Archive for the ‘faith’ Category

Impossible is nothing

May 28, 2008

I saw this on a poster recently and really really like it:

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

Mohammed Ali


Living Dangerously

January 13, 2008

During the holiday period between Christmas and mid January I generally lose track of what day of the week it is, and rely on dates. At Summer Gathering I lose track of dates, and just go by which day of the gathering it is, or how many days there are still to go.

So, the day after SG ended, I was very pleased to realise it was a Sunday, and we were staying in Mt Eden, just minutes from the Meeting House. When I walked in to Meeting that morning, I saw people I had hugged goodbye the day before, not expecting to see for weeks or months.

At Summer Gathering I ran a session entitled ‘Dangerous Quakers’. This was inspired by a blog post by Peggy Senger Parsons, a Friend from the US. The session was about the way Quakers are often dangerous in the sense they are disruptive to the forces of oppression and inequality. They are dangerous to those who promote war and injustice as solutions to the world’s problems. This often involves Friends placing themselves in danger, in terms of their income, their liberty, their safety or even their lives. This willingness to sacrifice (aspects of) oneself for a greater truth has a power that Ghandi described as satyagraha, or ‘truth force’. I was very interested in how people tell whether they are being dangerous in this sense, or just reckless. How they tell whether what they are feeling is a calling from the Spirit, or just a ‘bee in their bonnet’.

During the session the importance of the people and Meetings that support those called came up several times. This is both in helping individual Friends listen to and discern their leadings, and in supporting their resulting actions. Coming into Meeting for Worship in Mt Eden made me realise yet again that it is the everpresent community of Friends that enables some of our number to head the call of the Spirit and do things that are dangerous.

Jesus for the Non-Religious

December 2, 2007

Today I listened to this podcast from National Radio’s Spiritual Outlook programme*. I listen to all the episodes of Spiritual Outlook as they come out, but it’s only rarely that one inspires me to blog about it.

This one was an interview with Bishop John Spong. He is a liberal theologian and has written many books, including recently Jesus for the Non-Religious. His views resonated very closely with mine.

Historically agreed facts he cites:

  1. Jesus lived between 4 BC and 30 AD
  2. The gospels were written between 70 and 100 AD
  3. The gospels were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor his apostles spoke
  4. The gospels were written by people who had never met Jesus, and were going on two or three generations of stories passed down by word of mouth

Bishop Spong argues that the literalist interpretation of Jesus as a supernatural figure in the Bible, capable of performing miracles, leaves people today with only two alternatives (at least from the point of view of the Christian tradition) . To be hysterical irrational fundamentalists, or to give the whole thing up as a lost cause and be secular. He thinks it’d be nice if there was something in between that was possible. An interpretation of Jesus that sees him as a man who was so open, so fully human that he was able to be so utterly filled with the energy of the Universe, the ground of being, the divine spirit, what Quakers call the inner light.

This is the Jesus I want to believe in. I want to believe that it is possible for any human to be as filled with the spirit as Jesus. To me it is so much more impressive that he did this as a man, rather than as a supernatural being with special powers.

Bishop Spong also talks about prayer, critical of prayers that are ‘adult letters to a Santa Claus God’. Rather, he sees prayer as a way to become more human, more open to the spirit.

Again, this is very close to the way I see prayer and worship, a way inward, to walk on the journey toward being more fully human. To me the historical Jesus is a guide on this path, someone who walked it with integrity, insight and love.

* if the podcast is gone by the time you read this it’s because National Radio only keep their podcasts up there for 3 months or so. If you’d like a copy of it just email me.

Wellspring of laughter

August 31, 2007

Avon’s baby was born at home, in the beautiful Kahuterawa valley. In Christchurch the first blossoms are on the trees, pink and tentative against the last grasp of winter. Around the seat where my mother’s ashes were scattered, yellow fingers of daffodil shoot from their green stems, ready to unfurl as the weather warms.

In the mountains the ice thaws and cold water babbles over the river stones, soft and gurgling like a baby’s laughter.

July gripped my heart with the rough wound of loss. I ran in the dark, arms needled with the shooting pangs of fear. Yet here, the city’s getting smaller behind the boat, and as the sea expands the hold of winter on the land lifts in me.

Night never lasts. Fast and free life springs quietly awake in the light.

Today I held the baby of my first love, warm in the sun on this island in the sea. And she, small and new and clean, smiled up at me.


May 21, 2007

I first met Angela Brusse 19 years ago, at a Junior Young Friends (JYF) camp at the Quaker settlement in Wanganui. I was 15, and she would have been 75. She was a force to be reckoned with, or perhaps more sensibly, not to be reckoned with. My Godmother was dutch, so I knew the type – strong to the point of stubbornness, loving and compassionate in a firm, direct and uncompromising way.

Three or so years ago Angela came down to Christchurch, to move into a rest home and be near her daughter Mia. Even though she was very old, and couldn’t see very well, she came to Meeting for Worship when she could. I’d often sit and talk with her after Meeting. Twice a year, at the beginning and end of daylight savings I would be given the job of adjusting the time on her electronic ‘talking’ clock. I learned about the work she did protecting Jewish children during World War II. I learned about how she started JYFs in New Zealand. Immediately after worship finishes in Christchurch Meeting, the Elder giving the notices asks the children to report back from Children’s Meeting. Angela would often say to me “We ask the children what they have been doing, but we do not tell them what we have been doing”.

I think Angela saw children and young people as equals. As equals that she held to the same high standards and expectations of courage, forthrightness, and moral fibre that she held herself.

I’m organising JYF camp this year. As I look through the box of information from past camps, Angela’s name appears often. As the return address for the application forms for many camps, as the ‘c/o’ address on letters signed by many JYFs, sent to the Prime Minister opposing military actions and nuclear weapons. On press releases from JYFs condemning violence and the use of military force.

Angela, you taught a whole generation of us to work for peace, to stand up for what we believe in, to have the personal courage to live our convictions. I will miss you.

These words are too solid, they don’t move fast enough

March 17, 2007

“How could you get through the day without Jesus?”. An evangelical Quaker once said this to a f/Friend of mine. I imagine my initial reaction to a question like this would be one of affront. Even though it came out of a fairly innocent sharing of one person’s way of being, it just seems so loaded.

My f/Friend went on to say that when she talked further with the evangelical Friend, she came to see that what she meant by those words wasn’t all that far from my f/Friend’s own experience. They were talking about similar things, even though the words were unfamiliar, even alien or offensive.

Words are tricky things. Words are not the things they describe. They don’t even point to the things they describe. The words we use point to an idea in our heads, which only then points to the thing that idea represents. When say “that’s a tree” we can’t actually ‘see’ the tree. We can only see light bouncing off the side of the tree closest to us. Our eyes translate that light into images that our brain interprets. Our brain matches those images against all the concepts we have about the world, and comes up with the concept we have about a tree. We then attach the word ‘tree’ to that concept. If we were German we’d attach the word ‘baum’, if Italian we’d say ‘albero’.

If we came from a tribe in the rain forest, the concept we’d match to the visual stimulus caused by light bouncing off a tree might be quite different. Rather than attaching to a concept of a tall, woody, vascular plant that is strong and beautiful, we might have a concept of the body of a particular spirit, or a piece of the living fabric of our home.

So, the words can be different, and the concepts they point to can be different, even if the things themselves are the same. The word, the concept, and the thing itself (or to use fancy postmodern linguistic analysis terms, the signifier, the signified, and the referent). Dealing with this across different languages, cultures and individuals is hard enough when we’re talking about things we can see and touch. When we talk about things we can only know through contemplation, or through faith, it becomes even more difficult.

One person can say ‘God’ and for them that can only attach to the idea of an ‘all powerful father up in heaven’. For another person the word ‘God’ attaches to a concept of an all pervading universal energy, something a bit like the Force in Star Wars. ‘Jesus’ can mean ‘an ever present and daily connection with the divine’ to one person, and ‘a human prophet who lived 2000 years ago’. For some these different concepts might be compatible, for some they’re contradictory. It’s very hard to agree whether or not these concepts are the same or overlap, because the ‘thing itself’ is so hard to discern. We can’t see it with the eye of flesh, we can’t do more than theologise about it with the eye of mind, we can only know it through the eye of contemplation. And that is a uniquely individual experience that is almost impossible to convey with words…

The same goes for religion, spirit, divine, inner light, peace, love, and thing else that is intangible, but nonetheless real to us in our experience.

Susan Vega said:

I won’t use words again
They don’t mean what I meant
They don’t say what I said
They’re just the crust of the meaning
With realms underneath
Never touched
Never stirred
Never even moved through

But we have to use words. So how can we learn to listen for the concept rather than the word? How can we move beyond assuming people mean what we mean by that word? How can we be willing to hear their truth, and in so doing be more open to the deeper truth beyond that?


Letting each other fly

March 17, 2007

Nasrudin found a weary falcon sitting one day on his window-sill. He had never seen a bird like this before.
‘You poor thing’, he said, ‘how ever were you to allowed to get into this state?’
He clipped the falcon’s talons and cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers.
‘Now you look more like a bird,’ said Nasrudin.

To me, each person’s journey inward is unique. The path to truly knowing ourselves, to connecting with all that exists, is totally individual, and completely right. It cannot be conveyed in words, it can only be experienced directly.

Some people call their inward journeys spiritual development, some refer to it as the path to enlightenment, others call it their growing in their personal relationship with Jesus, and some simply call it finding themselves. When people experience a profound connection to the eternal they call it samadhi, or transcendence, or nirvana, or God’s love. Scientific atheists talk of experiencing a sense of awe or wonder and the beauty of the universe.

I think that all of this is one. I think we’re all talking about the same thing. It doesn’t matter if you believe in a god, or the wonder of the universe, or the goodness of the human spirit, or nothing much at all. There is absolute truth. This universe, in all its current mystery, is utterly real. What is, is. It cannot not be. Because it exists, it is true. We might not yet understand it, but it still is. How we experience it is unique to every individual, but it still is, changing and complete, present and vast, immediate and eternal. We only perceive tiny fractions of this ‘allness’.

During our lives we have infrequent glimpses that move us closer to understanding the truth. And so we continue on our internal path to connect to that which is. The journey is hard and confusing. So we often group together to support each other. We learn from those who have taken the path before. We create structures, rituals, texts and experts as guides on the path. These become religions. Sometimes we become convinced that our way is the best, that all others should follow it. Sometimes we lose sight of the inward journey in our obsession with the external guides and signposts, and we clip the falcon’s wings, and stop it from flying.

When we impose our inward journey on someone else, when we expect their experience to be the same as ours, when we believe our way is the only right way, or insist they use the same words as we do, we risk doing what Nasrudin did to the falcon.

So Friend, how will you follow your inward path? How will you share your inward journey with others, how will you support others in their journey, without clipping their wings?

The middle way

February 11, 2007

It was still dark and cool when I rose. 5:15 am in a house against the bush on the outskirts of Greymouth. Half an hour later my mother in law Trish, her sister in law Marie and I walked out into the misty air, got in the car, and drove to Westport. The sun rose part way along the journey, with the blue crashing sea on the left, and the dense green forest on the right.

We drove up the Buller Gorge, past the buses dropping off half marathon runners, to the start of the full marathon. There were not many people when we got there but the crowd increased quickly. Trish and Marie said goodbye and headed into Westport. I was alone, nervous and excited. A couple of hundred runners stood in groups or walked around stretching. The sandflies were terrible, but the people were positive and friendly. As I queued for the portaloo I got chatting with a guy in his early 50s for whom this was his 13th Buller Marathon. He was warmly encouraging and told me a bit more about the course.

With a few minutes to go we gathered at the start line, the air charged with energy and people grinning at each other excitedly. Then we were off. The runners stretched out quickly, with none of the jostling and pushing in bigger city races. I ran at what my legs new was the pace I’d planned, but it seemed so slow. My blood was pumping and I wanted to sprint off, and pass people. I felt unstoppable. I heard Dad’s voice in my head “at the start you’ll be jumpy, but just stick to your own pace, stick to the plan”. Each kilometre I checked the clock, it felt slow but it was 5 minute kilometres, exactly what I’d trained at. The adrenaline was coming under control but I was still a bit hyper.

We ran up the Gorge for 8k, then turned and started the 34.2k back to Westport. There was a man just up ahead of me who had been keeping the same pace for a while. I drew even with him and said gidday. We started to chat. His name was Kim, he had long curly grey hair, four kids, and this was his second marathon. We ran together for about 10k, he had a GPS watch and we were hitting bang on 5 minute ks. We talked about a whole range of things and he was such an enthusiastic, friendly guy I was really enjoying myself. He was over from Christchurch with a running club. Most of his mates were faster than him, but he was just happy to be there, running to finish and to enjoy the day. It was warming up, the sun coming over the hills, the cicadas chirping in the bush and the magnificent Buller river swelling and flowing to the right of us. I couldn’t imagine anything better in the world to be doing right then.

A women in her early 40s with short blond dreadlocks joined in with Kim and I and we all got talking. They had both run the Kepler track before and decided I should do it next year (it’s 67k, over a mountain…). Not long after Kim decided to drop back, so the woman and I agreed to run together for a while. Her mother had just died and she was running the marathon for her. We talked about death, and grief, and faith as we ran in the sun, the lush West Coast bush on the hills around us.

At about 24k we parted company. I was sticking to my pace and she wanted to go just a little slower. Alone again I let my thoughts and feelings drift, seeing where they’d go. I bounced between feeling unstoppable, and being terrified I wouldn’t finish. I was right on the pace I’d set, but the course was hilly, and I’d trained on the flat. At about 30k my calves were starting to feel sore. We came out of the Gorge and into more open country. At 32k I was in uncharted territory. I’d never run further than this before. The water in my backpack ran out. My toes started hurting and it felt like a blister was forming on my right foot.

I stopped and put a plaster over the sore spot. As I started back up another hill I got a strong sense Dad was thinking about me. He’d trained me, told me how to run the race, and now he was encouraging me. It felt like his body was overlapping mine, his strength and experience flowing through me. I kept at it.

Earlier on I thought that once I got to 5 or 6k to go, if I was feeling good I’d pick up the pace a bit. Out in the open fields, the sun beating down and the road still hilly I passed the 8k mark. I was still at 5 minute ks but I knew there was no way I was going to go any faster. My thighs were hurting now and my thoughts were getting fuzzier. By 6k to go I couldn’t do the sums in my head to see if I was on pace anymore. I was worried my legs would give out and I wouldn’t be able to finish. I stopped caring about what time I ran the race in. Everything else feel away but one question I kept asking myself “what am I looking forward to?”. The picture I got back was getting back to Greymouth and seeing Bridget and the kids. Then even that fell away, and there was just the running, just the pain, just the fear I wouldn’t make it, and the belief that I was going to do it. In the last two kilometres coming into Westport there were groups of supporters clapping and giving words of encouragement. It really helped. Then suddenly we went round a corner, through a big gate, into a park, and there was the finish line.

I’d run the marathon in 3 hours, 32 minutes and 31 seconds. Bang on 5 minute kilometres. Some of the way I’d shared the journey, some of the way I’d run alone. I’d trod the middle way, between exuberance and dispair. When I’d needed it people had been there, handing out water, cheering me on, running with me, or holding me in the light. And when I’d needed it I’d been there for myself, afraid but steady, excited but patient, taking it one step at a time.

The centre of the storm

February 9, 2007

There’s something about this week. Hannah got back from Antarctica, Dad and Margaret are leaving to go to Antarctica, Pete is climbing Mt Kilamanjaro, my kids (with both excitement and trepidation) started a new school year and I’m running a marathon tomorrow.

I recently said why I think people do these things, and the role that faith plays in them, but I haven’t said much about just what I’m doing and why. I’m going to a part of the country (Buller) I’ve never been before, where there will be hundreds of runners and thousands of supporters all trying to be doing the right thing at the right time. I’ll have to get up about 5 in the morning, drive 1.5 hours to Westport, and then find where I’m supposed to be. I think I’m less confident about getting to the start of the race than I am to the end!

Then I’m going to try to run 42 kilometres without getting injured or exhausted, without falling over or stopping. My body feels ready for it, through the training it’s gotten used to running long distances. But the training hasn’t prepared me for running with hundreds of other people in a place I’m totally unfamiliar with. There’ll be lots to distract me, the excitement of the runners and spectators, the new scenery, a different climate. Despite this I can’t afford to get caught up. I have to run my own race, at the pace that I’ve chosen. I have to put everything else aside, and just stick to the plan, amidst all the chaos.

There are lots of other reasons I’m running this race, but I think this is the main one. Because to do it successfully it’ll require me to be completely present in the moment. Because I’ll have to be aware of everything going on, but not distracted by it. Because it might just take me to that still point, where everything is clear.

Wish me luck.

Because it’s there?

January 21, 2007

My father ran the Kepler track when I was a teenager.  It’s a 67 kilometre run. The first time he attempted it he had a cold, and the weather was bad. He had to pull out, and he got quinsey, a very painful large throat ulcer. He was in bed for several days. The next year he went back and ran it again. This time he completed it, in a faster time than he’d expected.

People often ask why one does these things. The cliche response, especially to why you’d climb a mountain, is “because it’s there”. To me, it’s not so much because it’s out there in the world, it’s because there’s a mountain inside you that you have to climb. It’s a question of faith, you believe you are capable of something you’ve never done before. The only way to test that belief is by doing it in the world, but the challenge is within you.

The purpose is not to get the photos from the top of Mt Kilamanjaro, or the certificate for completing the marathon. It’s not even to be able to say to other people that you’ve done it. It’s to know within yourself that you can.

Anything we take on that we’ve never done before, anything that scares us, anything we think we might fail at but we do anyway, this is what makes us grow. So climb your mountains, run your marathons, travel to those places you’re scared to but know you have to, and ignore the people who tell you it’s not safe. Just think, would you regret it more if you did, or if you didn’t?