On Being Happy

Someone once told me that there’s a difference between wanting to be happy and choosing to be happy. One of them is an action.

I have just received an email canceling plans for a lunch date which I have been looking forward to. When I look beyond my disappointment, I am reminded that we often don’t recognize the gifts that are given to us, because they don’t come in the form we want or expect. Sometimes they come in a different wrapping and so we leave them unopened and unacknowledged. For me, these canceled plans give me the opportunity to spend the day with my husband reading and writing  – a gift I hadn’t expected. 

There is a wonderful phrase in French: “être bien dans sa peau”, which means to be good in one’s skin. It means simply to be comfortable with life. This, I think, is what it means to be happy: to walk cheerfully over the world, knowing that we have a place, and to be at peace with the world and with others. I believe that this is our natural state, and that we often block it with fears and resentments and conflict. 

We have everything we need to be happy in this life. How do we do it then? How do we find the gifts in the everyday? How do we remove the blocks to being “good in our skin”? 

I once had a friend who was always in a good mood, no matter what was going on. She had the gift of finding humor and laughter in whatever life threw at her. I asked her how she did it, and she told me that she had survived a terminal illness several years before I met her. “I’m not supposed to be here”, she said, “every day is a gift.” How can we find that attitude? Do we have to almost die to be happy? 

As I look at the people in my life who are truly happy, it’s not the ones who have the most or the ones who have the easiest lives. It’s often the ones who have the least and who have been through ordeals that I don’t know if I could survive who have found the key to being good in their skin. . 

Someone once told me that there’s a difference between wanting to be happy and choosing to be happy. One of them is an action. Seems easy enough, but it’s not. I can’t hold my breath and ‘be happy’. It takes some work. 

First I have to let go of some things: 

  • Expectations/entitlement
  • Judgment
  • Comparing myself to others
  • Jealousy
  • The need to be special
  • Perfectionism
  • Toxic relationships.

These are all things that separate me from other people, isolating me in my tiny mind – truly a bad neighborhood. 

Then I have to find some things: 

  • acceptance – I stop fighting what I can’t change
  • connection: to self, to God, to others. It is the connection to others that I have missed in Covid times. 
  • joy – which flows from the feeling of connection,

Then I have to give some things away:

  • Love – In order to have it you have to give it away
  • Things/possessions/money
  • Time – the span of my life is measured in time. I give it away by ‘spending’ it making the world a little better for others. Or maybe just making my small corner of it better. Letting my life speak. 

It’s not an easy path to walk. It gets narrower and narrower as we go along. Once we set our feet on it we are drawn along trying not to be distracted by the side-turnings. Often I fail. But sometimes, just sometimes, it works. 

Edited 6 Sept 2021

Photo by Goppang Nyarta

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 17 September 2021

God’s hands

We can remember that the love that comes from us is exhaustible/finite. The love that comes through us is infinite.

Perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18)

It is required you do awake your faith. (Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale: 5.3.95)

This pandemic has shown how many of us need love to drive out the fear that has grown up around us in the last year. We all need love to quench the fires of fear and dread and the grief we feel for parts of our lives that are lost to us. How can we provide this for others when the love we need to find is drowned out by our own fear? How can we awake the faith that we need in order to do God’s work, to drive out fear with love when our own reservoir of love feels so depleted? 

We can remember that the love that comes from us is exhaustible/finite. The love that comes through us is infinite. The prayer of St. Francis reminds us that we can be a channel of God’s love for others. It’s up to us to keep that channel open, to not clog it with fear and anxiety and grief. 

It’s not only our family and friends who need our love to make their way in the world. Everyone we see is carrying the burden of these past months, in different ways and with differing levels of success. 

I see this most clearly with strangers who need loving support. For the past five years we have worked with people on the move. Not in large numbers, normally one or two at a time. They come to us having suffered all of the hellish things we hear about on the migrant routes. We see people who have escaped genocide, crossed the Sahara and been enslaved in Libya. They have lost friends crossing the Mediterranean, then crossed all the borders in Europe to get to Belgium, and we support them in this step of their journey.

And then, they move on.

It’s hard to see them go into the Channel, where we hope they reach England. And yet I’ve come to know that these are not my children, they’re God’s children and they’re in God’s hands. They always have been. 

For the part of their journey that is here in Belgium, we are God’s hands, and then we send them on; they will stay in God’s hands and they will stay God’s children. We just do our part here. Sometimes we can send them on to God’s hands in the form of other Quakers. But we send them on as God’s children. 

It’s an important part of my Quaker faith to bring God’s hands here to people who need it and just to know that it is good enough. That’s all I can do. I can’t follow them. I can’t protect them, I can’t guarantee them success. I have to release them back into those hands that brought them here. 

In the same way, I think it is also important to remember that our loved ones who are suffering from fear and grief are also God’s children. They may be lent to us, but they are ultimately God’s. We channel God’s love to them, and then let them go. 

It is required we do awake our faith – our faith that we will find the resources we need: financial, physical, spiritual, personal. That we will find the people who can help with the work when we need them, and that we will have the support we need to help our loved ones on to the next part of their journey. 

That we will be able to follow Jesus in the work he began: love one another. 

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 2 July 2021

Bringing Worship Home

A&Q #3

Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and in others a habit of dependence on God’s guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God

Worship: The dictionary defines worship as “to pay great honour to” or “to show reverence and adoration for”. The origin of the word is Old English, meaning an acknowledgement of the worth of someone. When I think of worshipping God, this definition makes me uncomfortable. Does God need me to pay honour to God? Does God need me to acknowledge God’s worth? It all sounds sycophantic to me if I’m honest. 

Instead, Quaker worship feels to me like sitting still in the love of God, feeling that connection to the eternal that takes me out of time and place and into a sense of fullness, of completeness. 

I don’t feel this in the busy noise of church rituals. Sometimes I find it in the silence of nature, of the forest or the fens, but most often worshipping with those Quakers in whose safe and nurturing presence my heart can rest. 

Then I feel a flow of love that calms my spirit and awakens in me a sense of the universal. I believe that this flow of the love of God is something that goes on all the time; we just dip in and out, and can feel it when we let our walls down and open ourselves to the love of God. 

When that happens, some of it sticks and I can bring that back to the world and fulfill the ministry that brings my great joy to the needs of the imperfect world. The trick is to keep holding on to that love, that feeling of absolute peace and presence that comes when worship happens.

Often I fail. It’s hard to bring it back into the world of humans elbowing each other for prestige and recognition and wealth and power without putting up the fences and walls that I use to protect myself from a world that seems to have forgotten this amazing feeling of connection. Those walls and fences of self defense bind up the flow of love and thus kill it. It needs to circulate. We only keep it by giving it away.

But what if we could trust that sense of peace and presence? What if we could come back to the world and lay down those walls? Just live wide open? 

This sense of being in that perfect love feels like a fragile thing. Feeling this love seems like only half the work: the rest is to bring it back to the world. That’s hard to achieve where there is judgment or conflict or unresolved issues. 

Whether judgment and conflict are in our personal lives or in the greater world, they can block us from God’s love. Not because God doesn’t love us, but because they generate fear which clogs the channel through which that love flows. The simple admonition to ‘love one another’ holds the key to holding on to the sense of completeness and connection in a world that seems to be falling apart. It tells us to bring back the love of God that we find in worship and to give it away to those who need it most. 

Love one another. It’s that simple and that difficult.

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 27 May 2021

A Rule to Live By

My Friend Ken Orchard was inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict, written in 516 as a series of precepts to guide the life of monks living together. Ken has written his own Rule as a guide for his life. When I first heard it read it touched my heart as ministry.  He has allowed me to publish it here.

  • Open your heart, mind and soul to the divine energy for every hour of every day. Live faithfully to your sacred potential. Make the divine energy central to you and in you and be true to it in all that you do. 
  • Surrender yourself to the divine energy without reservation and put the divine will even before your own. 
  • Total commitment brings change. Little by little or vast area by vast area let your life be transmuted in the life of the divine energy.
  • The basis of simplicity is centring on the divine energy. The heart of the monastic life is to live always in the presence of that energy. 
  • Offer yourself as a place of prayer. Enter silence joyfully. May your presence be one that heals divisions and expands hearts. 
  • Celebrate embodiment. All of creation is a manifestation of the divine energy. Worship it with unparalleled commitment and a complete love that is without self-interest. Work to make the holy manifest. 
  • Refrain from possession. Love expands the spirit, possession contracts it.
  • Treat all religions and spiritual paths, and those who follow them, with honour and respect. 
  • Seek the company of those who will deepen your spirituality and support your journey.
  • Create community wherever you are. Make of your heart a home for the homeless, a refuge for the poor. 
  • Be simple, honest and authentic. Welcome humility and vulnerability into your life. Express your gratitudes and appreciations openly.
  • Surrender yourself to the true glorifying of the divine energy.

For Our Sins

I have always believed that Jesus isn’t coming again, because I don’t think he ever left.

We are promised that Jesus “will come again in glory…”

I have always believed that Jesus isn’t coming again, because I don’t think he ever left. In every generation there are those prophetic voices echoing the message of Jesus: love one another and let your life speak. Often we kill them. Three examples would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Luxemburg and Mahatma Gandhi.

In a recent Woodbrooke course we learned that crucifixion was a political death – the Roman equivalent of being hanged, drawn and quartered. It was meant to be painful and public and humiliating. A warning to those who follow — both those who would come after and those who were his disciples.

We are told that Jesus died this death for our sins. To redeem us for the sins we have committed but also for the sins whose burden we carry that were committed by Adam and Eve, two people who didn’t actually exist historically. 

But what if Jesus didn’t die for our sins but because of our sins? Not to pay for our sins but because the sins we carried couldn’t let him and his message live? 

The sins that were responsible for this particularly cruel and harsh political death are still with us: pride, domination, ambition, control, lust for power, empire. And they are the ones responsible for the continued assassination of those who tell us that we are enough, that we are worthy of love and so is everyone else. They tell us that we should love one another because God loves us just as we are.They tell us that we are all equal and that none are more equal than others. When we can accept this we lose the need to dominate and control others. We also lose the ability to be dominated and controlled, which can be a dangerous thing.

Sin separates us from the love of God. These particular sins – pride, domination, ambition, control, lust for power, empire – also separate us from our fellow humans. This separation is part of what enables the dehumanizing process which allows us to kill each other. This separation is lost if we can believe that we are all equal in the eyes of God, who loves us just as we are; that is why this message is a threat to those who need for us to be able to kill each other. 

The message that God loves us is also the message that we are not separated from God. The radical danger of that message is that if we believe this then we don’t need elite power structures to ‘save’ us from ourselves and each other. We only need to know that we are loved and that we can pass that love to others. It’s that action of denying / dismantling the power structures that triggers the need to wipe out the ones who teach it, often in cruel and very public ways.

I believe that Jesus died not to save us from sin today but because he was saving people at that time and in that place, as those who are murdered today are saving people in this time and in this place. The need to dominate and control cannot allow this radical message of love and equality to continue to be spread.

What if we could hold the belief that we are good enough just as we are? Would we be able to give up the need to dominate and control others? Could we give up pride and ambition? Could we know that we don’t need to accomplish anything more than we have already done? What if we truly loved ourselves and others, as equal recipients of God’s grace? 

If we could do that we might be able to vanquish the sins which separate us from the love of God and thus cause the death of those who teach us to love one another. 

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

Perfect Imperfection

We are all imperfect. But we are perfectly suited to the work we are called to do.

In the church I grew up in we memorized a creed, a statement of the beliefs we held in common. The life of Jesus was described this way: he was “conceived by the holy spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried…” 

This creed ignores the fact that between “born of the virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate” lies the whole story. That’s where we find the love of God shown in the life of this man who left his family to tell us how much God loves us as we are, to minister to the poor and oppressed, to bring God to the godforsaken. 

He said to us, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. … Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me.”

I do not find God in steeplehouses or meeting houses or even in meeting for worship very often. I find God in the actions that let my life speak. I believe that Jesus isn’t present in the ones who feed the hungry or in the hungry who are fed. Rather, he is present in the action of feeding them – the action that binds them together in a connection that is godly. 

The message from my childhood church was that I was not (and would never be) good enough. That I was born tainted by sin, that nothing I could do short of confessing my imperfections and following directions of men who had no idea about my life would make me acceptable to the God who created me. I learned that I had to be perfect to live a godly life. Or at least try to be.

However, I once visited a church whose pastor said that God loves us JUST AS WE ARE. I was in my 40s and this was something I had never heard in church before. It was absolutely life changing for me. I broke down in tears. 

We all struggle to be perfect, to live up to the perceived perfection of Jesus, to earn the love of God. But what if God loves us just as we are? What if we can learn to accept or even embrace our imperfection? That might mean also accepting the imperfection of others, understanding that they too are doing their best to struggle with their imperfect-ness. What if we could love others unconditionally, just as they are? As God does.

As a Quaker I believe that it is not necessary to be perfect or cleansed or absolved to have a connection with God. It is not necessary to feel love for all of our fellow humans or to be always calm in our spirit. It is only necessary to do the work and the connection with God will manifest itself.

I have heard that our ministry, our ‘right work’ is where our great joy meets the world’s needs. We are all imperfect. But we are perfectly suited to the work we are called to do. We can all bring the message of Jesus – that we can and should love one another, that we can and should feed the hungry, tend the sick, bring the kingdom of God to this imperfect world. We are the hands that God has to do this work.

This, then is the measure of our perfect imperfection. 

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 31 Dec 2020

Photo by sum+it from Pexels