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

Serving Others – humility and sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Back to Basics – keeping it simple

Going back to basics is a phrase beloved of sports coaches, especially if results aren’t going their way. Essentially they mean that remembering to do the simple foundational things properly is the key to getting the bigger things right. It’s not just true in sport but in many other things in life, including recovery and especially Christianity, where we can so often over-complicate things. We would do well to remember the basics and return to these on a regular basis.

In the teachings of Jesus, nowhere does he spell out the basics more clearly than in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, paralleled in what is sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.  He begins as he means to go on. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. The Kingdom of Heaven is central to Jesus’s manifesto; the focus of his work was to proclaim the arrival of this kingdom. But his kingdom is not of this world, as he told Pilate at his trial. His teaching on poverty of spirit shows this clearly. The world tells us that it is good to be rich in spirit – to be self-sufficient and not dependant on others, that God is a crutch for those who cannot cope alone, that we are in control of our destiny. But Jesus sees it very differently. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, he says, not the rich in spirit. The poor in spirit are those who recognise their need of God, their inability to do it alone, the mess that we make of our own lives (and other people’s) when we try to be self-sufficient. It is a humble acceptance of who we really are and how much we need God to help begin to make us complete.

Spiritual poverty, is right at the heart of 12 step thinking. It is Step 1. Absolute basics. An admission of powerlessness – over alcohol, drugs, gambling or what addictive behaviour has come to dominate and control our life – and invariably the lives of our family too. The lie that we are still in control is built on pride and dishonesty. The admission of powerlessness blows that notion apart. Spiritual poverty and embracing Steps 1 and 2 is not just an admission of powerlessness but is about humility, honesty and acceptance of our need of a power greater than ourselves to put this right. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that his message was for such as these, the sick who cannot cure themselves, not those who think there is no problem. In truth, his message is not just for the addict but for all of us with our false illusions of control and mastery, since we are all powerless and in need of a higher power to help us manage our lives. Like Step 1, all we need to do is admit how weak, vulnerable and messed up we are without this – the old way of functioning doesn’t work. It is a hard journey and process to recognise this and admit it to ourselves and others, because our default position is always one of self-sufficiency and a belief that we can fix ourselves.

Which is why we always need to keep returning to basics. People working a 12 step programme never come to the end. They keep working through the steps, including revisiting Step 1 long after first coming into recovery. Followers of Jesus also need to go back to the basics and poverty of spirit is an important starting point. However good my glittering image might be, recognising and owning my messed-up self, the one that only I truly know, is important. For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those of us who haven’t got it right – the addict, the sinner. It’s not for the fixed and the sorted. We are blessed because we have nothing but God, our higher power on which we can rely. This is the honesty and humility which helps us to take one day at a time, living in a right way, where we seek to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

Surrender your own poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to God. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon. Thomas Merton

How can we embrace poverty as a way to God when everyone around us wants to become rich? Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves: ‘What is my poverty?’ Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That’s the place where God wants to dwell! ‘How blessed are the poor,’ Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty. We are so inclined to cover up our poverty and ignore it that we often miss the opportunity to discover God, who dwells in it. Let’s dare to see our poverty as the land where our treasure is hidden. Henri J.M. Nouwen

The deeper we grow in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the poorer we become – the more we realize that everything in life is a gift. The tenor of our lives becomes one of humble and joyful thanksgiving. Awareness of our poverty and ineptitude causes us to rejoice in the gift of being called out of darkness into wondrous light and translated into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.  Brennan Manning

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

Strong Souls – growth through suffering

I recently had the privilege of working as a volunteer at the World Transplant Games which were held near to where I live. Taking part in a whole range of sporting activities were hundreds of amazing people from all over the world who had received major organ transplants, along with living donors and family members who had agreed to donate organs from a loved one who had died. They brought with them gratitude, hope, acceptance, generosity, a sense of living in the day and an openness to others. Some of the conversations and connections that I had, will stay with me for a long time to come. A woman who radiated joy and laughter told me a little of her story. She had received a kidney transplant as a child but had a difficult early adult life in an abusive marriage.  The marriage ended but she later met someone who was also a transplant recipient with whom she was together for 8 happy years. Sadly, he died recently. As she showed me a beautiful ring with a blue stone made from his ashes, she said, with a smile, but with tears in her eyes, “It’s been a terrible year, but I wouldn’t change a thing about that or any of my life. I have been so blessed”.

Over the 10 days of the Games, I felt as if I was bathing in a tide of kindness and love, so very different from the way the world usually feels, and in stark contrast to the self-seeking and dishonesty which is pervading so much of public life in these dark days. The Transplant Community that I was allowed to become friends with, reminded me of the Recovery Community in the values and behaviours which those within them showed, and whose company proved to be a blessing for those around them.

It made me think that perhaps these two groups similarities were in large part a result of the pain, suffering and struggles they had experienced and the second chance of life which they felt they had received.  Each day was a bonus and as such was to be appreciated. I have met other people such as cancer survivors, asylum seekers and former political prisoners, who are also very remarkable people, gentle, grateful and generous, living in the day. Suffering and pain makes us vulnerable and when we are vulnerable, our barriers are down and we are more open to the spiritual side of life and able to hear the gentle whisper of God.

This is absolutely not to say that suffering is a good thing or that we should seek to suffer and endure pain. The process is descriptive not prescriptive. Unfortunately though, pain, struggle and suffering is an inevitable part of each of our lives – we get ill, loved ones die, bad things happen. The writer Tennessee Williams said “Don’t look forward to the day you stop suffering, because when it comes you’ll know you’re dead.” Some people face immense suffering and hardship, disproportionately so, but as a friend of mine in recovery says, we all suffer, and there is no league table of pain and suffering.  At times we may not even realise that what we are going through is indeed suffering. Everyone’s pain is unique to them and at times may seem insurmountable, yet somehow we discover that there is a way to handle the darkness, a way that only we can find, and through this struggle, we grow and develop an inner strength and beauty. And whatever our situation, we can always make ourselves available to those who suffer, sharing their darkness. And in this sharing we are inevitably blessed, as the topsy turvy world of the Kingdom of God is revealed once more.

People in recovery are very familiar with pain and suffering. AA and NA recognise that addiction and use of alcohol and other substances is a way of escaping from pain and suffering – especially (and perversely) the pain and suffering caused by the addiction. The bottle, pill or powder is always a way to avoid it, however temporary the respite.  The AA Big Book talks a lot about the suffering of the alcoholic, and meetings often remember “those that still suffer inside and outside of the rooms”. Stories and shares are full of pain and suffering – addiction, relapse, family breakdown, divorce, jail, prison, unemployment, suicide, ill-health. But as the book “12 Steps and 12 Traditions” says, any experienced person in AA will “report that out of every season of grief or suffering, when the hand of God seemed heavy or unjust, new lessons for living were learned, new resources of courage were uncovered.” The process is a complex interplay of many things – humility, surrender, honesty, giving, loss of ego, prayer and meditation, with a realisation that we must seek to accept and embrace the pathway we are on, with only the power to take the next step on our journey.

Jesus certainly knew all about pain and suffering. He experienced early life as a refugee and later lived in an occupied land, knew grief at the death of loved ones, was constantly misunderstood, faced rejection by his own people, opposition from the religious teachers and civic authorities and was finally put to death because he refused to stop preaching good news. His death was unjust, brutal and barbaric. Throughout his teaching ministry he identified with Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the suffering servant. Yet he was full of forgiveness, love and acceptance of others, even at the most extreme points in his life.  But his life shows that suffering is not pointless and that hope is woven throughout, just as surely as Easter Sunday followed Good Friday.

As an inveterate coward, I do not relish the prospect of suffering and as I advance into the later years of my life, the downward pathway of old age looms large and unattractive. Loss of health, loss of choice, loss of control and surrender. The surrender that every alcoholic or addict learns they must do when they first come into the programme. And surrendering to what lies ahead becomes the ultimate test of faith. Not a weak, defeatist view that nothing can be changed but an active faith that God steps into the suffering with us, takes it on himself and walks through it with us, as the famous ‘Footsteps’ poem reminds us. The words of Brennan Manning offer an honest yet hope-filled lifeline onto to which we can hold. “Suffering, failure, loneliness, sorrow, discouragement, and death will be part of your journey, but the Kingdom of God will conquer all these horrors. No evil can resist grace forever.”

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars. Khalil Gibran

The most beautiful people I have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future. Nelson Mandela

Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind. Aristotle

Some people awaken spiritually without ever coming into contact with any meditation technique or any spiritual teaching. They may awaken simply because they can’t stand the suffering anymore. Eckhart Tolle

We have the tendency to run away from suffering and to look for happiness. But, in fact, if you have not suffered, you have no chance to experience real happiness. Thich Nhat Hanh

I began to understand that suffering and disappointments and melancholy are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity but to mature and transfigure us.”  Hermann Hesse

If pain doesn’t lead to humility, you have wasted your suffering.” Katerina Stoykova Klemer

When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool. Chinua Achebe

All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming. Helen Keller