Archives for posts with tag: Spirituality

I have about 10000 photos stored from the last few years. I sometimes browse through them for inspiration or to make sense of whatever is on my mind. Sometimes words fall short you see.

These seven below say things from within me that I suspect I would struggle to express in a truckload of words.

In different ways they speak of humanity, human failings, feelings of loss and of love. As I sit here and think about it, they also pretty much distill my values.

While some are self explanatory (I hope), the child’s tricycle was one taken from the ruins of Hiroshima and it leaves me indescribably sad; and the final three are of (most of) my grandchildren, every one of whom fills me with indescribable joy.

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(Hill of Crosses, Lithuania. August 2017)

If you ever find yourself driving in north west Lithuania, you may stumble upon a very unusual site a couple of kilometres off the main road north of Siauliai. Sadly, it is poorly signposted and unless you were looking for it you would probably drive straight past.

It is a low hill, no higher than a three storey building and a few house blocks in area, and covered by hundreds of thousands of wooden crosses. Tourist buses and private cars jam into an adjacent carpark, bringing thousands of visitors and pilgrims, many of whom leave crosses (as we did) to add to the collection already there.

The practice of leaving crosses there began in the nineteenth century after a peasants’ revolt. Last century soviet authorities bulldozed the place three times, only to see more crosses appear after their machinery was gone. Today it’s a place of pilgrimage, commemorating among other things non violent resistance to the years of soviet rule.

I had almost forgotten about the Hill of Crosses until I wrote my most recent blog post. You might recall I was asking myself some questions about how I should respond to a culture increasingly hostile to my values and unsympathetic to expressions of faith. (Well, that was, more or less, what I was saying).

Since then I’ve been reminded that I have no right to expect the world to conform to my values or give me an easy ride, although for as long as I remember that’s been more or less the case. Until recently, there has been a broad public consensus on values and belief. Governments and their laws reflected this consensus. Not any more. There has been a tectonic shift in recent years. I accept that. I also understand that I can no longer rely on having my values reinforced by government. The result of the national survey on homosexual marriage confirmed this and it shook me. But if I’m honest, I will concede that this survey was simply the latest in a long series of steps western society has taken away from the umbrella of Christendom that has existed since the time of the Roman empire. The shift has been gathering pace for years, is now unstoppable, and may not be wholly a bad thing.

Now that I’m over the shock, I can stand back and begin to see things in perspective. I am sensing a way forward: Not to start building a hill of crosses, but to be inspired by the people who did.

Some observations that occur to me, in no particular order:

Followers of all religions, but most definitely Christians, are going to have to get used to living in the midst of a society at best ambivalent towards them, and at worst openly hostile. So get used to it, I tell myself. In a way, I think it will be a good thing for Christians to be on the outer. It is exactly where the early church found itself. Early Christians coped and the church thrived under oppression, and so, I suspect, will we.

Evil in our world is as widespread and pervasive as it has ever been. It permeates every corner of society including, of course, the established Christian church. Notwithstanding the evil of the sexual predators, the church compromised its moral authority completely in the eyes of the wider society when it completely mishandled the issue of sexual abuse in its institutions. People are no longer listening to moral pronouncements from the church, and why, I ask myself, would they?

Evil is having a field day. It stretches its arms to infect our society at all levels and in all places. It takes many forms and it is absolutely real. I’m not going to try and prove that. If you don’t believe me, there is no point in a conversation and you are unlikely to be still reading this anyway.

Christians have a role and a duty to confront evil however and wherever they find it; not with violence or any of the methods evil itself uses to oppress people. Christians are called to follow the example of Jesus who confronted evil at every turn by reminding its victims they counted, by refusing to follow dictates that oppressed people, and most importantly of all, by standing up to evil and staring it in the face, without offering violence in return.

Confronting evil calls attention to it and leaves it nowhere to hide. Offering violence is simply returning evil for evil and increases rather than decreases it. Choosing not to return the violence that evil does is the way of Jesus and is the only way it can be defeated. Confronting evil is not an easy thing to do. It does not come without a price, often a heavy one, and a Christian should ask themselves what price they are willing to pay. I am beginning to understand this. I have been a slow learner.

In this sense I think organisations like the Australian Christian Lobby, although their intentions are noble, do themselves and their cause a disservice by trading insults with political enemies. Abusing or denigrating your political opponents is repaying evil with evil. Seeking to oppress your enemies through legislation favouring Christians is counterproductive and misguided.

I rather like the example of people like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi in this regard. Both understood that responding to violence and oppression with violence is self defeating; it simply escalates the violence. Both also understood that evil needs to be confronted, not condoned, accepted or ignored.

I realise of course that non violent confrontation and protest have a chequered history too. It is a very difficult thing to do to counter violence and oppression (evil) by not resorting to the very same methods. Few manage to do it well. Nevertheless the way of nonviolent confrontation seems to me to be the way a Christian might most effectively and (to their faith) authentically respond to evil in all its forms. A few examples off the top of my head. They range from the general to the specific:

Confronting selfishness by being unselfish.

Confronting greed by turning away from materialism.

Confronting bullying in all its many forms by summoning the courage to intervene.

Confronting alienation by listening more to people and talking less.

Confronting loneliness by saying hello to strangers and smiling at them.

Confronting tribalism by listening to and giving the time of day to those with different beliefs.

Confronting secular propaganda in schools by assertive approaches to governing bodies.

Confronting addictions of all kinds by holding a mirror up to society.

Confronting bad laws by picketing a government office peacefully and quietly.

To sum up, living the Christian life authentically by being true to my calling, confronting evil and oppression, and being difficult to ignore.

Little steps. It’s worth a try I think.

 

 

 

 

The decades have passed almost without my noticing. I’ve mellowed. Those powerful youthful certainties, towering passions and cruel emotions have ebbed away with the hormones that stirred them. I’m comfortable in my own skin now, more or less. I’ve learned to recognise the battles worth fighting, and ditches worth dying in.

 

While there are certainly still battles worth fighting, there are now fewer ditches I would choose to die in. Those that remain seem so clear to me, so fundamental, so bleeding obvious. If only people would listen! But they don’t.

 

They wont, any more than the younger me did when truths were simpler, possibilities were many, and freedom was a word that resonated through my soul.

 

I ask different questions now. I value different answers.

 

Which is the bigger delusion then? The brittle arrogance of youth or the patronising wisdom of age? Is it possible they are flip sides of the same thing? Who would have wanted to miss out on the power and the impetuousness of their youth? Who at the time would have swapped it for sensible, safe and cautious?

 

Some of us don’t survive our youth. A few of us never outgrow it. For the rest of us, caution and wisdom grow from the seeds of mistakes that went with the territory. I speak only for myself here, but I don’t want my youth back. I grieve for it, but like a butterfly in the wind, it’s gone. Wisdom is the compensation. Wisdom, and acceptance, starting with acceptance of myself and extending it to others.

 

I should clarify something. Acceptance is not the same thing as approval. Far from it. This is where wisdom begins for me. Accepting other people as they are does not mean that I need to approve of them or things they do. They do not need my approval, any more than I need theirs. It’s nice of course, but unnecessary, and counterproductive if we make it an overarching aim to be approved of by others. For me, approval is a personal thing, a testament to who I am down deep. I’ll award or withhold it as I see fit.

 

Now, where was I?

 

Lost in my delusions, that’s where. In my more expansive moments, I concede the arrogance of youth is no more a delusion than my thinking I have now tamed wisdom. We grasp at certainties, and having caught some, cling to them at all costs, even at the expense of discounting the humanity of those who see things differently.

 

In so many ways I see us divided into camps, dismissing those holding opposing views as stupid or perfidious (one commonly applied cliche is ‘hateful’ I believe). We deny the personhood of those in the opposing camp. Politics has descended to this. Look around you and say it’s not so. We have done this to ourselves, at least partly because we crave certainty and are uncomfortable with ambiguity.

 

I sit comfortably with ambiguity. I do not and never will have enough insight to be able to judge other people with authority (although I admit I haven’t always remembered that). I don’t approve of everything I see around me, but I don’t believe I hold all the answers either. Nevertheless I hold some beliefs deeply and without compromise.

 

This does not of itself make me a bigot. My certainties do not imprison me; they free me to accept and make allowances for those who are so certain of themselves they would deny me my humanity.

 

So, which ditches would I die in now? As I said earlier, not too many, but I’m wise enough to keep my powder dry and not list them here. If and when they come for me, I’ll be waiting in one of my choosing.

What truth will raise you
above bigots, beyond hate;
apart and superior
to all with a different take?

Might you find it in a sacred book,
or some mystic’s secret locker;
your own personal dragon slayer
and conversation stopper?

Or

imagine rights and justice,
deliverence for the poor,
and imagine others never stood
on a pedestal as sure?

Or

join the righteous and enlightened,
freed from superstition.
Deify science, misrepresent it
and fight all opposition?

And

blind to your arrogance;
oblivious to your prejudice;
jump to condemn
the truth quest in others.

Start a truth collection.
Grasp and shape your prize.
Gaze at its reflection;
watch the ugliness rise.

Gazing at Buddha

A small Buddha

sitting calmly

in the morning gloom;

taking shape in early light.


The black resin idol,

composed and serene,

stares past me

to where I cannot see

and cannot go.


Sitting impervious,

untouchable, inanimate.

Its atoms no more or less exceptional

than the miracles dancing

in my bones.

We share that at least.

I look through Christian eyes

and see in you nothing to recoil from.

You are not the risen Christ

but you point me to him.

I think of people you inspire

and warm to them;

if not brothers and sisters; my friends.

A model of contentment.

Untouched, transcendent,

you exist in harmony with all things

just as I do not.

You don’t manipulate, obligate,

retaliate, pontificate or desecrate.

You simply are;

take you or leave you.



Many kinds of Hell

Tell and retell

the tired tales that serve us well.

Grievance, grief, remorse, regret.

The mind recasts, renews

pasts more wisely left;

that stunt and choke a soul.

Private little hells,

factory fitted,

home delivered.

Deep thought pits

with vertical walls

and slippery bits.

Everyday hells;

returned to habitually,

invoked mindlessly.

Repeated insanity,

drifting endlessly,

clung to hopelessly.

No images from Dante;

mostly less heroic;

not the least bit romantic.

Hells up close and personal.

Tawdry, tragic, ordinary

hells right here and now.

Many kinds of hell

in the stories we tell.

Real, imagined,

accepted, denied.

Each resonating

with the shriek of a shackled soul.

This might seem like two posts in one. When I began to write the second one, the first suggested itself. They share a theme but in a way maybe only I can understand. See what you think.

​​
I am growing old. 
That should be no surprise to me. It certainly doesn’t bother me much. After all, I’m on the same train as everyone who ever was, is, or will be.

Every one of us grows older with each passing hour and each receding day, as years blur into memory. Of course I didn’t always admit that. Neither does our culture which is obsessed with youth and denies the reality of ageing. It’s easy to go along with that narrative when you are in your early decades. I was immortal. If I thought about it at all, the idea of ageing was an academic one, and in my case was so far in the future it didn’t seem real. Old people I came across had surely always been that way. I could not imagine them as once having been my age, with passions, uncertainties and dreams not too different from my own. To do that would have confronted me with my own mortality. That simply would not have done. 

I don’t think I am too different from anyone else. A little strange maybe, a trifle eccentric, but essentially human. And so I can be charitable and smile inside when young people look through me now as if I were not there; some silly old bugger with white hair who has nothing of interest for them. I did the same thing once you see.

Would it surprise you to know I am happier in myself now that at any other time in my life?

In my working life I was always climb ladders to impress people who knew me. Every time I achieved more status though, it seemed to have little effect impressing others. I was performing but there was no applause. No one was looking. I undertook a series of projects through the years in the hope that people would admire me when I was successful. Once again, I discovered no one was looking. I realise now, a degree is a piece of paper. Credentials and titles look good in a c.v. Neither compensates for inner emptiness.
I have been receptive to spiritual themes since my late teens. This interest has expressed itself in different ways here and there. My childhood, teens and young adulthood were not the happiest of times in my life. It was not all bad of course, but I write in generalities. My Christian faith reignited in my early forties after my second marriage when I began to attend church again. I remember tears flowing down my cheeks during worship. The awfulness of where I had been and what had happened in my life was all too apparent, but so too was the love and acceptance that was beginning to heal me.
I empathise with people who suffer and struggle. Sadness and melancholy have been enduring states of mind throughout my life, but less so in later years. Now it’s a more gentle acceptance of what is. I am not so wrapped up in myself and the things I missed out on . . . and so on. I no longer wallow in self pity.
These days I am much more content within myself. I am happy to be just me; nobody special. I don’t need recognition, and am happy to saunter along out of the spotlight. When I was younger anxiety and emptiness drove me. Now I don’t feel I need to prove anything. People can take me or leave me as they find me.

I look to my wife, daughters and grandchildren, and can smile inside. What a lovely (undeserved) legacy they are. God has been kind to me.

I am ageing, but I am living, and life, well some of it, makes sense.

Now, for what I started to write about . . . 
See if you can see the link.

I have been learning to play classical guitar for two and a half years now. It’s the sort of thing some people do when they retire and have loads of leisure time. Well, no one else I know has done it, but bear with me.
I love playing. It is the most deeply satisfying activity I can remember. Intellectually and physically demanding, and more often than not frustratingly difficult, it engages me spiritually and aesthetically. I soar when I get a piece ‘right’ and rage when I think I should be able to do stuff I can’t. Who says the passion of youth has been spent? With me it’s found in vibrating nylon strings and a resonating wood lined cavity.

Which brings me to something I have noticed about myself; a trend I have noticed more than once. You see, when I began to study the guitar I approached it like everything else so far in my life. I was determined to master it! I was prepared to put in the hours and the work and I expected the returns. As my wife says to me no one works harder or practices longer on guitar than I do. She also comments on my lack of motivation for other household tasks, but that’s another story.

For two years I worked to bend the guitar to my will. I found an exacting and very competent teacher, swallowed my pride (I thought) and got to work. Sure, I began to play reasonably well, but I did not listen to my teacher when he advised me repeatedly to slow down. I was always wanting to go further, tackle more demanding pieces, and tick more boxes. What he was saying, and what I was not listening to, was that I needed time to master skills as well as effort. Frustratingly he insisted that I marked time spending weeks and months on the same piece, long after I thought I had mastered it. Except that I had not mastered it. I was continually stumbling here and there and never getting anything completely correct. It frustrated me of course (the mistakes) but I did not listen. I kept forging ahead, playing ever more complex music, but playing it in a way that no one, apart from myself, would ever want to listen to.

My teacher was kind but brutal. He observed that I was doing very well and had much potential, but essentially I was playing nothing at performance standard. Ouch! 

An epiphany (look it up if you don’t know) of sorts followed. I have changed the way I look at the guitar and I’m much the happier for it. I have spent the last two months on the same three pieces, noticing things I hadn’t previously. I’ve resisted the temptation to play ahead of my ability (well, alright, mostly resisted). The guitar is no longer something to be bent to my will. I am learning slowly to work with it, and I am playing more gently.

I have begun to see playing and learning music as a process rather than a destination. I am learning to live in the moment and enjoy the music as it is rather than powering on to some illusory goal. Old habits die hard though. Grades, standards and levels have always seduced me, but their allure is waning.

I am growing older. I know I will never be a concert guitarist. Time is against me (and so is talent if I am brutally honest). I will most likely never perform for anyone other than family and friends. That does not concern me. 

What does engage me is what happens when I pick up my guitar and play. Sometimes something magical. Most times not. Always reminding me of the wonder of being alive.
Note to self: There are no prizes, stupid. Life is not a competition. It’s a gift. Enjoy it and smell the roses while you can.

I’ll try and remember that as the years pass ever more quickly and the joints and muscles grow ever less cooperative.

 
Beauty, simply.
(Water plants near the mouth of the River Danube 2016)
 
 
Try as I might I don't understand the world. Never have. Don't expect I ever will. So I guess I'll just have to accept the presence of beauty, without knowing why it's there, rather than not there.
 
Now and again the world disappoints me. Some of its inhabitants disgust me, and others surely frighten me, but despite that, the sum of life has always seemed to me threaded with beauty.
 
I said 'sum'. I meant 'essence'. There's a purity to be distilled; a vein of hope to be discovered in all things. I believe it, and won't be persuaded otherwise.
 
I won't say all things are shot through with beauty. Sometimes there may be only a strand of it; thin, tenuous and tiny; visible only to eyes that want to see it. Sometimes it will only be seen in hindsight. Sometimes the presence of beauty would offend us if it were suggested.
There are circumstances, and I've lived through my share, where even the suggestion of beauty would be blasphemous. Grief, anger, rage, hopelessness, injustice, fear; a complete list would be a long one. Even at these times, in my experience, there is an essence, a presence, that waits patiently and respectfully for us to be ready to turn towards it.
 
(Memorial for victims of the Thai Burma Railway construction World War 2)
 
 
Through all the things that make life monotonous, pointless, useless, or cruel, beauty, simply shines through. I don't understand it, but I accept it.
 
I will thank God. You may thank who or what you like.
 
 
(Shrine. Luang Prabang, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, 2017)