Life is simple

I went to the 10:30 Service on New Years Day at St Peters in Surry Hills, after attending the Lord Mayor’s party at the Sydney Opera House the evening before. The church was cool and the service quiet. I was suddenly struck by the enduring simplicity of what takes place every Sunday at St Peters, and the contrast with the complexity of the world I bring with me into that small peaceful church every week.

What is simplicity?

My definition of simplicity would be “What you see is what is there.” No hidden agendas; no misleading messages. That may puzzle you. If a stranger were to attend the service at St Peters they might well be mystified about what was going on but the people who are there understand exactly what is happening. To them it is simple. I don’t mean that each person experiences exactly the same thing, or understands the theology the same but they all see exactly the same simple “what is there.” God is present.

What is complexity?

What do I bring with me to St Peters? The way I look at the world. I sometimes joke that the world has to be complicated for me because I am an engineer / physicist / management consultant. There wouldn’t be anything for me to do if the world were simple. I like to solve complicated puzzles so I like to see the world as complex so I can unravel it. My suspicion is that all of us have been shaped by our education and experience to see the world as complex, even though we aren’t engineers or scientists. The scientific “paradigm” is prevasive in the modern world. We see myriads of interrelationships and issues and assume that everything must be complex. We don’t leave any room for simplicity.

Advice from a recovering “complexity-olic”

As every recovering alcoholic knows, the advice from a brother or sister alcoholic carries more weight than advice from a sober person. I am a “complexity-olic” and I know how hard it is to see simplicity when everything appears to be so complicated. You have to admit to yourself that you can’t get out of the complexity trap on your own, and seek help. Until I was able to ask a “higher power” to help me, I was stuck in theological intricacy and religious issues. I couldn’t be in St Peters — or quietly sit in my home — and simply be present to God.  As a recovering complexity-olic, every day is still a struggle for me, but I take each day as it comes, opening my eyes to see the simple presence of God in the midst of life here in Sydney. My advice? Do what God suggests in Psalm 46:10 — “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Labyrinths and Mazes

I recently read a fascinating editorial by Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled Leave behind the retail maze, zen is just a single path away. In it she manages to combine the usual post-holiday lament about Christmas shopping madness with an excursion into meditation, and the role of labyrinths in the search for inner peace. She begins with “Christmas is a kind of test . . . just surviving it bestows a sense of achievement.” She then wanders through the pain of “fighting and struggling for more choice in our lives” and finally arrives at the relaxing properties of labyrinths, comparing them to mazes. “A maze is a series of decision points, any one of which could result in terminal confusion . . . A labyrinth, having only one path, requires no decisions, so its complications become instead a sort of dance, engendering a curious feeling of trust.” I think Ferrelly is on to something, comparing modern life and the struggle with complexity to a maze — and the way toward peace as a labyrinth of constraint yet freedom.

How does a labyrinth work?

Laryrinths are ancient, first appearing almost 5,000 years ago in the Bronze Age in ancient Peru, Crete, Troy and Jericho and elsewhere. In the 12th to 14th centuries in Christian Europe they became associated with religious practice. They became mediative tools. Ferrelly describes how they work. “A walk has three stages: the walk-in (purgation or release), the still centre (illumination or receiving) and the walk out (union or returning).” She described her own labyrinth walk as a ‘card-carrying skeptic” as “experiencing a delicious, timeless trance and a lingering wellbeing.” Are you skeptical? Have you ever walked a labyrinth? I have, once in a garden. I experienced a similar delight as Ferrelly did,  from giving myself over to finding the way to the center, then back out again. Maybe it’s just that I enjoy solving problems, or maybe there is a deeper significance. But the maze versus labyrinth metaphor is a powerful one about life and prayer.

Choosing to leave the maze of everyday life by entering the labyrinth of prayer

Why do we need to pray? Or better yet, do we need to find a way out of the maze of everyday life? I think that most of us can relate to Ferrelly’s description of information and choice overload becoming oppressive, especially at Christmas. We also sense that that the “rat-race” isn’t healthy. We look for ways to “wind down” or “go off-line.” But many people are reluctant to commit themselves to daily prayer. Either we’re too busy fighting our way through the maze or we fail to make time for prayer because we, like Ferrelly, are skeptical that praying regularly has any value. In any case, most us don’t know how to pray so we never actually give the “labyrinth of prayer” a chance. But, what if praying is as simple as following the path to the center of a labyrinth, enjoying some time at the center, then finding our way back out, feeling refreshed? As Christians, we believe that God is at the center of everything. What if this simple practice can lead us into a heightened experience of God, and bring “delicious, lingering well-being” into our life?

This question about praying as laryrinth can lead to a choice, or it can remain only speculation. Like any labyrinth, we have to take the first step into the puzzle. I’m an amateur at prayer but, encouraged by grace, I am going to enter the labyrinth, and encounter whatever waits for me at the center.



The day you face death’s certainty

A friend of mine learned today that the doctors had done all they can. His cancer is terminal. In empathy my wife and I reached out, to try to help and we prayed too. My prayer was straight forward: “God, please be very close to him and let him know you are and always will be with him.”

We all know we will die some day but that date is over the horizon. On this side of the horizon, life stretches out in front of us. Death and what lies beyond can’t be seen.

Then one day, like my friend on a Tuesday in October, we abruptly see that death is on this side of our horizon, close to us. The road we are on ends at a chasm. There is no bridge across the chasm, nor any road visible on the other side. There are no travel guides and no one, neither friends or doctors or even religious gurus can tell us how to make this trip. It’s clear that we are an amateur at doing death and also clear that we must learn to do death.

Are we alone? No our friends and family are nearby. But they cannot go with us so, in a way, when we step into the chasm we are alone — unless we believe God is with us.

Our mental model about God comes into focus as we approach the chasm of death. If we imagine that God is distant, it may be hard for us to imagine that such a God is close to us now. If we imagine that God is only some universal energy or the creative force behind the Big Bang, it’s hard to imagine such a God as caring about ‘little us.’ And if a Christian tells us that God loves us and is close to us as we step into the chasm of death, we may like to believe that but we have no evidence in our own life that that such a hope is well founded.

That is why I pray for God to be close to someone like my friend. God knows how to care for him, whatever his mental model about God is. I learned this lesson a long time ago when my father, who was not a overtly religious man,  was diagnosed with a terminal condition. God comforted me and my family saying, in effect, “Don’t worry, I have your father in my hands and won’t lose him.” That same God is already reaching out now to my friend to help him as he learns to “do death” and cross the chasm toward eternal life. Of that, I am completely confident.