Compassion

There’s a marked absence of compassion in UK government policy right now. Whether it’s in the heartless plan to send UK asylum seekers 4000 miles away to Rwanda for processing and residency or the progressive removal of mobility allowances from many disabled people, the tardy provision of visas for Ukrainian families fleeing warfare and violence or the lack of concern for the poor as fuel prices and the cost of living spirals upwards (two thirds of the British cabinet are millionaires), there is a coldness and disregard for those less fortunate who suffer. I suspect that this does not reflect the sentiments of the British people either, but like so much political rhetoric it’s dressed up as a necessary requirement for the times in which we live, peddling the lie that there’s not enough to go round.

I make no apology for this political introduction, because at Easter we have been reminded once again how political expediency works, with the unholy alliance of the Roman occupying forces, their puppet king and the Jewish religious leaders requiring the death of Jesus for daring to challenge what they stood for. His challenge was to offer an alternative way, where achievement, affluence and appearance were not the dominant values. Right at the heart of this alternative way of living is compassion; in the Kingdom of Heaven, loving God and loving others is supreme.

Compassion is central to Twelve Step recovery too, yet another shared hallmark which this blog seeks to highlight. Compassion means “to feel with,” usually in relation to feeling the suffering of somebody else and being moved by that suffering to do something to help them. We’ve talked about mercy in a previous blog (Mercy, Mercy), but compassion is different. Mercy implies some sort of power relationship and possibly the presence of wrong-doing or falling short. Compassion does not have this power dynamic at all – it is simply one human being to another. In the words of William Blake, “Mercy wears a human face, compassion a human heart.”

According to Jesus, compassion is the central quality of a life faithful to God. He tells us to “be compassionate as God is compassionate.” The idea of God being compassionate towards us is potentially life changing. We often think of God as harsh and judgmental possibly tempered by mercy, but compassion means he is alongside us, with a human heart. We are to model this behaviour, and Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God is our pattern or template. There are many instances of Jesus being filled with compassion for somebody – invariably this preceded him healing and restoring them. One of his greatest parables, The Good Samaritan showed us the compassionate behaviour of a traveller who belonged to a despised and outcast race who sees a fellow traveller who has been beaten and robbed and proceeds to rescue and care for him at his own expense. Prior to this the injured man had been ignored by high status people of his own country. In modern day terms, the politician and the priest have passed by with more important things to do, it is the refugee who shows compassion.

Compassion within 12 step recovery is perhaps understandable because every recovering addict has been there too, so can understand the pain and struggle another is going through, both in active addiction and early recovery. People working the programme enter the suffering of other addicts with neither pity nor pride and their caring is frequently both tireless and humbling. It is seen in the way newcomers are treated, which helps them to find a place of emotional warmth and understanding. It is there too in the welcome and acceptance each person receives when attending a new meeting in another place or country. Compassion is woven throughout the programme and is an important factor in the healing, transformational power it holds.

Like gratitude, humility or generosity we must practice compassion so that it becomes an established part of our daily living. The initial “feeling for” someone is often outside our control – we feel pity or sympathy for them without needing to generate it. What we must work at is the response, in which we then do something to help them. Our first reaction is to do something, but very quickly our mind (or other people) tell us it will be too difficult, too costly, too little or just plain misunderstood. We have to practice taking that step to make things better for the person we feel compassionate towards and ignoring the multitude of reasons we might find for not doing so. Remember how life changing it was for us when somebody helped us out of kindness and compassion?

As a friend of mine often reminds me, all of us are wounded, bandaged travellers on the road, sometimes wayward, often lost, invariably pretending that we are okay, but always, always in need of compassion, longing to be free, hungry for heaven. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

Transformation

I was making some toast for breakfast the other morning when I heard someone on the radio talking about the start of the season of Lent. “Here it is again” he said, “summoning me once more to reflect on and change how I live my life.”  It set me thinking about change.

I remembered a day some years ago when I showed a small group of church leaders around a Twelve Step Day Treatment Centre that I was involved with. They saw the facilities, heard about the programme structure and met with some honest, articulate people in early recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. The visitors seemed to be impressed by the changes these people spoke about and the new spiritual pathway that they were treading.

It turned out that Frank, an Anglican (Episcopalian) priest was not completely convinced and in our closing discussion he aired his doubts. “I can see that their lives have improved for the better compared with when they were drinking or taking drugs,” he said, “but aren’t they just replacing one addiction with another by attending AA or NA meetings all the time instead?”

There were many answers I could have given, but I was beaten to it. Ellie, a Methodist deacon responded quickly with a passionate and perceptive reply.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “Don’t you see Frank, this isn’t just a change, this is transformation. It’s so much more radical.”

The conversation moved on, but I was intrigued by Ellie’s profound answer and talked to her about it later, when the others had left. She elaborated on her comments.

“As I see it, getting into recovery is not a minor adjustment in life and neither is a decision to follow the way of Jesus. They both involve a fundamental change of mind about how we deal with the mess of our lives because the coping strategies we’ve been using are not working and our eyes are finally opened to see it.”

This was certainly my experience and seemed to fit with how twelve step recovery works.  As Step One puts it, “our lives had become unmanageable.” In other words, we’ve got to admit we’re broken before we can begin to be made whole. The change required to do this is a paradigm shift, or transformation as Ellie put it, because it’s not just the addictive behaviour that has to change but our whole perspective and existing assumptions about life too – how we view and react to ourselves, other people, events and everything around us. The same goes for following the way of Jesus. No wonder that’s sometimes referred to as conversion.

“So what about Frank’s assertion that people in recovery are just switching to another slightly less damaging addiction by going to meetings?” I asked her. “I imagine he attends church far more often than most people go to AA meetings but I don’t think he’s addicted to it.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said Ellie with a laugh. “As I see it, attending AA or Church meetings are only the outward signs of the inner transformation and not the change itself. People attend these meetings because of the inner change and because they help us to commit to and maintain the change by spending time with other like-minded individuals. They can show us how to deal with the damaging addictive behaviour, mistakes, sins or whatever it may be in a different way, one which is far better thought out.”

Again, this rang true for me. I was keen to find out more.

“Transformation is definitely about embracing the new but isn’t it also about letting go of the old ways of thinking and behaving?” I said. “In recovery this is most obviously seen by stopping drinking or drug taking, but really it goes much deeper than this and is about a change in all behaviours. So many people in long term recovery have said to me that after a while the addictive substance or process is no longer the problem, it’s much deeper things like anger, resentment, ego, self-pity and fear which need to be dealt with.”

“Yes,” said Ellie. “Jesus certainly saw the need for this inner transformation, not just in his teaching about a new way of living where we love our neighbour, but in recognising that our problem lies deep within, wrong reactions and conduct come from our hearts and unless these are transformed, everything else is superficial and cosmetic. Time after time in the gospel accounts of his encounters with people, Jesus talked about this deeper, inner transformation which we need to undergo and his offer to help us find this new way.”

“Exactly!” I said. “We let go of the familiar old patterns and enter a new world, the counter-intuitive one of the Sermon on the Mount where we give to receive, we become great by serving and we surrender in order to become free.  Twelve step recovery is full of this counter-intuitive behaviour too, but it doesn’t come easily.”

“It certainly doesn’t,” said Ellie. “Have you read any Richard Rohr?”

“I love his stuff,” I replied, “I’m sure friends of mine get sick of me mentioning him.”

“You may already know this quote then,” she said. “Rohr says something along the lines of spiritual transformation being the process of letting go and living in a confusing dark space for a while, allowing yourself to be spat up on a new and unexpected shore. That’s why Jonah in the belly of the whale is such an important symbol.”

I’d not heard that but I liked it. Going into recovery really is like a period of darkness before entering a new land. Fortunately there are people who’ve now become familiar with that new land who are ready and willing to welcome the newcomers and help them to find their way around. All part of the new life of service. The same goes for those following the way of Jesus. The Kingdom of God that he spoke about is very new and very different from how we naturally think, what we thought we knew and the ways of living that we had become familiar with.

The sound of the toaster popping up brought me back to the present day. The man on the radio was right. We do need to be summoned periodically to reflect on and change how we live our lives, because new places and pathways quickly become routine and familiar. Lent offers us this time for self-reflection, when we dig into the layers of our hearts and minds and find the inner seams of unhealthy thinking and behaviour towards God, others and ourselves and set about correcting them.

I thought about one final comment Ellie had made.

“We can get too caught up in thinking it’s all about us. Whilst we play our part in the process, transformational change is not really about us and what we do. God chooses to ‘co-produce’ it with us as they say these days, so we do play a part, but in the end, transformation is all about God’s grace working in us.” She paused and then laughed. “I’d love to talk to you about grace because it’s one of my favourite subjects, but we’ll have to come back to it another time. My car is on a meter and I really don’t want another parking ticket!”

Sadly, we never did have that conversation about grace but I received an email from her a few days later thanking me for the visit which gave me a flavour of how change and grace are connected. At the bottom of her message there was a quote by Ann Lamott, writer, follower of Jesus and recovering addict. “I do not understand the mystery of grace, only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Much as I’d like to be instantly transformed into a new way of love and self-giving, it’s going to be a life-long process. Fortunately, Lent is here again, suffused with grace, to shake me from my lethargy and to challenge me once more to follow more closely in the way of Jesus.

A New Year Prayer

In this New Year,

Do not think about your fears, concentrate on your hopes and dreams.

Do not hold onto your anger and resentments, let go and forgive.

Do not dwell on your frustrations, develop your unfulfilled potential.

Do not concern yourself with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible to do.

Now is the time to put aside your past and to look forward to the future with faith, hope and love.

May the God of your understanding be present in your heart and mind today and every day, this year and always. Amen

Adapted from a prayer by Pope John XXIII

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