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

 

When Love Comes to Town

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

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

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

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

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

Love is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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