Recently, I visited a sick friend in hospital where she is hoping to recover, but that recovery is far from certain. She confessed with some difficulty that she had found herself wishing she would die. Later in our conversation she asked if I would conduct her funeral should that be necessary. When I agreed, I saw her smile for the first time as she said ‘Thank you. I was worried about that and now I can relax.’
Shortly afterwards, a church friend my own age had a fall and subsequently died in hospital in great pain and another friend was severely injured by a car and remains suspended between life and death even now as I speak.
These events have caused me to reflect on death and how I understand it. What happens to us after death? Traditional Christianity has its own truth - that we will be raised to resurrected life and will join Jesus in heaven with the
Saints who have gone before us. I’ll say more about the Christian understanding of death a little later.
Contemporary theology, influenced by the critical thinking of science is rather circumspect in what it says about life after death. Progressive theologian John Shelby Spong simply says when he dies, he wants to be where Jesus is and leaves the matter there, not offering anything more.
Medical science makes clear that we are made up of organic materials which deteriorate at death and makes no claim about a soul.
Some modern philosophy says we have no soul, no ghost in the machine, just a body and as that finally disintegrates, there is nothing left to go anywhere.
Other philosophies point to the unsolved mystery of consciousness suggesting that our human consciousness is a reflection of the consciousness of the universe, another way of naming God. They hold that to get in touch with our human consciousness through meditative experiences is to be aware of our true selves as distinct from the person we think we are based on our history and circumstances. To experience such consciousness is, in this spiritual philosophy, to have a taste of the life to come and hopefully, to find release from fear of death.
Now, I to return to current Christian theology as expressed by Anglican theologian Cynthia Bourgeault. Bourgeault believes in the wisdom of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ as the way to understand that the one who would save their life will lose it and the one who is willing to lose their life will find it.
We can understand this loss of life for another literally, of course. Jesus says there is no greater love for another than choosing to die for him or her. But losing our life for others is more generally interpreted metaphorically. As we take up our cross, that is, put the concerns of our ego behind us and live outwardly for others and inwardly for God, we shall have a taste of the joy of the life to come. In other words, to die to the self and to gain the joy that death to the self brings is to have a glimpse of life after death before we literally die.
We are newly free to be courageous, compassionate and generous. We are not alone as we know God is with us all the time. The gifts of the Holy Spirit - gentleness, peace, forbearance, love and joy shape us into those who are not afraid to die.
If we have already discovered this Gospel truth and we are approaching the end of our life, death will not make us fearful despite the challenges that ageing bodies go through. But there are some at the end of their lives who, not having a secure faith, are very fearful. They may want to have help to die before their natural time and that raises the contentious issue of euthanasia. I won’t go there today, but I would argue that such suffering people can find great relief in having support from others who do have a strong faith. Somehow, that unspoken confidence can be experienced by the one who is suffering and he or she can gain strength to keep going.
It makes sense to me that, as we age, we will benefit greatly from considering our attitude to death rather than pushing such thoughts away. Meditation, focussing on each moment we still have to appreciate the richness of life, reaching out to others as we are able and taking time to converse in prayer with God are great ways to come to terms with our death. And understanding that we shall one day pass away is the royal road to understanding the meaning of being alive now.
Ultimately, we cannot know in any scientific, objective way what happens to us after death.
Perhaps poets and artists can give us more helpful ways to imagine what death and dying will be like.
We can start with the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam where the poet acknowledges that we can’t know about life after death til we get there:
‘Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who before us passed the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road which to discover, we must travel, too.’
Then we can move to a verse from William Blake who refuses to accept the reality of death in the following verse:
‘Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
and finally, some words from ‘The Prophet’ by Khalil Gibran who writes more enigmatically:
‘For what is it to die, but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides,
that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?….
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.’
There are some professional tree pruners outside and I can hear troublesome branches crashing several metres to the ground. They have cleared away items likely to be damaged, our curious cat is being monitored by the apprentice, and branches are falling in safe zones. All is under control in the hands of these professionals and I am grateful.
We like being in control, don’t we? Prosperous countries, such as ours, have become adept at controlling many aspects of our lives and our surrounding environment, so that we feel safe and secure. That was until a mysterious pandemic appeared and we suddenly realised we had lost control of so much that seemed certain. Much tragedy has unfolded and we know more awaits us – but we don’t know how much or for how long…
Loss of control, in itself, is not such a bad lesson for us to learn. As a person of strong faith, I aim to live with less control of my life! Whereas my tendency is to control, there is freedom in a ‘let go and let God’ mentality. An implicit trust in a beneficent God is required to live this way. Many decisions are still required, but there are others where leaving a space for what may eventuate, is releasing. For example, I have been completely dependent on people responding to everything I do as a Community Chaplain, from the beginning. Which people would engage in something so new and different was completely unknown. Living this way is tense at times, sometimes disappointing, sometimes elating. However, if I’ve done my best, with good intentions, I trust God to do the rest. I believe God is for us, has a far greater perspective and ultimately will prevail. Why would God not be faithful to me, given He loves me and I am trying to cooperate?
A further benefit of letting go of some reins is that we are no longer central to the outcome. Did I hear a sigh of relief? That’s how I feel. Handing control over to God, means we are no longer fully responsible – for better or for worse. No inflated pride and no crippling shame. Being important (involved, heard, respected), but not central, is a great place to be. I credit Graham Bond, long serving Pastor and CEO of Wayside Chapel with this wisdom.
Giving up control takes humility. We are not so important after all! From this place, we are better able to hear others and allow God some room to move. A previous mentor would say, ‘Lift empty hands to God’. When we have fulfilled our responsibilities, we can simply let go and trust it to the God who cares more than we do. Try it and feel the anxiety drain away…
As a young woman, it didn’t take much to spark my anger. Poking this bear was looking for trouble! Although assisting marginalised people was compelling, being amongst activists raised my anger level unhelpfully. I backed off, not wanting to become a constantly simmering pot of anger. Having dealt with some underlying issues, I am much calmer these days. But I also recognise that controlled anger can be well-utilised to call for justice.
Nevertheless, I have re-engaged with social justice activists with trepidation. Happily, I have found a group who are respectful and intelligent in their approach: my local Sydney Alliance group. Initially, we build relationships with others concerned for the common good of those around them. It’s enriching to meet these compassionate people, intent on making a positive difference for others. There is encouragement in working together. We are guided by experienced Sydney Alliance leaders to formulate an informed approach, based on our combined strengths and connections. No specific agendas are forced upon us and we agree on one cause which is a high priority for us all. Recently, we heard personal stories of the huge dilemma of international students who lost their jobs and the desperate circumstances which resulted. After raising our collective voice to ask for support for them during COVID-19 restrictions, we thanked those responsible for providing an allowance to them. Recently we became aware of many local ‘at risk’ youth, and how the local organisation Streetwork is having a very positive impact upon them. We are currently strategising how to best support 'Streetwork' to multiply its impact.
If you would like to be peacefully proactive and productive, here is an opportunity to gain some skills to write to, and meet with, your local State or Federal MP. (This enables them to do their job well in representing us, their constituents.) Lane Cove Uniting Church has organised an online training session with Uniting’s Advocacy Team. Everyone is welcome:
I appreciate these approaches where expertise and information are shared, enabling us to be productive and efficient together. I am blessed to have these new people in my life too. It’s energising to be part of an eclectic team, making a difference for people who really need an advocate, simply by dedicating an hour or two a month to their cause. Is it something you would like to do too? Click on one of the bold, underlined links to find out more.
What gives us resilience? That is, the strength to recover from life’s shocks and obstacles and keep going in confident hope?
As I was reflecting on this topic, I recalled a short sentence I’d heard years ago on ABC radio. I think it was a psychiatrist who said, ‘Resilience comes from having someone to love, someone to love you, something to do and something to hope for.’
I think that sums the matter up quite well, but there’s some further examination we could do to understand it more fully.
It seems our resilience grows out of many factors including:
In the light of what I have just outlined, I have to say I am blessed with a caring husband and family. With my sons I still share caring, trusting relationships. I have lots of other people to care about: my Uniting Church friends, members of several seniors’ groups; and old friends and relatives I don’t see often but do care for. With increasing age has come an increasing awareness of the importance of being supported by others and giving support in return to strengthen my capacity to cope with life’s difficulties.
As for something to do, I have no trouble finding worthwhile activities. Being part of this group and getting to know you and being interested in you is a start. Pastoral care for my church is another satisfying outreach. Sharing ideas, writing, thinking, meditating, writing prayers, reading, using my computer to communicate are all worthwhile to me. I have other satisfying domestic and leisure activities as well.
Finally, something to hope for…. In my early adult years, I had all the usual hopes one had as a young wife and mother in our society of the 1960’s - a happy family, a secure home, a garden, social life, studying for my degree and eventually, satisfying employment - but when my marriage relationship broke down, I met one upheaval after another. Shortly after our divorce, my former husband died of a heart attack at 44. That was the beginning of big problems - fatherless teenage sons, much weakened health, rejection by former family and friends and the necessity of building a whole new life in a hurry. In desperation, I went to my local church - and I hadn’t been a church member since my teen years - to see if I could find solace and new meaning there. If I couldn’t, then I would try psychiatry to help get myself together.
But at that point, I was ready to hear the Gospel with adult understanding. With tears of grief mixed with hope, I kept going. I got into Bible study and prayer groups. I started a home group. My minister suggested I think of ministry for myself. I was finally ordained. In the Gospel story of God with us and the life we can lead following the path of Jesus - I now placed my faith and trust.
Thus, it’s on these foundations of love shared, work to do and hope for the future that any resilience I have rests. I fail to meet every single challenge that comes my way, but I’m now 81 and so far, so good . . .
Even as a pre-schooler I wanted to go to Sunday School to be like my big brother. They kindly let me in before I was 5 and I loved it from the beginning. The Sunday School teachers were always kind to me, and I was a keen student. Although my parents didn’t go to Church, I was unaware of their disbelief, as their principles were largely Christian. They wanted ours to be too – so long as we didn’t take it too far! That part didn’t go according to their plan because God intervened supernaturally when I was about 10. It was a life-changing experience and nobody has ever been able to convince me that it wasn’t real.
Hence, for most of my life, I have attended various churches on Sunday morning. I have enjoyed being part of these communities who are united by the underlying story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. There is a unifying hope and challenge in trying to live out principles modelled by Jesus 2000 years ago. It’s not easy interpreting his actions for today’s world, so the Church is somewhat dependent on those who have stepped up their commitment, undertaken study of the Bible and are able to transmit its teachings to others in meaningful ways. Surrounding this teaching are practices of honouring God together and interacting graciously with the rest of the community. This has become a finely developed art over 2000 years! Do I miss this tradition? Yes – but not as much as I used to.
Whereas I loved Sunday worship gatherings for many years, my growing concern for those who are effectively ‘locked out’ became my over-riding concern. Most churches will warmly welcome newcomers, but if people have never been to church, or experienced it badly in the past, they are unlikely to go in (maybe on the arm of a trusted friend). Hence, I instigate various ways to allow people to taste the treasures of Christianity gently. (See my previous 2 blogs). Lane Cove Uniting Church usually run a great Sunday worship service and enable me to go out into the community to be with people in their environment. The people who come regularly to these gatherings have formed communities too, which I find satisfy that relational worship need in me. Having different options available is ideal, as faithful people who love the time-honoured traditions of Church continue in that way, while those who don’t, have some options too.
Christian faith is very rich and sustaining, offering extraordinary wisdom for those who care to delve. I just don’t want anyone to miss out!
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." The Bible, John 10:10 (NIV).
My favourite pizza includes prawns, avocado and garlic. Unfortunately, our daughter doesn’t enjoy prawns, so we compromise when we order pizza together. We are all created differently and have varied preferences. How we relate to God is no exception. Not everyone finds God draws near to them via the same experience. Two of my preferences are to interact in a conversational way and to be outdoors in nature. Hence, I have experimented with activities that utilise these features to offer different ways of connecting to God and each other.
Our walking groups have been enjoyed for over 5 years by about 200 people. Being outside, particularly in the bush, is good for the soul, just in itself. The intricate beauty and diversity of creation reminds me of the goodness of my Creator and of the love and care invested in each creature. The interdependence between the species is astounding and humbling. I hope to evoke that sense of wonder in those who walk with us. People are encouraged to use all their senses to appreciate the beauty around them and leave behind the stresses of daily life. As we gratefully acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, I also give thanks to the Creator, who loves us all - past, present, and future generations of all people. Later in the walk, a contemplative exercise is offered. Walkers can process this from their own spiritual basis. We learn from each other’s insights and engage to the degree we choose. We enjoy communal conversation over the food we bring. This has formed a community that cares compassionately for each other and our environment. I find these walks refresh my spirit and draw me closer to God. The attitude we bring to the activity determines its worship content.
Our Book Club is another setting where we engage together in a respectful, conversational way. The books we choose provoke our response to social concerns. Hugh Mackay’s Beyond Belief was our first, highlighted by a visit and discussion with the gracious author. Since then, we have been educated about other faiths by their representatives and have continued to challenge our perspectives on life with Australia Reimagined (Hugh Mackay), God is Good for You (Greg Sheridan) and most recently, Dark Emu (Bruce Pascoe). There is plenty of time to discuss issues over cheese and wine (currently from home over Zoom) as we only discuss a chapter or two each time. As our perspectives change, behavioural change will often follow.
Jesus’ central command was: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (The Bible, Matthew 22: 37-39).
It’s central for me too and I encourage others to come on a journey with me to do our best to live it out. Does this mean going to Church on Sunday? I’ll be more frank about this next time – I promise!
As a practising, ordained Minister your first predictive thought may be that I would laud the many reasons I miss going to Church. But then, you could think, 'Karen can be a bit unpredictable! She is a female Minister after all – and a Deacon – which are both minority ‘Minister’ categories. And then she doesn’t particularly like preaching - and rarely does. So maybe it is worth finding out which way she will jump!'
There are a number of contributing factors to my answer. Firstly, I have long ago decided that Church and Christianity are more about what you do, and who you are, when you leave the Church building, than what goes on during that hour or two a week. Sunday Church services are about many things, but they certainly don’t exist in a vacuum – they interact with the rest of the week. However, in my case, I also ‘do’ Church-related activities during the week, outside the building.
I lead two meditation groups per week. These groups are now conducted on Zoom and are little communities of their own. We have welcomed new people over this COVID-19 period, so it has been important that we get to know each other. We take turns giving a special insight into our lives, sometimes with a bit of show and tell. What fascinating people we are! We’ve had a collection of bells and gongs from around the world, some exquisite quilts and hand-made items, garden tours of rich diversity, deep reflections about finding joy (see previous blog), a creative home altar, family insights, pets and holidays, artists showing their pictures and insight into the life of the blind during COVID-19 – to name a few. Our spirituality impacts and infuses our whole life, which becomes clearer when you witness the joy of someone’s true passion. This time of sharing is followed by a short, spiritual reflection (often from the World Community for Christian Meditation), relaxation, silent mantra meditation and a closing reading to send us out. Community, message, meditation (which is referred to as the highest form of prayer by WCCM teachers), and sending out. Does that sound familiar?
I also have the privilege of hosting multiple Explore groups each week, currently over Zoom. These are small groups of people who earnestly investigate the foundations and expression of Christianity together. Not everyone comes convinced, but they are brave enough to explore this ancient, worldwide faith, which commands our respect. Each group has a different tone and focus. One is especially about ecology and our faithful response, the others focus more on the Bible and its origins, its characters in context and how we outwork the teachings of a faith that began thousands of years ago. Each group is a community, has a Biblical context to explore, engages in prayer and is sent out to compassionately enact what we have learned.
These groups are delightfully diverse. I love to see people from different walks of life and geographies come together and learn from each other and the unexpected relationships which flourish. Diverse perspectives bring life to ancient teachings. But they are not on Sunday and they are not in a Church building and we don’t sing. Yet, they are lively and fulfilling and I believe we communally honour God. I wonder how you define Church?
I invite you to continue with me next week, because I’m not finished yet. As a Community Chaplain I also host walking groups and co-host a Book Club. (Coffee groups in non-COVID time too). Most groups are open to newcomers and I will happily respond to your enquiries.
And - do I still miss going to Church on Sunday?
This blog is by one of our meditation community, Bev Cameron, who is a retired Uniting Church Minister. Bev shared this with our group yesterday. The group's response was so positive that I thought it deserved t be shared more widely. Thank you Bev! Karen
Karen’s invitation to share how we find peace was most welcome. Our world issues are stressful enough, but when the challenges of personal issues are added to them, I find it is very easy to become stressed. Clearly, ways to find peace become critically important.
For most of my adult life, I have been very busy, swept up by our culture which applauds busyness and by the satisfactions of personal
achievements that accrue from being busy. Being continually active is also a way of escaping boredom, loneliness, anxiety and a sense of meaninglessness rather than coming to terms with those difficult inner states. That meant for most of my adult life, I had a lot of stimulation, excitement and stress but not a lot of inner peace and eventually that caught up with me through major physical illness which forced me to do some rethinking.
Stress and how to deal with it is discussed often in the media, particularly now while the whole world is dealing with the Corona virus, falling incomes and unemployment. We know some stress is desirable to motivate and rouse us to action and even to risk taking. But we need its counterpoint, peace, derived from a clear sense of what really matters including taking regular breaks for rest to keep our inner worlds in balance, or to strengthen us to take risky action when that is called for.
I have always been interested in my inner world. My studies in psychology, theology, counselling, pastoral care and meditation are evidence of that. The way I see things suggests there are two levels of inner peace. Both are necessary and desirable.
The first level, the more attainable, comes when we engage in those activities which take our minds away from our worries and ongoing responsibilities and allow our thoughts to engage fully with the activity. I’m sure you all have such activities that you love to get into and I’m equally sure that though you might feel tired after, say, a cross country run or a vigorous game of tennis or hours spent working on your family tree or getting caught up in a good book, you have found a degree of inner peace. My ways of finding that kind of peace include gardening while listening to my favourite radio programs, walking in one of the many natural reserves where we live, spending time in the kitchen experimenting with new recipes, engaging in quiet conversation with friends and watching favourite TV programs with Bruce.
But this first level of finding peace only goes part of the way to experiencing deep peace. We need something more than that to cope well with everything that life throws at us. That brings me to …
The second level of inner peace which is considerably more difficult to find, but essential to our wellbeing. Speaking personally, it is not a state I can make happen, though finding inner peace is becoming easier as I get older. The reason it is more difficult is that the state of deep peace requires an ongoing awareness of the present moment, that is, keeping your mind totally focussed on the now moment. And, as all of us who do our best to meditate know how hard it can be to stop our minds flitting from one idea to the next, from one emotion to the next, most often, even in meditation, the sense of transcendence, of feeling that I am briefly and joyfully at peace does not happen. To achieve this kind of deep peace is the aim of meditation practices and no doubt you know that. As we are all by now fully cognisant of the ‘how’ of meditation, I won’t go into that here, but I will share a little of the help I have gained from a popular speaker on spiritual matters, Eckhart
Tolle’s talks are readily available on Youtube. Years ago, a friend suggested I watch him and at first, when I tried it, I found his views unhelpful. But in subsequent periods of significant stress, I tried watching and listening again and discovered he has not only experienced the kind of stress that took him to the edge of suicide, but is also well versed in all the great faiths, in psychology and philosophy and finds parallels among these different sources of meaning which make even my trained understanding of our Bible come to life in a new way.
He has written a best-seller, ‘The Power of Now,’ which sums up his basic idea and which is at one with our ideas of meditation. His name comes up now and then in talks by both Fr Richard Rohr and Fr Laurence Freeman. He reminds us that we can only ever live in the ‘now’ moment. Yesterday has gone; it is history; there is nothing we can do to change it. Tomorrow never comes except in our minds. We are always and can only ever be in the present moment.
And, if we are fully aware of the present moment, we can appreciate everything that moment has to offer, most of which in the past we have simply ignored. Our minds are free to be enriched by the present moment as we let go of sadness or regrets about the past and anxieties about the future, anxieties which may never be realised.
Tolle has much more than this to say, of course, but that’s enough about him from me today. I can only add that when ever my life circumstances become threatening to my inner peace, I do my best to take some time out to recall his references to the Gospels which tell us that Jesus also took time out to talk to God, and then, if it’s possible, I try to let all concerns go for that period and to talk to God, giving thanks for everything.
In this faith in the Now moment of God, though I still must wrestle with doubts and failures from time to time, lies the source of my inner peace.
I asked our walking groups what practices they would choose to retain out of this lockdown period?
There is a whole gamut of experiences and we are so fortunate to be living in Sydney. Health care is good quality and accessible, housing is enjoyed by most (but fewer than before), social systems care for many of our vulnerable people (with some tragic gaps) and the spread of ‘the virus’ has been relatively contained. Some people have enjoyed this time to retreat and be at home, living more gently in a usually fast-paced city. Time to catch up with those in our households is a mixed blessing – for some it’s precious family time – for others a further strain on tense relationships.
Neighbourliness has been a big winner. It has given us the opportunity, and the responsibility, to watch out for our immediate neighbours. And they are generally home these days! The joy of new and re-established social connections has come in many other ways too. Children are calling and caring for their elderly relatives again. Strangers are more apt to smile at each other on footpaths. Families are out walking and playing together in far greater numbers than before. Walking trails are well-utilised with people appreciating the delights of the natural environment. Letters are being posted again. A new awareness of local business and the wisdom of buying locally-produced goods is happening. Different groups are working together for the first time to act for the benefit of the severely disaffected.
Learning new skills through online courses has brought joy to many. From arts and crafts to study, learning a new musical instrument or singing in an online choir, doing home-based fitness and honing new skills for re-entering the work force, these new activities will continue to bring joy, new friendships and benefits into the future.
Many have suffered great loss over this period – and there will be more to come. Let us come alongside those we know and help where we can. Our own mental health is important too, so take time to reflect on some positive takeaways and keep them happening.
"Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful." (From The NLT Bible, Colossians 3:15)
The very different Mother’s Day we are about to experience brings its meaning into sharp focus. The warm hugs and kisses between generations of loved ones will be exchanged for calls over electronic devices. Restaurant visits are likely to be replaced with home-cooked meals of varying qualities. Many gifts will be delivered by strangers to our doors in an attempt to convey love from a distance. So what really matters to Mum anyway?
Speaking as a mother of three young adult children and their two partners, it is about having their loving attention for a while. If they carve some time out of their day to be ‘with’ me in some way, tell me about their lives and take an interest in mine, I am pleased. The hugs, kisses, cards and thoughtful presents are icing on the cake. The lovingly home-cooked meal is the cherry on top! But they all boil done to one key attribute to me: they love me and want to continue to share their lives with me.
Mother’s Day is a focal time for this to happen, and like Christmas, there is a sense of loss if it doesn’t. I will miss the delight of having our children all in one place interacting well together, and joining in with games of overly competitive table tennis after lunch! However, let’s not overstate its importance. It is the constancy of relationships that matters most. To be acknowledged just on Mother’s Day means little. Being a part of each other’s lives through the ups and downs is of far greater importance.
Children, do your best to show love to Mum this Mother’s Day. She will gratefully recognise your intention. But remember there are another 364 days this year to maintain and build that precious relationship, which will touch her heart much more with its sincerity.
Hi! I'm Karen, the Lane Cove Community Chaplain. I am pondering life here and in general. Some of my blog articles are originally found in our local paper, The Village Observer, and are repeated here because I would love to hear your response too.