thinking about service and what it really means, because whatever contribution politicians make, service is not a word I associate with an activity so based around the desire for and wielding of power. Many of the “services” we now receive are delivered by large organisations with rigid hierarchical power structures for the thousands of people they employ to “serve” us, be they health, military, police, national, regional or local government. Whilst as institutions they do of course serve our needs for health, safety, protection, amenities and so on, true service and servanthood is something very different. It’s marked by humility, self-sacrifice, disregard for power, preferring the interests of the other, generosity and self-effacement. There are undoubtedly some individuals in the large service organisations who do serve in this way, but the majority appear to do it primarily for the paycheque, the power, the prestige or for a combination of these things.

Jesus was truly revolutionary in his approach to power and authority. Though servant leadership is a term that has only been used in the last 50 years or so, Jesus introduced his followers to the principles two thousand years ago. It was incredibly radical. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Matthew 20 26-28). Jesus’s words were lived out in his life, where he consistently expended himself for others, but perhaps his notion of service is most clearly displayed in his washing of the disciples’ feet on one occasion shortly before his death. This was a menial, despised job, not something for a leader, let alone a king. And he washed the feet of all of his disciples, including Judas who was about to betray him.  Followers of Jesus should, as he said, seek to serve people and not lord it over them. Service is never about power, pride or status.

Service is very important in 12 step recovery. The early pioneers understood the paradox within the teachings of Jesus that “we must give it away if we are to keep it”. All within fellowships are there to serve, recognising that service is essential to recovery. The Twenty-Four Hours a Day book author likens recovery without service to the Dead Sea. It is service which keeps us fresh and alive. And service, as Bill W says, is “anything whatever that helps us to reach a fellow sufferer — ranging all the way from the Twelfth Step itself to a ten-cent phone call and a cup of coffee.” Serving is a way of looking beyond our ego driven selves to consider the needs and struggles of others, so teaching us a different way of living.

One of the many amazing things about the 12 step programme is the way in which it operates with the minimum of power – positions are temporary and always done as a service to help others and to help one’s own recovery. As Tradition Nine says, “We create Service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve”. In A.A. groups, these trusted servants are sometimes called “officers” and usually are chosen by the group for limited terms of service. Tradition Two says, “Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” These service positions may have titles. But titles in A.A. do not bring power or status, they simply describe roles and responsibilities. Chairing a 12 step meeting is both a service opportunity and a unique chance to practice the principles learnt in A.A, especially one of humility. It’s been said that most mistakes made by a chairperson arise from a false feeling of ego, power or control which simply shows that they have more to learn about humility.

Given that Jesus declared that the path to greatness lies in humble service, it is surprising how consistently the Christian church is based upon positions of power and authority and how many individuals within the church have been caught up in the pursuit of this power. All too often we see signs of abuse of power, with pride in positions of status and prestige clothed in false humility. It is remarkable that the heady attraction of power and the ever-present pitfalls from our personal weaknesses have been so consistently disregarded, given that Christianity in all its forms is based on a common belief in our human fallibility and sinfulness. Churches lack the built-in safeguards which the founders of A.A. inspirationally put in place for their meetings and structure. As a result, whereas 12 step organisations and their overall structures are upside down, with ultimate responsibility and final authority for services residing with the groups, the church is a traditional pyramid structure with power generally resting at the top. Ironic really, because Jesus heavily criticised the religious power pyramid of his time and the Kingdom of Heaven he spoke of, is very much an upside down, topsy turvy model of living.

As they say, it is what it is, so as followers of Jesus we have to work with what we’ve got and the way that things are. Our job is to put into practice the things he taught, loving our neighbour as ourselves, so we serve without expecting anything in return whether that be awareness, reward or recompense. As Jesus showed too, we serve those who are opposed to us as well as those who do not value or appreciate what we do. We need to be very, very wary of power and find some way to build in our own personal checks and safeguards if we are in positions of power and prestige. Hard as all of this may be, we must trust that as we do seek to serve with genuine humility and as we show love through this service, it creates ripples which extend far beyond us. “To keep it you have to give it away,” and by giving of ourselves we not only advance the Kingdom of God, but somehow, miraculously, we are fed and become full ourselves.

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. Jesus of Nazareth

The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams, but in active charity and in willing service. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy. Mahatma Gandhi

Joy can only be real if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness. Leo Tolstoy

What brings you closer to God is being in service to others. Any religion or spiritual way of life will indicate that service to others will lead to a connection with a higher power.  Anonymous

How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside me, what can it be? Vincent Van Gogh

 

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

G.O.D.

One of the few popular TV commercials in the UK at the moment, is a series of adverts for a large chain of opticians. People doing various jobs or activities get them woefully wrong without realising it, because they have poor, uncorrected vision. A shepherd shears his dog instead of the sheep, a vet checks the heart-beat of a fur hat instead of a cat, and so on. Specsavers catIf only they’d gone to the opticians! In a recent one, a joiner puts a back door on upside down, so that the cat-flap is at the top. The workman finishes the job and goes on his way, unaware of his mistake, whilst the mystified cat sits there gazing up at the unreachable cat-flap.

All too often in life we don’t see things very clearly and need a corrective. Jesus’s teaching and example was all about offering us this new focus and clarity. Consistently, he showed what a distorted picture we had, and still have about God. Whether it is the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, the farmer employing labourers, the hen protecting its chicks or the bridegroom and his guests, the stories Jesus told us about God are always correctives, giving us a picture of a God who offers acceptance, protection, care and inclusion. This is most perfectly captured in the story of the prodigal son, where the Father waits longingly for his lost son to return, rejoicing and celebrating when he does, offering forgiveness and reconciliation without a moment’s thought. The essence of that relationship – and all of the other parables Jesus told us about God, is one of unconditional love.

The corrective was needed – and continues to be required because we so often see God as very far from loving. We project onto God our own experiences of parents and those in authority, or our own attitudes and feelings towards ourselves. God becomes angry, punitive and vindictive, constantly disappointed in us, and we live our lives in fear, flight, anger and denial. In the Garden of Eden story in Genesis, the cunning serpent twisted Adam and Eve’s knowledge and understanding by depicting God as rule based, mean, controlling and prohibiting, a picture they completely buy into, abandoning in the process their real experience of God which was one of love and care. We do this today, and end up hiding or feeling angry, avoiding God in name, thought and conversation. A friend of mine who works in a twelve-step treatment centre once told me  that he could say almost anything to the new people entering the programme or use any swear word and it wouldn’t get the response that he gets when mentioning the word God. “ I can guarantee that it will offend someone in the room.”

For all that, there seems to be something very interesting at work amongst those who, with gritted teeth, stick with the twelve-step programme and somehow manage to deal with the God bit. Since it’s prescriptive rather than descriptive, believing in “a Power greater than ourselves” whatever or whoever that might be and “turning our lives over to this God of our own understanding,” is all that is required. Nobody has written about this better than Glenn Chestnut. He talked to a lot of old timers in AA, NA and other 12 step groups, who discovered a higher power of their own understanding in spite of the fact that many were atheists or bitterly opposed to organised religion. They learned to pray, developed strong spiritual lives, and had sustained recovery as a result.  More recently, Nadia Bolz-Weber says that she was helped in her early recovery by an elderly woman who told her that “this isn’t about religion, honey, you just have to find a higher power that you can do business with.” Having been brought up within a guilt-based church system, the real revelation to Nadia was that this woman’s relationship with God was functional, not doctrinal. The God she knew was the key to her staying sober.

Now it might be said that people are simply making God in their own image, but here’s the thing. What I find consistently true amongst all my friends and acquaintances in twelve-step recovery is that their higher power, the God of their understanding, is always kind, loving and accepting, though never in a cotton candy type of way. As one of them put it, “My higher power really likes me”. That is most definitely not the case for a good many mainstream Christians in churches today. God is the angry traffic cop just waiting to pull you over, the heartless judge, the disappointed probation officer, the vindictive jailer. The analogies with authority figures in our legal systems are no coincidence because so much of organised religion is about laws, rules, conformity and appeasing an angry God. I’ve seen it, heard it and if I’m honest, battled with these notions of God most of my life because that’s what I was brought up with. So if I’m given the choice between the higher power of the twelve-steppers which is benevolent and loving, wanting only the best for that person, or the harsh, angry God, constantly disappointed in me which lurks in mind – and I’m pretty sure a good many other people’s minds in churches or brought up in church, then I’ll take their God every time.

That’s why I cling on to the life and teachings of Jesus. Because in him everything comes together. He not only told us about the true nature of God, but in his life and death he showed it. And its really pretty simple. GOD IS LOVE. If that’s not always easy to hang on to or if it becomes tarnished by the love that we’ve received which is often very conditional indeed, then think on this. 1 Corinthians 13 is St Paul’s inspirational account of love. If we replace the word love with the word God, then our distorted picture is corrected, and finally we can begin to see more clearly, the true nature of God.

“God is patient, God is kind, God is not jealous, God is not boastful, God is not rude, God is not proud, God does not demand her own way, God keeps no record of being wronged, God does not rejoice at injustice, God rejoices when the truth wins out, God never gives up, God never loses faith, God is always hopeful, God endures through every circumstance.”

 If we all have different finger-prints, it is not so surprising that we should also have our own way of knowing and understanding God. We are all making the same journey, but the route is different for each and we have to discover it in freedom. Gerard W Hughes

 I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees. Anne Lamott

 Until you meet a benevolent God and a benevolent universe, until you realize that the foundation of all is love, you will not be at home in this world.  Richard Rohr

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.  St Augustine

The great thing to remember is that though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not. C.S. Lewis

 God is the father who watches and waits for his children, runs out to meet them, embraces them, pleads with them, begs and urges them to come home. Henri Nouwen

 

Untold Stories – sharing our journey

I’ve just finished reading a really enjoyable story. It was so good that I looked forward to picking up the book at every possible opportunity, but now that I’ve finished it, I’m left feeling a little bereft, because it’s ended. Stories have the power to hold us, envelop us and affect our minds and emotions at a deep level. Whether it is in the form of a book, a film, a play or a spoken narrative, everybody loves a good story.

Telling stories is an ancient art. Whether through an oral telling, pictures on cave walls or the written word, stories provide a timeless link to ancient traditions, legends, myths and history and help to define who we are as individuals and a culture. It is reckoned that there are more than 100,000 new works of fiction published in English alone each year and a Stanford university academic estimates that an all-time total of nearly 5 million works of fiction have now been published. Comedy, science fiction, romance, mystery, historical, thriller or detective; graphic, short, long or tall – you name it and it’s out there. The shortest ever story contains just six words. “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn”. It’s reputed to be the work of Ernest Hemingway, though this is a story in itself; Hemingway is said to have written it in order to win a lunchtime bet with journalists, sadly a tale which is now believed to be untrue.

Stories teach us about who we are, about right and wrong, about how to act wisely and the dangers of acting foolishly. Through stories, we share emotions and feelings of joy, sorrow, hardships and failures and we find common ground with other people so that we can connect and communicate with them – in spite of our apparent differences.

Story is important in 12 step recovery. The Big Book is full of stories, including those of the founder members Bill W and Dr Bob, followed by more than 40 other stories. As Bill W says, these stories are the written equivalent of hearing speakers at an AA meeting.  The format is simple; “Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.”  In meetings, people “share” what has happened to them and the difference now, which not only serves a purpose for them, reminding them of where they once were and how they began to recover, but also helps others to recognise that what they thought was their own private and personal struggle, is in fact common to many others. Understanding this makes it easier to overcome the guilt and shame of things done or left undone. Sharing stories reveals, encourages, supports and frees up both the teller and the listener. The more truth the story holds, the greater the benefit, because truth is the nugget of gold within any story we read, hear or tell.

Jesus was a great story teller. He drew on everyday situations around him and his listeners to tell his stories; things such as farming, fishing, building, weather, birds and animals, losing things, families. His stories recounted events that could have happened in the daily lives of the people who first heard them. Anyone could readily identify with the roles people filled, the work that they did, the relationships that were broken and restored, the losses they sustained and the joy that they experienced. He most often told his stories as parables – short fictitious stories that illustrated a moral message or a religious principle – truths that had to be sought by those with a mind to do so. The parables of Jesus stress the great themes of the Kingdom of God – “the big picture” as Richard Rohr has helpfully termed it. Jesus’s stories often begin with the phrase The Kingdom of God is like…… wheat and weeds, mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl, fishing net, an unforgiving servant, workers in the vineyard, a wedding banquet.  Jesus’ parables teach listeners that God reaches out to them with kindness and compassion. They are about the love, grace, and mercy of God to each and every one of us, regardless of who we are or what we might have done – but they also contain a challenge about how we respond and how we live our lives.

Stories engage our attention and help us to step out of our own shoes and experience somebody else’s emotions, actions and decisions. It is interesting to see how we are drawn to somebody when they tell their story. Writers such as Nadia Bolz-Weber and Anne Lamott use personal stories to great effect, fusing their 12 step recovery with following in the way of Jesus, resulting in candid, truth filled writing which shows their flaws and wounds but radiates a deep beauty and attractiveness.

For many years I was ashamed of my story. I kept much of it to myself and only handed out selected parts when I felt safe. It felt as if my story, especially my childhood were my fault and I’d be judged on it. It was a mixed-up confusion of fear, shame, guilt and pride. But as I heard others share their stories and felt only love and compassion towards them as they did so, it has made it easier to begin to share my own story. And when I have done so, some people identify with parts of the story and even more movingly, the others show compassion and non-judgment. By telling our stories, we are letting others know that it’s okay to be honest about who we were, who we are, and who we have the potential of becoming. I recently met a homeless woman who told her story in coloured chalk on the pavement of the City Pavement story updwnwhere she lived. Her courage in telling her story in such a beautiful way was very moving  and brought compassion and connection. When we make ourselves vulnerable like she did and choose to speak up about our struggles and who we are, we’re no longer allowing them to have any power over us, rejecting the shame we feel they contain and the self-hatred that can result. God stands with us in this and rather than condemning us, works through our story. Letting go of what we always held onto so closely can be what heals us the most, and incredibly, helps others who hear our story to find healing too. So let’s not be afraid of who we are or of starting to tell our stories. As the author Neil Gaiman says, “The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”

A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving. J R R Tolkien

Wherever my story takes me, however dark and difficult the theme, there is always some hope and redemption, not because readers like happy endings, but because I am an optimist at heart. I know the sun will rise in the morning, that there is a light at the end of every tunnel. Michael Morpurgo

Writing is telling the truth. Anne Lamott

In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act. George Orwell

In The Power Zone – the spiritual risks from personal power

I recently read an interesting piece by Brennan Manning, a recovering alcoholic who wrote some fine Christian books marked through with 12 step wisdom. In it he said that most of our personal battles are about us seeking security, pleasure or power. Whilst I willingly plead guilty to the first two, it has taken me a lot longer to recognise that I am also guilty of wanting power – the speck in other people’s eyes is always much easier to see than the log in my own. Most of the time I do a fairly good job of convincing myself (and maybe others) that I am a fair and benevolent person who shares what power I have and only wants a little power in order to add to the greater good. Which is true. But there is a less comfortable side, because power is always about control – control of what I want, what I do, what I experience, what I have. The corollary of this is controlling others so that these and perhaps more hidden needs of mine get met. It is very hard to see where the cross-over between wanting to do good and benefit others becomes a justification to satisfy my personal needs for power and control.

The reason I can get glimpses of my interest in power through the cloak of innocence that normally hides it, is that other people come clean about their own relationship with power and I see myself in their stories. Sometimes too, people close to me have the courage to shed a spotlight of objectivity onto my actions and self-perceptions. The reality is that I do want power and when I don’t have it, I’m envious of those who do, whether through their schooling, their jobs, their connections, their political positions or through their income, wealth and resources, especially when they seem to misuse it – measured of course by my yardstick of what’s right and wrong. Even as I write (and perhaps because I am writing on this subject) I am wrestling with a decision about my continued membership of a group which has moved away from doing the things which first got me involved and which I no longer really believe in. Do I leave and move on? I am beginning see that it is the power and prestige of membership which is the biggest attraction to my remaining. And of course the silky voice of temptation provides me with a number of very reasonable justifications for doing nothing and staying put.

We cannot get away from the harmfulness of power. Power does change us, and power can corrupt us. Where there is abuse, it always exists in the shadow of power; power that is misused, deliberately and through ignorance or weakness.  Physical and sexual abuse, racial abuse, exclusion of individuals and groups who do not fit in, the creation of actions and behaviours to gain compliance are all based on power dynamics. Power structures underpin the Church, and the emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse of countless individuals over the centuries bear witness to the damage that misused power can cause. Power inflates our egos and self-importance – research has shown that individuals rise to positions of authority by being collaborative and selfless but once they reach a high rung on the leadership ladder, many become coercive, impulsive and self-centred.

In the 12 step fellowships, there is a strong recognition of the damaging nature of power. The grounded checks of the 12 traditions have helped to safeguard the programmes from the excesses of power. As tradition 2 says, “our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” There are no chiefs in AA or NA, no central directives or authority, no managing group or Board. No opportunity for power to be misused. Group conscience decides what individual meetings will do and everyone is entitled to their opinion. Most people would say that this is a recipe for anarchy and yet it works in 12 step fellowships – the core principles of AA remain as they were 80 years ago and it is because it is uncorrupted by power that it remains as effective as ever with no agenda except to carry the message.

Jesus had a unique take on power. He saw the abuses of power, he declined to accept the trappings of power and many of the accounts of his life in the gospels relate to the verbal duels he had with the religious authorities who held enormous power, in spite of the Roman occupation of Palestine. Eventually he was killed because he challenged these powerful and influential men who saw him as a threat. In the account of his wilderness temptations early in his ministry, he rejected power as a way of being, let alone how he would communicate his message, and he consistently rejected the offer of power over the three years that he taught and healed. Even in the days and hours leading up to his death he refused to buy into it. Towards the end he rebuked Peter for using a sword, he did not try to ingratiate himself with the High Priest, Pontius Pilate the Governor or King Herod, and he accepted the nails and the hours of dying agonisingly on a wooden cross. Jesus came into the world to share a new type of power – power based upon compassion, honesty, sharing and transparency that the world has never really liked. He was the Servant King. And sadly, in spite of this example, Christianity has yet to redefine power in the way that Jesus showed us.

None of this is to say that power in itself is inherently bad or indeed that any society has ever existed without a power structure of sorts, but if power corrupts as it surely does, then institutions and individuals need to create safeguards to prevent the harm that unchecked power will cause. So how do we build in actions, checks and systems to prevent us misusing the power we have?  Firstly, since a sense of power is associated with a growing urge to gratify our own desires, an easy starting point is to question whether we ever use our positions of power to feed the other two areas of indulgence (security and pleasure) identified by Brennan Manning.  As a starting point, resisting the temptation to gratify our desires would massively reduce the destructive impact of power in every context, personal and institutional. Building in some sort of system of review and reflection on our actions is useful. We are more likely to abuse power when we don’t have anyone who will constructively criticise our actions, so having someone outside our positions of power (a mentor, sponsor, spiritual director) who we are honest with and accountable to and who is not afraid to give us honest feedback is so important. As Anne Lamott bluntly says, “Since we can’t heal our own sick mind with our own sick mind, we need to consult somebody else’s sick mind to help us.” It is undoubtedly true that when we have to explain our actions to someone else, we will think twice about what we do. (so long as we can manage to avoid trying to manipulate or control them to give us the answer we want!) External checks are necessary too for large organisations. Finally, and possibly most important of all, we need to be servants in everything we do. Whatever our position but most especially if we hold a position of power, serving others with compassion, consideration and kindness will help to stop us becoming self-absorbed and seeing other people as objects to use for our own ends. As Jesus said to his disciples on the evening before his death, after he had taken on the role of a common servant and washed their feet, “ I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  Power based on service that is shaped by compassion, honesty and sharing becomes benign and the power of love overrules the love of power, making the world a better place.

Constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. Montesquieu

 Whenever the world throws rose petals at you, which thrill and seduce the ego, beware. Anne Lamott

 Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other. Carl Jung

 Good people tend to be naïve about power; bad people aren’t – they know it’s all about power. Richard Rohr

 The story being told in ‘Star Wars’ is a classic one. Every few hundred years, the story is retold because we have a tendency to do the same things over and over again. Power corrupts, and when you’re in charge, you start doing things that you think are right, but they’re actually not. George Lucas

 Power always thinks that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws. John Adams

 

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

Leaving The Chain Gang – love overcomes legalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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