Monday, 11 May 2015

THE SMALLEST THING

I finally found some time and energy to get at the yard and garden work that surrounds me now that spring has arrived.  I've been putting it off for at least a week now, pleading (with myself) over work in other responsibilities.  It's not been over work though; more likely a case of lack of will.  Lack of will has shown up all over the place and in many forms...the most common being procrastination.  Anyway, that's not what I wanted to write about.

I was in the midst of getting my garden tractor up and running after a long winter of storage.  I had kept the battery inside all winter and for the last two weeks, it had been on the charger to make certain it was powered up.  I put the battery in the tractor and connected the cables.  I jumped into the seat, stepped on the brake pedal and turned the key...nada.  I tried several times, but with the exception of a small little less-than-second "burp" of ignition, nothing.  I scraped a bit of crud off the positive terminal and cable and tried again - still nothing.  I gave up and took the battery out again, resigned to a trip to Canadian Tire for a new battery.  This one, the one that was "dead", is in its fifth year.

At Canadian Tire, the salesperson tested my old battery and came out to tell me it was fully charged and ready to go...nothing wrong with the battery.  She told me to try giving the starter/solenoid a tap - maybe it was sticking.

I got home, reinstalled the battery and turned the key; nothing but a tiny wisp of smoke from the positive terminal.  I got a screwdriver and, following the advice of the lady at Canadian Tire, I whacked the starter a couple of times.  Still no go.

I pushed the tractor from the garden shed to the carport and then tried everything I had already done, again.  Same results - no ignition.  I was stumped.  Finally, on a whim from I don't know where, I went into the house, got a small glass of white vinegar and poured it over the positive terminal.  There was no visible reaction because I had already cleaned the terminal at the outset, scraping off what little corrosion there was.

I climbed back on board, turned the key and presto!  Ignition!  Go figure.

A tiny little bit of corrosion was enough to impede the spark of ignition; what's stranger, four ounces of white vinegar was enough to change everything.  Why is it that most of the time, it's the small things that make the biggest difference? 

Some of the books I've been reading lately have an answer for that question.  The reason that small, simple things tend to be "game changers" is because they have been reduced to the essentials.  All the trim and fluff have been stripped away and what's left is the kernel...the kernel of truth, of power, of knowledge, of progress, of action...you name it.  Even the most complex concepts and processes can be distilled to these simple essentials, without losing the essence of the original subject.

I've tested this against what must be one of the most complex, nuanced structures I know -  Christianity.  Do you think Christianity is complicated?  Here's what Marcus J. Borg wrote: "Christianity is a magnificent tradition...it's about truth, goodness and beauty.  It addresses two great human yearnings - our longing for personal transformation and our desire that the world be a better place.  The Christian message reduced to its essentials is: love God (as known in Jesus) and change the world. ..the central message is simple.  It is about loving God and loving what God loves."  pp.237/238, Speaking Christian, 2011, Marcus J. Borg.

There it is:  truth, goodness, beauty...be transformed, make the world a better place, love God and love what God loves.


That's the Way.  Simple.


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

ON A DAY WHEN WE NEED REASSURANCE AND GRACE – WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 22, 2014

Today, a young man on ceremonial guard duty at the Canadian War Memorial in Ottawa, was shot down.  The assailant then made his way to Parliament, entered the building and was himself killed by security forces.  Others may have been physically wounded in the fray; certainly, all of us have sustained some sort of damage as a result of these events.  There is grief, there is fear, there is uncertainty (can you be fearful without being uncertain?) and there is anger.  There is anger with all its accompanying hurt – hurting ourselves, hurting others.  When commentators were talking about the potential for ricochets of bulletins inside the stone buildings, I thought to myself, the ricochets that we most have to worry about will be those of hatred, anger and vitriol.
There isn’t a broadcast media site that doesn’t contain dozens of posted comments full of hate; and the targets of that hatred include not only the man who committed the murder of Corporal Nathan Cirillo this morning at the cenotaph.  Typical of hatred, no one is left un-named or untouched…national leaders, politicians, spokespersons, political parties, commentators, other people posting their comments on-line…when hatred surfaces, we are all targets of opportunity.
grace
I was left wondering what my own response to it should be?  I am shocked but not surprised by the event itself.  Violence of this sort is a bit like gambling.  There is a mathematical certainty that sooner or later it will find us.  But what should my response be? I was preparing some short announcements for the church worship bulletin this Sunday and I happened to look in a resource that I sometimes use for inspiration – it is the Divine Service Book for the Armed Forces.  My hand writing on the inside cover tells me that I was service with 2 Airborne Commando in Petawawa when I obtained the book…that would have been the early 1980’s.  I never opened that book until about a year ago.

I found a prayer for courage and it seemed to me that my first response to today’s events should be prayer.  And so I offer that particular devotion in hope that by praying, I will be reassured of God’s grace, and be reminded that we are all beloved:
Teach us, Good Lord, to serve Thee as thou deservest; to give and not count the cost; to fight and not heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do Thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
That is a hard prayer to offer when my heart is heavy and I feel sorrow for those who died, others who are damaged by today’s events.  The only thing that makes it easier is when I can surrender my own fear and uncertainty, if only for a few fleeting seconds at a time.  I know that fear is the mind-killer and that it will obliterate all that is good, if it is not confronted for what it is.  To confront fear is to seek out what is fully human in all of us.  To replace fear and anger with grace and love is my response.  <><Pat

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

GOING TOWARDS...OR GOING AWAY FROM?

One of the most common metaphors for life is that of a journey.  Seeing one's life as a journey is as old as human consciousness.  For a person who sees himself as a "seeker", that symbol of journey is very powerful and full of context.

Last week I turned the page of a travel book written by an Irish woman in 1963 (every page I turn in a book is a metaphorical journey).  She observed that when most people take a journey, they do so from the perspective of "going away from".  From the outset, these people travel with a pervading sense of anxiety and foreignness, leaving all that is familiar behind - strangers in a strange land, as the Exodus story frames it.  The author contrasts that outlook with a very few who journey from the perspective of "going towards," where there is a sense of being drawn forward, an expectation of promise and discovery.

Last week I listened to readings from the journals of black people who suffered enslavement and its evils.  Those ancestral stories, read aloud by descendants several generations removed, were also about journeys of going away from and going towards.  There was contrast between the despair of capture, transportation and sale into slavery, and the hope of new life following escape through the Underground Railroad.

I'm at the point on my own journey that I pay attention to coincidence.  I think to myself, "Okay, God - what are you trying to tell me about my own journey?  Is this a teaching moment?"

Of course we are all on a journey of some sort - it's called life.  We have choices, decisions, challenges and victories to experience.  It strikes me that one of the decisions I have to make is whether my journey will be one of "going away" or one of "going towards".

When the disciple Thomas questions Jesus (John 14:6), Jesus responds, "I am the way, the truth and the life."  Jesus understands that his disciples are uncertain and he speaks to reassure them about the outward and (most importantly) the inward journey they will make if they follow in his footsteps towards a life in God.

I believe those reassuring words are meant for me as much as Thomas.  At its core, it is a message of encouragement to live my life as a journey of "going towards."  As much as possible, my journey has to be full of the here and now, living fully in the present.  My future - that's a source for hope, but only in the sense that it draws me towards the next moment of now.  And  the past...well, it's over and done with and I need to move beyond it.

It all sounds so simple, but I know it's a difficult journey to make.  Everyday I'm faced with the choice between hope and despair and my stories reflect the pull of those contrasting outlooks.  God being my helper, I'll keep seeking the Way.


<><Pat

Monday, 7 July 2014

LIFE DECISIONS

There are days when I think my life is largely made up of the decisions I make and then living the outcomes.  That might sound a bit bleak, but there's more than just a kernel of truth in it.  

One aspect of the human condition setting us apart from most of the other animals on the planet is the ability (perhaps I should say "need") to make decisions.  There will be some people who argue that it's possible to live without making decisions (what kind of life would that be?), but the philosopher in me says that living without making decisions is a decision in itself.  I cannot live without taking decisions, exercising the freedom of choice with which I was born.  There is something god-like in that statement - perhaps it is one meaning of the phrase, "man was made in the image of God," the ultimate decision-maker.

Some of us are faced with monumental decisions; others, perhaps the lucky among us, deal only with the minor every-day decisions of life.  But that too, is a matter of perspective.  I know that I can agonize for days about mundane matters, bouncing back and forth between options, stalling and backing away from the point of decision.  Conversely, on momentous issues, the decisions can come quickly and easily, without a lot of conscious deliberation.

I recently heard the Moderator of the United Church of Canada speak in Toronto.  He talked about the challenge of being church in these modern days of spectacle, times of turmoil and chaos, these days of endless conflict and change.  At some point in his discourse, he reflected on making hard decisions and he recited this poem from memory:

Decisions

Between two words
choose the quieter one.

Between word and silence
choose listening.

Between two books
choose the dustier one.

Between the earth and the sky
choose a bird.

Between two animals
choose the one who needs you more.

Between two children
choose both.

Between the lesser and the bigger evil
choose neither.

Between hope and despair
choose hope:
it will be harder to bear.
by Boris Novak (translated by Dintinjana)

At the time, I was struck mostly by Gary Patterson's ability to quote poetry, and the lines that stayed with me were the last stanza about hope and despair.  But, I found some time to retrieve the whole poem from an on-line source and when I read it over again, something else important emerged.

As a decision maker, I am prone to thinking in binary terms:  yes-or-no, on-or-off, open-or-closed.  I think I share that tendency with most people.  But this Croatian poet elegantly relates a third way to look at life and the decisions it requires...a middle way, I might call it, a loving way.  That term, the middle way, is one that is familiar to those who practice meditation in all its many forms - so, no credit to me for using it.  It is however, an apt description of an alternative to binary thinking...or what others refer to as the all or nothing approach.

The middle way is one of balance - precarious at times, but still attainable.  I sense that in my searching for the Spirit in my life, it will find me at the point of balance.  I think that the Divine is most discernable in that state of balance.  I think that everything important to human happiness is found at the point of balance; I know that I am least at peace when I am unbalanced.  I think that it is love that brings me back to balance.

The most precious commodities on earth are not gold, silver, platinum or oil.  They are balance and love.


<>< Pat

Friday, 4 July 2014

LOVING THE UNLOVABLE

During Lent this year, my brother Thom suggested that we reflect on where we see the presence of God in the world.  He was more successful in sticking to that theme than I was.  But I still think about that - where I see, discover or sense the presence of the Spirit in my life.  I've come to learn that for me, this needs to be an intentional act; I have to actively seek out the Divine in my life.  I think that is because my life and our society are so full of busy-ness and spectacle, my ability to see the quiet, steady presence of God is diminished.  To find God in my life, I need to search for it, reach out for it, dig for it. 

Maybe it has always been hard for humans to find the Spirit, even back in early times.  Jesus taught his followers that it was simple, but those closest to him found it a hard path to follow.  And, so do I...every day, my actions and thoughts make it a difficult journey.

Recently, I've been dealing with a demanding situation calling on me to be intentional about seeking the presence of the Spirit.  This situation is full of emotion - a mix of positive energy coming out of change, accompanied by negative shadows in the background...a potent mixture of one part disdain, one part spite, one part anger and a dash of hatred thrown in for seasoning.  I'm aware of this negative side to things and I feel it colouring how I deal with the situation.  This negative side is mostly focused at a particular person (that is so human!) and what makes it even easier to focus on this is my sense that somehow I've been betrayed.  That sense is so strong, it threatens to take over my judgment, to throw me off balance and plunge me into a whirlpool of vindictiveness and rash behaviour.

Enter my brother Thom; Thom the Good, Thom the Balanced, Thom - my lens for seeing the presence of the Spirit in life.  Thom sent me a reflection that was about loving the unlovable.  It was a short reminder of how Jesus asked his followers to act; that word "act" is important, that's what Jesus expected - he wanted us to walk the talk.  He taught that I need to love others as I love myself, to treat them as I would be treated.  Even if they are unlovable or do unlovable things, I am called by the Spirit to be loving.  Whew!  Simple words that are hard to follow.

But, when I think about it, the sense of it becomes evident.  To love another as I love myself is one of those double-edged actions...an action that is reciprocal.  If my action is negative for the other, I will experience the negative too.  If it's loving for the other, I too will experience the loving.  If I cannot love the other, how can I love myself?

In terms of this demanding situation I'm dealing with, I think I was coming back to ground on my own; but, Thom's reflection served to remind me of how I need to act.  Tough decisions are easier when they are not influenced by negative factors like spitefulness, anger and hatred.  Those feelings are as damaging to me as they are to the other.  So, I need to set them aside and get on with loving the unlovable.  Something Divine can happen then: solutions that were invisible suddenly become obvious.  Not easy, but do-able, God being my helper.


<><Pat

Friday, 27 June 2014

DECLARATIONS OF A FAITH COMMUNITY - FROM THE WISDOM OF LOUISE PENNY AND CHIEF INSPECTOR ARMAND GAMACHE

Today, my brother Thom sent me (and many others on his mailing list) a daily reflection taken from "The Message", a paraphrasing of the Bible.  It was based on 1 Corinthians 16:13-14, verses that give us this: "Keep your eyes open, hold tight to your convictions, give it all you've got, be resolute, and love without stopping."  Thom called them "good words", and it took me all day to recognize why they are so good.  These are a declaration of what it takes to be a member of a faith community - in our case, a community of Christian faith.

Thom wrote further in his reflection, reminding all of us that when we slip (it's inevitable that we will), there is a sense of the Spirit setting us back on track.  Thom says he hears the whispered words, "Try again."  "While we may not always be resolute, the Spirit is.  While we may not always love without stopping, the Spirit does.  While we may not always hold on tight, the Spirit does.  One day, God willing, keeping our eyes open, holding tight to our convictions, giving all we've got, being resolute and loving without stopping will become second nature.  Until that time though, thank goodness for second chances and forgiveness.  Knowing we have unlimited second chances and forgiveness without bounds, lets us relax and at least hold a bit tighter. Love without stopping today, if you can, friends, and peace." ---so writes my brother, Thom.

I don't know where my brother gets the inspiration for his reflections; he would likely tell you it is from the Spirit.  More often than not, I get my inspiration from popular culture...from reading. Such is the case now, when I offer to you, four necessary declarations for members of a faith community.  These declarations are from a book written by Canadian author Louise Penny, spoken by her primary character Chief Inspector Gamache, Homicide Division of the Sûreté Du Quebec.  In that book, Gamache tells one of his subordinates that in order to become a competent detective, one must learn these four declarations:

                     I don't know.
                                          I need help.
                                                              I was wrong. 
                                                                                     I'm sorry

I don't know - it's alright to admit to uncertainty, to be openly questioning about aspects of my faith.  I have doubts every day, especially when it comes to faith in action, faith in day-to-day circumstances.  I usually get by okay on Sunday, but every other day of the week, it's a challenge to live up to the teachings of Jesus.  It's hard to be a disciple - the Way isn't easy.  There are times when I feel the pressure to act, to act in a way that feels uncomfortable to me.  Admitting that I don't know is the first step for me to discern what form my faith should take.

I need help - man oh man, do I need help!  This might be the biggest of the four for me.  It's always been an issue for me to trust in others, to welcome their aid and assistance.  I'm strong, I'm self-sustaining, I'm independent...all that sort of thing.  Sooner or later, in whatever life I lead, I find just how inadequate I am, just how much I need others.  I'm learning to recognize where and when I need God to be my helper.

I was wrong - I dread having to say those three words, but when I do, the sense of relief and opportunity to make amends is huge - they are the reward I receive when I face another and admit to error.  If I ever need to make a fresh start in a relationship, in a project or in life, "I was wrong", is the best way to begin.

I'm sorry - it's fashionable right now to make fun of people who say, "I'm sorry", too much.  I guess there can come a point where when it's said so often it loses it's meaning.  I have to say though, it's the first step to forgiveness...and it's a hard step to take.  I know people who cannot bring themselves to say it.  In a family of faith, where things get said and done that can be hurtful, being able to declare that I'm sorry is an essential aspect of belonging.  In the community, it ought to be easy to say this, and it ought to be be received with grace.

I've been thinking about these four declarations for over a month now and it's just today that I recognize that they aren't intended to be used in isolation from each other (I wonder if I skipped that in the book?).  At the very least, they work in pairs...probably, they work best when all four are integrated and applied daily. Being an active member of a faith community isn't easy and the further I get involved, the more challenges I face.  It forces me to be honest where I would rather not, to admit to weakness and uncertainty, more than I wish.  It calls on resources I might have held back, and to work with people who stretch my character.  I'm learning a new normal with every step I take on the Way.

<>< Pat



Wednesday, 23 April 2014

THE DESCENDING WAY

I recently read a short little book by Henri Nouwen, titled "Letters to Marc about Jesus".  Nouwen wrote seven letters to his nephew Marc, with the aim of providing some spiritual direction to this young man who was making his way in a world that is increasingly lacking in spiritual opportunities. 

The letters are composed at a time when Nouwen himself was discerning his own spiritual call; he was working with Canadian Jean Vanier in one of the L'Arche communities in France.  Eventually, he came to Canada to work at L'Arche Daybreak in the Richmond Hill area.  But, enough of the book review and history.

One piece of spiritual advice that Nouwen offers his nephew is to follow Jesus' path on the descending Way.  He goes to some length to explain what he means by "descending", focusing on the theme of Jesus' demonstrated relationship to others: a relationship of humility, servant-hood, shared suffering, shared joy.  It was a new way of being in community, a community built on compassion.


Nouwen expresses his understanding that Jesus demonstrated and taught his disciples that God's love would take them downwards into grief, pain and sorrow, a descending journey where they would encounter those who were hurt, damaged and crushed.  It was in this place, with these people, that God's love would be found, and where God's work would be done.  Those that followed Jesus would do that work, God being their helper.  In that work, the ascending Way would be shown.

Nouwen's letter about the descending Way frames a challenge that I'm not certain I can handle.  Frankly, I don't know if my faith is strong enough to do what he suggests; I don't think I have the heart for it and I'm fearful of failure.  Nouwen declares that it is not enough to stand on the high ground I've chosen and extend a hand to those below.  It's not enough to offer money when it's my hand, my heart and my soul that's needed. 

Nouwen says that the descending Way cannot be travelled by proxy and God's love cannot be experienced at arm's length. Nouwen recognized in himself, the brokenness, the damaged and hurtful parts that were keeping him from God's love; he was convinced that it was the descending Way of love that would allow him to return to living fully.

I have heard this message, or a similar message, from other spiritual leaders.  If you want to find Jesus, go to where the hurt is.  Intuitively, I get the rightness of it; but, it's a major step away from the comfortable place that I have chosen.  I have a sense that in taking the descending Way, I will leave one community behind while encountering another.  One thing that I'm afraid of is that I cannot have a foot in both communities - that I will have to make a choice.  The other fear that lurks in my mind is what I will find out about myself on that journey...at the very least, an imperfect version of myself.  Who will accompany me on the Way, and who will I meet when I get there?

I suppose the other challenge (it's actually another fear) is that I do not know...I'm not allowed to know, how the journey will unfold.  I'm not even certain if it will end.  Can I take it slowly, one step at a time ?  Or, will it be like sitting down on a playground slide and letting go - no stopping until you get to the bottom?  For someone who prides himself on map reading and navigation skills, this would truly be a journey into the unknown.  All it takes is one, deliberate first step.


Pat<><