Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The Laughter at the Heart of Things

Recently I wrote a couple of News and Views about control.  I want to follow up with my thoughts and reflections on humility and humour.  Now it may not be obvious that there is a connection between these three things i.e. control, humour and humility. However, I would like to explore the relationship that I see.The first connection was when I heard a commentator on TV talk about his time observing Donald Trump, the “so called” President of the United Sates.  Now as an aside, Mr. Trump is of course the President having won the Electoral College vote, if not the popular vote.  In any case, the commentator noted than in his extensive observation of Mr. Trump he had never seem him laugh.  I wondered, on hearing this, why that would be?  My initial reflection was that Mr. Trump, at heart, if he has one (which of course he does in the physical sense), was a very insecure person who needs to have his ego constantly stroked. 

At the time, I had been reading a book of essays by Helen Luke which is entitled, The Laughter at the Heart of Things.  It is a wonderful collection that deals insightfully and widely of many subjects.    The essay from which the title is drawn delves into the attribute or gift which she quotes Schopenhauer as stating, “a sense of humour is the only divine quality of man.”  In the essay she expounds that, “ But the individual may tragically remain obsessed into adult years with his or her superiority or inferiority as the case may be.  Nothing more quickly kills the ability to laugh at oneself which is the mark of a sense of humour.”  I cannot imagine Donald Trump ever laughing at himself.  However, I can imagine Barrack Obama do that and I am sure f I investigate I would find examples of just thatnot to say that Obama was a perfect president, but I know it would annoy Donald Trump to be compared unfavourably to Barack Obama if he were to read thiswhich he won’t,

What, then, does this have to do with humility?  Well, the best statements about humility is that someone who is truly humble cannot be humiliated.  They are too humble to take themselves seriously and therefore cannot be humiliated.  Following on that thought is another quote by Helen Luke, “to be humble is to see things clearly.”  When we see ourselves clearly, we will be humbled by what we see—our warts and imperfections; our shadow; our desire to be perfect despite our imperfections. 

Okay, so there is a connection of all this to the need to be in control.  If we are insecure and at heart, if we have one at that sense, are not truly humble enough to see how we are in relation to the world that God has created, there is no way that we can laugh at the ideocracies and foibles and incongruities of life and most importantly, at ourselves. 

What is at the heart of the matter, according to Helen Luke, is a sense of proportion.  Luke quotes T.S. Eliot and notes that, “Eliot is expressing here (in the quote) the identity of a sense of humour with the sense of proportion and the humility that this engenders”.  What is at the heart of things the joy of seeing disproportion restored to proportion. 

Finally, when we have a sense of restored proportion as Julian of Norwich is credited with saying, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

May you be blessed on your journey with a sense of the laughter at the heart of things.

Monday, 14 May 2018

How Can I Keep From Singing

Last night I participated in Singspiration at St. James Anglican Church in Parkhill.  This was an old-time hymn sing which is the brain child of the Ernie Harris who is one of the pastors at the Nairn Mennonite Church in our neighbouring community. 

Singspiration is an outreach program by the Nairn church where they conduct an evening of singing favourite hymns in the gospel tradition.  They organize the event and ask a host church to provide the facility and some refreshments following the event.  It is intended as an ecumenical event which will bring together different churches in the community.  In my estimation it was a success by that and any other measure.   My role was to represent St. James church and officially welcome people and to thank all the participants. 

We sang a selection of old hymns, some of which were familiar to me and some which weren’t.  However, all of them were easy to sing and ones which everyone sang with great feeling.  There were a couple of song performed by Ernie and his wife, Jan.  I also performed a song which I first heard at the Dream Conference I attended at Kanuga a year ago, How Can I Keep From Singing.  This is a song which could have been written yesterday but was actually written in the 19th century by Robert Wadsworth Lowry.  As I noted last night, I don’t know where this song has been all my life as I have come across it numerous times since.  It is included in church hymnals and of course performances can be found by various performer on YouTube.

The song resonated with me deeply the first time I heard it and has been in my heart ever since, becoming my favourite song to hear and perform.  After the event, two people mentioned that they intend to have the song performed at their funerals, which strikes me as the perfect summation of any life where music and singing was an integral part; that certainly is my life.

I will leave you with the lyrics of the song and a link to a performance by Enya for your enjoyment and reflection,
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What tho' my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho' the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it,
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Who’s in Control part 2

Yesterday St. James Anglican Church in Parkhill was celebrating its 149th anniversary.  It was a low-key but lovely service which Lorna and I attended.  Rev. Karen Nelles, the rector of the parish was presiding and preaching.  It was rater nice to be able to worship with Lorna and have a break from any liturgical duties.  The sermon was based on the Gospel reading John 15:1-8, with the theme, I am the vine you are the branches. 

In her sermon, Karen referred to drinking the Kool-Aid.  This is a reference to the cult led by Jim Jones who forced his followers to drink Kool-Aid laced with poison.  It has come to refer to someone who goes along with a dangerous idea because of peer pressure. 

It stuck me that Jim Jones had mistakenly tried to be the vine instead of a branch.   In effect, he wanted to be in control rather than acknowledging that God is the one who should be in control and is ultimately in control.  I recall years ago watching a movie based in Jim Jones’ life.  As I recall, he started out in California with a ministry which had very high motives.  It was focussed on racial integration.  However, he lost his way and led his followers astray with deadly consequences.  In effect, he began to believe he was the vine rather than one of the branches. It is very easy to become confused about being a vine or a branch.  Putting it another way we believe that our branch is really the same as the vine and therefore what we desire for ourselves and others is actually what God desires. 

Sin is not just a question of being alone and not being in relationship with other people and the world.  It is a question of what kind of relationship.  A master and a slave are in a relationship but it is a relationship in which one personthe masteris in control and the other―the slave―is controlled i.e. not free.  That is a state of being in sin.  The relationship between others and me must be mutual.  In which one does not control or dominate the other.  Richard Rohr addressed this in today’s Daily Meditation quoting C.S. Lewis:
Sin is a refusal of mutuality and a closing down into separateness. In his classic book, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis has a ghostly soul in hell shouting out, “I don’t want help. I want to be left alone.” [1] Whenever we refuse mutuality toward anything, whenever we won’t allow our deep inner-connectedness to guide us, whenever we’re not attuned to both receiving and giving, you could say that the Holy Spirit is existentially (but not essentially) absent from our lives.
The desire to control is a great temptation for us as human beings.  It is natural but it is not the intention God has for us.  We are called to live lives in which we serve and not lives in which we believe we should be served.  We are the branches and Jesus is the vine.

Blessings on your journey.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

So, Who is In Control?

A week ago, I had a reminder that any belief that I am in ultimate control of my life is an illusion.  Saturday of that weekend we experienced the beginning of the ice storm from a Colorado Low which had been predicted.  This prediction was unfortunately worthy of a Biblical Prophet being right on target.  The ice storm on Saturday was followed by a power failure on Sunday morning which lasted until Monday evening for us in Parkhill. 
All the plans for the weekend were cancelled, at least for us, including a 90th birthday party in Grand Bend, church Sunday morning at St. James. Parkhill, and a tea and vintage fashion show at the Carnegie Library in Parkhill where I was supposed to provide mood music on guitar.  We were without the amenities and necessities provided by electrical power.  It is amazing how you don’t realize how much we depend on electricity until we don’t have it.  As it says in the song from the 1960ties, “Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.”

This experience is a reminder or perhaps it is a realization that we are not in control.  It is very easy for us to succumb to the illusion that we are in control of our lives. I went on retreat in he week after Easter to Apple Farm, a contemplative community in Three Rivers, Michigan.  I believed in my heart of hearts why I was doing this, hopefully for all the best reasons, and that I knew what I was getting into.  I knew in my head what I would be experiencing.  It is always more challenging in reality than in theory, I still had a fairly clear idea and knew it was my decision to do it.  In effect I believed I was ultimately in control of my destiny, even on a retreat.

However, the power failure made me face the reality that when you get down to the nitty gritty of life. Any idea that you are ultimately in control is just an illusion.  We have a need to believe that we can control what will happen to us.  We try as hard as we can to maintain that control.  And to a limited extent we are.  However, we consciously or unconsciously try to ignore the reality that our lives are actually ultimately out of our control. 

We try to do all we can to ensure that our lives will turn out as we desire; we will have good health if we eat right and exercise or at least not abuse our bodies.  We do the right things and we will be rewarded with the life we believe we want.  However, a relatively small thing like a power failure for 36 hours show us that we are at the mercy of forces that we cannot control. 
The only true constant in our lives is the voice of the Divine calling us to our true home with God our heavenly Father.  This might be the voice of the Holy Spirit or the voice of the Good Shepherd―yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday.  We desire control because we are fearful of what will happen if we do not have control. 

Who knows what curve life will throw at us.  And that is reality.  The illusion is that we can control our lives and keep ourselves safe from those things.  However, our true security is in God.  It is in the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us to our true home, our spiritual home.  That is the home which is always there for us.  That is where we are loved unconditionally for who we are and not what we accomplish.  That is where there is a room that is truly our and where we are always welcome.

Blessings on you journey.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Actually, What is Contemplation?

I was away at a retreat last week from Wednesday to Sunday.  I usually go once a year to Apple Farm Community in Three Rivers Michigan―or I try to.  I didn’t make it last year so it was good to be back an connect with the place and the community members. 
Now you may be asking why I go there for a retreat rather than some place in Canada―which is what the customs official at the U. S. border asked me (I still don’t know why I feel guilty when being questioned by a border guard even though I don’t have anything to hide).  The answer I gave him was that I have had a relationship with that community for about 10 years.  That is the short answer which he accepted.  The not quite so short answer is that the community was founded over fifty years ago by someone who is probably my favourite spiritual writer, Helen Luke.  She was a very wise woman who wrote inciteful, meaningful explorations of the human soul using the bible and many classics of literature such as the Divine Comedy by Dante.  I highly recommend her books and essays to anyone who wants to explore the soul and the human condition.
Apple Farm Community was founded as a contemplative community.  I had not previously considered   what a contemplative community is until is read an essay based on the thoughts of the founder during my most recent retreat.  It is described in the essay as first of all what it is not i.e. it is not an intentional community.   I take that to mean it does not set out to intentionally create a community of and for people.  It provides opportunity and space for people to be themselves in reflection and introspection.
More specifically, to quote from the article, “The ultimate way of contemplation lies not in increase in knowledge or even understanding, importance, or in refusal of life or love, and not in the quest for spiritual experience but just simply in an ever-deepening sense of wonder.” 
 I think it is that sense of wonder, which I find so hard to recognize in my day -to-day life, that is what is truly meaningful for me.  It is the sense of wonder at the wonders of God’s creation which I am able to recognize and experience there more than most other places.  I do find it in other places such as the wonderful architecture of an ancient cathedral or a natural cathedral such as a majestic sunset.  However, my time at Apple Farm enables me to see and experience it in the small things which I otherwise would miss. 
The key is to turn to wonder especially when you find you don’t have the answer to your questions or are not sure why life is happening to you the way it is; or just because. 
As Paul Simon said, “These are the days of miracles and wonders”. 

Blessings on you journey. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Nicodemus’ Journey to Easter

We are now in Holy week as we move with Jesus towards Jerusalem and the Day of Resurrection next Sunday. One of the most poignant parts of story for me is often overlooked.  I am always moved when I remember the part played by Nicodemus.  He is what could be described as a minor character only appearing in the Gospel of John and only making three appearances in that Gospel.

What always grabs me in this story is the journey which Nicodemus makes in his relationship with and to Jesus.  Initially we encounter him as a visitor who has come to see Jesus and talk with him.  We are told that he is a Pharisee and has come at night.  In effect, he is a leader of the Jewish people who perhaps does not want it to be known what he is associating with someone form Nazarethafter all we hear just before this that nothing good can come out of Nazareth.   In any case, Nicodemus is revealed to us as someone who is a seeker.  He has questions about God and his relationship with God and hopes that Jesus can supply the answers to his questions. He is also someone who seems to be obtuse.  He doesn’t get what Jesus is telling him.  He is a concrete thinker who has a hard time thinking symbolically:
 “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
We aren’t told if Nicodemus does get what Jesus is telling him.  However, the next time we encounter Nicodemus he is with the Temple authorities who are planning to have Jesus arrested.  Nicodemus is arguing that Jesus should receive a trial as their law requires.  He is summarily dismissed on the same basis i.e. nothing good can come out of Galilee,
Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, 51“Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” 52They replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” 53Then each of them went home,
As anyone who has been a lone voice in a group knows, it took great courage for Nicodemus to stand up to the other leaders and defend Jesus from the arbitrary decision of the other leaders.  Where before he had Jesus visit him in the night and was afraid of being associated with Jesus, now he is a lone voice against the injustice.  We can see from this that is initial encounter with Jesus did have a profound affect on him and he is well on his journey with Jesus.

The final scene of our play, which I could tentatively entitle Nicodemus’ Journey to Easter, comes on Good Friday.  Nicodemus comes with Joseph of Arimathea bringing 100 pounds of spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  This extravagant amount is reminiscent of the woman anointing Jesus feet with ointment which could have been sold for 300 denarii. 

As we continue our Journey to Easter Sunday let follow the example of Nicodemus and respond to the Good News of Easter by an extravagant response for what Jesus has done for us.
Blessings on your journey. 

Friday, 23 March 2018

Circumcision of the Heart part 2

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the idea of the circumcision of the heart, the sign of the new covenant which Paul addressed in his letter to the Romans:
Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. (Romans 2:29)
In the Old Testament reading from last Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent, Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant which God promises for the Jewish people, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  Jeremiah goes on to identify the sign of the new covenant as one that will be written in the heart, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  
It is quite likely that Paul had this in mind when he spoke of the new covenant.  As a good Jew and a good Pharisee, he would have been very aware of Jeremiah’s prophetic declarations.  It is unfortunate that this has not become a more prevalent symbol in Christianity today.  It is spoken of in some parts of our religion but it is not as prevalent as many symbols.  The heart if a very powerful symbol which does resonate as a symbol of love even in our scientific materialistic world today. 

The heart traditionally represented the feeling world of human existence at the deepest level and going back to ancient times.  Indeed, as noted by theologian Marcus Borg:
the heart in biblical tradition is an image of the self at its deepest level.  For the ancient Hebrews, the heart was not simply associated with feelings or courage or courage or love, as in common usage.  Rather, the heart was associated with the totality of the human psyche: not only emotion but also intellect, volition, and even perception.
What does it mean then to have this new covenant written on the heart?  I propose that this means that Paul is calling Christians to have heart that are not written in stone, as the old covenant was written on those stone tablets.  Rather we are called to be open hearted to and with others.  That is easier said than done as I can attest from my experience.  When you are interacting with someone who has caused you pain or is even difficult and annoying the natural reaction seems to be to have a heart of stone which sets up protective barriers around the soft core of the heart we were born with.
The key to relating to someone who does not act in a loving way to you is not react in kind.  It is to turn the other cheek and to go the second mile as we are told elsewhere.  For me the only way that this has the possibility of working is to recognize that the other person is not “the other”.  They are someone who is a flawed, imperfect child of God just as you are a flawed, imperfect child of God.  Perhaps their flaws are more obvious to you but it may be that your inner vision is not 20/20.  What you have in common is that we are all sinful and in need of redemption. 

Unfortunately, it is very easy and seems to satisfy us on a deep level when we can feel righteous indignation or even good old-fashioned revenge and hope the other person will get what they deserve in this world rather than the next.  However, the new covenant we have as Christians calls us to be open hearted.  Jesus told us that his yoke is easy.  Hmm, why then does this seem so difficult?  Perhaps it gets easier with practice.  I guess all we sinful children of God can do is keep trying.

Blessing on you journey to Easter.