On growing and changing

People do grow and change. Perhaps not fundamentally. We still laugh at the same things. We still look the same. But the living of life does shape us.

I have moved around a fair bit in my adult life, so it comes as something of a surprise to me to be living essentially the same life as I was five years ago. The job is the same, the flat is the same. But I know that in some significant ways I have shifted in my being.

I have managed to let go of some old ghosts. I have much greater interior freedom. I have forged new friendships. I know that I am not quite the same person I was five years ago. I have grown and I think I am the better for it.

But it struck me this last week, that I don’t always give others the same recognition. I work in a chemistry department, and my three nearest neighbours are all women. In the last five years, one has had twins, one has been through a divorce and one has been widowed. If I am aware of how much I have changed in this time through my simple, single life; how much more so have these three women shifted in the same time?

It occurs to me that I do not afford others the same benefit I give myself. I fail to pay attention to their growth and development and far too often continue to use old presumptions in my interactions. It is neither fair nor kind.

Any direct counter measure of making the effort to actually get to know people sufficiently well to be able to recognise the change is simply not realistic. None of us have that kind of time for more than a handful of people. But perhaps all it takes is a shift in attitude – a willingness to be surprised by those whom we think we know. An openness to the possibility of seeing them in a new light.

Remembering Greg

This was first published a year ago as the editorial on Easter Sunday in The Southern Cross, the Roman Catholic weekly newspaper distributed throughout Southern Africa. What most readers were unaware of was that it was written in the light of the death of a close friend. Today is the first anniversary of Greg’s death. Greg was the husband of my closest friend. He was 37 years old.

‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit’ John 12:24

It struck me recently that when we are in the midst of grief following some significant loss this phrase can seem meaningless and almost cruel. The fruit is far from evident, all there appears to be is barren soil.

I think of the disciples on that brutal Friday so many years ago. The shock; the numbness; the sense of utter pointlessness of all that gone before.  And then when they finally get to the tomb to finish attending to his body it is empty. Is it any wonder that in the encounter with Mary Magdalene it took Jesus three attempts before she actually recognised him? Or indeed the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Whilst I may not have been in Jerusalem those many years ago the story of the resurrection continues to echo down the centuries. I find resonances in my own life. Not of literal resurrection, but of grace flowering in the wasteland of a fallen dream.

Much like the experience of the actual resurrection the grace is unexpected and occasionally a little unnerving. It is sometimes hard to embrace the new vision. Like the disciples we can be left for a while holed up in the upper room, sitting with the knowledge of new life, but not yet quite sure how to proceed.

And then the inspiration strikes (or perhaps gently dawns) and the way forward begins to clear. We have sufficient light for the next step. Slowly, slowly, we live our way into a new way of being. A way of living that we had not imagined possible but there is hope and grace and promise.

When our dreams fail perhaps through death, perhaps through broken relationship, perhaps through betrayal or injury, it is useful to remember the utter dejection of the disciples on Good Friday night. How can a man of such goodness, such mercy, such vision be cut down in this way? How can the Son of God be killed? There are times when our dreams feel as though they have been ordained by God. Good dreams which have come about as an answer to prayer are suddenly laid to waste. How can this be? We, too, feel lost and dejected.

But again and again, as I have encountered these soul crushing experiences, if we have the courage to wait with hope, new life emerges. It always takes a little longer than is comfortable. Just like the disciples, it may demand new things from us. They had to step up from the role as followers to proclaimers of the Word. Some had to travel to new places. I have no doubt that the lives of all of them were significantly different to what they had been even when they following Jesus.

The catastrophe of the crucifixion with the terrible loss of Jesus, in the end through the resurrection, results in the spreading of the Christian message across the world. But the resurrection by itself was not sufficient. The proclamation of the Gospel required the participation of the disciples. Those men and women needed to be willing to live a new version of their lives.

This new vision was not what they had signed on for when they began to follow Jesus, but now, this was the invitation, this was what was required. So too, in our own lives, in the aftermath of catastrophe there will be an invitation to a new way of being. It takes tremendous courage to choose the new path, and for most of us the transition doesn’t occur nearly as quickly as it did for the disciples. But if we have the courage to follow it, in time, we will see the experience as being laden with grace. What we thought was wasteland now covered in green with the promise of an abundant harvest.

Reflections on the washing of the feet

This is the text of the homily I gave on the Women’s World Day of Prayer – 6 March 2015. The text was John 13:1-17 – the washing of the feet.

When I first read the reading today from that familiar passage from John’s gospel in preparation for speaking here today my heart sank a little. Was I really going to have to talk to a group of committed Christian women about the importance of service? Surely if this group do not already have a good grasp of the ideal of service there is nothing I can add.

And then I sat with the readings. Over the last few months I have allowed them to percolate in my soul. Every so often drawing them out to look at them again.

A few weeks ago I found myself enthralled by the interaction between Peter and Jesus. Jesus gets up from the table and prepares to start washing the disciples’ feet. This is a task for a servant. Peter asks the obvious question ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus says ‘At the moment you do not understand what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ And Peter says ‘Never! … You shall never wash my feet!’ Jesus says ‘If I don’t wash your feet, you can have no share of me’

Notice the strength of response of both – Peter says ‘Never, you shall never wash my feet’ This isn’t Peter mock objecting – ohh I feel a little awkward but okay go ahead – he is saying ‘under no circumstances will I let you wash my feet’. Jesus response is equally firm – ‘If you don’t let me do this, you and I are done.’

Clearly there is a whole lot more at stake here than washing a bit of dust off the feet. So what might it be?

I have found myself musing on the writing of Thomas Merton about the True Self and false self. Could this possibly give us a clue here? Jesus is acting out of his True Self, as he always does. He is unafraid to heal the leper, he speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well, he lets his disciples pick corn on the Sabbath because they are hungry. He flouts social convention left and right, but he is regarded as a rabbi – a respected teacher.

And here we have exactly the same dynamic in action – Peter thinks of Jesus as the rabbi, the master, the leader, perhaps even at this stage the promised Messiah. This Jesus is ‘the man’!  To Peter it is unthinkable that this great leader whom he is privileged to call a friend would perform such a menial and undignified task as to wash his feet. This is not the task performed by one who stands in the role of the Messiah.

And that is precisely the point.

Jesus is not playing the role of the Messiah. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the rabbi, Jesus is the teacher. He does not need the external trappings of the role to retain his primary identity. He is operating out of his True Self. But Peter is still caught in the ego world of the false self. The man who is the Messiah should do these things and should not do those things.  And on the list of things the Messiah should not do is wash the feet of his disciples. That’s a servant’s job. It is problematic if a leader de-roles in this way.

But the problem is Peter’s problem, not Jesus’s. Jesus knows who he is, he doesn’t need titles or proper etiquette to reassure him of his mission. He is operating out of the True Self. Peter isn’t there yet, he still need the illusion of props of etiquette and title.

If we look at our own times we see that this is precisely the dynamic that we see in Pope Francis. Almost two years ago, shortly after his election as Pope, he washed the feet of a number of young people at a prison near Rome. There was outrage in some circles that two of the young inmates were Muslim women. Both religion and gender were an issue. The rubric says it shall be twelve men. And herein we have exactly the same dynamic. Pope Francis too, seems to operate out of a freedom which can only come from the sense of identity which is founded in the True Self. The rules are not to be abolished or laughed at, but simply the rules cannot override the significance of real human connection. And this pattern can be found in so much of what Pope Francis does.

Far too many of us embrace the subtle hierarchies of our societies. Which I must state unequivocally permeate the church just as much as any other organisation, community or family grouping. We happily nudge our way up the pecking order and are far too inclined to use our rank to prop up our fragile egos.

Have you ever been outraged at the uppity youngster who failed to realise that it was not her turn, or that someone else performed that particular role?

Have you ever protected the role of another – that is what Father does! That is what our chairwoman does! That is what the mother-in-law does!

Have you ever felt affronted by someone asking you to perform a task which you felt was below your station?

All of these situations are about the disruption of social hierarchy and the performing of roles. They are not about the person themselves. And if it is about the role rather than the person, then it is about stroking the ego, propping up the false self, not engaging with the True Self.

And I think that this is precisely what Jesus is striking down in today’s gospel reading. He is not saying we all need to serve more, although that is often the way in which this reading is presented. No, he is saying quit playing games. Let’s get to what is real. What makes Jesus special is not his role, it is the fact that he is operating out of the True Self. He doesn’t need the ego defence. So he chooses to do the one thing that will make Peter squirm. He will washes Peter’s feet, so Peter will understand.

This understanding is so important. We humans are so unbelievably slow to learn. If we read this reading simply at the level of service: that Jesus instituted the washing of the feet so that we are know that service to others is good, then sooner or later our pesky ego takes over again. Soon we are trying to outcompete each other for who serves more.

We think we are gaining brownie points with God through our acts of service. Do we not understand that we can do nothing to earn the love of God. God loves us unconditionally. Full Stop! That has got to mean that our actions for good or ill cannot influence the amount that God loves us.

The moment I catch myself thinking – look at how much I am doing for God; or I may not be doing as much as so and so, but at least I am doing more than this other person – I need to recognise that I have entirely missed the good news of the Gospel.

I’d like to invite you to spend some time considering your motivations for your acts of service. Which acts of service are coming out of the depths of your being, your deepest sense of self? And which are really simply fuelling your ego? Don’t worry if you discover that a bunch of the things that you do are actually fuelled by a desire to look good to others, or to earn point with God. Just hold your brokenness and woundedness before God and pray for the grace to discover your True Self.

Do you know what I have done for you?

 

Surrender to grace

In the last week, this poem, by Denise Levertov, has come across my radar several times.

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.’

I spent a good part of the weekend doing the spirituality input for a group of young adults. On Saturday afternoon we had an interesting conversation about the relative importance of our effort and God’s grace. There was a strong plea for the need to ‘do your bit’. And it is hard to argue against that position. The longer I live the less I trust myself to show up with the goods. It doesn’t mean that I don’t make the effort, but I no longer trust my effort to get me to where I would like to be.

One of the concerns on Saturday, was the idea that people know you have changed by your actions. And I guess that is part of the shift in me – I am really not trying to be a good example, or bear witness. Where in the past I would have been aware of others watching me, now I care much less about that. I am simply trying to live a life of faith because I believe it is the best life I can live.

I am invested in living a life of faith because I have seen God’s grace in action in my life and I don’t want to give up on that. The generosity of God is utterly extraordinary in ways that I never expected. I’m not sure that there is any thing else to do except to surrender.

There is a prayer at the end of the Spiritual Exercises which I prayed with great trepidation the first time I encountered it

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me. To you, Lord I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.

When I first prayed that prayer I thought I was being asked to stake something significant against something so tenuous. How can the love and grace of God be sufficient?

Now I realise that what I offer in that prayer pales into insignificance in the light of the grace of God.

I think that may be a lesson we can only learn with time, and through the grace of God.

 

Reconciliation

There is a situation in my life that I never dared hope to reconcile.  In this particular case I was the one who was wronged. To be perfectly honest I never really desired reconciliation. Over the years I have come to desire and seek the grace of forgiveness. And that desire has grown, and has come to fruition.

I wrote about the discovery that that grace had indeed taken root in October last year (you can find the post here).

Quite unexpectedly, through a brief email contact I have found not just forgiveness but reconciliation. With the reconciliation, the grace of forgiveness has paled into insignificance. It is a completely different space. One that I had no idea existed.

A few years ago I came across an image of grief in Jerusha Hull McCormack’s powerful book ‘Grieving: A beginner’s guide’. In it she describes grief as a rubber ball squeezed tightly into a glass jar – the glass jar is your being. In the beginning the ball fills the jar. The usual way in which people talk about ‘getting over grief’ seems to suggest that the ball should shrink over time. McCormack suggests that in fact this is not the case. The ball remains the same size – but the jar increases in size to accommodate it, and to allow new elements of life to have a place.

The image is powerful one – in my own mind over time I have morphed the image slightly – where the ball has become a stone, and it represents not only grief, but any significant experience of suffering. So for me, this particular incident was a large stone in the jar of my soul.

A few days ago I realised that with the reconciliation, the stone has disintegrated. The space it once occupied is now available.

Available for what? I am not sure, but this is clearly a part of the interior shifts taking place in the wake of the final release of an incident that held me captive for far too long. It is utterly extraordinary and pure grace.

More thoughts on the fire

The fires which ripped through the Cape Peninsular over the last week have largely been brought under control. There is still one fire burning at Cape Point, but for the most part the drama and hysteria of the last week is over.

The cost has been significant for some. This week will long be remembered.

Comments from two friends on my last blog post (found here) have enlarged the spiritual metaphor for me. In that post I wrote: ‘It makes me wonder though if the human psyche isn’t a bit like the Cape fynbos. Maybe we need the occasional devastation to clear out the dross and to allow for new growth.’

One friend commented on her identification as she watches her life go up in flames at the moment. A second friend asked a practical question about the use of controlled fires on the Mountain. I don’t know the real world answer to that question, but it got me thinking about the spiritual metaphor. What is the spiritual/psychological equivalent of a controlled burn?

I think in my own life it is the combination of going on retreat and receiving spiritual direction. Not that either of those things is necessarily the equivalent of a fire experience. But that occasionally things get triggered which can be dealt with in a particular way in those spaces which is a bit like a controlled burn.

I have never been in therapy, but I imagine that it too can provide a similar kind of space.

Controlled fires provide the necessary environmental regeneration without the terrible threat to livelihood and property. It is a risky strategy, but in the long term probably less destructive.

Where are the spaces in your life where the necessary fire can burn without becoming a runaway disaster?

The fire rages on

There is a massive fire burning on the Cape Peninsular. Today is the fourth day and still the fire continues. It is disturbing and unsettling. Quite literally so for many families who have had to evacuate.

And yet the Cape fynbos needs fire (You can read more about that here). The Cape flora have evolved to require fire every 10 to 15 years. It is living alongside the fynbos which creates the tension and the fear of disaster. The devastation of the fire is necessary for the long term health of the flora.

And yet, it so very hard to hold that perspective as I watch the flickering flames on the side of the Mountain. There have already been families who have lost their homes. The threat is real.

It makes me wonder though if the human psyche isn’t a bit like the Cape fynbos. Maybe we need the occasional devastation to clear out the dross and to allow for new growth.

What are the parts of myself which I desperately try to protect when the internal fire rages? The structures I have built, but which have no real place in the True Self.

Perhaps the quest for interior freedom is to be able to let the fire rage when suffering ignites it, and to let it take what it will, trusting that the new growth will come.