Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Halfway through life
I was living in peace, but God took me by the throat and battered me and crushed me. God uses me for target practice and shoots arrows at me from every side - arrows that pierce and wound me; and even then he shows no pity. He wounds me again and again; he attacks like a soldier gone mad with hate. I mourn and wear clothes made of sackcloth, and I sit here in the dust defeated. I have cried until my face is red, and my eyes are swollen and circled with shadows, but I am not guilty of any violence, and my prayer to God is sincere.
You like your ancestors before you, have turned away from my laws and have not kept them. Turn back to me, and I will turn to you. But you ask, 'What must we do to turn back to you?'
The people of Judah had a song they sang: 'We grow weak carrying burdens; there's so much rubble to take away. How can we build the wall today?'
(Job 16: 12-17; Malachi 3: 7; Nehemiah 4:10 -- all GNB)
For the first twenty years or so of personal Christian pilgrimage, the 'high mountains' of experience keep us going: the weekend conference; the spiritual retreat; the inspiring preacher; the encouraging response to witness; the growth of the congregation. These high points give us sufficient stimulus to keep going through the boring and monotonous phases of life and of ministry.
But my observation is that, as the years go past, and as one's own mortality creeps up, the high points are less frequent and the deep valleys predominate. When one turns fifty (and it happens at different ages for different people!), it is possible for a Christian to enter a deep valley of experience which seems to have no end - a kind of spiritual desert.
It's hard even to remember the high points of experience of a few years back; external circumstances seem to press harder than ever; and one's own life-cycle catches up on one. Teenage children grow into adults and move away. The familiar worlds seem hostile instead of comforting; the secular environment seems hard against the gospel; and it is difficult to find something new about the Christian faith which gives stimulus and excitement any more.
What do you do if you get into this situation - especially if you are in a position of Christian leadership in a congregation? It's very hard to keep pretending that all is well, but there must be some clues in the scriptures and Christian experience to lead us out of this valley.
I look at Jesus in agony on the night before he died... I stand quite dose to him and watch him reaching out for human help... but no-one now can reach him; he is entirely on his own before he dies... As I watch I realise that man will ultimately come to terms with God, with destiny and with himself only when he dares to seek aloneness. I give myself a taste of what it means to be alone: I am living in a desert: no books... no occupation... no sound of human voice... -- for a whole day... a week... for months... I see how I react when I am thrown back on my own resources... when I am stripped of what I mostly use to run away from looking at myself: work and human company...
Then I see myself in a solitary prison cell: sound-proof walls, a narrow room, the dim light of a bulb all day... never the glimpse of a human face... or of any living thing... or sun or sky... never a sound of human voice or Nature... for weeks... for months on end... not knowing when it will end...
Finally -- I have lapsed into a coma: I can hear the words of people and feel their touch... but cannot reach them...
Now I return to life: to my worries and my work... my comforts and attachments... the world of human beings... but I realise that I am not the same from having been exposed to the rigours of aloneness...
Every now and then my heart returns to Jesus in his agony... I watch him as he grapples with God and with his destiny... and the sight gives me a wisdom that thinking never could.
So I linger there and look...
Anthony de Mello, 'The Desert'
Middle age -- that difficult period between juvenile delinquency and senior citizenship when you have to take care of yourself.
'I recently turned fifty,' America's most famous father, Bill Cosby, writes at the outset of his book Time Flies, 'which is young for a tree, midlife for an elephant, and ancient for a quarter-miler, whose son now says, "Dad, I just can't run the quarter with you any more unless I bring some thing to read"'.
It is said by Anthony Power that we date ourselves by the standards against which we rebel... The themes of great literature --' love, disappointment, the texture of time -- are the themes. of ordinary fife. Indeed, the older I get, the more I see the inexhaustible interestingness of the ordinary.
It is said that God gave us memory so we could have roses in winter. But it is also true that without memory we cannot have a self in any season. The more memories you have, the more 'you' you have. That is why, as Swift said, no wise person ever wished to be younger.
George E Will, 'On Turning 40'
The midlife crisis might be best understood as the 'crisis of limits'... the awareness of physical decline... the sense of one's own mortality. There is the sense of loss and limits in terms of one's role and relationships in the family, and in one's career...
People can remain locked in the experience of brokenness or they can reject these feelings, deny them and pretend they are not there. Alternatively, the negative ex perience may become the purgatorial environment through which people can confront and own their brokenness and their resistance to the sense of threat that the experience of physical decline precipitates... To understand that there is fellowship in human existence as well as in human achievement, that developing and maintaining a relation ship may be as important as being a success requires one to rework one's dream and vision even more radically than before.
Maryanne Conroy, 'Challenges to Faith in Life's Journey'
When everything takes on the taste of death and destruction then in actual fact it is the Holy Spirit who is at work in us. This then is the hour of his grace. Then the seem ingly uncanny, bottomless depth of our existence as experienced by us is the bottomless depth of his communicating himself to us, the dawning of his approaching infinity... which is tasted like nothing because it is infinity.
Karl Rahner, 'Reflections on the Experience of Grace'
Where my bitterness overflowed all bounds was at the sight of the rifts developing in the Order and the intestinal strife now raging between the innovators and those who wished to remain strictly faithful to the rule.
The disputes over the rule paralysed me. Unity was everything to me. Above all it was the sign of God's grace and loving response to our efforts to be faithful to him.
The sight of the divisions among us, the sound of gospel texts being mouthed without meaning and twisted from their original simplicity, left me helpless.
I really felt as though darkness had fallen on what I held most dear in the world -- my family.
At the Pentecost Chapter, held in May 1221, the very triumph of numbers increased my uneasiness. There were more than five thousand of us.
I no longer felt capable of guiding the Order. At the same time I wanted to keep a hand in everything.
Fortunately, I was thrust aside, and Fre Elias was nominated General.
Suddenly I felt better, relieved of a responsibility which had been weighing on me. But my peace did not last long.
The most intransigent, those who claimed to be 1oyalest to me, returned to the assault, and the divisions became more acute than ever.
'Francis, you must come back. You must take up the reins again. You must make your weight felt.'
'Father, you must expel the most dangerous brothers...' And on the other hand, those who thought themselves the pure, the spiritual ones, and who, making fidelity to the original rule their excuse, were becoming eccentric and unbalanced, living in such a way as to attract rebuke from the bishops by their inhuman penances and their wild and repulsive appearance. No, I had certainly ruined everything.
Carlo Carretto, I, Francis
Bernie was staying for a while at Martha's, an Anglican shelter for homeless women. The age of the twelve women at Martha's averaged about thirty years. Some women had fled marriages or relationships involving physical abuse, some had been put out of the family home, some had children being cared for elsewhere. One young woman of nineteen had come from hospital where she had undergone brief psychiatric treatment and then had been sent to a place for care where ninety per cent of patients were well over seventy years. For two weeks no-one spoke to her.
Bernie's life fell apart when her husband went off with someone else. Without children and under thirty years of age she was entitled to CAN$164 per month from welfare for her expenses. Even with an extra housing subsidy allowance, she could not make ends meet on her own. She seemed appalled at her homeless state:
This is the second time that I have ended up living on the street and going to the women's shelter and staying there for a while. This time I ended up at Martha's. I never thought that I would ever end up on the street and I don't think any of us think that. We all think that we will get through our hardships and we'll never be this way and I don't think anyone plans being on the street, just somehow that's the way circumstances go -- you know, bad timing, not being prepared.'
Joan Clarke, Motherhood Principles and Labour Pains: Women and Families
Lord, I move in a twilight zone between the harsh reality of life around me, personal dilemmas, relationship difficulties, anxiety about children, feeling overwhelmed at how secular the world is. I used to be in a black-and-white world, where you could identify the Christians, where we had the right attitudes about everything, and we knew where evil resided. Now, Lord, I know that life has become so much more complex than that: Christian people do bad things, even manipulate others; and there are good people right outside the Christian fold who sometimes act better than the Christians in caring for one another and for me.
In this twilight world, Lord, bring your light to bear on my life. Help my judgments to be clearer, my conscience to be forgiven, and my Christianity to be realistic. I ask this in the name of the greatest realist of all, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Lord Jesus, you went into the desert and survived. Help me to live through this desert experience, to learn new things, to find God afresh without the normal props and supports that comfort me, and get me through to the other side of the desert so that I can enjoy life again. Amen.
God, Father and Mother of us all, help me within the family and in my friendships to find a new vitality, a new energy, a greater capacity to forgive, new grace to face the next set of trials and difficulties. Lord, you lived on this earth in the context of an ordinary family which contained an extraordinary secret of divinity. Help me to live within my ordinary family with the extraordinary secret that God is with us, even though it may not be apparent to us or to others. Help us to know and experience your presence in the ordinary life-cycle that we are going through. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Let us pray that the Spirit of God will renew our lives: Lord, increase our eagerness to do your will and help us to know the saving power of your love.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Collect for Ordinary Sunday 34
Rowland Croucher ed., High Mountains Deep Valleys, Albatross/Lion chapter 21
(Note: I think the image used here is a painting of Job's Comforters by William Blake - can anyone confirm that?)