Mandela Day

I am not celebrating Mandela Day today.

Mandela Day began as a concept with the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. The basic idea being that Mandela spent 67 years trying to make the world a better place, so we should spend 67 minutes trying to do the same.

Nelson Mandela was one of the great people of our time. I remain in awe of his capacity to forgive. If we all emulated his example just a fraction our world would truly be a better place.

But Mandela Day falls on 18 July and the thing is that 18 July has been a significant day in our family for far longer than the Mandela Day. 18 July is also my dad’s birthday.

I could write the story which tells of the way he, as a judge, had the courage to stand up to a government which had little interest in justice, morality or truth. But perhaps the greater story is that of a man who moved country and reestablished himself at the age of 65.

Thirteen years later my dad has a new legacy. He has made a significant contribution and he continues to work effectively and productively.

My parents created a new life for themselves. There is little talk of what might have been or of the pain that was. There is simply an embracing of what is today.

That is a legacy worth celebrating, and a model worth emulating.

I am not celebrating Mandela day today, because today I choose to honour a man who has had a far greater impact on my life.

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.

Figuring Sh!t Out

This is the book I wish I had read a year ago.

I am a fan of autobiography and biography. A friend of mine remarked some months ago that I don’t seem to read much fiction. It’s true I don’t. I read some, but not much. I prefer the stories of real people.

Figuring Sh!t Out is a very real account of a very real situation. Amy Biancolli writes about the experience of losing her husband of twenty years to suicide following a six month period of mental illness.

I was expecting the book to be way more about suicide than it was. I confess that it took me several months to actually buy the book and read it precisely because I thought it would be more about processing the suicide aspect of the death. As it turns out the author is no stranger to suicide which explains why there is less soul searching more compassion than I expected.

Mostly it is book about finding her way, after the loss of her beloved. It is a book about the experience of grief following the death of a spouse.

And I wish this book had been available a year ago.

This is one of those books that everyone should read before they need to. You can’t read books on grief once you are in the midst of it. So read it now. Read it for yourself; read it for your siblings; read it for your friends.

The book is well written and very humorous in places. It is also one of the very few books that have moved me to tears.

I wish I had read this book a year ago, because I would have been able to be more present to my close friend following the untimely death of her husband in March.

I want to thank Amy Biancolli for her honesty, and her willingness to share her journey.

(I am well aware that this an odd post for Christmas Eve – but it’s all I have to give!)

Watershed year

2014 has been a watershed year for me.

There have been some significant deaths; I have taught for the first time in the Faculty of Theology; I have had a good year in terms of research; I have been invited to talk about spirituality in a wider circle. Whilst these things have made this year significant, they are not the reason it has been a watershed.

The year began with a sense of being profoundly unsettled. Something was stirring in the core of my being. I began looking around trying to figure out what I could change. And I did resolve to change some of my commitments. Were it not for the fact that I knew I needed to stay put to support a good friend, I may well have tried to change my job.

But as time wore on, it became clear, that the sense of disturbance would not be resolved through external changes. It was time for some interior work. Changing my job may have distracted me from the interior discomfort for a while, but it wouldn’t have solved the problem.

So it has been a year of doing interior work. Some of it has been about looking at my childhood and early adult years. Some of it has been about coming to see myself as I am – accepting that this is my life. This blend of science and spirituality; hard work and laziness; compassion and lack of caring; is who I am. This is the life I have created.

At the end of it, something has shifted. I can’t name it and I can’t describe it, but I know I am in a different space. I think I have been through that strange transition which called mid-life. It hasn’t been a crisis, but it could so easily have been.

In many ways I think I have been building towards this transition for at least the last five years. I feel as though I have just cross the threshold into a new phase. I have no idea what this time will bring. For the moment, I am simply grateful that some of the ghosts of my past have finally been laid to rest.

Learning to live in liminal space

A few weeks ago I encountered a man who was utterly certain of a particular kind of theology. He claimed at one point to have been through the dark night of the soul several times. As I listened to him I found myself profoundly saddened. I was reminded of a talk I had listened to by Richard Rohr OFM, where he notes that without good guidance through such experiences we will revert to what we knew before. I had a sense that this is what had happened in the life of this man.

Over and over again he had been brought to the threshold and over and over again he had stepped backwards onto familiar ground.

In the last few days I found myself reading over a few things I had written when I was in different liminal spaces. One after the breakup of a relationship and the other after the death of friend. It is heartening to see what I wrote in both cases given where I am now. I think I was granted tremendous grace and wisdom in both cases.

In this first case, the breakup of the relationship – it wasn’t clear at the time that a complete severance was going to be necessary. Initially it as more a stepping back and waiting to see what happened. This is part of what I wrote:

No relationship has any guarantees but this one seems particularly fragile at this stage. I am left having to trust that all I can do is try to be true to myself in the process. To continue to stand on this small remnant of the relationship which existed just over a week ago and to pray that come what may I will be okay. I guess I am surprised that I don’t have any real desire to run for the hills. That desire may grow, but the escapism which has marked so much of my life isn’t functioning right now. I’m not sure how to stand in the space without defending myself against further hurt. And yet I know I have to stand here open and vulnerable if my presence is to be tolerable at all.

How do I do that? How do I dare to live in the now, because the future has only the slightest glimmer of hope. In a strange way, hope for the future gets in the way of my ability to stand in this space. I have to choose it today, simply because it feels appropriate today. Not because of any promise or hope that tomorrow will be different. It is such a strange, liminal space. It honestly feels like it is as likely to fail as it is to succeed. If I am to stand in this space it has to be for two reasons. Firstly, because I do love him and I believe that it is worth taking this enormous risk. Secondly, because life has these spaces, and learning to stand in this space will ultimately serve me well regardless of whether he and I work out or not.’

In the end I stood in the liminal space until it became clear to me that I needed to walk away. And I am deeply grateful that I had the grace and the courage to stand in that space. When I did walk away, it was in freedom. And in hindsight I am grateful that the relationship happened, but also that the relationship did not work out.

The other liminal space was the one was after my friend died. I was invited to write the editorial for the local Catholic newspaper for Easter. (You can find the full text here). In that editorial I wrote:

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.

What strikes me today is that we need companions in the liminal space. People who are not afraid of our confusion; people who do not need us to have direction. I have been tremendously blessed that I have had such companions. I believe I have been shaped by the time in those liminal spaces – shaped for the better.

I am grateful too, that, for now, I have direction; I am no longer in a liminal space.

Grace and gratitude

Earlier this week I was struck by Andy Otto’s piece on grace. He writes “This is a kind of prayer, but by using the grace language, we acknowledge it only as a gift”

(you can read Andy’s post here http://godinallthings.com/2013/11/18/asking-for-a-grace/)

I have written elsewhere about grace and there is a chapter of Rooted in Love devoted to the idea of praying for a grace. But in reading Andy’s post I was struck by the connection between grace and gratitude.

Gratitude is perhaps the most important mental orientation we can cultivate. It shapes how we view everything. It is the lens through which we view our daily reality.

When I look around at the various aspects of my life – my family, my friends, the people I interact with in different circles, those who come to me for spiritual direction, my job, my colleagues, my living space, my education, the things I have done, the places I have lived and worked…. and so on, and so on, and so on…. I cannot help but feel a tremendous sense of gratitude and wonder.

There are things which I could view as being ‘unfair’ or that I somehow drew the short straw. I am not the most well off among my siblings, my odd career trajectory means that my contemporaries are further along the road than I am, a car accident in my youth has left my right leg slightly misshapen…. and some other ridiculous things I could choose to focus on. But this kind of attitude is simply not helpful to me. It doesn’t get me anywhere and it just encourages dissatisfaction. Given the richness of my life – this just seems poor form!

Living through gratitude makes it far easier to celebrate the small things in life. To feel both rich and blessed, with no need for any comparison. But in the absence of gratitude one can feel hard done by or that one doesn’t have enough (yet!) even in the midst of plenty.

In my understanding gratitude and grace are inextricably linked. I am far more able to see graces when I am more grateful. And I am more grateful for graces when they appear.

The practice of gratitude is something that can be cultivated. I found it very helpful posting one thing that I was grateful for on Facebook every day for a month or so made a big difference to me. My life feels more succulent although nothing has actually changed.