Sunday, 4 August 2013

Nostalgia for the Present

“I live according to a few simple principles. One I call “nostalgia for the present” (embracing each day as it passes rather that ruing it after it’s gone). Another way you might put this is “looking forward to the present” (enjoying what you have as if in a state of anticipation rather than aching longingly for that which very likely will not be). By focusing one’s energy, to the extent that is possible, on the present, one is liberated from fears of the future and also liberated from regrets about the past. I have seen people in the last weeks of their lives live every minute more fully than they have before, because they recognise what most of us don’t in our daily living; that each moment is precious.

The opposite of wishful thinking (wishing for something you lack) is thoughtful wishing (thinking to wish for what you’ve got right now). What we have right now is this day with the wind blowing and mottled light on the mountains in this beautiful place, carrying on a conversation with another human being who is also going to die. It’s very precious. It’s a miracle that we’re even able to converse. We tend, I think, to take our lives for granted rather than receiving them daily as a gift. I would hope that each day I live I might, through some encounter, be born again to an awareness and appreciation for the gift, the mystery of being, the wonder and the miracle. Not the miracle out there, but the miracle in here.”

Forrest Church

Please listen to the attached meditation before continuing

I recently spent some time with old mates back home in Yorkshire. It was a kind of reunion at a pub that we all use to drink in and get up to all sorts, as young people do. It was a great night and one I thoroughly enjoyed. We reminisced about times gone by. There was a lot of talk about a band that four of us use to be in 20 years ago and those wild and crazy days. It is actually the first time that all four of us have been together for many a year. Three of us no longer live in the area and the one who still does will soon be moving away himself. Now the conversation may have got a little out of hand by the end of proceedings because we did agree to get back together for one final one off gig. Something we may live to regret. We shall see.

Whatever comes of it, it was wonderful to spend time in the company of people who have known me all my adult life and it was great to share memories, some of which have been long lost. It was also great to re-feel these memories in a different light and from a different perspective. Life does seem so different today.

I was recently told by a friend that I am same person I have always been and yet I am so different. I understand what he meant. I suspect that the main difference today is that I am fully present in the life I live. I no longer feel weighted down by the past or in fear of what is to come. I feel connected to what is here right now and I am thankful for the feast in front of me. I am hungry for it.

To reminisce is of course a good thing. To relive old memories and loves can bring joy to the heart and to the spirit. That said there are dangers too. I know that there have been times in my life when I have found the past very painful. I could not have had the conversations I had the other week just 10 years ago. It would have filled me with anger, fear, pain and shame. It would not have been the conversations themselves that would have caused this, more my own memories of my own life and those experiences.

Memory really is a peculiar thing. As I look back at my life today it seems so different than it was ten years ago. The pain and the suffering I have experienced is still there and is still real, that said it is now in its proper proportion, it is surrounded by love and joy and laughter, as all lives are. The problem I suffered from back then was that I just kept getting stuck in my troubles. I did attempt to come to terms with them, I tried to examine them honestly, but could not. Instead I just spent ages lost in my own and other people’s underwear, with seemingly no way out. Thank God this is no longer the case. By the way I do thank God for this, for it is faith that has allowed me to look the world in the eye again and experience the joy of living. It has allowed me to see my life as it really was and not as I remembered it.

They say that the true gift of life is in the present, that only now exists; that to live healthily, spiritually, you have to embrace the now. They say that if you focus on what is there that the pain of the past will disappear and the fear of the future will diminish. This is easier said than done.

Now while not wishing to argue with this truth, experience has taught me that this is only half the answer. The key I have discovered is that by coming to terms with the past and learning lessons from it I have been better able to fully connect to what is there and to no longer be ruled by what is yet to come. Much of the last few years of my life have been about rebuilding relationships on every level of life, physical, mental and spiritual. I have found that by doing so I have been able to truly “sing the joy of living”, by connecting to all that is there.

I spent a long time trying to flee from what was actually there, believing it to be the problem; I was searching for answers that were not to be found elsewhere. Finally I quit searching; I stopped and was able to appreciate the fruits and whatever else was there. I learnt to love what was there, a bit like the man in the dandelions story that I so love to tell.

I have been a minister for three years now, hard to believe! During this time I have been guided by the wisdom of Forrest Church. His writings have held me as I have learnt the craft of ministry. One of the principles he lived by was “nostalgia for the present”. He described this as embracing each day as it passes instead of ruing it after it has gone. Or “looking forward to the present” which he has described as enjoying what you have as if in a state of anticipation rather than aching longingly for that which likely will never be.

Now this became really pertinent during the last years of his life as he died of Oesophageal cancer, as he learnt that he had to practise what he had always preached. And where did this wisdom come from? It came from pastoral ministry. He learnt it as he shared in the lives of so many people, especially those at the ends of their lives. As he wrote himself “I have seen people in the last weeks of their lives live every moment more fully than they ever have before, because they recognise what most of us don’t in our daily living: that each moment is precious.” That even in those last moments of life there is a potential for peace, beauty and completion.

I remember a Unitarian colleague tell me that he had become convinced of God’s presence in life during those moments that he shared with people just before they died. That something was happening in those moments that he cannot begin to describe, all that he knows is that life took on a different meaning during this time and that he himself was transformed by being present then. The conversation has stayed me, it keeps speaking to me. I believe I am beginning to see the truth within it. It's one of those "Spots of Time" moments. It is another of those great moments from the past that has helped me to better connect to the present and not fear what is to come.

It is hard to believe that I have served the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston for three years now. We have experienced so much together, connected to so much, they have taught me so much. What has become clear to me during this time is that above everything ministry, certainly my ministry, is about being a guest in the lives of other people. It is about being present in their lives. I can think of no greater privilege than to be invited into the lives of other people, at the level that these beautiful people have invited me into their lives. In those precious moments I have experienced life in a way I never dreamed possible. Sometimes this has been challenging, difficult, disturbing and even painful, but it has been beautiful. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

My life seems so rich in meaning today because I have learnt to accept what can be mine rather than wasting my time wishing for what cannot. I can see the gifts I am surrounded by and I love them, even the dandelions. This is what ministry is, whether it’s the ministry I do as a professional minister or the ministry the communities I serve do together. When we enter into the lives of each other we empty ourselves and yet by doing so we find ourselves abundantly filled with love and by giving ourselves to one another we discover ourselves in that encounter; by doing so we connect to ourselves, to one another and to that Great Reality in a deep and meaningful ways; by doing so we are no longer cut adrift, but connected to all that is; by doing so we are no longer empty, but fully filled.

I’m going to end with a final few words from Forrest. This seems appropriate having spent three years being guided by him from the grave. In his final book
“The Cathedral of the World” at the end of the chapter “The Search for Meaning” he wrote:

“So it's pretty simple for me: Love when you can. Do the work that is yours to do. Be the person that is yours to be at any given time. Think to wish for what is yours at this very moment. To love. To serve. To touch. To know. Think to wish for all that is yours to have. Think to wish for all that is yours to do. And think to wish that you might be who it is that you might most fully be. Avoid wishful thinking. Avoid the traps and pitfalls of nostalgia for the past. Savor every moment as it passes. And enlist yourself in saving that which can be saved this very moment, in order that it, too, may endure for others to enjoy.”

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