Moving to Higher Ground

As 2016 draws to a close, revelers around the world are bidding a weary adieu to a year filled with political surprises, prolonged conflicts and deaths of legendary celebrities. So begins one of today’s articles on the CBC website. Yes, from a global perspective, 2016 was the year many would like to forget as soon as possible. It was beyond ghastly — the horrors of conflict and war, the millions of displaced peoples migrating to safety, terrorist atrocities inflicted on innocent civilians, more martyrs (persons dying for their faith) killed than in all previous centuries, unsettling political outcomes in countries of world influence, and a persistent dragging-the-heels attitude in western nations to implement urgent shifts in lifestyle required to preserve a healthy planet for our children’s children. Against this global backdrop I am tempted to run for cover, to insulate my personal life from the cries of persons and creation, from the complexities of our global problems and to live my existence in a safe bubble.

But of course the safe bubble is an illusion. There is no safe bubble; sooner or later discord, pain and suffering burst onto the happy stage of our insulated lives, and we find ourselves joining the world chorus in cries of despair and betrayal, pain and abandonment. Sometimes it’s as close to home as a family dispute over land ownership or the refugee family settling in our little community. Other times it’s as far away as a distant relative suffering an untimely death or an entire island in the Pacific threatened by extinction because of global warming. Our own agony reminds us that there are no exceptions and no favourites in the grand scheme of things, nor in God’s economy, and that pain and suffering come to us all in varying degrees and through various life situations.

So it is not what happens to us that makes the year a blessing or a curse, but rather how we live what happens to us that will carry the day. I was struck by the words of Russ DeanIn world that is shrinking every day, our contact with the “other” will only increase, and learning to see myself in the eyes of sisters and brothers, black and brown, Christian and non-Christian, gay and straight and transgender — must be the way of our future. We cannot afford to (…) to stand in arrogant isolation, ever again…

If we wish to contribute to a better world in our own little corner of this beautiful planet, it is imperative that we grow a bigger heart, increase our commitment to healthy dialogue and become living witnesses of reconciliation and stewardship.

Family strife and racism, reconciliation with First Nations and same-sex marriage, understanding Islam and integrating new immigrants, assisted suicide and abortion — all subjects that can spark controversial and polarizing disputes. Most of us have experienced the painful alienation that can result from such conversations. Unresolved divisions and disputes, conflicting worldviews and moral standards risk leaving relationships permanently impaired or ended. Each time that happens our capacity to love unconditionally suffers.

If there was ever a mission for the Christian churches in today’s conflict-ridden world, it is to move difficult conversations to higher Spirit-filled ground. This desire ignited a bright flame in my heart as I witnessed global and personal breakdowns in dialogue and understanding, in mutual respect and appreciation. I refused to sit by idly as differences in perspectives would turn into bitter conflicts. This burning desire gave birth to a daring initiative. I took a deep breath and stared down the fear along with the impulse to hide … Inspired by books such as Crucial Conversations and Living Reconciliation, enhanced and deepened by theological and Biblical reflection, I initiated a series of eight sessions in which participants were challenged to choose listening before judging, sharing before walking away, receiving before dismissing, and loving before condemning. Five brave souls from five different paths of life signed up for what I called a “blind date.” The experience was personal, challenging and most enriching. Together we learnt a bit more to put into practice God’s call to us all to live in renewed relationship, both with God and with one another in all the complexities and diversity of this broken yet beautiful world God has created.

We need to move to higher ground when it comes to engaging difficult conversations, welcoming the stranger and stewarding Mother Earth, our common home; the survival of humanity and the future of the planet depend on this. A second group will begin January 21, 2017. And for the 37th year in a row, we will walk gently on this earth by living below our means, growing a huge garden and eating healthy home-grown food all year round. These two resolutions are my two-cents worth in the coming year towards helping to create a safer and better world in which it can become easier for all people to be good. What New Year’s resolution are you offering this year to the healing of human relationships and to the restoration of our planet? Happy New Year everyone 🙂

Prairie Encounters

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A Posture of Openness

The other day I made a new friend — she’s a recent immigrant from Mauritius who told me that she embraces both Hinduism and Christianity as a way to honour both her parents who were Hindu and Christian.  I was intrigued and amazed at the depth of her faith and her loyalty to both God and her family of origin.

I wondered if she ever heard this ancient story: A disciple endured seventy weeks of fasting, eating only once a week. He asked God about the meaning of certain words in the Holy Scripture but God did not answer. Finally, he said to himself: “I have put in this much effort, but I haven’t made any progress. So I will go to see my brother and ask him.” When he closed the door and started off, an angel of God was sent to him and said, “Seventy weeks of fasting have not brought you near to God. But now that you are humble enough to go to your brother, I have been sent to reveal the meaning of the words.”

I’ve been pondering the meaning of this story, especially in light of my new friend. I’ve been pondering it not by fasting for seventy weeks, but rather by reflecting on how open my mind and heart is to “the other” esp. the one I feel most different from in worldview and meaning-making. Fostering radical openness is in fact a darn hard thing to do. We honestly do not know what we do not know, esp. when we become aware of huge differences in mindsets, in vastly different cultures and religious outlooks. As long as we don’t need to step outside our own worldview we remain happily oblivious to how insulated our lives can be from the rest of the world. Even when we do engage the otherness of others, we tend to keep our cultural and religious interpretive lenses, something that greatly affects the extent to which we can understand and accept the otherness of others. Worst case scenario, instead of rejoicing in the beauty and diversity of God’s creatures, we can become ignorantly mired in cultural and religious arrogance and pride.

Common interests, backgrounds, values and experiences increase our comfort level with people. The less shared, the greater our tendency to feed fear and suspicion. The less shared, the less our desire to connect and to invite the other into our orbit of life. The real loss here is that we close our hearts and minds to growing and learning and loving and living into the fullness of the divine image and likeness in which we were created. It may never occur to us that in our ignorant blocking of the other, we end up shutting our hearts to God.

In her book Illuminated Life, Sr. Joan Chittister says, God comes in every voice, behind every face, in every memory, deep in every struggle. To close off any of them is to close off the possibility of becoming new ourselves. Referring back to the story above, sometimes it is only by seeking wisdom from and trusting the other, however different from us, that another aspect of God and of ourselves is revealed. In our multicultural, pluralistic world, it is no longer an option to bury ourselves in the comfort of our own right-ness of living, insulated from otherness. Like the disciple in the story above, sometimes we too have to consult the wisdom of one very different from us to learn the meaning of words, events and encounters — the meaning of life. And our findings might well surprise us.

How do we grow new ourselves, open to difference yet grounded in our own faith and worldview? How to tell the difference between largesse of heart and wishy-washy, between relativism and divine inclusiveness, between generous hospitality and anything goes? How do we grow into ever greater openness and receptivity toward all that is different without feeling threatened or diminished or superior? That is the task of the spiritual journey; I’d love to hear how you travel that road.

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