The Examen and Gratitude

This was a short tutorial piece that I wrote last week. Some may find it thought provoking, although I don’t provide a lot of context as I present it as it was submitted, and the lecturer obviously has prior understandings.

St Ignatius was one of the first stops on my faith journey when I was wondering what ‘this God thing’ was all about. I see discernment, and Ignatian prayer as both important, because they are real-life ‘tools’; mechanisms that we can use both for ourselves, and when we are seeking to help others find their own ways through life.

While theoretical underpinnings are vital, it’s important to learn the actual skills we will need in  a possible future ministry career, and while I don’t know what is taught in other units, if its anything like teaching, we often do not learn actual practical skills until we are on the ground, so the speak. This lecture reminded me that I need to revisit St Ignatius as I think that his ideas are very real-world applicable.

‘Gratitude’ is huge amongst my networks at the moment; Instagram, Facebook, and journalling communities, both faith based and secular, have been extolling the virtues of making gratitude a deliberate part of our lives for several years now.

Gratitude is, of course, built into the Examen, the Ignatian prayer.  The second of five steps that asks us to see the day as a gift from God and give thanks for it. But, in a circular fashion, the very act of practising thanks help us see the good; ‘the Examen instils gratitude (1)’ It’s now seen as having a host of mental and physical benefits (2) but the virtues of this concept were being extolled at least 450 years ago.

While the act of practising gratitude seems to be useful and life affirming however it is performed, would extra layers be added if people practised the whole Examen? Looking at what happened through the day. Where we shone, but also where we can do better; where we fell short of the standards that we set for ourselves. Is practising gratitude on its own enough, or is it somehow symptomatic of ‘me’ culture, just looking at what life serves us that we find pleasing. Maybe, when we hear people say that they ‘don’t know how to pray’ (as I hear often), we should be offering the Examen as a first point of call.

[1] Manney, Jim, A simple life changing prayer, Loyola Press, 2011, 36.

[2] http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/expandinggratitude/

Everyday Lucky.

Forgive me some self indulgence, but there’s nothing like spending a few days sick in bed to make you grateful for all the wonderful things that surround you. I get sick very very seldom, and getting hit by a nasty bug last week (Dr- you can’t go to work for a week. Me- Oh my GOD they are going to be crabby with me!. Dr- No they won’t. People find shingles repulsive. They’re not going to want to be around you) made me realise just how much I rely on my good health and my ability to do all the things for all the people, all the time.

But now I’m up and have makeup on for the first time since Saturday I’m just feeling full of love and gratitude (kind of like a drunk guy with all the ‘I love you man’s) and want to take a moment to reflect on all the things that are amazing about my life. This year has been tough with Jasper’s surgery and all, but as we have always said, since the day he was born, it could be so much worse. 

Now there’s none of that #soblessed crap here. Many of these things stem from the pure chance that I was born in a developed country. I’m so happy to be an Australian, with all the freedom that offers. Living in Australia provides medical care and education and welfare for those who need it and so many other things that we take for granted but other countries only aspire too. And of course, the opportunity to vote in two months in an attempt to elect a government that truly cares about the needy and vulnerable in society is a right that we should never over look.

I have an amazing husband. Who is good with money. And who is patient. And who is a great father. And doesn’t criticise whatever plan I’ve just come up with…

Children who are just the most amazing little people I’ve ever met, and who I wake up excited to see every morning (which usually happens immediately as often there is one sleeping nose to nose with me).

A job I adore. Teaching has to be one of the best careers anyone could choose. I’m constantly glad that the ‘oh god, I guess I’d better be a teacher’ decision 20 years ago panned out so well. And the fact that my hours mean that I have a chance to volunteer in the community too- many people just cant do that because there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Beautiful and supportive extended family. I’m so lucky to have a sister who is my best friend, parents who are still alive and I see most days and even a 95 year old grandmother.

I live in a beautiful part of the world, in a cosy and creative home. I mean, look at what I wake up to every morning…

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Enough money to feel and clothe my children. Enough to give to others in need. Enough to mean that for most of the time, I don’t have to spend time thinking about how to make ends meet. So many in the world do not get this luxury.

Good health. Pretty much all of the time. This is something that none of us should take for granted. I should probably eat less sugar but…nah.

Great friends. Who make me smile and who make me think. And who are fucking hilarious.

A place in my life where I’m really happy. Some people ‘find themselves’ earlier than others, but some people never do, so I’m calling early 40s not a bad time to go ‘I’m happy with who I am’. There is of course room for improvement, but this doesn’t come from a desperate need to ‘find myself’. Spiritually, and in so many other ways, I’ve found my place, and now I can just focus on the fact that  all you need is love (well and food and shelter and an equitable welfare system and clean air…)

There are things that I dislike about the world, of course. Injustice, hatred, just a lack of love and acceptance. But I’ll try and have an impact where I can and trust that other people will do the same. That’s all any of us can do.

I think it’s good to reflect on all the things that we have to be thankful for. For most of us I suspect, this list is a lot longer than our gripes. What else would go on your list?

 

 

The Kindness Conundrum

For me, becoming a Christian has been a lesson in humility. Or 8000 lessons. The continual realignment of my preconceptions, and the breaking down of stereotypes, and the realisation that I hold strongly onto this ridiculous intellectual superiority which has been proven time and time again to be based on nothing but my own ego. (This week’s lesson; I’ve always ignored Eugene Peterson because ‘Ugh, The Message, I don’t need to read that Bible for Dummies version*. And then in the last week I’ve had to read some of his books and they are amazing. Absolutely in sync with where I am right now and totally relevant. Because of course that would be the case).

So, Random Acts of Kindness. A ‘selfless act, performed by a person…to be kind’. There are some pointers here (if you’re a curmudgeonly bastard who can’t think of any nice things to do for others). I’ve tended to think that an act done on purpose, an intentional decision to go out and do nice things for people, is somehow inherently worth less than a natural and intuitive act that just stems from the fact that you are a giving person who spreads kindness because it’s in your heart. As if making the conscious decision to Be A Nice Person today somehow trivializes your actions.

Never mind the fact that massive amounts of evidence point to the fact that, if you want to make changes in  your life, you need to be intentional about them. The more you act intentionally, the more the act will flow naturally until it seamlessly becomes part of the pattern of your life. I know all this. But in my ridiculous brain, acts that were kind and premeditated were somehow less worthy that those that were kind and natural.

Anyhoo, I’ve been the recipient of a few lovely acts recently. Not huge, life changing things, but enough to touch me. Yesterday, for instance, I needed to leave work early to take Jasper to a doctor’s appointment (I haven’t mentioned Jasper recently, but he is confined to a wheelchair now and I’m teaching him at home because his pain levels are too high. He will be having surgery in Melbourne on April 12th).  I needed someone to take a Grade 9 History class, and one of my colleagues volunteered. He and I get on fine; he’s fairly taciturn and I’m going to use ‘curmudgeonly’  twice in one post but we have a good working relationship. (He’s the ‘You really don’t seem like a Christian’ guy and he find my support of the Greens laughable). So, he offered to take my class from 10.15, which I thought was just lovely. I sent out a general email asking all the staff so there was no pressure on him at all, he just wanted to help. And then, at about 10.05, he came down to where I was teaching and told me to head off early, because it was raining and the road conditions were bad. Which I just find amazingly thoughtful. Isn’t that a lovely thing to do for someone?

And I realised that it doesn’t matter if he deliberately thought last week, ‘Eva is having a really tough time right now; I’ll find some way to help her if I can’, or if he just saw my email and though ‘Meh, I’m free when she needs help, why not’. It doesn’t matter if it was intentional or incidental  or if he had any ulterior motives for doing it.The impact that it had on my heart is what is important and I’ve realised that the context within which a kind act occurs means little to me. It’s the act itself that has meaning, and the fact that it’s a little glimmer of kindness that didn’t have to happen, but it did.

Scott Adams said, “Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”  No matter the motivation behind an act of kindness, it creates ripples. And it may not be our destiny to know where they are going to go, or what they become. We can only start those ripples when ever the opportunity arises.

 

 

*Even though we know I do, right?

All the opinions, all the time.

People roll their eyes when the ‘Christian voice’ is heard in the media on morality, or family issues, or what ever is dominating the news cycle on that particular day. The media loves to portray certain viewpoints and have no problem making sweeping generalizations; but of course groups like the Australian Christian Lobby don’t do their brothers and sisters any favours by claiming to speak for all of us. But people do love to have their bias confirmed, and I guess that does it for them. Apparently Christians are a homogeneous group and there is little to no dissent about big, or little issues.

Oh please.

There are some things that I think I have a particular perspective on, given my move from atheism to Christianity. I don’t think that this perspective is the be all and end all of course, given that certain other qualifiers have to be attached to anything that I claim to have an insight into (introverted, a bit pessimistic, intuitively cynical, a little mocking on occasion).

But I can say that I have noticed a real difference in the way that people treat me regarding my opinions about things these days. And by ‘things’, I mean the ones that they expect ‘Christians’ to have a particularly strong viewpoint on (abortion, euthanasia, pornography, Llama farming practices). There are a few steps involved here.

They assume that I am going to have an opinion, or take a stand. (This is something you would feel strongly about, surely?)

And then they assume (again) that they know what my opinion about that would be. (You would be against that, right?)

NO I DON’T AND NO, I WOULDN’T.

There are a couple of issues here. Firstly, I don’t feel the need to have an opinion about everything. It’s not that I don’t care about, for example, abortion or euthanasia, but I genuinely don’t have an opinion. I can see that they are nuanced and complex areas and it’s not an area I feel equipped to delve into. Do I have feelings about the issue? Sure. But I have feelings on lots of things that are just ridiculous and emotional and are better off left unexplored (I frequently want to pull my kids out of school and teach them at home, for example. This would be a shockingly bad move for many many reasons).

People find that hard to understand. You don’t have to have a dog in every fight, seriously. You don’t have to have an opinions on every single bloody thing and from what I can tell, others find it especially hard to get their head around this when you’re a Christian.

Sometimes, I just don’t care.

Sometimes, it’s so big and complex and I don’t want the responsibility of making a decisions.

Sometimes, I just don’t feel the need to share my thoughts with others.

I think that it is assumed by many that the Bible is a concise little rule book that has a clear and easily referenced solution to every quandary that will crop up during life.

Well, it doesn’t. Except it does, I suppose. There’s ‘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 neighbor as yourself ‘. So we have to love God, and others, deeply and passionately. Does this mean dictating what they can do with their life? Does this mean making decisions on behalf of them? What does Loving Others actually involve?

We need to look at the world through a framework of Jesus’ love. But that can go in many different directions. I personally don’t see how, within that framework, there can be a lot of disagreement on how to treat asylum seekers, but that’s because it’s one issue that I do have all the opinions on. And we are all going to be different in which battle we choose to fight.

But we also need to remember that loving others also means treading carefully with our opinions.

The one about Agape and Tattoos, Part Two.

 

So, I had a mystical experience.  And I wanted to always remember it. Given I’m a vegetarian I am not going to cut animals in half and dance around in the middle of them, I decided to get a tattoo instead.

And you know what I found out?

People love their opinions.

I actually wanted to get it 6 months before I actually did. I confided my plan in a work friend, who told me that tattoos (in the place I planned to get it) were ‘trashy and bogan’, and I would look like a skanky whore.

YOU DONT WANT TO LOOK LIKE A SKANKY WHORE, DO YOU???

Well no, I really didn’t, thank you very much. So I decided not to get it. Phew, lucky escape!

(Although whorishness would be quite biblical, now I come to think of it)

So I didnt.

But I really wanted to, you see.

I suppose I hadn’t quite realised how much I worried about what other people think of me. A lot, apparently.

And the irony of being given a manifest example of God’s unconditional love, yet still tying myself in knots about what one person thought of me, will be apparent, of course.

Anyway, after a little chat with my soul, I went ‘Fuck it’. And I’m really glad I did.

I love it so much. LOVE IT.

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(In your face, Leviticus 19:28)

And when I told my friend about it, she said ‘Well that is very ugly. I was right’, and then she enlisted some other people to laugh about it, and tell her how funny she was, and agree with her that it was the worst decision I’d ever made and omg what is wrong with me, don’t I have any sense of humour at all, just relax jeez.

So after various other machinations that are just too exhausting  and ridiculous to recount, I told her that didn’t really want to spend that much time with her anymore. And that, in turn, caused her to spiral into a fairly unstable mess. Which I do feel bad about, because I never want to be the source of anyone else’s distress

I suppose there are a few things that could be explored here. We could examine the fact that, despite God’s overwhelming love, we all act badly sometimes. We could look at how hard it is for us to believe in ourselves. Or the fact that just listening to someones idea and supporting them is usually the right thing to do and telling people that their tattoo is ugly is always a bad idea, because they are kind of permanent, you know?

But probably, at this moment in my life, the thing that I need to really think about is that, despite the fact that I think I actually experienced God’s manifest and unconditional love, I still worried what people would think of me, and I still didn’t act in a very forgiving manner towards someone.

Seriously though. The ultimate creative energy that formed the entire universe thinks that I am pretty great, and some woman that I didn’t even know that well completely threw me off my game, and as I result I acted in a pretty unloving way, because my ego was hurt.

My ego calls far too many of the shots, I’m afraid. It’s the worst.

Fuck, we are just so very human, aren’t we? Just so incredibly moral, so much of the time. Of course, though. Of course we are. We’re supposed to be. That’s the point, isn’t it.

But is standing up for what is ‘best’ for yourself, but at the same time hurting someone else, exactly the opposite of the love that we are meant to show for other people?  Surely a learning experience that started with my discovering the ultimate source of pure love should not have ended with me wanting to have nothing to do with someone ever again. I don’t want to have to go all Luke 6:29, but I can’t help but think that this was the sort of thing that was being referred to; showing unconditional acceptance, even in the face of exactly the opposite.

Maybe I’ll do better next time?

But, as Richard Rohr says; ‘The ego hates losing – even to God’.

Hmmm, maybe that quote should be my next tattoo…

 

 

 

Nadia, my new favourite person, in a totally non-stalky manner.

I’m deeply smitten with Nadia Bolz-Weber at the moment. I think that I’ve highlighted about 80% of Accidental Saints; Finding God in All the Wrong People and I really appreciate the fact that she clearly wrote the book specifically and just for me, which was considerate.

Even though she ministers to, and often writes for, the marginalised and those on the fringes, and I couldn’t be more un-persecuted, white, straight, and middle class, she reaches everyone, I think (although I do say fuck and am tattooed and my sarcasm level is perpetually at a 10, so maybe we are totally in synch).

Rather than just quote huge swathes of it (because you know I want to), I’ll just point to two of her articles that I love;

Sermon on Baptism and the Devil represents a perspective that I hadn’t really considered,

and

The Parameters We Prefer Jesus to Work Under, about how we need to spend less time defending positions and more time appreciating God’s love.

Ok, I’m going to just have to quote a little bit from that last article…

A couple weeks ago I got to hear Catholic theologian James Allison talk about how we think faith is about striving – keeping parameters, calling people out for not having it right, spiritual practices, doctrinal purity …  whatever – but that really faith is about relaxing. Specifically, relaxing in the way we do when we are with a friend who we know for certain is fond of us. We don’t have to strive around them and we somehow still become our best self – funny, spontaneous, free. Allison suggests that faith is trusting so much that God is fond of us that we just fricken relax.

Seriously good stuff.

The confines of humanness.

Last night, I was sitting on my bed, meditating. For me, meditation can be a great way of making my grocery list for the week, or a form of prayer whereby I pull and poke at God trying to get some attention and validation, or an almost transcendent experience (I’ll let you decide which of these is my usual form).

So, I was mediating and miraculously not planning my meal list when a huge gust of wind hit the side of the house and scared the absolute willies out of me.

It was a case of: peace-bam-fear.

And the idea instantly struck me of how incredibly limited we are as humans. It’s just all emotions, all the time, isn’t it?

We are constricted by our humanness. So confined. Just aware enough to know that there is this amazing eminence surrounding us, just able to be glimpsed and to be understood a little and imperfectly, but only by our limited and finite selves, who are so easily knocked off course by fear or lust or anger or just that general low level irritation which is barely even a real emotion- enough to distract us but without even the commitment of a real, honest expression of feeling.

We know just enough to understand our own limitations.

“Paradox, physicist Neils Bohr tells us, explodes our everday linear concept of truth and falsehood by positing two qualities that exist on a single continuum…Paradox thus points us to the mysterious place where two or more profound truths pull against each other in a tension that cannot be resolved by the clever machinations of the rational mind”

…On the frontier where human reason shades off into divine unknowing, you may find a resolution to the paradox or at least a sense of acceptance that can help you assent to the apparent contradictions in your spiritual life. But if God remains inscrutable beyond the farthest reaches of the most brilliant human mind, sooner or later we can expect to stumble across paradoxes that simply cannot be resolved. These insoluble paradoxes are at the core of faith *

The paradox, perhaps, that we are limited and finite yet eternal and heavenly. The fact that we are stuck between knowing about God, and knowing God, and our fear/anger/lust/irritation selves are pulled back to striving to know about God, when our pure selves already know God.

But then, of course, there’s this;

‘If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I can have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing”(1 Corinthians 13;2).

If we are going to have the chance to try and emulate the agape that we have all been given unconditionally and absolutely, by nurturing phileo, then we need all these emotions, don’t we? We need to be able to love despite our inner selves railing against it, despite anger and fear and misunderstandings and mistrusting ‘other’. We need to hone our ability to love, to forge it in the furnace of real life and real feelings because nothing good comes without work. Without roots. Maybe these emotions do constrict our ability to grasp the transcendent, but equally, maybe our very humanness is the only way we will ever be able to appreciate and understand the nature of this love. Pushing ourselves to love others through our limitations and our faults may be the way that, ultimately, we can connect with the divine.

Our very humanness is the way that we can access our god-selves, and rather than despairing at how far we have to go, we should rejoice in how close we really are.

*The Big Book of Christian Mysticism; the essential guide to contemplative spirituality; Carl McColman

Live Below the Line Poverty Challenge.

I’ve been skimming over an advertisement on Facebook for the last few weeks (we all skim over those, right?) but this morning I finally gave in and clicked on it. (It was about poverty and justice and that kind of thing so, to be fair, it is the sort of thing that I’m interested in.) I’m so glad that I took notice! It was about the Living Below the Line challenge, which looks fabulous and worthwhile and really, really demanding.

Basically I have to live on $2 a day for five days. My first though was ‘no (fairtrade) coffee for a week’ which probably shows that I have absolutely no idea what I’m in for.

You can read more about the challenge or even sign up yourself. I’d love to share tips and ideas with someone!

I’ll blog about it over the five days. I’ll share what I’m eating and how I’m dealing with it and how it might fit within my faith given that Christianity should be synonymous with social justice.

I know of course that the experience isn’t actually going to be anything like actually living in poverty. My warm house and comfortable life will massively make up for any hunger pangs that I experience along the way. But I think that the challenge is a good idea and am not going to get into the overly- critical mind set that I sometimes (!) can get enmeshed in.

If you would like to make a donation to the cause then click here and search my name (Eva Leppard). Yes, I am wearing a bunny hat in my photo. It’s complex…

What if we listened to stories?

Every two weeks I spend time with a Japanese hating anti-Semite.

On purpose.

We drink coffee (she puts milk in hers only because the doctor says it’s good for her bones although I tell her that her bones have done OK for 94 years, and the damage is already done), we read the paper and she gives my boys too much chocolate.

I know which topics not to get her started on. What’s the point? She’s an old lady living in a run down house who won’t be with us for much longer. My opinions aren’t going to change her. I don’t define her by our differences but by what we have in common. I know her stories, I know what she wishes that she was and what she was never able to be.

But there aren’t that many occasions during the week when I choose to spend time with someone with views that are so different to my own. I find it difficult to love people who don’t agree with me on the ‘big issues’. OK you’re not going to see me yelling at them or waving placards or being abusive but I can do some hard core seething and my righteous indignation (even if totally invisible to anyone not inside my brain) can be absolutely withering.

Even if I’m not actively arguing with people though, creating a mental ‘us’ and ‘them’ can still be very damaging both on a soul and real-world level. As I yell at my children when they’re bickering or unforgiving or just generally not agreeing with each other, ‘THIS IS HOW WARS START, YOU KNOW THAT?!’.

We see the people that we love with different eyes. We may be sad at their opinions or their views but we either understand why they hold them (in my Nan’s case, a very poor upbringing, little education, the loss of loved ones and the stress of all the men in her life away fighting in WW2) or we realise that there is more to them than the things that we don’t agree on.

We know their stories.

Is that the solution to all the name calling and hatred and just general awfulness that gets us down even on the brightest and shiniest of days? If we could just listen to the stories of those who we disagree with then how different would the world be. This is what has happened to me in my life. This is how I have suffered. These were my dreams.

I don’t even think that this is a way to get people ‘on our side’. I don’t think that knowing someone better should segue into a clever way to evangelise for our cause. I just think that it’s harder to hate or make blanket statements about someone when we really know where they’re coming from. When we know that they were bullied as children or that they had an abortion and regret it or that they got trapped into a minimum wage job and just couldn’t find a way out.

We can’t change other people. We just can’t. The best we can do is try to understand them, and love them where they’re at. And pray that other people can do the same for us.

Song Crosses Boundaries.

I’ve been wanting to share this clip for ages but I couldn’t manage to embed it here until now (because I’m essentially a Luddite with a wifi connection). I find it really hard to watch and quite confronting but it’s absolutely worth it.
God’s Love: Naomi Feil, a Jewish woman, sings Christian hymns for Gladys, who has Alzheimer’s and was unable to speak

The site that it’s taken from is http://www.memorybridge.org/index.php