So, as I come to “Reflections on the Couch 9”, I seem to have had too much time on the couch!. Because I have reached a bit of a crossroad in my life, which I get at various times. I often wonder whether it’s because I am an explorer by nature (thanks Dennis), and love everything from science to faith questions, to music and literature, to philosophy and psychology. Phew, too many to become an expert in. And I also love just being with people and sharing their story or stories.
Yet eventually all the things I love to do collide, and I have to choose!
So what’s my dilemma. Ah, that I can’t tell in a public space, but it has to do with meaning and purpose, ours and others, how do we find it, how to we hang onto it when we age, and does working for a church, a rather anachronistic job in our fast paced science driven world help people to clarify it in some way.
Parker Palmer, a wonderful writer, has written a book called “On the Brink of Everything”. In one of the chapters he addresses this idea, since he is over 80, asking “does my life have meaning?”.
He writes, “at the moment I rest easy with the notion that I don’t need to ask or answer that question, does my life have meaning. All I need to do is to keep living as one among many as well as I can, hoping to help myself and others grow ripe with life and love as we stand under the sun.”
Beautifully written, from someone who has been a fine writer, activist, but also suffered severe bouts of depression all his life.
How do we get to that wise point in our lives? Because, like Parker Palmer, our journey has many ups and downs.
Can I, as a part time minister of the Uniting Church, help people on this journey?
I spoke to a friend recently about this, also a minister, who gave me some direction . He thought his role in being a minister was about finding meaning, for him and for others, and not only from ancient texts but also from the world we live in. I would like to repeat his words to me here –
“Sure, religion is messy. But imagine there’s no religion. Imagine a community of folks approach you and say hey, we’re into trying to figure out life. We’d like you to be our philosopher in residence. Like an artist in residence, with words and ideas and feelings. You’ll live in a little house we built for you. You’ll counsel us, and help us think through stuff. You’ll be there for us when we go through changes, go through bad times, feel lost, feel inspired to help others, and when we die. You’ll basically just be supported by us, to be you, for us.
I really do think this is the greatest gig in the world.”
Mm, I love that, that we, as ministers, are to help people find meaning and purpose, not just through our faith tradition, but also by exploring how the world works, how we work, and then to help work out how we are all to live in this world. By just being, us, who we are!
That’s a pretty good thought, since quite often I feel I am a real mixture of interests and ideas, and I bring them all to the table in my role at Wembley Downs, including a half finished PhD in science. I now realise that’s what I have also wanted to do, and what I have to offer.
So as a note to self, more than anything else, let’s widen the role of a church minister, maybe even drop the title, (I am actually called a Pastor, which is also slightly cringeworthy) and open the doors of the building to let in the light of stories, and experiences, and knowledge, some from our tradition, some from our world, including science, and lots from each other. Let’s embrace the opportunity we have to help people find meaning in a society which can so easily swallow them up and spit them out. Let’s make an inclusive, exploring community.
Maybe if we do we will all grow in our understanding of what life is and how we are to live it together.
Or as Parker Palmer said, “help us and others grow ripe with life and love as we stand under the sun.”
Not a bad thought really!
So we are opening up things! Little by little, we can go and have a coffee, or dinner with a few people, go for a swim or into the gym for the first time in ages.
Where does that leave those who are still on the couch!!!
Well, when I look back at the last month, I realise I haven’t been on the couch all that often. Most of my work has continued, but using an online platform, zoom, or YouTube or communicating via email and text, or even the good old phone.
In fact, I have been busier work wise than I was when we weren’t locked down.
So I was a bit envious to see what people were trying to do when they were supposedly not able to go anywhere. I read that lots of people wanted to learn a musical instrument, a new language, to garden more, cook more, renovate more, in fact just do more of everything.
Self-improvement, house improvement, relationship improvement were all on the agenda.
Yet here we are, about to come out of our isolation and suddenly people are asking, what have I done! Because I also read the other day that as we move back into our normal or slightly normal routines we might have to face isolation regret.
Ah the regret that comes from not doing what we thought we might, while locked down. In fact, we may realize, we still can’t play that guitar, speak Spanish apart from Ola and still haven’t yet written the first page of the novel we had an urge to write! And what about the spring cleaning of the whole house, and decluttering! Even while working at home I had high hopes of doing this.
While I am sure some people have achieved amazing things, what about the rest of us. Crap, I need more time!
But isn’t life that like, that we aim high, but often fall flat. We image ourselves as something that we aren’t, make lists of things we are going to do, attempt to achieve those things, those changes, and then are surprised when our lofty ambitions, remain just that, lofty ambitions.
I have suffered from this as much as anyone else. For many years I was known as “Gunna Dutton”, as I had so many things I wanted to do, like run a marathon, be a world leading scientist, write a novel, become organised, with only a quarter getting done. Actually I haven’t done any of these things!
But as I get older, and hopefully a little bit wiser, maybe it the things we have done that count, not what we haven’t.
So if you have spent time with the kids playing ball, watching crazy movies or cooking pancakes, give yourself a tick.
If you have read one book, trashy or not, give yourself a tick.
If you have tried one new recipe, or in fact just been cooking at home rather than going out, give yourself a tick.
If you have taken a walk, even to the letterbox (hopefully a bit further), give yourself a tick.
If you have rung someone, texted a friend, emailed or in any way communicated with people outside your house, give yourself a tick.
If you have felt gratitude to the life we have, and the people who serve us either in government , health, school or in the supermarket, or anywhere, give yourself a tick.
If you have managed to clean one cupboard or small space, give yourself a tick.
If you have managed to get off the couch sometime during the day, give yourself a tick.
Sometimes when we aim high, we miss the gifts we already have and are exercising.
Don’t fall for isolation regret, instead we should cut ourselves some slack. Life is a journey, and it’s the journey and the people in it that gives us life, not what we have achieved along the way. Particularly in a Covid-19 pandemic!
My son has just started a graduate position at a law firm that does a lot of local government work. He recently was asked to do some research looking at the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on contracts, and particularly when the contract has not been fulfilled. Apparently, in the absence of any specific rules, parties may instead seek to rely on a more generalised “Act of God” provision to protect themselves from any potential liability
I won’t go into the details of the legal argument, but it did start me thinking about the term “Act of God”.
“Act of God”, I wonder what people think when they hear that term. That God is sitting somewhere in the sky, away from the Hubble telescope and Voyager, smiting us when we do bad things, and rewarding us when we do something good. Or worse rewarding those that think or believe a certain way and punishing those that don’t.
Historically, these are ideas about God we could find in the bible if we looked, in the Book of Proverbs in particular. Funnily enough, another book in the Old Testament contradicted this way of thinking. In the Book of Job, Job ends up on the ash heap, having lost family, income, basically his life, even though he is a fine upstanding and faithful individual.
And of course, in the New Testament, Jesus was incredibly inclusive, and was heard saying, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. It’s what we do with it that matters (that’s me!)
So, it’s curious that the term Act of God is still around and still used. I know that when used in a contract it means things that are out of our control, like earthquakes and storms, flooding or drought, or in this case a pandemic, but really, do we have to blame God for them, even if it’s not literal.
The problem is, these days there are still plenty of people who see that bad things will happen to people because they are bad, and so the earthquake or pandemic is an infliction brought on us by God. Maybe because we have not been faithful enough, gone to church enough, haven’t followed the rules enough or been too self-indulgent, mean, or power hungry. Basically, been too human!
We don’t need an external deity to bring about destruction on ourselves by the way we live sometimes, either individually or as a community. Sometimes we do a good enough job on our own. Yet when things happen to us, terrible things, often it’s out of our control.
Those of us who suffer, suffer from illness, or from an accident, or from the effects of natural disasters are not reaping the vengeance of an angry God. They are dealing with the thing’s life has thrown at them, sometimes with an incredible amount of stoicism and inner fortitude. This is particularly the case when children are involved. People don’t deserve for their baby to be born with a disability or die from a condition because they have somehow upset God.
I remember going to a church, where a young lad was up the front, being prayed for so that he could throw the wheelchair he had been in for many years, away. Of course, you can pray all you like and that is a difficult miracle to attain, since he had a genetic condition from birth! What was horrendous was that the onus was placed on the lad, that he must not have had enough faith or that his life in other ways must have displeased God. Talk about digging a further whole for him to slide into! I know he left the church, and felt abandoned by the God he thought he believed in.
So where does that leave us.
The God that I trust is with me through thick and thin, when times and good and times are bad, nudging me toward the light of compassion and love and wholeness. And when I can’t find it, others bring that light to me. I do not trust in a God that lives elsewhere and operates like a policeman but rather my belief lies in a God that is part of who I am and all of us.
So maybe we should get rid of the term “Act of God” and call these events what they are, tragic and terrifying and occasionally fatal events, part of the muck and misery of life. Sometimes not helped by us, but definitely not brought about by a malicious, vengeful and spiteful God.
Just a thought.