Our Place in the Scheme of Things

Mini-Reflection #69 (11th March 2023 at for the LDPA AGM – London & South East District)

On this, the day of our district AGM, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on ‘Our Place in the Scheme of Things’. I wonder what that little phrase evokes for you? When I think of the phrase it can take me in a number of different directions. Sometimes it makes me think of my interconnection with all-that-is – my personal place in the world, in community, having an impact on those I am up-close to and living alongside, and being affected by those around me in turn – and the infinite reach of those interconnections. The ripple effects that spin out from my actions (or inactions) and the ripples that touch me. You might think of this as a kind-of ecological sense of our place in the scheme of things – this is the sense that the poem ‘Wild Geese’ evokes, for me – ‘our place in the family of things’ –that deep knowing that we are interdependent with all creatures in one giant ecosystem.

Another way you might like to think about ‘our place in the scheme of things’ is more cosmic – each of us as one little spark of light and life joined in an infinite web of sparks of light and life – a multidimensional web that encompasses all-that-is but also all that ever was and ever will be – a web reminiscent of Indra’s Net, perhaps – and a metaphor reminding us that everything we do (or don’t do) might have an impact, not just on those who are right next to us in the here-and-now, but (potentially) on those who seem out of reach of our influence, even far beyond our seeing, as our every move is transmitted through this cosmic network. In this sense, thinking of ‘our place in the scheme of things’ is about recognising where we are situated – in society, in history, in the story of the universe – and our potential to have an impact. How we might use the cosmic blink of an eye in which we live and die to help shape that story for good.

And this leads naturally to a third sense in which we might think of ‘our place in the scheme of things’: what is it we’re ‘meant’ to be doing with this one precious life we’ve been given? What is our place, our role, in the unfolding of history, the unfolding of the universe (if that doesn’t sound too grand)? What is our purpose? What is it we are called to do and to be – by God, or by conscience, perhaps – what are we called to do with our time, our energy, our resources, in this particular place and moment in history in which we happen to find ourselves?

Whenever I return to this question of how we are called – which I do often, whether I’m thinking about my own personal vocation, or the lives of the people I work with in spiritual direction, or in relation to my home congregation and the work we are collectively called to do – when I think about how we are called, and how we might discern our place in the scheme of things, I often return to a well-known quote from Frederick Buechner who said: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It seems really important to honour both sides of that equation – your gladness vs the world’s hunger – because the world’s hunger and need is just about infinite. There is so much suffering. It’s overwhelming. No one person, no one community (or congregation, or district), can make much of a dent in it. Our efforts are always likely to feel modest-verging-on-inadequate (though we can hope they have a greater ripple effect).

But “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”. Tuning in to your deep gladness might give you a clue as to where you – whether that’s you singular as an individual or you plural as a congregation – it might give you a clue as to where you are being called to do your bit. What comes most naturally to you? What makes you come alive? What feels creatively juicy? This is going with the flow – going with your natural bent – using the unique gifts you’ve been given. In spiritual direction circles we often talk about people, or communities, having a particular ‘charism’ – a spiritual gift – to be more nuts-and-bolts about it, a thing they’re drawn to, and particularly good at – and the implication is that we should embrace that, and lean into that specialism, as it is a gift from God. Living out our calling will – and should – look different for each of us. There’s not much to be gained by looking sideways and comparing ourselves – or our congregations – to others who seem more shiny and successful, as each of us has our own distinctive ‘place in the scheme of things’, and particular contribution to the common good that is ours to make.

I want to reprise a couple of lines from the reading by environmental educator David Orr which Sarah read for us earlier. this quote is one I used to have pinned above my desk as a student in the late 90s so it’s one I’ve really taken to heart down the years. He said: ‘The planet does not need more “successful” people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane.’

Words from David Orr. I particularly like ‘the planet needs people who live well in their places’. To ‘know your place’ is more often used in the pejorative sense – but here it’s calling us to know where we are located in the scheme of things – and to do our bit in the place where we stand. Knowing who and how and where we are – having an honest self-appraisal of both our gifts and our limitations – we might discern the particular niche where we have some power to influence things for the good, even if the scope of our reach is really quite small, and our impact is modest. This might help us to focus our limited energy, time, and resources where it will have most effect.

So on this day when we are gathered as a district for our AGM, when we reflect on our common purpose and how we are called to fulfil it, perhaps we can frame our thinking in this way. What is our place in the scheme of things? – as a district, as congregations and communities within it, and as individuals – each making our own contribution to our collective mission and to life as it unfolds. How are we called? May we discern our next steps wisely and for the greater good of all. Amen.

Mini-Reflection by Jane Blackall