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31/03/2013

Emmaus Road moment

I readily admit that Easter is a funny time for me because I simply do not 'get' it in the way the traditional churches teach the story of Jesus's martyrdom and reported resurrection. The fact is that I've never fully grasped it which means it was never that hard to lose - my childhood understanding was that Jesus was killed by nasty Romans and God literally brought him back to life. And I suppose, just like the Easter bunny and the toilet monster, I ditched it before hitting my teenage years.

In my early Unitarian days, around my early twenties, I tended to simply focus on the martyrdom aspect of the Easter narrative - naively and simplistically relating to Jesus as a 'fellow dissenter' who was brave enough to die for his beliefs and for his community, an example I was and am now more than ready to admit I would struggle to follow but do take a more healthy measure of inspiration from. As I read more into Progressive Christian interpretations of Easter, it strengthened my take on Jesus as basically a socio-political radical caught up in what amounts to a bloodied tale of political intrigue - a bit like a medieval West Wing. This is not to demean the political aspect but rather to suggest that in reducing Jesus to a political martyr, his story does not really stand out from the stories of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and others - figures who I can perhaps relate to more to due to their appearance in much more recent history.

However, having said this, I have always had a nagging sense of there being more to the story than that. Last year in particular, I had a few albeit brief moments of connecting with something potentially more mystical - and it is worth noting that when I look back on my journal entries from this time I can now see that a slow drift from an ultra-rationalist Unitarian position to a more conscience-led Quaker position had clearly started to gather momentum.

This year has again been pretty much the same experience as last year. I initially took up a chocolate fast for lent - although this time it ended abruptly after hearing a Catholic priest talk about how he had given up all drinks except tap water, as a way of internal discipline and remembering those who for whom this is a luxury in itself. The talk was only a few minutes long but it put my own effort, which I usually present as 'a way of enjoying my Easter eggs more', firmly to shame. And so I quietly ditched it.

I have also watched the mainstream church's engage in their traditional practices for 'Holy Week', admiring as per usual the church leaders washing those we still consider to be unclean in one way or another, but again doing this from afar - with no real connection.

Which leads me to today's Meeting for Worship with the Quaker community I am now more or less a (small 'm') member of. I had come to meeting today wondering whether 'Easter time' would be mentioned and if so, whether it would be spoken of positively due to it being something Quakers recognize their brothers and sisters in the Christian faith treasure dearly or spoken of negatively as a ritualistic marking of holy seasons which is traditionally something Quakers reject.

I sat down and scanned through Quaker Faith & Practice, feeling quite unsettled, and found myself looking up passages on Jesus and the resurrection. I read though a whole series of them until I came across the following:
26.54: We make our guesses at the nature of God, and we are often like my small daughter who said, 'My mind goes round and round when I want to think about God, but I can think about Jesus.' To me Jesus is a window through to God, a person who in terms of personality, in a way that can be grasped by our finite minds, shows what mercy, pity, peace are like in human life. I turn to the Jesus of the New Testament - to his healing word, his freedom from anxiety, his outreaching insight, to him as a whole person - not to imitate him but to let him live and grow in my life...  
I do not pray to him - I look at him, dwell upon him, love him. But it is the presence of the God he worshipped of which I am conscious as I look at the night sky, the sleeping child and the rose. When I listen in the quietness and when I pray, it is to God that I listen and pray. And since personality is the highest value that I know in life, since all truth comes to us through the medium of human minds and thoughts, I am not surprised that God too comes to me in terms of personality. I can well understand how to many Christians Christ comes as a tangible figure, a Son of God in a special unique way, even though that is not the way he comes to me. Every word that comes to our lips is a symbol and the symbol of the father God has been sanctified by Jesus' use of it as well as by how it has been used throughout the Bible. We have much to learn about the image of fatherhood and from the growing and developing idea of God in the Old Testament. Now we may be beginning to learn about God the mother as well." --Ruth Fawell, 1987
Having been restless, this reading immediately started to bring me into focus and I could feel a gentle prompting to share it - but decided against, having sensed the meeting was intensely gathered and I should patiently give way to Friends with a greater calling to give ministry.

The first Friend to rise came within 5 - 10 minutes of me reading the above passage. She spoke in plain and simple yet moving terms of how she had never 'got' Easter as a child or young woman but had in her later years still not reasoned with, especially the Calvinist reasoning, but had come to connect with it in some more unspeakable way in terms of renewal. She acknowledged that Quakers had traditionally taught this must be attempted each and every day before going on to acknowledge this is a very high standard to meet and whilst maybe focusing on one day per year is not really enough, it is a start. From there, and on that note, she wished us a Happy Easter.

Following a further 5 - 10 minutes of silence, another Friend rose to speak of the self-sacrifice she saw in Jesus - not just as a radical insurgent plotting against Roman rule but simply as a human being who had understood that to fully live is to ultimately give out your life to others, observing that even on the cross he had concerned himself with the thief to the side of him and his mother below rather than his own torturous fate. She also noted, movingly, that when he finally came to die perhaps their was some relief in his that his difficult period of service was finally finished, and perhaps that is something we can relate to - that we often pray for own struggles to finish perhaps missing the point that if life is about pouring as much out for others, our call to serve is never finished until we too are called to return to God.

Both of these deeply moved me, giving me insight into the human condition, but again I felt there was still something missing.

My mind turned to the Taoist writings I had been reading over the past few weeks and the perspective they take. I recalled that for them the Tao, what we might rightly or wrongly call God, is an unfathomable, transcendent, somewhat impersonal force that gives seed to everything from the tiniest bug to the giants of known space such as Jupiter and Saturn. In particular an image of the solar system in movement came to mind. I recalled how I had come to share much of the same understanding of the 'The Other' albeit from a Christian Quaker footing exploring other perspectives, but I had not found this fully satisfactory - there something was missing.

And with that my thoughts turned back to the reading from Quaker Faith & Practice and to the ministry given. And in doing so, I felt prompted to take the Bible and read the final stages of Luke's Gospel - something I had first discovered last year and perhaps is a lesser known event due to the relative prominence of Doubting Thomas at this part of the commonly-known Easter event. I sat and read the story of Cleopas and the (significantly) unnamed other who were walking on the road to Emmaus, engaging in what appears to be a lengthy discussion of the things that had taken place and their meaning. At some stage on this journey they are greeted by a stranger, who after sometime, is revealed as Jesus walking with them. 

It struck me, as it did last year but with greater impact, that whilst I cannot verbally place Jesus in terms of who he exactly is, what his passing and reported resurrection exactly represents, I can grasp the idea that it is through this particular story of this particular human being we see that great, inconceivable 'Something' become realized and known - becoming Someone that we can walk with, talk with, experience at a human level. In my mind's eye the image that occurs is of Jesus simply standing there a few meters away with the planets as backdrop, with one arm reaching out.

And from that little glimmer of insight, I can relay the same Easter sentiments as my Friend - that through the story of Jesus, you too can realise your True humanity, your True purpose - and your True God. And in turn, you find renewal, today and everyday.

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