This past week has been really hard. I have been struggling. Next week I am off to Cambodia to work with the trafficked and abused kids there. I always come back after that with PTSD of a kind as what I come across over there is so traumatizing. Not that I am a stranger to the abuse of children. I have been working with them (or rather loving them) since 1970. It is sobering to think nothing I have seen in Thailand or Cambodia I haven’t already experienced in Australia.
It’s also been a really hard time financially. The end of the Australian tax year is when we attempt to bring in as much money as possible as it is a time people, for tax purposes, are more willing than usual to consider donating money to worthy causes.
Every year though, just bringing some or enough of that money in, gets harder!
I have never worked so hard to “bring in the money” as I have this year and at present we are only just staying on track to bring in the same amount as last year.
It has been a real struggle!
Even more difficult is the fact that the NSW Government Grant we receive to run our highly successful Literacy Tutorial program is coming to an end this year and the bureaucrats tell me the pool they have taken the money out of is no longer in existence. That means, we are going to have to mount a political argument to the Government to convince them that this program is worth funding out of another bucket of money! That’s a hard ask in these current economic times. Plus there are other programs that I am running that need extra money!
Much of my life now seems to be worrying about money and, stupidly I suppose, I think “well I’ve been doing all this stuff now for over forty years and I know what I am doing and how to do it – why don’t they (whoever they are) just give me the money!”
Also I am sick to death of other people trying to get in the middle and tell me how I can spend the money I raise. I know the law and I also know people want to see their money going to projects they want it to go to and not be blown up the wall, I know they get very angry when their trust is abused. This all came to a head for me a few years ago when such people put in brackets a sum of money next to the names of people they considered to be my friends and told me they were fund raising targets I should aim for. My close friend, John Singleton, responded “Bill, I’m your friend. Not your wallet!” To this day I still feel guilty that happened.
So, I think “What am I doing! What should I be doing? Should I forget about fundraising and spend all the time I am doing that, just getting my hands dirty working with poor devils in trouble?”
“What’s more important, Bill”, I think “Getting your hands dirty or raising money?”
Lots of people come to me and say, “Bill, I’ll raise the money for you” – but I find I am a better fundraiser than they are and they want to charge heaps to do a lesser job. And then I find they demand just as much of my time as if I did it myself.
In the past week or so I presided over 200 eleven year old children graduating in our Literacy Tutorial Centres in Sydney (Ashfield, Redfern), Gladstone and Darwin.
As each kid reads to me and tells me of how their lives have been changed forever because of now being able to look towards High School and University through the lens of being able to read, I think “how can I not go out fundraising for these really needed programs.”
I find myself sitting in my Loaves & Fishes Free Restaurant with all the poor and needy who wouldn’t have a meal without us and think the same thing.
So I get torn.
But the kids, the kids need me!
These thoughts and conflicts tear at my soul. As you can see, I’m pretty good at beating myself up and that provides fertile ground for this.
My work is lonely work! I find now that because I am pretty well known and a Minister at that, I become a target – people often think I have something to give them – something that will enhance their lives but all I can really do is really point them to their own internal resources which often, they don’t want to look at or even admit to. Often they don’t want to own this and so wander away. Because I am often seen in this light most people only show me their best sides so they make sure I never see their dark side. This makes me inherently distrustful of people and I have learned the hard way to listen closely to what other people tell me about them or what they said as I often realize there are large parts of themselves that I have not been shown.
So the dark nights of the soul can get pretty dark indeed!
So why go on? Why keep living this out?
In order to keep physically fit and well I walk for forty minutes every day. Particularly up and down stairs. It keeps me physically healthy and I find after I have done my walk and push ups my body works better than ever. The aches and pains tend to be kept in check, particularly with walking up and down stairs. I actually feel a lot better.
I am learning it is the same spiritually. Without day after day doing spiritual exercises we can all lose sight of what life is all about. We can sink into an abyss of Nihilism.
Most of you know I am a great friend of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I am in awe of that man! How he can function when he has no home and his people are so oppressed as they are, is beyond me. To day after day, live out his life and witness his people emolliate themselves in response to this despair is beyond me.
Today I was ruminating on all this and feeling so sorry for myself as I began preparing for my Church service tomorrow (Sunday). I realized how much I get out of, week after week, reading the Christian Gospel and commentaries and then trying to prepare a sermon for my congregation, which is relevant to their lives as well. I find this weekly (which really is a daily activity) spiritual exercise is what keeps me going. I am not one of these narrow Christians who think Christianity has got it all – I realize we can’t reduce God to a solitary point and that the human spiritual experience is more than only our Christian tradition.
I realize that like our reluctance to do physical exercise we are often tardy in exercising our spiritual muscles too or, as Jesus said “If you haven’t listened to Moses and the prophets, why would you listen to me?” However, ironically, I have learned the first spiritual exercise you have to do with your mind is to still it!
I realize how challenged and comforted I have been by these exercises.
People often say to me “Bill, you can’t change the world” and I answer to them “If you change the circumstances of one child/adult/man/woman for that person the whole world changes”. I have seen it happen – literally seen it happen! As the penny drops as an eleven year old child suddenly realizes he/she can read! The whole page of black marks suddenly becomes intelligible. And, what’s more the child realizes that now they could go to university. I call that a holy moment. For that child the whole world has changed in an instant.
So in order to change the world the first thing you have to do is change yourself and this has to happen day after day, hour after hour, and minute after minute. Through these exercises I am “seeing” the world differently – I am seeing that the world really is upside down. Often, those that are really “in” (world leaders, business leaders, religious leaders) are really out, and those that are “out”, (the weak, the poor, the rejected are really “in”). I am learning there is a great difference between having influence and having wisdom. Our current world view is that to be successful or a person of influence one has to be successful at business, management or politics. What is really noticeable today is that, true these people might have achieved success in those areas but many of these areas are areas related to greed and when it comes to wisdom they are no wiser than anyone else.
Time after time I come across this realization and I am lifted to a new dimension of reality. Often it is by something someone has said or has done and then reflecting on that in the light of what I am reading or preparing for Sunday. Somehow there is a “crashing through” into a new reality that is at once instantaneous and timeless.
And calling out to me from that state drives me to examine myself even further.
Just one area I am working on at the moment is Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel. This is where he is in the Synagogue confronting the religious leaders “You are all a bunch of poseurs” he says. “You hide behind your rules and religious clothes but you never come out and truly be yourselves – you are too afraid. Don’t be afraid and you can truly live”.
That challenges me to examine how much I hide behind that title “Reverend” and whether I am too afraid to be truly myself.
True freedom is not being afraid to be ourselves. But, do we want to stand up to family, friends and all those who keep us in our place and say aloud to them who we truly are and what we really think?
As I said I am an enormous admirer of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and it was reading something he said that popped up on my iPhone that generated this blog.
Anyone who has been in his presence knows of his infectious laugh. Some are even annoyed by it. “How can he laugh like that?” they say, “especially as his people suffer so much”.
Well, this is what he says:-
“I have been confronted with many difficulties throughout the course of my life, and my country is going through a critical period. But I laugh often, and my laughter is contagious. When people ask me how I find the strength to laugh now, I reply that I am a professional laugher. […] The life of exile is an unfortunate life, but I have always tried to cultivate a happy state of mind, appreciating the opportunities this existence without a settled home, far from all protocol, has offered me. This way I have been able to preserve my inner peace”.
“Bang”, it hits me like thunder. “What am I doing whinging like I am when some people have real issues to deal with? Mine are inconsequential compared to that!”
There is something for me to learn there. Then, before I beat myself up even more I pull myself together and write this piece.
Many Aboriginal people I work with tell me that their grandparent’s generation was all taught to read and write by the missionaries. Then when the missionaries moved on, the next generation never learned these things. So, if the younger generation needs to read anything they have to go to the “oldies” to get it read.
“Maybe” I think “this is what has happened to us in Western democracies. As our world has got more prosperous we have lost the art of spiritual exercises that in the past we at least gave some lip service to. This then has lead to the current generation of lost, resentful, feeling disentitled individuals that, in spite of relative affluence are unhappier than ever.
I notice in the newspapers today, that for the first time, young people are not getting any fatter as parents are realizing that rather than spending too much time in front of the computer or at McDonalds they are getting their children out and exercising again.
Maybe, for our own health it’s time for us in the western world to realize we need to exercise our spiritual muscles as well.
A lot of my thinking has come out of my involvement, over many years, with the 12-step movement. This began with AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and has moved on to NA, CMA, Over-eaters Anonymous etc. In that movement there is a 12 step program which, I have learned if people follow and remain in it for five years, they are better adjusted, more psychologically healthy, more stable and find more meaning in life than people who have never been addicted to anything in their lives, ever.
I have learned that these 12 steps are like a skeleton. They are the bones of what to live by but the flesh on them needs to be grown by us.
I am today, particularly moved by step four. Step 4 is to undergo a fearless moral inventory. To be totally honest with yourself; to look at all your strengths and weaknesses, dark sides and good sides, to ‘fess up to all those bad things you have done fearlessly.
To be true to your very self and honest with yourself is hard, the hardest thing in the world. I struggle with that every day but the gifts it brings are enormous.
Try that one for a start.
I’ve come to this through the doorway of my own Christian tradition. But it’s opened me up to everyone elses. All the spiritual and healing traditions have limitless truths and experiences to offer us. They are an enormous gift to all humanity.
As the great apostle Paul said, “we can have all the material possessions in the world and all the achievements this world can bring. But if we don’t have love in our hearts we are like a clanging gong”.
It’s the doing of the spiritual exercises that bring the love into our hearts and my guess it is just what the western world is missing.