I’ve been thinking further about the ‘twins’ story that I told in ‘Why death’. If our time in the womb prepares us for this life, then maybe our time in this life is preparing us for the next: giving us the opportunity to develop the gifts and qualities we will need there ourselves; and in the process helping others be there too.
This is not an original idea, its been around for some time. So here is Austin Farrer, an Anglican priest writing a meditation for Advent Sunday in ‘The Crown of the Year’ published in`1952:
“Our journey sets out from God in our creation, and returns to God at the final judgement. As the bird rises from the earth to fly, and must some time return to the earth from which it rose; so God sends us forth to fly, and we must fall back into the hands of God at last. But God does not wait for the failure of our power and the expiry of our days to drop us back into his lap. He goes himself to meet us and everywhere confronts us. Where is the countenance which we must finally look in the eyes, and not be able to turn away our head? It smiles up at Mary from the cradle, it calls Peter from the nets, it looks on him with grief when he has denied his master. Our judge meets us at every step of our way, with forgiveness on his lips and succour in his hands. He offers us these things, while there is yet time. Every day opportunity shortens, our scope for learning our Redeemer’s love is narrowed by twenty four hours, and we come nearer to the end of our journey, when we shall fall into the hands of the living God, and touch the heart of the devouring fire. ”
And here is Rumi a 13th century Islamic Sufi mystic and poet:
“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and attend them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”
Both Farrer and Rumi are very clear that God comes to meet us throughout our lives, and that our response is important for it is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. But it is all too easy not to recognise when this happens, and hence to miss the opportunities that are being offered. So it is important to have some way of reflecting on our lives, so that we may become more open to noticing what is coming our way, what God is offering us the chance to learn; how we are responding to it; and how we are being shaped in the process. We often have little control over what comes our way, but a great deal of control on how we receive and respond to it as both Farrer and Rumi point out. This all sounds rather simple in theory, but of course it’s a tad more complicated and challenging in practise!
It was Einstein who said “The most important question any person will ever answer is whether the world is friendly”, because if its basically friendly then you can trust it, and if its not you’ll tend to view it with suspicion. The Christian tradition says that the answer is ‘Yes’, that life and the world are friendly and trustworthy because God made the world and saw that it was good. If this is true then our first task in life is to be able to accept and receive what the world offers us, trusting that what comes is gift from the divine however unwelcome it may sometimes appear to be, and without passing judgement on it or seeing it as passing judgement on us. But for this to be possible we need somewhere, sometime to have had an experience of unconditional love, for without it we wont find it easy to see the world as basically friendly.
If we are lucky we may have learnt that in the families in which we grew up, but if not we might find it in subsequent relationships, and in loving communities to which we belong. Or we may well have experienced it directly from the divine in moments of deep spiritual experience. Indeed it is my profound conviction that most people have had such a moment at some point in their lives, although they often don’t recognise it for what it is, don’t know how to talk about it, or how live out of it, or know where they might go for support and understanding.
[I’ve written, with Roy Gregory and others, about our spiritual experience and how we might recognise and live out of it in the book ‘The God you already know’. And how God’s love is mediated to us through the actions of others in ways we frequently don’t recognise in ‘Languages of Love’. Both can be found on this web-site.}
Both Rumi and Jesus put unconditional love at the core of their teaching. Crucially, love, and not right believing. Jesus’ command to his followers is that they should love one another, not that they had to believe as He did, indeed they consistently misunderstood Him. Loving one another, doesn’t necessarily mean liking one another, but it does mean accepting the other as they are whatever, and always looking out for them.
Sadly insisting on right thinking and behaviour as most religions do, is a much easier option than loving relationships: it’s more black and white, less messy and ambiguous, and so can appear to be clearer when you’ve got it right, more secure. Hence the religious temptation to focus on it as something that seemingly can be controlled and measured, in a way that love cannot. But, remember that Jesus was persecuted and put to death at the behest of the religious authorities of his day, because of his lack of right belief and his emphasis on God’s unconditional love for all humankind. Not often that you hear a sermon on that for fairly obvious reasons!
So, our own experience and awareness is key to all of this. We are all much more loved that we can imagine, we are the recipients of more unconditional love than we know, but we live mostly in seeming ignorance of it. It’s the great tragedy of our lives. But we can do something about it: we are not helpless here, we can take responsibility for life being otherwise. Its crucially about reflective awareness of what is happening in our own lives and what we are learning, whom we are becoming. We can learn to love and forgive, and equally we can learn to hate and be bitter, mostly we’ll find life a struggle between the two. With God’s help it’s a struggle we can win and become a good enough human being. And if that is what we experience now and here it will shape who we are in whatever lies after death.
Our second task in life is to do what we can to support and encourage loving communities wherever and whenever we find them, because loving communities are places where people may experience unconditional love. Our own families are a good place to start, but any community to which we belong from the tiny to the global, will do. Churches can be loving communities but often they are not. Wonderfully, there are plenty of loving communities outside the churches. The church does not have the sole franchise on God’s gracious activity.
Our third task in life is to build loving relationships with the dead, and the yet to be born, to our mutual benefit. For a long time now I’ve been wondering about the question of what will happen to me when I die. It seems to me that death is unlikely to be a dramatic change leading to either heaven or hell. Why should my muddled, confused, grey life suddenly become black and white just because I die? Rather it seems more likely, and frankly inevitable, that I will know that I still have much to learn. For starters I find it difficult to imagine that I could enter heaven, enjoy a state of bliss, achieve peace, whatever language we might use, knowing that there are people whose lives I’ve affected for ill, as there inevitably must be. Surely I’ll be praying that they will be able to redeem the damage that I’ve done, for their sakes because I love them, and indeed for mine because I wont find peace until they do!
I’ve often shared this line of thinking with others who have sometimes found it helpful. I remember someone from years back talking through the painful death of a marriage and the ensuing divorce, who was first of all, quite understandably, very angry with their parents who had taught them such a skewed and unhelpful model of marriage as to make their first attempt at it almost inevitably a failure. With time this person came to see that their parents had only been able to teach them what they themselves had learnt from their parents, and so on back through the generations: once our ancestors are recognised as victims like us, then forgiveness becomes much more possible.
They were able to see and feel that in trying to rebuild their life after their failed marriage they were not acting alone for they had the active prayerful support of their ancestors who had some responsibility for their failure, and who were willing them to redeem the damage done, on behalf of all of them. It was a two way mutually dependent process.
And of course it has a future reference too. The problems we don’t manage to redeem, and no doubt some that we do, we will pass on to our children and to others with whom we relate, and they will become theirs to work on.
The temptation into which we have so often fallen as a species has been to focus on either this life or the next, to the exclusion and detriment of the other. The truth maybe, is that the two are bound up with each other and cannot thus be separated? We have to focus on this life and becoming more fully and truly whom God has called us to be, in it, because in doing so we also prepare ourselves for the next life, but we cant do so without the active support of other people both living and dead. It’s a process both individual and corporate and also one that embraces both this life and the next..
So, the question ‘Is there life for us and for others after death and how can we prepare for it?’ is intimately and inextricably bound up with the question ‘Is there life for us and for others before death?’ I also have a hunch that its as bound up with the question ‘Is there life before life? i.e. ‘Where do we come from?’ But that’s not for now!!