Saturday, 25 May 2013

Thank you & Happy Birthday

My granddad turned 90 the other week. They threw a party for him at the sheltered accommodation where he lives. During the do we at together and talked. Well actually he did most of the talking and I just listened. This is often the case with family and it’s the way I like it; it’s like panning for gold or precious stones. There are always one or two priceless gems in there. One of the things I always get a sense of when sitting with him is his simple sense of gratitude for having lived his life; he respects the fact that he has had the opportunity to live a life, something I’ve certainly not always had myself. During the conversation he recounted a tale from the war. He was in the Royal Navy and it was at the time when the allies were invading Italy. He told me that the "American’s" had made a big error and that his ship was under bombardment. During the battle the ship was hit by a shell that went right through to engineering. Somehow it never went off and as a result he and his crew mates were spared. His friend Percy, who went to sea with him, was not so fortunate he never came back. He later said that he has been a very fortunate man throughout his life. Like everyone he has known his share of suffering, but he knows how fortunate he has been to have had the chance to live the life he has had.

As I was driving back home that evening I was really struck by what he had said. If that shell had gone off you may well be reading something far more interesting right now. Think about it if he had been killed that day I would not be here and none of my family would have been born. Think about it we are so fortunate to experience life at all, in so many ways we all beat the odds. How many bullets have we dodge to get where we are today? How many shells have landed in our engine rooms and yet somehow failed to go off?

Often in life when trouble strikes we all ask the question why me? Why is this happening to me? It’s a universal question and yet is a senseless one. It is a question born from taking life personally, it is a self centred question and one that is probably the curse of the modern age. The truth is that when bad things happen they are not just happening to us personally, they are happening to others too.

The question “Why me?” always brings that 1960’s classic film “Zulu” to mind and one particular scene just before the encampment at Rorks Drift is attacked. The soldiers are waiting as the Dutch missionary is being sent away crying out “you are all going to die, can’t you see that, you are all going to die.” The camera then focuses on one private who has fear written all over his face he asks the question out loud “Why, why us” to which Colour Sergeant Bourne answers “Because we’re here lad and nobody else, just us.”

Because we are here, we have been given the most precious gift that is life. We have been given the opportunity to live life. Yes sometimes that is hard and painful, but it is life, a privilege I have not always appreciated.

Birthdays are oh so important and they should be marked and celebrated. They are truly “Holy Days”; they are an opportunity to honour the sacredness of our lives; they are opportunities to recognise one another’s sacred uniqueness. As Henri Nouwen so delightfully said “We should never forget our birthdays or the birthdays of those who are close to us. Birthdays keep us childlike. They remind us that what is important is not what we do or accomplish, not what we have or who we know, but that we are, here and now. On birthdays let us be grateful for the gift of life.”

Now some people have two birthdays. I am not just talking about the Queen here by the way. Alcoholics in recovery also celebrate a second birthday. They celebrate their sobriety birthday as well as their belly button birthday, a kind of re-birthday if you like. Mine is the 10th October 2003. On this day I began a journey turn down a different path, I began my life journey again. I turned from non-being to living. Forrest Church when reflecting on his new life after 10 or more years of sobriety wrote the following in the last few months of his life as he was succumbing to cancer:

"Taken literally (in Hebrew and Greek as well as Latin), "conversion" is not "re-birth" but "turning". Once converted, we re-direct our journey. The American short-story writer Raymond Carver turned his life around by a decision to stop drinking. From that point forward, he met life's trials with equanimity and grace. When dying of brain cancer at the age of forty-nine. Carver summed up the nine years of freedom he had enjoyed during what turned out to be the final decade of his life with same word that lept to mind when I give daily thanks for a yearlong reprieve from my cancer: "gravy".

When we see life as the precious gift that it is, when we celebrate our birthday as a truly holy day we see that everything is indeed “gravy”

Rumi the Sufi mystic said:

“For sixty years I have been forgetful,
every minute, but not for a second
has this flowing toward me stopped or slowed.
I deserve nothing. Today I recognise
that I am the guest the mystics talk about.
I play this living music for my host.
Everything today is for the host.”

We are all guests in life, guest of this world. Surely we should offer thanks and praise for the very fact that we can take the breath of life into our lungs?

Meister Eckhart said that “if the only prayer you said the whole of your life was "thank you", that would suffice.” "Thank you" is the greatest prayer of them all. I have a friend who recites that prayer with every breath when he goes swimming. This man has known the pain that life can bring; he's also been responsible for creating plenty of it himself. He has changed though and as a result is grateful for the fact that he can draw breath. He says thank you for every single breath.

...that takes my breath away...
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the author of “Gigi” once said. “What a wonderful life I’ve had. I only wish I had realised it sooner.” These are very similar sentiments to those uttered by my granddad. Now who would have thought that a French novelist and a former market trader from Batley would come from the same school of philosophy?
I wonder how often we give thanks and praise for the fact that we draw breath at all; I wonder how often we give thanks and praise for all the things in our lives that are given to us through no real effort on our part. I believe if we saw each second as a precious grace, a free gift, we may just begin to see life as an invitation; an invitation to who knows what? Well isn’t that the great mystery of life, we do not know what is coming.
Religion for me is essentially about how we live with ourselves, one another and whatever it is that we believe permeates all life. For me everything matters; it matters what we do and just as much what we do not do. That is why I believe it is so very important to give thanks for life. I believe that every time we say thank you for what life has brought to us we instantly give back to life in a loving positive way and by doing so we invite more of life to us. In that creative interchange, in my experience, God comes to life. We need to say thank you.
We also need to say thank you to one another. Why you may well ask? Well because when we do so we encourage others to do likewise, to give thanks for life itself, we encourage others to bring to life that create interchange and incarnate thanks, thanks for life.
I have written before of my belief in the “Chaos Theory of Compassion”, well maybe this is the “Chaos Theory of Thank You”. If we each of us focus on offering thanks for all that is our lives, especially to one another we may just spark chain reactions of thanks all over the world. Just imagine what our world would be like if each morning we awoke and simply said thank you for the fact that we can draw breath and then continued offering thanks and praise for all that life offers to us. Just imagine that for a moment.
This is no great task, anyone can do it. Try focussing on offering thanks and praise for the simple fact that we draw breath at all; Look at the world through thankful eyes. Yes we all have burdens to bear, of body, mind and spirit but I suspect that these may become easier to carry if we gave thanks for life for truly it is the measure of our days.

“For the sun and the dawn
Which we did not create;
For the moon and the evening
Which we did not make;
For food which we plant
But cannot grow;…
We lift up our hearts in thanks this day.”

By Richard M. Fewkes

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