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

 

Open Eyes:Open Minds – Miracles in Life

One of my favourite accounts of the people who met Jesus, comes in chapter 9 of St John’s gospel. Weighing in at 41 verses and covering the whole chapter, it is a good deal longer than most far better-known stories of Jesus’s life. The story comes in three parts: in Act 1, Jesus restores the sight of a man who had been born blind; Act 2 sees the man being cross-questioned by the religious leaders about his blindness and healing, whilst the final Act is a second meeting between Jesus and the man, with a discussion about the spiritual life. The story is all about light and dark, seeing and not seeing.

Whilst Jesus is of course the central character in the story, which includes one of his most memorable all-time lines when he says “ I am the light of the World,”  the man who is healed gets my nomination for best supporting actor. He is open and hungry for whatever Jesus can give him and positively uppity with the religious leaders.

The story goes something like this. Jesus and his disciples are walking along the road and see a blind beggar. The disciples ask whether it is the man’s fault or that of his parents that he was born blind. Neither, said Jesus – it is simply an opportunity for the power of God to be displayed in his life. He then proceeds to heal the man in a theatrical and visually powerful way. Jesus spits in the dust and makes a paste which he applies to the man’s closed eyes. He then sends him off to wash in a nearby pool and carries on his way. The man does what he is told. No discussion or debate – he just does it. As soon as he washes in the pool, he is able to see.

Neighbours and those who had previously seen the man begging argue as to whether he was the same person or not. Some said he was just a look-alike. “I am that man,” he insists. “Okay,” they say, “if you really are the same person, how come you can see?” So he tells them what happened. “The man called Jesus did it; he made some mud, put it on my eyes, told me to wash in a nearby pool and then I could see.” Their response deliberately ignores what the man has said about the miracle that has happened. “So where is he now then?” they ask. He doesn’t know.

Next, they take him to the religious leaders who cross-question him. They already had strong views about Jesus. They regarded him as a rebellious upstart, flouting their authority and teaching, whilst mixing with the worst elements in society and seemingly enjoying their company. Once again he has overstepped the line, because he healed the man on the sabbath, a day when the religious authorities say that no work should be done. Elsewhere Jesus tells them that they are wrong, doing good on the sabbath is never a bad thing. Here however, there is no sign of Jesus so they have to make do with the man. He tells them what happened. Straight and simple. Instead of believing in the miracle, they doubt that he was really blind. It’s just a trick. So they send for his parents. When they arrive, you get a strong sense of a frightened elderly couple, wanting to be honest about the fact that their son had been blind all his life and could now miraculously see, but desperate to avoid offending such powerful and vindictive officials by saying the wrong thing. So they pass the buck. “He was born blind but we don’t know how he can see again. He is of age – ask him yourself”.

Re-enter the ex-blind man from stage left. The religious leaders start off by telling him Jesus is a sinner – implying that the man needs to choose his words carefully. But nothing is going to stop him now. “I don’t know anything about that,” he says, “but one thing I do know is that I was blind, but now I can see”. Get out of that! Alright they say, if you know so much, how did he manage to restore your sight? So he tells them the miraculous story once again and with a nice touch at the end, asks whether they want to become his disciples since they’re so interested in hearing the story.  It doesn’t go down well! They hurl insults at him – “You’re his follower, not us. We follow Moses who God spoke to, not this fellow. We don’t even know where he comes from.”

This is the blind man’s finest hour. He is not to be silenced and you can hear his sarcastic tone as he replies – “How remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from and yet he healed my blindness. Nobody ever heard of a man born blind being healed. If this man were not from God he could do nothing!”  That does it. “How dare you lecture us!” they say and proceed to throw him out of the temple.

Jesus hears about the exchange and the outcome. He finds the man and declares himself to be from God. The man’s response is immediate and he becomes a follower. Jesus then uses the opportunity to use blindness as a metaphor for the spiritual life. His work, he said was to give sight to the spiritually blind, and with a pointed dig at the religious leaders, he was there to show that those who thought they could see, were in fact blind.

If you strip away all the detail, what is really astounding about this story is that a man who was born blind receives his sight and people don’t believe, or rather, don’t want to believe. Miracles really don’t get much bigger than this but both the local population and the religious authorities go out of their way to avoid believing what had happened. Why was this? I think that like so much of what Jesus said and did, he offended their sensibilities, challenged their comfortable views of the world, highlighted the misuse of power and showed how hopelessly lost and blind they really were. The blind man could see reality, the so called enlightened religious leaders could not.

So what of today? Would people believe? Miracles 2Interestingly, recent surveys in the UK have shown that 60% of adults believe in miracles, even though those who would claim to have any sort of religious faith is far lower. An amazing 72% of people aged 18 to 24 believe miracles can happen — more than any other age group. Figures are even higher in the United States. One of the greatest and most consistent miracles of our time is how people with severe addictions have had their lives saved by following a 12-step programme of recovery. So God is still restoring sight to the blind. Not only have their lives been saved, but they live life in a new and different way – life in all its fullness was how Jesus described it, because they have had their spiritual sight restored. And in the most interesting parallel to the story in John’s gospel, there are many doubters of these miracles; those within the treatment establishment, who take offence at the self-help, spiritual nature of this programme. “What place does the idea of God have in treatment provision?” they say. “This only works for a small number of people”. Academics too have their doubts and demand “an evidence base” when there are hundreds of recovered people now well, against all the odds, a walking, talking evidence base. “Isn’t going to AA meetings just another addiction” someone in the church once said to me, oblivious to the fact that they probably attended as many church services a week as most people in recovery attend meetings, yet they would never see this as an addiction or sign of weakness. So the miracle is ignored. But it doesn’t go away. Like the light, salt, and yeast that crop up repeatedly in the stories of Jesus, people in recovery are quietly, steadily and miraculously playing their part in God’s big plan of restoration, the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked about. Research has shown that 5 years into sobriety, people in 12 step fellowships are contributing more to society than others who have never had an addiction.

Miracles happen, but for all this, there is something of the doubter in all of us. Offended by things which don’t fit our given perspective or philosophy, what are the miracles that we don’t see and maybe go out of our way to ignore? God has a track record of helping the blind to see, so our prayer must be for our eyes to be opened too, so that we are able to see the miracles taking place in us and around us, each moment of every day.

 Miracles happen every day; change your perception of what a miracle is and you’ll see them all around you. Jon Bon Jovi

 Miracles are not contrary to nature, only contrary to what we know about nature. St Augustine

 Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see.  Freddie Mercury/Queen

 There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle or you can live as if everything is a miracle. Albert Einstein

Miracles happen every day. Not just in remote country villages or at holy sites halfway across the globe, but here, in our own lives. Deepak Chopra

Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see. C. S. Lewis

 I was waiting for the miracle, for the miracle to come. Leonard Cohen

 

Breaking Good – freedom from shame

The young woman stood there crying and shaking, barely noticing the soreness of her wrists or the stinging of the cuts and grazes on her legs from when the men had dragged her out of the house, just minutes before. She grabbed the loose sheet covering her body more closely around her and shut her eyes – but it didn’t help. She could still sense their angry, threatening presence close by and smell their hot breath and body odour. She was paralysed by fear and overwhelmed by feelings of shame.

The full account of this shocking story and the beautiful, sensitive way in which Jesus cared for this nameless woman, can be found in the gospel of St John. It is one of the many accounts of his meeting with individuals whose behaviour or circumstances were deemed sinful or shameful by the religious authorities and as a result censured by wider society.  Jesus’s response to these shamed people was to talk to them, touch them, eat with them and befriend them. Those self-same religious leaders had brought this woman to Jesus, demanding his opinion on what to do with her. She had allegedly been caught in the act of adultery, for which Jewish law at the time demanded death by stoning – for both partners. Predictably they brought no man to this face-off.  Had it been a set-up, a honey-trap to find a convenient victim? Or was it more likely, just a typical, everyday example of the way in which women were systematically discriminated against and the man allowed to leave. The religious leaders’ behaviour and language says everything about how they viewed the woman. “They made her stand before the group”.  “We are commanded to stone such women”. She was like an object and of no value, simply a pawn in the game of those who wanted to trap Jesus. He ignored their questions, bent down and started to write on the ground, choosing not to gaze or stare at the woman in the way the men who surrounded and accused her were already doing. But they kept on questioning him. “What do you say we should do to her?” If he said stone her, then he was flouting the Roman rulers who had sole authority about the death penalty. If he said not to stone her, then he would appear to be disobeying the religious law.  Finally, Jesus stood up and spoke directly to the accusers. “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” He bent down again and carried on writing in the ground. Gradually the arrogant, self-righteous men, clothed in all their religious finery, so keen to point the finger of shame at this woman, recognised their own spiritual nakedness before The Teacher, and slunk away, until none were left. It is only then that Jesus stands up and speaks directly and compassionately to the woman herself. Far from condemning her, he affirms her and sets her free from guilt and shame to lead a transformed life.

Guilt and shame are often spoken of in one breath and whilst far from distinct, there is nevertheless a difference. Guilt is feeling a sense of remorse for something we have done whereas shame is the feeling that if people knew what we had done or thought, they would no longer respect us, like us, care for us or love us.  Or as the ever enlightening Brené Brown puts it, Guilt is about saying to ourselves, “I did something bad,” whereas shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt is about our behaviour, shame is about who we are, and we tell ourselves that we are a bad person because of what we’ve done.  The woman in the story maybe felt guilt, but the way she was treated was all about shame – “we are commanded to stone such women”. Such women? To those accusing her, she hadn’t just done something bad, she was bad.

 Shame is perhaps a deeper emotion and as a result less easy to fix. It goes to the heart of living, the importance of feeling valued and above all of being loved. And this is deeply rooted in experiences of having been rejected because of things we have done in the past. In some cases this has been a subtle process, in other cases we are explicitly told that our actions have made it harder to love us or that we cannot be loved as much because of something we have done or intend to do. In consequence it can make us very preoccupied with appearing to be doing the right thing, to prevent people discovering the shaming things we do or think, so that the love we need and long for is not withdrawn.

In the popular TV series Breaking Bad, one of the most interesting relationships is that between mild mannered, underachieving chemistry teacher Walter White and his former pupil, less than competent drug dealer Jesse Pinkman. They team up to cook crystal meth, and make large amounts of money from doing so, but as the series develops we see Walter taking more extreme and increasingly brutal measures to protect the business, whilst Jesse has growing misgivings about each new step, plagued by guilt at what they have already done and shame at what his parents, younger brother and girlfriend will think of him. Pink Teddy BearHe even takes the blame for his brother’s cannabis to protect him from receiving the same shame and rejection that he has already experienced from his parents. Towards the end of the final series Jesse is overwhelmed by guilt and the “blood money” that he possesses. He attempts to deal with this by throwing a bag of money out of his car window and trying to give it away to people in need, or those to whom he has a connection. Whilst we may all use various means of anaesthetic or mental justifications and rationalisations to be like Walt and protect ourselves from feeling guilt and shame, in reality most of us are more like Jesse. Even if we pull it off, it is exhausting and ultimately can become overwhelming.

People in 12 step recovery seem to understand a lot about guilt and shame and the difference between them.  I would go so far as to say it is the only treatment or help for addiction that considers or even goes near these concepts – which possibly explains its success rate.  I’ve heard plenty of talk about guilt within Christianity, but not a lot about shame.  Which is kind of curious because now that I understand better what shame is, and can identify with the experience of being shamed, it seems to me that it’s a pretty central part of human social life. Even more to the point, as we’ve already seen, it appears to have been something that was well understood and opposed by Jesus. He never spoke of it directly, but his actions and behaviours were very intentional and were always about not shaming people. In the gospel accounts of his three years of active teaching, he met with people who were already marginalised and cut off because of shameful things. Sexual behaviours, financial misconduct, health conditions. And his consistent message was that these people were all okay. He accepted them, restored them and set them on a new path.  Jesus made a constant habit of sharing meals with all kinds of people so that the religious leaders regularly questioned whether he knew what sort of people they were. He did know and he didn’t care one jot – eating with them became a very public statement of their acceptance and worthiness.

As Christians, there can be an unconscious tendency for each of us to concentrate on polishing our glittering images and ensuring that our best side is always on display. To do otherwise makes us fear that we might be seen as bad Christians – extremely shaming, even though we know that none of us is perfect and accept the importance of regular confession and forgiveness (generally a safe private affair.) It’s also natural for us to avoid showing our ugly and broken bits because this is what we’ve done all our lives, yet the more we see others’ shiny selves, the harder it is to admit our own bad thoughts or actions and the more shame we feel. Within 12 step fellowships, people accept the reality of guilt and shame and in undertaking steps 4 and 5 admit the nature of their past actions to another trusted person (and to God). In doing so, they lay bare their real selves and discover that they are not shamed for what they have done and admitted, which offers great release. Perhaps such “confession” and honest sharing is something that Christians need to do more of, helping us to recognise ourselves for what we are without shame and so accept others without judging or shaming them. We can then be a vehicle for them to experience God’s grace and love.  As Henri Nouwen says, “Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

Shame says, because I am flawed I am unacceptable. Grace says, because I am flawed I am cherished. Anonymous

Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself. Anais Nin

You feel the shame, humiliation, and anger at being just another victim of prejudice, and at the same time, there’s the nagging worry that maybe… you’re just no good. Nina Simone

Even the President of the United States sometimes has to stand naked. Bob Dylan

I decided that the single most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed. Anne Lamott

All We Have Is Now – living in the day

One morning last week I saw a lovely sunrise. As the colours of pink, yellow and gold spread across the pale blue sky, I grabbed my phone to try to capture the beauty I could see. I failed dismally. And deep down I knew that I would. At the time, I was somewhere south of York, traveling on a train at around 120mph, so it wasn’t quite like standing in a field and experiencing the fresh smells of the earth, the cool air blowing across my face, or the sounds of animals and birds heralding the start of a new day. Nevertheless, the sky alone was immensely beautiful, a sacred moment to stop and savour. For some reason, I couldn’t just accept that moment joyfully and then, when it had passed, let it go. No, I had to try to retain and keep hold of it with a photograph.

I’m not alone in this. Go to any concert, fireworks display, or beauty spot and almost everybody is so busy trying to photograph and record the moment for the future that they’re barely present at the time itself. Earlier this year I was at a world-famous art gallery. I saw one man take a photograph of each painting followed by a photo of the information panel about that piece of art, before moving on to do the same with the next picture. He never once stopped to look at those stunning paintings by Van Gogh, Rembrant and Monet. But all of this is simply an external expression of an inner conversation that goes on in our heads most of the time. I have gone to rock concerts and been thrilled by the music and lighting, only to discover myself thinking ahead to what it will be like to tell my friends all about it, rather than just immersing myself in the experience. How crazy to be doing something really enjoyable, (that I had looked forward to) but wanting it to become a past event so that I could tell people about it in the future!

Living in the moment really isn’t something that we humans find easy to do. Animals, birds, fish, trees and flowers are present because they know no other. Young children also live in the moment until we teach and train them to do otherwise. Interestingly, many people who have life-threatening or terminal illness seem to rediscover the child’s ability to focus on the present. In doing so they can become inspirational people, celebrating the now. Generally however, our minds dwell in our past and our futures, constantly playing and re-playing our failures and successes, anticipating our hopes and dreams. For many of us, the future is not just plans and ideas; at the heart of our thinking about the future lies a whole heap of worry and anxiety. In anticipation of some forthcoming event or activity, I imagine every possible scenario, including – in fact highlighting – the most disastrous options possible. Whilst this means that I plan quite well for most contingencies, what a price to pay! It is exhausting! And my self-generated doomsday scenarios never do occur, (fortunately, because they can be of disaster movie proportions). Only one of the many outcomes I’ve considered could possibly happen anyway, and when the future event does come around, it is never, ever quite as I imagined it.  Worrying is an illusory comfort blanket, unnecessary and exhausting. Most important of all, it means missing out on the completeness and the joy that can be found in embracing the present. The past is gone, the future is always just that. Because in the words of the Flaming Lips, All We Have is Now.

All we have is nowPeople in 12 Step recovery get how important the present is – working the programme one day at a time is a central understanding. Rather than dwelling on the past or future, the only option for getting well is to focus on the present. “If we don’t take that first drink today, we’ll never take it, because it’s always today,” wrote Richmond Walker, author of 24 Hours A Day, AA’s first book of meditations. From its earliest days, AA built on this ‘one day at a time’ approach to recovery, though the source of this principle seems to have been lost in the mists of time. The early AA meetings were very influenced by the Oxford Group so possibly it came from there, and many of those meetings also included saying the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his followers. Give us today our daily bread – not tomorrow’s or next week’s bread – just what we need today. This prayer comes in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount manifesto. In it he saw the importance of living today and urged us to live in a trusting relationship with God each day, as the flowers and the birds do, rather than worrying ahead. “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” If we feel unsure and anxious about future events, it can help to remember that in the past we have always had the energy and resources to deal with any particular present moment when it arises. God gives us what we need, when we need it. If I need to do anything about the future now, then I should do it – for example, buying a train ticket in advance to secure a seat and the best price, but after that, letting go, and not worrying about whether the train will run to time, whether my seat might already be occupied and so on.  Whatever happens on the day of travel will be fine, because I will be able to cope with it at the time. We need to keep reminding ourselves of this to correct our false thinking and the compulsion to worry, affirming instead that we are precious and cared for, each and every day and that we will receive the resources and energy to cope with things as and when they arise. Life isn’t always sugar coated, but nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from this loving provision of God. We just need to let go and trustingly, surrender to it.

For the last 5 years or so I have practised mindfulness meditation and found it really helpful. Just taking time out to focus on my breathing, learning to take a step back from the busyness of everyday life and to be present to the moment. It has helped me to become aware of my incessant brain activity – the movies of my past and future playing with monotonous regularity, to the exclusion of the present. Meditation has also helped me to become just that little bit more aware of the times when I am getting preoccupied by the past or future, and the need to return to the moment.  Reminding myself of God’s loving care for me. As step 11 says, prayer and meditation is about “improving our conscious contact with God as we understand him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Being present enough to show gratitude for the many joys we can experience each day. Being present enough to pray when difficult situations arise, wanting to respond to that moment in the right way, humbly seeking ways in which to respond well and to bless others.

On the train home last week, there was also a glorious sunset, neatly book-ending my day. It was like the heart of a steel foundry furnace, stretched out across the sky. This time, instead of trying to capture or share the experience, I managed to simply accept it with a sense of wonder, full of gratitude for its beauty and a sense of transcendence. As I watched, the orange and red extravaganza gradually gave way to crimsons and purples before finally surrendering to the darkness of night.

Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Jesus of Nazareth

Life will be over sooner than we think. If we have bikes to ride and people to love, now is the time. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful. Henri Nouwen

Stop acting as if life is a rehearsal. Live this day as if it were your last. The past is over and gone. The future is not guaranteed.  Wayne Dyer

Leaving The Chain Gang – love overcomes legalism

Growing up, I learned a lot about legalism. Our family were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a dissenting fundamentalist sect which spelled hard-line in capital letters. Whatever the reasons and blessings which might have come from this group’s formation a century or so before, these seemed to have been long lost by the time I grew up within its stifling confines in the 1960’s. This was a time of change and revolution in society, which made the members even more guarded about change or dissent within their own ranks. A strong streak of Victorian morality ran through it all, ironic really, because that was never the most moral or upright of times. The legalism I experienced was based on fundamentalist bible teaching which extended to include dress code, hair length, wearing of hats for women, unacceptable social activities including cinema, entertainment and so on.  I remember my Dad, (no shrinking violet himself), being yelled at on the steps of the meeting hall by a five-foot nothing member with a Yorkshire accent, holding an attaché case containing a bible big enough to kill a cat. My Dad he said, was unfit to be a member or a father because of the shortness of my sister’s skirt and his unwillingness to be corrected in allowing this. Whatever the man thought he was doing, to me as a kid, it seemed very aggressive and deeply personal.

Compliance with the rules meant inclusion and acceptance within the sect. Non-compliance could mean being ostracised (as happened to one widower who remarried too soon to an outsider), or in serious cases lead to exclusion and being asked to leave the “assembly,” as groups referred to themselves. This usually meant attending a different meeting in another town that was deemed less strict, there being a hierarchy of strictness – open, closed or exclusive – impermeable strata between which there was no communication or association. Like the Soviet and East German states of the time, most members were good at spotting modernisers, reformers or heretics and skilled at reinforcing the ideology. Underpinning it all was the overpowering fear of going to hell when you died, spelled out in graphic terms on a weekly basis. As a child this was scary stuff and very easily shackles you onto the chain gang. Looking back, it is also amazing how a group of christian people could still manage to slip meanness, gossip, cruelty and pride underneath the radar of their strict code of conduct. I never did become a member, in spite of the pressure, but when I left home I discovered that I could leave the meeting, the people and their beliefs, but they did not leave me. I was still shackled and left with a narrow, mean-spirited picture of God along with a whole range of unhealthy religion-based fears and anxieties. Maybe that’s what I’m still really recovering from.

Legalism is an attempt to gain favour with God or impress people by doing certain things or avoiding others. It might seem to be a means to become a better person and a marker of progress but it goes sour and turns into pride and self-righteousness the moment we think we’ve attained it. Jesus hated legalism and had more conflicts with the legalists of his day than any other group. Usually these were the religious leaders. He often seemed to seek conflict as he challenged them openly, deliberately flouted their rules and refused to comply with many of their required but unnecessary behaviours. His challenge ultimately led them to kill him. Jesus objection to them was that their rule-based living not only utterly distorted the image of God, but it placed emphasis on the outside or external things rather than what was going on inside our hearts which could not be fixed so easily. He illustrated this by calling some legalists of his time whitewashed tombs – clean and bright on the outside but dead and putrefying inside.  Constantly he met, touched and ate with the people regarded as immoral and unclean by the legalists, because these were the people who were ready to hear what he had to say. Flawed and broken, spat out by the religious system, they were in exactly the right place to be able to receive him.

Bill W and the early founders of AA, also flawed and broken, were very influenced by the Oxford Group, a Christian organisation which shaped many of the basic practices of current 12 step fellowships – surrender, moral inventories, making restitution or amends, sharing stories, restoration of sanity, etc. A central plank of the Oxford Group’s approach to change their conduct were the four absolutes – moral standards of absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love, guidelines to help determine whether a course of action was directed by God. Fortunately, Bill W could see that because these absolutes of conduct were impossible to attain, trying to follow them created an unhealthy legalistic framework that would only make recovering alcoholics feel like failures and more than likely serve to reinforce their drinking. All that was necessary was absolute honesty because this exposed any rule-based system and the flawed attempt to make ourselves seem good by following this or blaming others for our situation. Absolute honesty makes everything possible, because we are not pretending to be anything other than we are. No false self, no glittering image. With absolute honesty, each of the twelve steps works. This is true for all of us. Until we seek to be honest with ourselves, about ourselves, our progress is always going to be limited whether that is recovering from addiction or simply managing our lives and learning to grow and change.  Ultimately it is honesty in accepting that it is an inside job which we can’t do ourselves, surrendering instead to a God who wants to restore us and work from the inside out.

When I limped back to God, many years after my childhood experiences, I found a lot of what I had learned still sitting on the mantelpiece waiting for me. However God does not have a checklist, eager to catch me out and punish me.  I have had to unlearn this on a daily basis, challenge those distorted lessons about God, rules and regulations, claiming instead God’s love and grace. At the same time it’s also been necessary to start to deal with the loitering resentments I carried about those early years. The life and teachings of Jesus are always the corrective lens. It is never about winning approval or earning God’s love. I never can. But that is okay because it is freely and lavishly given, which is what grace is always about. There are many helpers along the way and light-bulb moments. Like the AA member who said that his higher power really liked him. What, God might actually like me?! And the picture of God in the story of The Shack powerfully counters so much of my childhood learning. In it God is shown to be “particularly fond” of each of us, without exception. God is love. Accepting this, and living a life of gratitude and surrender to this love, helps us at last to leave behind the chain gang of legalism.

Spiritual connection and engagement is not built on compliance, it’s the product of love, belonging, and vulnerability.  Brené Brown

 Your ego is a great technician. It cannot be creative. It goes in for methods and techniques and produces holy people who are rigid, consistent, mechanical, lifeless as intolerant of others as they are of themselves – violent people the very opposite of holiness and love. The type of spiritual people who, conscious of their spirituality then proceed to crucify the Messiah”. Anthony de Mello

 Most of what I had been taught by Christian clergy was that I was created by God, but was bad because of something some chick did in the Garden of Eden, and that I should try really hard to be good so that God, who is an angry bastard, won’t punish me. Grace had nothing to do with it. I hadn’t learned about grace from the church. But I did learn about it from sober drunks who managed to stop drinking by giving their will over to the care of God and who then tried like hell to live a life according to spiritual principles. What the drunks taught me was that there was a power greater than myself who could be a source of restoration, and that higher power, it ends up, is not me. Nadia Bolz-Weber

The Big, The Bold, The Beautiful and The Blue – lessons in applied spirituality

I recently attended a meeting to talk about what a course in applied spirituality might look like. We were a small but disparate group – Buddhists, Christians and Atheists, people in both mental health and addiction recovery, a priest, academics, as well as shameless tailgaters like me who wanted to learn from the collective wisdom. We met in a cosy but windowless room in a dry-bar in Newcastle, watched over by an experienced and perceptive looking blue toy rabbit, which sat beside me on one of the sofas. Quite appropriate really because we spent a couple of interesting hours chasing rabbits. We talked about love, trust, connectedness and hope, all seemingly hallmarks of a spiritual life, but we struggled to define exactly what we understood by spirituality, because it’s big stuff and it meant something different to each of us. I’ve thought about it a lot since and here are a few reflections based on my own experiences and understanding.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve step programmes see the importance of practical or applied spirituality. The foreword to “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” written by Bill W, says that “AA’s Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practised as a way of life can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole”.  These spiritual principles are far removed from religious practice and are based around non-material realities or experiences which can underpin everyday living. Jesus constantly talked about spiritual principles and the inner life. He condemned the many religious practices of his day and especially those people in authority who used religion for their own ends of power, pleasure (status, worthiness, looking the part, etc) or security.

Perhaps the most radical of the teachings of Jesus are found in the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus outlined his bold manifesto for a new way of living, underpinned by a reality beyond the material world of self-interest and self gain. The topsy-turvy world of Jesus runs utterly counter to the world we live in and into which we have all been programmed or indoctrinated, all of our lives. This material world view tells us that to be rich we need to accumulate and look after ourselves, making security, pleasure and power important guiding principles of living. Not so, said Jesus. True spiritual living is always about letting go; it’s subtraction and not addition. In the spiritual pathway he introduces, the first shall be last, those who mourn shall be blessed, it is better to give than to receive, suffering is the way to greatness, forgive and we shall be forgiven. Or as 12 steppers often say, to keep it you’ve got to give it away, and you surrender in order to gain. These spiritual principles or ways of living are counter-intuitive, part of the Golden Thread, which Christians and people in 12 step recovery have in common.

Accepting this counter-intuitive, topsy-turvy world of Jesus is challenging. It is just so radical. The part of me that longs for social justice, that has a bias towards the poor and which wants to protect and care for the vulnerable, rejoices and cheers from the stands when I read the Sermon on the Mount. Yes! God is on the side of the broken and the destitute. But whatever my intentions, actually living it out is a whole lot harder, because I am so caught up with a material way of thinking and operating. Do I really believe that the love and care of God will be sufficient if I do begin to let go? My thoughts and actions are unerringly and largely unconsciously linked to the old mindset of power, pleasure or security (usually disguised as apparently self-less and benevolent intentions). In the account of his wilderness temptation, Jesus spotted and vehemently rejected these ways of behaving as a short cut to glory. Recognition, surrender and letting go does not come naturally to me or I suspect, to most of us. People with alcohol or drug problems get backed into a corner where they can do no other – the rest of us can be equally bankrupt but manage to retain a veneer of being okay and continue to run our lives without truly following this new spiritual pathway. And ironically, religion is particularly susceptible to the old way of thinking and behaving. In Christianity this is most visibly seen in the way churches and people in them function. Obvious really, because we all continue to carry these old patterns of thought and behaviour into everything we do.

It is for this reason that we must consciously seek to renew our minds and practice living in the new way. It is a daily activity but a lifetime project. Those in 12 Step Recovery talk a lot about working their programme, but many of us Christians sit back hoping that with the help of some prayer and devotional readings the Spirit will change us. But following Jesus is not a passive activity like a moving corridor at an airport onto which we step, waiting to be delivered at the other end without any participation ourselves. We have to play our part and co-operate with God in changing us. Because I have a blind spot and don’t recognise my tendency to slip back to the material way of thinking, along with its cosy and easy preferences, I need to consciously act in a counter-intuitive way by practicing forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, trust, giving away, etc, on a daily basis to counter the way I’ve always done it. God does the work in us but we must be willing, humble and active participants.

The Sermon on the Mount is not just a beautiful dream. My experience and that of countless others who seek to embrace these upside-down principles is that as we follow this spiritual pathway we find a contentedness and joy which the old one we were taught to operate by couldn’t provide. We can never get enough power, pleasure or security to make us any more than fleetingly happy, we just can’t. But boy did we try. Counter-intuitively, surrender and the rejection of these as guiding principles for living allows us to become happier and more fulfilled than we ever were previously. Less really does become more. Okay, we mess up often and lose our way, which usually teaches us far more than when things go well, but, as they say, it’s about progress not perfection. Ask the blue rabbit, I think he knew that all the time.

“Discovering who you really are is only possible when you stop aiming for it. When you turn your back and walk away, embracing instead a life of compassion, love, and even suffering and death, then and only then can you discover your true identity. It is like the magical door in many a children’s story; you can only find it when you stop looking.”  Paula Gooder

“The Church too is a group of sinful, confused, anguished people constantly tempted by the powers of lust and greed and always entangled in rivalry and competition.” Henri Nouwen

 “Spirituality is a mixed-up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down toboggan ride of unexpected turns, surprise bumps and bone shattering crashes … a life ruined by a Jesus who loves us right into his arms.” Mike Yaconelli

 “Think about how others feel. Practice being kind to others. For those who want to take the advanced course, practice kindness anonymously. Do something caring or compassionate for someone without ever telling anyone.”  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross