A Time to Give Thanks

“To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for ALL OUR LIVES – the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections – that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment.”

– Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey –

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I am challenged by Nouwen’s words. How easy it is to give thanks on the mountain tops when all the stars align and God answers our prayers. How entitled and privileged we feel there. It is easy to form our theology, our ideas, and musings from this vantage point and pontificate them on to a burdened world. Gratitude in paradise takes no effort or spiritual discipline.

In the dark, shadow path gratitude does not always flow as freely. In the winter space, when our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, it is easy to feel forgotten. And in the words of the great prophet, Leonard Cohen, from here we utter a broken Hallelujah. Gratitude, like breathing, has to become a way of life. At 51 years of age, I am still learning to walk this path.

So as this year comes to a close, one of the more difficult years of my life, I make a choice to give thanks. I choose gratitude because I know gratitude heals broken hearts and keeps the soul unstuck from resentment. I don’t always feel like giving thanks … but I choose it anyway.

I am grateful for life: life with all its ups and downs, its pleasant surprises and terrifying cliff-hangers.

I am grateful for love … a faithful man once wrote that the greatest of all is love … he was right – love is all we really have that lasts forever.

I am grateful for relationships – some old, some new, some family, some that feel like family, some complex, some as carefree as the morning song of our resident kookaburra – to love and be loved is one of the greatest joys of living.

I am grateful for this season I live in … this liminal space that both my partner and I sense has been given to us as a gift to rest and recoup – surrounded by the nurture and care of Mother Nature we feel our weary hearts recovering every day. A quote hangs in my entrance, the gift of a friend: “To be here is Glorious” … thank you for the reminder, Rainer Maria Rilke.

I am grateful for the past – this is a big statement as I also hold regret – but the past has taught and shaped me, my life experience, the good and the shadows, the accomplishments and the many failures … they all play together somehow …

I am grateful for hope, springing deep in my heart, a song that cannot be quenched even in the Shadowlands … a hope that whispers, “nothing can separate you from love.”

I am even grateful for this “silly season” of packed shops, impatient carpark-searchers and mindless renditions of “Jingle Bells” … because amidst all the hype there is a low, consistent melody of a world that hums and rotates in Divine rhythm and wisdom … pointing to the news often forgotten at Christmas – a tiny baby, heavenly joy … Christ has come and Christ is with us …

I am grateful …

“To pray is to regain a sense of mystery that animates all beings, the Divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live … It is embarrassing to live. How strange we are in the world and how presumptuous our doings. Only one response can maintain us: GRATITUDE for witnessing the wonder – for the gift of our unearned right to live, to adore, to fulfil. It is gratitude that makes the soul great.”
– Abraham Heschel, I Asked for Wonder –

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Celebrating an Ordinary Life

“And while it takes courage to achieve greatness, it takes more courage to find fulfillment in being ordinary. For the joys that last have little relationship to achievement, to standing one step higher on the victory platform. What is the adventure in being ordinary? It is daring to love just for the pleasure of giving it away. It is
venturing to give new life and to nurture it to maturity. It is
working hard for the pure joy of being tired at the end of the day. It is caring and sharing and giving and loving …”

~ Marilyn Thomsen

My first half of life was lived in a hurry and in the limelight. With a demanding role as a minister in a large faith community and traveling the globe, whilst also raising a family, there was no time for ‘ordinary’. I spent a lot of time on platforms, speaking to people. Add an embedded ideal of ’save our broken world’ and a slight Messiah-complex, easily adopted through the importance modern, charismatic Christianity puts on speakers and leaders, and I was a zealot convinced that ‘ordinary’ is simply missing the mark. You would be forgiven for thinking that ‘ordinary’ is really an unpardonable sin when listening to the many sermons preached from pulpits on Sundays.

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Other than religious ideas, we also live in a world that is enthralled with extraordinary. Don’t believe me? Pay attention to the relentless, consumer marketing machine or just have a look through the titles in the self-help section of a bookstore. Do you notice the obsession with perfection and excellence? It seems, at least in many developed countries, that being extraordinary equates to the right to exist. Now add the hyper-reality of social media, with photos of the ‘perfect’ family, holiday, house, car, designer-dog, and you have a virtual social world frantically trying to convince one another that they are anything but ordinary. The anxiety and stress this farcical comparison has created even has a name: FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – and it has reached epidemic levels.

So in direct protest, I am calling out this infatuation of our modern world with the idea of being extraordinary. In fact, not only am I calling it out, I am convinced that the worship of extraordinary has created a long list of human emotional maladies: comparison, frustration, depression, anxiety, discontentment, despair, exaggeration, lying, etc. No, I am not suggesting that someone suffering from a mental health issue has a problem with FOMO. I am suggesting that our continual obsession with excellence has created a toxic oxygen inhaled by modern society in every dimension of life (work, leisure, relationships, etc) and plays a contributing factor in mental health.

So I choose to celebrate Ordinary!

I am celebrating my tattered garden pants and gumboots.
I am celebrating the wrinkles and grey hair that points to living life.

I am celebrating the ordinary people behind the scenes, working
ordinary jobs.

I am celebrating the ones who society sees as a ‘burden’, their beauty and kindness so often overlooked in a world of botox and plastic surgery.

I am celebrating all the students who have the privilege of education no matter what their ‘score’, in a world gone mad on comparing the
intellect of the young.

I am celebrating the young ones who will never receive an education, stuck in some factory to serve the greed and vanity of others.

I am celebrating those millions and millions of ordinary people living in parts of the world where their life is hard and their death goes
unnoticed.

I am celebrating the places and people who live in parts of the world where the ‘prosperity’ gospel is exposed as a sham, but the good news of Immanuel flourishes.

I am celebrating the people in the pews, who hang their head in shame when they don’t feel they measure up to the challenges of ‘change’. You are beautiful.

I am celebrating our planet and its creatures, used and abused by
practices that are fed by the search for greater thrills, wealth and
importance.

I am celebrating the poor, those who are mourning, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the merciful.

Today, I celebrate my very ordinary life – so far removed from the adrenaline rush that was the first half of my life. I celebrate the shattered triumphal ideologies that lie at my feet, grateful for the many failures that destroyed them. Day by day I live my ordinary life, I take a breath and reflect on the fact that I am a living being. Life does not need inflated ideas of self-importance to matter. Life is a miracle all by itself.

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So dear friend, pay attention to the voices that speak to you on never-ending sound waves. Are they suggesting that you are simply not enough? That you are ‘wasting’ your life with your ordinary routine? That you should be this or that – anything but you? Then perhaps it is time to ruthlessly declutter the voices that make you miserable. Life is Ordinary. Life is Beautiful. Grace is sufficient. You are enough.

“Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples, and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.” 
– William Martin

 

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New Streets and Old Maps

“Not all those who wander are lost …” – Bilbo Baggins

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In the 1990’s nearly every car in Melbourne still had an often mangled, coffee-stained Melway in the back seat. In the ‘good old days’ we did not have any fancy satellite navigation systems that talk to you in that annoying, patronising voice (you can almost see Mr or Mrs Automated Voice roll their eyes as they incessantly repeat: “Make a U-turn, Dumbass!” when you take the wrong turn). No, we were tough. We had printed maps that led us to our destination – most of the time!

Using a printed map for direction is problematic in several ways. First, you have to keep driving with your eyes on the road, while frantically scanning the map on your lap to ensure you are going the right way. Second, due to destructive car occupants such as dogs and toddlers, you may have found that the page you needed has been ripped out and chewed. Third, if you got lost, there were no mobile phones to let people know that you accidentally arrived in Wangary instead of Wanguri. But most frustrating of all, if you had a Melway that was several years old, you found yourself in deep custard when navigating a new sub-division with brand new streets.

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Old maps and new streets are not great travelling companions. The map will tell you that the street you are looking for does not exist, has never existed, and you are wasting your time looking for it. In fact, if the map suddenly turned into a talking, philosophical, map-person (yep, imagination needed here) they would probably say something like, “Look, I know you desperately think that you can visit someone in Gertrude Street, but I hate to break it to you, Gertrude Street does not exist. Trust me, we have been doing this for a very long time. My father, my father’s father, and my father’s father’s father have all said the same thing. There is no Gertrude Street. You have to let it go. You are looking for a destination we have never been to … and we are the experts.”

No one has told the old maps that landscapes change. These maps, like the old wineskins that Jesus talks about in Luke 5, have only ever known old streets or old wine. It is ludicrous to demand anything else of them. We can hope, we can try, we can get angry, but in the end, old maps direct you around old streets and old wineskins hold only old wine. If you want to drive around new spaces, then you will either have to find a new map or you will have to draw your own.

Friend, I wish I could tell you that the maps you have used in your formative years, or in times of flourishing success, would be sufficient for the rest of your life – but that is not the case. Ideas, paradigms and methods we use to navigate life can disappoint us as we continue to learn new things and drive down streets we have never visited before. Some maps may last a lifetime but the way we read them may need to change, and the person who taught you to read that map is not always the expert. That realisation alone can be life changing.

In this life we have choices. We can allow old maps to rule our lives because the very idea of new streets terrifies us. Or, we can recognise that from the moment of birth, life is an ever changing landscape and without taking risks we will never discover new possibilities. Today we live our lives with certain knowledge, like the earth being round and orbiting around the sun. We forget that this knowledge came at a great price for people who, many years ago, threw away their old maps of thinking. Now it’s our turn. Time to explore some new streets.

I’ll show you a place
High on the desert plain
Where the streets have no name
Where the streets have no name (U2) 

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