“When faced with age-old or brand-new divisions, is it not urgent today for Christians to be reconciled by love? And when Christ calls, who can refuse? How can we forget his words: “Be reconciled without delay.”? Do we have hearts large enough, imaginations open enough, loveburning enough to enter upon that Gospel way: to live as people who are reconciled, without delaying a single day?”
Christianity, whether lived out in the monastery, in the street or in the workplace, is a protest against the status quo and its injustices and violence. Here Thomas Merton makes this point cogently and passionately:
“It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimesand injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole human race and the world. By my monastic life and vows, I am saying no to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor peace. I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction. My life, then, must be a protest against [those who invoke their faith in support of war, racial injustice and tyranny] also, and perhaps against these most of all… If I say no to all these secular forces, I also say yes to all that is good in the world and in humanity. I say yes to all that is beautiful in nature… I say yes to all the men and women who are my brothers and sisters in the world.” Thomas Merton.
Despite our differences and denominational affiliations, it is possible, and indeed essential, that we live together in unity of purpose and faith. That said, this is no easy task. Here is a reflection I offered today at Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast, on this very topic.
You can listen to it here; the text is reproduced below:
Listening to the Apostle Paul: Achieving Unity Through Humility, Gentleness, Patience & Forbearance
This morning I want to briefly reflect on the first two verses of the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Every time I read Ephesians, I recall my own visit to this city on the Western Coast of Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey. It’s a spectacular place to visit, steeped in history and architectural beauty.
From 52-54 AD, the Apostle Paul lived in Ephesus, working with the community there, building the Church and engaging in missionary activity. Several years later, Paul wrote his epistle to the Ephesian Church whilst he was imprisoned in Rome.
Paul’s letter is replete with engaging language and imagery that is heartfelt; his affection and concern for those men and women of the Ephesian congregation is obvious. His purpose was as pastoral as it was theological; as practical as it was ethereal. Paul’s letter spoke as much to the day-to-day concerns of the Ephesians as it does to us here today.
So, what was the purpose of Paul’s communication with this fledgling Christian Community? It’s true to say that he had a number of concerns, but the scholar A. Skevington Wood gets to the crux of the matter when he writes: ‘In Ephesians Paul was able to demonstrate that this almost obsessive search for unity finds its ultimate goal only in Christ. It is he who represents the coordinating principle of all life. The ideal of world citizenship, cherished by the philosophers, is realized in the universal church. Human beings can be liberated from bondage to the principalities and powers that threaten their welfare only as they share the triumph Christ gained over them at the Cross.’
In Ephesians, it’s as if Paul is re-emphasizing the first verse of our Old Testament passage for today – Psalm 133: ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’ And so it is. But Paul was very much aware of the human frailties that get in the way of unity and undermine it, and in so doing, erode the witness upon which the Church was built. Paul was a realist with a nuanced understanding of human nature and its capacity for conflict and disharmony; he was also very much aware of the positive aspects of human nature, namely the ability of people to transcend those conflicts and to work in harmony for the common good.
With that in mind, we might want to ask this question: ‘what is Paul saying specifically to the Ephesians, and also by extension to all of those who are called by Christ to constitute his church?
Paul inclusive understanding of the concept of ‘calling’ encompasses all members of the Church family. We tend use the word ‘call’ more exclusively – in relation to our Ministers being ‘called’ to a particular congregation. But in reality, we are all ‘called’; each one of us has a ‘vocation’ to follow Christ to the best of our ability and in line with our God given talents.
Paul’s concept of unity was not that every Christian should be the same, but that we are all unified in Christ, despite our different perspectives, personalities and life experiences. But there are some common values that are essential when we consider the practicalities of our calling:humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance.
We may possess all of those qualities, at least at some points in our lives. It’s more likely though that we struggle with all of them most, if not all, of the time. Our goal isn’t to reach perfection – that’s not possible – but it’s to be aware of where we fall-down and to try and remedy it, with God’s help. And we will fall down; but we will also get up and we will also try again.
When we can recognize our own short-comings, then we can be more forgiving and understanding of the short-comings of our fellow Christians. And this too extends to the wider world in which we live, work and interact with each other.
The American Episcopal Priest and Author, Robert Capon, expressed this ‘calling’ in a way that I find quite instructive: ‘The Church is not in the world to teach sinners to straighten up and fly right. That’s the world’s business; the Church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business.’ I like that.
When we’re in the ‘forgiveness business’, we show compassion and empathy in action. In the ‘forgiveness business’, we allow Paul’s four graces – humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance, to act in concert for the greater good. We recognize ourselves in the other and in-so-doing, we affirm their dignity….and our dignity in the process. It’s not possible to be dismissive or cruel when start from that basic premise. The author and researcher, Brené Brown brings this into focus when she writes: ‘There’s no courage in being cruel. People are easy to hate until you’re looking them in the eye. Then, if you’re in touch with your humanity, you will see their humanity’.
In Church circles we often face differences of opinion: some are minor, others are much more important and can have far-reaching consequences. These differences can precipitate schisms and lead to bitterness and enmity; just look at the history of the Church through the ages and that reality is all too evident. But let me suggest that there are also far more instances, not often making the headlines, of Christians coming together and fulfilling their calling in Christ. The Moravian Church, although far from perfect, exemplifies that spirit of co-operation – our Ecumenical outreach is significant in the Irish District, our Province and beyond. We see part of our mission in forming a bridge between the different expressions of the Christian faith and working together wherever and whenever that is possible.
In life, it’s impossible to avoid conflict; that’s an uncomfortable reality. But it’s not the absence of conflict that defines us, rather it’s how we deal with it in practice. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians has given us much to think about; his earthly experience and spiritual wisdom have coalesced to give us a pathway to follow as we make our faith journey, slowly and imperfectly.
Let us prayerfully approach this week ahead, and beyond, with humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance.
I often have people ask me what it’s like to live with Bipolar Disorder; It’s hard to explain the feelings that accompany a catastrophic low or the euphoria that signals hypomania.
In my opinion, the most realistic summary is written by Psychiatry Professor, Kay Redfield-Jamison, in her book ‘An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness’. Her understanding arises not just from her academic credentials, but is as deeply felt as only someone who has lived with Bipolar Disorder can articulate. Jamison makes this observation:
“There is a particular kind of pain, elation, loneliness, and terror involved in this kind of madness. When you’re high it’s tremendous. The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones. Shyness goes, the right words and gestures are suddenly there, the power to captivate others a felt certainty. There are interests found in uninteresting people. Sensuality is pervasive and the desire to seduce and be seduced irresistible. Feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being, financial omnipotence, and euphoria pervade one’s marrow. But, somewhere, this changes. The fast ideas are far too fast, and there are far too many; overwhelming confusion replaces clarity. Memory goes. Humor and absorption on friends’ faces are replaced by fear and concern. Everything previously moving with the grain is now against– you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable, and enmeshed totally in the blackest caves of the mind. You never knew those caves were there. It will never end, for madness carves its own reality.”
Such sad news breaking today – Swedish DJ and musician, Avicii (Tim Bergling) has died. His music was unique and had an existentialist flavour to it; he dealt with themes of meaning in work/life, relationships and self-worth.
‘Levels’, released in 2013, was a good example of this. In the video you see a reference to ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ as popularised by French absurdist/existentialist philosopher and author, Albert Camus.
Sisyphus was condemned to an eternity of hard, repetitive and frustrating labour. His assignment was to roll an enormous boulder up a hill; each time he seemingly achieved his goal, after much exertion and application, the boulder rolled back down to the bottom of the hill again. And so the story unfolds with monotonous repetitiveness into eternity.
Avicii’s ‘Levels’ explores the meaning of work and the deadening weight of a repetitive existence. But like Sisyphus, there is more than just a modicum of hope in the story. Avicci’s character breaks out of that monotony and issues a wake-up call to colleagues and others he makes contact with; Sisyphus also, eventually finds meaning in his task.
Such is the reality of our existence; the search for meaning and purpose is an essential part of being human; it manifests itself both consciously and unconsciously. It is possible to find meaning in any moment, even in the midst of dullness. It is also possible, in-as-much as we are free from external constraints, to do something different – to seek a change in direction.
As Viktor Frankl once famously wrote: ‘Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom’. It seems that understanding this quest was important to Tim Bergling too.
“If you ask for grace to realize who you are, ask also for the courage you will need to do so. To realize who you are, you will have to walk through all the shadows in your inner landscape. It is not easy. You will need to give up all your views about yourself again and again, each time they crystallize into a pattern. You will have to experience and release all the pain in your life. You will have to embrace your death. You will have to bear everything to realize everything. A perfect divine economy”. James Thornton, in: ‘A Field Guide to the Soul: A Down-to-Earth Handbook of Spiritual Practice’.
The most important, and arduous path we take, comprises of the inner journey that the world knows nothing of, and only God can see:
‘But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”’1 Samuel 16:7.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed . . . .
“Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.” Prof. Jürgen Moltmann, in ‘Theology of Hope’.
Moltmann articulates the truth at the heart of the Christian message – that hope is intrinsic to our faith journey. Hope is immutable; it exists regardless of external circumstances and is accessible in even the most dire of circumstances. As the prophet Isaiah made clear in relation to God’s promise, as articulated in 43:2 –‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze’. Or who could fail to be moved by the words of Jesus in John 14:27 – ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid?
Hope is a beautiful reality that is with us whoever we are and wherever we might go.
The novelist Ralph Ellison wrote in ‘Invisible Man’: “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” There is much wisdom in that short quote; it takes seriously the work of discovery and the individual nature of that quest.
Identity is important It gives us a sense of well-being and self worth; it celebrates our uniqueness. It is also inextricably linked to how we find and express meaning and purpose in our lives.
Lutheran Minister, Theologian and anti-Nazi activist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, expressed the contradiction that we often find at the heart of our identity in his poem ‘Who Am I?’ At the end he finds his answer: ‘Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!’
Logotherapy & Existential Analysis is a therapeutic approach that allows and promotes self-discovery in each individual. Each journey is unique.
In this short video I explore some of the issues surrounding identity and why it’s important in our lives:
Cliftonville Moravian Church (Photo by John Cooper)
“[Believers] do not believe in people or in the good in people that ultimately must triumph; they also do not believe in the church in its human power. Rather, believers believe solely in God, who creates and does the impossible, who creates life out of death, who has called the dying church to life against and in spite of us and through us. But God does it alone.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is on the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter