It’s been an interesting and slightly disarming week. Every now again doubt comes knocking on my door, like an old friend who occasionally reappears, to my surprise. Faith and belief, what we frame our lives with can sometimes seem a bit rocky. Or like a dry and dusty paddock, in which I find myself in the middle, rather lost.
It reminds me of a quote by Kari Jo Verhulst, who is a writer for the Sojourners magazine, and I read this a few weeks ago, if it sounds familiar.
`I sometimes wake at 3am with a start, jolted by the certainty that we had made God up. Given the dispassionate nature of the world, and the banality of our cruelty and self-absorption, the idea of a loving, present God seemed overwhelmingly absurd, a feeling as sad as it was terrifying. Thus it has been a great and humbling relief to discover that I exist in the company of millennia of God lovers who also awaken to this dreadful sense of improbability. Those wiser than I, rabbis and poets, theologians and preachers, locate these midnight churnings squarely within the life of faith. I heard one say that if you are not convinced you are making it up at least a third of the time, you are spiritually dead. So, I now say to myself on nights like these, `This is what it is to be alive`.
This is what it is to be alive!
I teach anatomy to medical students and the other day we were doing surface anatomy. This requires a whole cadaver or dead body, which can be quite confronting to the students and sometimes to teachers. I normally just get on with teaching but somehow I was touched by this body, an older woman, just lying there. I pondered, was she someone who had a family who loved her, maybe had children, probably like us had her likes and dislikes, maybe she did something really incredible for a job, or maybe she was a cleaner or just stayed home and looked after her kids. Was she someone who spoke up for others, or believed in God? How did she die, was it quite quick, or a long drawn out illness. Why did she feel that donating her body to the anatomy department was a good idea?
What is it to be alive, to be in the world? I know that the inner spark, the life force that makes us who we are was gone from this person. Whatever made that woman alive, had been snuffed out. Whatever made her “her” was gone.
We have our bodies, blood and bone, muscle and organs, senses and skin, our incredible brain, all necessary physical attributes. Then there is our inner life. An inner life, combining our thoughts, and feelings, ideas and passions to give our life meaning and purpose, colour and framework. Some of it can be identified and labelled as this part of the brain or that, but much of it can’t. Often it’s called the soul or spirt or consciousness or even the heart or essence of the person. All this makes up what we see in each other, in these amazing human beings.
The question for me has always been, is that all!
Well, no, I don’t think so. Many of us also believe in and have experienced something else, something extra, something almost unexplainable that is also part of being alive. Something that again can’t be measured but that interacts with our inner world and raises us to a different level of living. That drives us to love, to connect, to help one another. This something I believe has always been present in life, in the developing universe, in the process of evolution, and is present in us. A separate entity yes, but just as cells are separate entities and together make more and more complex substances, so this makes us more than what we could be. What emerges is something greater than the sum of the parts.
This extra mysterious bit is often called God, spirit, breath, or wind and is a creative force so central to life and all its goodness it cannot be distinguished from us. For me all people are carriers of this light for it is found within all people, at all times, and in all places. It drives us to be better than we are, both as individuals and as a society and a world, even if we don’t acknowledge or worship it.
So while this description of God does not sound terribly traditional, or doctrinal or biblical, although I think the Hebrew Scriptures do describe God in this way, it does incorporate what we know of the world and of us. As Bruce Sanguin has said, God is not a person but personal.
It is my statement of faith and hope for the future. And most of the year I sit comfortably with this understanding.
Yet in the run up to Easter I run into trouble! I always have these doubts when Easter appears on the horizon.
So let’s go on a journey in lent together, a journey of reflection.
When we talk about this extra bit of life, this creative force, this divine presence, how do we describe it, how does it affect who we are as people? Well many, including me, would say we see this presence most clearly in Jesus.
Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was flesh and blood, who laughed and cried, who was human like us, regardless of what the church says. And who died a horrible painful death.
Can I really see God in this person? Is God and Jesus one? The gospel writers think so, they write so long after his death, but with such passion and purpose. Somehow in Jesus the God presence was revealed most fully. Somehow Jesus touches us and activates something mysterious within us. He turns on the light. His words, limited but powerful, and the response of his followers show us how to act in faith, pointing the way. If we can become aware of the divine presence within ourselves, letting go our ego or our 21st century manic activity driven lives, our response will reflect Jesus’s concerns. Concern for ourselves that we can be the best people we can be, concern for others that they may be loved and cared for, and concern for the planet and all of creation. Fullness of life for everyone, means in Jesus terms, inclusion and equity and peace and justice for all.
So where does that leave the coming of Easter, Good Friday, and particularly Easter Sunday. It is here I do not want to mince words. Jesus died for the sake of others, for he reveals that the God spark is a spark for life. That is how Jesus interpreted that inner drive in our world, in the human world. Love, compassion, justice, looking after the poor and the widows and including everyone at the table.
His message challenged those with power, who supported inequality, exclusion and hate. His message challenges us daily just as it did 2,000 years ago.
So he was killed.
Do I believe Jesus rose physically after 3 days and now sits at the right hand of God? Well no I don’t. God is not sitting anywhere, certainly not in the sky where we see billions of galaxies and where we have just detected gravity waves. Where is God? God is the power within, the urge to connect and commune. To love.
So where is Jesus? A mystery that’s for sure. Maybe his spirt is, like our own, somehow bonded to that which gives all of us life. The universal divine presence.
Maybe the gift Jesus gives us is his human life, his awareness of what we all can be, what we all can do. Maybe his gift is one of life, not somewhere else, but here, in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of human existence, as Frederick Buechner puts it. For God is part of the essence of who we are. It is in ordinary everyday lives that God is fully realised. A God that drives us to new beginnings, to change and transform, and makes life worthwhile. Ordinary everyday lives like ours. We find and experience God when we love, and forgive, show compassion and seek justice, share our wealth and lend a helping hand. When as a church we stand with and for refugees, our indigenous brothers and sisters, and all those marginalised and alone.
I attend a group exploring Alexander Shaia’s book, Hearts and Minds. We have been exploring Matthew, a path guiding us as we face change. This is something from the section we covered on Sunday…
First a reading from Matthew, 28:16-20 adapted by Alexander.
Now we go to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus has directed us. When we see him, we worship and we doubt.
And Jesus comes to us and says, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching everyone to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you to the end of time.
Alexander writes…“Jesus the messiah, told the disciples to leave the mountain. He instructed them to take the power of God, the inner power they had gained and all that they had learned, out to every place and everyone. He instructed them to teach discipleship, the journey of intimate relationship with spirit they were learning from him, to one and all, near and far. He directed them to share the lessons of love, to tell others that the divine has only one source, and that every person is a son and daughter of that source.
He then said, Remember. He told his followers never to forget that they were not alone. He was with them loving them, always and forever. This is indeed the fitting and final message to which Matthew has brought everything in this gospel. “And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age”.
Remember, we are all children of God,
Remember, God is a God of the universe, found in the stars and planets and in you and me.
Remember, God is not for only a few, but for all of creation, all people and all nations
Remember Jesus, for he guides and leads the way. God is spirit but that spirit needs to be expressed in the real blood and guts of the world.
As Jesus says, Watch me, listen to me, I will show you the way, follow me.
And if you don’t understand, just do it, for in the doing you will sense the truth. The mystery of faith.
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of time. For my words and deeds never fade.
This is what I need to remember at 3 am in the morning, or when I am in that dissecting room, or in a hospital faced with life and death. Or when I travel in the time of lent.
Jesus, part of the universal presence of God, is with us, God is with us. Always.
I have just finished a 10 week CPE course. This when translated is a clinical pastoral education course, or translated again, a chaplaincy course. It entails a lot of reflecting both of myself and others. In this course I visited patients at Royal Perth Hospital and spent time with them during what often is a crisis in their health and life.
When I reflect back on this time I feel privileged that I have been able to sit with patients through some of their darkest times. People who have had a heart attack, who have got heart failure or some other very serious heart condition, those who have had a spinal injury, who are to have a limb amputated, those who have been in motor vehicle accidents, due to no fault of their own or their own stupid fault (their words not mine!), and those who have been attacked and left to die. I have also sat with patients as they realise they are too old and sick to go back to their own home, those who are aboriginal and still have the sorrow and pain of past government policies and long to go home, Muslim, Hindu, and Atheist patients all scared about the unknown, and some patients who have tried to commit suicide, either by driving a car into a wall, or drinking so much over such a long period that the only end product is an early death.
All patients, all people. Some have been a surprise, with a resilience that is remarkable, coping even with the most dire prognosis or the most difficult situation with strength and courage and even humour. In this case I have been given a gift far larger than anything I have been able to offer. It was a gift for me to receive with thanks. Others just need to cry and have a hand to hold, because the situation is so “shitty”.
Chaplaincy is often seen as a religious thing, involving speaking of God as though God is separate from the real world. Yet my God, my faith is tied up with living in this world, somehow making sense of this world. How we are to relate to each other and how we can love ourselves. All people are invited to my table. To God’s table. And at this table we may help one another mend our broken selves, to open a space where we can become more whole, more complete. I have been challenged and taken to the edge by much of the suffering and pain people go through, and the endless waiting. There is so much waiting in a hospital, for results, for pain relief, for food, for visitors, for the doctors…And there has been much shared not about the present, but about past hurts, past losses, past sorrows that affect people deeply. How can we go forward when we are often stuck in the past, unloved and unforgiven? When people are vulnerable and alone, their heart is hurting and many things are shared. These are often the things that need repairing.
But I have also been surprised and uplifted by how little it takes to make a difference, to lift a heart, in a moment, because the moment is all we have. Listening I believe is the essence of it, listening and sitting in silence while the patient finds their own voice and feelings.
I have also reflected greatly on the role of prayer, of blessing and of ritual in the space I have found myself. While I have prayed with people, and offered a blessing, it has not been often, but it has been a revelation how much that comforts and supports them. Perhaps it is the awareness of God’s presence in these times which is more real than at other times, or the sense of a deep connection with another, but it seems to open something in both of our hearts. There is a sense that healing is occurring in whatever way. Holding someone’s hand who cannot speak, or move, saying a prayer into the silence, produces something quite unexplainable and spiritual.
So at the end of the course how do I summarise the incredible experience I have had, for in the end it is about the patients I have sat with, and felt such compassion for. How do I see pastoral care now? I realise that love and compassion for the other, the other person, regardless of job title, education level, race, gender, age religious affiliation and anything else that separates us from one another is a prerequisite. Although I do believe in a loving all present spirit that calls us to one another, I don’t think a belief in God is necessary to do good pastoral care. It is an empathy for, and connection with people, and a willingness to hear their voice, their story and assist in helping them understand themselves and their situation better which is needed. In this a willingness to listen without prejudice, without interspersing our own needs and desires is also required. Gods work is done by those in which the loving creative spirit is moving, and we don’t have a moratorium on that.
However, having said that, my faith is central to my understanding and so I present a couple of reflections I wrote after visiting some patients. They perhaps sum it up for me…
“The spiritual care I provided was to re-enforce the belief that God is a God for and with everyone. We are all God’s children, all with the creative divine spark within. We do not have to earn this presence, it comes with being part of the created order, part of God’s creation. No one has to earn my trust or presence, or somehow prove their worth to me. Instead I paid attention to them, and valued them, listened to them, for who they are, not what they did or didn’t do.”
Or maybe this….
“I can see that some visits take us deeply into a person’s life and experiences, sharing their deepest secrets, fears and pain. It is a privilege to be invited there, and if we can somehow make them feel loved by us and by the God who drives us, maybe we have given spiritual/pastoral care.”
There are many patients who I will never forget. Who have entered a space in my heart and will stay there. Patients for whom life has dealt a pretty terrible set of cards, but how the spirit, their spirit intertwined with Gods spirit, somehow lets the light in. I was just part of that light, together with the nurses, the doctors, the OTs, physios, catering staff, cleaners, anyone who treats people as people, as people in pain and who just need a kind touch and a loving word.
I have a feeling I am entering a new phase of my life, at 55, it is never too late to start something new!!!