Sunday, 21 February 2016

on considering what will be left of us, when we've left

The season of Lent began a couple of weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, when the ritual of being marked on the forehead with an ash cross was accompanied by the words, 'From dust you came and to dust you will return; turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.'

It is rather stark being reminded that our lives begin and end as mere dust. Each Sunday this Lent, at St Anne and All Saints, we are reflecting on a different poem to help us journey through the season together. This week's poem Left is by Martin Wroe:

What will be left of us when we've left?

When we're gone.
Under, down, into darkness, earth and memory.
When our dust has shaken itself down
and reverted to its original state,
— and our ashes have snapped out of their delusion?
Will their little miraculous interlude have moved history's rudder?

What will be left of us when we've left?
Once the tears are dry on the faces of those we love,
What other trace will we leave?
Will the evidence be compelling?
What will the surviving witnesses say?
How will they know we were here?
Will someone's future be better because of what we did in the present?

How many breaths make a life?
How long does it take to make a difference?
When can I start?

What will history say of us when we're history too?

What will be left of us when we've left?

from The Sky's Window: Lines and lyrics in search of a numinous now by Martin Wroe

There is an exercise that is sometimes popular in the world of personal development, where you are asked to imagine your own funeral, and what people might say about you. And what you would like people to say about you, then use this as a catalyst for change in one's life.

Martin Wroe's poem challenges us to think about our legacy, and Lent — when we aim to strip life back to its basics and consider what matters most — is the ideal time for this.

'From dust you came...,' recalls one of the ancient creation myths when 'God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life' (Genesis 2.7). This ancient Hebrew story of us originating from dust is now corroborated by scientists who tells us that each of us, and our whole world, comes from the dust of cosmic activity. How remarkable that such tiny distant particles could be the stuff of life on this planet in all its complexity, and of humanity in all our variety.

'...and to dust you shall return.' One day our remains will break down again into natural matter. We start as dust, we end as dust, and today's poem makes us wonder what has gone on in between. Will our time here really count for anything? 'What will be left of us when we've left,' the poet writes. How will those who knew us 'know we were here.' What difference will we have made?

A wise woman once told me that she tried to live her life so that each day mattered. 'At the end of the day,' she said, 'I want to be able to look back and know that my day counted for something.' If making a lifetime worthwhile feels daunting, perhaps start with a more realistic ambition. A day. Today. What will you do that will 'make someone's future better?' What would make a difference to somebody else today? And then tomorrow, try again.

The prayer practice known as the Examen, is a wonderful way to ponder each day, at the end of the day; to reflect on when you most cooperated with God, and when the gifts of the Spirit (love, joy, peace etc) have been most present to you. And then, when have you been out of tune with God, felt least alive? This is not a judgemental activity, it is just about noticing. The more self-aware we are the better we can grow. And when we recognise those moments when we have chosen distance rather than closeness to God, we can receive forgiveness with healing and confidence. (If you've been exploring Pray-As-You-Go during Lent, you may have discovered the excellent guided Examen they provide and recognise some of the above questions from there.)

Building a habit of prayerful reflection at the end of the day, giving thanks to God for life-giving moments, and seeking renewal and healing for times we've detached ourselves from God, is a discipline that recalibrates our souls to the divine.

When people will speak of you after you have left them behind, will it be our godliness they speak about, the quality of our character?

I have heard many tributes given about the deceased at funeral services. What strikes me most is that people talk of concrete accomplishments far, far less than they do about the qualities of the person. It won't be your exam grades or qualifications, the money you've earned or the positions you've been employed in, the size of your house or the kind of cars you drove, with which they will sum up your life. It will be how you related to people, the difference you've made to the lives of others, the ways you shaped or influenced them, the example you set. In other words, the things you did for others will mark you out far more than the things you did for yourself.

The questions in today's poem cut right to the heart of many a eulogy. 'What... trace will we leave? Will the evidence be compelling?'

We change by degrees, small steps towards growth and wholeness (also called holiness). A day we can look back on in which we acted in love, felt joy, sought peace, exercised patience and kindness and self-control... a day like that, followed by another, then another, begins to change us, forms a character that bears a likeness to Christ. It is, as with him, our self-giving that we will be remembered for; the ways we made our selves, our time, our skills, available to others; our efforts in working towards the common good that help to 'move history's rudder.'

By setting aside passive living, the seeking out of our own comfort or merely drifting through each day, we can discover that life comes to us when we give it to others. It is then that we will perhaps better understand 'what will be left of us when we've left.'

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