‘Do Not Squander Your Life!’

These words end each of the sessions of zazen we undertake in the tradition Zen that I follow. The full text of the Evening Gatha is:

Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance –
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed. Do not squander your life.

Don't Waste Your Life! | Treetop Zen Center

I wonder if we always take the spiritual life this seriously. I think we are in danger at times of thinking of our spiritual life as a sort of hobby. I remember someone saying to me once that they had a number of projects for their retirement, including learning Norwegian, baking bread and joining a church. It’s one of the things we do among others. Now, I’m perfectly aware that attending worship and being a member of a church is not coterminous with one’s spiritual life, but you would hope that the church is in the business of addressing the Great Matter of life and death, even if many choose to do just that outside the life of the church.

I hesitate to say what I’m about to say next, because I really am not criticising anyone in these very difficult days: we really are all trying our best to make the best of these trying circumstances and I have no doubt whatsoever that I have not handled things as well as I could have over these last 6 months. But I do fear that some of the ways we (the church in its corporate expression, and I include myself!) have tried to navigate these difficult waters have fed a perception that the church is in a similar category to leisure activities of various sorts – a take-it-or-leave it activity for those who are into that sort of thing. I wonder if, at times, we have given the impression that the Liturgy is a needless luxury, pastoral care a merely social interaction (except in extremis), prayer a private matter, faith a personal opinion rather than our fundamental disposition towards life. If we have mistakenly given that impression, then we are storing up for ourselves significant challenges if we want to be taken seriously in the future.

I am deeply impressed by the way churches have taken care in opening their doors and welcoming people in a way that is safe as well as creative and no one wants to put anyone at risk of infection. At the same time, we must seek ways of balancing the imperative of safety with the urgency – indeed, the heightened urgency – of addressing the Great Matter through our prayer and our mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart encounters with one another. This is a monstrously difficult balancing act, and I welcome any ideas that help to create genuine opportunities for spiritual growth and wellbeing in these times (I really mean that – please do share them!!). But I do want us all to be a little more courageous in insisting that we are about a serious business. Faith is not a nice-to-have and we are not being immodest if we claim that we are concerned with that which is of supreme importance. It is also, inextricably and simultaneously, an exercise in care, in compassion and in healing. Our wellbeing is not only a matter of microbiology but also of spirituality, of the heart.

From Crisis to Continuity – Navigating the ‘New Normal’

A beginners guide to the compass | OS GetOutside

The title of this piece might wrongly give the impression that I’m about to offer a range of excellent ideas to manage the change from an emergency phase of dealing with COVID-19 and its fallout to a more sustained phase of adjustment to longer term realities. What I really want to do, however, is simply to recognise the fact that this newer phase is, in many ways, more difficult than the first, and to seek a conversation about the spiritual challenges of this strange in-between territory. The first weeks and months of our response to the COVID crisis felt challenging, but there was a certain sense of solidarity in the face of a new threat and a degree of energy that comes from problem-solving. I think that, at the time, many of us were unaware of the likely duration of the measures we need to put in place to reduce the risks from the virus, and even if we were more realistic about that timescale, the actual experience of living without many of our usual social support systems is new to us and brings unexpected challenges, and it’s difficult to find adequate alternatives. I suspect I’m not alone in finding that I have more ‘extrovert’ tendencies than I had imagined!

Here are a few of the things I think are quite challenging:

  • The loss of the dozens of ‘casual contacts’ we have each week with colleagues, friends, congregation members and acquaintances. So much happens in these brief encounters that is hard to replicate with more time-consuming and formal arranged meetings.
  • In addition to this lack, there are also constraints that come with forms of communication that we can use. I don’t need to say anything more about the ‘zoom fatigue’ we have all come to recongise well, but I think that the loss of body language, eye contact and the sense of the ‘atmosphere’ of a room also add to the narrowing of our range of communication tools.
  • The sense that we are living with significant constraints and have no idea of when it may be safe to do without these measures. This also means that we can be reluctant to make a complete adjustment to different ways of doing things as we live in hope that the situation is temporary. Mentally, we may be living with a constant sense that this is less-than-ideal and that’s rather tiring.
  • The sense that there is a threat ‘out there’ is also demanding on our psychic energy. And if we have any level of suspicion or censoriousness of one another, that places further burdens on out ability to live and relate normally.
  • There are, of course, additional challenges facing church congregations in this current phase, such as the difficulty of offering a liturgy that feels like it’s including those who are virtually or physically attending. But perhaps the biggest question of all is how we find the right balance between individual and corporate dimensions of religious expression. The latter faces the constraints we’ve already mentioned and the former may be struggling as a result of a certain neglect in nurturing a mature inner life that could be said to characterise a religious culture that has placed so much emphasis on the gathered community of faith.

This suggests to me that, as well as continuing to nurture the faith community in novel and demanding ways, churches might do well to address some of that neglect of the inner life. I don’t think that liturgical worship alone (or any other kind for that matter!) can address this lack. Part of what’s needed is a shift in spiritual culture and part is a fuller awareness of the practices and insights of lived spirituality. Here are one or two suggestions:

  • It seems important to me that we begin with the presumption that we are each fully responsible for our own life of faith. Along with this presumption is the assurance that we each have all that we need to fulfill this responsibility. This is not an arrogant assertion of the primacy of the individual – we all know the immeasurable value of drawing on the wisdom of others – but a realisation that no one else can live our lives for us. Indeed, when we take that full responsibility, we realise ever more fully the impact of our choices and decisions on others. A deep exploration of the inner life always turns us outwards because it can only ever be undertaken in an attitude of deliberate self-forgetfulness.
  • None of this is to say that any of us should do without the help of others, and my second suggestion would be that the company of an experienced guide is vital. What it does mean, though, is that we take responsibility for seeking that help. An experienced guide is not necessarily one who has particular ‘credentials’, but one who practises the inner life with both seriousness and a lightness of heart.
  • A spirituality to sustain us in these times will be one that nurtures patience and one that concentrates on the ordinary, non-spectacular, everyday miracle of simply being alive. Stillness, breathing, imageless contemplation, one-pointedness and regularity of practice are key components of such a spirituality.
  • We should all feel confident in reading and interpreting the texts that belong to our spiritual tradition and, perhaps, also those of other traditions. One of the main responsibilities of those who are regarded as teachers within a faith community is to nurture such confidence and encourage regular, reflective reading as an individual and shared practice. For Christians who are unable to join in regular communal worship at the moment, the reading of scripture and the classic ‘canon’ of spiritual texts connects us with the living stream of wisdom.

Although these modest suggestions are offered as ideas for sustaining spiritual life in this time of constraint, I would hope they are of value at any time. I am also conscious that the list is not exhaustive so please do share ideas!

Labouring in Vain? Mt 20:1-16

Harvest Field with Reapers, Haywood, Herefordshire', George Robert Lewis,  1815 | Tate

Last week, I started to make my case for seeing parables not as clear-cut stories with a simple, single point to make, but as complex dramas that draw us in in order to unsettle our expectations and cajole us into a fresh way of seeing. I don’t think they are there to make a point but to point us away from themselves towards something deeper. They are not preachy stories that say ‘look at me! I’ve got something sound to teach you!’ but mischievous little stories that say ‘don’t look at me for any answers! I’m not that kind of story!’ They draw us in, mess with our heads, spin us around and say; ‘look again. What is really there?’.

I had a bit of a moan last week about biblical scholars who get rather tied up in details and this week I’ve got more to say about that! Today’s parable is another rather complicated story that we might think we know well. We might think that it has something to do with fairness and benevolence. If we imagine that this is a story that intends to tell us about how generous God is, I’m not sure it does a very good job. The landowner seems to be playing around with the good hearted labourers and when it comes to paying them for their work, he gets his manager to do his dirty work and builds up the hopes of those hired first that they will be payed more than expected since the workers hired late on were paid the originally agreed daily rate. (none of their fault, by the way – their idleness was a result of being overlooked. They would have jumped at the chance of a good day’s work but no one responded to their application).

One way of seeing this parable, if taken at face value on its own terms, would be to say that God is more generous than your average employer, but perhaps not by much. Everyone gets their daily wage, but no more, while the landowner retires to count the profit he builds on the backs of the desperate. I’d rather not have too much to do with a God like that.

Coming back to the interpretations of some biblical scholars, I’ve read some who take great care to investigate the true value of the denarius offered as a daily wage. Was it one kind of denarius or another, a generous sort of minimum wage or a more ordinary sort? Is this a picture of a reasonably bountiful God or one who simply makes sure that we have more or less enough to get by on?

I have a feeling that they’re barking up the wrong tree. I think this parable is not about the fine details of just how generous God might be towards those who might or might not deserve what he has to offer. I think it’s a parable about how completely absurd it is to imagine that the kingdom of Heaven has anything to do with pay and reward at all! The kingdom of Heaven is not something to be earned. It is not a commodity, not a transaction, not a prize for the successful, not an achievement for the productive, not a feather the cap of the spiritually able. What, then, is it?

One kind of answer to that question might be to say that it is a gift, something given freely and lavishly by a God whose nature is mercy and grace. This has been a strong theme in Christian thinking from the days of St Paul onwards and it has much to commend it. It bids us relax and understand that, having nothing to offer God that God might ever want, we need simply recognise our weakness before him and receive what it is that he has to give us, a gift to make up the unmeasurable deficit that we human beings have in relation to the almighty God. This approach puts us all on the same footing as humble recipients of divine mercy, empty until we are filled from above.

But I want to suggest something rather different, something that insinuates itself on us if we see this kind of parable as a radical unravelling of the whole basis of faith as a sort of transaction between a demanding God and a worthless human race, however benevolent a transaction that might be. What if the whole business of faith is not about closing a deficit at all? What if the truth is that there is nothing to earn, nothing to receive, nothing to acquire, nothing to grasp for? What of the business of faith is of a different order entirely?

Let’s imagine a different sort of landowner, who comes along the line of those eagerly awaiting their reward and says; ‘I have nothing to give you. You already have all you need. You didn’t need to strive for the prize because there’s no prize to attain. It’s already there! The kingdom of heaven is within you! Perhaps it needed the futile effort of a hard day’s work to realise it, but maybe now you can see that the Kingdom of Heaven does not lie somewhere else, in the gift of one who might or might not give it to you. It is right there for you, if only you would see it!’

God has given us all we need: we have the capacity for love. We have the capacity to transcend our self-interest. We have the gift of freedom if we’re prepared to realise it. And the only work needed to realise it is the work of letting go of the pernicious lie that says we’re only worth what we gain, we are measured by what we possess, we are only the sum of our successes. For many of us, that might feel like hard work because we’ve been fed another line for so long, but the work is only ever a work of subtraction, not addition, of shedding, not of acquiring. And what does that leave us with? It leaves us with a mind like that of Jesus, who did not cling, did not grasp, but emptied himself in order to share the ultimate prize: a life made whole in the freedom of love.