In the church I work for, I am part time so therefore only take worship twice a month. The other times are taken either by members of the congregation or visiting preachers. We prepare a plan for 4 months at a time, and print it out together with an interesting article on the cover. Usually its something about worship and here is my contribution for the new plan. I thought I would post it here, as it says a lot about where I am at!
When we come to worship on a Sunday morning, I wonder what we think we are coming to? With an understanding of God as the Spirit of love and life that pervades all living things since the beginning of time, it’s hard to imagine it requires some show from us to keep going.
So why do we come? There are many reasons, a time of community and sharing together, a time to remind ourselves who we belong to, a reminder of what is missing in the world, what we can do to change things, a time for silence and for reflection, a time to connect maybe to this bigger reality, and to find a bit of peace and purpose.
I also think it’s a time to practise what we inherently believe we are being called to, a life of love, compassion, care and creativity. If we can’t do it in church then where can we!!
And this practise, this mindset, this way of being, can be reflected in our lives every day, away from the church door, sometimes in surprising ways.
It happened to me recently when Matt and I were in Broome, supposedly escaping the real world for a while and having some down time. We were having lunch at our favourite little café in town, called the Dragon Fly, sitting in the area that borders the pavement, and because it was hot we sitting side by side facing the people going past.
Suddenly a young boy, maybe about 7, left his dads hand and raced up to me, and initially I was startled. When he started to grab at my hat and my hands, I immediately realised he was not your average boy. I calmly held his hand, and talked to him while Dad rushed over, explaining quickly that his son, Gabriel, had autism and there must be something about me or what I was wearing that attracted his attention. So I let him have my hat to wear, I let him touch my face and look at my glasses, and we chatted. At the end of the interaction, Gabriel leaned over and kissed my cheek ever so gently, as a sign of the connection he felt.
Yet what was perhaps the most moving was Dad’s reaction to all of this. He was so overcome by the fact that I didn’t pull away, as many in the past have done, that I spent some time allowing his son this contact with me, and that both Matt and I were accepting of his condition and his ways. His thanks made both of us feel so humbled as for us it seemed a very small gesture. Yet for Gabriel’s dad it was such a big moment, of light rather than dark.
This family not only had the struggles and pain and heartache of a severely autistic child, but also were indigenous, and so had a double whammy. How to fit in? Yet in that brief moment, the love of father to son was palpable, and the joy that an unexpected response of acceptance and care, even for a moment was incredibly moving to be a part of.
Such a little thing really, seeing someone as they are, giving time and space, and responding with an open heart. Isn’t this what we are called to do in the world, every day, every moment. Hard as it is.
So let’s come to church to sense the divine in our lives and practise what stems from that presence when going about our daily lives.
We never know when love and kindness and compassion will come in handy!
I was home the other day, working in the front room that is now my office. My son came home after a stressful but successful exam and just wanted to chill for a little while.
Chilling for him is lying next to the gas heater watching tv!
Anyway we were talking about one of his favourite show, “How I met your mother” which ran for 9 seasons. Although I’ve watched many episodes over the years, I had not watched the last season and especially I had missed the last 2 episodes where things get pretty tied up. So what does any self-respecting mum do when her son suggests we watch them together, I laid down my pen and joined him!
For those who don’t know the show, let me describe it for you. It focuses on a guy called Ted, who is relating how he met his wife and the mother of his children, to his kids, who are late teens. It’s basically an excuse to tell a whole lot of stories to them about the times he shared with his best buddies, Barney, Robin, and Lilly and Marshall, who were already a couple when we first meet them. It centres, much like the show “Friends” on an apartment block in New York City and a bar, but I think it has more heart than friends and teaches us more. We watch these characters as they basically live through Ted’s search for the right girl, who unwittingly appears briefly in quite a few episodes. But also Barney’s loose living and questionable ethics, while Lilly and Marshall become the settled stabilising influence. Robin is something quite different, a smart career girl, who both Ted and Barney go in and out of love with. The shows go back and forth so that by the end we understand how they met each other, and how all their lives have been intertwined. But we also see them grow up and grow older.
Sound’s complicated, but it’s not really. It actually says much about friends who meet at University or even before, and the way they traverse the stage from young adult hood to workers, to parenthood and then beyond, together. It’s actually pretty funny, if you can stomach Barney antics!
In the 9 seasons we see Lilly and Marshall marry, have children, deal with ageing parents, we see Robin find a career, and adjust to life without children, we watch Ted go in and out of relationships, sometimes in the most bizarre fashion, all the while working on who he is as an architect, and we watch Barney being a sleaze but we also get an insight into his family background and fraught relationship with his father. We also watch as Marshall works out that being a lawyer can be hard work if you don’t have passion for the type of law you are in, and how he eventually works out where his passion lies. And we see how Ted secretly loves Robin, how Barney secretly loves Robin, and how Robin secretly loves Barney and Ted. In the end we realise they all love each other.
But the last 2 episodes are something else entirely, and moved me to tears, much to the delight of my son. In them we finally see how Ted meets his wife, how in love they are, and how through thick and thin, joys and sorrows, friendships can last and grow, even with all the ups and downs that life throws at us. They have to adjust to the changing natures of their own lives, as do we, because when we grow into who we are as people, as partners and as parents so our responsibilities change. This is what we see throughout the series. In the end Robin wisely concludes (and I think I’m para-phrasing here), “it’s impossible to go back to those heady young days, days which was pretty free and easy, when you have to get up at 5 in the morning for the kids, and then go to work. But we can be there for the really big moments in each of our lives, good or bad.”
“Be there for the really big moments in each of our lives, good or bad!!!” Mmm…
Maybe friendships are more precious than that, and I contend we need to be there for more than the big moments, we need to be there for the little ones as well. Times when life is mundane, or a tough slog, when life has not played out in the way you would expect. Maybe family, maybe work, maybe a dream that has passed us by. But also when the simple things in life are joyous, when kids sleep through the night, when we contribute to something worthwhile or when we just share a wine and dinner or a fire together. We are to be there for as many moments as we can, for life happens in those moments. Robin went missing for quite a while in these last episodes, but sometimes we can all go missing, it’s the coming back that’s important.
So a tv show is not quite like real life after all!
Humans were made to be in relationship because it’s in relationship we can show love, and compassion and kindness and empathy. And this relationship can be expressed in friendship. I will always believe that, and work as hard as I can to cherish and honour my friends and our time together, some of whom I have known since Uni days. And don’t worry dear friends, I will keep many of the secrets I have from those days firmly tucked away!!!!
By the way, just in case you are wondering, Ted does finally end up with Robin, but not before she marries and divorces Barny and Barney grows up and becomes a Dad, but not with Robin. That’s all I’m telling you, if you want to know more, or how it happens, you will just have to watch the show!
We had a sad day the other day. Our beautiful golden retriever, who was 15 suddenly had a stroke and we had to say goodbye to her. Of course, there were many tears shed, but she had her pack around her, my husband and 2 sons and me, and we knew, and I think she knew, her time was up.
Reflecting on Libby and everything she gave to our family over the years made me think about our pets, particularly dogs. I often have said that those who have never owned a dog can’t quite see what all the fuss is about, the devastation that comes with losing them. And it’s one of those things that you just can’t explain, you just have to experience owning and loving a Libby, or a Macie, or a George or a Wally, and then you will know! Like having children really.
I was teaching my first-year human biology class at Uni the other day, and we were discussing primates. We, as humans, are primates, as are our nearest relatives, the big apes and chimps, the bonobos and orangutans and behaviourally they closely reflect our journey. Dogs are not primates, and while they are mammals they have evolved from wolves. So, dogs sit on the evolutionary tree away from us, but in so many ways, they make us better than we would normally be. More loving and more compassionate and more joyous. They in fact show us lots of the characteristics we would want to find in ourselves.
Of course, it’s not always the case, humans can be cruel and neglectful, and some dogs can be dangerous.
But I am writing about my own experience with Libby. And she showed us what unconditional love and acceptance is all about. She never refused to greet us and never refused what little we sometimes offered.
She would wag her whole body when she saw us, whatever time day or night we deemed to come home. She loved her walks and would roll joyously on the grass, every day, as though it was the first time she had done it, she loved the water, but if anyone of us went in the water she would try to rescue us, just in case we were drowning, which of course we weren’t. She loved her food, and pats and brushes and even loved the vet, who would give her doggy treats whenever she went. And she loved going on holidays with us, down to Busselton mainly, where she could roam in the large back garden and swim in the bay and frolic in the sand and seaweed.
At home she introduced us to the neighbours, most of whom had dogs, so that a community formed around walking and talking and laughing at the various antics each dog would get up to. We shared people’s trials and tribulations as we shared the walk of a dog.
And as Libby got older, and couldn’t walk as far, we still tried to give her the things that she loved. instead of going around the lake for a walk, we just went down the park, instead of the beach we would take her for a bath, although I don’t think she thought that was an adequate substitute, instead of going on holidays with us, she went on holiday to our beautiful older neighbours would look after her. And we gave her time and were patient with her, well mostly, when she wanted to come in, then go out, then come in, then go out….
In other words, Libby brought out the best in us. She taught all of us quite a few things about living for someone else, for loving someone else, warts and all. And for finding the joy in every moment, even in the simplest of things. And she gave our neighbourhood a community feel, which will last long after she has gone.
Not a bad gift from something further down the evolutionary tree.
Good question, why God?
It’s a question I am faced with again and again, no more than last night from my 27-year-old son, a smart guy, who has studied law, philosophy, Eastern religions and is now a newly pressed practising lawyer.
“Why God”, he cries, “how can you know, it seems made up, weird, full of holes, rubbish or worse”, using more descriptive language. “And the people who believe it, (particularly the more literal form) are deluded and wrong”.
But he is asking a question we all ask, why God?, why do I think there is something rather than nothing. Why do I think there is a hidden entity to life, a universal divine presence that I can connect with, that somehow makes me want to be better than I am. Not better in making more money but better as in kinder, more loving, more open to others, more willing to share and to work for the wellbeing of all, not just me or even just my family.
I find it hard to answer questions like this, that are so straight forward but oh so challenging, because sometimes I don’t have the answers. Sometimes I have as much doubt as he has, even at 60. You would think I might be able to give a concise summary of what I believe, but I think uncertainty goes with the territory, particularly my territory. I have always known I write better than I talk, and here I am in good company. David Williamson, the great playwright once said something similar at a dinner party (not at my house, but on an ABC show!).
So, I am going to write a little bit about this question, but hopefully this might go toward something bigger. For it’s a universal question.
I start with my friend Frederick Buechner (not that I have ever met him!), a fine writer and theologian who has given the world an incredible insight into the inherent danger of being certain. He is a man of faith who doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is a real blessing, in a society where everyone needs to be right.
Here are two quotes I would like to share –
One is about faith…
“Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, says the Letter to the Hebrews. Faith is laughter at the promise of a child called laughter.
Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off again rather than once and for all. Faith is not being sure where you are going but going anyway. A journey without maps. Paul Tillich said that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith”
So, for Buechner, as it is for so many others, faith is so much more about trusting, trusting in our sense there is so much more going on than we can see and measure. Something hidden from our view.
But what about God.
Here’s the second quote…
As Buechner surmises,
“There must be a God because A. Since the beginning of history, the majority of people have believed there was. B. It is hard to consider the vast and complex structure of the universe in general and the human mind in particular without considering the possibility that they issue from some ultimate source, itself vast, complex and somehow mindful. C. Built in to the very being of the even most primitive human there seems to be a profound psychophysical need or hunger for something like truth, goodness, love and under one alias or another, for God. And D. Every age and culture have produced mystics who have experienced a Reality beyond reality and have come back using different words and images but obviously and without collusion describing with awed adoration the same indescribability”
Yet he goes on to say, “Statements of this sort and others like them have been advanced for several thousand years as proofs of the existence of God. A twelve-year-old child can see that no one of them is watertight. And even all of them taken together won’t convince any of us unless our predisposition to be convinced outweighs our predisposition not to be.”
‘It’s impossible to prove or disprove that God exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about God as it is to prove or disprove that goodness exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about what is good.
“God cannot be expressed, only experienced.”
And once we experience this ground of our being, as Paul Tillich puts it, this essential element to us all, I think there is no going back, even with our doubts and fears and struggles to define it.
For as Buechner concludes, these proofs are “ merely ways of describing the existence of the God you have faith in already”.
So where does that leave me.
I didn’t grow up in the church, so did not have a faith already inbuilt from a childhood enmeshed in it before I went to university. But as I have said many times elsewhere when I was teaching anatomy and preparing human specimens for these classes, dissecting to identify specific areas of the body I had an epiphany that has not gone away. Questions flowed into me like a tide, what is life?, what is it to be human?, what lies beneath all that I see on the dissecting table?. And for me, other questions about the nature of reality and about God. Somehow the examination of our inner life and world lead me to an examination of the possibility of God, a universal presence in all of us.
Yet it was not a sudden seeing of the light. It was a slow burn. But something was tugging at my sleeve. I was experiencing God rather than defining God. And that led me on my search for God.
My son asked me the other night why I chose Christianity. And my answer was, well, why not. My western culture is steeped in Christianity rather than the other religions, and as Bede Griffiths has said, “all paths lead to God”. So, I chose the Christian path.
But from early on my path was not of certainly, not of dogmas and doctrine, but it did consist of Jesus the man, Jesus the prophet, Jesus the mystic and Jesus the social justice warrior. Somehow the God I was discovering was better understood through a human lens.
So the path was lit and off I went.
But where am I today. Some days I wake, and ask myself, as Frederick Buechner says, “Can I believe it all again today”. Can I live it all again today?”
Buechner thinks 5 out of 10 times the answer should be no to this question, “because no is as important as the yes, maybe more so. The no is what proves you’re a human in case you should ever doubt it”.
But then one morning it’s a yes, and it feels right and proper and real, just for a moment.
From someone who is a complex mishmash of things, part average scientist, part lover of people and relationships, part searcher and explorer of the divine, that’s good enough for me.
I have come to a point where it’s not them and us, or you and me, or faith or not, or belief and unbelief, it’s this amazing, incredible, mind blowing universe and life we all participate in. And it’s the impulse in this life to create, to grow, and to bond together in relationship, even in the midst of loss and sadness and grief and death that I sense, and have always sensed, well since my 20s.
There is something moving beyond our sight, just below the surface, which enlivens the world and pushes us to new insights, new ways of being with one another and new ways of loving one another. All of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
We belong to something greater, because the something greater is the reason we are here.
Is that enough, probably not for my doubting son, but maybe it doesn’t matter. His heart is good, and he cares for those around him who are less fortunate, and he cares for his friends and family. And he tries to make a difference for those he connects with. One day he might even see that there are things hidden beneath.
So I leave the last world to Mary Oliver, one of the great poets of our generation. She spent much of her adult life seeing the awe and wonder and beauty in creation, but towards the end of her life, also found the spiritual depth in it as well.
Maybe we should stop trying to define God and just listen to the grass and the trees as they speak to us of what is eternal and essential. And embrace the mystery of life. And as Albert Sweitzer said, who gave up a career in the church to become a doctor in Africa , “seek always to do some good, somewhere”.
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvellous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
I have done a couple of sermons recently, which looked at what we think about God, how we listen to God in the 21stcentury.
These following points are a bit of a summary, which I couldn’t give today because I went in a slightly different direction……
So let’s step back for a moment, and work out what I am trying to say today and last week as we embark on a new year..
When we think about God, it is not a bell hop or a person sitting in the sky ready to respond to our frantic calling.
When we think about God it is a hidden presence underpinning all of life including our own
We can touch and feel and sense this presence whenever we seek love rather than hate, peace rather than war, when we seek life giving ways rather than life destroying. When out of the darkness sometimes we see a very small light.
Yet we know that our own egos, and fears and longings can expose the fragility of our connection. God doesn’t go anywhere but we surely do, and we are diminished because of it.
Transformation in life involves challenges, and leaving behind things sometimes is the only way.
Jesus calls us to this transformed life, for he’s a spirit person, and so for us not just a guide but an embodiment of the divine presence in a human being.
Our tradition, our scriptures, our ancestors, speak to us, just as they spoke to the people who lived with them. They do have things that can teach us, even in our crazy hi tech world.
Because there are different ways of knowing, and not all involve words or measurements or hard facts.
And finally, thanks to Frederick Buechner, our lives give shape to that knowing, in ways that are surprising and uplifting, even when things look grim. We are mystics even if we don’t realise it.
Maybe a good starting point for us all.
I was at a retreat over the weekend, focussing on spirituality or if you like, spiritual formation. It’s a religious term for trying to find and somehow commune with God, however you understand that term, and to learn how to help other people do the same. It can lead to becoming a spiritual director, but that seems a long and slightly weird path for me, but who knows!
The retreats, there are 4 a year, over 4 years ( I know, a long commitment) involves looking at those who have gone before, mystics, and sages, priests and ordinary people, who have found the something extra, something more in life. It also entails looking in the arts, or in ourselves for this presence. On this weekend just gone we examined the desert fathers and mothers, who instead of joining the crazy society of their day, around the 4thcentury CE, went out into the desert to find and hear the word of God.
The desert for them was a place they could drop their egos, their selfish ways, and their ambitions and find the source of life and love, and to recognise they were human beings, made in the image of the divine. They were often hermits, or were hermits in a community, and for long periods of time found silence the main way of achieving this connection.
The problem for many of us today is that we have little time or inclination to go off into the desert.
I don’t think we really have to, although finding a place where the worries and distractions of the day can drop away and we are left with just the spirit and the essence of ourselves seems a pretty good idea. Sometimes our world is just too noisy.
But, as well, going off into the desert to find God is not necessary because God is right here. Unless your God is planted in a place away from you, separated from you, then you carry the spirt of God with you wherever you go. You cannot be separated from the ground of all being because it is within you.
As many, including the wonderful Frederick Buechner would say, “God is found in the muck and misery and marvel of the world”. In the ordinary and every day. Or another quote from him, “listen to your life”, because that is where the spirt of life can be found, nibbling at your toes, nudging us forward towards the light of love, and compassion and forgiveness. To see and commune with the spirit, is to see this act as an essential part of being human, much like breathing. And we can do that anywhere!
So instead of going off to the desert, we have to listen for the divine voice in the everyday world we live in. God is not found external to us, in some far away place, intervening now and again when we beseech him/her by prayer. No, God is closer to us than our breath, deep in our hearts, a presence unseen but oh so real for those who have the willingness to listen.
So with that in mind I was totally taken by the people doing the course. They were people who were in the world, as chaplains, ministers, switch board operators, managers, teachers, and researchers. They were in the world, but with a sense that they also belonged to the eternal spirit that brings life. And in their day to day encounters with others, they try to bring this capacity for caring and compassion to the fore.
I laughed when one person, described her management style. She is in charge of a large number of people in a big government agency, and she has in big letters on the board a summary of how she wants to work with everyone.
Kindness, fairness and humility.
What she is saying, is that she wants to be kind, fair and humble in the way she interact with each of her staff, and she wants them all to do the same.
That’s her management style.
When she first introduced this statement many in the office went away wondering where it had come from. Was it a new method, was it an old one they hadn’t heard about?
Of course they were shocked to hear that it comes from the bible – from the prophet Micah in the Old Testament –
Micah 6:8 “And what does the Lord require, to love kindness, to do justice and to walk humbly with your God”.
I laughed and laughed when I heard that. She was totally unapologetic that she operates out of a faith position, that the mystery she calls God influences how she works, how she treats people and how she treats herself.
I loved the weekend, the other people attending, but I already know that when I listen for the divine presence I am not waiting for a voice calling me to attention, or yelling in my ear. I feel the presence when I perform little acts of love, when I am kind, or help seek a little more justice for someone. In my quiet moments I sense the mystery that lies beneath what we can touch and measure, that we all contain this great life giving force, and when we connect with one another in life giving ways, that force feels real.
Could I explain that to someone else, maybe, although the many people I have talked to have thought either that I was crazy and deluded, or a wacko. Yet for those who are seeking, there is a light that shines forth, that can be seen in the world and in each one of us.
But we have to look, with our eyes firmly open, to the wonders of our existence and the beauty of the earth and the incredible sacrifices so many make for complete strangers.
For it is here that I think that Spirit can so readily be seen.
I don’t know where to start with this blog. So much has been happening to me lately. I have just finished presenting a 6 week course on basic anatomy and human biology to engineers and technicians working in the health sector. A course I loved to teach as I never get sick of showing people how amazing we are, how amazing our bodies are, and that amazingly we can live a long time quite healthily, even though this body of ours is so complex and interrelated.
Then I went on a yoga retreat, over the weekend, surrounded by beautiful, engaging women, a great teacher, a magnificent setting amongst the forest and with time to reflect and re-energise. So good for the mind and soul, and so good for my body.
I got back ready to recommence work, both in my church setting and in the research setting, where I am finishing a PhD . The 3 year anniversary of the start of it came up yesterday, crikes, and how far have I got!!!
But somehow I could not let go of a book I started when down on the retreat. A book that in some ways summarises all of the above, the teaching, the space, nature and the sense of peace being around it gives us, life, the universe, God and everything in between.
So instead of working, I did some reading!
It’s called “Everything is Spiritual” by Rob Bell. It’s a rollicking ride, with no chapters, and with his usual style of short clipped sentences. And I absolutely loved it. It’s like he is talking to you, to me, the reader, sharing his journey, his ideas, but more importantly his heart. He realises everything he has experienced and lived through has contributed to who he is today and there is a joy in understanding that. We are to embrace all that has gone before to move forward. And so he shares with us.
For someone who is a complex mish mash of things, part average scientist, part explorer of the divine, part lover of people and relationships, part pastor, Bells take on it was refreshing!
The book also speaks to me because his journey is also my journey, from a different starting point. His was from the conservative church, mine was from science and no church. Yet we have both come to see that it is not them and us, or you and me, or faith or not, or belief and unbelief, it’s this amazing, incredible mind blowing universe and life we all participate in. And it’s the impulse in this life to create, to grow, and to bond together in relationship, even in the midst of loss and sadness and grief and death that we both sense. There is something moving beyond our sight, just below the surface, that enlivens the world and pushes us to new insights, new ways of being with one another and new ways of loving one another. All of us.
We belong to something greater, because the something greater is the reason we are here.
Bell takes us on a journey, of the universe and us, as humans. He takes us on a journey of his own awakening to a larger picture of God, not as a person but rather an indivisible part of the process of life, and a larger picture of Jesus, as the face of this presence, to those he lived with and to us here and now, in this place. A face that turns things upside down, that stresses love and connection over empire and violence and inequality.
Bell takes us on a journey in quantum mechanics, a weird journey but one that shows that we limit our vision by keeping our faith in a box. Tied up with doctrines and dogmas about who is in or out. Instead he suggests our faith needs to rise up and out of the box and into the crazy world we live and breathe and have our being in. And Bell takes us on a journey of how we can see in our everyday lives we can be the face of this God, this spirit, because spirit needs a body. It had Jesus and it has us. We are to be the bodies the spirit uses to make change.
Yet Rob Bell continually reminds us that this spirit is greater than us, that it was there in the beginning, the beginning of the universe, it was there in the beginning of the planets, it was there in the beginning of the earth story, the story of life on this planet , and it was there in the story of us. And it will always be there. A mystery, yes, but one in which we are soaked and meshed in and enlivened by. As the book title suggests, everything is spiritual, everything is connected, everything is related. We are body, yes, an incredible thing we often abuse, but we are also mind, and soul, and heart and spirit, which is everywhere and in all things. All interconnected, all part of what it is to be human.
And with this insight Bell shows us how we can, by our actions, be the bridge across the gaps people have made, by how we live and work and play and embrace each other. By listening, and being present, by creating and working for others as though they are our brothers and sisters, which they are! And by living with the idea that life is a gift, an amazing, incredible, awe inspiring gift, even with all the frustrations, pain and suffering that comes along with it.
Thew, I highly recommend the book to you, as a way of being refreshed for the journey.
Because I certainly have been refreshed! In my quiet moments, I sometimes I have worried that I should choose one path to follow, one road to tread, and one discipline to hang my hat on. That because I have spent most of my life oscillating between this and that, one love and another, in my mind never fully committing to only one, I have devalued all of them.
Yet now I realise that while I am a curious mixture of a God searcher, church worker and a person who loves science and teaching it, and showing how it reveals the something more in the universe, it’s actually okay! Will I finish my PhD, not if I get diverted to books like this, but maybe it doesn’t matter anyway, it’s a fun ride and gives me so much in the process. I don’t need a PhD to be a scientist and many don’t need a church to be a person of faith. But we do need each other. As Marcus Borg once said, we are connected at the core, a deep, deep connection.
And anyway, all that has gone before makes up who I am today! A slightly crazy, almost 60 year old!!!
Thanks Rob, now back to my research paper!!!
I have had cause to think about friendship lately. I have been using a book, called “The Friendship of Women” by Joan Chittister as the basis for a series of sermons on women. You can find them at http://www.wduc.squarespace.com if you are interested.
She writes so beautifully about friendship, that mysterious quality of our lives that enriches us. As she says, “only friendship can really save us from our own smallness”. Yet how to define it, how to write about it, how to talk about it. Below is a blog from sometime ago, which I thought I would republish, as often literature is the best way to answer those questions.
I have been wanting to write a blog about friendship for some time. In fact since I read the book, “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara. What a book, what a story!
So here goes…..
We travel through life, if we are lucky, with a group of people who journey with us. If we are really lucky some of these people start the journey when we are young, and hang around until the end, whenever that is, 70, 80 or earlier if circumstances dictate that.
These friends, the old friends, seem to hang around regardless of the ups and downs of life, the joys and sorrows that befall us, and remind us of our younger selves, and the dreams we may have had, some fulfilled others not. As someone said to me recently, friendship is not just about the good times, but just the times, some good some not so good. But hopefully all shared.
I have been very fortunate to have had these types of friends, developed during my University days when I was known as KD, and had lots of ideas about what I was going to do, save the world, become a famous scientistic, run a marathon, or just organise a party. I had so many good ideas, of which some remained just that, an idea, that I was christened “Gunna Dutton”. Funnily enough that doesn’t seem so bad now, and when some of my close friends call me KD, it brings a smile to my face. KD, who was that, oh yes, I remember now…
I am lucky to have one friend I have known from school, when we used to eat our lunch outside and dream about going to the beach. When we get together it is like we are 20 again! And others I inherited when my husband’s good friends became mine.
Commitment and loyalty are words bandied around but require an inner strength, for when the going gets rough and it does for most people, it is the people who remain who end up being the greatest friends, regardless of when they appear in our lives. I recently caught up with my cousin, well sort of cousin in Broome, and spent a day enjoying his company. I haven’t seen much of him these past years, but we have known each other since we were kids, as his mum and my mum were best friends. Shirley, my mum, and Gwen knew each other from the age of 10 when they lived across the road from one another. Now theirs was a friendship which had its ups and downs, but when the downs got more than the ups, my cousin was clear in letting me know my mum showed loyalty and courage. When Gwen got dementia, and was very difficult to deal with, mum was the constant in her life. Even though Gwen rang mum at all hours of the day and night, and often was so confused that she though mum had suddenly got a fella, as the answering machine voice was male, mum was there for her.
So friendship is such a vital part of who we are as humans, we need friends to love us, and for us to love. To share with, cry with, laugh with, be honest with and sometimes to forgive, for forgiveness is part of the journey. And hopefully we are better, more complete people with it.
So let me return to the book for in the book we see a most beautiful friendship and how that friendship along with others can be enough for someone to form” a little life” with it, after the most horrendous of childhoods.
The story is about four young men from the same college, their relationship to one another and ultimately to one of them in particular, Jude. Jude has suffered terribly, but how and why is not known by the reader or by the other characters till quite a long way into the book. Initially the young men move to NYC, and we follow them as they work their way through life, full of career ups and downs, relationships and marriage. But the story at its heart is about the nature of friendship and how it can transmit love and forgiveness, compassion and tolerance. How it can find the very best of us if we let it, becoming a platform that allows us, all of us, to participate in the world. Even with someone like Jude, who was so damaged he was unable to conceive that he is worthy of such friendship.
But this minimises the book, which has so much depth to it. For Jude is not just racked by mental demons, cutting himself literally to survive the memories and flashbacks, but physical ones as well. He suffers, but so does his friends, who for most of the book do not understand the depth of his grief and his anguish, but love him anyway. Along the way there are standouts, people who leave their mark on him in ways that seem incredible. Willem, his best friend, Andy, his doctor, although that seems too small a title and Harold and Julia, who ultimately adopt him. Who accept the unknowns of Jude, are with him as he deals with his demons but also share with him his hard won joys.
There are so many sections of the book which are so beautifully written, which speak to us about our lives together. In the end Jude can be seen as both a tortured soul but also the light by which the others are better people by having known and loved him. We are the better for those we travel with. As Willem discovered “The person he loved was sick, and would always be sick, and his responsibility was not to make him better, but to make him less sick.”
Or when Willem realised his was not a rescue mission, but an extension of their friendship, in which he had saved Jude and just as often Jude had saved him.
I remember one passage that will always stick in my mind.
All the boys were visiting Harold and Julia’s place in the country for the first time. They were to have the first of many Thanksgiving dinners with one another. The evening had begun and there were drinks and talking and laughing. Jude was quietly sitting in the corner. Not feeling isolated and alone, but instead peaceful and happy. He can see all the people he loved in one room getting to know one another. Starting a relationship with each other that would strengthen them all in the coming years. Friendship was not a competition to Jude, he was unable to complete on so many levels. Rather it was the love shared between them that counted the most. “He experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with other people he loved.”
The book is not for the faint hearted. Jude is a very damaged, although brilliant person, and the hidden secrets when revealed are confronting. Yet when he does reveal them it is to the person who in the end loved him the most. But that’s the other thing about friendship, it should not require both parties to somehow to be on equal terms. I know that seems strange, but love can also be accepting that the other person cannot give all of themselves to the relationship, and what is offered is offered in love. Jude would know everything about his friends, but they knew very little about him. And that seemed okay. Maybe we ask too much of the people we travel with, that we should behave the same way, share our stories in the same way, look the same way, think the same way, and even deal with our friendships in the same way. I often complain that one of my friends doesn’t ring me enough, or ask me enough questions!!!
We are linked by time spent, shared experiences, both good and bad, a life lived with one another. This should be enough. Is enough.
So as I enter my 57th year (how is that possible!), I am grateful for those that have hung around, who still laugh at my pathetic jokes, and who I know will be there through the continuing joys and sorrows of life. As Willem reflects in the book, “Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”
In a world in which anxiety rules, when the dreams of riches, and prestige and an adventure filled life is reduced to the normalcy of day to day living, and where our social media gives us thousands of online friends, but no connections, true friendship, lasting friendship is the light of love which saves us.
While I don’t want to give the ending away, it is clear that Jude’s life has been a struggle, and the struggle to continue to live with the pain is incredibly challenging. Yet in this struggle, with friends, he discovers his own meaning in life, even if he can’t really believe he deserves it.
Lets’ hear him…..
“And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile he had always wondered why he, why so many others went on living at all. …
He had known ever since the hospital that it was impossible to convince someone to live for his own sake. But he often thought it would be more effective treatment to make people feel more urgently the necessity of living for others. That rare selflessness had been something he could be proud of after all. He hadn’t understood why they wanted him to stay alive, only that they had, and so he had done it. Eventually he had learned how to rediscover contentment, joy even.”
“I know my life’s meaningful because” – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ” because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”
The ending is just as beautiful as the beginning. A life of friendship, a life of love, that could overcome the most terrible of starts. A little life. Maybe that’s what we all will be blessed to have, a little life, travelling with those who love and know us. If we are lucky.
Let me end with a passage that has Willem talking to Jude late at night. Theirs was a relationship for the ages.
“Sometimes he wakes so far from himself that he can’t even remember who he is. “Where am I?” he asks, desperate, and then, “Who am I? Who am I?
And then he hears, so close to his ear that it is as if the voice is originating inside his own head, Willem’s whispered incantation. “You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.”
“You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen.”
“You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore.” “You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way.”
“You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it.”
“You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again.”
“You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”
A love between friends, in some ways the greatest love, according to CS Lewis.
I leave you with a song by Simon and Garfunkel, called “old Friends”.
I have been reading a book lately, called “Phosphorescence”, by Julia Baird. I have loved it and she writes quite beautifully about the things that give us light, particularly awe and wonder, but also our internal light, and particularly when things go a little pear shaped!
But she is speaking to a contemporary audience that may not of heard of people who have been writing in this area over many years. People like Carl Sagan, a famous cosmologist and thinker, who quotes Albert Einstein and Thomas Carlyle in his book “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”
“By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and literature. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, `I maintain that the cosmic religion feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.` So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right.”.
What about Rabi Abraham Heschel, who coined the term Radical Amazement. Who said that wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of a religious life and the proper response to our experience of the divine. Much like Carl Sagan.
As Herschel says, the insights that connect us to the holy one come not on the level of discursive thinking, but on the level of wonder and radical amazement, in the depth of awe, in our sensitivity to the mystery, in our awareness of the ineffable.
Living in radical amazement brings us into a space in which great things happen to the soul. I love that.
Without radical amazement we cannot grasp what a marvel of creation we are, in a sea of marvels. Even with all the death and destruction that goes with it.
I personally have always had this sensibility, teaching anatomy has left me with awe at how complex and intricate our bodies are, how incredible is the process by which we live and move and have our being. But not just us, creation in general, both big, ,and really, really small, amazes me.
Recently I have become fascinated with the brain, the mind, consciousness and the philosophers guide to all of this. Some of it seems totally crazy but so incredible.
Without doubt, this feeling of wonder, has lead me to believe there is a greater mystery to life that can be measured or examined with a microscope. That a divine layer lies beneath, a creative energy seeping into every living thing that holds the whole thing together. That leads us out of our self-absorbed world into the wider one, embracing life for all. As Heschel says, “living in radical amazement brings us into a space in which great things happen to the soul”.
One of the great things about working for a church, is I get time to ponder some of this stuff, and in that pondering many years ago I discovered Mary Oliver. She writes her poetry with eyes wide open to the natural world, but in her later years to the something more stirring within it and us.
Most of my congregation hear from Mary regularly, and I even use her poems when conducting funerals and weddings, when sometimes only a poem can truly express our emotions.
Julia Baird ends her book with a famous Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer Day”, where the last line says,
“Tell me, what it is you plan to do,
With you one wild and precious life”?
I do love that one.
But this is another one of my favourites –
“When Death Comes.”
She ends it with these lines…
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world in my arms.
When its over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself signing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”.
I recommend both the book, and of course Mary Oliver. Or perhaps, if you aren’t feeling like reading, just go out and take a walk.
And look around you a bit more intentionally. It does help!
Book, books, I love books. They give us comfort, insight, enjoyment, sorrow, laughter.
They take us out of ourselves, see the other, the neighbour, the friend, the enemy, in a new light.
People who write are giving us a gift, and people who recommend books to us are giving us gifts as well.
I was recommended a book by someone who I met while working very briefly in a chaplaincy role, yet she has given me a gift.
The book is called “Phosphorescence” by Julia Baird. It is gentle and insightful about the human condition, about awe and wonder and about being a woman, here and now. How to find the light in the dark of life.
But Julia Baird has also given me a gift. A poet who I was unaware of, and who has written these beautiful words in a poem, called “Birthing the sky, Birthing the sea”. They are found in the book….
Hands on her belly of stone
Pebbles in her blood stream
She’s fervently dreaming of birthing the sky
birthing the sea.
She doesn’t want to live forever
Just long enough to be able to love a little harder
To become a little smarter
To heal the world just enough that
evolving hearts have a platform from which to start.”
To hear the whole poem, go onto YouTube, and as she speaks it, rather than has it written down. The poet is Candy Royalle and she sadly died a few years ago aged 37.
I discovered poetry, really discovered it through Mary Oliver. And now I love the way it can also speak to us at a deep, mysterious level, below what we can see on the surface of things.
Thankyou Julia for giving me these beautiful words by Candy.
Sometimes I wonder, can I be a writer like that, make words that sit us up and shake us out of our stupor?