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.

Searching for Soul Food

The strawberries I’ve eaten this summer have been a big disappointment. Though bright red and as beautiful looking as ever, they taste weak and watery, not delivering that massive hit of flavour which should leave you reaching for the next berry, the one after that and so on, a conveyor belt of pure strawberry pleasure.

It reminds me of my experiences attending church. I usually go with great expectations, but if I’m honest, services generally don’t hit the sweet spot I’d hoped for. It doesn’t really matter how hard I try or what style of service it is either, other people around me always seem to be getting a lot more out of it than I do, as if their bowls of strawberries are packed with flavour, whilst mine is not. Some of these people appear to be in a state of ecstatic rapture, some exude an aura of quiet holiness, others have the intense look of desert hermits but unfortunately, I’m not as transfixed. It’s not the fault of those leading or taking part in the services and I have the best of intentions, genuinely wanting something profound to happen, but invariably I end up distracted by a wandering mind or I’m just plain bored. Inevitably I feel rather shallow and unspiritual as a result, but somehow, inexorably, I’m drawn back, week after week.

I was helped enormously with this problem by a friend in Twelve Step Recovery who talked to me in passing about an AA meeting he’d just attended. “It was awful,” he said. “I wanted to walk out, listening to some of the ridiculous stuff that was being said.” This intrigued me because neither he nor anybody else I know who attends meetings had ever said anything like that to me before. My friends in recovery are all wise, honest, perceptive people and I imagined the meetings they attended would be full of sassy folk like them, pouring out words of understanding and insight from loving hearts. I probed, wanting to find out more. He laughed at my naivety. “You’ve been to meetings,” he said. “You know its not all love and enlightenment. A lot is quite boring and there’s a fair bit of unchallenged nonsense spoken too. Whatever my feelings may be though, I stick around and continue to turn up at the meetings because it’s all I’ve got, and somehow the five percent that’s really good helps me to stay clean and sober.”

I thought about my church-going experiences. The parts which pass me by or I miss through not concentrating and mentally drifting off certainly aren’t nonsense, but perhaps it’s okay for me to stop worrying about them. Maybe there’s never going to be an earthquake, wind and fire, or at least, until there is, why not concentrate instead on listening for the still small voice in the five percent that does do something for me. On the days when I can’t even get as high as five percent, I need to remember that always, always I come away feeling better in mind and spirit than when I arrived. Something happens deep within. The still small voice may not be audible, but I’m reminded that I am connected, part of a motley shoal of people that is swimming against the prevailing current. I get fed with tiny morsels of spiritual micro-protein and wisdom. I recognise the need to be still and to receive God’s love whether that is through sharing the Peace, receiving the Eucharist or conversations over coffee afterwards.  Jesus said “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” I know that I’m hungry and need food from the table, provided by the Bread of Life, so I’ll just keep on turning up to receive this in any way I can and in any place where I find it. As they say in Twelve Step meetings, “Keep coming back, it works if you work it.”

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)

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.

Pathways : Restoration instead of Despair

J and P had been in recovery together for about 3 years. Although they had very different backgrounds, both attended the same 12 step meetings and they had the same sponsor. Within hours of one other, both relapsed – though not together. Their sponsor had seen it coming for them both, but neither believed his warnings about what might happen. Afterwards, the outcomes were very different. As a result of what he did, J was overwhelmed by remorse and shame. Rejected by those who had encouraged his actions he could see no way out and his desperation spiralled into deep self-loathing and isolation. He killed himself. P, however, was also full of remorse and shame but stumbled on, meeting with others, admitting what had happened and then finally meeting with his sponsor who showed he did not judge him for what happened and helped P to forgive himself. P went on to live a life of great purpose and achievement.

In the gospels, J and P also had choices to make and falls to recover from, as we see in the stories of Judas and Peter, two disciples of Jesus. Both failed him in the last hours of his life, failures that Jesus saw coming and warned them about in advance, but which neither managed to avoid. Afterwards, each of them realised very quickly what they had done wrong and both were filled with immense grief and remorse. Judas, went back to those to whom he had betrayed Jesus and acknowledged his sin, but there was no mercy or forgiveness to be found there and they rejected him and turned him away. Desperate and alone, Judas went out and hanged himself. Peter, however, took a very different pathway. He remained with his friends who probably knew full well what he had done, but sticking around was the only option he could see. Two days later, his hopes were raised by the account of the risen Jesus given by some of the women who had also been followers, and then some days later Peter was met by the resurrected Jesus who offered him forgiveness and restitution in a beautiful and moving account in John 21. The most wonderful part of that story, is the fact that Jesus had cooked breakfast on the beach prior to meeting the small group of his followers, attending to their physical, bodily needs before taking Peter to one side, to forgive and restore him. So, for Jesus, the denial wasn’t even the number one priority when he met Peter again – he was already forgiven! True grace and mercy. I am absolutely convinced that if Judas had been able to stay around long enough to meet with Jesus again, he too would have received forgiveness and been fully restored.

The reality of course, is that we all mess up like Peter and Judas. And we all know the deep sense of failure and self-torment when we do. It can feel like a living hell. In the story of Judas we really do get the sense of a suffering soul. Over the centuries, he has been vilified and despised by most within the church, with all manner of eternal tortures and punishments suggested for him, but nothing can compare with that awful deep chasm of despair he felt when he realised what he had done and saw no hope of redemption. Peter, for his part has always been a figure we can identify with – he says foolish things, he behaves in irrational and blindly emotional ways, he seems to have little self-awareness at times he most needs it, which most of us can recognise in ourselves. How many of us recall conversations or things we have done which we replay in our mind over and over again, making us blush with embarrassment or feel hopelessly shamed. So, when we have genuinely done wrong and messed up, Peter’s restoration is our hope of restoration too. And our personal torment until we are restored, is the greatest punishment of all. Those who are working a programme of recovery know this better than most of us. Failures and slips can become significant relapses, which offer a destructive pathway and require a turning back onto the original pathway through reconnection, honest admission and restoration. A difficult but necessary process.

The golden thread of failure and restoration is woven throughout the Bible, though perhaps most clearly shown in the lives of people who met Jesus. Almost every character is shown as a transformed sinner, someone who does it wrong before they ever do it right. “We have erred and strayed from your ways”, says the general confession, from which none of us are exempt. And even when they and we get back onto the right pathway, we all will inevitably go wrong again (and again), “through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.” It seems that this is not just one of those things, but is the way it has to be, for us to learn to let go of our self-assured, self-interested ways of living. As Richard Rohr says, “We must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say. We must be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide. It is the necessary pattern”.  It is only our addictions, our failures to do things right (or sins), death or major loss, serious illness, broken relationships or lost dreams which really bring us to the point where we recognise that not only is the pathway we are on the wrong one but the roadmap we have been using cannot help us find our way back. We have run out of solutions and “our lives have become unmanageable.” At this point we either despair or we turn to look for a place or a person who has the answers. In 12 step recovery this is our higher power; Jesus used other language for the same solution declaring that he offered the thirsty living water from a source which would never dry up, a new way of living and being.

This Holy Week, as we remember and contemplate the path which Jesus trod, leading to his rigged trial and execution, including betrayal and denial by friends who just hours before had shared in the first ever Eucharist, we are reminded that this is a downwards path for us all. Both those in 12 step recovery and followers of Jesus understand this and live it out in their daily lives. It is counter-intuitive, like so much of the golden thread within Jesus’ teaching and 12 step recovery.  In life there is no glory without pain – would that it were otherwise! There is no Easter Day without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But as the resurrection of Easter Day shows and establishes for all to see, not only can we survive the downward path and the pain we experience in our lives, but we can rise up and grow from the tragedies and failures of our imperfection. We win by losing. We are Easter people.

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song. Pope John Paul II

Religion is for people who are afraid of hell, spirituality is for people who have already been there. Anonymous

Whenever God restores something, He restores it to a place greater than it was before. Bill Johnson

Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth. Anonymous

Where do we even start on the daily walk of restoration and awakening? We start where we are. Anne Lamott

In my recovery, I learned that the pain of my defects is the very substance God uses to cleanse my character and to set me free. Alcoholics Anonymous, Daily Reflections: A Book of Reflections by A.A. Members for A.A Members 

Christ is building His kingdom with earth’s broken things. Men want only the strong, the successful, the victorious, the unbroken, in building their kingdoms; but God is the God of the unsuccessful, of those who have failed. He can lift earth’s saddest failure up to heaven’s glory. J.R. Miller

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  The Big Book Step 2

The pattern of the prodigal is: rebellion, ruin, repentance, reconciliation, restoration. Edwin Louis Cole

In the light of the new understanding that I have found in A.A., I have been able to interpret that defeat and that failure and that shame as seeds of victory. Because it was only through feeling defeat and feeling failure, the inability to cope with my life and with alcohol, that I was able to surrender and accept the fact that I had this disease and that I had to learn to live again without alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous,, 4th Edition

Everything Works Together – interconnected golden threads

The first few pages of Jerome K Jerome’s story Three Men in a Boat, contain a very funny account by the narrator of how he read a medical text book and discovered to his horror that he had the symptoms of every illness and disease he looked at, apart from a mild form of cholera and housemaid’s knee! It’s amusing because most of us can identify with this sort of hypochondria, especially now that we have the internet, with countless medical sites containing descriptions of diseases and symptoms of illnesses, all of which seem to apply to us, when we read about them.

When we think about the themes of Grace, Guilt, Hope, Mercy, Gratitude, Forgiveness and Generosity covered in some of the blogs posted on this site over the last 18 months, there is probably a similar effect. We’ve got problems with every one of them. We feel as if we are constantly in deficit and are not good enough in any department. What became very clear to me early on, as I tried to write about these things on an individual basis, was that whilst they may appear to be separate, they are in fact part of a much bigger, interconnected whole. golden thread - electron microscopeThe Golden Thread of Jesus’ teaching is many separate strands woven together, each with its own shade and lustre which together make the thread as strong and as golden as it is. A photograph of a golden thread seen through an electron microscope as it is passed through the eye of a needle shows clearly that the thread we thought was a single strand is in fact made up of many finer strands. (no wonder it is difficult to thread a needle!)

In reality however, they are more than just interconnected – they are actually interdependent in the sense that there is a dependence between things. For example, if I provide my dog with food and walks and my dog provides me with devotion and happiness, then my relationship with the dog is one of interdependence. Likewise, the individual strands of the golden thread are interdependent, each strand depending on another, which in turn depends on yet another. Thus, there can be no resolution of guilt without forgiveness, and this in turn requires mercy and compassion. The result of forgiveness is often gratitude. And of course, everything, absolutely everything is connected to and held together by love. So, we don’t have to feel despair about how little we may have of these things or what we must “get better at”. Nor do we need to think that we need to work to develop all of these things or set out a regime to “improve ourselves”. They are not ingredients in a cake or bottles of medicine and lotion that need to be taken daily in precise amounts. If I do X and Y then Z will happen. Such a formula would be all about us being in control, a false pathway. Because whilst it may offer some growth, the reality is that the process is much more of a mystery. If we can try to get the conditions right, then growth will happen, and what is amazing is that they all grow, not just one or another. That’s because they’re interconnected and interdependent, both within ourselves and between each other. So, whilst we do have our part to play, maybe by practising gratitude for 30 days, dealing with our resentments and forgiving or perhaps actively seeking to be more loving, after that it’s not down to us at all. As we so often find in the teachings of Jesus, and central to 12 step recovery, it’s all about letting go and letting God. The important lesson here is that spirituality, and the growth of the individual golden threads in our lives is through relationship rather than knowledge or achievement. And the real wonder is that the process of inner growth happens as we seek to serve and bless those around us, because none of the strands of the golden thread are just about us. This is the mustard seed or the yeast in the bread which Jesus talks about. The things which grow silently and miraculously if we let them, in ourselves and the people and community around us. Which once again brings us back to the Kingdom of Heaven, where all things connect, and everything works together for good.

I am still far from being what I want to be, but with God’s help I shall succeed. Vincent Van Gogh

I think we’d like life to be like a train…..but it turns out to be a sailboat. Barbara Brown Taylor

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

Through my years of darkness, some spark of spirit remained in me, helped me survive until I found my way into A.A. Then, nurtured by the program, that inner spirit grew, deepened, until it filled the emptiness I had so long felt inside. Step by step I moved to a spiritual awaking. Step by step I cleared up the past and got on with the present. Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition

2020 Vision – wise sayings about faith and recovery

A lot of the time I muddle through life, dragged along on the switchback of my emotions, often clearer about what I don’t believe in than what I do. But then there are moments of clarity. It might not be 2020 vision, but the mist does clear and for a short time I feel sure that I can see clearly. Nothing helps me to see more clearly and hope more completely than the wise words of others talking about their own life and the spiritual path they are treading.  As we take our first faltering steps into a new decade, here for the twenty-twenties are 20 wise sayings to help us on our way.

  1. Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it, can we see, hear, or feel it, when it comes to us. Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.  Henri Nouwen
  2. This is it. This is the life we get here on earth. We get to give away what we receive. We get to believe in each other. We get to forgive and be forgiven. We get to love imperfectly. And we never know what effect it will have for years to come. And all of  it…all of  it is completely worth it. Nadia Bolz-Weber
  3. I asked a very young Sunday school girl today what she think God wants to change about her life this year. She said “That I be kinder to people and be nice to all little dogs.” I said, “that pretty much says it.” Anne Lamott.
  4. The Christianity that called to me, through the stories I read in the Bible, scattered the proud and rebuked the powerful. It was a religion in which divinity was revealed by scars on flesh. It was an upside-down world in which treasure, as the prophet said, was found in darkness; in which the hungry were filled with good things, and the rich sent out empty; in which new life was manifested through a humiliated, hungry woman and an empty, tortured man.  Sarah Miles
  5. Given the scale of life in the cosmos, one human life is no more than a tiny blip. Each of us is a just visitor to this planet, a guest, who will only stay for a limited time. What greater folly could there be than to spend this short time alone, unhappy or in conflict with our companions? Far better, surely, to use our short time here in living a meaningful life, enriched by our sense of connection with others and being of service to them. Dalai Lama
  6. All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle. Francis of Assisi
  7. Everyone has a piece of good news inside them. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is! Anne Frank
  8. Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. Rachel Held Evans
  9. If unconditional love, loyalty, and obedience are the tickets to an eternal life, then my black Labrador, Venus, will surely be there long before me, along with all the dear animals in nature who care for their young at great cost to themselves and have suffered so much at the hands of humans. Richard Rohr
  10. You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching, Love like you’ll never be hurt,
    Sing like there’s nobody listening, And live like it’s heaven on earth.” William W. Purkey
  11. If you want something you never had, you have to do something you’ve never done. Anon
  12. Every single person has a story that will break your heart. And if you’re paying attention, many people have a story that will bring you to your knees. Nobody rides for free. Brene Brown
  13. We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
  14. In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back. Albert Camus
  15. Our culture says that ruthless competition is the key to success. Jesus says that ruthless compassion is the purpose of our journey. Brennan Manning
  16. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.The second commandment is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. Jesus of Nazareth
  17. The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbour as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enrol, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it. Barbara Brown Taylor
  18. Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards. Soren Kierkegaard
  19. Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you. St. Augustine
  20. What if Jesus’ secret message reveals a secret plan?” What if he didn’t come to start a new religion – but rather came to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world? Brian D McLaren