Saturday, 23 March 2013

Palm Sunday: Finding the Courage to Be

“Unbound from Yesterday’s Fears”

“If God is the ground of being, as I believe God is, then the only way you and I can worship God is by having the courage to be all that we can be – in the infinite variety of our humanity. Whether we are male or female, gay or straight, transgender or bisexual, white or black or yellow or brown, left-handed or right-handed, brilliant or not so brilliant.

No matter what the human difference is, you have something to offer in your own being. Nobody else can offer what you have to offer. And, the only way you can worship God is by daring to be all that you can be and not be bound by the fears of yesterday”

Words of John Shelby Spong in “Living the Question 2.0”

Today is Palm Sunday the day in the Christian Calendar that marks the “triumphant” entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It is also the beginning of “Holy Week”, the most important week in the Christian Calendar. This is a week filled with all kinds of emotion and turbulence or so the story says. It ends with Easter Sunday a day of re-birth, resurrection and new beginnings. It is a week of love and betrayal, fear, courage and faith.

Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem was an important stage on his journey, a journey that was to end in betrayal, pain and humiliation. An end that he knew was coming, according to the Gospel accounts. In Luke’s Gospel he speaks of being fully aware of what he was heading towards. In chapter 9 vv 44 he tells his disciples “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” So he enters Jerusalem with knowledge of what he is going to have to endure. He knows and accepts that his journey is going to be hard and will cause a great deal of suffering, but he accepts what is ahead of him; he accepts the reality of the situation.

That said this is not without fear and doubt, both are present during this final week of Jesus’ life. In Gethsemane, just before he is betrayed he goes off to pray alone, as he often did to commune with God (Mark 14.36). He threw himself to the ground, wept bitterly and prayed a simple prayer “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” In these words of desperation he is expressing the inner turmoil he is experiencing; he is expressing the real fear he is experiencing. He is facing his quest alone and he is obviously frightened, that said in this moment he accepts what is in front of him; he surrenders to it and accepts what he believes he must do. He then goes to meet his accusers face to face. He finds the courage to be.

Five days after the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday Jesus is crucified. He accepts that this is part of his journey, but not without fear and doubt. How could there not be fear and doubt? He has had face this agonising death alone, he has been rejected by everyone, even his closet companions. Remember the moments before he died he did not quote the comforting words of the 23rd Psalm “I shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil for thou are with me.” No, instead he quoted the much starker 22nd Psalm  “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me? He did not quote the comforting words “My cup runneth over”, instead he cried out “I thirst”.

The story does not end there though, the real power in the narrative comes in what he utters next, as he cries out those immortal words “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In these words lies the courage to be who he truly is; in these words he expresses his faith; in these words he expresses the power of love; the love of God and the love of neighbour as for self. In this moment he surrenders himself to his purpose and to his God as he utters those immortal words “Father, I commend my life unto thy spirit.”

Now it may be difficult for we who live in the 21st century to identify with this. What can the Holy Week narrative teach we who live in our time and place? Surely we will never endure such agony and surely we will never be abandoned by everyone to face our struggle alone?

Well let’s look a little more closely. I’m sure we all experience paralysing fear from time to time and I am sure that we have all experienced that sense of utter abandonment as we have had to face our struggles alone, which in the end we all have to do from time to time. Yes of course we all have love and we have support, but sometimes we have to face the pain and struggle alone. No one else can give us the courage to be who we truly are, this only comes in facing up to life’s vicissitudes.

And where do we find that courage? Where do we find the courage to be, to live open and faithful lives, in spite of all the difficulties? Well no doubt we all understand that differently. For me it is prayer. When I stop fighting life and reconnect through prayer I always find the courage to be.

Now some people will tell us that if we are experiencing fear, that we are not living very faithful lives, but is this true? Well I for one do not believe that for one second. Faith is not diminished by the presence of fear. Quite the opposite actually faith is about finding the courage to be who we truly are, to do what we must do, in spite of the very real presence of fear. As Rabbi Earl Grollman said "Courage is not the absence of fear and pain, but the affirmation of life despite fear and pain."

Fear comes in many forms, but we need not live in fear of fear itself. Fear is a vital part of our makeup, of our animal heart. It sets the pulse racing and heightens our awareness. Fright is a vital instinct. It points to danger, it’s a warning signal. That said there are other forms of fear which are not so useful. Perhaps the most debilitating of all is dread.

Dread and other forms of debilitating fear can overwhelm us and lead to crippling forms of anxiety which can inhibit us from simply living and being. When we are overcome by such emotions everything can appear bleak; our senses become dulled; it drains all the colour and taste from life. This leads to us projecting our anxiety and worry onto everything that we do in life; it takes the very life out of living and leads to abject misery. It drags us into pits of depression and traps us in the very things that we believe protect us from present dangers. As a result we go deeper into ourselves and get lost and trapped in our black holes of doom and gloom. It can be very difficult to find our way out of these black holes. It sucks the life out of us and stops us being who we really are, all that we can be.

So how do we overcome the power of this debilitating fear? How do we find the courage just to be?

 Well it takes just a little faith and a little love to create the courage to just be, to accept what is in front of us. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Which of course it is, but it is far from easy. I believe in love and I believe in life and through living in love and remaining open to life, despite its difficulties I find the courage to truly be, to overcome the power of unnatural fear. Love will always overcome fear; love will always enable us to find the courage to truly be all that we can be.

We will always know the emotion of fear, we will always feel it. We need it, it is a natural instinct. That said we need not be enslaved by it. We need not live in fear of fear itself. To be free all we need do is live with integrity, live in love and the courage to simply be will shine out of us. In doing so not only do we liberate ourselves, we will be a light to others who in turn may be inspired to liberate themselves and others too.

We cannot escape the pain and suffering that accompanies the joy of living. If we want to know the love present in life we also have to accept the pain and suffering we all experience in life too, no one is exempt from this. As we all know only too well.

Just look at the last 12 months of you who reads this blogs life and the lives of those around you. I’m certain you have experienced success and failure this year and that you have also known the joy of new life and experiences, I know that I have. I am certain too that we have all known the pain and suffering of illness and death, if not in our lives, then in the lives of those we hold most dear. Life truly is awry.

When the difficulties come we all cry out in pain and ask why is this happening to me? We ask for our own cup of suffering to be removed, but eventually most of us accept reality, we surrender to it and in our own ways cry out “Thy will, not mine, be done”. We get what we get in life, whether we deserve it or not, we certainly can’t avoid some things and if we try to all we really avoid is life’s beauty. No one can escape the suffering that is present in life. If we attempt to all that we succeed in doing is blocking ourselves off from life’s beauty and then we experience the worst kind of suffering; the suffering within the suffering, the ache of loneliness.

There is a universal message in the Palm Sunday Narrative and I believe that this where the power lies. Jesus enters Jerusalem ready to take on the might of the Roman empire, to set his people free and it appears that everyone is behind him. They lay down their palms and welcome both him and his message of radical love, this continues and builds during the first half of Holy Week. And then what happens? Within days he is betrayed, abandoned, tortured and executed. He is left alone in fear to face his fate. He resists, he fights against it and then he surrenders and finds the courage to be all that he is meant to be and in the end love prevails. From what appears to be utter failure, somehow love shines through in the most unexpected of ways.

This is where hope is found in this place of utter despair, love shines through eternal. Isn’t this what it’s all about? If we live in faith and find the courage to be who we truly are, to live in love despite life’s difficulties, we will be all that we are meant to be. We will know love and we will know what it is to be free.

Remember Easter is nearly here. Easter a day of re-birth, resurrection and new beginnings. Winter is over and spring is singing out it’s re-birth.

I will end this little chip of a blog with the following by Thich Nhat Hanh

 After a long meditation, I wrote this poem. In it, there are three people: the twelve-year-old girl, the pirate, and me. Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The title of the poem is "Please Call Me by My True Names," because I have so many names. When I hear one of the of these names, I have to say, "Yes."

Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow 

because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second 

to be a bud on a spring branch, 
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile, 
learning to sing in my new nest, 
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, 
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, 

in order to fear and to hope. 
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and 
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,

and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time 
to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond, 

and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, 
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, 

my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, 
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,

and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all

walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, 

so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once, 
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, 

so I can wake up, 
and so the door of my heart can be left open, 
the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh

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