Compassion

There’s a marked absence of compassion in UK government policy right now. Whether it’s in the heartless plan to send UK asylum seekers 4000 miles away to Rwanda for processing and residency or the progressive removal of mobility allowances from many disabled people, the tardy provision of visas for Ukrainian families fleeing warfare and violence or the lack of concern for the poor as fuel prices and the cost of living spirals upwards (two thirds of the British cabinet are millionaires), there is a coldness and disregard for those less fortunate who suffer. I suspect that this does not reflect the sentiments of the British people either, but like so much political rhetoric it’s dressed up as a necessary requirement for the times in which we live, peddling the lie that there’s not enough to go round.

I make no apology for this political introduction, because at Easter we have been reminded once again how political expediency works, with the unholy alliance of the Roman occupying forces, their puppet king and the Jewish religious leaders requiring the death of Jesus for daring to challenge what they stood for. His challenge was to offer an alternative way, where achievement, affluence and appearance were not the dominant values. Right at the heart of this alternative way of living is compassion; in the Kingdom of Heaven, loving God and loving others is supreme.

Compassion is central to Twelve Step recovery too, yet another shared hallmark which this blog seeks to highlight. Compassion means “to feel with,” usually in relation to feeling the suffering of somebody else and being moved by that suffering to do something to help them. We’ve talked about mercy in a previous blog (Mercy, Mercy), but compassion is different. Mercy implies some sort of power relationship and possibly the presence of wrong-doing or falling short. Compassion does not have this power dynamic at all – it is simply one human being to another. In the words of William Blake, “Mercy wears a human face, compassion a human heart.”

According to Jesus, compassion is the central quality of a life faithful to God. He tells us to “be compassionate as God is compassionate.” The idea of God being compassionate towards us is potentially life changing. We often think of God as harsh and judgmental possibly tempered by mercy, but compassion means he is alongside us, with a human heart. We are to model this behaviour, and Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God is our pattern or template. There are many instances of Jesus being filled with compassion for somebody – invariably this preceded him healing and restoring them. One of his greatest parables, The Good Samaritan showed us the compassionate behaviour of a traveller who belonged to a despised and outcast race who sees a fellow traveller who has been beaten and robbed and proceeds to rescue and care for him at his own expense. Prior to this the injured man had been ignored by high status people of his own country. In modern day terms, the politician and the priest have passed by with more important things to do, it is the refugee who shows compassion.

Compassion within 12 step recovery is perhaps understandable because every recovering addict has been there too, so can understand the pain and struggle another is going through, both in active addiction and early recovery. People working the programme enter the suffering of other addicts with neither pity nor pride and their caring is frequently both tireless and humbling. It is seen in the way newcomers are treated, which helps them to find a place of emotional warmth and understanding. It is there too in the welcome and acceptance each person receives when attending a new meeting in another place or country. Compassion is woven throughout the programme and is an important factor in the healing, transformational power it holds.

Like gratitude, humility or generosity we must practice compassion so that it becomes an established part of our daily living. The initial “feeling for” someone is often outside our control – we feel pity or sympathy for them without needing to generate it. What we must work at is the response, in which we then do something to help them. Our first reaction is to do something, but very quickly our mind (or other people) tell us it will be too difficult, too costly, too little or just plain misunderstood. We have to practice taking that step to make things better for the person we feel compassionate towards and ignoring the multitude of reasons we might find for not doing so. Remember how life changing it was for us when somebody helped us out of kindness and compassion?

As a friend of mine often reminds me, all of us are wounded, bandaged travellers on the road, sometimes wayward, often lost, invariably pretending that we are okay, but always, always in need of compassion, longing to be free, hungry for heaven. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

Transformation

I was making some toast for breakfast the other morning when I heard someone on the radio talking about the start of the season of Lent. “Here it is again” he said, “summoning me once more to reflect on and change how I live my life.”  It set me thinking about change.

I remembered a day some years ago when I showed a small group of church leaders around a Twelve Step Day Treatment Centre that I was involved with. They saw the facilities, heard about the programme structure and met with some honest, articulate people in early recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. The visitors seemed to be impressed by the changes these people spoke about and the new spiritual pathway that they were treading.

It turned out that Frank, an Anglican (Episcopalian) priest was not completely convinced and in our closing discussion he aired his doubts. “I can see that their lives have improved for the better compared with when they were drinking or taking drugs,” he said, “but aren’t they just replacing one addiction with another by attending AA or NA meetings all the time instead?”

There were many answers I could have given, but I was beaten to it. Ellie, a Methodist deacon responded quickly with a passionate and perceptive reply.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “Don’t you see Frank, this isn’t just a change, this is transformation. It’s so much more radical.”

The conversation moved on, but I was intrigued by Ellie’s profound answer and talked to her about it later, when the others had left. She elaborated on her comments.

“As I see it, getting into recovery is not a minor adjustment in life and neither is a decision to follow the way of Jesus. They both involve a fundamental change of mind about how we deal with the mess of our lives because the coping strategies we’ve been using are not working and our eyes are finally opened to see it.”

This was certainly my experience and seemed to fit with how twelve step recovery works.  As Step One puts it, “our lives had become unmanageable.” In other words, we’ve got to admit we’re broken before we can begin to be made whole. The change required to do this is a paradigm shift, or transformation as Ellie put it, because it’s not just the addictive behaviour that has to change but our whole perspective and existing assumptions about life too – how we view and react to ourselves, other people, events and everything around us. The same goes for following the way of Jesus. No wonder that’s sometimes referred to as conversion.

“So what about Frank’s assertion that people in recovery are just switching to another slightly less damaging addiction by going to meetings?” I asked her. “I imagine he attends church far more often than most people go to AA meetings but I don’t think he’s addicted to it.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said Ellie with a laugh. “As I see it, attending AA or Church meetings are only the outward signs of the inner transformation and not the change itself. People attend these meetings because of the inner change and because they help us to commit to and maintain the change by spending time with other like-minded individuals. They can show us how to deal with the damaging addictive behaviour, mistakes, sins or whatever it may be in a different way, one which is far better thought out.”

Again, this rang true for me. I was keen to find out more.

“Transformation is definitely about embracing the new but isn’t it also about letting go of the old ways of thinking and behaving?” I said. “In recovery this is most obviously seen by stopping drinking or drug taking, but really it goes much deeper than this and is about a change in all behaviours. So many people in long term recovery have said to me that after a while the addictive substance or process is no longer the problem, it’s much deeper things like anger, resentment, ego, self-pity and fear which need to be dealt with.”

“Yes,” said Ellie. “Jesus certainly saw the need for this inner transformation, not just in his teaching about a new way of living where we love our neighbour, but in recognising that our problem lies deep within, wrong reactions and conduct come from our hearts and unless these are transformed, everything else is superficial and cosmetic. Time after time in the gospel accounts of his encounters with people, Jesus talked about this deeper, inner transformation which we need to undergo and his offer to help us find this new way.”

“Exactly!” I said. “We let go of the familiar old patterns and enter a new world, the counter-intuitive one of the Sermon on the Mount where we give to receive, we become great by serving and we surrender in order to become free.  Twelve step recovery is full of this counter-intuitive behaviour too, but it doesn’t come easily.”

“It certainly doesn’t,” said Ellie. “Have you read any Richard Rohr?”

“I love his stuff,” I replied, “I’m sure friends of mine get sick of me mentioning him.”

“You may already know this quote then,” she said. “Rohr says something along the lines of spiritual transformation being the process of letting go and living in a confusing dark space for a while, allowing yourself to be spat up on a new and unexpected shore. That’s why Jonah in the belly of the whale is such an important symbol.”

I’d not heard that but I liked it. Going into recovery really is like a period of darkness before entering a new land. Fortunately there are people who’ve now become familiar with that new land who are ready and willing to welcome the newcomers and help them to find their way around. All part of the new life of service. The same goes for those following the way of Jesus. The Kingdom of God that he spoke about is very new and very different from how we naturally think, what we thought we knew and the ways of living that we had become familiar with.

The sound of the toaster popping up brought me back to the present day. The man on the radio was right. We do need to be summoned periodically to reflect on and change how we live our lives, because new places and pathways quickly become routine and familiar. Lent offers us this time for self-reflection, when we dig into the layers of our hearts and minds and find the inner seams of unhealthy thinking and behaviour towards God, others and ourselves and set about correcting them.

I thought about one final comment Ellie had made.

“We can get too caught up in thinking it’s all about us. Whilst we play our part in the process, transformational change is not really about us and what we do. God chooses to ‘co-produce’ it with us as they say these days, so we do play a part, but in the end, transformation is all about God’s grace working in us.” She paused and then laughed. “I’d love to talk to you about grace because it’s one of my favourite subjects, but we’ll have to come back to it another time. My car is on a meter and I really don’t want another parking ticket!”

Sadly, we never did have that conversation about grace but I received an email from her a few days later thanking me for the visit which gave me a flavour of how change and grace are connected. At the bottom of her message there was a quote by Ann Lamott, writer, follower of Jesus and recovering addict. “I do not understand the mystery of grace, only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Much as I’d like to be instantly transformed into a new way of love and self-giving, it’s going to be a life-long process. Fortunately, Lent is here again, suffused with grace, to shake me from my lethargy and to challenge me once more to follow more closely in the way of Jesus.

Faithful Friends

A little while ago, someone I knew was going through a difficult time with his drinking. In order to offer him some support and help, I introduced him to a few friends of mine who are recovering alcoholics and part of AA fellowships. I was sure they’d do their best but I was quite amazed by the generosity and kindness they showed him, dropping things they were doing and changing their plans, prioritising his needs and requirements over their own convenience and comfort. They wanted him to get into recovery and to sort his life out and they did their best to help him in ways that he couldn’t do himself, accepting him and his problems, easing his path and making it clear that he was not alone and that he and his life mattered. They were kind, understanding and compassionate, behaving in a way that can only be called loving. When I thanked them, they dismissed it as nothing – or at least only Step 12 stuff of taking the message to others, but their genuine, generous actions touched me deeply.

It reminded me of the story in the gospels of both Mark and Luke where Jesus was teaching a crowd who had come to visit him at the house where he was living. There were so many people that there was no room for anyone else to get in or even stand in the doorway. Along came four men carrying a friend of theirs who was paralyzed and unable to walk. They were desperate to bring him to Jesus so that he could be healed. Undeterred by the large crowd, they carried their friend up to the roof using external stairs and proceeded to dig through the roof in order to create a hole big enough to lower the mat on which their friend lay so that it came to rest at the feet of Jesus. Jesus commended the men’s faith on behalf of their friend, forgave the man his sins and then to prove a point to the critical religious folk watching, healed the man. He doesn’t ask the man whether he has faith, his friends appear to have answered that question already. Their faith was sufficient. This story doesn’t stand alone either, there are many other examples in the gospels where Jesus healed someone because of another person’s faith.

How we care for our friends and our faith on their behalf seems to play a more important part in the process of change than our individualistic way of thinking allows. If we look around us, there is always someone we can help, be it a relative, friend or acquaintance who might require our support and encouragement, who needs someone to believe in them and have faith on their behalf. Strangely, it can often be easier to pray and have faith on behalf of others than it is for ourselves, maybe that’s because this is the way it’s meant to be. As we saw in a recent blog, we’re created to co-operate with one another, not compete. As we turn our eyes towards the needs of others and away from our own personal concerns, our self-obsessed way of thinking begins to reduce, giving becomes more important than receiving and love finally comes to town.

Loving God,

We pray in faith for our friends.

Bring your restoring presence to the dark places in their lives.

Bring your hope to their hearts when they feel defeated.

Bring your love and healing mercies when they are in pain.

Bring them safety and comfort when they are fearful and lonely.

Bring them through this hard time to a new place of freedom and light.

Amen

Competition or Co-operation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Logs and Street Sweeping

There are many wise and pithy sayings within Twelve Step recovery. One of the most helpful, allegedly first used by an older timer called Submarine Bill from Indiana, is the injunction to “keep your own side of the street swept clean.” In other words, sort yourself and your own behaviour out and don’t be worrying about other people and what they’re up to, even when they’ve done something to hurt you. This makes good sense because apart from anything else, we can’t change other people, so keeping our own side of the street swept clean is living out that part of the Serenity Prayer which asks for “serenity to accept the things we cannot change and courage to change the things we can.”

The words and picture language used by Jesus may be different but he seems to have been making a similar point in the Sermon on the Mount, when he asks why we are concerned with the speck of dust in another person’s eye when we have a log or plank of wood in our own. We need to take the log or plank of wood out of our own eye first, because whilst we see faults in others’ actions, our own wrong behaviour is far more urgently in need of fixing.

These injunctions sound both simple and obvious, but they’re very challenging things to do. It’s far easier to see other people’s problems and errant behaviour, point the finger of blame and ignore our own conduct completely. Blaming others and feeling resentful towards them seems to be our default position so that when someone has hurt us, we retaliate and fight back without ever considering our own behaviour. We may never carry out our plans for revenge but the damage is done as soon as we step into the pointless and unhealthy cycle of resentment and revenge. Revenge may be a useful plot technique in movies and books but in real life it’s a poisonous solution to a problem which we can’t control.  It always ends up hurting us.

So, what should we do instead? As I see it, we need to take responsibility for how we think and behave in response to the apparent wrong, handing it over to God, something Jesus repeatedly told us to do. The other person is not our responsibility and we have to entrust them and their conduct to God. Interestingly, the more we concentrate on letting go and letting God, the less fearful we’ll be and the less resentful too. Gradually other people are no longer our business or our problem.

All of that of course supposes that it is we who have been wronged; spending any more time talking about this here buys into the preoccupation we have with what others have done to us, rather than looking at our own conduct. Far more frequent are the wrongs which we do to others and keeping our side of the street swept clean is about reflecting on our behaviour, uncovering the wrongs that we have done– in thought, word and deed.  It can be a surprise to find that these are things we do pretty much every day “through negligence, weakness or our own deliberate fault,” as the General Confession puts it.  This is the log in our own eye, the rubbish on our side of the street which needs dealing with, work which can only be done by us.

This work is the stuff of Steps 8, 9 and 10 within Twelve Step Programmes. These go as follows:

  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

This is a reflective process which starts off being a large piece of work as we enter recovery (or turn to Christ). What unacknowledged, undealt with wrongs have we done over the course of our addiction or life? One person I knew repaid everything they had stolen from a former employer. Someone else went to the local hospital with a bunch of flowers to apologise to staff for her frequent troubled drunken admissions. The nurses and doctors were delighted to see her looking so well and said that they assumed her absence was because she had moved away or died! Another friend went to the police station to make amends for his frequent arrests. The puzzled desk sergeant who did not know him, accepted his apology before seeking his advice on how to help a friend with an alcohol problem! Apologies don’t undo the wrong we did but they do unlock healing in ourselves regardless of whether the other person accepts the apology. When they do accept an apology, both the individuals and their relationship can be healed and restored.

Making amends and keeping a short account is a good daily practice. Taking responsibility for our own wrong behaviour and keeping our relationships right is part of the way of Jesus. Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount he says that “if you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” As Richard Rohr says, “Jesus liberated us from religion. He taught simple religious practices over major theorizing. The only thoughts Jesus told us to police were our own: our own negative thoughts, our own violent thoughts, our own hateful thoughts – not other people’s thoughts.” In short, we keep our own side of the street swept clean. It’s both that simple and that difficult, but the benefits for ourselves, for others and for our world are immense.

The Mystery of Spiritual Growth

It was a warm afternoon in June. I was on a Zoom call and we were already an hour into a Steering Group Meeting when the agenda moved on to Item Eight – Key Performance Indicators. I groaned inwardly. Never a subject for the fainthearted, especially on a sunny Friday afternoon, setting KPIs and agreeing outputs and outcomes for projects involving people can be like buying something from a souk. A lot of haggling with no certainty as to what the product really is or what numbers to come up with. KPIs are a useful business tool and for some years now have also been an important requirement of many charity funders, but we were discussing a new project about spiritual nurture and growth for those on the margins – how do you develop a performance measure for that? As Albert Einstein remarked, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Drifting off into a brief flight of fancy, I began wondering what exactly Jesus had in mind at the start of his ministry – a new spiritual project if ever there was one. What would the KPIs or planned outputs and outcomes have been like?

  • The programme will be of three years duration
  • It will be self-funded – the lead will be responsible for finding supporters to maintain the programme to ensure long-term sustainability
  • Twelve volunteers will be taught and mentored as disciples to lead the programme
  • At least 90% of these disciples will complete the programme and continue to deliver after the lead has left
  • 50% of those hearing the message will feel that their life has improved as a result

Of course, it was nothing like this. What Jesus did say was that “the Spirit blows where it will” and his measure of success was not about numbers or impressive outputs but about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God and signposting people towards it. This Kingdom was likened to yeast or the growth of a seed – slow, steady and secretive. We know too from Jesus’s parable of the sower, that even when the seed does grow, its development into a fruit bearing plant is far from guaranteed. The outputs and outcomes are never certain and always varied. Elsewhere, in a story in which Jesus healed ten lepers, only one of them subsequently bothered to return to thank him – few funders or commissioners would be happy with a 10% outcome on “follow-up” conversations! 

Looking at the style of Jesus’s ministry, it’s surprising to see so many in the Church obsessed by the numbers game. Perhaps we’ve bought into the KPI business model too wholeheartedly, wanting to appear dynamic and aspirational for our mission, or maybe numbers are seen as a proxy measure of success and an expectation that more people equals increased income for the church –neither of which were concerns for Jesus.

The origin of the spiritually based Twelve Step Programmes of Recovery is mainly Christian and unsurprisingly they don’t tend to deliver predictable, defined numbers either. “Show us your evidence base” is the current mantra of Addiction Treatment Commissioners in the UK, yet people were getting well and recovering by working the Twelve Step Programme long before there was any other formal alcohol treatment available and when there was, some early efforts involved giving alcoholics doses of LSD! Twelve Step Recovery is not predictable, but as we’ve already seen, if the Spirit blows where it wills, why would a spiritual programme of recovery be easy to predict? God’s work always retains some element of mystery. As a manager of a Twelve Step Treatment Centre once said to me, “We do all the standard assessments about motivation and suitability for our programme, but in the end, we really don’t know who will recover and who won’t. If someone wants to change, then that’s good enough for us to start with.”

Millions of people bear testimony to the fact that they have become sober and their lives have been transformed by working a 12 step programme, arguably one of the greatest public health developments of the last century and because it is a spiritual programme, one of the most profound revival programmes too. Central to one of the 12 Traditions of AA is that notion that the message of recovery is conveyed by “attraction not promotion,” in other words, seeing the transformation in the lives of real people, not through a page full of promotional outcomes and statistics. We see this transformation in the lives and writings of Christians in recovery such as Brennan Manning, Nadia Bolz Weber, Heather King, Ian Morgan Cron and Anne Lamott who have a spiritual integrity which is deeply attractive because their faith and view of the world and themselves is brutally honest yet gentle, speaking truthfully to the reader’s own life and always pointing them to a God of immense love who is in the business of redemption and transformation.

We are all on a journey of the Spirit whether it is upstairs in the Chancel on a Sunday morning or downstairs in the Basement on a weekday evening at a Twelve Step meeting. God is there in the midst of our brokenness, meeting us with arms outstretched to bring us home. We are fellow pilgrims and travel together on our journey to this holy place. Measure that if you will.

An Inside Job

I love browsing in flea markets and junk shops. You just never know when there may be something of value hidden in the midst of all the tat and rubbish. It’s kind of ironic, really, because over recent years I’ve come to realise that my inner life also contains a great deal of clutter and trash. I may try to convince myself or others that it is a tidy, well organised place, full of unique pieces – interesting curios and charming antiques if you like, but unfortunately, it’s not really like that. Inside, there’s the cluttered rubbish of a junk shop – wrong ways of thinking, distorted memories and beliefs, long held resentments and unhelpful patterns of behaviour. I suspect too that I’m not alone in this if conversations with a few close friends or comments that I’ve read are anything to go by. As the author CS Lewis said, “on looking inside myself I found a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears and a harem of fondled hatreds.”

Jesus was well aware of our inner mess and was never fooled by those who were presenting themselves as neat and well-ordered. He responded in different ways. To the scribes and pharisees, self-righteous and proud, he was scathing: “Hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” On other occasions he was more sensitive, though just as clear about the problem. For example, when a rich man came to him asking what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus was gentle in his response when the man said that he had kept all the commandments since he was a boy. Jesus told him to go and sell all that he possessed, which got to the heart of the man’s inner problem – his wealth was a false source of security, an idol in the place of God, sadly too much for him to let go of at that point in his life. On yet another occasion Jesus spelt it out for us all when he said that “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come.”

Twelve step recovery is also very clear about our inner mess, and it is probably fair to say that the bulk of the programme is about addressing this mess rather than the specific addiction. There is a clear recognition that it is the accumulated rubbish in our lives which not only pushes us towards addiction but keeps us there and creates wrong ways of living. This may be a result of things done to us, traumas suffered even, or it may be a consequence of incorrect ways of coping with the ups and downs of life, bad decisions we’ve made and wrong actions on our part. Whatever the cause, the result is the same and dealing with our inner mess is the stuff of almost half of the twelve steps, beginning with Step Four’s “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” followed up in quick succession by the next two steps where we admit to “God, ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” moving on to a point where we are “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” It is a way of living which deals with the rubbish in our lives that many of us would prefer to bury away from the scrutiny of others.

Because it’s an inside job, we must reply upon and co-operate with God, our Higher Power to do this work within us. Prayer and meditation is the central, golden thread through which we seek knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry it out. This is of course not a one-off event but a daily practice, which ultimately becomes a lifelong way of living. It’s not a solo flight either. We don’t have to do it alone – in fact we were never meant to. We need others to help us, through confession, spiritual direction, sponsorship, discipling, mentoring or even just plain, honest conversations and sharing over a cup of coffee.

Unlike Twelve Step Recovery, much of Christianity has now become a private faith, something that is just between ourselves and God, but when we do involve others and share something about our inner junk – our “dead bones and uncleanness” – we begin to find freedom and healing. This is helped by the fact that we not only find an acceptance from the other person about this part of ourselves and the things we have done/think which shame us, but invariably an acknowledgement by them that they are pretty much the same. We are not alone.

As jobs go, inner change is a slow business. At times it can be disheartening, because once we are aware of our inner mess, we tend to continue to notice the junk more than anything else. “All you can do is create a space for transformation to happen, for grace and love to enter,” says Ekhart Tolle.  When we do, these mysterious currents of God’s Spirit get to work within us, highlighting our beautiful and valuable inner treasures to other people who are helped and blessed by them, even if we aren’t aware of it. Miraculously, when we change, the world changes a little bit too.

A Morning Prayer

Someone recently showed me a powerful quotation – the sort which stops you in your tracks. It went thus: “Christianity is a lifestyle – a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared and loving. Unfortunately, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself.” This stunning critique by the Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr seems to get to the heart of why we Christians have so often failed to transform society as Jesus intended. If, by the way, you’re about to question that, go read the Sermon on the Mount first and see the manifesto for lifestyle change which Jesus proposed. It’s radical stuff. Not just The Beatitudes (which themselves are a call to new and positive action), but the subsequent teachings about loving our enemies, giving to the needy, forgiving those who wrong us, not judging others and living a day at a time, trusting in God’s daily provision for us.

Twelve step programmes of recovery are also about lifestyle change. Yes, they’re about stopping an addiction, but ultimately, they’re about living a happy, joyous and fulfilled life by behaving in a totally different way, one day at a time. The Big Book of AA (p84) describes the process in detail. “We continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment and fear.  When they crop up, we ask God at once to remove them. We discuss them with someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone.  Then we resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help. Love and tolerance of others is our code.”  As one of the sayings within recovery puts it, “You can’t think yourself into a new way of living, you have to live your way into a new way of thinking.”

One of the best ways any of us can do this, is to start each morning with a prayer, committing ourselves afresh to this different way of living and asking for help to carry it out. For those in recovery this is Step 11 work (“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with the God of our understanding”), which is probably the most easily neglected or side-stepped part of the programme. There are of course countless prayers we can use but here is a simple one which helps me to begin each day with fresh resolve to live it well and live it in the right way.

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.”

On the Frontline – learning from Covid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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