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.
The articles here are currently written by Liam McKenna, Lane Cove Community Chaplain.