Happy Shinny People

I have been debating what to say on my blog after a long pause. Even finding the right words feels out of practice. Certainly, the blog is a creative outlet, but recently I have been enjoying painting and sketching. Rather than an online blog, I’ve filled a couple sketchbooks with pen and ink drawings and watercolour paintings. Even the format of the blog post seems to have changed in the few months of my absence, but I hope I can make go of it.

Part of my absence has been due to some health concerns. Making frequent visits to doctors and specialists; being tested, poked, prodded. I had been training for a marathon, and signed up for some more half marathons. I love running. I found that as I ran longer distances I was consuming more food. (Duh) This makes perfect sense. Then for a few months, no matter what I ate, or how much I ate, I was loosing weight. Apparently, this makes some people very jealous and people were asking how I did it. I was starting to wondering myself. I began to cut down on my weekly millage, and still eat a healthy diet, but strangely I could not put weight on.

Then the pain started. Sure there is pain in running, but pain in my gut was becoming steadily stronger. Off to the doctors office I went and with some tests and results there was enough concern to send me off to specialists with even more special tests. I am fortunate to live in Germany were there is a good healthcare system, and relatively low wait times to see specialists.

What was probably the most difficult part of this journey though illness is the waiting. Something about a doctor in a white coat telling you we are looking for this disease or this type of cancer, certainly sharpens the mind. The unknowing and the sense of helplessness as you go through tests is exhausting.

I was also curious as to how people perceive image. As a priest I have had plenty of experience with various people in and outside of church-land giving me their perceptions of what a priest/pastor/minister should and should not look like. I think female clergy get this treatment to a greater degree. Wearing a white alb, and a clergy collar is like walking around with a huge screen where everyone projects something onto you.

You haven’t shaved.

Your hair is getting too long.

Your hair cut is too short.

Your eyes are bloodshot.

You’re wearing brown / black / blue / no shoes!

Did you cut yourself shaving?

Is that a tattoo?!

You’ve been in the sun.

You look tired / wired / excited / sad / etc.

The best comments are often the ones that are left unsaid and there is only the look of shock or horror that appears on the persons face when I don’t make the grade.

However, there is a public dimension to clergy, and people expect a lot of us, and how we are to behave and act. Getting thinner and thinner with less and less energy doesn’t seem to go over well with people. It doesn’t go over well with me either. Maybe it is like having an overweight, smoking, and drinking doctor. “Physician heal thyself!”

I’m feeling pretty good at the moment, running more, seeing how things work as a vegetarian in Germany (the Vegan movement is only just beginning here), gaining a little more weight, regaining strength and energy. I’m happy being myself and know that suffering and illness are just part of life.

I have finished reading “In Search of the Lost: The death and life of seven peacemakers of the Melanesian Brotherhood” by Richard Anthony Carter. I have had this book for over ten years and have never been able to pass the first chapter. Not that it is poorly written, or that the narrative is terrible – it certainly isn’t either of these. I’ve not been able to read it as it is too close to home, as it describes people I know and times which were chaotic. My wife bought be a copy not realizing that I have had one on the shelf for ages. I guess it was now time to read it. It has been a healing read to make it through the book and remember some of the great sadness of life in Solomon Islands. There are times I could barely read because it describes so perfectly some of the tragedy. The book has brought back both painful memories and many joyous ones. Brother Richard Carter, as I knew him, was somewhat of a legend and I only got to briefly meet him as our two Toyota Hilux trucks past each other in a bit of a lull as we drove through a river heading to the brothers main house. However, Richard’s presence was larger than life, as tremendous stories of love and friendship, wisdom and teaching seemed to follow him around the region – and still do. He has done a fine job of writing about the great trauma and even great sacrifice made by many of the Melanesian Brothers, and other religious in the country during a time of great uncertainty and horror.

One aspect of the book is the ability to convey that suffering is everywhere. Death doesn’t just come close, it comes and waits in your home. The wails of birth, and the gasps of death are all part of life. It seems that in a developing country it is a lot closer then what we try to sterilize in our great civilizations. You quickly realize that suffering is all around us, and in many ways, unites us to each other. To suffer alone is something nobody should try, but many do. We cannot all be shinny happy people choosing our best side, our favourite moment, and our clan of friends as we seem to do with our online presence only to agonize in our day-to-day lives.

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Untittled

I am still discerning why it is I have not written on the Blog for a while.  Having had a regular discipline of writing it just seemed that after a short family holiday in Ireland that I needed a pause in this pattern of creativity.  I know of many people who like to post a lot of their life and daily events on Facebook or Instagram, and then for their various reasons announce that they have ‘had enough…’ and that they are ‘taking a break’ from Facebook.  It seems that there is some kind of abuse, a rant, or perhaps an overwhelming negative presence that they pick-up on Facebook which they feel some distance is required.  Many felt this way after Trump was elected in the USA and the online commentary seemed to become more and more vitriolic.  I don’t think it is for this reason that I stopped writing.  I was not flooded by ‘trolls’ or personally attacked.  It felt more seasonal, like a field gone fallow.

There were a couple false starts, that to this day, still sit in the draft box of the blog which will likely never see the light of day.  I went through a phase of feeling very guilty that I had not bashed out some writing. I’m still figuring that one out, as guilt is a very strange beast that I share with a great many people.

I suppose I feel that I am entering into a new phase: artists can have their ‘blue phase’, or an ‘expressionistic phase’.  While I am not sure how to name the feeling, or the ‘phase’, it does feel significant.  The things to which I strongly felt attached and committed have shifted.  The closest I can think of for some similar experience is when I first became more attuned to my religious and spiritual life.  In this reflective manner, I often feel that things are repeating themselves, but that I have a bit more distance between the ‘things’, be they emotions, or events.  I have the sense that I have been here before, that it is a well worn path, but that I am a different person able to see the path as repetitive, but able to appreciate new things along it.  Living in Germany I might make the comparison of having driven down the same road many times, but now, instead of zooming along at 200 km/hr the car has broken down and I am walking at a rate of about 5 km/hr.  The route or path is familiar, now there is far more detail to be observed.  In a sense I feel like I am letting go of things and appreciating the gifts that present themselves.

I’m sounding a bit philosophical I suppose.

There are many things on that Autobahn that I just don’t think I need to carry anymore.  As the speeding and achieving give way to the slowing and appreciating the pause in writing and reflecting will likely take a different tone as well.  One of the areas that I think motivated my behaviours that increased my speed, my push, and my resolve to achieve stems from a self-contmept.  It sounds terrible, and it is even difficult to see it typed out on a screen let alone think that others might read it.  Honestly, the focus on the unattainable, the high self-expectations, the need to be different, to be liked, to be defined by my feelings… these all seem to be on the road, yet again, but instead of them fuelling my ‘reason for being’ I just can’t carry them along the road anymore.  I’ve dropped them.  I’m sure that I will see them on the side of the road again, like I do now, but I just don’t think I need to pick them up; and if I do, I don’t think I will have the same attachment to them.

Several times in the last few weeks I have been reminded of a particular part of Thomas Merton’s ‘Seven Storey Mountain’.  In seemingly random conversations this book keeps being mentioned and I am glad for the prompting to recall the read, which for me, was fundamental and foundational.

I should first say in context, the Seven Storey Mountain was one of the first books I read in what I could describe a spiritual journey. Merton’s book sat alongside, the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  There is a moment in the book where I thought, “finally someone else understands”.  I cannot quote chapter and verse, but there is a part of the story in which Thomas Merton describes a holy moment as he stands on a busy New York street corner and knows in an instant that everybody, everything, and himself is with God.  It sounds really simple, but for me it was the moment that I felt listened to and understood.  I felt both alive and dead at the same time.  Then it was gone.  I have not felt like chasing this moment so as to repeat it as I know that it has and will be, always with me.  The problem is that I’ve started going too fast, picking up unwanted ‘stuff’ and letting many of the ‘things/emotions/expectations’ that are flung at me, to stick.  Rather than standing on the street corner with some kind of mystical experience I have slowly, gradually, turned myself somehow into a street performer juggling balls which all the passersby and onlookers have thrown another ball out and I have thought it vital to my being to make sure I catch the ball and add it too my act.

I suppose something had to happen as one can only juggle so much before all concentration is lost.

The ‘balls’ are starting to drop and they lay about my feet, and yet again I feel that I have found myself at the street corner, where everybody, everything, is simply in God.  I don’t need to impress God with my juggling, and I don’t need to impress myself.  I really don’t care what people think of me even though I struggle with this constantly, and I suppose I am learning to use these experiences not as tactics of shame and inadequacy, but to acknowledge there presence, to treat myself more gently, and choose to act in ways that are transformative, redemptive and beautiful.

My day to day tasks seem to take on a different light, and I am far less interested in propping up an institutional presence, or persona that speeds along aggressively achieving only so as to hide feelings of shame and inadequacy.

Now I walk a little slower and more intentionally; focused on the here and now, rather than on dwelling on what should been, or could be.

One Big Loop

There is a certain symmetry to life, despite the moments of what may seem like chaos, when I look at things with a ‘big picture’ kind of view even the chaos falls into place.

The trip to Canada had its moments of chaos even before we had begun our travels.  Being a Canadian living in Germany, I was unaware of the change of travel rules that now require dual passport holders to travel into Canada with both passports.  This issue occupied a huge problem for us as a family as one of our Canadian passports had expired and the time frame for getting a new passport was far shorter than if we actually lived in Canada.  We the help of the friendly consulate staff in the Munich office we were able to get a Temporary Passport.  Even with the fact of having to personally drop-off the application, and personally receive the Temporary Passport there was much relief once the passport was in hand just a few days prior to our departure.  The nervous chaos seems a distant memory which has had its rough edges smoothed over with the passage of time, like that of a river smoothing a rock.

Time has a way of smoothing over a lot of things.

Once in Canada we had arrived in time for my Grandmother’s funeral.  With many people beyond that of family involved in the service at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, there was so much potential for chaos; however, the funeral was conducted expertly, and even the horse drawn hurst was able to make it through the busy downtown streets.

Over the next few days, many of the family set their energy and attention towards the wedding of my sister.  The wedding and reception, each beautiful occasions, which mark the beginning of a life together for my sister and her husband.  In the moments of planning and preparation it is sometimes difficult to see out of the chaos to a tranquil outcome, but as time has passed, the outcome certainly was romantic and serene.

In a small way, the activities in Vancouver came full circle, as one long marriage ended due to death, another marriage has just begun.  While the preacher at the funeral spoke powerfully and meaningfully to the gathered congregation, the same priest was also the last person to conduct a wedding in the Anglican church in which the marriage was held.  A mentor and friend at both the end and the beginning of these important acts of worship which punctuate the flow of life.

During our very short time spent trying to see friends and acquaintances in Victoria, everything worked out as well as could be considering the spontaneity of much of the planning and the coordination of many people.

The flight home to Germany felt like the completion of one great loop across the map that  burned brightly on the airplane navigational display.  The chaos of luggage loaded, passengers seated, and meals served, all translated, in the big picture, to a pleasant flight.  The chaos of life, with a little perspective, is not so unlike that rough stone which over time is smoothed down to a river rock.  The chaos of an aged life, and indeed a new life together, is also smoothed down and refined.

God has a way of smoothing over a lot of things.

Opposites

I will be the first to admit that I have an addiction.

I love books, and find that I can rarely pass a bookseller without walking away with one, or two books.  Unlike some people, I actually read all the books I buy.  I purchased a small book entitled “The Contemplative Minister: Learning to lead from the still centre.” by Ian Cowley. This small pocket book fit nicely into my jacket pocket while I was travelling via Easy Jet – as everyone knows that Easy Jet charges an arm and a leg for any extra baggage.

I finished the book during the flight.  Afterwards I really wondered if this was the idea given the title of the book.  I think I preached on the the first chapter, ‘Being and Doing’, but failed to listen to my own words.

One thing that stuck with me, however, is a small section called ‘Control of the diary’.  I flip through my diary and see that I spend a lot of time doing, and very little time being.  In essence, prayer has become the last thing on a long list of to-do items.  It shouldn’t be this way, even though I know it often happens to me.  My fast read, my full calendar were a really message to me about my own priorities.

I’ve started getting up earlier so that I may say the Morning Prayer office and not find myself rushing and speed reading; ready to jump up to another task.  The end of my day is completed with Evening Prayer, or Compline.  Already I have noticed my outlook changing.  I hope also that this prayerful lifestyle helps in the parish, as I pray for the many parishioners in the chaplaincy day by day.

A Death in the Family – also interpreted from One came Two

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were splendid occasions.  As a family we were able to go to our first village Weihnachtsmarkt in Bad Krozingen to sample some of the local Gluwein and cast our eyes on the three story high Christmas Pyramide (usually a small wooden windmill-like structure that is turned by the heat of candles).  We had family visitors stay with us for four days.  Anke’s parents, Helmut and Eva brought with them a couple of tins of homemade Christmas cookies which we are still able to enjoy.  They also brought with them gifts, and a bird named Hansel.  Hansel, a yellow canary, made the journey down from Stuttgart and sang for us through Christmas. Hansel was the bird of Anke’s Aunt Gretel, who sadly died several years ago.  You see the theme already with the names of the owner and the small bird. The day that Helmut and Eva left to return to Stuttgart, our new house mate sung his final song.  While changing water and food and giving his cage a tidy Hansel died.  We were upset to say the least.  It was difficult to see that Hansel had large tumours under his wings and had managed to service with cancer for a few years.

A few days since, we have had an empty and well-scrubbed bird cage sitting in the corner of the room.  An empty tomb in Christmas made things feel more like Good Friday.  I have always enjoyed birds, both wild and as pets, so it did not take long to find some new house mates.  Out of the death of one elderly and ill canary has come two Zebra Finches named…yes, you guessed it – Hansel and Gretel.  Now with each new day we are pleasantly woken with tiny trumpet like chirps from this lovely pair of small birds. (We have been informed that as long as nothing nest-like is available to them, it will stay as two birds chirping, rather than a flock squawking).20151228_132213

For some of us it seems like death should play no part in our Christmas celebrations, but in my past ministry it often seemed that as the cold wind blew and the days were dark and icy that it was then that some of the more fragile community members did die.  As we approach Epiphany the gifts that were given to the infant Christ were significant and symbolic of the Messiah’s birth, life and death.  Within this season we also remember in the church the Holy Innocents’ killed because of Herod’s fears that one would usurp him in his power and reign.  Christmas is the birth of Jesus, but it is also a reminder of God incarnate being with us, suffering for us, and rising to save us.