Saturday, 20 June 2015

Return to Love

“The Map and the Man” taken from "The shortest Distance: 101 Stories from the World's Spiritual Traditions" by Bill Darlison

It was a particularly rainy Saturday afternoon. Two children, John and Rebecca, were becoming increasingly bored, and their father, who was under strict orders to keep them entertained while their mother went shopping, was running out of ideas. He wanted to watch the sport on television and to read his newspaper, but the children had demanded his attention. He’d tried them with paper and coloured pencils, but this barely entertained them for five minutes. He’d tried the television, but didn’t even want to play on the computer. And there were still a couple of hours before mother returned!

Suddenly, he had an idea. Picking up a magazine from the table, he quickly flicked through the pages until he came to a map of the world. “Look at this, kids,” he said. “I’m going to cut this map into pieces - a bit like a jigsaw puzzle – and if you can put it together again, I’ll take you both to McDonald’s for tea! Is it a deal?

The children agreed to give it a try. Their father cut up the map, gave them a pot of glue, and set them to work on the kitchen table. He meanwhile, put on the kettle, made himself a cup of coffee, and sat down with his newspaper in the living room. He was feeling very pleased with himself. “It’ll take them at least an hour,” he thought with a smile.

But barely ten minutes later he heard, “finished dad!” He couldn’t believe it. He went through into the kitchen table and there, sure enough, sitting on the table, was the completed map. “How on earth did you finish it so quickly?” he asked.

“It was easy,” said John. “The map of the world was complicated, but on the other side was a picture of man. We just put the man together.”

“Yes”, said Rebecca. “If you get the man right, the world takes care of itself.”

...There is some real wisdom here...If we get the man right, the world takes care of itself...I hear the wisdom of "First things first here...I here the wisdom I was taught many years "If you are spiritually well, the rest will take care of itself...

Last Sunday was one of life's redemption days. Days I seem to experience increasingly as time goes by.

I had been invited to lead worship at Wakefield Westgate Chapel, back home in West Yorkshire. Little did I know when I began the journey that it would turn out to be one of the most beautiful days of my whole life. One of those days when fruits were finally born. Now as I set off you would not have called it beautiful. The rain was falling and the traffic was heavy. That said once I got on the M62 proper the roads began to clear, if not the weather. No that got decidedly worse as I hit the highest point of the motorway, just as you are leaving Lancashire and entering Yorkshire and approaching Stott Hall farm. It’s always a magical time for me, this sense of coming home. Emotion always begins to build and memory takes over as I re-feel so much. As I drove I had a feeling that something special was going to take place that day. There was a calmness over me as I felt held by the eternal hand of love. It was a strong and reassuring feeling. A feeling I have grown to know so well over the years. A silent kind of strength, not boastful or loud but loving and sustaining. Paul understood it perfectly in the famous words on Love in his letter to the Corinthians. That strength that holds and guides, as you do the things you are there to do in life, your duty for the want of a better word. Some have called it the loving hand of a father and I can understand that, although of course it transcends all human created gender boundaries.

Well amazing things occurred that day. One’s that even for me are too personal to share publicly. All I can say is that they were beautiful and moving deeply redemptive, as I once again witnessed the power of Love at work in human lives. As I drove home that day I wept with both joy and gratitude.

Of all the stories that Jesus told I think it is the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Luke Ch 15 vv 11-31) that speaks most powerfully to me. It is a universal tale that speaks on so many levels about the blessings and troubles with forgiveness and reconciliation. There are three characters in the tale a father and his two sons. The youngest son squanders his inheritance on a hedonistic lifestyle, he loses everything. In desperation he sells himself into slavery and due to a great famine finds himself close to starvation. It is at this point of utter despair and hopelessness that he remembers where he has come from, he remembers his father and reasons that even his father’s slaves have a better life than him. So he returns home to throw himself on his father's mercy, not as his son but as a slave. On hearing he is returning his father rushes to meet him. Now even before his son atones his father does more than forgive him. He kisses him, a beautiful touch of intimacy and then as he son throws himself at his father’s feet he orders that the fatted calf be slaughtered and a huge party of much rejoicing be held, to celebrate the return of his son who was once lost but now is found.

The parable of "The Prodigal Son" is a beautiful tale of redemption and forgiveness, but is it a realistic one? If only it was that easy. Well actually there is so much more to this story than has already been discussed, there is another character who does not find forgiveness so easy to come by. There is the other brother who refuses to rejoice and celebrate the returning of his long lost sibling. Quite the opposite in fact, he is angry, he is indignant, he will not reconcile with his brother and is now at odds with his father. In fact he does not even refer to the "prodigal" as his own brother. Instead he names his as “This son of yours” and by doing so disowns him emotionally. He tells his father all he has done for him and yet has received nothing in return for his good and virtuous life. His father pleads with him and then utters the immortal words, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” He tells his older son that all that is his belongs to him and also reminds him that this brother of his has returned from the dead. He reminds him that he is his brother and therefore a part of him. They were all three of them once bound together and now need to be once again reconciled, they need to be re-bound. Now this to me this is the essence of religious living. For I have come to believe that reconciliation is a deeply religious act.

I wonder sometimes if I myself have become like the older brother who really would rather not recognise the younger brother who is a part of me. It is not easy to forgive ourselves for our failings. I think sometimes I would prefer to disown that aspect of myself, but I know that this is not the right way, the loving way. I know if I want to truly be of service to this world I need to be fully reconciled with all that I am, so as to be able to love without prejudice. I also need to recognise that in each and every person exists each of the three “Prodigal Son” characters. The one who is returning seeking forgiveness, the one offering forgiveness and the one who can feel rejected and neglected by this expression of love. Reconciliation is a process and one that takes time; it is a long journey but one that is certainly worth embarking upon. It is far from easy, but it is without a shadow of a doubt worth embarking upon.

It brings to mind the following wonderful reflection "Mending the Broken World" by Kathleen Mctigue taken from her book of meditations "Shine and Shadow"

“Mending the Broken World” by Kathleen McTigue

In early September I stop to watch my neighbour at work repairing a stone wall that lines the road perpendicular to ours. Built as all the old field walls of our region have been built, the stones are held by balance and judicious choice rather than by mortar. The wall was built well, but the weight of many decades has broken it here and there, with some stones fallen out of place or carried away for some other use.

As I warm myself in the autumn sun and watch him work, I see about half of what he does is simply look at these stones in their haphazard piles, stroking his chin in thought, Then from time to time he rolls one from the pile onto the ground and turns it from side to side, pondering, or walks back to study again the place in the wall he’s trying to mend. When he finally makes his choice, he’s sure. Each stone waits for the right opening, the place where its particular heft and shape fit as though cradled. Once in place it is no longer merely a stone, but an essential piece of the wall, part of a larger thing taking shape as naturally as a tree flows from root to trunk to branch.

My neighbour is an ordinary working man, I know his name, and sometimes we talk together about life and horses and his willingness to help me haul manure to my garden one of these days before the first hard frost. But on this sunny September afternoon as I watch his eyes and hands become familiar with each stone and then lift it to shape the wall, it’s easy to imagine God at work in the immense universe, quietly humming, pulling our lives together into something strong and useful.

I don’t mean we’re mute or helpless, waiting passively for the great Stonemason to lift and move our lives or tell us where we belong. I mean only that there is a place for us, that our gifts – the shape of our minds and talents, the angles of our interest and concern – fit the needs of the world the way my neighbour’s stones anchor themselves in the lengthening wall. I mean that the world’s possibilities shift and change each time we put ourselves into building something large and strong and beautiful. Whether or not we find room in our theologies for the word God, the world itself calls us to imagine ourselves essential to this engaged holiness, bringing forth what is ours to give of creation and strength, toward mending the broken world.

...I hear so much in these words that concept of building or perhaps re-building the "Kin-dom of Love right here right now in and amongst us...

Now of course this no easy task. If I have learnt anything it is that this rebuilding begins with forgiveness. An easy word to speak perhaps but a difficult state to achieve and the reconciliation that it brings with it even harder. That said I suspect it is the purest act of love we can engage in. Now the reason it is so hard, especially with old hurts, is that when we engage in it we bring these painful feelings right up to the surface. Forgiveness is an act of remembrance. In order to forgive we have to truly re-feel all that has happened. We don’t really forgive and forget. What we actually do, if we are to truly forgive is re-member. We re-bind the past to the present and can then begin to reconcile. This is why I say that reconciliation is a deeply religious act, because we are re-binding together what has been separated. That said by so doing we do truly begin to heal our world one stone at a time. It is so easy to look at the world in despair and say I am powerless, there is nothing I can do. The truth is that if we look at the world in this way that is true. That said if we look in our own hearts, in our families and our communities there is much that can be done. Perhaps if we begin here and reconcile ourselves with those closest to us there is much to be done. I wonder sometimes if by focusing on the bigger picture, the whole world, we lose sight of picture on the other side. As the story at the beginning of this "blogspot" teaches, “If you get the man right, the world takes care of itself.” And if we do so we begin to build "the kin-dom of Love" right here right now, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, which I see as being one in the same.

It is said that “God is Love” and for me this portrayed perfectly in the Parable of the “Prodigal Son”, something that is not always portrayed within the Judaeo/Christian tradition and its imagery of the hard paternal father figure and not really the Abba that Jesus spoke of in the Gospels. Now of course if God is understood in a literal sense, when discussing this parable it is easy to see why God has been seen as a patriarchal figure and I see this as a mistake. Seeing God as Love is to see God not as super human figure, but instead as a way of being and doing and living and breathing. God as Love is to see God as the name for that which we hold of greatest value, for the mystery of existence. This is something surely theists and none theists can adhere to, unless of course they view life as being without meaning. And to see life as meaningless is to deny even the existence of love

When I think of this parable what I witness is a story of Love coming alive. It is a return to Love if you like. To me this is what is at the essence of spiritual living. It is about reconciliation. It is about turning away from merely ourselves and connecting with all. Not just with all that is now, but all that has ever been and probably ever will be. It is a story of turning or if you prefer returning to Love and once again coming alive. This comes alive as we begin that journey of reconciliation, almost immediately. As it did in the "Parable of the Prodigal Son". Remember as soon as the father heard the son was returning and even before he asked for forgiveness the father embraced him, he even kissed him and in so doing that powerful eternal Love came alive.

Here for me is the message in this story. In that beautiful intimate act is everything. The parable is about this power coming alive that can heal our wounded and often broken world. It is something that happens on an intimate and individual level, between each of us. It is also something that I believe we are all responsible for.

It begins here in our own individual lives. It begins in our own hearts as we reconcile ourselves with our whole lives. It begins with those who we have shared our lives with. It begins by focusing on the little picture. If we get that right the bigger picture will begin to take care of itself. Remember as the little girl in the story said “If you get the man right, the world takes care of itself.”

It begins with you and it begins with me. It begins by returning to Love.

Now I am going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with some words by Robert T Weston entitled “If Love Be There”.

“If Love Be There”

This day, setting aside all that divides me from others;
This day, remembering that the world is beautiful
To him who is willing that it be so
And that into the open, eager heart
The beauty enters in, if love be there.

This day, I will make a part of the song of life.
There may be grief, but if there be love it will be overcome.
There may be pain, but it can be borne with dignity and courage.
There may be difficulty, but it can be turned to strength.
Remembering that the world is beautiful
If I will let it be so for others whom I meet,
This day I will make a part of the song of life.

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