Saturday, 6 February 2016

If Only

In “Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow”, a book written while he knew that he was dying, Forrest Church wrote,

“The only way to reconcile yourself, make peace with yourself, make peace with your neighbor, make peace with God, find salvation, is to break through and love — to forgive and to love. You don’t change the person you forgive. You change your own heart. So anything that you can do to reconcile also means that at the end of your life, when you’re given a few months to live, you can look back without regret.

The two saddest words in the English language are “if only,” and they ring with the most poignancy at a time that a person gets word that he or she has a terminal illness: “If only I had stopped drinking; if only I had dared to change careers when I could; if only I had reconciled with my father when I had a chance.”

I agree with Forrest. I believe that “If Only” are the saddest two words in the English language. I would add also that they are loneliest too. How many of us live with this sense of regret for the things we have done, or just as painfully failed to do? How many of us live in isolation from people we have known and loved in our lives because of our pride? How many of us have let past wrongs done, or perceived to have been done, stop us living the loving and connected lives we are capable of?

So why do we find it so hard to seek and give forgiveness? Why is reconciliation so challenging? Why does pride hold us in this sense of regret? Why are so many of us visited in the darkest night with the ghosts that whisper “If Only”

Well because it is not easy. It requires us to rise above and beyond our small selves to a larger way of being. As Sara Moores Campbell has claimed. “There is incredible power in forgiveness. But forgiveness is not rational. One can seldom find a reason to forgive or be forgiven. Forgiveness is often undeserved. It may require a dimension of justice (penance, in traditional terms), but not always, for what it holds sacred is not fairness, but self-respect and community. Forgiveness does not wipe away guilt, but invites reconciliation. And it is as important to be able to forgive as it is to be forgiven.”

No it is not easy, but it is vital. Not only for ourselves but for the greater good also. Forgiveness is about reconciliation it is about bringing wholeness and healing to all. This is why, in my experience, failing to offer forgiveness and failing to atone for our own wrongs and mistakes makes reconciliation impossible and I have come to believe that it is this that breeds a sense of isolation and loneliness, deep within us. It is not by chance that atonement can be broken down to at-one-ment. For it is such acts that bring about oneness in life.

I recently spent a few days away with a group of people exploring the subject of forgiveness. We were together in a beautiful and loving setting and it was an open environment in which we all talked about our struggles with forgiveness of others and of ourselves. I believe that we all gained a great deal from our time together and I hope it renewed us in our efforts to reconcile ourselves with our pasts and those we have shared our lives with, so as to live better lives in the future. One thing that came strongly out of the weekend was this sense that forgiveness is not about forgetting. Yes it is about healing and reconciliation, but not about simply abandoning the past and passively letting go. In fact if anything real forgiveness is a true act of remembrance. It is about growing from the past and becoming increasingly whole people.

Again as Sara Moores Campbell said, “No, we do not forgive and forget. But when we invite the power of forgiveness, we release ourselves from some of the destructive hold the past has on us. Our hatred, our anger, our need to feel wronged – those will destroy us, whether a relationship is reconciled or not.”

Our varied struggles with forgiveness showed how difficult it was to truly reconcile ourselves with our pasts, with ourselves and with those we have shared and share our lives with. Forgiveness is not easy. It is easy to say perhaps “I forgive you”, but those are just words, it is far from easy to truly mean them though. We cannot just simply will ourselves into it and it certainly isn’t an overnight matter. The key, as in all things, is to be open to it. Here lays its power and its love. Here lays the key to be freed from that aching loneliness of regret and the ghosts of “If Only”. Not only for ourselves but for the good of all. I have come to believe that all our lives depend upon it

Again to quote Sara Moores Campbell,

“…we cannot just will ourselves to enter into forgiveness, either as givers or receivers. We can know it is right and that we want to do it and still not be able to.

We can, however, be open and receptive to the power of forgiveness, which, like any gift of the spirit, isn’t of our own making. Its power is rooted in love. The Greek word for this kind of love is agape as “Love seeking to create community.” This kind of love is human, but is also the grace of transcendent power that lifts us out of ourselves. It transforms and heals; and even when we are separated by time or space or death, it reconciles us to ourselves and to Life. For its power abides not just between us but within us. If we invite the power of agape to heal our personal wounds and give us the gift of forgiveness, we would give our world a better chance of survival.”

At one point during the weekend we discussed the limits of forgiveness and whether there were any. A friend said that he didn’t know how he would react if someone did anything to his son and many people agreed with him and then I shared an example of this and the power forgiveness. I recounted my dear friend Claire’s reaction to witnessing her son being killed in front of her on a crossing. The driver did not stop at the crossing and took Ethan’s life. A power from within or beyond her compelled her to forgive him there and then. I know from watching her piece her life back together since that if she hadn’t have done so there and then she could not have survived herself or if she had she would have lived with an aching bitterness for the rest of her life. Not that the last nine years have been easy, she has been to hell and back many times, but that power, the power of love, has held her through it all and I believe that it was that same power that compelled her to forgive the driver of the car that day on the side of the road. A love that passeth all rational understanding, but one that can hold and sustain us through whatever happens in life, if we would let it have its way and bring it to life in our being.

Forgiveness is a true act of Love, in the purest Agapeic sense of the word. It is an act of the heart, it takes real courage, Remember that courage comes from the French word for heart “Coeur” In the Hindu sacred poem “The Bhagavad Gita” you hear this reflected “If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive, If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred.” You see it reflected in the dying words of Jesus on the cross “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This same loving courage was expressed in the way that both Martin Luther King and Gandhi led their movements of non-violent resistance. These were powerful loving soul forces that inspired healing and reconciliation taken up by the likes of Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa and “The Truth and Reconciliation Hearings” that took place there following the end of Apartheid. It can be the same with our individuals lives and our individual hearts. At some level I think we all need to reconcile ourselves with someone or something, even if it is just our own pasts.

This is why I have come to believe that forgiving is not about forgetting at all. In fact what it is really about is remembering. Actually it is more than that, forgiveness is an act of remembrance. It is about bringing the memory alive and creating something from the past. Reconciliation is not just something that occurs between us, but also within us. In each of our hearts and minds and souls. If we can make something from our past hurts we can create meaning from even the hardest moments of our lives and bring a new wholeness and openness to our lives. In so doing we won’t live out our lives with that aching lonely feeling of regret and be visited by the ghosts of “If Only”. In so doing we will leave something to pass on to those who follow and our lives will have truly proved worth dying for, by the love we have left behind.

Below is the full version of Sara Moores Campbell's reflection on "Forgiveness" quoted above

“Forgiveness” by Sara Moores Campbell, from “Into the Wilderness”

There is incredible power in forgiveness. But forgiveness is not rational. One can seldom find a reason to forgive or be forgiven. Forgiveness is often undeserved. It may require a dimension of justice (penance, in traditional terms), but not always, for what it holds sacred is not fairness, but self-respect and community. Forgiveness does not wipe away guilt, but invites reconciliation. And it is as important to be able to forgive as it is to be forgiven.

No, we do not forgive and forget. But when we invite the power of forgiveness, we release ourselves from some of the destructive hold the past has on us. Our hatred, our anger, our need to feel wronged – those will destroy us, whether a relationship is reconciled or not.

But we cannot just will ourselves to enter into forgiveness, either as givers or receivers. We can know it is right and that we want to do it and still not be able to.

We can, however, be open and receptive to the power of forgiveness, which, like any gift of the spirit, isn’t of our own making. Its power is rooted in love. The Greek word for this kind of love is agape as “Love seeking to create community.” This kind of love is human, but is also the grace of transcendent power that lifts us out of ourselves. It transforms and heals; and even when we are separated by time or space or death, it reconciles us to ourselves and to Life. For its power abides not just between us but within us. If we invite the power of agape to heal our personal wounds and give us the gift of forgiveness, we would give our world a better chance of survival.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Wake Now My Senses To Hear Life's Call

“i thank You God for most this amazing day” by ee cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky;
and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun's birthday;
this is the birth day of life and love and wings:
and of the gay great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any
--lifted from the no of all nothing—
human merely being doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake
And now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

I was out walking the other day, when I once again experienced what is voiced so beautifully in the words above by e e cummings; once again the ears of my ears had awoken and the eyes of my eyes had opened to something new. In fact it felt as though all my senses had opened like they had never opened before.

Now one of the reasons for this was that I had just had my ears cleared. I had for weeks been suffering quite badly with my hearing and at last the treatment had worked and I could hear clearly once again. I had also in recent times had trouble with my voice, I felt like I had lost my voice somewhat. Thankfully this seems to have been resolved. I have, as I have many times, re-found my voice. The changes in my voice had been due to the weight loss over the last few months. So many of the physical aspects of my being have changed and this has taken some re-adjustment in my living and being. I feel I can hear in a new way and I can speak once again. I have also noticed other changes in all my senses, including what they call the sixth sense…My senses have been awakened as I have heard life’s call.

Now as I was walking I noticed I could hear many new bird songs and just as I looked up and noticed birds, I had not paid attention to before, a smell filled my nostrils that reawakened a childhood memory. My mind turned to a time, during my childhood, when I would have been about 11. The smell reminded me of working in my dad’s butchers shop and of making sausages and beef burgers, a job I used to delight in doing. I smiled as I waked and as I did lots of other memories came flooding back into my current consciousness. Memories that only brought joy and happiness at this moment, but ones that have in past brought tears and pain to my experiences. Memory, or at least the way I remember has changed so much over time.

They say that you cannot re-write history and that you cannot change the past. I am not convinced by this. I have noticed that as time has gone by so much of my life, or at least how I remember my life has changed. Now don’t get me wrong it’s not that the events have changed, just how I remember them. The darkness and the pain is still there, only now it is the correct proportion. Today the difficult memories are surrounded and filled by the joy and the love that was always there too.

Memory is a fascinating thing and I do believe it is connected to way we experience life currently. I suspect that it is connected to our senses and how awake they are to our current experiences. Just as the way that we feel about our past influences, impacts on, our current lives. Therefore it was no surprise that the opening of my senses brought a new experience of my past.

Now the sense of smell has long been connected to memory. Neuro-science suggests that upon detecting a smell the olfactory neurones in the upper part of the nose generate an impulse which is passed to the brain along the olfactory nerve. The part of the brain this arrives at first is called the olfactory bulb, which processes the signal and then passes information about the smell to other areas closely connected to it, collectively known as the limbic system.

The limbic system comprises a set of structures within the brain that are regarded  as playing a major role in controlling mood, memory, behaviour and emotion. This affects areas of what is often referred to as “the old brain”, so called as they were present within the brains of the very first mammals. It is suggested that those with full olfactory function may be able to think of smells that evoke particular memories and that this can happen spontaneously. This is exactly what happened to me while out walking the other day, as I felt my senses had reawakened, once again, as long forgotten memories came alive in my current consciousness. 

Wake now my senses, let me hear life’s call.

Just as how I experience the present moment effects how I remember the past, I also believe it is important to understand that how I remember impacts on how I experience the present moment and also how I experience the future. As I look at times in my own spiritual journey I regret my attempts to reject my past. I now know that to truly bring the moment alive, rather than to just passively live in the moment, I must bring the experience of my whole life into my experience of my living and being right here and right now. That includes those memories that cause pain and distress. Attempting to fully let go of them is neither healthy nor possible.

I love the way that John O’Donohue expressed the importance of memory and remembering in living a fully present live. In “Eternal Echoes” he wrote
“Memory is the place where our vanished days secretly gather. Memory rescues experience from total disappearance. The kingdom of memory is full of the ruins of presence. It is astonishing how faithful experience actually is; how it never vanishes completely. Experience leaves deep traces in us. It is surprising that years after something has happened to you the needle of thought can hit some groove in the mind, and music of a long vanished event can rise in your soul as fresh and vital as the evening it happened. Memory provides such shelter and continuity of identity. Memory is also fascinating because it is an indirect and latent presence in one's mind. The past seems to be gone and absent. Yet the grooves in the mind hold the traces and vestiga of everything that has ever happened to us. Nothing is ever lost or forgotten. In a culture addicted to the instant, there is a great amnesia. Yet it is only through the act of remembrance, literally re-membering, that we can come to poise, integrity, and courage. Amnesia clogs the inner compass and makes the mind homeless. Amnesia makes the sense of absence intense and haunted. We need to retrieve the activity of remembering, for it is here that we are rooted and gathered.”

Sometimes memory can become blocked up in our bodies too. I noticed the other day, while experiencing a deep tissue massage, memories come out of my being as I entered a place of deep meditation and transcendence. It brought to mind the following, taken from “A Walk Between Heaven and Earth” by Burghild Nina Holzer

"From time to time a friend comes to my house to give me a massage. I have decided that “massage” is a very inappropriate word for it. I decided this should be called “listening to the flesh.” She touches my body, and in each place she touches, the body has stored pain and joy, memories, knowledge of many kinds. And I begin to listen – to my arm, my shoulder, my belly, the soles of my feet, my tongue, my uterus.

I begin to walk in the landscape of my body, the landscape of my flesh. And I begin to write the autobiography of my flesh.

Perhaps my toe wants to tell me a story about my childhood, of the slimy places it touched, the sharp-edged stones, of the times when it still reached my mouth, toe or thumb being equally good.

Perhaps my womb wants to cry the story of the child I lost, of what wanted to be formed and what slipped out into darkness before it could be held securely by the arms near the heart.

Maybe my throat wants to tell me of all the songs held back. Held back in fear, or in doubt, or in anger, all the songs that the heart already knows but that I have not voiced. Perhaps I need to walk in that place, down my throat to my vocal cords."

All this brought to mind a favourite Bible passage from Mark’s Gospel (Ch7 vv 31-37) of Jesus healing a deaf mute man. I once heard Rev Bill Darlison preach on this. He believed that the passage and this particular section of Mark’s Gospel is attempting to teach us of the need to live more open and connected lives. He pointed out that the author is trying to make us listen by using a clever linguistic aid. In the account he states that Jesus says the Arameaic word Ephphatha as he heals the man. This is perhaps not so strange on the surface as this is certainly the language that Jesus would have spoken. What is strange though is that this is inconsistent with the rest of the Gospel which was originally written in Greek. Bill says that this is a deliberate ploy to make we who are listening to the account pay attention, because something really important is being taught here. In a published version of the address Bill states that:

“The word Ephphatha means ‘Open up!’ What Jesus is saying to this deaf man is the Gospel’s message to you and me. This man was suffering from a physical deafness; we are suffering from spiritual deafness. Our ears are closed to the entreaties of those who live in foreign countries, whose skin colour is different from our own, whose way of life does not correspond with ours. We are deaf to the words even of those who live in close proximity to us, but whose traditions are different from ours. We don’t hear what they are saying, and so our opinions about them and their customs are garbled and worthless...It’s a shocking reminder of our own refusal to listen attentively to the unfamiliar voices. It is only when we are prepared to open up that our prejudices can be eroded; and only then that the impediment in our speech will be removed and our opinions will be worth listening to. We have to break the shell of our own tribalism and exclusiveness.”

(now the ears of my ears awake And now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

I have come to believe that in order to live fully awake, mentally, physically and spiritually requires one to be awake to all that is, all that has been and all that has ever been. It is of no use just merely living in the present, in a passive sense, to merely be the observer. The spiritual life is one of engagement. Of being fully alive and I believe to be fully engaged and alive to what is occurring right here we also need to be awake to all that has been too and to therefore give ourselves fully to what is yet to come.

This requires us to have all our sense fully awake and fully engaged, to use all our senses, including the sixth sense. In so doing we will be able to live fully engaged and meaningful lives.

We need to awaken all our senses and thus not only hear life’s call,  but to also respond to it…


Saturday, 16 January 2016

Go placidly, not passively, amidst the storm

“A man seeks employment on a farm. He hands his letter of recommendation to his new employer. It reads simply, `He sleeps in a storm.’

The owner is desperate for help, so he hires the man.

Several week pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips through the valley.

Awakened by the swirling rain and howling wind, the owner leaps out of bed. He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly.

So he dashes off to the barn. He sees, to his amazement, that the animals are secure with plenty of feed. He runs out to the field. He sees the bales of wheat have been bound and are wrapped in tarpaulins. He races to the silo. The doors are latched, and the grain is dry.

And then he understands.

`He sleeps in a storm.’

My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our [beliefs], our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight. We will never wallow in the agony of `I could have, I should have.’ We can sleep in a storm.

And when it’s time, our good-byes will be complete.”

I love this extract taken from Have a Little Faith” by Mitch Albom. A book set over an 8 year period exploring the lives of two extraordinary men. One is the authors childhood Rabbi Albert Lewis and the other is a former drug addict criminal Henry Covington who spends his time serving a community of homeless people and addicts in a run down former town church. “He sleeps in a storm” is an extract from a sermon delivered by the Rabbi

Now generally I am much like the man in the story. I sleep well and deeply. This hasn’t always been the case I used to suffer terribly from insomnia. I suspect that this is because so much of my mind was chaotic and certainly I didn’t tend to the things I needed to in my inner or outer life. Like so many of my generation, I lived a meaningless and unfulfilled life. Deep down inside I knew this, my mind never rested and as a result, I did not sleep.

Thankfully this is no longer the case. I tend to what needs to be tended to and as a result I am able to rest when it is time to rest and give myself fully to what life asks of me when I am awake. I am able to do my work calmly, without becoming overwhelmed by it. As a result, despite the many challenges, my life is rich with meaning and fully of life. As I often I like to say I live a wonderfulfilling life.

That said over the last couple of weeks I have suffered once again from insomnia. This has been due to an ear problem which has now thankfully been resolved. It did remind me though of those old days. This brought both gratitude and empathy to my heart and mind. Gratitude that I know peace, even in the storms of life as well as empathy for those who suffer from restlessness at night. For as I know it can feel like a living hell.

It is so easy to be overwhelmed by life’s troubles and become paralysed by the fear of what might be. This can lead to the opposite extreme of indifference to life and a rejection of it all. This is no way to live. We can live in the world, recognising all that is life, without being utterly consumed by all that is wrong. We are not powerless, in the face of the storms present in life, but then again neither can we control it all. We cannot do everything, but we can play our part in the drama of life. We can live our lives in the storm of it all, without getting destroyed by the whirlwind as it blows and we can rest when it is time to do so.

This brings to mind some wisdom I discovered while reading Forrest Church’s masterpiece “Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow”, written while he was dying of oesophageal cancer. He asked knowing that we will die, what should we do? To which he answered we should live, we should laugh, and we should love. He then recalled a lesson he learnt from his children, about living. One day, when they were young, he was walking them to school, on a busy New York street. Suddenly a car swerved round a corner and almost killed them all. Forrest was incensed by this, but he remembers, "my kids just laughed, romping blithely down the sidewalk, jumping from tree to tree as they always did, trying to touch the leaves." The kids were celebrating, nay singing the joy of living, and they "had the right idea. Why didn't I think to jump and touch the leaves?"

Forrest believed that it was living, loving and laughing that took real courage, they required heart, while dying didn’t really take much courage at all, in his eyes that just came naturally.

Now to really live Forrest suggested a simple little mantra:" Want what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are." He didn’t suggest that this would be easy but it is the only way to live and in so doing we will live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for by the love we leave behind.

“Be Who You Are” means to live authentically, to live by your own truth, to follow your heart’s desire, this takes real courage.

“Do What You Can” means doing what you are able to do in the world you find yourself. To play your role in life, remembering there are no small parts only small players. Don’t try and be the director and control everything and everyone else, you can’t control the wind, but you can play your part and do the best you can.

“Want What You Have” is really about wanting all that is your life right here right now, not fleeing from anything or wishing your life away. It’s about not dwelling and counting the many blessings that are present right here, right now. It’s about thoughtful wishing not wishful thinking.

Now this all brings me to the following beautiful piece of wisdom "The Desiderata". Simple spiritual and practical design for living...

“Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

© Max Ehrmann 1927

“The Desiderata”, begins with these beautiful words “Go placidly amongst the noise and haste” please note it says placidly not passively…In my experience there is nothing passive about living spiritually. The spiritual life is an active life. We are not merely observers here, we are active participants and life demands that we play our roles, while not becoming the director and attempting to control the roles that others are here to play. It is wanting what you have, doing what you can and being who you are in verse form.

The Desiderata has been around for a hundred years now. It first came into my consciousness about 20 years ago and it has been beautifully haunting me ever since. It kept on reappearing, even in my darkest and most secular days. Even when I thought such things were nonsense it has kept on knocking on the window of my soul. I was given a framed copy of it recently by someone I had been doing what I can to help, as a token of their appreciation. It now sits proudly on the desk in my vestry.

The “Desiderata” was written a hundred years ago by Max Ehrmann. It was copyrighted in 1927 but was first penned several years previous to this. It has spoken to several generations since then. It has developed its own life it would seem, including a myth that attempts to make it timeless, it does appear to have that quality about it. The myth began following a reproduction of it by Rev Frederick Kates for a collection of inspirational works for his congregation in 1959 on church notepaper, headed: 'The Old St Paul's Church, Baltimore, AD 1692' (the year the church was founded). Copies of it were circulated and the myth began to grow. It really took off when a copy was found at the bedside of deceased Democratic politician Aidlai Stevenson in 1965.

I like the myth, it does lend a timeless and universal quality that makes the myth into a true mythos. “Desiderata” is a beautiful and practical poem and a wonderful design for spiritual living in my eyes. One that I try to follow, despite the storms of life. It enables me to do what I can. To truly live faithfully and to rest and allow life to be what it can be, while I play my role, the best I can.

We can all go placidly amongst the noise and haste, we can live and we can rest when the storms of life really blow. We can give ourselves fully to the life we have been given. We can want we have, do what we can and be who we are. We can all live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for by the love we leave behind and when our time comes we can once more step into the great mystery and the final eternal sleep.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

We come together in Love

O come together in truth;
O come together in peace;
O come together in joy and sharing,
Come together in joy and sharing,
Come together in knowing and caring;
Come together,
O come together,
O come together in love.

Beautiful words by Dorothy Grover, from a much loved hymn.

They describe why I became a part of spiritual community. They are not the reason why I went from a secular singular person to one who sought out spiritual community, but they are why I stayed. I came to try and understand, to make sense of the sudden and profound changes that had occurred in my life some 11 years ago, changes that have continued on and on and on. I have not found the answers I was seeking by the way, in fact if anything there are many more questions today than there was then. What community has given me, amongst so many others is a space to explore those and many other questions with like hearted people. In such an environment I have learnt to not only ask and listen to the questions, but to truly live them. I came seeking answers, but it is not why I stayed. I stayed because I found something far more than I was consciously looking for. I stayed because I found community, I found true belonging. I found love. I found my heart's desire.

We come together in search
Of new beginnings for all,
Where understanding and trust surround us –
Gone the hate and fear that bound us;
Come together,
O come together,
O come together in love.

Loving community is something that I believe everyone needs, in order to truly thrive and grow and become all that they can be.

Starhawk catches this need near perfectly when she writes:

“Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.”

John O’Donohue describes beautifully what it means to come together in love. He wrote ““When we come together in compassion and generosity, the hidden belonging begins to come alive between us…”

Describing community as a constellation. And inspired, no doubt, by the spirit of Paul’s letter to Romans, he further stated “Each one of us is a different light in the emerging collective brightness. A constellation of light, of course, has greater power of illumination than any single light would have on its own. We need to come together. When people come together because they care and are motivated by the ideals of compassion and creativity, true belonging emerges, communities cease to be inward looking and enrich our world.”

Madeleine L’Engle in her piece from “Walking on Water”, was also no doubt inspired by the same spirit when she wrote the following.

“We all feed the lake. That is what is important. It is a corporate act. During my time in the theatre I knew what it was to be part of such an enlarging of the human potential, and though I was never more than a bit part player or an understudy, I knew the truth of Stanislavsky’s words: “There are no small roles. There are only small players.” And I had the joy of being an instrument in the great orchestra of a play, learning from the play (how much Chechov taught me during the run of Cherry Orchard), from the older actors and actresses. I was part of the Body. That’s what it’s all about.”

This is spiritual community, this is what it means to come together in love. Something which many observers say is going the way of the Dodo!

Many decry the state that we are in. they say that people are becoming increasingly isolated and selfish and that there is no community concern, no togetherness. Yet in recent weeks I have seen beautiful examples of people coming together in love and helping one another in difficult times. The devastating floods that have hit the north of England, parts of Wales and Scotland in and around the Christmas and New Year period has caused untold damage to individual lives and communities. And what has been the response, well I have witnessed so many people coming together in caring and sharing. Helping one another out in times of need.

One of my sisters lives on a Narrow Boat at Horbury Bridge in West Yorkshire, just off the River Calder. Over Christmas the water levels hit the highest point ever recorded and they and several other boats were in peril of rising above the canal bank and finding themselves on the tow path. Many of the people who they were moored with were away over the Christmas period. Those left behind were in peril but came together to support one another and keep all the boats safe. It was a scary time, but they came through it. I have seen and heard of many other similar examples up and down the land.

I had another personal example too, last week. My car broke down in stationary traffic on the motorway. It had overheated and I had to pull over on to the hard shoulder as there was steam coming out of the bonnet. I opened the bonnet and saw the water coolent tank looking like it was about to explode. I reacted foolishly, thinking I ought to loosen it and steam burst out and burnt my hand and face. I called to be rescued and the help came. As I stood there waiting in pain so many people called out pulled over and offered me water to help sooth my wounds. Just another example of people coming together in love, sharing and caring.

It is easy to get cynical about human nature and the selfishness that can grip us and yet there is a love there when it is allowed to flower and burst out on us all.

Having said all that our modern way of living does not encourage community as it once did. Last Sunday I was without a car. I could not get it into the garage to be repaired due to closures etc during the Christmas and New Year period. This meant that I had to travel by taxi between the congregations I serve. I got into a fascinating conversation with the taxi driver who began to tell me that he believed that his business would not be around for many more years.This was because Artificial Intelligence was taking over and that already in San Francisco there were taxi’s without drivers and that people would be increasingly turning to them. He also suggested that it would be the same in fast food outlets etc and all sorts of other industry. He suggested that increasingly there will be less and less human contact as all kinds of impersonal interaction would take over. He talked about the isolated lives that we live and lead these days and that young people don’t need to go out today and can live artificial as well as self-created and self-sustaining lives.

The image he painted was bleak. I did think to myself there was something of the Luddite in his fears, but he did make an interesting point. I pointed out to him, as I was paying for the ride, that one thing that would be lost would the fascinating human interactions that we had just shared in if things turned out that way.

The conversation awakened my homiletic consciousness and fed into some of the other thoughts I’ve already discussed in this blog. I thanked him for helping me write my sermon for this week. At which point we both laughed and smiled and got on with our business

I find it hard to believe that we humans will become what the taxi driver expressed. What I have witnessed in recent weeks has shown me that this spirit of coming together in love is powerful within us. Community may not be as obvious as it once was, but people will always come together in love, that spirit cannot die. There will always be community. As Howard Thurman once said “The moving finger of God in human history points ever in the same direction. There must be community.” There will always be community, the spirit will never let it die.

This is why, despite current trends, I believe that there will always be spiritual community. Privatised spirituality is not enough, for it does not truly bring the spirit alive. It loses power on its own it cannot thrive and grow. There is a need to come together in love; there is a need for community; there is a need for spiritual community.

Now I didn’t know this when I began searching for answers all those years ago. It’s not why I walked through the doors of Cross Street Chapel almost exactly 11 years ago to the day. I didn’t find what I was looking for, far from it. No, I found far more than I could have even begun to dream of. I found a place where I could come together in love…I hope and pray that it is something that everyone finds on their spiritual journeying.

Let’s continue to come together in truth; let’s continue to come together in peace; let’s continue to come together in joy and sharing; let’s continue to come together in knowing and caring; let’s continue to come together, o come together, o come together in love…

Saturday, 2 January 2016

I am not done with my changes

So here we are at the dawning of a New Year. It is hard to believe that it is 2016. Where do the years go? I wonder as I stand looking forward to the days ahead what this year will bring? What changes will occur and what will stay the same? As I look back at the year that has ended I also think about what has changed and what has stayed the same? Much is as it was then, but there has been changes. Nothing ever stays quite the same. Everything is always changing in some way or other, even if it isn’t always obvious. Or at least it appears that way.

Sometimes the changes are big and obvious. Sometimes things happen that change everything for ever. Some of those are close and personal and others are on a more global scale. There are moments in life that change everything for ever. Or so it seems.

Now last year was one of great change for me on a physical level. During the Watch Night service I led, I wrote on my piece of paper, that I burnt in the ceremony with others, that one thing I wanted to let go of was my excess weight. I had over the last few years grown heavier and heavier and I knew that something needed to be done about it. It had begun on trip to Alton Towers with some friends. I had become embarrassed during the day as every time I went on a ride I couldn’t fit into the safety harness and had to be put in the special seat for the very large. I left that day full of shame, but said nothing about it at the time. For months I made small attempts to change but could not bring it about myself. I also suffered a bout of bad health at the beginning of the year. I became quite ill, twice and became increasingly concerned about my physical well-being. I also noticed how this was impacting on my mental, emotional and spiritual health. Other people were noticing too and making comments. Well this all came to head last summer, particularly over the weekend of my nephew Joe’s wedding, when my car broke down in Devon and I experienced a kind of emotional and spiritual rock bottom. During this moment of surrender something changed within me. This opened me up to the possibility of seeking help and on returning home I began my weight loss journey, through Slimming World. I surrendered absolutely to the way of life they offered and over the next five months I reached my target weight and lost over 7 stones.

My life has changed immeasurable since. I have never felt better physically, mentally, emotionally and above all else spiritually.

Now this isn’t the first time I have had such experiences. I have known many rock bottoms in my life that have changed me. They have opened me up to new experiences, new awakenings, new beginnings. The changes never seem to come to an end. I have heard it said that the only thing permanent in life is change.

This brings to mind a favourite poem of mine, “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz.

“The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

I am not done with my changes either, are any of us?

Yes it does seem true that the only thing permanent in life is change. Life itself is impermanent.

There is a gorgeous Buddhist saying that captures the beauty of the impermanence of life. It beautifully captures the turning nature of life, it is a call to us to live our lives fully.

“Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world: a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering flame, an illusion, a dream...”

Impermanence is the beauty and the energy of life. Life is forever changing and transforming and turning into something new.

Jesus captured this idea in a gorgeous way too when he described wheat as a metaphor for the resurrected life. He taught that all must die before new life can rise again. In the same way that seeds must die and cease being seeds in order to become life giving food, so must we in order to be transformed into something new. This can happen at many stages of our lives if we allow the natural cycle to just be and don’t get in the way.

Nothing ever stays exactly the same and nothing is ever repeated in exactly the same way again. This was wonderfully expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus some 2,500 years ago. Who said, among many other things, “Everything flows, nothing stands still.” “No one ever steps into the same river twice.” And “Nothing endures but change.” He was saying that the only constant in life was and is change, that life was constantly in flux and that everything is impermanent. In more contemporary times The Buddhist Pema Chodron has said “Impermanence is the goodness of reality…it’s the essence of everything.”

Also in more recent times the now deceased Unitarian Universalist minister Elizabeth Tarbox said

“Dukkha, all is impermanence, nothing lasts. I thought of that yesterday while watching leaves come down in a shower and inhaling the smell of rotting leaves returning to the earth. Leaf to humus and back to earth to nourish the roots of the mother tree, The crows crying as the leaves fall and their nests are exposed – dukkha, all is impermanence.

Life goes by and people who were with us last year at this time have died. All souls pass on, all is dukkha, nothing lasts.”

I have for some time been fascinated by the Buddhist concept of “Dukkha”.

Now "Dukkha is one of those words that is hard to explain. It is often translated as suffering, that "all life is suffering". This though is not an entirely accurate translation, in the sense that suffering is understood in the west. I believe it is trying to teach that suffering is a part of life that nothing ever lasts for ever. That nothing stays exactly as it in its current state. Impermanence is central to the Buddhist path; the path to enlightenment is to accept that nothing ever lasts forever.

So often in life we try to cling to things, to hold on to things to maintain things exactly as they are. This seems to be going against life and the nature of things. Nothing stays exactly as it is in its current nature, everything changes from moment to moment and to resist this is to resist life. Yes everything changes but life goes on.

As I look back at my life I can bear witness to many changes. Far too many to recount now. As I look back at last year I can recount how much has changed in me and yet so much is just as it was before. As I look back at my life in some ways I am the very same man I have always been. As I look back at my life what I see is not so much a man who has kept on changing as a man who keeps on awakening. I suspect it’s the same for all of us and all life itself. In many ways this is the true essence of spiritual living. It’s not so much that we keep on changing, on and on and on. It’s more that we awaken to something new. That new layers are revealed and we continue to open up more and more. To me this is the whole point and meaning of living faithfully, because in so doing we keep on awakening to something new and suddenly everything seems to have changed again and yet everything is still the same.

What I’ve really learnt is that it’s not so much that I’m not done with my changes as I am not done with my awakenings. I suspect that it’s the same for all of us, for everyone and for all created life. So let’s keep on journeying to new awakenings…for everything changes and yet everything somehow stays the same.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Inbetween Days: Liminal Space

So here we stand on the hinge of another year. The winter solstice has passed, Christmas has been and gone and we find ourselves in those in-between days standing at the threshold of a new year. Yes the day light hours will increase over the coming weeks but still we must face winter. January and February can be difficult as we feel stuck in the cold on these dark winter evenings.

Winter is not an easy time, so many of us want it over as soon as possible. We want spring and the new birth and life that it brings, but that is not the way to live and we know it. To live, always holding on to the spring yet to come, is to fail to fully experience what is present now. There is such richness in the dark cold of winter and we need to feel it and allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. There is a beautiful wonder about winter that we would do well to embrace. For it is in this cold stillness that change can begin to form and grow.

There is a beauty in those in between days as we stand on the threshold of something new, in that space. As we stand together between the worlds in the changing of the light.

The truth is though that we are always standing at thresholds, at times of change. Each beginning is actually the end of something and each ending is the beginning of something new and what stands in between is threshold.

Over the last few months I have kept on hearing a phrase that I was not really consciously aware of before; it is phrase that has kept on knocking on the window of my consciousness all this year, staring right into my soul. The phrase is “Liminal Space”. Now what on earth does it mean? You may well be asking. Well “Liminal Space” is a threshold, a space between things.

The word “Liminal” comes from the Latin “limens”, meaning “a threshold.” A threshold is a doorway or the entrance, it is a place or point of entering or beginning. In psychology the term “Limen” means the point at which a stimulus is of sufficient intensity to begin to produce an effect.

So “Liminal Space” is that moment when something changes from one state to another. Such as the dawn of each day, when the morning sun rises high in the sky bringing daylight. Or at dusk, when the evening sun sinks into the horizon bringing nightfall.

“Liminal Space” is that moment when we move either into or out of a deep fog, whether physical or one made from our own minds. Sometimes in that fog we find a complete stillness and in that stillness a new truth can be revealed. As we do we come out of the fog once again and step into a new clear light. Similar to those moments when we awaken from a deep sleep, when we are not yet fully awake but no longer asleep. And at the other end of the day that state when we move from being fully awake and conscious into deep sleep. Then there are those moments of life’s transitions, between life and death itself. The following reflection by Victoria Safford, describes this beautifully.

“In Between” by Victoria Safford

"One afternoon some time ago I brought my little baby out to visit a very, very old neighbour who was dying that year, quietly and gracefully, in her gracious home. We were having a little birthday party for her, with sherry and cake and a few old friends gathered round her bed. To free a hand to cut the cake, I put my baby down right on the bed, right up on the pillow - and there was a sudden hush in the room, for we were caught off guard, beholding.

It was a startling sight. There is the late afternoon light were two people side by side, two human merely beings. Neither one could walk, neither one could speak, not in language you could understand, both utterly dependent on the rest of us bustling around, masquerading as immortals. There they were: a plump one, apple-cheeked, a cherry tomato of a babe, smiling; and a silver-thin one, hallow-eyes, translucent, shining, smiling. We revellers were hushed because we clearly saw that these were dancers on the very edge of things. These two were closer to the threshold, the edge of the great mystery, than any of us had been for a long time or would be for a while. Living, breathing, smiling they were, but each with one foot and who knows how much consciousness firmly planted on the other side, whatever that is, the starry darkness from whence we come and whither will we go, in time. Fresh from birth, nigh unto death, bright – eyed, they were bookends there, mirrors of each other. Radiant.

Cake in hand, and napkins, knife, glasses, a crystal carafe a century old, we paused there on the thresholds of our own momentary lives. Then, “What shall we sing?” said someone, to the silence, to the sunlight on the covers, to the stars. It was the only question, then, as now, years later. What on earth shall we sing?"

“Liminal Spaces” are “Thin Places” occurring on boundaries between things. This brings to mind a beautiful song by Justin Sullivan. Please listen to a version of it here...

“Liminal Space” is a boundary. Think of fences, walls and trees between property. It is the edge between things. Such as water and land, a valley or a hill. When I think of where I come from in West Yorkshire, such boundaries are everywhere in those hills and valleys of green and grey. Another example is in the change of the shape of the land, just look around you then next time you are out and about where you live . Another example is the East Coast of Yorkshire , around Filey and Flamborough Head where the cliffs are eroding and falling away into the North Sea. It is amazing to stand there sometimes and stare out into the sea watching the waves hitting and then retreating from the coast . It is that moment of contact, just before the sea withdraws once again that is a kind of “Liminal Space”.

“Liminal Space” is not only physical in nature though. It is that moment, which may last a lifetime, that lies between the known and the unknown. It is a moment of transition a space of heightened intensity when we cross the threshold of what we think we know. That moment of abandon when things change and are never quite the same again. Moments that can change us forever. Moments that change everything. We all have them, it’s just that too often we are not fully awake to them. We all of us stand in that space, between the changing of the light. Between every sunrise and every sunset a whole new world of possibility is born.

Now sometimes we enter such times, “Liminal Space”, willingly, as a result of a decision to try something new. But there are also others times when we just drift into them a bit like driving into a fog on our journeys somewhere, not knowing when the fog will clear. Such moments are filled with uncertainty, they are times of transition we did not ask for at all. These can be confusing times and such confusion can cause fear and anxiety. We humans do not like uncertainty, we like to know the ground that we stand on is solid and secure. We want the path to be clear, we want our goals to be certain, we want to rush through the fog and enter once more into the light as soon as possible. This is why so many of us don’t like the cold and darkness of winter, spring is so much more appealing, but we cannot have the joy of spring without life’s winter. We want certainty, we want firmness now!!! This though is not realistic, this is not life.

The French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin captured this perfectly when he wrote: “We are quite naturally impatient in everything. To reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability – And that it may take a very long time.” He urged us to be patient, to embrace this time of uncertainty, to allow it to unfold naturally as we evolve into what we are meant to become. The key it would seem is to be open and to experience everything, because everything matters you know, even the experiences we don’t want to feel. We need to experience the thresholds, so as to learn all that they offer. To stand between the worlds in the changing of light. To pass through the “Liminal Space” and become all that we were born to be. Born again and again and again in each moment of life.

This year has been one of great change for me. This year has been one when I have come out of the mist of threshold into something new. New dawns have emerged and new beginnings have arisen. New truths and experiences have come to me. My life has changed on so many levels. In every sense. There has been the obvious physical change as I have lost over a third of my body mass. That said there have been other changes too in terms of my understanding of life and it’s meaning to me. These changes have been mental, emotional, spiritual as well as the physical one.

My understanding of my own spiritual faith has opened and awakened to new levels too. There has been one phrase that comes from “The Sermon on the Mount”, from Matthew’s Gospel, that has been taking shape in the soul of me all year long. The phrase is “You are the light of the world”. That this is the real message that was brought to the world 2.000 years ago and that it is our task to bring this to life in our mortal lives. That it is our task to incarnate this love in our world. That we are responsible for this our world. That we are the ones that our world has been waiting for. It is up to us you know, it’s up to us to bring this love alive.

Last year as I stood on the threshold of the year I did not know what was to come. None of us did, did we? This year we all stand at a new threshold uncertain of what is to come. As we stand in the coldest darkest days. Let’s not rush through these in between days and wish them away. Let’s instead appreciate this “Liminal Space” for what it is and when we are ready, let’s step into the days of the new beginnings and truly give birth to the love that is within us all.

I will end with this beautiful meditative piece by Kath R Walker...Best wishes for the days ahead and may you experience all that lies inbetween...

“In Between” by Kate R Walker

In between, liminal, that space where we wait.
Between moments; events, results, action, no action.
To stand on the threshold, waiting for something to end,
And something new to arrive, a pause in the rumble of time.
Awareness claims us, alert, a shadow of something different.

In between invitation and acceptance.
In between symptom and diagnosis.
In between send and receipt of inquiry and question.
In between love given and love received.

Liminality, a letting go, entering into confusion,
ambiguity and disorientation.
A ritual begun, pause … look back at what once was,
Look forward into what becomes.
Identity sheds a layer, reaches into something uncomfortable to wear.

In between lighting of the match and the kindling of oil.
In between choosing of text and the reading of words.
In between voices and notes carried through the air into ears to hear.
In between creation thrusts ever forward.

Social hierarchies may disassemble and structures may fall.
Communities may revolt or tempt trust.
Tradition may falter or creativity crashes forward.
Leaders may step down or take charge.
The people may choose or refuse.

In between, storm predicted, the horizon beacons.
In between, theology of process reminds us to step back.
In between, where minutia and galaxies intermingle with microbes and mysteries.
In between, liminal, that space where we wait: Look, listen, feel, breathe.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas Eve

"Christmas Eve" by Tracy Pullman

Christmas eve is a time for candlelight.
It is a time when one desires nothing more than family and soft music.
Who can say what passes through our hearts on Christmas eve?
Strange thoughts, indefinable emotions and sudden tears.
All this and more, unbidden, come without reason.

And we burn our candles for this is Christmas eve.
Christmas eve is not a time to be merry but quietly glad.
It is the proper time to wish upon a star.
It is a time to watch children with excited happy eyes troop off to bed to
await the miracle of dawn.
It is a time of wonder, of thankfulness that life is still being created anew
out of darkness.
It is a time of quiet awakening to beauty that still lives on through the
strife of a war torn world.

And we burn our candles for this is Christmas eve.
Christmas eve is a time of heartbreak,
When those who are not at their own fireside are most missed.
Christmas eve is a time of blessing when all the heartbroken world gives
thanks for the quiet beauty of rest,
When one is closest to ones companions and is not then enemy of any

And we burn our candles for this is Christmas eve.
Christmas eve is a time of memory,
When one remembers past happiness and love
And often sighs for the good that might have been.
Peace on earth and now comes the memory of the story of the first
Christmas, so old and yet so new.
We lose ourselves in legend and dream of storybook people; Tiny Tim
and the other Wise Man live again in the memory of human hearts.

And we burn our candles for this is Christmas eve.

Christmas is the season of the heart. It is a time to focus on the ties of the heart, the loves of the heart, the dreams of the heart; it is a time to focus on the hearts yearnings and longings; it is a time when we are called to concentrate on the heart, on what it wants, what it needs and what it compels us to be. The heart of Christmas is the heart itself, burst to overflowing, lit up bringing light and warmth into this season of darkness and cold. It brings hope in what can be very cynical times, as it always has. Christmas is the dream of the heart, wishing to come alive. This is why Christmas is both the religious and emotional centre of the year for most folk. Christmas is the time of the heart, which calls us to our truest nature, to be all that we can be.

This is why it is the holiest of holy days and nights. This is why I believe it is for everyone regardless of background and or faith, or lack of it. Christmas connects to something universal, something eternal in all of us which allows us to connect to our true selves, to one another, to all life and to that loving and eternal spirit that runs through all life.

“Oh I wish it could be Christmas every day”. Well it can be if we make it Christmas every day. It begins by lighting that lamp, that fire in our hearts and in our hearths.

I have included in this blog material that has inspired me and the worship I have created this Advent and Christmas season. I trust it will speak to your spirit and fill your heart with the soul of the season.

Merry Christmas one and all...

“Christmas is for Love” (Author unknown)

Christmas is for love. It is for joy, for giving and sharing, for laughter, for reuniting with family and friends, for tinsel and brightly covered packages. But, mostly Christmas is for love. I had not believed this until a small elfin like pupil with wide innocent eyes and soft rosy cheeks gave me a wondrous gift one Christmas.

Matthew was a 10 year old orphan who lived with his aunt, a bitter, middle aged woman greatly annoyed with the burden of caring for her dead sister's son. She never failed to remind young Matthew, if it hadn't been for her generosity, he would be a vagrant, homeless waif. Still, with all the scolding and chilliness at home, he was a sweet and gentle child.

I had not noticed Matthew particularly until he began staying after class each day [at the risk of arousing his aunt's anger so I learned later] to help me straighten up the room. We did this quietly and comfortably, not speaking much, but enjoying the solitude of that hour of the day. When we did talk, Matthew spoke mostly of his mother. Though he was quite young when she died, he remembered a kind, gentle, loving woman who always spent time with him.

As Christmas drew near however, Matthew failed to stay after school each day. I looked forward to his coming, and when the days passed and he continued to scamper hurriedly from the room after class, I stopped him one afternoon and asked him why he no longer helped me in the room. I told him how I had missed him, and his large brown eyes lit up eagerly as he replied, 'Did you really miss me?'

I explained how he had been my best helper, 'I was making you a surprise,' he whispered confidentially. 'It's for Christmas.' With that, he became embarrassed and dashed from the room. He didn't stay after school any more after that.

Finally came the last school day before Christmas. Matthew crept slowly into the room late that afternoon with his hands concealing something behind his back. 'I have your present,' he said timidly when I looked up. 'I hope you like it.' He held out his hands, and there lying in his small palms was a tiny wooden box.

'It's beautiful, Matthew. Is there something in it?' I asked opening the top to look inside. 'Oh you can't see what's in it,' he replied, 'and you can't touch it, or taste it or feel it, but mother always said it makes you feel good all the time, warm on cold nights and safe when you're all alone.'

I gazed into the empty box. 'What is it, Matthew' I asked gently, 'that will make me feel so good?'

'It's love,' he whispered softly, 'and mother always said it's best when you give it away.' He turned and quietly left the room.

So now I keep a small box crudely made of scraps of wood on the piano in my living room and only smile when inquiring friends raise quizzical eyebrows when I explain to them there is love in it.

Yes, Christmas is for gaiety, mirth, song, and for good and wondrous gifts. But mostly, Christmas is for love.

“All I want for Christmas” by David S. Blanchard taken from “A Temporary State of Grace”

This is a time of year when we ask – and are asked – what do you want? Shall it be another tie, a new pair of gloves, a book? We ask and we answer. We shop, we wrap, we ship. And the season usually comes and goes without us ever really answering the question: What do you want?

Some of the things we want we might be afraid to ask for because we can’t be sure what we would do if we got them. Many things we want we don’t know enough to ask for. Most things we can’t ask for because we know no one can give them to us.

Most people ask the question without any interest in really knowing, yet it can be a question for each of us to hold on to for a time in mind and heart. What do we want? Not what would we like, but what do we want to give us a deeper connection with life and to help us give expression to our love? Not a long list of things, but a sense of clarity that illuminates what it is we are doing and why. Not outward signs of generosity, but an internal sense of caring that guides us to give in any season. Not just the reflex of always giving, but also the courage to truly answer some of those who ask us, “What do you want?”

Dare to answer. Think of the things you want, and the things others close to you would want. Imagine the ways they might be given and received.

What do you want?

"This is the season" by Jacob Trapp

This is the season when the child in the heart of all of us awakens and the
embers of long forgotten dreams are blown into flame.
The ramp of the Legions is stilled; the Caesars lie in dust, but the light
from that humble stable shines warm and bright.
Something old and almost lost amid the clutter of the years is calling from
the skies and across the fields of snow.
The night winds are stilled and in the darkened heavens the stars foretell
of lengthening days and the birth of spring after the winter’s cold.
This is the sign that the light of hope, which shines in the dimness of our
broken dreams, will never fade or die.
O stretch your hands and with the simple trust of the child, grasp another’s
hand and walk the way together.
Though the darkness press in upon us and the promise of Christmas
comes like the echo of music upon the wind, let our hearts remember
that loveliness, that light.

“Sing” by George K Beach

This is a good season for singing. I may not sing very well but everybody knows the Christmas carols and I can just sing and get away with it. Nobody notices unless I refuse altogether. So singing comes easy, now.

This is also a good season for telling stories. The stories I like are both life-like and a little fantastic – believable, unbelievable, and somehow both at once. They let me imagine something other than hard facts that just say what is.

The idea of angels singing and animals talking for a holy babe born in a barn and laid in a manger allows me to love a little while in a world where everything is different. And get away with it.

A most amazing recognition that is: that I can get away with it. Life allows me; it lets me go again and again: for we are set at liberty.

This is a good season for believing that “something happened” and everything is different now. I don’t have to be bigger, better, or beautifuler than anybody. I can love somebody and get away with it.

And what is “it”? It is only that which I want in my heart of hearts – like loving, like being changed, like singing and having a story to tell. And once I have let myself go, there is something I can do no longer: pretend I am not allowed to be myself, in the community of giving and receiving. Such a life of freedom and love is itself the first and greatest gift.

“Little Kight” by Charles A Gains

As I look at this lighted candle, I think of all the people I have read about
who lit up the world with their love. I think of Jesus and Buddha, St Francis
and Schweitzer, Clara Barton and Martin Luther King. And I know in
my heart that I can light up the world with my love too.
As I look at this glowing candle, I think of all the people I have known in
my life who lit up my world with their love; parents who gave me birth,
teachers who taught me in schools; people who walked with me for a
while. And I know in my heart that that I can light up the world with my
love too.

As I look at this bright candle, I think of all the people I know now who
light up my world with their love; my partner and my children; my colleagues
and my friends; people who are with me now, others who are
absent, but with us just the same. And I know in my heart that I can light
up the world with my love too.

Loved ones, friends, strangers I pass this light to you. Take it and let it
brighten up the darkness. Let its glow sparkle around your eyes and
lighten your face And know that by sharing our love, even in little ways,
we touch others with our light and our world becomes brighter
It all began many years ago when one light lit up the midnight sky. It has
been passed on to us by saints and prophets, parents, teachers and poets,
and all the friends and lovers of humankind.
Take it, pass it on - tonight, tomorrow and whenever you see a shadow or
a dark place your love can lighten. No one is ever too old. No one is ever
too young. Each of us can touch someone by our love and inspire them
with our light.

A Closing Prayer

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2007
On this night of nights,
We have more for which to be grateful than we will ever know:
More cause to bless and cherish
And bend our knee in wonder,
More call to lift our hearts on wings of praise.

For we, too, on this very night,
Illuminated by a story and a star,
Can witness a miracle:
A birth — heralding our birth,
Pregnant with promise and oh so surpassingly strange;
A life — no less magical than ours;
A death — to charge our days with purpose,
Helping us to live in such a way
That our lives, too, will prove worth dying for.

To enter the realm of enchantment,
We must first shed our self-protective cover,
Not, as we too often and so sadly do,
Take this precious life for granted,
But unwrap the present and receive the gift,
Mysterious and charged with saving grace.

So let us, on this night of nights, set aside our shopping list of grievances,
Resist the nattering of our grubby little egos,
And crack our parched lives open like a seed.

Let us pray.

Let us awaken from the soul-crushing allures
Of sophisticated resignation and cynical chic,
To savor instead the world of abundance and possibility
That awaits just beyond the self-imposed limits of our imagination.

Let us awaken to the saving gift of forgiveness,
Where we can, in a single breath, free ourselves and free another.

Let us awaken to the possibility of love,
Body, mind, and spirit,
All-saving and all-redeeming love.

Let us awaken to the blessing of acceptance,
Expressed in a simple, saving mantra:
Want what we have; do what we can; be who we are.

Rather than let wishful thinking or regret
Displace the gratitude for all that is ours, here and now,
To savor and to save.

Let us want what we have —
Praying for health, if we are blessed with health,
For friendship, if we are blessed with friends,
For family, if we are blessed with family,
For work, if we are blessed with tasks that await our doing,
And if our lives are dark, may we remember to want nothing more than the loving
Affection of those whose hearts are broken by
our pain.

Let us do what we can —
Not dream impossible dreams or climb every mountain,
But dream one possible dream and climb one splendid mountain,
That our life may be blessed with attainable meaning.

And let us be who we are —
Embrace our God-given nature and talents.
Answer the call that is ours, not another's,
Thereby enhancing our little world and the greater world we share.

That is my Christmas prayer,
Call it thoughtful wishing.
All we have to do is put our heart in it.
And there's one more bonus.
Unlike wishful thinking, thoughtful wishes always come true.

Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all.

An Excerpt from "Love & Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow" by Forrest Church