We Must Change

There are two adages that speak of a great truth that is important to all of us.  The first comes from George Santana by way of Winston Churchill who said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”  The second adage is accredited to Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who reminded us, “The only thing that is constant is change”.

As we approach yet another Canada Day, both these sayings become extremely more meaningful.  As much as we like to think that little has changed over the years, more than we even know is different.  Even the name of the day we celebrate was once called “Dominion” Day.  Our national anthem is no longer God Save the Queen and too the words of “O Canada” have been changed more than once.  Nothing stays the same, but if we fail to learn from our history that is constantly changing, we will go on making the same mistakes. Albert Einstein is broadly credited with exclaiming “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

The same becomes so true when we turn ourselves toward thinking about the spiritual realm.  I have heard it proclaimed that God is unchanging.  I can only assume that a further step in this saying would be to say that God’s ways are also unchanging.  I can’t agree with such an assumption.  I must also state that “God” is really beyond any human construction. To think any other way is to have made God in our image, which is even contrary to Biblical teaching.  Yet, many who believe such are stuck in their image of God.

Science has often been considered an enemy of religion.  Only those who cannot accept that science is important to all aspects of our lives and that even the Bible itself is a pre-science document that science has proven the need to change our thinking.  The earth is not flat.  The sun does not revolve around the earth.  We do not live in a three dimensional or level world with heaven above and hell below.  And so our thinking has always been changing and so must our understanding of “God”.

However, as our understanding of “God” has evolved (sadly much more than the Church even wants to allow), many will hold a theistic understanding of a God who is all-controlling, handing out blessings and curses depending on our behaviours; determining who gets into heaven and who is destined for heal, are unwilling to accept any change.  But change is inevitable, and believe it or not, a changed view of God is also important.

It is okay for us to evolve in our understanding of God.  We don’t have to stop believing or having faith.  But we do need to stop making God into some kind of super Santa Claus who may or may not grant our wishes.  We do need to stop blaming God for creating us as sinful creatures that (at least as Christians) can only be saved by the sacrificing of Jesus on a cross.

Even though it quite likely Victor Hugo in writing Les Miserables was speaking of a theistic God, he pushed our thinking when he said, “To love another person, is to see the face of God”.  To allow ourselves to move beyond old images or beliefs and feel the God presence, for me and other Christians fully represented in the man Jesus, but not in him solely. If we don’t change; if we continue with the same old views we are domed; we might as well be insane.

A New Easter

Many of us have just come through the most holy time for Christians and also for those of the Jewish faith (Easter and Passover), I find myself on the outside looking in.  Good Friday for the Christians commemorates the death of Jesus on a cross.  It has been interpreted for centuries that his death was necessary – Jesus became the Pascal Lamb of the Jewish tradition that  was sacrificed for the good of all (which was part of the Atonement tradition not that of Passover). Passover required to placing the blood of an unblemished lamb to show God whom not to kill.

Over the centuries the Good Friday story has been retold by the Christian Church emphasizing the importance of Jesus’ death.  One of the interesting facts coming from this story is that we are told that Jesus spoke seven times from the cross yet we do not find these saying in all accounts of the day.  There is no doubt scripture can be confounding and something downright contradictory, as well as being written for a specific purpose of its own.

Over the centuries questions have often been asked as just who it was that caused the death.  Was it the scheming religious leaders of that day?  Did they present false information to the Roman authorities?  Can we simply say it was just “mob mentality”?  It became more difficult to determine the cause other than to say Jesus was making suggestions that scared the leaders. It seemed best to just quiet him once and for all.

Even the “cross” story has just as many variations. When did he die (usually death was much slower than we are told).  At the time of Jesus’ death, the veil in the temple was torn in two, at least in one account.  Since the gospels containing these accounts were written twenty to thirty years apart, parts must have been forget and left out.   (Which brings into question for me the scriptures as the word of God, written by God, or least under power of God’s Spirit – why are they so different?)

Then of course is the story of the first Easter.  What happened?  Who was and who wasn’t there.  What did they see or not see.  Who rolled the stone way?  In Mark’s original ending, there is no account of the risen Jesus, only stories of women fleeing out of fear because they found an empty tomb.

As you can see, I have these problems and don’t know what to do about them.  Part of my problem and I would say a large part, is that what will happen if I reject that which I have been taught and have taught for the last three quarters of a century.  Does God really expect that the only way for anyone to become worthy of God’s love is to accept that Jesus had to take our place on the cross – our suffering was vicarious at best.  Of course, that also means that I have to assume that anyone born of “earthly parents” (from the time of Abraham or is it from the time of Adam) is born bad and can only be saved by the “shedding of the blood” of Jesus.

What if Easter has a different meaning?  What if Jesus became part of a call to live with God in a new way that didn’t require Jesus’ death, rather a desire to follow the Jesus way?  To me this way involves that we forget about the God of our fathers and mothers; that we choose not to allow ourselves to be blessed if we are good and punished if we are bad.  Cannot babies who have died before they were baptized live fully with “the great multitudes of God’s children”?

To me Easter is a call to celebrate the love to which we are called.  It is not a love of those who think like us, or even love us.  Love moves beyond borders of gender, orientation, even religion.  Easter is the essence of life calling us to live fully the life that is before us.  A life not fenced in by our personal prejudices and hatred and even centuries of wrongful, hurtful teachings.

I Can Make a Difference

Not once, not twice but three times in one day I felt a nudge to do something.  Not that I don’t often feel such an urge but this day things were different.  I was feeling the urge to do something about that which I have felt so helpless.  How could I prevent mass killings in mosques half way round the world? What could I possibly do to combat climate change? Thinking that I am only one person who doesn’t have much to give, I had been reminded these three times that one person can make a difference.

First thing in the morning (around nine a.m. now that I am retired) I heard young people talking about climate change and how they hope to have a world in which to live when they are adults.  Some of them participate in a “strike” from school on Fridays hoping to raise awareness about the need for something to be done now, not down the road.  (Personally, I support this initiative, but wonder if it might have just as much an impact if held on a Saturday – assuming they get media coverage.)   The point is that they want to make a difference now and they are doing something.

The next thing that happened to me was that I attended a funeral.  There was a great deal of talk about the deceased and how this one person had affected so many lives.  Not waiting to be told what to do or even how to do it, the deceased had gone about making a difference wherever they lived.  At first, some of the ways seemed small and seemingly insignificant, while others I could only dream of doing.  It didn’t seem to matter the deceased person gave it all, big or small.  One person showing kindness, speaking up for the voiceless, and making a difference.

The third experience came to me as I read Robert Fulghum’s, Maybe (Maybe Not). He tells the story of Vedra Smailovic, a cellist from Sarajevo who played for twenty-two days outside a bombed out bakery where twenty-two people had been killed.  Fulghum wrote: “there is little he can do about hate and war – it has been going on in Sarajevo for centuries. Even so, every day for twenty-two days he has braved sniper and artillery fire to play…”

He did what he could.  The story was told and has been retold again and again.  Maybe this is your first time hearing it.  Regardless if it is or not, it reminded me again that one person can make a difference.

Somehow, I felt encouraged and inspired.  Yet I wonder what can I do? I am old enough to vote, unlike the young people mentioned above who don’t even have that right. Voting may not seem like much, and I am not sure that there is much to vote for (I know I am being cynical).  I suppose I can pick up trash during my walks (some individuals or groups do that now), but does it really make a difference?  How can I make a difference?

I can only control me and my words, my thought and my actions, and that is a great place to start.

Being Wise

Once upon a time I thought that I needed to know everything and tried to do that.  However, earlier in my life I also learned being an elementary school teacher that I didn’t have to know everything.  Of course, over time I have learned the difference between knowledge and wisdom.  Today, if I want to know something I often turn to “Google”.  If the answer isn’t there, I can make up my own and off we go, but I have to admit most knowledge (correct or not) can be found there.  Wisdom is not so readily available.

How often it seems much easier if we can get someone to give us the answer.  Having spent most of my life as a minister in the church, I have learned that people want to be told what to believe (at least they think they do).  Yet when I preached one of the greatest compliments I could receive was that of hearing that parishioners were not asked to check their brains at the door.  I often said that if someone has all of the answers, they haven’t asked all of the questions.

I have read somewhere that knowledge comes from filling one’s mind with information and data.  On the other hand, wisdom usually involves emptying one’s mind.  Sadly, I have learned that too many people walk around with lots of knowledge (or at least know where to get it), but wisdom is a rare commodity.

At its simplest wisdom can be called “common sense”.  But as someone commented, “It is too bad that common sense isn’t even common anymore.”  We live in a world that tends to value knowledge more than even common sense.  We listen more to those who claim to have the answers, rather than attempting to live our lives out of wisdom.

I read recently that the theologian Paul Tillich when accused of not answering a question he had been asked replied, “It is not my task to answer your questions. My task is to help you discover the right questions, so that the answer will become obvious to you.”  That is a wise statement.  (However, I am afraid now that too many politicians might say this when they want to avoid answering a question.)

What happens when a sense of wisdom conflicts with being truthful?  Life encourages us to be truthful but also kind and respectful. When asked “Do these jeans make look fat?” knowledge immediately sets our mind to work (no not really). Because we all know that wisdom tells us to be more respectful than even truthful.   No matter how smart we might be, it is better to be wise.

Wisdom does seem to come with age, but age is not the main factor.  How often have we heard the expression “Out of mouths of babes…”? Sometimes an infant may simply be telling the truth and sometimes it may hurt, but even then if we take the time to go beyond what we have heard and take the time to really listen, we may find the nugget of wisdom that we can use at another time.

To me, when I hear someone ask: “how can someone so smart do something so dumb” I realize that knowledge has once again fallen flat on its face and wisdom has gone unheeded once again.

 

Being on the Same Page

As a child growing up I often heard recited the adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”.  At the time, I felt the adage true but have come to learn that names or words often hurt more than anything physical.  My bones will heal must faster than names/words that are used against me.  Of course, I am not alone in this matter. Far too often the wounds of name calling can last a life-time.

To make matters worse I have often heard the Bible (sometimes called the Good Book) used more as a weapon (sometimes quite literally) that causes harm rather than offering words of comfort.  In the movie “Saved”, Mary is considered a backslider and needs “saving”.   After being hit by a thrown Bible she turns to the thrower and says “This (the Bible) is not a weapon”.

I would like to say that such usages is a large part of the reason that many people have stopped attending worship, but I don’t think it is a much the words themselves as it is our understanding of the words.  One of the main reasons, I believe, that many folks are not keen on the church as an institution has to do with intolerance of those who think or look or even act differently.  Too often we are unwilling to think that because someone is different or differing views that they are wrong and we are right.

I experience this concept most recently when I listened to a sermon that was preached (the fourth in a series) entitled “Jesus was an Exclusionist”.  The gist of the message was that unless one accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour and rejected any other there would be no being saved and if one is not saved there could be no admission to heaven.  I have to admit that I was at odds with the message right from hearing the title, but I plugged on.  When the sermon was finished I immediately had two questions come to mind.  (I am sure there were others but my mind could only handle two that day.)  The questions both had to do with how to understand certain words.  I wanted to know the speakers definition of the words “saved” and “heaven”.  I have to report that the speaker has yet to give me an answer.

The point I wish to make here is not that I was not given an answer by the preacher, but that definitions are often quite different.  I would not want to say that his (it was a man preacher) definitions are wrong. They are his. But does that mean that my understandings are not correct?  More than anything else I believe that our understandings are what cause us to turn away.

Some years ago now a book was published entitled: GOD: the Greatest User of Capital Letters and was sub-titled “A Modern Churchgoer’s Dictionary”.  The author (the Reverend Andrew Jensen) wrote many hilarious definitions about “churchy” words and things.  In the introduction talking about his reasons for the book we can read “Jensen introduces religious folks…through high exaggeration and double meaning, he helps us to view life in its proper perspective”.  When we fail to see “life” and meaning of even words from different perspectives we fail one another.

Recently I wrote an article that talked about the meanings or “religion” and “spirituality” and how they used to be virtually one and the same but have come to mean different things to different people.  The problem arises when we assume that there is only one way to understand any word.  We become like the cartoon that shows neighbours arguing each in their own yard.  One passer-by overhearing this argument says to his friend that they will never solve their problems because they are “arguing from different premises.  And so it is that before we even disagree with another and their view, we should be clear that we know about that which we are arguing.

 

Words are Powerful

 

There is an expression somewhere about making sure our brain is in gear before we engage our mouth, or as my mother used to tell me:  Think before you speak.  In this day of modern technology when our words are in the public sphere almost as quickly as we type them, such an idea of thinking first becomes even more important.  Yet so often the words are out there not only immediately, but often permanently. Something we said years ago can be brought easily to the fore.  Now, I am not justifying the use of previous statements as final thoughts because we are all allowed to change our minds.  But given the opportunity, it is my guess that many of us would have been better off if we had only thought about it first.

Yet, today, words and expressions that were considered once acceptable have become inappropriate and vice versa, some words once considered too vulgar to speak have become just another part of the vernacular.  The fact that we can now use just letters or even emojicons to express thoughts and feelings can also become inappropriate if not downright dangerous.  I mentioned in another article about asking about changing dates on something and the reply was simply “np”.  I read the comment to mean “nope” (having dropped the vowels) whereas the sender meant “no problem”.  I had read the response completely the opposite of its intention.

Since this particular article is due to be printed in November and December, I want to make reference to the upcoming Christian season of Christmas.   I do not have any difficulty when someone offers a greeting about the season.  Yet many people and places of government in particular as well as television are quite particular about not excluding non-Christians and so some will go to great lengths to not use exclusively Christian greetings.  Some folks don’t like to be told what they can and cannot say and get quite upset with this change. On the other hand, in some instances, I have found that some folks use the term “Merry Christmas” or “Season’s Greetings” without giving much thought to their words at all. Which is, as far as I am concerned, maybe even more problematic?

I began to wonder about greetings or phrases that become so rote for us that we utter them without thinking.  Though much has been written about not using “Christian” specific terms of greeting such as “Merry Christmas” in that it may be considered inappropriate if speaking to a non-Christian, sometimes the words are out of our mouths before we think. What seems to be a larger problem than uttering the words is what can happen next.  Instead of saying we are sorry, we might try to defend our right to use such terms.  And even though, it may be our right, we must ask ourselves whether or not we are truly defending a right or making an excuse for our not thinking before we speak.

Whether we like it or not, Christianity is not the l state religion of Canada – not that any religion should be, but we must be respectful of other faiths and those who profess no particular faith.  However, we must not “throw out the baby with the bath water”.  My faith teaches me to be respectful and a large part of that respect means thinking before I speak.  What do my words mean?  Do I want to say something inappropriate?

There is no doubt that words are powerful and the use of words can lead to acting on those words or making an attempt to at least giving ourselves justification for saying that which we said.  Some things that I have learned most out of thinking and speaking are:  words are impossible to take back; words don’t always get heard the way they were spoken (even less so when written); words are easily taken out of context; and we might claim that “sticks and stones” may hurt, words can hurt even longer.

 

Children and Grief

In recent years it seems as if children are being acknowledged for their own sense of personhood.  There was a time that children were considered to be “adults” in miniature in most ways except in the area of grief.  For a long time, children’s grief was not acknowledged probably because many adults felt it didn’t exist.  It is more likely however that a grieving child was ignored because adults didn’t know how to deal with the grief of a child.

We have learned over the years that children are more than little adults.  Too often children were considered “possessions” to be seen but not heard.  As such it was also assumed that they did not experience grief like an adult and as a result the attention needed by them was ignored or at least not seen for what it was.

Like many differences with adults children often grieve differently. (But then again, though grief is experienced by all, it also unique to each person).  Depending on the age of the child, they will experience grief differently from other children who may be grieving over the same loss.  Unfortunately, adults have not paid enough attention to a child’s needs to help them grieve in a way that is helpful for their development.

Because of the length of time that I first encountered my own understanding of the needs of children in these situations, I have lost the source of the information I have carried with me.  When dealing with a child who is experiencing grief, I have used the acronym C.H.I.L.D.as starting place in journeying with a child through their grief.

The “C” reminds me to “consider” the needs of the child first.  They are different but no less important than those of anyone else who is grieving.

“H” reminds me to be “honest” with the child.  Honesty means to tell the truth about what has happened.  Nothing could be more harmful to a child experiencing the death of a loved one, than to be told a falsehood even if it is intended to “lighten the blow”.  A good (or is it, bad) example would be to tell a child who is experiencing the death of parent that “God knows best” or “God needed her more, right now” or  “Grandpas has gone to sleep with the angels” or some such expression. Children can handle to true a lot better than we often give them credit.

“I” means that the child should be involved to the extent to which they feel comfortable. The degree of involvement will vary from child to child, situation to situation.  Let the child speak their needs.

The “L” is one the most important in any grieving situation, child or adult. As a caregiver, we need to “listen”.  Too often we feel the need to talk, to attempt to soothe the child by telling them what we know.  Instead of sharing our needs and answers we need to listen.

Lastly, “D” means we need to “do it all” again and again.

 

Children experience loss just like anyone else.  They need to be allowed to grieve.  They may also need help to do so, but they also must be allowed to set the agenda for it to happen in a healthy way.

Acknowledging the Deceased

 

I knew a man who said that the first thing he would read in the morning was the obituaries.  If he didn’t find his name he said he just went about his day.  I am assuming he was joking, but I have to admit that many people seem to read the obits.  Yet in a day and age when news travels fast, it seems to me that information about death seems to be slow than before.  I know that for one thing news about deaths travels more slowly due to privacy concerns.  In a small town in which I once lived, the funeral directors would place In Memoriam cards through the town.  That is no more.

But one thing that I am reading more and more in these obituaries is that people are requesting that “no services be held”.  Whenever, I read that no service (funeral, memorial, celebration of life) is to be held I can’t help but ask ‘why?’   I am sure that the request was made out of a sincere belief that their life was over, and that we should get on with ours. Yet, I can’t help but think about those who are left to grieve their loss.

There are likely many reasons for someone to choose that nothing be held following their death.  It may be purely financial, although it is a law requirement that a mortuary (funeral home) be contacted.  They will simply receive that deceased and await instructions as to what to do next.  There are many different options (and prices).   For these costs contact your local funeral director.  Especially in a small town, these knowledgeable people can be very helpful and generally are not going to use your vulnerability against you.  However, sometimes the vulnerability of guilt felt by loved ones can lead them to “go overboard” when it come to making necessary arrangements.

Sometimes the choice to “have no service” is a result of the idea that “funerals” belong to the church, and since more and more folks are no longer connected to a church, there is a sense that to have a funeral is not in keeping with their “beliefs”.  But funerals are not the property of any religious institution. Those who die with or without any connection to a church can have a service following their death.

I have to admit that personally, I am not a fan of having nothing (no service) after death.  Funerals are as much for the living as for the deceased.  I have known dying persons to attempt (and succeed) in using their impending death to help heal a family rift.  I have also been approached by the child whose mother had wished to have ‘nothing’ after her death.  Two or three weeks later, the daughter and other survivors felt something was missing from their lives.  They felt they needed to somehow honour the deceased yet do something for themselves.

Some folks may even have a celebration of their life while they are still alive of thinking that if people are going to say nice things about them, they want to hear it (and rightfully so). Yet, upon the death, there still needs to be something for the living.  They may need to say good-bye; they may feel the need to be with others who have known the deceased.  Whatever the reason there will always be a need.

Hope is Letting Go

 

Gerald May uses the expression of “naked hope” meaning that hope “is not tied to any particular end”.  This understanding of hope is often the opposite of that to which most of us seem to prescribe.  For the most part many of us like the idea of hoping in something, or hoping for a specific outcome.  Hope in this instance is little more than wishful thinking or wanting.  I hope I win the next lottery.

But what happens when that for which I have hoped is not realized.  When it comes to winning or not winning the lottery many of us can easier tell ourselves that there will always be next time. (A friend of mine also reminds me to buy a ticket.)  But what about those times when there isn’t a second chance (or third, or fourth…)?

Of course, the biggie in this life is often death.  When we are told of our own or a loved one’s terminal illness, we often begin hoping for any number of things.  We may hope for more time, or a cure, or a miracle.  Often, we even hope against hope itself (whatever that may mean).  Even when we are told that the only thing left is good care, we want something more. (Palliative Care often fights an uphill battle because no one really wants to be told nothing more can be done – for many in the medical field, death means defeat.  Others may feel that doing nothing is the same is giving up.

Neither of these views is true. Death is never the victor. I often have used the expression of “death coming mercifully as opposed to being a friend”. Neither is dying well a matter of giving up.  What we really need is as May has named “naked hope”.  We need to look at life without any expectations of a specific outcome.  I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we didn’t wait until the end of life for ourselves or others to start living this way.

Life is full of unexpected turns and twists.  Robert Frost talks about the importance of choosing the road less travelled, but we don’t always have to do that to find unexpected results.  We can also make life more difficult for ourselves when we refuse to accept that which comes our way. Now, I am not saying that we should just roll over and play dead.  There are times when we need to stand up and be heard (ideally, we can do that respectfully despite the fact that the opposite is found so much on social media). But the real name of the game is to deal with the situation in which we find ourselves in a positive way.  Harold Kushner wrote a whole book about dealing with life when “bad things happen to good people”.

The term “little death” has been used to talk about those times in life when we feel a huge loss (sometimes even retirement can be included here).  Regardless of the “death” little or large, how we deal with it becomes central to us.  If we get what we “hoped” for, than I suppose we should be happy, but even when we get a different outcome, we can still carry on.

Real hoping means being able to let go.

Ready for Death

While looking through some magazines the other day I ran across a couple of books that I had been thinking about purchasing.  The first was the The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson.  It is a book about going through one’s own “stuff” before death and getting rid of what you don’t need or want any more.  The idea behind such a “cleansing” is to make life easier on the loved ones left behind who usually have to sort through these things.  The other part of this cleaning is to clearly mark who will receive those things that often don’t get include in the Will.

Before my mother died, she distributed to her children those things that she felt each child would like to receive or maybe would appreciate the most.  Personally, I received a lot of books.  Some of these books had been my Grandfather’s.  Others were antiques and could be kept or sold.  Some were really worth very little if anything at all and were recycled.

At first I thought her efforts to make these offers to her children and grandchildren were too much.  Not too much in any dollars and cents way of thinking, but in a more morbid way.  She was preparing to die.

At the time I was likely shocked, but as I have come to study and learn about dying and death, I can see a real value in this exercise.  I have a box (a good-sized box) of old photos.  As I look through them as I have done occasionally, I recall the story behind each photo.  Then I ask myself if my children or grandchildren will know these stories.  Generally, they will not unless they are told.  Unless the photos are dated and people named they might mean more, but even that is questionable.  Fortunately today photos can be taken and categorized more easier, but are they?

Death cleaning is such a valuable exercise.

The other book that is of interest to me is entitled I’m Dead, Now What? by Peter Pauper Press.  This book is a resource type book that helps with our death cleaning.  Part of its introduction reads “This practical and not at all morbid book walks you through the important stuff: personal information, medical information, key contacts …personal wishes and last words.” Now, of course, it would be ideal if such matters were thoroughly discussed with loved ones before hand, but that rarely seems to happen.

I realize that very few of us care to discuss these types of issues, least of all with loved one.  Yet, as much as we might hope otherwise, death is going to happen to us all at some point.  Age is not a factor.  Our health may not be a factor either.  We have all known of someone who has “left this earth far too soon”, yet for some reason we put off preparing.  Even those who have a strong belief system that they are going to a better place may put off the inevitable.

We might claim that “life is uncertain, so eat dessert first”, yet how many of us really believe it?