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One Life to Live

Ann-Lone Uhrenholdt meets people from a wide range of spiritual backgrounds about their search for God's leading.

When a journalist asked former US President Jimmy Carter what drove him, he replied, 'I feel I have one life to live. I feel God wants me to do the best I can with it.' The journalist then asked Carter how he knew God's will and Carter answered that he prayed frequently. 'When I have a sense of peace and just self-assurance-I don't know where it comes from-that what I'm doing is the right thing, I assume, maybe in an unwarranted way, that that's doing God's will.'

People who cultivate an inner life will sooner or later want to translate their beliefs into moral action. But how do they discern what this means? While for some the directions may be as clear as crystal, others will tell you how difficult it can be to find the way between several good choices.

Ann-Lone Uhrenholdt meets people from a wide range of spiritual backgrounds about their search to discover what God wants them to do.

In Australia's general elections in October, the voters gave the small Democrats Party the balance of power in the Senate, and thereby the responsibility of passing or rejecting legislation.

Senator John Woodley, the Democrats' spokesman on rural and Aboriginal issues, takes his party's position extremely seriously. He sees it as meaning that disadvantaged Australians will get more of a fair go.

For 30 years Woodley was a Uniting Church minister in the sun-scorched farming communities of Western Queensland. 'I became closely involved with Aboriginal and rural people and that has shaped the rest of my life,' he says. 'I very much believe, as set out in the Bible, that God is on the side of those who are pushed to the edge of life. That conviction led me to a series of jobs in Queensland and when I was approached to stand for the Democrats in 1990, I felt that as a Senator I could speak for these people. I feel politics is about giving a voice to those who haven't got one. That's where Christian ethics and politics coalesce.'

Woodley has three basic guiding principles for making decisions:
1. Social justice, i.e. to stand up for people who are disadvantaged.
2. Ensure that people are included in the decisions that concern them.
3. To care for the Earth.

'I will always go out of my way to consult with the people who are affected by legislation. And if there's a choice between two groups, I will take special account of the group that is more powerless.'

He believes in prayer when thinking through legislation. 'First I pray about it. Then I take action to try and clarify and test the issues. Often that means going out to see the people concerned. Sometimes it means participating in a protest on their behalf. Then more prayer and more reflection.'

For example, he says, some months ago the conservative coalition government put forward amendments to the Native Title Act, making it much more difficult for Aboriginals to lay claim to land with which they had a long-standing relationship. 'The people most affected were the Aboriginals on Cape York in Northern Queensland. There was no time to go up there, but I had visited and seen their situation before, so as a party we invited and paid for a number of Aboriginals to come to Canberra and talk with us. We voted against the amendments because we felt they would further disempower the Aboriginals.'

At that point the Democrats did not hold the balance of power, and to their disappointment, the bill was passed. 'However,' says Woodley, 'in politics nothing is permanent.'

'Muslims do not have the same personal relationship with God that you encounter within the Christian faith,' says Jomilla Youssef, a Swiss woman with a generous laugh, who converted to the Muslim faith some 30 years ago and now lives in Canberra, Australia. 'We would never say: "God told me." We think that is dangerous. You might misinterpret the signs.

'Muslims do not rely on feelings. You could say that in the Qur'an God's will is laid out like a map to follow. All possible human situations are addressed. And there are special prayers that we say, according to the decision we are about to make. Then we marry, choose a career, buy a house-and you know, life is not perfect, but we believe that if we follow the path, we may be tried, but we will be successful in the end.

'I can pray about my worries and concerns, but God can do what God wants. God is not my servant.'

Because we cannot know how things will turn out, she continues, patience is a fundamental virtue. 'Even when things look really really bad, who knows what will come out of it?'

Philip Cooper, site-manager in an Australia-wide engineering firm, became a Tibetan Buddhist six years ago. We talk in a Buddhist temple in Canberra surrounded by tangkas, shrines and ornaments. The all-pervasive image is the lotus flower. Cooper explains that this is because this beautiful flower, which grows out of the mud, is a symbol that enlightenment can arise out of confusion.

To attain enlightenment, he says, you must first learn through meditation that all experiences are reflections of the state of the mind. The mind may be clouded by such defilements as desire, anger and ignorance, but meditation allows you to 'see' these limitations and how they affect your thinking and decision-making. Ideally one's motivation should be based on purity of intention, generosity and selflessness.

'Though you may never arrive at these ideals, it is your mindfulness of them in all endeavours that is important,' says Cooper. He starts every day with 20 to 40 minutes meditation and will sometimes take several days out of his calendar for a retreat.

The idea of 'empowering employees', so popular in modern business jargon, is a deeply Buddhist concept, says Cooper. 'If I am mindful of my colleagues on the site and in the office, not just as workers, who have to complete a task, but as whole people with lives consisting of many other things, and if I can let them understand that we are all an integral part of this endeavour, then that is Buddhism at work.

'As a Buddhist, my satisfaction is not in the size of my wage or the praise of my mates or superiors, because that is all transient. Inner satisfaction comes from the way in which I have approached the job and treated my fellow human beings. I do not feel responsible for my job, I'm responsible to my job.'

The exquisite products of the Glass Workshop at the Canberra School of Art constantly receive prizes at exhibitions around the world because of their exceptional technical and artistic quality.

Why? 'Because the students are very good and we are always working at it,' says Stephen Procter, the head of the workshop. Then he adds thoughtfully: 'I think it is also related to the international vision of the school as well as to the quality of teamwork we have developed. It is very important to make people feel that they matter.'

Procter always wanted to become an artist but, influenced by members of his family who thought that too unpractical, started out on engineering, then shifted to agriculture, before finally following his original feeling for art. 'I don't regret for one minute those other studies, or having worked in a factory for a while,' he says. 'It all becomes part of valuable experience.' He now shares a bush-block just outside Canberra with his wife and children and numerous self-invited kangaroos.

'In art, you have to learn to listen, and be a channel for inspiration,' says Procter, who is a student of Christian Science. 'I don't believe there is any single recipe for life. The moment you think that now you've got it all sorted out, that's probably exactly when you haven't.'

He talks of the extraordinary interchanges with people one has when one is travelling and outside the everyday routine. 'Ordinary days can be like that too. It so often happens that I run into people and have conversations that I know are important. It's nothing to do with me, or being self-important, it's something to do with listening and developing your intuition, not only concerning big decisions but also everyday events.

'If I try very hard to paint a painting, that I, Stephen, can take credit for, then it doesn't work at all. But if I get deeply focussed and totally absorbed in what I'm doing, then the work takes over and you find yourself in a fascinating learning process. It becomes a dialogue between you and the work. That's when you cross thresholds.'

He refers to an occasion in England, when he went out to paint in the snow on a bitterly cold day. 'I was freezing and I kept wanting to go home, but something in me said, "No stay, stay, keep at it." Suddenly a new understanding and quality began to come through. It was so exciting. When art is successful it's because there's another dimension and substance to it, a further understanding. Picasso said: "I don't paint what I see, I paint what I know."

'When students say they want to do "exhibition work", I say, "Forget about that and concentrate on the quality of thought and work. It's not the effect, but the conception, the substance and the life that defines a piece of art. Exhibitions and prizes are incidental. The more you give and put into it, the more you're willing to help when there's a team effort, the more you'll get back."' He sometimes finds it necessary to be extremely direct with some self-centred young artists.

How the Procter family came to Australia is another story of being led and taking existential leaps into the unknown. 'We'd been praying for direction for about three years and following different leads that for one reason or another didn't come to fruition.'

Then he was offered a year of teaching at a school of glass in the US, and felt it would benefit both him and the school of art and design in England where he had been teaching for 10 years. But the school refused to give him leave.

'At this stage I just had a clear feeling that I should go anyway. So I quit my job, trusting that something would work out after the year in the US, though of course I was well aware that there are very few teaching positions in glass.'

Not long after that Procter heard about the post in Canberra. In an extraordinary way it all worked out and he was appointed. 'I had a clear sense that this would offer a very different and important perspective from the other side of the world,' he says. 'I really believe that life's all about tuning in and actively listening.'

The World Bank is often criticized for approaching development in purely monetary terms. But even within this Temple of Mammon there are people who try to see their work in a spiritual dimension.

For the past 20 years a group of World Bank employees have been meeting over breakfast every Friday morning to discuss spiritual, moral and ethical values and how these are related to development. World Bank environmental adviser Robert Goodland tells me that the group has about 70 members, but because of their travels, only 15 or so are normally able to attend.

'The last few sessions we have been examining the lessons of Ogoniland, the sacrifice of Dr Ken Saro-Wiwa and what this means for oil development,' he says. 'We discuss and seek to improve ourselves by learning from such discussions. We give each other a lot of mutual support, but we are not exactly an action group. The most we would do is to direct concerns to the best place for resolution or information.

'How are we viewed by the Bank? The Bank knows that we helped defrock the taboo against the discussion of excessive arms expenditures, and helped raise vulnerable ethnic minorities on the agenda of concern-as just two examples. They know that we are unofficial and powerless, but that we are at the same time a reliable catalyst for crucial needs that are unpopular, taboo or laughed off at first.

'We don't want to claim credit, but we have been a source of infection, a breeding ground or launch pad for many of the non-economic improvements in the Bank in the last two decades, all very behind the scenes.'

From a written statement about the group you learn that their meetings sometimes begin with unconventional speakers - such as a Russian activist released after years in the Gulag or a former Vatican economist - or with a reading from one of the major religions.

One of the topics the group has examined is decision making - for instance, the way the Quakers seek the corporate leading of the Holy Spirit and the way Botswanan village chiefs achieve consensus. How people arrive at decisions has become more important to the Bank now that it is seeking to involve communities in the design of the policies and projects from which they will benefit.

Sometimes members of the group make personal presentations about what has influenced their lives and career choices - compelling stories that one would rarely hear in the polite but impersonal atmosphere of the office later in the day.

The dominant mode of the meetings is one of listening and non-judgemental interaction. 'And,' adds one of the founders, Sven Burmester, 'you can say anything you want, with a bias for irreverence.'

John Bond is an MRA worker in Canberra, Australia, and a member of the National Sorry Day Committee. He says:

'My life has been shaped by my certainty that the force behind the universe - which I call God - loves his creation and, astounding though the idea is, loves even an insignificant speck like me. And he wants me to spread that love. When I try to do that, I find peace and satisfaction. This experience has given me hope and direction, and enabled me to cope with tragedy.

'That sounds simple, but it is not. It is easy to love the lovable. Far harder to love those who most need love-the greedy, the hate-filled, the hopeless. To do that, I need a new perspective on life. Instead of being preoccupied with 'What can I do?', I try to understand what God wants done. That has launched me into tasks far beyond my strength or ability. When I need help, people respond; and so does something beyond human understanding.

'Learning to discern what God wants is like learning to be an artist. A painting is a wholehearted outpouring of all that the artist is, expressed through a skill developed by disciplined training. So is a life given to God.

'For me, the learning starts afresh each morning when, in a time of quiet, I try to understand what God longs for in me, in my family, in my community, in the world. And I ask how I can help bring that about.

'I look at the possibilities which my circumstances and skills open up to me. As an MRA worker, my aim is to ignite the moral and spiritual spark in each person which can heal and transform our society. That gives me common cause with many people of civic and religious conviction. I also have children, whose upbringing is important in determining where my energies are directed. And I care for refugees who have come here from war-torn areas of Asia.

'These tasks give me a framework through which I try to spread love. Mostly it is steady, undramatic work. Through it all, I keep seeking for ways to change the ugly attitudes I encounter.

'In 1997 a national inquiry presented a report into a tragic episode in Australian history, when thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families in an attempt to assimilate them into Western culture. The Government tried to ignore the report. Many of us felt this was short-sighted. Here was a chance to bring into the light a source of deep pain. My colleagues and I invited the inquiry chairman, Sir Ronald Wilson, to Canberra, and several thousand Canberrans heard him in the city's forums and through its media.

'As he and others spoke across the country, support grew for a national expression of sorrow at the harm caused by this policy. As a result, half a million Australians took part in a Sorry Day. For the first time, the 'stolen generations' felt that the nation understood their pain, and this has proved healing to many.

'It was exhilarating to be part of a nation-wide spiritual explosion. But serving God does not mean living on an emotional high. There are times of severe struggle too, which can often be understood only in retrospect, if at all.

'The new awareness in Australia which led to Sorry Day was partly stimulated by Aboriginal elder Margaret Tucker's moving autobiography 'If Everyone Cared', in which she tells of being removed from her family as a child. The book sold 20,000 copies, spawned films, and her story has been reproduced widely in school textbooks.

'I marketed that book for six years, at a low period of my life, when I was struggling to find any sense of direction. Unknown to me, my work was laying foundations for Sorry Day.

'I was low because painful mistakes had made me aware of how much I had to learn about discerning God's will. Despite my genuine attempt to serve God, I had harmed other people. It took me time to realize that I was shaped by cultural norms which may have built the British Empire, but did not encourage those around me to flourish.

'So now, when I meet people who cared for Aboriginal children in church and government institutions, I understand something of their pain at the recent revelations. They were encouraged by national policy to play a part in a practice which we now realize did immense harm.

'We are so fallible! How do we find the confidence to try and discern what God wants?

'I find it in my belief that there is an absolute morality, valid for every society. My myopia can make it hard to see, but the more I try to see it, and let this shape my own personal decisions, the more my eyes adjust.

'That adjustment has been helped greatly by my attempts to see the world through the eyes of those I have hurt. So much so that I have concluded that I can best help to promote a healthy society by bringing opponents together. It means enduring clash, and being misunderstood, until both sides begin to see the truth in each other. When that happens, then people feel able to leave the past behind, and look to new goals.

'If this is my aim, many of my traits which cause me pain become assets. Acceptance of my fallibility makes me welcome the help of others. Knowing that I need forgiveness punctures my ego, and that frees me from worry about what people will think. Giving others the credit helps me appreciate them. Recognizing the ugly side of my history undermines my self-righteousness.

'I wish I didn't have to learn so many of these lessons through mistakes. But if that is the price of learning, I'll pay it.'

By Ann-Lone Uhrenholdt

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