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.

Broken Vessels – the Mystery of Redemption

Whilst walking the dog, I’ve recently begun to collect those small fragments of broken pottery that are so inexplicably present in gardens, streams in the woods and on beaches. It fascinates me how they ended up there and I like speculating about the unknown history of these small worthless pieces, imagining the larger functional item they were once a part of and the owners who used and perhaps treasured them. I may use the fragments I’ve found as mosaic pieces surrounding a central mirror, giving them a purpose and value once more. As far as I know, and rather disappointingly, there isn’t a Japanese word for this, in the manner of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold which highlights and embraces the flaws and imperfections, creating an even more beautiful piece of art than before it was broken.

The spiritual parallel is not difficult to see in the life and teachings Jesus and in Twelve Step Recovery. The idea that God is interested in broken people and somehow, mysteriously, uses our flaws and imperfections to make something more beautiful and valuable than it was before, lies deep within these ways of living. Our initial surrender and trust in God’s will and purpose for our lives allows this transformational work to take place. Jesus constantly talked about how he had come for the lost, the sick and the lame – the equivalent of those broken, pieces of pottery – transforming us into new people, with fresh meaning and purpose. (His deeply flawed disciples illustrate this perfectly). These flaws in our nature become the marks that make us special, like the knot in a piece of timber which the master craftsman turns into a feature on a table-top or bowl, a thing more beautiful than it would have been without it. It is part of the topsy-turvy world of the Kingdom where loss is really gain, giving is receiving and brokenness becomes redemptive. And redemption is God’s core business with human beings. In one of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge Novels, Harriet a non-believing sculptor explains the mystery of the relationship between the creator and their creation. “No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work …..it’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of the distortion and beauty out of all the mess. You love the work and you suffer with it and always – always – you’re slaving away against all the odds to make everything come right”.

A few years ago, some fascinating research from Connecticut showed that after more than five years in recovery within Twelve Step Programmes, people were contributing more to society and the world around them than if they’d not had an addiction in the first place. They were more generous, more grateful, more sacrificial, more willing than the average person or the way they had been prior to their addiction. We see this to be true in the lives of pretty much anybody regularly attending Twelve Step Meetings and working the programme, whether it is the woman alcoholic who only used to leave her house once a day to buy drink at the corner store, forbidden from seeing her grandchildren who has now become a wonderful, caring grandmother working on reception at the local community centre; the heroin addicted artist who produced nothing for years but is now reconciled with their parents and painting stunning and profound pictures, or the crack addict now repairing cars, volunteering on a helpline and supporting his kids.  

Broken vessels made useful and beautiful. It’s both that simple and that profound. We may not always feel like we’re beautiful and useful and we may only see our flaws and failures, but we can each be part of the redemptive, transformational work of God going on all around us. We remain flawed and imperfect, but we are never useless, “because God uses broken people like you and me to reach broken people like you and me.”

On the Frontline – learning from Covid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G.O.D.

One of the few popular TV commercials in the UK at the moment, is a series of adverts for a large chain of opticians. People doing various jobs or activities get them woefully wrong without realising it, because they have poor, uncorrected vision. A shepherd shears his dog instead of the sheep, a vet checks the heart-beat of a fur hat instead of a cat, and so on. Specsavers catIf only they’d gone to the opticians! In a recent one, a joiner puts a back door on upside down, so that the cat-flap is at the top. The workman finishes the job and goes on his way, unaware of his mistake, whilst the mystified cat sits there gazing up at the unreachable cat-flap.

All too often in life we don’t see things very clearly and need a corrective. Jesus’s teaching and example was all about offering us this new focus and clarity. Consistently, he showed what a distorted picture we had, and still have about God. Whether it is the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, the farmer employing labourers, the hen protecting its chicks or the bridegroom and his guests, the stories Jesus told us about God are always correctives, giving us a picture of a God who offers acceptance, protection, care and inclusion. This is most perfectly captured in the story of the prodigal son, where the Father waits longingly for his lost son to return, rejoicing and celebrating when he does, offering forgiveness and reconciliation without a moment’s thought. The essence of that relationship – and all of the other parables Jesus told us about God, is one of unconditional love.

The corrective was needed – and continues to be required because we so often see God as very far from loving. We project onto God our own experiences of parents and those in authority, or our own attitudes and feelings towards ourselves. God becomes angry, punitive and vindictive, constantly disappointed in us, and we live our lives in fear, flight, anger and denial. In the Garden of Eden story in Genesis, the cunning serpent twisted Adam and Eve’s knowledge and understanding by depicting God as rule based, mean, controlling and prohibiting, a picture they completely buy into, abandoning in the process their real experience of God which was one of love and care. We do this today, and end up hiding or feeling angry, avoiding God in name, thought and conversation. A friend of mine who works in a twelve-step treatment centre once told me  that he could say almost anything to the new people entering the programme or use any swear word and it wouldn’t get the response that he gets when mentioning the word God. “ I can guarantee that it will offend someone in the room.”

For all that, there seems to be something very interesting at work amongst those who, with gritted teeth, stick with the twelve-step programme and somehow manage to deal with the God bit. Since it’s prescriptive rather than descriptive, believing in “a Power greater than ourselves” whatever or whoever that might be and “turning our lives over to this God of our own understanding,” is all that is required. Nobody has written about this better than Glenn Chestnut. He talked to a lot of old timers in AA, NA and other 12 step groups, who discovered a higher power of their own understanding in spite of the fact that many were atheists or bitterly opposed to organised religion. They learned to pray, developed strong spiritual lives, and had sustained recovery as a result.  More recently, Nadia Bolz-Weber says that she was helped in her early recovery by an elderly woman who told her that “this isn’t about religion, honey, you just have to find a higher power that you can do business with.” Having been brought up within a guilt-based church system, the real revelation to Nadia was that this woman’s relationship with God was functional, not doctrinal. The God she knew was the key to her staying sober.

Now it might be said that people are simply making God in their own image, but here’s the thing. What I find consistently true amongst all my friends and acquaintances in twelve-step recovery is that their higher power, the God of their understanding, is always kind, loving and accepting, though never in a cotton candy type of way. As one of them put it, “My higher power really likes me”. That is most definitely not the case for a good many mainstream Christians in churches today. God is the angry traffic cop just waiting to pull you over, the heartless judge, the disappointed probation officer, the vindictive jailer. The analogies with authority figures in our legal systems are no coincidence because so much of organised religion is about laws, rules, conformity and appeasing an angry God. I’ve seen it, heard it and if I’m honest, battled with these notions of God most of my life because that’s what I was brought up with. So if I’m given the choice between the higher power of the twelve-steppers which is benevolent and loving, wanting only the best for that person, or the harsh, angry God, constantly disappointed in me which lurks in mind – and I’m pretty sure a good many other people’s minds in churches or brought up in church, then I’ll take their God every time.

That’s why I cling on to the life and teachings of Jesus. Because in him everything comes together. He not only told us about the true nature of God, but in his life and death he showed it. And its really pretty simple. GOD IS LOVE. If that’s not always easy to hang on to or if it becomes tarnished by the love that we’ve received which is often very conditional indeed, then think on this. 1 Corinthians 13 is St Paul’s inspirational account of love. If we replace the word love with the word God, then our distorted picture is corrected, and finally we can begin to see more clearly, the true nature of God.

“God is patient, God is kind, God is not jealous, God is not boastful, God is not rude, God is not proud, God does not demand her own way, God keeps no record of being wronged, God does not rejoice at injustice, God rejoices when the truth wins out, God never gives up, God never loses faith, God is always hopeful, God endures through every circumstance.”

 If we all have different finger-prints, it is not so surprising that we should also have our own way of knowing and understanding God. We are all making the same journey, but the route is different for each and we have to discover it in freedom. Gerard W Hughes

 I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees. Anne Lamott

 Until you meet a benevolent God and a benevolent universe, until you realize that the foundation of all is love, you will not be at home in this world.  Richard Rohr

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.  St Augustine

The great thing to remember is that though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not. C.S. Lewis

 God is the father who watches and waits for his children, runs out to meet them, embraces them, pleads with them, begs and urges them to come home. Henri Nouwen

 

When Love Comes to Town

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

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

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

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

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

Love is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In The Power Zone – the spiritual risks from personal power

I recently read an interesting piece by Brennan Manning, a recovering alcoholic who wrote some fine Christian books marked through with 12 step wisdom. In it he said that most of our personal battles are about us seeking security, pleasure or power. Whilst I willingly plead guilty to the first two, it has taken me a lot longer to recognise that I am also guilty of wanting power – the speck in other people’s eyes is always much easier to see than the log in my own. Most of the time I do a fairly good job of convincing myself (and maybe others) that I am a fair and benevolent person who shares what power I have and only wants a little power in order to add to the greater good. Which is true. But there is a less comfortable side, because power is always about control – control of what I want, what I do, what I experience, what I have. The corollary of this is controlling others so that these and perhaps more hidden needs of mine get met. It is very hard to see where the cross-over between wanting to do good and benefit others becomes a justification to satisfy my personal needs for power and control.

The reason I can get glimpses of my interest in power through the cloak of innocence that normally hides it, is that other people come clean about their own relationship with power and I see myself in their stories. Sometimes too, people close to me have the courage to shed a spotlight of objectivity onto my actions and self-perceptions. The reality is that I do want power and when I don’t have it, I’m envious of those who do, whether through their schooling, their jobs, their connections, their political positions or through their income, wealth and resources, especially when they seem to misuse it – measured of course by my yardstick of what’s right and wrong. Even as I write (and perhaps because I am writing on this subject) I am wrestling with a decision about my continued membership of a group which has moved away from doing the things which first got me involved and which I no longer really believe in. Do I leave and move on? I am beginning see that it is the power and prestige of membership which is the biggest attraction to my remaining. And of course the silky voice of temptation provides me with a number of very reasonable justifications for doing nothing and staying put.

We cannot get away from the harmfulness of power. Power does change us, and power can corrupt us. Where there is abuse, it always exists in the shadow of power; power that is misused, deliberately and through ignorance or weakness.  Physical and sexual abuse, racial abuse, exclusion of individuals and groups who do not fit in, the creation of actions and behaviours to gain compliance are all based on power dynamics. Power structures underpin the Church, and the emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse of countless individuals over the centuries bear witness to the damage that misused power can cause. Power inflates our egos and self-importance – research has shown that individuals rise to positions of authority by being collaborative and selfless but once they reach a high rung on the leadership ladder, many become coercive, impulsive and self-centred.

In the 12 step fellowships, there is a strong recognition of the damaging nature of power. The grounded checks of the 12 traditions have helped to safeguard the programmes from the excesses of power. As tradition 2 says, “our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” There are no chiefs in AA or NA, no central directives or authority, no managing group or Board. No opportunity for power to be misused. Group conscience decides what individual meetings will do and everyone is entitled to their opinion. Most people would say that this is a recipe for anarchy and yet it works in 12 step fellowships – the core principles of AA remain as they were 80 years ago and it is because it is uncorrupted by power that it remains as effective as ever with no agenda except to carry the message.

Jesus had a unique take on power. He saw the abuses of power, he declined to accept the trappings of power and many of the accounts of his life in the gospels relate to the verbal duels he had with the religious authorities who held enormous power, in spite of the Roman occupation of Palestine. Eventually he was killed because he challenged these powerful and influential men who saw him as a threat. In the account of his wilderness temptations early in his ministry, he rejected power as a way of being, let alone how he would communicate his message, and he consistently rejected the offer of power over the three years that he taught and healed. Even in the days and hours leading up to his death he refused to buy into it. Towards the end he rebuked Peter for using a sword, he did not try to ingratiate himself with the High Priest, Pontius Pilate the Governor or King Herod, and he accepted the nails and the hours of dying agonisingly on a wooden cross. Jesus came into the world to share a new type of power – power based upon compassion, honesty, sharing and transparency that the world has never really liked. He was the Servant King. And sadly, in spite of this example, Christianity has yet to redefine power in the way that Jesus showed us.

None of this is to say that power in itself is inherently bad or indeed that any society has ever existed without a power structure of sorts, but if power corrupts as it surely does, then institutions and individuals need to create safeguards to prevent the harm that unchecked power will cause. So how do we build in actions, checks and systems to prevent us misusing the power we have?  Firstly, since a sense of power is associated with a growing urge to gratify our own desires, an easy starting point is to question whether we ever use our positions of power to feed the other two areas of indulgence (security and pleasure) identified by Brennan Manning.  As a starting point, resisting the temptation to gratify our desires would massively reduce the destructive impact of power in every context, personal and institutional. Building in some sort of system of review and reflection on our actions is useful. We are more likely to abuse power when we don’t have anyone who will constructively criticise our actions, so having someone outside our positions of power (a mentor, sponsor, spiritual director) who we are honest with and accountable to and who is not afraid to give us honest feedback is so important. As Anne Lamott bluntly says, “Since we can’t heal our own sick mind with our own sick mind, we need to consult somebody else’s sick mind to help us.” It is undoubtedly true that when we have to explain our actions to someone else, we will think twice about what we do. (so long as we can manage to avoid trying to manipulate or control them to give us the answer we want!) External checks are necessary too for large organisations. Finally, and possibly most important of all, we need to be servants in everything we do. Whatever our position but most especially if we hold a position of power, serving others with compassion, consideration and kindness will help to stop us becoming self-absorbed and seeing other people as objects to use for our own ends. As Jesus said to his disciples on the evening before his death, after he had taken on the role of a common servant and washed their feet, “ I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  Power based on service that is shaped by compassion, honesty and sharing becomes benign and the power of love overrules the love of power, making the world a better place.

Constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. Montesquieu

 Whenever the world throws rose petals at you, which thrill and seduce the ego, beware. Anne Lamott

 Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other. Carl Jung

 Good people tend to be naïve about power; bad people aren’t – they know it’s all about power. Richard Rohr

 The story being told in ‘Star Wars’ is a classic one. Every few hundred years, the story is retold because we have a tendency to do the same things over and over again. Power corrupts, and when you’re in charge, you start doing things that you think are right, but they’re actually not. George Lucas

 Power always thinks that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws. John Adams