Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The road ahead

I’m going into 2015 thinking about freedom and responsibility: balancing them.

There’s a kind of spirituality teaching that I am here to blossom, to sing my song and unfold like the spring. To live my own truth. Sometimes its teachers propose that toxic people should be left behind, to move on from what no longer serves you. They say that one should separate from people whose energy field is depressing and destructive.

Then there’s a spirituality teaching that the most challenging and difficult people are precisely sent to be one’s teachers – to be grateful for them and learn from them, for they reveal one’s own shortcomings to oneself.

There’s an approach encouraging a person to pursue an ideological path, separating from those who do not share it. But others would say that old loyalties matter, even if friends from long ago are no longer walking the same path.

It seems to me to be about balancing freedom and responsibility.

On the freedom side:
  • To step into happiness
  • To choose health and peace
  • To fulfill one’s heart’s calling
  • Not to permit others to channel their agendas through me
  • To set appropriate boundaries (regarding time, body, mental health, money)
  • To feel at peace with saying “No.”
  • To accept what is right for me will occasionally disappoint the hopes and expectations of others


On the responsibility side:
  • To be kind
  • To respect others (any species)
  • To be willing to listen
  • To examine my conscience, looking thoughtfully at my words and actions – asking myself if I operate the same standards for myself as for others
  • To seek to deepen my understanding – concerning health, the intricate web of life, human relationships, the effects of my actions and choices


In 2015, this is the area I want to look into more deeply.

Among my personal relationships, there is some tangled knitting! I am gradually drawing apart the muddled and knotted skeins, trying to see what came from where, how to restore it to where it belongs. My goal is to do this delicately, without losing patience and pulling it impetuously into tight knots.

In a recent conversation with the Badger, he considered the ways in which he felt he had changed through travelling along with me and my family. He had become quieter, calmer, more peaceful, he thought – and more open to certain perspectives that had once felt foreign, weird. He said he thought I had changed too – that in the (as of this January, nine) years we have been a couple, his observation was that I have become more solitary.  He’s quite right.

This too asks me to balance freedom with responsibility – solitude is potentially selfish but also, to those of us who need it, a pull that cannot be denied. My social interactions have to be stringently limited to be successful. As Thomas Merton said (and this made me laugh):

“It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness
with which I can truly love my brothers.
The more solitary I am
the more affection I have for them.
Solitude and Silence teach me to 
love my brothers for what they are, 
not for what they say.”

These are the areas of life I have in my sights for 2015.


You?


Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Wicked

“Surely,” says the Psalmist, “thou wilt slay the wicked, O God.” (end of Psalm 139)

Psalm 7:9 ~ “Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end; but establish the just.”

Psalm 9:11 ~ “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.”

Etcetera.

The wicked. Who are they? Their behaviours are logged by the Psalmist and prophets. They oppress the poor, their commercial practices are unjust, and they turn away from the tenets and prescribed lifestyle of the Jewish faith. Oh. That would be you and me, then, certainly if we are to be lumped together with a whole society - "the nations that forget God."

I began thinking about “the wicked” as a discrete category on Christmas Day. Something I look forward to immensely at Christmas is the Christmas Eve carol service broadcast from Kings College Cambridge – I think about it in excited anticipation for ages. This year, I settled down to watch it, and it began (as per tradition) with Once In Royal David’s City, the first verse a choirboy’s solo, as always. The next thing that happens is the Bidding Prayer (I posted the words of it here), surely one of the most beautiful prayers of all time. But this year, instead of the bidding prayer we had a sort of short lecture from the dean about the First World War (because it’s the centenary year of its beginning). My head was so busy exploding with indignation that the bidding prayer had been shoved aside for this, that I didn’t pay too much attention to what he said – but if my memory is to be trusted he mentioned the famous Christmas Day truce in the trenches, when the Germans were heard singing carols known internationally – eg Stille Nacht – and both sides came out from behind their barbed wire, looked into each other’s eyes, shook hands, wished each other a happy Christmas, told each other their names, played football, exchanged gifts – then went back to killing each other.

The story was somewhat impressed upon me because it was the subject of a long Christmas advert for Sainsburys this year, and also the subject of the Queen’s speech on Christmas day.

In that war, the Germans were “the wicked”, then for a short space of time on Christmas Day they weren’t, then they were again. Then they were “the wicked” again in World War II.

In the 2nd World War, my beautiful mama was a teenager growing up on a Yorkshire farm. German prisoners of war were sent to work for her father. She felt intensely curious about them – the wicked Huns. What would they be like? Still today, in her late eighties, she remembers her astonishment at discovering them to be quiet, ordinary men – just like the English ones she was used to, except possibly more courteous. “The wicked” were not like she imagined they might be.

As time has gone on, “the wicked” have been different people in different places. Just now, most of the world is in agreement that “the wicked” are white Western men.

I read an article by an African doctor based in an English university town, scathingly lashing at the attempts of her host country to help address the grave problem of Ebola. Africa doesn’t need white saviours, she said. Africa can sort out its problems without help from the white Western world.

I read an article about the period of time when the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu ended, and the wretched plight of children in Romanian orphanages hit the news. There followed what the journalist described as a “feeding frenzy” of adoptions from other parts of Europe and the USA. That’s the kind of perjorative term for an compassionate attempt to help that it is okay to apply to “the wicked”.

I read an article – posted by a white Western woman – asserting that black-to-white racism is impossible. A statement or action or attitude can only be racist if the perpetrator is white. Black people can say what they like about white people, it can never be racist. Oh. What? How does that make the world a better place?

“Black.”  “White.” “The wicked.”  “The infidel.”

“Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God.”

How helpful is this?

The wicked usually turn out to be someone else. I have met a number of people whose behavior was astonishingly obnoxious, but only one person who self-identified as “wicked.”

She was an old lady in an institution for the mentally ill. Broken, weeping, seemingly beyond help, her problem was that she believed herself to be wicked. This is important. Surely a crucial aspect of being “the wicked” is that you know you are? If “the wicked” always applies to someone else, by definition change cannot happen. But if “the wicked” agreed with their accusers, they would cease to present the problems they do – they’d all be paralysed with grief and shame like this old lady I met who had become convinced that she was “the wicked”.

In those days I was a minister of religion. She wasn’t in my congregation, but hers had entered a patch between ministers, so they called me in to see if I could help. We talked. She explained to me that she was wicked. I thought about this for a bit. I asked her if she believed Jesus to be wicked. She said no, absolutely not. Jesus was good. I spoke to her about the Eucharist, how in Commuion we take right into our gut the presence of Jesus. When we say our “Amen” and eat the bread, drink the wine, we are inviting Jesus into our being, to be indivisibly one with who we are. I explained that the thing is, goodness will always overpower wickedness. Where light has come, darkness automatically ceases. I told her how, when I make my Communion, I always silently pray: “Jesus, please put to death all that is evil in me.” I said that Jesus and wickedness cannot co-exist in the same place, and that if she ate the bread and drank the wine of the Eucharist knowing this, consciously embracing this, then her wickedness would be dissolved, zapped, done for, by the presence of Jesus in her. I asked her if she wanted this, and she said, “Yes.”

I brought the holy things, and she sat quietly in her vinyl-covered high-backed institutional chair in the calm, bare room, attending closely as the familiar prayers were said. She ate the bread, she drank the wine, inviting Jesus in, trusting in the logic that wickedness could not co-exist with him. And she got better. The next time I saw her (at a church service), a calm, confident, radiant, extremely happy and grateful woman met me. She was well again now. She was no longer “the wicked”, because Jesus had come to dwell in her, and his Light shone inside her – you could see it, actually.

And that was the only instance I have ever come across of someone who believed herself to be “the wicked”.

In my own personal circle of acquaintance, the most destructive interactions I have seen were all set in motion by people who thought that “the others” were “the wicked”. The actions and attitudes of those who so believed caused suffering, division, and long-term deep misery. So. In that case, were they “the wicked”? 
It’s a carousel, isn’t it? It could go on for ever. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

As you can tell, I don’t find “the wicked” to be a useful term. I prefer St Luke’s phrase – “the lost”; they need to be found by others. I like Echart Tolle’s phrase “people who are unconscious”; we cannot blame them, but must do what we can to gently awaken them.

Best of all, when it comes to categories and otherness, “the righteous” and “the wicked”, I treasure that thing Jesus said to “the Pharisee” about “the Prostitute”. He said, “Simon, do you see this woman?” And that’s what they did on Christmas Day in the trenches, isn’t it?




Friday, 26 December 2014

Boundaries

I feel conscious that just at the moment this blog seems to have morphed into journaling. Now that can be interesting to people who have their noses to the same trail – off we go like a pack of hounds all chasing the same scent. On the other hand it can be monumentally yawn-worthy navel-gazing to people whose lives don’t exhibit the same issues. If you are in the latter category, my apologies and no doubt we will stray into other territories in the course of time. Bear with me.

So, in my Quiet Time (as opposed to quiet time which is just the Ma spaces between things) this morning, I wanted to lift a particular phenomenon up into the light of the Divine Mystery’s gaze and seek his wisdom. It is about permissions, so in some ways links with what I looked at a few days ago.

Imagine a life (mine, in this case) as a country village. Each person in the scenario is represented by a house in the landscape. Some are in clusters close together – representing bundles of close relationships – while others either stand alone or in separate clusters.

That’s the picture I’m working with.

The phenomenon I’m looking at has emerged as a recurring theme in my life. I feel the time has come to address it, because I can’t help noticing it happening in three group settings where the only commonality is me, so I conclude it must be my issue and my responsibility to deal with it.

It’s a pattern, in the social nexus, of a clear understanding (expressed by others not imagined by me) that I am there on sufferance – tolerated in spite of who I am. This has been made unambiguously clear to me. Yet – I have a duty to be there, and if I do not attend, to be graciously tolerated as an indication of the magnanimity of others, then I am being hostile, provocative, difficult and antagonistic. I must present myself, to be graciously tolerated. And you know what? I don’t like it and I don’t want to play any more.

Going back to the village picture, it feels as though there are three clusters of houses that are all private property but my house is a municipal building (like a shop/store or a public toilet, for example) where the private-house-dwellers/owners may enter and leave at will, wandering about and commenting rudely – but I may only come to their private dwellings by invitation and must be on my best behaviour while I’m there.

And sometimes they have mistaken my home for an annexe to this or that other person’s house; all that is needed is to negotiate access to the nearby house, and access to mine will be not only automatic but mandatory (for me).

It has been like this for a lot of years now, and I feel the time has come for a change. I have decided to build a boundary round my (figurative) house, making it clear that it is actually a private dwelling where the usual invitations and permissions apply. To everybody.

So in my Quiet Time, discussing this with the Great I AM, two images came to mind. Obviously there is a History with a capital H running with each of these three groups of people! They have felt hurt by me and I by them. The first boundary I felt inclined to built was of flint and stout mortar with shards of glass set into the concrete top to prevent intruders climbing over. But the Divine Being offered me the option (I think) of demolishing that wall and building a different boundary.

What he suggested (I think. One should always be a little cautious of pronouncing “God said” about anything. But it did arise unexpectedly in my mind as I prayed. That’s what I mean.) was that, instead of the flint and concrete wall with the shards, I should grow a hedge round my boundary. I was invited to choose the hedging plants, and I chose privet, which is dense and close-growing and hard to penetrate, but not holly which is actively scratchy and repellent. And in my hedge would be set a gate. A stout gate of new tanalised wood, nothing shabby or up-cycled, in a sturdy wooden frame with a lintel: a clear entrance – but only waist-high, a wicket gate, with a latch but no lock.

So the entrance could be seen as an invitation – “This is the way in, and it is not locked” – to the other villagers. But they were no longer invited to ramble in and out of my private self at will, commenting on the d├ęcor and dropping litter – or even pronouncing it too repulsive to enter.

Clearly this will involve a re-negotiation of a whole selection of relationships. I am braced for criticism and disapproval. But it occurs to me that since each of the groups concerned already criticize and disapprove of me, in that respect not much will change in any case.

In my Quiet Time, each time, I bless their clusters of houses in my imaginary village with the love of the Lord – all who dwell in them, all the ongoing concerns and projects of their lives.  I bless them and I wrap them in the protective white light of the Holy Spirit of God. But that’s just me flying over their homes and looking down on them on my astral journeys. I don’t venture in, unless invited. And from now on, they are no longer welcome into my personal soul-space unless they knock and ask, and their visiting faces look respectful and interested.


Boundaries and permissions are one of the harder relational phenomena to negotiate. But I will not sow the surrounding land with anti-personnel mines. Visitors are welcome. Even so, my life is actually my home – and now I’m going to behave as if that were so.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Happy Christmas, friends.

Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastide our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.



Therefore let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.



But first, let us pray for the needs of the whole world; for peace on earth and goodwill among all his people; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and especially in the online community scattered around the world.



And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children; all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.



Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.



These prayers and praises let us humbly offer up to the Throne of Heaven, in the words which Christ himself hath taught us:



Our Father,
which art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil;
for thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
May the Almighty God bless us with his grace; Christ give us the joys of everlasting life, and unto the fellowship of the citizens above may the King of Angels bring us all. Amen.













[Text above of the Bidding Prayer from the service of Nine Lessons and Carols of Kings College Cambridge.]

Wild water

Thinking of the old, the new, the year passing, the year coming.

These days, because of the way my daily routine works out, though I try to be mindful and walk humbly with my God every day, it is every other day that I have my close, deep, quiet time, seeking the mind of God, sorting out issues, and lifting all of you and all of my offline people into the holy light of his blessing.

Today in that quiet time, I talked with him about a particular relational situation that has occupied my mind in recent times. And I saw into it more clearly, saw something new.

I saw that, in a group setting, I had wanted to influence the feelings of the other group members towards the one with whom I had a particular difficulty. I wanted there to be kindness and compassion, gentleness and generosity, from everybody – but in the case of this particular individual I wanted to be the one to give permission for this generosity to happen, wanted others to wait until I said the kindness could be released. I wanted to occupy the high moral ground of being the Generous Person. In short, I wanted to be right. When others showed their own kindness to the person I had issues with, or celebrated that person’s goodness and positive contribution, I was not pleased – I was irritated. I hadn’t given permission yet!

Gazing into this, what I saw was that I’d wanted to be the lock-keeper, running my life (and the lives involved with mine) like a canal under my governance. I would say what passed through. I would open the gates. The water would flow under my command.

And the Spirit asked for this change: that I trade it for wild water – let it be a river with its own living flow. That I not control it but observe it – like the Ferryman in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha*. Not determining, but seeing. Letting go of the need to be right, to occupy jealously the post of Righteous One.

In this would lie my peace.


I have no idea why I’m telling you this except that I thought it was interesting and perhaps you might think so too.

--------------------

*"It is this what you mean, isn't it: that
the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the
waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains,
everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not
the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future?"

(Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha Ch 9)

Saturday, 20 December 2014

In 2015 - consider going alone.



Still thinking about 2015 . . . possibilities . . . directions . . .

In the course of my life I’ve seen a particular thing happen a number of times. It goes like this.

I meet a person, we get to know each other, and they become a dear friend. We talk, we go for walks, we explore each other’s s0ul territory, it’s enriching and quite wonderful.

Then they get married. They still want to meet up. BUT they want it to be as a foursome – I bring my spouse, they bring their spouse. Or their newly acquired children. Or the whole family.

This doesn’t work for me. The dynamic changes. Instead of adding enrichment and getting even more lovely, nobody is anybody in these group meetings. It just becomes polite socializing, draining. The truth stops, the souls are withheld, only the bodies are there – in their smart-casual clothes at their carefully chosen venues.

Getting to know step-family or in-laws can manifest the same difficulty – meeting only in group settings can amount to never meeting at all.

This doesn’t apply to all groups. For example, we have a Theology Group that meets at our house every 2nd Friday of the month. Someone (any one of the group who volunteers) gives a paper about some aspect of life and faith they’re interested in, and we discuss it. The group is not for the promotion of orthodoxy and conventional thinking, but for the honest exploration of matters of belief we really care about and wonder about, wanting to dig deeper. It’s meant to be a group.

Likewise, some friendships in my life have been me + hubby as a couple, with another couple we’ve met – and that has worked happily and well.

It’s when a one-on-one friendship is subsumed into coupledom, or when the dynamic of the group prevents the real things inside each soul from being brought into the light, that the whole thing becomes an uncomfortable waste of time.


So my suggestion for you in 2015 is – when you meet up, consider going alone.