So many people are writing about change. The change we will face after the pandemic is over, particularly in the church/worship space. While I totally agree that change is coming, it’s in all spaces. How do we do medicine, shopping, sport and even concerts and music? It may never be the same again.
Of course, as I said, we are interested particularly in the church space. Sometimes people think it’s one massive entity, where everyone is doing or aiming for the same thing. This could be further from the truth. I know at Wembley Downs Uniting we have never seen the worship on a Sunday as the be all and end of our faith. It has always been the beginning, giving us insight and energy to take our faith, and our love and compassion out into the wider world.
We do always seem to meet on a Sunday, in the morning, although for many years we had a service once a month in the evening and with a shared meal. Perhaps we do need to become more flexible on what day we get together, since Sunday is now not seen as a rest day for many. Yet I still like the idea of a sabbath, when time is taken to reflect and gather oneself for the start of another week. So it’s open for discussion!
It does seem funny that I have just finished writing a sermon for Pentecost, about the Spirit of God, the divine presence that goes where it will, and urges us all, church goer or not, to do the best we can in the communities we are in. I totally agree with this.
So then why do I have a commitment to a church gathering together? Particularly since after the period of isolation, we have much more online material, and ways of communicating that is not in person. Clearly it doesn’t need a building!
What are we doing or being when we meet that I deem necessary to my life?
Well, I do think finding meaning and purpose in our lives, and developing a spiritual framework to guide us, can include a church gathering and a faith journey. Because our spiritual framework affects how we live and work in the world and how we deal with challenges, both sorrows and joys. It doesn’t require a belief in something we call God, of course, but for many of us this sacred element is part of the story. And our commitment to it leads us to seek and explore together, in person!
So I believe a church gathering is a time to become aware of the divine voice found in all of life, including our own, to sense community with those who might have a similar passion and faith, and to support one another as we do the work of Jesus and be his disciples in the world. It is has very little to do with a sacrificial sacrifice of Jesus. We don’t gather to worship Jesus, like an idol, but follow him, and we don’t gather to worship God, as though God is a person who needs worshipping, but to sense the presence of the spirit in our lives. And in the lives of those who have come before us.
It also has to do with our common humanity and the rights of every person to feel safe, have enough to eat, be educated, be included in societies decisions, be recognised as of value and share in the resources available. And the rights of the rest of the non-human creation, for without them we will not survive. Jesus spoke so much about inclusion and unity of purpose that it’s hard to believe this is not the main message. I believe it’s about how we see the world, how we see each other, and what we can contribute.
So how do we come together to worship post Covid-19? Well for a start I think it will be a long time for it to be post. We have to live with these changes for some time if not forever. And maybe singing and hugging will not come back for a while!
That’s the practicalities of getting together, and they are worth doing. I must admit I am wanting to reconvene, as I miss seeing my community gather in friendship, fellowship, and in hearing their visions and ideas.
Many of us find a church community helpful in getting this big picture. So I don’t encourage people to come to church to keep me in a job, but so that we can journey together in love and make a difference in the world, or in our little patch anyway.
Seems like a good reason to meet. Even if society thinks it’s kind of strange.
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.
I have been delayed in putting thoughts to paper on the couch this week. For a number of reasons! All valid I hope.
We lost a beautiful member of our congregation last week, after a long battle with cancer. The funeral is Friday, but it is hard to say goodbye to people who have been in your life a long time, and made a significant contribution to it. So it makes for a slow week.
I also started a part time locum chaplaincy role at Royal Perth Hospital. Which was like coming home in some ways, as I have spent almost all my adult life working there, not as a chaplain mind you, but as a clinical researcher. But this is a new and different role.
So change has been on my mind, how do we face change, which we are all having to do at the moment, with Covid-19. How do we incorporate it and move forward, knowing that our life may not return to what it was but be something else. For change can be difficult, frightening, challenging, and heart breaking, particularly if we weren’t looking for it.
But sometimes we need it. And hopefully we will be different, maybe more open and wiser, after it.
Funnily enough, each day at hospital the Pastoral Care Department starts with someone taking reflections, and the person yesterday used Michael Leunig’s prayer about change, rather apt really. Here it is –
God help us to change.
To change ourselves and to change our world.
To know the need for it. To deal with the pain of it.
To feel the joy of it.
To undertake the journey without understanding the destination.
The art of gentle revolution.
Leunig gives a definition of God before he gives us the prayers, which I will also put here, in case you think I have reverted to praying to an external deity.
“I use the word ‘God’ conscious of the fact that there are many who may find it objectionable – and others who may find my casual use of the word too irreverent or shallow. For all sorts of reasons people can be very touchy about this word; in my view they seem either too earnest, too proprietorial, too fanatical, too averse, too phobic… There is however no ultimate authority or definition. The word is yours or mine to make of it and hold or discard it as we will…”God” as a sort of shorthand password, an inconclusive folk word, a signpost, a catalyst, a spark, a stepping stone, a simple makeshift handle … A simple robust word used lightly and loosely or as devoutly and deeply as we might feel – a bridge, and a way to break free from this material world for a moment or two, a day or two… or for what’s left of a lifetime.”
So change is difficult, and often is foisted apon us, when all we want is for things to stay the same. But change is also necessary, for without change there can’t be any growth. Sometimes staying the same is the easy option, but growing, exploring, venturing inside of ourselves, venturing outside of ourselves, helps us to be all that we can be in this world.
There’s another prayer by Leunig which I have always loved –
We pray for another way of being:
another way of knowing.
Across the difficult terrain of our existence
we have attempted to build a highway
and in so doing have lost our footpath.
God lead us to our footpath:
Lead us there where in simplicity
we may move at the speed of natural creatures
and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet.
Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel
the movement of creation in our hearts.
And lead us there where side-by-side
we may feel the embrace of the common soul.
Nothing can be loved at speed.
God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights
of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way of being.
Change may only come if we see the necessity for it. And if we don’t take time, that insight will never come.
So it’s okay to have a slow week!
Just a thought.
I haven’t been on the couch very much today! Too busy with a zoom bookclub meeting and preparation for Uni teaching, and a walk, and talking to the neighbours, and watching a bit of “The Crown” over lunch and, and, and….
Then I remembered that I wrote a blog some time ago, based on a book, called “The Art of Stillness, Adventures in Going Nowhere” . Seems totally apt that I revisit that blog for my “Reflections from the Couch” series. Since we really can’t go anywhere!
Okay, so here I am, two weeks after my last blog, ready to share what I have read in this intervening period. I have selected as my first book a small offering, as I have been laid low with a cold for most of the time. I know, excuses, excuses.
Yet this book is really a gift. It is called “The Art of Stillness, Adventures in Going Nowhere” by Pico Iyer, and it is a TED book, based on a talk he gave some time ago.
Pico Iyer is a travel writer, and has travelled the world for about 40 years in search of stories and experiences. But he has discovered that our best most fruitful travel is done when we stay home. When we find stillness in the course of our days and when we explore our inner world instead of just rushing from one event or job to another. When we stop, even for a little while.
Pico uses as his starting point a conversation he had with Leonard Cohen, who he calls later in the book, “a 70 year old Zen master”. It is Cohen who leads him on an exploration of stillness. “Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, is the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else. It isn’t about turning your back on the world, it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply”
I love that. We are a part of the universe, part of the stars and planets, and part of nature, yet we act as though we are just flying by, and that the rest of the natural order is just here for our own amusement. Where is the awe and wonder that ignites our imagination and equally our care?
Brian Swimme remarked that if the stars only came out once every year, or every 10 years, it would be a cause for huge celebrations and incredible amazement, but because they come out every night, we can happily ignore this most spectacular event. We walk around with our eyes closed.
In fact, I think that awe and wonder is lost in our busyness.
As Pico says in his book, “sitting still is a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it. Going nowhere is a way of cutting through the noise and finding fresh time and energy to share with others.” To find our awe and wonder.
It doesn’t have to be religious, although all the great religions and philosophers have at their heart some form of stillness, or meditation or spirituality practise
But it does seem to require letting go of things, and that can be scary, even for a moment. To let go of those decisions we have to make, the power we hold, or even the information that is out there begging us to read or listen to or respond to is hard. We are almost programmed now to look at our computers or phones endlessly, as though if we don’t know what is happening we will be left behind. I find these days that I have become slightly obsessive about my social media, and overwhelmed by the number of emails. Something has to change!
Many, many people are now realising just how counterproductive that is, and are allowing some technology free time into their lives. I say yes to that. As Pico writes, “the point of sitting still is that it helps see through the very idea of pushing forward, indeed it strips you of yourself, as a coat of armour, by leading you into a place where you’re defined by something larger.”
Sitting still, not doing anything, seems a good place to start to change these crazy dynamics, to take a breather. To remove the clutter and distraction of our hyper active lives. To leave space for other possibilities to enter. To listen.
But Pico doesn’t suggest we sit still for hours, but instead find some way to cultivate a period of stillness into our everyday lives.
So we could all start by just taking a few minutes each day to sit quietly and do nothing. Just do nothing. As Cohen says, “to clear the head and still the emotions, and the to-do lists”.
Or we could just sit quietly for 30 mins every morning
Or we could if we desire a bit more direction, take up meditation, or yoga
Or take regular walks in nature, so that our connection to the whole of creation seems more real, more tangible.
Or you could go fishing, where you can linger for a long time with the hook in the water
Or go for a run, a long loping run that enables you to breathe in the life that is all around us. Running, or in my case, jogging, can be a profound form of meditation.
Whatever you choose, I have already decided that going nowhere is a good place to start.
As Pico summarise –
“In an age of speed I begin to think nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age if distraction nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
In an age of constant movement nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”
In honour of Leonard Cohen, a 70 year old Zen master, sadly gone, and the inspiration for this book, here is a clip of one of his most famous songs, “Anthem”.
“There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.
Let’s hope by taking some time to develop the art of stillness, the light might get in!
So welcome to reflections on the couch number 4. I am actually a bit weary on the couch today, after turning a real church gathering into a virtual church gathering. I have not gone the streaming road, as many churches have done, but have concentrated on getting a power point ready with songs and liturgy, and preparing a sermon, which for Easter Sunday was a video presentation. Never did I think I would now be on YouTube! Someone has even signed up for my channel.
Anyway I have had lots of feedback from people who found the material useful, and I hope uplifting and challenging in equal measures.
But one bit of feedback was really wonderful.
This lovely person, who is herself suffering from a great loss, introduced me to a famous folk singer/songwriter who has recently died due to Covid-19. His name is John Prine. Some may know him, me, not really. But the person letting me know wrote beautifully about the role Prine had played in her life, and her husbands, and how bereft she felt hearing that he had gone.
Now, surprisingly, I used Joan Baez’s version of “God is God” in my sermon, and it turns out she was a long term friend of John Prine. Baez has put out a video of one of John Prine’s famous songs, when she heard he was seriously ill, the one most often played, and the one requested most often in her concerts,.
It is one of the most memorable and moving songs you are likely to hear. It’s called “Hello in There”. It spoke to me so powerfully, I hope it does to you.
The link to the video is below, and the reflection from the couch is to watch and listen to the song, and go out and listen to others by him. If you do you will be introduced to a man who had such insight, heart and compassion. A huge loss for the world at a time when we need more of this.
I am sad that I have only be introduced to him now, but so glad that I have been.