When I watch the United Nations General Assembly in action, I admire the theatre of the occasion, the rhetoric of the speeches and the richness of ethnic diversity. I have noticed how some speakers offer a way forward along the road to reconciliation, extending an olive branch of peace. While others use ‘put downs’ judging others harshly, poking fun and like children playing in a school yard when things don’t go their way, stamp their feet and walk out, because they don’t like what they hear or to make a protest. I readily admit the differences between some Countries are immense, with Gulfs of mistrust and Himalayan size walls of miscommunication ever present.
Throughout human history, the differences between, women and men, Nations, ethnicities, cultures, and religions have always been present. It is these differences, which form the very fabric of the rich tapestry of human existence on this spinning orb, within our ever unfolding wonder filled universe.
One of the wonders is there is a sacred presence within each person. Our mission if we should choose to accept, is to gradually learn how to live, so as to awaken or if you like know our own presence. So we may hear the eternal echo from another’s presence.
Awakening our presence, some may describe this as the ‘The Spiritual Journey’ or ‘Spirituality.’ It is helpful to not get hung up on the terminology rather engage in the practice itself. Within our Christian tradition we seek to walk the Jesus way.
For me, Jesus was a fascinating man, teaching with words and by action. He had a beautiful mind and a wonderful imagination whose practice of compassion was deeply subversive. I like to imagine that Jesus had beautiful eyes. Those who gazed into them would have felt the infinite gentleness of the Divine. Within our tradition, Jesus is the decisive revelation of God and shows what a life filled with God may look like.
Of course when we catch glimpses of Jesus, we do so through the eyes of others who were writing for their faith communities, perhaps up to fifty years after Jesus died. There is a particular story that is a favourite of mine in the gospels. It tells of a man casting out demons, and Jesus’ disciples get very upset that he is doing this because he is not part of their close-knit disciple-group and they try to stop him, without success. Jesus offers those wonder filled words “Don’t stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”
For me, the concept of the demonic is not the issue; rather it is the attitude of the disciples and the response of Jesus, that interest and fascinates me. Jesus is suggesting change your thinking, this person is not your enemy, nor a threat to you, but, someone who is walking a different road to you, but never the less is still with you and together you can both serve me, howbeit, in different ways. At the heart of this story Jesus is teaching his disciples how to accept difference, to learn from their mistakes, offering another way of being and responding to life. Along with Jesus honouring the eternal presence in this man and invite his disciples to do likewise.
Along the journey of my life, I have experienced the truth of this story. During my teenage years in late 1950’s and early 1960’s I attended a church in Liverpool UK, whose theology was ultra conservative evangelical and extremely anti Roman Catholic. The preaching week by week taught intolerance and only those with the same views and theology were going to be in heaven and the rest were to be condemned to the fires of hell. Looking back to those days it was most unhealthy and echoed the intolerance and bitterness of the wider community of inner city Liverpool of that era.
The influence of that church stayed with me for quite some years. It was through my theological training, study and reflective reading along with my delightful encounters with catholic nuns and monks my thinking and attitude changed.
In an ironic twist the writers who have most enriched my life and ministry have all been Roman Catholic such as Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Tony De Mello and John O Donohue. Even though they have all died, they still mentor me beyond the veil through their writings.
Looking back on my life, as an impressionable teenager, I was too easily influenced, my thinking was flawed, faulty and contributed to seeing myself as superior to others, just like the disciples who wanted to condemn the person who was no part of their group.
Jesus continually challenges our perception of ourselves, of other individuals, of other groups and of life itself. Along the way we move from a narrowness of spirit to catching glimpses of God present and at work in all kinds of unlikely people in unpredictable ways and places.
Jesus taught through the contagious power of a loving example, rather than by an unhealthy desire for uniformity. The Jesus’ Spirit is always tolerance, for each person will express their own uniqueness and echo their own presence. Travelling the Jesus pathway we will leave the land of exclusivity, make a border crossing, into the country of inclusivity.
For me the church is by definition an inclusive community, where differences are honoured, respected and enjoyed, for at its centre, is the inclusive God. This is stated very eloquently by John Wesley founder of the Methodist Church::
“I have no more right to object to a man for holding a different opinion from mine that I have to differ with a man because he wears a wig and I wear my own hair; but if he takes his wig off and shakes the powder in my face, I shall consider it my duty to quit of him as soon as possible”
The thing which I resolved to use every possible method of preventing was a narrowness of spirit, a party zeal, that miserable bigotry which makes many so unready to believe that there is any work of God but among themselves”
These words written 18C Century and are still very relevant for today. The conviction that our beliefs and our methods alone are the ONLY way continues to cause more tragedy and distress in the church than almost any other thing. There are many ways to God, for God has a secret stairway into every heart. No person or church or group has a monopoly on the truth of God.
I still believe the Church or as I prefer to describe it, ‘an unfolding faith community’ can still offer a place where people can put down roots, experience belonging, to grow and flourish as persons, as couples, as families. Regardless of: ethnicity, gender, education or sexual orientation.
For each person is unique, and therefore precious, in each person there is a priceless treasure, a sacred presence. Therefore we honour and respect in each other – the hidden value that is in no other.
God is present in each other – the eternal echo within. In meeting each other we meet the echo of Christ. Our relationship with Christ is a journey in and of love we learn to see, to think about others, our world and ourselves differently, with love and great compassion. We need to preserve and nurture our differences.
When we do this we can fully inhabit our own uniqueness, our own personal integrity of presence of being in the world. For this is how we recognise and revere the right of the other – to be different from us.
I want to offer you this poem from Ibn Arabi (1165 – 1240 Sufi Mystic and Philosopher) which offers hope and possibility for living with difference.
There was a time I would reject those
There was a time I would reject those
who were not of my faith.
But now, my heart has grown capable
of taking on all forms.
It is a pasture for gazelles,
An abbey for monks.
A table for the Torah,
Kaaba for the pilgrim.
My religion is love.
Whichever the route love’s caravan shall take,
That shall be the path of my faith.
Meanwhile Peace in the dignity of difference