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.

Sailing by Faith

Have you ever stood on the shoreline and watched sailboats off in the distance.  They seem so graceful, how they catch the wind, how they seem to move with such apparent ease.  They appear to be at one with the elements and the environment, as if in some sort of dance with nature.  If you have ever actually sailed, or been a passenger on a sail boat, you can appreciate just how dedicated devotees of sailing are; sailing is a discipline, and a way of life, perhaps even a religion.

Good sailors keep their boats well looked after , they keep their sails and boats in fine order, looking after their instruments, keeping everything in good working order.  Sailors need to ensure that they have means to repair what might break, and they should store adequate supplies as well as taking precautions against the natural dangers of the sea.

One of the things that sailors do, is they harness the power of the wind, a power that is not their own, and they, for a short time, make it their own.  The wind blows, the tides change, and those who sail must use their own navigational ability to harness that force of wind to direct the vessel toward its destination.  Sailors learn quickly that they cannot control the wind, nor the tides, but they can borrow from their power.  Some sailors will complete their journey having done well, others will make numerous nautical errors, and some, perhaps most, will be somewhere in between.

I am reminded of a book I picked up off my mother’s shelf, called At Sea with God, by Margaret Silf.  She compares the spiritual journey to a sailing journey, and I think she is onto something.  In the 11th chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, it speaks about the nature of faith, and how others, who have gone before us, used their faith as a guide.  These people are not unlike sailors.  They too have harnessed a force that is not their own, and allowed that force to direct and orient their lives.  Our lived faith is an exercise in harnessing this mysterious energy which is the source of faith, God, and allowing him to propel and direct us.  Our relationship with God, like the sailor’s relationship with the wind, is a sharing in the energy offered, and not a force we can claim ownership of.  Consequently we will need to develop our own nautical skills and learn how to work together with God’s power and with those who join us on our expedition in faith.


People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centred……
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives….
If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies…..
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow…..
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable…..
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight….
People really need help, but may attack you if you help them….
Give the world the best you have and you will get kicked in the teeth
~From a sign in Mother Teresa's children's home of Shushu Bhavan, Calcutta, India
Author unknown

Food for the Soul
Nutritionists frequently advise the public that the best quality foods can be traced to their origin.  In other words, the fresher, least processed and least chemically altered the food is, the better it is for you.  This same advice can apply to our spiritual journeys.  We as spiritual people, as those appointed to care for God’s creation, have a need to nourish ourselves with good spiritual practices.  Meditating, reflecting, and acting upon God’s Word is a natural and fresh place to start a healthy spiritual diet.  Ideally all our religious laws and spiritual rules emanate from the Word—the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us.  When our rules have become too processed, if they do not reflect the Spirit or Jesus’ teachings that they come from, then they are like empty food and are unable to sustain or nourish the Body of Christ.

The Body of Christ is centered and founded on the love that Jesus shares and teaches about.  Over and over the scriptures testify to the Love of God for the world and that this Love is at the center of the Gospel message.  God’s Word of Love experienced in the Scripture is calls us to action; it calls us to live God’s blessing for others in ways that move far beyond a superficial sentimentality. Such action seeks to look at creation and all people on this earth as God’s sacred expression of love.  When we allow thoughts and words to be nourished by this reality of God’s Word growing out of his Love, we in turn become nourishment for the world in our behaviors.  By our actions, we make God’s Love incarnate, and it becomes spiritual nourishment for those we encounter.  God’s good Word lived out in my faith-filled actions, becomes the fertile soil in where others find a place to grow, and a place to be nourished.  May your actions be your neighbor’s soul food today and always.
The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That LastsA Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Cours 

The colours that complement our lives

There is something rather moving about entering a Church and spending time looking at the stained glass.  As I have stood so many times looking at stained glass windowsin churches, beholding their beauty, I am reminded of the beauty of the numerous other stained glass windows in churches around the world, windows I have never seen, and how they illuminate us with spectacular colours.  Many of these windows, taken individually or collectively, invite us to greater ideals of living our spiritual vocation.  They remind us how art can enhance our worship and open our minds to realities beyond our common perceptions.
Like many of us, whenever I gaze upon stained glass windows, their colours and designs affect me.  There is a strange interaction between myself and the window as the imagination of the artist awakens my own imagination, and I find myself drawn into the moment frozen in the window, reflecting and remembering.
If we take the multitude of hues away from the stained glass, rendering all the windows but a single colour, and you are left with a monochromatic experience, which, too, would be reflected in our lives, and so influence our reflections of ourselves and the world beyond.  If all our windows were devoid of colour they would convey no stories, and our lives would be a bit less, and our vision would cease to be as full.
Stained glass windows use colour and design to create a reality that might otherwise be overlooked.  Each small piece of glass within the picture plays a role in creating the larger image, and each piece stands in relationship to the other pieces around it.  What makes stained glass so attractive, beyond the variance of colours, is how the individual pieces of coloured glass work in relationship with the other pieces.  This is so much the case, that if a few pieces are missing from a stained glass window, our eyes catch it immediately and fall again and again upon that blank spot.
Yet, it is not uncommon to find stained glass windows with missing pieces.  After all, the churches possessing these treasures have generally seen many decades pass, and by element or accident, many of these delights of colour have had sufficient opportunity to lose pieces.  These imperfections, then, serve to remind us that neither divine nor human realities are ever fully possessed by any given moment or work of art and that Creation is not yet complete.
There are, in so many ways, parallels between a church communities and a stained glass window.  Like the multitude of diverse shapes and hues of coloured glass in a window, so, too, there are a diversity of individuals comprising a parish community, each person influencing the others, complimenting and contrasting, and shedding a different light upon the community in which they worship.  We, the individuals of a parish community, stand together in smaller groups, forming a reality beyond any one of us.  Like the pieces of stained glass, individuals and groups within a parish combine to create and aesthetic whole.
What’s more, as with missing or broken panes of glass in stained glass windows, each parish, each individual and group within a parish community, possesses its own imperfections, reflecting a space of expectancy, a place that leaves room for growth.  Turning your back on “imperfections” within a parish community can be dangerous, even self-defeating.  By avoiding individuals or groups within a parish community, by rating them substandard and unworthy, we turn our backs on the God-given idea that there is always room to create and grow.  Simultaneously, we are drawn into a synthetic sense of security, where the only reality that matters is the one upon which we choose to focus our attention.  Here we do well to remember that just as the stained glass window is a collection of individual pieces of coloured glass working in relation to other pieces and collections of pieces, so we are in relationship with every individual and group who make up our community.  Developing a respect for the entire community, regardless of what imperfections are found there, will assist us in fulfilling our call to be spiritually whole, to be Christ-like.  After all, Jesus was not known to seek the company of the elite, but rather those who most needed compassion and guidance.
It is easy to decide that our life is complete in the midst of its incompleteness.  We often become so entrenched within routine – the same group, the same acquaintances and friends, that we passively decide we don’t need anyone else.  Sometimes people go so far as to decide another person is not worthy of their presence.  When this happens we really do permanent damage to our community, and our stained glass window loses some of its colour.  The more we are unwilling to develop relationships with people different from ourselves, the more monochromatic we become in our world view, the less beauty and wonder we experience.
In our churches, and in our communities, we all do well to encourage one another to develop relationships across boundaries, to support one another in our individual journeys, and to see that together we form a beautiful picture that is far more intricate and beautiful than any individual piece of stained glass or any window we might behold.
Faith, Hope, and Light: The Art of the Stained Glass WindowDoorways, Windows & Transoms Stained Glass Pattern Book (Dover Pictorial Archives)