Sunday, 29 April 2018

Prepare for Surprise

"The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!"

Robbie Burns

No matter how careful we plan and scheme life never works out exactly as we would like. Life is full of surprises, some amazing, some terrible. Life is awry and usually or do I mean unusually incredible. Brother David Steindt Rast said "Another name for God is surprise." Ah yes the God of surprises, isn’t this the true nature of life? Surprise. It fills me with awe.

I’ve been thinking about surprise quite a lot these last few days. I’ve also been thinking about how we respond to life. How the things that happen to us can shape our lives in incredible ways. How many times in life have we received that phone call that has changed our lives forever?

I received one such phone call just a few weeks back when my sister called me, broken, to inform me that our step brother Daniel had taken his own life. A moment of numbing shock, not merely surprise. At our Daniel’s funeral I talked with many people. One conversation in particular stood out. It was with an old friend. Someone I have known for almost forty years. During the conversation he asked me about the work I do. He informed me that he calls himself a “born again atheist”. He talked about church parade etc when we were cub scouts and his early encounters with religion. He then began to talk about his family. Of him nursing his father while he was dying and then of the death of his son in a car accident. He spoke of his step children and his mother. Of his physical difficulties and the amount of opiate based painkillers he has to take each day. We spoke of old friends too and times gone and then he wished me well in my ministry. There was a lot of love, but also pain and loss in the conversation. It was a day filled with conversations about love and loss, but then that is the nature of grief.

Over the last week I’ve been thinking of similar moments in my life, when I have received devastating news about those I love and how I have responded to these moments. There were times when I turned away from life in despair, something that happens rarely these days; these days I usually turn towards the Divine and back towards life. This may seem strange to some, but it is actually in the hardest and darkest times that I experience the Divine most intensely, when I truly feel that God is with us. The God of my limited understanding is not the controller of life, instead I find God with me in suffering, but also Joy. I find the Divine at the heart of experience. Now I cannot adequately explain this, I can only share my experience and to stand here in awe.

This still surprises me…

We live in an almost death denying age. I think I understand why. I have known such temptations. That said by denying such realities we do not transcend the suffering that loss brings all we really do is block ourselves off from the joy that comes with truly living. In so doing we also deny the love and depth of meaning that comes with living, with truly being alive. Life, love and death is meant to fill us will awe. For life is truly awful, it is meant to fill us with awe. We are meant to be filled with awe in the old meaning of the word.

Now while we live in a world that wants to sanitise suffering we see ever more violence on our screens that we spend so much of our time staring into. Our entertainment seems to be ever more violent, punctuated by advertising. How many times I have sat of an evening recently, with Sue, looking for something to watch on Netflix and struggling to find anything worth watching. So much of what passes for entertainment is just full of murder, intrigue and violence. They are so predictable too. I have noticed that virtually every film I’ve watched recently has been so predictable that I have worked out the plot twists in the first 10 minutes. Gosh how I wish for a surprise. When we sanitise death, we sanitise life and it almost becomes unreal. So much so that it no longer touches. Life is meant to touch us deeply. Life is meant to surprise us constantly to fill us with awe.

Yet so often we don’t want this. We want to know what’s coming, so we can prepare ourselves. What was the phrase that the character played by John Cleese in the film “Clockwise” cried out “It’s not the despair, I can live with the despair, it’s the hope” that destroys you. It seems if he could have just given in it would have been easier, but hope kept on rearing its head.

A friend recently sent the following story to me, told by Roger Housden in “Ten Poems to Change Your Life”

"There is a Jewish story saying that when you are about to be born, God takes you to a field covered with bundles. Each bundle represents a particular set of troubles. You can choose any bundle, but the one you choose you have to take to Earth with you. The rabbis say that if, at the moment of death, God were to take you back to that field and let you choose another bundle with which to relive your life, you would always pick the same one.”

By the way it is no doubt we would do the same with our bundles of joy. When I think of all the things we fear in life, it is surprise that we fear the most. We like to know waht's coming, even if it's abundle of troubles. It seems that it is surprise that we fer the most.

We spend so much of our times finding ways to avoid the suffering and pain that are part of life. It seems we can only really bare to look at these things through our screens and devices. This seems to me to be going against the nature of life as it is meant to be. Life is full of surprises, they move us and change us. I have been surprised by many things over the last week. Before Daniel’s funeral I was apprehensive about what might occur. I was worried about what might happen, by how people might be with each other. Yet when the day came I was pleasantly surprised. I was more than that I was deeply moved by the expressions of love and healing shared by so many. I bore witness to almost miracles actually. I’ve bore witness to a few others in the last few days too. I have noticed and absorbed several things. I have been awed by the people and events I am surrounded by.

I have found myself trembling in awe. I have never felt more alive.

Awe is perhaps the ultimate form of surprise. When we are stirred by awe it is so unfathomable, vast and complex that we can’t quite believe it. Like all forms of surprise awe makes us stop, it awakens something within us and it shifts our perspectives. It changes us and makes us want to share our experiences with others. Sadly these days so many of us want to freeze the moment, take out phones and take a picture of it. We cannot capture moments. All we can do is open ourselves to the vastness of life. The most dangerous thing to life is the ability to predict what is coming as it will stop you living life. It will freeze us completely in the moment.

We cannot predict the future. None of us know what is coming. If we could we would probably do all we could to avoid it and thus commit the ultimate sin, to live an unlived life. All we can do is open ourselves to the God of surprises and be filled by the awe of life. Life should fill you with awe, it truly is awe filled, it is literally awful.

Life is meant to be awry, we are meant to be surprised by it. We cannot prepare ourselves for life. All we can actually prepare ourselves for is the fact that we are always going to be surprised, and awed by life…The only way to do this is to be open and to remain open and when we begin to close down, open ourselves again…To live our lives fully alive is to find ourselves constantly trembling in awe at the amazement of life...Life is the ultimate miracle if you think about. Isn't it amazing that we live at all. It should always stir us, move us and ultimately surprise is.

I’m going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with a wonderful, perhaps awful (it certainly fills me with awe) quotation by the great twentieth century Jewish mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was a contemporary of the great twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who was one of his closest friends. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, they were great friends in the civil rights movement. When he introduced King as the keynote speaker to the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative rabbis sang “We Shall Overcome” to him in Hebrew, the language of the biblical prophets who both King and Heschel came to embody for that generation. Dr King was meant to share the Passover Seder dinner with the Heschel family, but was murdered just two weeks after giving that speech, 50 years ago almost to the day.

To truly live our lives we must be stirred by awe and wonder every day. I suspect that Heschel believed in the God of surprises and that the Divine is with us in our suffering and that we bring that love alive when we stand with others in theirs.

He said:

“I would say about individuals: an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. What keeps me alive — spiritually, emotionally, intellectually — is my ability to be surprised. I say, I take nothing for granted. I am surprised every morning that I see the sun shine again. When I see an act of evil, I am not accommodated — I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it; why I can fight against it. We must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”

So let’s attempt to become more maladjusted to life, to live in constant surprise and to stand side by side with one another in total awe.

Let's sing of the total amazement that we are alive. A song of praise, the only true prayer of life.

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