Rev. Yme Woensdregt
It has been a terrible time for the world lately. Our story as human beings has had enough heartbreak to last a lifetime. Someone once defined heartbreak this way: “It is the emotional tornado that turns everything known upside down, scatters everything familiar and sane to the winds, spins lives into chaos and cuts a swath of sorrow through the landscape.”
At the same time, this kind of pain has another function. Heartbreak can motivate us to remove all the meaningless clutter of beliefs and labels we humans cling to so tightly. It scours everything clean while in its aftermath, it so achingly reveals … What. Really. Matters.
This fragile island home which we call “Earth” is the only known planet with life. It floats in the vastness of the Universe covered by a thin layer of atmosphere bordered by the cold, black, sure death of space. It is fragile. Life is fragile. It’s fleeting. It’s a gift.
Yet we draw imaginary lines and dare to call some: “other.” And then we demonize the other. We say that this side of the line is mine, and make sure you stay on your own side of the line.
When are we going to get it through our thick skulls that we’re all in this together? When will we understand that the lines which we humans draw are imaginary? When will we finally understand that our rock and its people are precarious? That life has meaning? That we humans have worth and our lives are precious.
Or not. There are only two choices: To love; to not love.
We could wring our hands once again at what happened at Christchurch or at Utrecht, and before that at the Synagogue in Pittsburgh, or in London, Mumbai, New York City, Toronto, Paris, Tokyo, Madrid, Bangkok; in Belgium, Afghanistan, India, … at Charlie Hebdo, a Sikh Temple, for schoolgirls in Nairobi, students at grade schools and high schools; in places of worship, means and modes of travel, sports’ gatherings, iconic buildings, landmarks…. or any of the other places where the tornado of heartbreak gathers precipitation.
Or we could harness a dark and dispiriting tornado of sorrow and collectively fashion its energy into a new beginning. We don’t want to cry, send our thoughts and prayers, then wait for the next heartbreak. That is not enough. But we are enough. Together we are!
A wonderful poem by Warsan Shire reads, “later that night / I held an atlas in my lap, / ran my fingers across / the whole world / and whispered / where does it hurt? / it answered / everywhere / everywhere / everywhere.”
We can love better. We can be better. We can be the change we want to see, as Gandhi once put it.
There is a famous story told in Hassidic literature that addresses this very question. The Master teaches a student that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson. The clever student asks “What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?”
The Master responds “God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because his religion teaches him to. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.”
“This means,” the Master continued “that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”
A similar story is told about an 8th–century Sufi mystic, Rabia of Basra. She was seen running through the streets of her city one day carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she said she wanted to burn down the rewards of paradise with the torch and put out the fires of hell with the water, because both blocked the way to God. “O, Allah,” Rabia prayed, “if I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”
In Christian tradition, this is known as unconditional love, though it is usually understood as the kind of love God exercises toward humans instead of the other way around. Now, thanks to a Muslim mystic from Iraq and a Hassidic rabbi, I have a new way of understanding what it means to love God unconditionally. Whenever I am tempted to act from fear of divine punishment or hope of divine reward, Rabia leans over from her religion into mine and empties a bucket of water on my head.
This is what we need now. To love each other, to act for the welfare of each other, to treat each other with compassion and grace. Our world cannot take much more of what we have just witnessed. But now, it’s up to us to change. It’s up to us to become the change we want to see.
Just before his death, Jack Layton wrote, “Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.” Layton was not some weak–eyed romantic. He knew that love, hope, and optimism require hard work, careful planning, and strenuous effort.
It’s time to be the change.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook