Broken Vessels – the Mystery of Redemption

Whilst walking the dog, I’ve recently begun to collect those small fragments of broken pottery that are so inexplicably present in gardens, streams in the woods and on beaches. It fascinates me how they ended up there and I like speculating about the unknown history of these small worthless pieces, imagining the larger functional item they were once a part of and the owners who used and perhaps treasured them. I may use the fragments I’ve found as mosaic pieces surrounding a central mirror, giving them a purpose and value once more. As far as I know, and rather disappointingly, there isn’t a Japanese word for this, in the manner of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold which highlights and embraces the flaws and imperfections, creating an even more beautiful piece of art than before it was broken.

The spiritual parallel is not difficult to see in the life and teachings Jesus and in Twelve Step Recovery. The idea that God is interested in broken people and somehow, mysteriously, uses our flaws and imperfections to make something more beautiful and valuable than it was before, lies deep within these ways of living. Our initial surrender and trust in God’s will and purpose for our lives allows this transformational work to take place. Jesus constantly talked about how he had come for the lost, the sick and the lame – the equivalent of those broken, pieces of pottery – transforming us into new people, with fresh meaning and purpose. (His deeply flawed disciples illustrate this perfectly). These flaws in our nature become the marks that make us special, like the knot in a piece of timber which the master craftsman turns into a feature on a table-top or bowl, a thing more beautiful than it would have been without it. It is part of the topsy-turvy world of the Kingdom where loss is really gain, giving is receiving and brokenness becomes redemptive. And redemption is God’s core business with human beings. In one of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge Novels, Harriet a non-believing sculptor explains the mystery of the relationship between the creator and their creation. “No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work …..it’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of the distortion and beauty out of all the mess. You love the work and you suffer with it and always – always – you’re slaving away against all the odds to make everything come right”.

A few years ago, some fascinating research from Connecticut showed that after more than five years in recovery within Twelve Step Programmes, people were contributing more to society and the world around them than if they’d not had an addiction in the first place. They were more generous, more grateful, more sacrificial, more willing than the average person or the way they had been prior to their addiction. We see this to be true in the lives of pretty much anybody regularly attending Twelve Step Meetings and working the programme, whether it is the woman alcoholic who only used to leave her house once a day to buy drink at the corner store, forbidden from seeing her grandchildren who has now become a wonderful, caring grandmother working on reception at the local community centre; the heroin addicted artist who produced nothing for years but is now reconciled with their parents and painting stunning and profound pictures, or the crack addict now repairing cars, volunteering on a helpline and supporting his kids.  

Broken vessels made useful and beautiful. It’s both that simple and that profound. We may not always feel like we’re beautiful and useful and we may only see our flaws and failures, but we can each be part of the redemptive, transformational work of God going on all around us. We remain flawed and imperfect, but we are never useless, “because God uses broken people like you and me to reach broken people like you and me.”

Do the Next Right Thing – letting go and letting GOD

We were about 5 hours into the walk when the mist came down. Silent, damp and seemingly impenetrable. Doubt began to fill our minds, every bit as engulfing as the mist. Increasingly unsure of where we were and where we should be going, we stopped and stood still, afraid to make a move in any direction. We had not reached this point of the walk with strong legs and clear minds either. Peat BogMy friend and I had already endured several hours of trudging through cold, biting rain flecked with sleet and a further hour clambering through ancient peat bogs which had at times left us struggling on all fours in order to get out. As we stood in the April mist, trying not to panic, the route where previously there had been other walkers and a fairly clear path, was no longer straightforward. Even using our map and compass was difficult, something that is so easy to do when it’s dry and sunny and you already know the right way. After some calm discussion and marking where we had been, we took some tentative steps forward into the mist and the unknown. Fifteen anxious minutes later we were very relieved to reach a trig point, which not only confirmed our position but revealed two young women who had already made it there. After a break for hot tea and some photographs, we headed off together from this point of security in the agreed right direction. In another twenty minutes we found a rough track and began to descend, emerging soon after into the April daylight. Although we were only about half-way, we sensed with relief that it was going to be alright.

As we all know, life can be very like that walk. We are faced with a dilemma or a difficult decision to make but have no idea what we should do next or in which direction we should go. Nothing seems clear. There are many wise and pithy sayings within 12 Step fellowships, but none is more helpful than the injunction for us to “do the next right thing.” The beauty of it is that it provides no master-plan, no glib answers, no being told by someone what you should do or where you should go – just the assurance that somewhere deep within, if you search for the answer, you will find the next right thing to do. It might be a tiny step forward, very tentatively made, but having taken that step, the premise is that you will then know the next right step. And the next. And so on. It’s easy to pick holes in this saying when you’re sitting in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee and not a care in the world, but amazingly, when you’re in the thick of it, a reminder to “do the next right thing” really does seem to help. If we seek it, we seem to find an internal compass which can help to guide us, like the compass we used to find our way out of the Northumberland mist. Perhaps this compass is really God with us and within us, ever present and guiding us in the right direction to go, as well as giving us the courage to take that next tentative step forward.

It seems to me that “doing the next right thing” doesn’t just apply to the big decisions and difficult choices which we face from time to time. We are constantly making all sorts of choices in our daily life which have implications for us and for others. It is estimated that we make more than 30,000 choices every day!  Decisions to make, goals to set and expectations to meet. In early recovery it can feel particularly overwhelming to have so many decisions to make. Life can suddenly feel even more complicated than it was feeding an addiction. No wonder the Big Book of AA says “we earnestly pray for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity and for strength to do the right thing.” This is a prayer for us all. Of course, there are times when we ignore this advice, times when we do what we want and dress it up in our minds as doing the right thing, or times when we just plain get it wrong. When we recognise that we have done this, doing the next right thing is invariably to acknowledge our errors to God and those involved, making amends where necessary. We can get back on track by “earnestly praying for the right ideal” and for “strength to do it”. As Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, everyone who seeks finds and to those who knock, the door will be opened.” It does open and we do receive.

Although Jesus is never quoted as using the expression “do the next right thing,” he lived in this way and encouraged others to practice it too. Living it meant that he remained in the moment, responding to the next thing he needed to do. On his way to the dying Lazarus and on another occasion to Jairus’s daughter who was very ill, Jesus was side-tracked by other calls on his time and compassion. But was he side-tracked or just doing the next right thing? At that point Lazarus and the little girl were not his immediate priority, their time was to come. And how! Elsewhere in the gospels we see that when Jesus knew what he should be doing, he could not be deflected – Peter’s insistence that there was another way than the road to death in Jerusalem was met with a vigorous rebuff – only someone who knew what they should be doing next would not be swayed by that sweeter alternative suggestion. The hours Jesus spent alone in prayer were the reason why he was clear about what he should be doing. Praying “for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity and for strength to do the right thing.”

Living in this way, in complete assurance of what he was to do next is a wonderful template for how we might live our lives. In his conversations with the people he met, Jesus never provided them with a detailed road-map for their lives, he simply helped them to do the next right thing. After raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead he told the little girl’s parents to give her something to eat. He did not offer them a treatise on parenting. The madman living in the cemetery who was restored to his right mind was told to return to his village to share the good news. Lepers he healed were told to present themselves to the priest, which was the prescribed way of enabling them to re-join society. No road-map or grand plan, simply the next right thing.

Doing the next right thing is about every day and every situation not just the stuck times when we are lost in the mist. At all times and in all places we simply need to do the next right thing. Our personal road-maps for life may give us comfort, but as the recent months of Covid 19 lockdown have shown, we are not in control of nearly as much in our lives as we like to believe. Many of our plans and grand designs have been made obsolete or at least put on hold. All we can really seek to do is the next right thing. As we let go of our plotting and planning and our attempts to strong-arm God into rubber-stamping our own ideas and projects, we find something amazing happens. Not only do we relax into each day and the things that we do, living much more in the moment, but something more wonderful and beautiful than we could ever have imagined will emerge from the steps and actions we take. God’s handiwork is always the most stunning.

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