Thursday, 7 July 2011

Forgiving is a Gift for Giving

Forgiveness is one of those gifts we often are most reluctant to offer to others.  It is the sort of gift that may only be given in response to something being taken.  Most gifts we offer are given because we wish to celebrate a time honoured custom, to underscore personal affections, and because we wish to compliment the support and offerings of others.  Forgiving is the gift offered in response to a deficit, to a sense of loss, and a loss too often, associated with a deep, and lasting hurt.
When a person's behaviour is insensitive, insulting, and intentionally malicious, the innate response is one of defence, and of counter attack; there is a sudden urge to strike back.  When the scripture writer recounted God's commands in chapter 21 of Exodus informing us about an eye for an eye, those words not only reflected the faith of the Israelites, but the custom of the time.  Again, a time honoured tradition (for lack of a better term) is to return life threatening blows with life threatening blows.  So for-giving is a counter cultural practice.
It is with such an awareness that it is worth considering the passage from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 5:38-42 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Underlying this biblical teaching is a deeper truth, when one person wilfully takes from another, or is provoked to harm another, then that person is claiming a control over life that, in reality, belongs to none of us.  From a Biblical point of view, life always rightly and truly belongs to God, and God alone.  The more we allow ourselves to inflict harm on others, even in the name of righteousness, the more we risk plaguing ourselves with the very injustice that we stand against.  Exchanging one misdeed for another misdeed, we unwittingly subject our lives and the lives of others to our own tyrannical whim.
When we chose to reminisce over past injustices, we fortify those weighty emotional and self-serving memories, which sap our ability to be who we are created to be; we voluntarily blind ourselves to the gift of life that God is giving us in this moment.  We, willingly, paralyze the authority God grants us in life to create life among and with others, and seek instead to telescope thoughts toward that which has since past.  In such a case, we pervert our lives by trying to correct them; we become the very iniquity we wish to ban from our lives.
Humanity participates in life to the degree that God, the source of all creation, offers it to us.  Following the teaching of Jesus, we are to give back to our perpetrators what God has entrusted to all of us, viz. life itself, because, we can only properly give what God has given to us.  Jesus’ instruction stands in stark contrast to contemporary customs and legal principles.
In chapter six of Saint Matthew, Jesus tells his followers, to ask God to, “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”  Then again in the Gospel of Saint Luke, Jesus says, “if [a person] sins against you seven times in the day, and seven times returns, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”  At first glance, these two passages are difficult to digest and even more difficult to put into practice; they ask us to strip ourselves of justice founded in self-righteousness and replace that with a justice that offers life at every cost.
These passages invite us to a holiness and wholeness, which are liberating.  When we ask God to forgive us, we are recognizing that life is a divine gift, entrusted to us, and not an entitlement.  As such, that gift will, now and always, rightly belong to God in his providence, and not to us.  When we forgive others, we give back to them an opportunity to live life anew and simultaneously we shed from ourselves past resentments that will hinder us in living our lives as a divine gift.
When we choose to forgive, we release ourselves from a spell we have cast over ourselves; it is as if we had taken a secret potion which frees our interior vision to see life beyond the wrongs perpetrated against us.  We allow a balance to return to life, not simply one of human creation, but one of divine imperative; we, through forgiving, give back to God what really belongs to Him, life itself.  By placing our focus on God’s authority and power, we bring into balance the authority and power we feign to possess.
Forgiving the UnforgivableDaily Affirmations for Forgiving and Moving OnThe Art of Forgiving

Friday, 10 June 2011

Weighing In

Perhaps you have heard the story of a little girl who was showing her friends around her house, and when she got to the bathroom, she stopped and looked at the bathroom scale, pointing, she said, I do not know what that thing is, but my mum and dad stand on it everyday, and it always makes them really mad.
If you are like me, there have been times when you have shifted on the scale and tried to get it to tell you something that it did not want to tell you.  It is a bit comical that we want a scale, a thing outside of us, to tell us who we are, so we can feel better about who we are inside.  Then, when the scale does not tell us what we want to be told, we get frustrated, even  harbouring negative feelings toward ourselves.
Life does not weigh up for us the way we would like it to do.  When we are afraid or anxious that things are not going the way we think they ought to go; when we are unable to pacify our own internal anxieties, and worries, as with a bathroom scale, we might nudge the people around us back and forth, pushing one person this way, and another that way, until they can be what we need them to be, and we can feel better about ourselves.
The truth is, when life is not weighing up as we like it to do, there is a temptation to coax other people into telling us what we need to hear, so we will be OK with ourselves and the world.
Lets say, Ian tells me that I am good at my job then I feel good about my job.  If Margaret says that my cakes are the best, then I feel super about my culinary prowess.  Ian and Margaret have become the scales by which by which my life is valued and measured.  All the time, the value of my life is already inside me, just like my bodily weight is inside me.
However, our lives do get more complicated than trying to elicit simple compliments.  Sometimes, at work, at home, or with friends, we feel we are being pressured by others, and asked to change.  Sometimes our life situations become so uncomfortable that there seems to be no solution other than to ask others to change there ways.
By way of example, a student is performing poorly in school; as a consequence, the student’s marks reflect a poor performance.  The parents of the student, unhappy with the thought of having a child with poor marks, try to convince school officials to give their child a higher mark, even thought the student has already been accurately marked.
Of course, when we feel uncomfortable inside, this could be a signal that we are in the wrong place, with the wrong people, doing the wrong sorts of things.  All of these sorts of feelings suggest that it is us who need to make adjustments if we wish to be right with the world.  Our internal feelings are, after all, our feelings, and they have to do with how we are valuing ourselves and the world around us.
If our lives become defined by things that are outside of us, what I do not have, or what I need from others, then we have forfeited our lives in the process of gaining them.  Because what brings my life value is possessed by others, over whom I have not control, then my life is not longer mine.  Yet this is precisely what the Scriptures warn us about.
If we wish to be true to the teachings of Jesus, we are invited to discover the diving power within; this is found in relationship with God who is Mystery.  At baptism we are given to God, as God’s children.  At our baptism, we are asking that God’s Divine and Holy Spirit fill our entire lives, and to be our substance and guide on our journey through life.  While the baptism is a moment in time, the reality of the baptism is timeless, it is a lifetime of journey.  Yet, without faith, belief in the providence of the indwelling God, the only alternative is to find my value in the lives and situations around me.  To weigh up my value according to the latest cultural scales.
Peter, who in the New Testament Gospel accounts appears as both a symbol of strength and a man of great weakness; he is a good symbol for all faithful people.  At times we are very strong and persevere in our resolve to live as people filled with God’s Spirit, and other times we loose hope and begin to live as if our lives are possessed by those around us.  We find him, in the midst of his own insecurities, questing Jesus’ motivation and his own ability.  When he doubts, he falls. Here you might refer to Matthew 16:21-ff; also Matthew 14:28-33.
Like Peter, Jesus is also a model for all people.  In the Gospel, Jesus speaks openly.  He is in a relationship with the whole world.  He is speaking about his own journey, and the difficulties he will face along the way (again see Matthew 16:21).  Jesus does not find his life’s value in the way others will treat him, but his value comes directly from his relationship with his Father.
As we reflect about who we are, and how it is that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, let us also reflect upon the following quotes: “If we plan on being less than we are capable of being in life, then we have set ourselves up to be unhappy for the duration.” (Abraham Harold Maslow, RIP 1970)…and…”So, when we approach life, lets not lower the bar because we are human, but rise to the occasion and elevate ourselves to the fullness of our humanity.” (Laura Catherine Schlessinger, born 1947).  May your weight always be measured in holiness, and your journey be guided by the Holy Spirit at the centre of all life.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Looking Eastward

If you’re like me, you’ve had to spend some time in your life figuring our your taxes.  I occasionally catch myself wondering, just where do my taxes go, and how will my contribution be spent?  In the 22nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is asked by some Jewish officials whether it is lawful to pay taxes?  He responds by examining a coin with the emperor’s head on it and then advises them give to the emperor what belongs to him and give to God what belongs to God.  Somehow, I find Jesus’ words to the Jewish officials, written some 2000 years ago, a comfort, as I offer hard-earned income for purposes that remain veiled from me.
Taxes are our offering to the government and ensure its (and our) well-being into perpetuity, and while we don’t know exactly where the money goes, we trust it’s for a good purpose.  Taxes, though, are not the only offering we make in good faith -- there are many similar offerings we make, some of them, like taxes, are obligatory, and others, like looking after ailing family member or friend, are acts of free will.  Offerings, whether obligatory or optional, are rituals that weave through the fabric of our lives.  At the end of the day, like the taxes we pay, our offerings to this world are done in good faith, but without full understanding of the outcome.
Examples of how we might offer ourselves are numerous and varied.  When we sit and listen patiently to a distressed friend, we never know whether we’ve been any help at all.  When we donate money to charity, we can’t be sure how those pounds will be distributed.  When we greet a stranger on the street with a smile, we have no idea just how that might alter the course of that person’s day.  In every instance, we make such offerings in good faith, believing they will lead to goodness and a more abundant life than may have been experienced previously.
One, often weekly, offering that goes virtually unnoticed happens when you enter the church.  As you enter many Churches, you do so from the west entrance.  When you situate yourself in one of the pews, you face east – the direction of the rising sun and the new day ahead of you. To get to your seat, you will have walked from the west to the east, unwittingly perhaps, but symbolically moving away from the day that has ended to approach the new day, with its new possibilities.  As Christians, we are always on a journey toward Christ, who is for us the promise of the new day.  It is with this idea in mind that churches tend to be eastward in orientation; we literally walk toward the new day, as we walk toward the Altar at the eastern end of the Church.
This sort of talk may sound “new age”, but it is, in fact, an age-old element of our Christian teaching.  As Christ rose from the dead on Easter Sunday morning, marking the victory of life over death and light over darkness, we too are invited to do likewise, approaching each day as an opportunity for new life.  This point is highlighted by the representation of the risen Christ placed at the very centre of the church’s eastern facing window.  Christ’s resurrection is our invitation to see each day as one of new and unexpected possibilities.  In the life of Christ we find new life.
In front of the pews and before the east, there stands the altar -- that historical place of offering.  In our Christian worship, we offer bread, wine, and donations of money as signs of gratitude, but we offer something more -- we offer ourselves.  As we face eastward – the direction of the new day – and offer ourselves, we offer ourselves with a new attitude, a new outlook.  We offer ourselves to God with the belief that there is a new day ahead, with new possibilities, both for ourselves and for all people on the journey with us.  We offer ourselves in the midst of all that we are not, knowing that with each new day, we have the possibility of being something more. As with all other offerings, obligatory or optional, we make our offering in good faith, believing it will lead to goodness and a more abundant life than may have been experienced previously.
As you join me in offering your taxes to the government, join me also in considering the ways we can offer our lives to the goodness of God, taking our confidence from God’s creation, where there is always a new day dawning.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Respect yourself before you Spin out of Control

"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.  "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:13-16
33"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 34But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. Matthew 5:33-37
The picture you get from the press, no matter which country you visit, is one of politicians being self-serving at best, and dishonest cheats at worst.  The picture painted by the press is more about creating a perception than presenting the public with an honest representation of the person.
Creating a perception to persuade others is not reserved for the press and politicians.  In so many ways, it has become common among the general population to buy into or to take part in creating favourable and unfavourable perceptions… to pass judgement.  Even our entertainment on television and the radio attempt to form general opinion by projecting people or ideas in a selective and biased way.
But more subtle and potentially dangerous to our daily experience is the relatively common desire to participate in the world of “spin.”  Spin happens when the desire to control how people view us, or our projects or goals, overrides the desire to speak plainly and honestly. Spin is that behaviour that draws public attention away from the real issues by offering a more convincing – but less authentic – perception that may be construed as the Truth.
Reflecting upon the world of spin and how it finds a place within our lives has led me to think about how we live honest lives.  Generally, no one begins the day thinking, “how can I tell a lie today?”  But many of us have thought about, how will I be perceived in this situation?  Many of us have thought about what we say in order to affect how others will think about us.  And many of us have, at least at times, considered that how others perceive us is more important than what we actually say.  Unfortunately, trying to control how others perceive us often leads us away from sharing who we truly are.
Put another way, God has created us to be ourselves, and nobody else, and the Truth of who I am is not dependent upon how someone else perceives me.  When we invest energy into altering others’ views, we misrepresent ourselves and end up sacrificing our very identity.  It is a self-destructive behaviour, and the more it is practiced, the more we spin out of control, and less of ourselves we will have to offer to others.  Matthew’s gospel invites us to live our lives authentically, sharing our gifts and our identities openly.  This is what Jesus meant when he urged us to say “'Yes' if you mean yes, 'No' if you mean no" (cf. Matthew 5:33-37).  Only a consistent honesty with ourselves and others can make us truly sincere.  Only Truth is the proper foundation for any healthy relationship.
When we live a life committed to Truth we begin to remove the masks of spin that hide our true identities.  Only then are we able to reclaim who we really are.  Reclaiming our true identities we attain a simplicity which has less and less need for untruth.
Saying Yes when you mean yes, and No when you mean no, means making an ongoing commitment to letting go of the need to control another’s thoughts and perception; it means committing to living honestly and expressing yourself with straight talk.  Honesty requires that we consider our words before we speak them, always seeking to use our words as vehicles of the Truth.  This is the “how” in being our true selves.
Following this line of reasoning, let’s remember Jesus’ words earlier in Chapter 5 of Matthew where he calls us the “salt of the world.”  As salt flavours the food we eat, so do we (and our gifts) flavour the world we live in.  More, our gifts flavour our relationships and season our lives; our gifts are the vehicle by which we express ourselves in life.  To authentically flavour the world means that we share ourselves openly and we offer our gifts in honesty.
So, the next time you are tempted to put a bit of spin in your words to ensure others see you the way you want them to see you, think again.  Instead, pause, and then ask yourself, who am I and what are the gifts I have to offer to this world?  Then taking account of the identity that God has given to you, offer yourself to others as you are, and see what happens.  You will likely be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.  You will feel better, and the people to whom you are speaking will be more respectful of you as you show more respect to yourself.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Kindness can be contagious

As we go through our lives, we may be mindful of all that there is to be grateful for; I am reminded of how conversations, shared from the heart, offered in love, are salve to our souls, and how they free us to be more authentically ourselves.
Many years ago, I had the privilege of sitting with a man, confined to a bed, as he neared death.  He suffered from a terminal form of cancer and the doctor expected him to go any day.  I had known the man for some time, and while we were many years acquainted, we had not been close friends.  I must admit, I had harboured some resentment toward this man at an earlier stage in my life, but in this moment, I felt good about myself for sitting with him in his hour of need.
Something unexpected happened on those days I did sit with him - we began talking.  He shared with me a bit about his past life, and he asked me if there were any ways he had ever offended me.  I told him I did recall a time when he had said some hurtful and sarcastic things to me.  He genuinely apologized, and then proceeded to tell me how he had become such a sarcastic and angry man.  I remember leaving his room and feeling as though this dying man had ministered to me.  I had gone into the room to be with him and offer my support, and I had come away healed of a wound.
More recently, I attended a birthday celebration at a local pub; it truly was a celebration.  There were people there of all ages, who were listening to musicians sharing their talents in strings and voice, and who were instinctively prompted to break into singing.  It was as if each person there was offering something of himself.  I did not know many people there, but I felt as if I were standing among old friends.
Similarly, I recall attending the coffee morning that took place at my local town hall in early September.  It was well attended and very well organized.  However, what created such a buzz that morning, aside from the tea, coffee, biscuits and raffle, was the conversation.  Everyone there was engaged in conversation with others, sharing smiles and stories.
As I parted from the people at the pub and also the people at the coffee morning, I was filled with gratitude.  Something had been given to me, and the irony was that I had gone in order to give something to someone else.
Perhaps, you have had such a situation, where you go some place to offer your support and talents, but when you come away you feel as if the tables have been reversed.  The people you were on a mission to help have, in their own covert way, helped you instead.  It almost doesn’t seem fair - you only hope that the support you offered was as helpful as the kindness you took away.
I can imagine God sending a messenger to me to say, ‘you thought that you were going to save the day, but really I sent you to be saved, so go, and do the same again.’  What a lovely thought, every time we offer of ourselves to others we also feel offered to.
Being with others, offering them support, celebrating with them, joining together in a common task, invites us to a new world, where there are not problems to be addressed, but only opportunities to grow.
Such opportunities open our eyes to see kindnesses at work all about us, like little stars sparkling.  Where once there might have been only an obligation, now we see a chance to exchange kindnesses.  And, no one can truly experience kindness without being changed.  In fact, it can be argued that a person who has not been altered by another person’s kindness, never really experienced the kindness that had been offered.
So, as you set out to save the world or just tidy it a bit, do not forget to keep your eyes, ears and heart open to the kindnesses that are all around you, and let your life be transformed.