The Constant Gardener – enabling spiritual growth

It’s a busy time of the year down at my allotment.  I share the plot of rented land with a couple of friends and right now the fruit and vegetables are at their most productive. This year the combination of warm sun, heavy rains and damp, muggy air have not only benefitted the crops but also made it a paradise for numerous weeds and uninvited plants. For some unknown reason, the weeds grow more rapidly and far more profusely than the strawberries, chard, beans, beetroot and leeks that I am trying to grow. 20190731_122803Regular work is required to keep the weeds under control. Since I don’t always do this weeding as frequently as I ought to, the plot as a whole quickly becomes a jungle of assorted greenery instead of neat rows of plants, growing in well defined beds and borders. It’s easy to despair and abandon the fight, letting everything grow together in the hope that it’ll sort itself out in the end.  Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Making the most of the well composted and fed soil that was meant for the crops, the weeds flower and spread their seeds around the plot long before my crops have matured, guaranteeing me the same problem for years to come, unless I do something about it.

The parallel for our own lives is not hard to see, partly because many of us are familiar with Jesus’s stories of crops and weeds along with good and bad soil. The parable of the sower which is recorded in three of the gospels, is particularly well known, with the seed failing to germinate, growing poorly or flourishing, depending on the soil conditions where it had been sown. This is exactly what does happen – plants sown on the edges or growing close by are smaller and much less productive than those in the central, more fertile areas; plants with weeds around them have to compete for light, water and nutrients and also grow far less well than those in cleared ground. Those in weed-free, well-watered and composted areas are by far the most productive. Likewise, in our own lives we need good fertile environments in which to thrive and an absence of things which choke or stifle our spiritual growth.

In twelve step programmes the need to deal with these impediments to growth is a vital part of recovery, dealt with most clearly in steps 5,6 and 7. Making a moral inventory is a revealing process, showing us just how widespread and deep our wrongs and failings are. It is not the more glaring shortcomings we have that shock but the small hidden things, including our negative responses to the events of our lives. I came to see how many and how deep my resentments were towards people and circumstances of life – recent and long past.  Because we are powerless to move on from or eliminate these things ourselves, we have to ask God, our Higher Power to remove these character defects and shortcomings. We must not only remove the weeds and clear the ground, but as I know only too well from both my allotment and my own life, we need to continue to manage them, because weeds continue to grow. Sometimes too it takes time to completely get rid of the deep roots of established weeds in our lives which can grow back. We need to find some way to reflect on and keep on top of these things. So it is no wonder that step 10 helps us to do this by “continuing to take a personal inventory and when we are wrong promptly admitting it”.  Handing things over to our Higher Power is always central, and a reminder that our lives remain unmanageable if we try to do it alone. But neither Recovery nor following Jesus are passive activities and we have to play our part not least in wanting things to change. As they say in the rooms, “we alone can do it, but we cannot do it alone”.

I am not sure that there is the same amount of work put into deep reflection, admission and clearing of ground by many of us Christians as there is by those in recovery. Admit your wrongs and move on via a quick general confession is often the process and too much time dwelling on your failings is seen as beating yourself up rather than basking in the grace of forgiveness and new life. Of course this can happen, with guilt trapping us in an unhealthy whirlpool of despair, far removed from the freedom which Jesus promised. But like weeding, the purpose is to clear the ground, not feel bad that weeds have grown and as a general rule some sort of moral inventory is a helpful and productive thing to do periodically, preferably with the support of a spiritual mentor or guide, who will help us to avoid unhealthy levels of guilt. As the Desert Fathers discovered, true spirituality begins with the acceptance of our own flaws and limitations and in the compassion that emerges from this self-knowledge – compassion towards ourselves, towards others and towards all of humanity. We are all beautiful but flawed and we are all in this together.

As well as slowly clearing the ground (and it really can be slow work), we also need to water and feed the ground of our lives to make them fertile. We must dig deep wells to find the things which feed and nurture us, like the living water which Jesus said flowed from him. Serving others and helping the stranger is a sure yet mysterious way to receive nourishment and spiritual blessing. Step 11 talks of prayer and meditation as being a means of helping us to improve our conscious contact with God, seeking guidance and help with our lives. Jesus’s life and ministry was totally reliant upon prayer and time spent alone with God, enabling him to be obedient to his calling, proclaiming the Kingdom of God here on earth.

A common prayer in 12 step circles is the Set Aside Prayer. I forget who it was I read who developed this into a fuller prayer which helped me so much (Heather King, I think), and which in turn I have amended to capture the things which my moral inventory revealed were the weeds of my life which will choke the growing seed if I do not seek to manage or remove them on a daily basis. So, with grateful thanks to whoever it was who wrote the first version, here is my take on the Set Aside Prayer.

“Loving God, please set aside everything I know or think I know about spirituality, religion and faith that has become formulaic or gets in the way of new understanding. Set aside every idea that has frightened, threatened or angered me. Set aside everything that’s been forced down my throat, that’s inconsistent, that manipulates me. Set aside all my resentments and the ease with which I find and harbour new ones. Set aside my desire to be in control and my discomfort when I’m not. Set aside my tendency to see things through the lens of my emotions of the moment. Set aside my constant judging and categorisation of other people. Set aside my worry and anxiety about almost everything. Set aside my plotting and planning about how I’d like things to be and my unconscious expectations that things should be perfect. Set aside my addictions, my doubts, my guilt, my shame, my jealousy, my rage, my intolerance. Set aside all these things and anything else which prevent me from having a loving heart, an open mind and a fresh experience of you today. Amen.”

 Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade. – Rudyard Kipling

 If your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life. Bill Watterson

 Most people don’t have the willingness to break bad habits. They have a lot of excuses and they talk like victims. Carlos Santana

 Don’t let your sins turn into bad habits. Saint Teresa of Avila

 When you find yourself in need of spiritual nourishment, it is in the opportunities to serve others that you will find the abundance you seek. Steve Maraboli

 There are two types of seeds in the mind: those that create anger, fear, frustration, jealousy, hatred and those that create love, compassion, equanimity and joy. Spirituality is germination and sprouting of the second group and transforming the first group. Amit Ray

Becoming like Christ is a long, slow process of growth. Rick Warren

The Christian who has stopped repenting has stopped growing. A W Pink

Untold Stories – sharing our journey

I’ve just finished reading a really enjoyable story. It was so good that I looked forward to picking up the book at every possible opportunity, but now that I’ve finished it, I’m left feeling a little bereft, because it’s ended. Stories have the power to hold us, envelop us and affect our minds and emotions at a deep level. Whether it is in the form of a book, a film, a play or a spoken narrative, everybody loves a good story.

Telling stories is an ancient art. Whether through an oral telling, pictures on cave walls or the written word, stories provide a timeless link to ancient traditions, legends, myths and history and help to define who we are as individuals and a culture. It is reckoned that there are more than 100,000 new works of fiction published in English alone each year and a Stanford university academic estimates that an all-time total of nearly 5 million works of fiction have now been published. Comedy, science fiction, romance, mystery, historical, thriller or detective; graphic, short, long or tall – you name it and it’s out there. The shortest ever story contains just six words. “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn”. It’s reputed to be the work of Ernest Hemingway, though this is a story in itself; Hemingway is said to have written it in order to win a lunchtime bet with journalists, sadly a tale which is now believed to be untrue.

Stories teach us about who we are, about right and wrong, about how to act wisely and the dangers of acting foolishly. Through stories, we share emotions and feelings of joy, sorrow, hardships and failures and we find common ground with other people so that we can connect and communicate with them – in spite of our apparent differences.

Story is important in 12 step recovery. The Big Book is full of stories, including those of the founder members Bill W and Dr Bob, followed by more than 40 other stories. As Bill W says, these stories are the written equivalent of hearing speakers at an AA meeting.  The format is simple; “Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.”  In meetings, people “share” what has happened to them and the difference now, which not only serves a purpose for them, reminding them of where they once were and how they began to recover, but also helps others to recognise that what they thought was their own private and personal struggle, is in fact common to many others. Understanding this makes it easier to overcome the guilt and shame of things done or left undone. Sharing stories reveals, encourages, supports and frees up both the teller and the listener. The more truth the story holds, the greater the benefit, because truth is the nugget of gold within any story we read, hear or tell.

Jesus was a great story teller. He drew on everyday situations around him and his listeners to tell his stories; things such as farming, fishing, building, weather, birds and animals, losing things, families. His stories recounted events that could have happened in the daily lives of the people who first heard them. Anyone could readily identify with the roles people filled, the work that they did, the relationships that were broken and restored, the losses they sustained and the joy that they experienced. He most often told his stories as parables – short fictitious stories that illustrated a moral message or a religious principle – truths that had to be sought by those with a mind to do so. The parables of Jesus stress the great themes of the Kingdom of God – “the big picture” as Richard Rohr has helpfully termed it. Jesus’s stories often begin with the phrase The Kingdom of God is like…… wheat and weeds, mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl, fishing net, an unforgiving servant, workers in the vineyard, a wedding banquet.  Jesus’ parables teach listeners that God reaches out to them with kindness and compassion. They are about the love, grace, and mercy of God to each and every one of us, regardless of who we are or what we might have done – but they also contain a challenge about how we respond and how we live our lives.

Stories engage our attention and help us to step out of our own shoes and experience somebody else’s emotions, actions and decisions. It is interesting to see how we are drawn to somebody when they tell their story. Writers such as Nadia Bolz-Weber and Anne Lamott use personal stories to great effect, fusing their 12 step recovery with following in the way of Jesus, resulting in candid, truth filled writing which shows their flaws and wounds but radiates a deep beauty and attractiveness.

For many years I was ashamed of my story. I kept much of it to myself and only handed out selected parts when I felt safe. It felt as if my story, especially my childhood were my fault and I’d be judged on it. It was a mixed-up confusion of fear, shame, guilt and pride. But as I heard others share their stories and felt only love and compassion towards them as they did so, it has made it easier to begin to share my own story. And when I have done so, some people identify with parts of the story and even more movingly, the others show compassion and non-judgment. By telling our stories, we are letting others know that it’s okay to be honest about who we were, who we are, and who we have the potential of becoming. I recently met a homeless woman who told her story in coloured chalk on the pavement of the City Pavement story updwnwhere she lived. Her courage in telling her story in such a beautiful way was very moving  and brought compassion and connection. When we make ourselves vulnerable like she did and choose to speak up about our struggles and who we are, we’re no longer allowing them to have any power over us, rejecting the shame we feel they contain and the self-hatred that can result. God stands with us in this and rather than condemning us, works through our story. Letting go of what we always held onto so closely can be what heals us the most, and incredibly, helps others who hear our story to find healing too. So let’s not be afraid of who we are or of starting to tell our stories. As the author Neil Gaiman says, “The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”

A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving. J R R Tolkien

Wherever my story takes me, however dark and difficult the theme, there is always some hope and redemption, not because readers like happy endings, but because I am an optimist at heart. I know the sun will rise in the morning, that there is a light at the end of every tunnel. Michael Morpurgo

Writing is telling the truth. Anne Lamott

In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act. George Orwell