Saturday, 12 April 2014

We Are Formed From Love: A Palm Sunday Reflection

Last Sunday I led the evening service at Dukinfield Old Chapel, it is the last time I will do so as their services will soon be moving to the afternoon. During the sermon one of the many things I talked about was something I had done, a mistake I had made that had hurt someone and how it still, to some degree, makes me wince when I think of it. Now it was only for a few brief seconds in the address that I mentioned this and yet as the congregation were leaving one of those in attendance reminded me that we are all human and we all make mistakes and that we should forgive ourselves for our all too human mistakes. As she spoke I smiled, just another reminder that often it is the congregations I serve, however irregularly, that minister to me and not the other way round. I have lost count of the times that people have said things to me that have touched that deep place, in the marrow of my soul.

As I was driving home that evening I became enchanted by the powerfully dramatic sky. It was electric, there was definitely something in the air that evening. I could smell it, I could taste it, so powerful, so alive. As I drove back to Altrincham I felt myself deeply touched and moved by the whole evening and as I did I felt a sensation wash all over me as I thought of forgiveness and our common humanity. I can usually forgive others, but sometimes I find it difficult to forgive myself for my all too human mistakes, especially if what I have said or done, or failed to say or do has let down and or hurt someone I care deeply about.

I know I am not alone in this. I have heard similar things from friends and loved ones these last few days. I have heard those who mean much to me giving themselves a hard time about their oh so very human imperfections.

Today “Palm Sunday” marks the beginning of the holiest of holy weeks in the Christian calendar. Today is the beginning of “Holy Week”. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Christianity and what it means to me. I know several Unitarian congregations have been holding courses during Lent asking what Easter means to them. I myself have been attending the Lent Breakfast courses hosted by Churches Together in Urmston and lead one session exploring “Jesus Our Teacher”. It got me thinking about what Christianity means to me? There is so much that does speak to me, but then again there is much in other traditions too, both ancient, modern and post-modern that speaks to me too. I am a Universalist in every sense of the word. That said at this time of year I feel compelled to look at Jesus, his teachings as well as his passion and death and how that can bring meaning to my life and I hope the lives of those I minister to.

Central to Christianity is this concept of love incarnating in human form. Now it seems clear that this occurred in the life of Jesus as it is told in the Gospels. My main argument with traditional Christian orthodoxy is the view that this occurred only in one form and at one point in human history. This I find impossible to accept. I only have to look at my life and I know I have experienced this love in the lives of so many other people. I can think of several people who through their love and example have not only changed my life, but truly saved it. I have seen the word become flesh and dwell amongst us many times in my life, I have become aware of it again only this week. I believe that we all have the capacity to become channels of the divine in this life. We can all incarnate love in our very being. Sadly all too often we fail to do so; all too often we fall short and we betray one another. This aspect of our humanity becomes all too clear in the narrative of Holy week.

On Palm Sunday Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on the back of a humble donkey and is received by the crowds waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna, hosanna in the highest heaven” The crowds welcome Jesus who they believe will save him. This though does not happen and just a few days later he is betrayed, rejected, brutalised and killed. The body is killed, the figure dies, but the love that is left behind lives on. It is this love that I believe is the true Easter story; a love that can live on and once again incarnate in the lives of all people.

The Palm Sunday narrative is not just about Jesus it is also about the crowd and all the people around him. People just like you and me. We can all get caught up in the crowd mentality can we not? I did myself in a meeting I attended recently. I went along with something I wasn’t wholly in agreement with. I didn’t have the energy or inclination to voice my objections at that moment. I was new to the group and felt I’d already said more than I ought too. That said I probably should have spoken up and may well live to regret not doing so. Although I must ensure that I do not give myself too hard a time about this.

Now while the world we live in today is very different to that experienced by the crowd on Palm Sunday, this should not mean we cannot identify with the people there. We share a common humanity with them; we are all formed from the same breath of life; we all have the Divine spark within us; well at least I believe that we do. We are not God’s. We are fully human just like those folk on the side of the street waving their palms grateful for any reason to celebrate. People are always looking for something to celebrate, doesn’t seem to matter what this is. I can certainly see myself in them. And just like them we all fall short, we get bogged down in little and bigger things; just like them we are finite creatures; just like them we are looking for hope, to lift us out of suffering, to take us to better things; just like them we are looking for someone or something to lead us to better things, to give us another chance to live better lives.

How many times have we fallen short, messed up and wished we could live up to our ideals? Well we can. Or at least we can if we forgive ourselves for the all too human mistakes we all make.

I was recently sent the following words by Maya Angelou on forgiveness, words that strike deep into my soul:

“I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes – it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you, when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white, or too poor, or too fat or too thin, or too sexual or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don’t have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.”

Words as a minister it is vital I take heed of...

So what is that holds us back? What is that stops us being the loving people that we can be?

When I listen to some people what I witness is this need to find forgiveness to start all over again, they are looking for someone or something to redeem them, to set them free. Isn’t that what those people who waved those palms on that day were celebrating “The redeemer who would set them free”. I wonder what that might mean for we who live today?

Well maybe it's about learning to forgive ourselves for those mistakes we make. Maybe its about truly learning to love ourselves "warts and all" and beauty spots too of course; maybe It's about learning to live by the ultimate commandment; maybe it's about being set free to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. We need to learn to love ourselves; we need to see clearly our own glory in the mirror looking back at us; we need to learn to see what we are capable of being.

I believe that we all keep the "Golden Rule", the commandment to "love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The problem is of course that so few of us truly love ourselves. I know I don't always love myself. Sometimes when I look back at that man in the mirror I do not feel love for him. I wish this were not the case, but some days it is.

Just like those citizens of Jerusalem in the story we too can feel love starved; we too can find ourselves seeking someone to redeem us and set us free from our perceived loveless state; we too can find ourselves seeking someone who we will see us as more than we see ourselves who we believe can give us the love we so desperately seek; we too can believe that if someone can love us that we too can then be acceptable. Why do we find it so hard to see that we are children born from love? Why is that so hard to accept? Why do we find this so hard to believe?

Maybe the problem for some of us is that we measure ourselves against perfection, this image of Jesus.

It is very difficult to measure ourselves against Jesus, especially if we see him as the one and only incarnation of Divine Love on earth, as God. How can that help us? How can we learn to live the life he spoke of if we cannot live up to who he was, because he was something that we can never be.

I suspect that by seeing Jesus as different from us leads to us not seeing that same divine breath within ourselves.We need to be able to see that we are all children of love, we need to be able see our own glory in the mirror, to me this is vital if we are to live the lives that we are capable of living and become the people we are capable of becoming. I believe that by doing so we can become lights to others and thus inspire them to do the same. It is vital that we see that spirit that was so clearly in Jesus in one another, especially that person looking back at us in the mirror.

By doing so we can begin to recognise that we are children of love, children of worth and children of value, who stumble and fall from time to time. We sometimes fail and even betray all that is loving and beautiful in our lives. We should not despair at this though. If we recognise what we are made of we can once again rise like the spring does from winter and like love did from the empty Easter cave. We too, can begin again in love, but only if we truly accept that we are children of love, formed from that same breath of love that forms all life.

Here lays the essence of the story of Palm Sunday and the week that follows that leads to the new beginning that is Easter. We can begin again we can start anew, we can forgive and be forgiven for our very human mistakes and shortcomings, for our betrayals of love however it manifests in this our imperfect world. It means that we will get things wrong sometimes, lots of times, but that, if we pay attention, maybe next time, we’ll do better. The Palm Sunday story means that, if we work at it, we can see our own glory in the mirror; it means we can see what we’re capable of being; it means we can recognise that we truly are children of love; it means that we can begin again in love.

Blessed are those who come in the name of the Lord. Blessed are those who come in the name of redemption. Blessed are those who come in the name of forgiveness. And Blessed are those who come in the name of love.

May we be the blessed ones and may we bring those blessing into life…in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

A Journey of One Inch: Living in the Layers

"A Spiritual Journey"

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.

by Wendell Berry

I went to bed last Saturday night not sure how I was going to spend my Sunday off. I’d had a lovely few days away with friends and family and was now happily back at home. I awoke on Sunday morning and instinctively knew what I needed to do. It was “Mothering Sunday” and I thought to myself, today I will keep “Mothering Sunday” and return to the Mother Church and so I set off into Manchester to Cross Street Chapel. Cross Street Chapel is the place that I had discovered the Unitarian tradition, almost by accident, one cold January in 2005.

If it was an accident it was a beautiful one by the way as a whole series of seeming coincidences conspired to bring me to that place at that time in my life. some would call it synchronicity, well maybe, maybe not...I give thanks and praise everyday that it happened...despite the suffering that has accompanied the joy...

As I drove into town, tears began to form and fall from my eyes as memories of times past grew from my soul. Times connected with Cross Street and the people I had known there and of course memories of my own family and friends. I remembered those I have loved and lost in recent times and over the last few years. I remembered the “Mothering Sunday” service in 2006, which Ethan had participated in, just a few months before he was killed. I remembered how much his short life had given to me, both on a human and spiritual level. I thought of his mother, my dear friend Claire and her own journey since his death. I remembered my former ministers both John and all he had given to me and of course dear Jane whose funeral I had attended only a couple of weeks previously. I also had memories of the “Old Lad” (my grandad) as well as “Our Allen” and other people who had touched my life and who are no longer physically a part of it. As I wept and drove I felt a real sense of release coming through my body and the spirit move within as another layer of skin around my soul began to loosen. I thought of The Clash song “Gootta lose this skin, that I’m imprisoned in, gotta lose this skin.” Sung by Tymon Dogg.

It was a moving, thought provoking, service led by the student minister Ralph Catt’s; it was lovely to worship with some faces old and new. As I drove home that afternoon those words of Wendell Berry's poem "A Spiritual Journey" came up from my heart and into my mind. I felt that I understood, maybe for the first time, that the spiritual journey is not really one of length, but one of depth. It’s not really about physically going anywhere and yet the landscape or at least ones perception of it seems to constantly change. We do not need to blast into space to enter a new world. We do not need to enter outer space; what we need to do is learn to truly inhabit the inner space; we need to learn to be at home, to belong here; we need to learn to live in the layers of our own lives. That’s the real journey.

Now no doubt the Wendell Berry poem is inspired by the Christian mystic Meister Ekhart.It was he who claimed that the spiritual journey is not one of distance, that we do not so much travel on a physical pilgrimage from A to B to C to D etc, that the spiritual journey is some kind of linear progression in which we reach some goal, some new state of being way over there in some distant realm. No instead we discover new truths, understandings and experiences as we journey through life in a cyclical sense and that as we do so we move deeper into the layers of our own being and find ourselves at home in the layers of our own lives.

John O’Donohue claimed that

“Meister Eckhart radically revises the whole notion of spiritual programs. He says that there is no such thing as a spiritual journey. If a little shocking, this is refreshing. If there were a spiritual journey, it would be only a quarter inch long, though many miles deep. It would be a swerve into rhythm with your deeper nature and presence. The wisdom here is so consoling. You do not have to go away outside yourself to come into real conversation with your soul and with the mysteries of the spiritual world. The eternal is at home — within you.” (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: a Book of Celtic Wisdom)

O’Donohue further claims that sometimes we don’t see what is already here, what is within us. This is because we have become too familiar with our own surroundings and that this has lead to us losing our sense of belonging. This is why we search out there beyond, because we fail to recognise this sense of belonging within ourselves and our own surroundings and experiences. It is the very familiarity that is the problem. Therefore we need to dig deeper within the layers of our own being in order to see through the façade.

He states that:

“One of the difficulties for people, in awakening to their inner world is the familiarity of their lives. They find it hard to find something that is really new and interesting and adventurous in themselves and yet everything that we really need for our journey here has already been given to us. So there's a great strangeness in the shadows of our soul world, that we should become more conversant with and closer to.”

Last week on returning home I became aware that something had changed both within myself and in my relationships with my nearest and dearest. The familiar seemed less recognizable and as a result I was able to bear witness to everything with new vision; as a result I was able to hear everyone and everything with a deeper clarity; as a result I seemed to understand all that is in a new light; as a result I experienced a deeper intimacy with everything and everyone.

It seems that I have gone down deeper into the layers of my own soul and the soul of life and more has been revealed. What once seemed familiar seemed oh so different. This did not frighten me, far from it. Instead I felt excited by this and felt more at home both in my own skin and the world that I live within. It feels like the beginning of a new adventure and yet one that does not require me to walk down a different road.

And yet while everything felt so new there was still an abiding sense of the familiar too. I noticed a deepening sense of connection to my own past and a deeper understanding of who I am, who I have always been. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot of in recent weeks, as a deeper intimacy with who I am, past, present and even future has developed. I wonder sometimes, when speaking of spiritual matters, if we focus too much on the moment and in doing so if we lose this sense of the richness of our whole lives. It brought to mind a quote I recently came across by Stanley Kunitz

“I think it's important for one's survival to keep the richness of the life always there to be tapped. One doesn't live in the moment, one lives in the whole history of your being, from the moment you became conscious.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Rev Jane Barraclough, these last few weeks, as I have grieved her death. Obviously she came into my consciousness while I worshipped at Cross Street Chapel last Sunday. One thing that Jane’s ministry awakened within me was a love for poetry, especially in worship. This is something I will always treasure. When I qualified as a minister she gave me a book as a gift. The book is “Soul Food: Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds” Edited by Neil Astley & Pamela Robertson-Pearce. I have used many poems from it these last three and a half years. She wrote a dedication in the book “For dearest Danny. All blessings on your many ministries. Love Jane.” She knew me well and understood my many ministries.

In the book is the poem “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.

The poem was written at a pivotal moment in Kunitz’s long career. He believed that it spoke of something that was central to his whole experience of being a poet and a person. He wrote it in response to a personal crisis. He had suffered several grief’s, including his mother and two older sisters as well as several dear friends. It was a written at a time of change in his life, both personally and as a writer. He stated that

“. . . I wrote 'The layers' in my late seventies to conclude a collection of sixty years of my poetry. . . Through the years I had endured the loss of several of my dearest friends, including Theodore Roethke, Mark Rothko, and - most recently - Robert Lowell. I felt I was near the end of a phase in my life and in my work. The poem began with two lines that came to me in a dream, spoken out of a dark cloud: 'Live in the layers, not on the litter.”

“Live in the layers, not on the litter.” There is some beautiful wisdom here...I wonder from where it came...

In many ways this simple line may well be the key to everything, to live in the layers of our lives, the whole of our lives. So often we want to move on and leave behind the litter, the mess, the pain and the suffering, but to do so is to fail to bear witness to our whole lives. I believe that we have to live in our whole lives, we can’t just pick and choose and no matter how hard we try we can’t really leave our lives behind.

Kunitz was an avid gardener and maybe it is from this love that the idea of the layers grew. In horticulture “layering” is a method of propagation that brings forth new life from the dying or broken stem. This allows new roots to form and therefore life goes, or do I mean grows, on.

We cannot live on the brokenness of our lives, but we can grow anew from the litter if we live within the layers. We cannot completely begin anew, nor should we want too; we cannot leave behind was has gone before, nor should we want too; we cannot escape who we are, nor should we want too. The spiritual journey is not one of distance it is one of depth, it’s about finding ourselves at home in the ground at our feet. It’s about living in the layers.

The spiritual journey is not one of distance, but one of depth. It will at times appear arduous and painful and it will certainly be humbling as we are brought to our knees by the suffering that is a part of life. And yet from this very suffering we will re-awaken once again, like the new spring. It is this that opens us and it is this that brings the joy of living once again. It is this that will bring us home, to greater sense of belonging to all that has been, all that is now and will ever be. It is this that breeds deeper intimacy with ourselves, with those who we share life with and with the eternal spirit, that I name God.

So I say let us continue “in” our journey, let us “live in the layers”

Let’s sing the joy of living in all its mystery and invite others to come and join us in song, for they too can begin again to belong.

Let’s “Live in the layers, not on the litter.”


Saturday, 22 March 2014

Right Speech

Now while we do not rule the world and cannot control all that goes on around us, how we live matters. We impact on the lives of others and the lives of others impact on how we live. Everything we do and everything we do not do matters. It's the same with how we communicate with one another, how we speak to each other. One careless word can trigger off a chain reaction of destruction throughout the word, just as a one loving word can lead to a tidal wave of compassion...Right speech is so important...

I was recently sent the following story...

The old Buddhist master sat before the assembled yogis. "Tonight I would like to speak to you about wise speech," he began. "According to the Buddha, wise speech is truthful, gentle, helpful, spoken from a kind heart and timely." Then he spoke at great length about the harm that can come from words that are mean spirited, harsh or careless.

A young yogi raised his hand and said, "Venerable sir, I do not understand how this can be. A stone can bruise. Theft can deprive. Brawling can cause bleeding. But words are just sounds. They have no substance. I must disagree with you when you suggest they are so powerful."

The old man replied, "If you weren't such an idiot, you'd understand. So sit down, shut up and stop interrupting with your ignorance."

The young man dropped to his cushion and the master continued his dharma talk.

Fifteen minutes later the young yogi jumped to his feet without raising his hand and yelled, "You are a fraud! You cannot possibly be the great teacher you pretend to be." His face was red, his eyes were bulging, his fists were clenched, his body shook.

The old man turned to the yogi and said, "You seem perturbed. Your gentle disposition is shattered. What happened to you?"

"You hurtled insults I did not deserve. No man of wisdom could speak so harshly. You are a fraud."

The old man responded, "Ah. I see. It was my words that had such a transforming effect upon you. It seems you have changed your philosophy. It seems you and I agree that speech can be quite powerful."

The young man's face went blank. His angry flush subsided. A shy smile formed at the corners of his mouth. He bowed slightly, "You are certainly a wise teacher. I shall never forget this lesson. Speech can be very powerful."

Yes speech can be very powerful. We need to be wise in the way we communicate with one another.

I recently conducted the funeral of Peter Ball at Altrincham Crematorium. The funeral provided a new challenge for me as Peter’s widow Jennifer is deaf. Therefore when I was talking with her about the funeral and holding the family and guests during the service I had to ensure I paid close attention to this.

I arrived at the crematorium early and found myself chatting with the vast array of people who were in attendance. One group were Jennifer’s friends, many of whom had attended the same deaf school she had as a child. Amongst the group was David Coyle and his wife Beryl, members at Queens Road Unitarian Free Church, Urmston, one of the two congregations I serve. Beryl is also deaf and has been friends with Jennifer since childhood. I chatted with David and then marvelled at the loving and beautiful conversations the people were having with one another. I wish I could have joined in, but I do not know sign language and I cannot lip read. I noticed how I felt a little left out by this, it gave me a tiny glimpse of what it must be like for many people who cannot fully communicate with others for a variety of reasons.

The funeral was a beautiful occasion as we honoured the life of Peter, a man full of love and life. The next day Peter and Jennifer’s daughter Gina rang to thank me for the way I had conducted the service, particularly for ensuring that her mother could follow my words by reading my lips. I looked at Jennifer directly as I spoke throughout much of the service. She told her daughter that she understood virtually every word I had said and wanted me to know this...The language of the heart always finds a way if we pay attention to both what we say and how we say it, always taking into consideration the people we are trying to communicate with.

This experience has once again taught me that in communication you must always pay attention to who you are attempting to speak to...It’s about the other and not just the self.

It got me thinking about how we communicate with one another, about right speech and of course the language of the heart, one of my many passions.

It got we thinking about the “Three Fold Test” for right speech. According to this test there are three things that we ought to ask ourselves before speaking:

Is it kind?

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

Apparently It dates back to 1835 and a poem by Beth Day, titled “Three Gates of Gold”.

"Three Gates of Gold" by Beth Day

If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold;
These narrow gates. First, “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?” In your mind
Give truthful answer. And the next
Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.

Now no doubt this poem was influenced by an old Sufi tradition which suggests that we should only speak after our words have managed to pass through four gates.

At the first gate we should ask ourselves “Are these words true?” If so then we let them pass through; if not, then back they must go. At the second gate we ask; “Are these words necessary?” At the third we ask; “Are these words beneficial?” At the fourth gate we ask, “Are they kind?” If we answer no to any of these questions, then what we are about to say ought to be left unsaid.

Luminaries from Sai Baba to Eleanor Roosevelt have offered variations on the same theme over the years “Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary”. There is also the “Triple Filter Test”, usually attributed to Socrates which asked if it is “true, good or useful.”

Right Speech is central to both Christian and Buddhist morality.

“Samma Vaca” is the third aspect of “The Noble Eightfold Path”, in Buddhism. It is basically abstinence from gossip, slander, lying, maliciousness and hate speech. So to speak wisely or rightly is to do so truthfully with kindness, purpose and meaning.

“Samma Vaca” is usually translated as “right speech”, although scholars suggest that a more accurate translation is actually “wise speech”. Buddhist morality is based on “samadhana”, which is best translated as “harmony”, “coordination” or “generosity”. “Sama vaca” is speech that promotes harmony. Buddhist morality is different to what is often seen as the dualism of western ethics, whether theistic or non-theistic, it is not really about right or wrong; what it is actually about is harmony. “Right Speech” is accompanied by the parallel practice of deep listening. It is about harmony it’s about contemplating what is going on inside both you and the person you are speaking with

There are many passage in both the Old and New Testament that refer to “Right Speech. Many preachers in the Christian tradition will offer the following words from Psalm 19 before preaching a sermon “Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God. In the New Testament the book of James makes reference to how a person should use their mouth “With it we bless God, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” the book of Ephesians, chapter four, verse 25 states “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.”

The Sufi, Christian and Buddhist traditions as well as other ancient and contemporary ones are saying similar things about how we ought to conduct ourselves with our brothers and sisters. They are saying how damaging wrong speech can be to both our neighbours and ourselves, you sense the essence of the “Golden Rule of Compassion” running through them all and teachings about right speech.

How we communicate is so important. We may not have control over what goes on in the world all around us, but how we act towards others really matters. We need to be mindful in how we speak because what we say and do and what we do not say and do not do has an impact on all around us. As the old saying goes, if you haven’t got anything good to say then its best to probably keep your mouth shut.

The other evening I met with my interfaith friendship circle. It is a wonderful group who meet regularly to talk and listen about our different faith traditions. During the conversations celebrity culture came up. One figure who was discussed was Russell Brand. He seemed to divide opinion around the table. Some like the way he is, what he has to say and how he says things and others do not. During the conversations that infamous incident that involved Andrew Sachs came up. You may or may not recall but Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross had left a series of hurtful comments on Sach's answer phone primarily about his granddaughter who Brand had a sexual liaison with. The message went on for quite some time, I will not repeat what was said, but it was pretty awful. The conversation was broadcast live on radio 2 and led to a mass scale media frenzy. Now although the incident was 8 years ago it still haunts Mr Sachs and his family. His anger has been more directed towards Jonathan Ross, than Russell Brand, who he says ought to know better as he is the father of two daughters himself. In a recent interview Sachs said.

“Maybe it was fun for him, but it was excruciating for us. Privately, I was thinking of Shakespeare’s words: ‘He that filches from me my good name  /  Robs me of that which not enriches him  /  And makes me poor indeed.’

Now everyone says the wrong thing at some point or another. A recent excruciating memory came back to me this week of something I said at a meeting a few years ago. It was an unskilful ill thought out comment that wasn’t addressed to anyone in particular, but it caused hurt. As soon as I said it I instantly regretted it. I apologised, but it was too late, the hurt was done.

As a minister of religion I need to be very careful in my choice of words and I am not always, especially when trying to be humorous; humour that is hurtful and at the expense of others is not really humour at all. There are warnings about this in the third chapter of the book of James in the New Testament. As he points out preaching and teaching are dangerous professions and any misuses of the tongue by a teacher is judged with extra strictness. He also says that the tongue is a fire. And even a small spark, a tiny hint of a flame, can burn down a whole forest.

I need to be very careful, skilful in what I say, people listen to me.

I must be mindful not to do what they said of Lenny Bruce “He uses words as weapons to hit people over the head with”. We all need to speak our truth in love, but we need to do so mindfully.

I must never underestimate the power of words as weapons. They can be just as violent as the fist, as sticks and stones and guns and bombs even. Words have the power to cause the utmost damage. That said they also have the power to heal. A word rightly spoken can also heal deep wounds, reconcile former enemies and save countless souls. It is amazing how a few words of kindness can lead to a tidal wave of love. Just another example of that chaos theory of compassion I’m always going on about.

The key is to give words their proper respect. They say a person ought to be judged by their deeds and not their words, but I see words as deeds myself. The action of our tongues can have a much bigger impact than those of our hands.

When we are about to speak we need to ask ourselves.

Is it kind?

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

What we do and what we say matters. Everything matters.

So may what we say be kind, true, and necessary.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Belonging and Spiritual Practice

“Belonging” is a word that has been growing in my heart these last few weeks and months. There is good reason for this. I have been feeling a deepening sense of belonging to all that is life. No doubt this is due, in no small part, to the extent that my internal barriers have been removed. As a result I have found myself connecting more and more to my true self, to the people around me, the life in which we all share and that eternal spirit that runs through all life, that I name God. If I have learnt anything in life I have learnt that the more open I become the more this sense of belonging grows.

Sadly “Our Allen”, my step brother, recently died and I was ask to lead the family aspect of his funeral, to hold our nearest and dearest through this painful time. I travelled down to Northamptonshire the night before the funeral and spent the evening with his ex-wife Karen and their two sons Joe and Tom. We talked for hours; it was so beautiful to connect, even in the difficult circumstances we faced together. During the conversation I made reference to “Our Mand”(our sister). At which point “Our Joe” said how much he loved this expression and how it had a real sense of openness and belonging. He said that it was not just about individual relationships but how people belonged together in a more corporate sense. During the conversation Ester, “Our Joe’s” fiancée said how much she enjoyed becoming part of our large and complicated family. There was real genuine warmth in her words. A couple of weeks later I asked “Our Joe” if he would explain exactly what he meant that evening to which he replied:

“Our Danny, as an example, invites not only your family and friends but also the person you’re speaking with, to be involved in the relationship with that person. It’s a lovely way to bring people together. As a wise man once said, all the best things come from Yorkshire!”

The wise man “Our Joe” was referring to was “Our Al”, “Our Joe and Tom’s” dad and my brother.

“Our Joe” is a wise young man. The “our” relationship is not closed, it is open. There is very much a sense of belonging within it and one that is an invitation to all.

Openness breeds belonging and belonging breeds openness. The last few weeks have revealed more deeply this truth to me. It is not always easy to live this way, especially when the storms of life come. This is why spiritual practice is so important. It has been through prayer and other spiritual practices that I have been able to stay open and develop this sense of belonging. Prayer meditation and other forms of practice are vital aspects of my life; they breed concentration and compassion within me and allow me to experience all that is life.

Spiritual practice is something I am going to be focusing on this Lenten season. Most people focus on giving things up in Lent, on a kind of physical self sacrifice. Last year I focused on encouraging the congregations I serve to see what we could give to life, rather than what we could give up. Now whether our focus is on giving things up or on giving to, to maintain it for 40 days is difficult. This is where spiritual practice comes in. It will hold us in our commitment when temptation comes in. I am certain that it is this that sustained Jesus in those forty days he spent in the wilderness fasting as it did throughout his ministry. How many times do we hear of him wandering off alone, to pray in silence, in those Gospel accounts?

In the Gospel accounts there is only one prayer that Jesus taught. This is found in “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 6 vv 9-13) This prayer has become known as “The Lord’s Prayer” or “The Prayer of Jesus”. It is perhaps the most well known prayer in this country. I am asked to include it during most of the funerals I conduct, even for people who are not “very religious”. When I say to the family of the bereaved that it would be wise to include the words in the order of service they always look at me ever so slightly perplexed and say something along the lines of “surely everyone knows the Lord’s Prayer”. My mum said the same thing to me as we were making arrangements for my grandad’s funeral recently.

I have grown to love the Lord’s Prayer. Why? Some may well ask. Well because it is very much a “we” and not an “I” prayer. It begins with the word “Our” not “My”. Later on it asks “give us this day our daily bread” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There is a real sense of belonging in this prayer, rather like the quaint Yorkshirism of referring to people belonging to one another as, “Our so and so”. The belonging found in this prayer is not in some exclusive sense or closed sense, I find invitation in these words. It is a prayer of openness and belonging.

That said some claim that they feel excluded by the language used. That it uses sexist language as the prayer is addressed to God as “Father”. This is why many have re-written the prayer using gender neutral language or by addressing God as “Mother”. There are a variety of beautiful versions of this prayer out there, I commend them to you. Others have also had trouble with the idea of a distant God “Our Father who art in heaven.” I understand completely both these problems and see clearly why some find the prayer excluding for these reasons. Yet for me in this simple “Our” there is something embracing and holding and inviting in this prayer. In recent weeks I have discovered something beautifully open in these words as my gaze has moved beyond the limits of ancient language.

click here to find alternative versions of "The Lord's Prayer"

Throughout the Gospels when Jesus prays he usually goes off alone to commune in silence. When he does pray out loud it is usually in anguish. Except for this one time when he is asked by the disciples how they should pray and he teaches them “The Lord’s Prayer”. The prayer is a communal prayer which begins with the word “Our”. A word that as “Our Joe” said invites all into relationship. I see it as an open prayer and one of belonging.

I was asked the other day by one of my congregants where I go to for support. My simple answer is that I have people who I can talk with, but the truth is it is prayer and other spiritual practices that hold me and sustain me in difficult times. Well actually prayer is at the core of all that I do, whatever the physical circumstances of my life, as vital as food and water. I pray a lot. Prayer for me is primarily about opening up and connecting to my true self, to life and to God, that loving essence that binds all life together. I don’t prayer to some kind of “Uber Person” in some distant realm, well not literally at least. My prayer is an extension beyond myself that invites myself into relationship with everything and everything into relationship with me. Prayer for me is both an opening and a connecting experience. Prayer somehow helps me to belong to everything; prayer enables me to become “Our Danny” in every single sense.

Prayer of course is not the only spiritual practice. There are many and varied ways to connect with ourselves, with others, with everything and with the Divine. Every religious tradition whether theistic or non-theistic has at its core a contemplative practice, whether that be prayer or a form of meditation or the development of wonder. Gazing at the stars and the sea is a prayer to me. Spiritual Practice need not be static or solemn either. They can be physical too, such as walking and or dancing mindfully. I myself love “Singing Meditation”, a practice that is all about joy and connection.

A spiritual practice is something that needs to be engage with regularly and whose purpose is to develop individual spiritually, beyond the merely material and to challenge us to open our minds, our hearts and our souls. One common metaphor used by the spiritual traditions is that they move us along a path towards a goal. The goal for me is to move us beyond the confines of ourselves so that we welcome all to us and us to all.

Spiritual practice is both personal and universal. Its purpose is personal spiritual development and yet it breeds so much more than that. It opens us up to true belonging. As we belong we invite others to come and join in relationship with themselves, all life and whatever it is that they understand is at the core of it all. Spiritual Practice is at the core of all that I am and all that I do these days. It is something I will be attempting to develop in the coming weeks so as to give up and let go of the things that keep me from all that is, all that has been and all that will be and all that stops me from giving all that I can to life.

This Lent I will continue to practice belonging and to become “Our Danny” in all aspects of life. I invite you join with me.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

It's A Mystery To Me

Pilar and Daniel Weinberg’s son was baptized on the coast. The baptism taught him what was sacred.

They gave him a sea shell: “So you’ll learn to love the water.”

They opened a cage and let a bird go free: “So you’ll learn to love the air.”

They gave him a geranium: “So you’ll learn to love the earth.”

And they gave him a little bottle sealed up tight: “Don’t ever, ever open it. So you’ll learn to love mystery.”

by Eduardo Galeano taken from "Walking Words"

I find this idea so beautiful. As they blessed their child they gave him these gifts; gifts that reminded him to love the elements that make up life. The final gift that they gave him was the sealed bottle, which they asked him not to open. They wanted their child to learn to love mystery; to learn to love the unknown.

Now a friend of mine asked why they didn’t give him a gift that signified “fire”? To which I answered well that’s a mystery to me. I then thought again and said maybe the fire is the mystery. Maybe you who read this can answer that mystery for us? Maybe, maybe not?

Life offers so many gifts, perhaps the greatest of them all being the mystery, the unknown. Yes we can learn about things about everything. One of humanity’s greatest attributes is this thirst for knowledge and understanding and yet I reckon we still know so little about anything and everything. I celebrate this. The more we know the more we realise how little we know. It’s also worth noting that the search for knowledge does have negative aspects. Sometimes this search for knowledge leads to us failing to simply appreciate the gift and beauty of being alive. If we are constantly looking for what is new and exciting we may fail to appreciate the beauty, the people, the love we are surrounded by.

We need to learn to love life but we must also learn to love the mystery too. For if we do not we may not really love life at all, only the component parts. If I have learnt anything about life and love I have learnt it is far more than the sum of its parts.

Life is a total mystery to me. Now I’m not talking about the component parts that make up life, I have a decent understanding of them. What I mean is life as we actually live it; the experience of life of human life and love of course. I am a total mystery to myself by the way. Although I have gained a great deal of self knowledge and know myself fairly well, I am aware that I am a total mystery to myself. I’m sure I’m a mystery to most of the people who know me, well they certainly tell me so. The last few days have revealed much of this mystery to me. Oh my ever changing moods.

Last Friday I took a full day off and relaxed and rested and took time to take stock. It was fascinating to me how exhausted I felt as I allowed my soul to truly catch up with my body. Last Friday truly was a Sabbath. Over the last few weeks and months so much has happened and I have experienced an incredible amount of emotion. There has been much pain and suffering, but also a seemingly infinite experience of love. I have never known so much love; I have never allowed myself to know so much before. There has been no despair. The last few weeks and months have been some of the most meaningful and loving I have ever known.

There has also been a deepening sense of connection to that mystery that runs through all of life; that mystery that binds it all together. I have noticed as I have been opened up in grief and pain that this sense of connection has intensified and I have felt held, strengthened, guided and certainly loved. I cannot explain this; all I can talk of is what I have experienced. It has brought a deeper sense of belonging, which has led to a deeper freedom. I feel closer to life and the people I share and have shared my life with as a result.

I also feel energised and re-invigorated. Last Saturday and Sunday I felt so energised so filled up with love and life and I know that it showed. By the way please do not misunderstand me I would do anything to take away the pain that my loved ones have experienced but I know I cannot. I would do anything to bring my grandad and our Allen back, but I cannot. All I can do is accept what has happened and to not let it en-shadow the joy of living, which I sing every day and by doing so I know that the greatest mystery of all will enter and grow in my life, the Love that is God. That which Rudolph Otto named “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans” – the tremendous and fearful, powerful, fascinating mystery.

“We sing the joy of living, we sing the mystery."

Please though don’t ask me to explain it; it’s a mystery to me.

These last few days I’ve found myself singing a song I loved from my childhood “She’s a Mystery Girl” by Roy Orbison...

“She’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery to me. She’s a mystery girl. She’s a mystery girl. She’s a mystery girl. She’s a mystery to me.

I woke up early, as always, on Tuesday morning to prepare for my meditation group. The sun was rising, the birds were singing and as I stepped out onto the grove I could see the most beautiful new crescent moon just peeping out from the side of the chapel. It was a beautiful sight. I also noticed that the spring flowers were just coming through the earth too. It got me thinking of the cherry blossom that will come soon and the beautiful pink snow that falls from it. My mind, my heart, my soul were just filled with beautiful thoughts of the great gifts of life, the simple gifts of life. It’s been a difficult winter, but spring is here, new life is coming born from winter’s death.

The following poem "To Music" by Rainer Maria Rilke has been in my heart, my mind, my soul this winter

“To Music” Rainer Maria Rilke

Music. The breathing of statues. Perhaps:
The quiet of images. You, language where
languages end. You, time
standing straight from the direction
of transpiring hearts.

Feelings, for whom? O, you of the feelings
changing into what?— into an audible landscape.
You stranger: music. You chamber of our heart
which has outgrown us. Our inner most self,
transcending, squeezed out,—
holy farewell:
now that the interior surrounds us
the most practiced of distances, as the other
side of the air:
no longer habitable.

I love this poem particularly those seven simple words “as the other side of the air”; they have been with me much this winter, those seven simple words that have grown in meaning of late. I suppose it’s where I understand those I have loved now dwell. Not some distant place, nor nowhere at all, merely the other side of the air. No longer physically present in this life, but on the other side of the air, the other side of the breath of life.

Rilke was influenced by the Sufi mystical tradition. The Sufi’s saw the universe divided between a physical world experienced in the immediate and a spiritual world beyond. Rilke saw art as a kind of portal between these worlds, if only a fleeting one. For Rilke art had a transcendental function; for Rilke art created something akin to Celtic idea of “thin places”. Art created “Spots of Time” moments that linked all time and space. You can see these elements in the poem. It begins by describing music as a “language where languages end”, music is a universal language that speaks directly to the ears of our hearts. It also suggests that the usual rules of the physical world are suspended by great art, the poem describes statues that breathe. It also suggests that the normal perception of time is altered by art. In this case that music becomes a portal if we know how to listen to it, “with the ears of our hearts”. Music and art for Rilke have the capacity to carry us to a place of deeper understanding, to a richer and more mature perception. Art therefore bridges the gap between head and heart and transcend the limits of pure reason. That said it can also be dangerous as it breaks the security of our perceived knowledge. We need this to happen; we need to be cautious about our safety, for it is this that liberates us from the shackles of what we think we know.

If I am certain of anything in life, it is the danger of certainty. Of all the dangers present in life, it is this that I need to watch out for the most. Certainty seems to shut down the heart and the mind; certainty seems to always build barriers and close shutters. We need more bridges and or portals in life. We need them between each other and within ourselves, between our hearts and our minds. We also need to live as openly as possible. The problem with certainty is that it often lacks true humility. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about humility is that it breeds openness.

I was recently interviewed about the 200th anniversary of Unitarians in Altrincham. During the interview I talked about the history of our free religious faith. I also described the circumstances that led me to it and eventually to ministry, which are still somewhat of a mystery to me. All those meaningful coincidences that conspired to bring me through the door of Cross Street Chapel some 10 years ago and then brought me to not only ministry, but to serving the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston. I recently remembered a conversation I had a with a friend in Altrincham just weeks before I began training for the ministry. This dear friend who is not a Unitarian told me that I would be minister to the Unitarians in Altrincham when my training ended. How he knew that I do not know, but I remember him saying so. He said it in such a matter of fact way too. Another mystery I suppose and I always say I’m wary of soothsayers. There has been much suffering in my journey to ministry, but never despair. Meaning, mainly in the guise of love and service, has always emerged from the pyre of pain.

During the interviewer I described the Unitarian tradition as an “open faith”. It really is the best description I can think of. We are not tied or constrained and yet we are definitely rooted, but open a bit like those spring buds, that are currently appearing, will soon be. The openness comes from what I see as the humility of the tradition, or at least the tradition at its best. "Unitarianism" is about searching for understanding and meaning and experiences that will carry us beyond what we think we already know and understand. That said it is also about love and service as well as an appreciation of what is beautiful and meaningful in life. The tradition is about using our mental faculties our reason, but it’s not about being slaves to it. Reason, the thinking mind, has its limits. Reason without imagination, without mystery is pretty worthless and certainly meaningless.

Life is a mystery, but a beautiful one at that. Yes there is much suffering, but there is also so much joy if we would but stay open to it.

"Let’s sing the joy of living, let’s sing the mystery."

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with an extract from a sermon delivered by Forrest Church in the year 2000, at the beginning on a new Millenium. Here he is reflecting on a cruise he took with his mother.

From “The Angel and the Deep Blue Sea” by Forrest Church

"...In any event, with a clear conscience I devoted an entire week, as every son occasionally should, to caring for my poor creaky mother. Because she had the entire ship as an audience, I even managed to reread four Saul Bellow novels. In all, it was a noble expenditure of time and my soul is clearly the better for it.

There was also the sea. I grew up in the mountains of Idaho, but the sea has always captured my imagination more than even the mightiest peaks. Not only in contemplating the horizon which beckons one's mind to thoughts of eternity, but in pondering the hidden depths and mysteries beneath the surface, whenever I look out over the ocean, if I am paying attention, I experience humility and awe: humility in reflecting on how tiny we are in the whole scope of things; awe ­ a wonder tinged at times with a hint of terror ­ at the unfathomable depths and unsearchable breadth of creation. As it is written in the thirtieth chapter of the Book of Proverbs,

Three things are too wonderful for me;

Four I do not understand:

The way of an eagle in the sky,

The way of a snake on a rock,

The way of a ship on the high seas,

And the way of a man with a woman.

Physics, anatomy, biology, and psychology can begin to decode such mysteries, but knowledge has its limits. Quoting an academic study, my newly rediscovered old guide, Saul Bellow, recently observed "that on an average weekday the New York Times contains more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare would have acquired in a lifetime." That includes Shakespeare himself. The Times is a fine paper. I read it every day. But for all its information, it only hints, and then only occasionally, at what Shakespeare knew so very well: that the beauty of the bird, the symbol of the snake, the courage of the pilot, and the power of human love will always be touched by mystery.

We don't need something unnatural ­ like a virgin birth or the stopping of the sun ­ to prove our faith. Neither do we need a gigabyte of data to disprove it. Beyond all proof or disproof, we need only reverence for life itself. Contemplate our awe-inspiring connection, over millennia, to thousands of human ancestors, and ultimately to everything that lives."

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Critic

I have a couple of friends who I have recently named “Statler and Waldorf”. To some degree this is done in jest, but there is a serious point behind the humour. A few months ago I grew a little wearisome of their constant criticism of things and others. So I gave them the name partly in jest and partly in criticism of their constant criticism.

“Statler and Waldorf” are two characters from Jim Henson’s “The Muppet Show”. The pair don’t really participate in the show and instead sit on the balcony heckling the rest of the characters who are trying to create the show. They are archetypes for we who sit back, pour scorn and criticise the efforts of others to do the best that they can. It’s so easy to do this is it not; it is so easy to just to sit back and criticise the best efforts of others while doing nothing ourselves.

Now I realise I’m being unfair when I give my friends this name, they actually do a lot, an awful lot, for many people. That said they do at times come across as grumpy, critical old men, a bit like “Statler and Waldorf”. By the way I am very aware that I am displaying similar characteristics myself when I become critical of their criticism and grumpy of their grumpiness.

Increasingly we seem intent on fault finding and discovering the imperfections in one another. Why do we do this? Do we believe it will help us feel better about ourselves if we pour scorn on the imperfections of others? Maybe, maybe not?!?

There is a song titled “Knievel” on the latest New Model Army album "Between Dog and Wolf". It is inspired by the life of Evel Knievel, that famous stunt motorbike rider from the 1970’s. There is a line in the song that is repeated over and over again. The line is “Do they come to see a man fall – or to see him fly?” It is asking if the people come to see him achieve his feats or did they come to see him fall from the heavens? The thing about Knievel is that he was as likely to fail as he was to succeed and yet he always took off.

Now the song is not just a commentary on this crazy, complex, talented individual but also the world in which we live; a world in which we build people up to hero status only to take pot shots at them for their only too human imperfections. I often wonder if when we are shooting others down what we are really doing is attempting to deflect from our own imperfections.

The critic is someone who stands at the side taking pot shots at the people who have the courage to stand above the parapet and give something a go.

“Do they come to see a man fall – or to see him fly?”

In “The Heart of the Enlightened” Anthony De Mello tells the following story.

“A woman complained to a visiting friend that her neighbour was a poor housekeeper. “You should see how dirty her children are – and her house. It is almost a disgrace to be living in the same neighbourhood as her. Take a look at those clothes she has hung out on the line. See the black streaks on the sheets and towels!”

The friend walked up to the window and said, “I think the clothes are quite clean, my dear. The streaks are on your window.”

This story brings to mind words from Matthews Gospel (ch 7 vv 1- 12) “Why do you see the speck in your neighbours eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye.” It easy to pass judgement and to find fault in others but is that what our task is, to tear apart everyone else and to point out where they are going wrong? Or is it to make the most of who we are not only for ourselves but for the good of all. Is our task to be the critic who picks apart what others do? Or is it to contribute to life in whatever ways we can? I for one no longer wish to choose the path of lazy cynicism and criticism. I’d much rather do what I can and risk getting shot down.

In verse 12 of this chapter from Matthews Gospel Jesus states the Golden Rule of Compassion, the universal essence found in all the great religious traditions. Here he states those immortal words ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” In these very words I find both the problem and solution to so many of humanity's troubles; in these words we find the reason why people are so harshly critical of others. I suspect that we find fault in others because deep down inside is that insidious voice, finding fault in everything we do. People often do love their neighbour as themselves. The problem being that deep down inside they feel no real love for themselves.

You see the greatest critic of them all, the one that seems to drive all other criticism, is that inner critic that quietly tears our own souls apart. I suspect that we find fault in others so as to deflect from that voice that eats away at everything loving and good within ourselves and our world for that matter.

A couple of weeks ago I explored “Love”. During the blogspot I made reference to “Philautia” or self love. I suspect that it is the lack of true “self love” that is the root cause of so many of our human problems. So often we fail to see that we are children of love, that we are formed from love. Would that critical voice that so many of us hear have power over us if we truly understood that we are formed from love? I suspect those who pick fault and are highly critical of others do so because they really lack that sense of being formed and made in love. So many of us treat our neighbours so harshly because deep down we do not experience that love from which we are formed. It would seem that most people do in fact love their neighbours as they love themselves. When they look in the mirror they hate who looks back at them; when they look into the eyes of their neighbour they hate who looks back at them.

So what can we do about it? How do we learn to transcend that critical voice within that tells us we aren’t good enough? How do we learn to allow love to work though our very being and therefore learn to love our neighbour instead of finding fault in everything that they say and do? How do we learn to love every aspect of who we are, warts and all and beauty spots too? Well it begins by seeing that we are at our true nature creatures of love, formed from love.

I constantly hear told that life is empty and meaningless. I suspect that this may be the root of the problem. I once saw life through this lens and it was this that dragged me into nihilism and the total rejection of life. It was this that caused me to shut down and to become bound by shame. Now I see so much love, even in suffering, I’ve been experiencing a deeper sense of this in recent weeks. I no longer know despair instead I witness meaning emerging from everything, especially suffering.

Matthew (ch 7 vv8-9) reads “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

What we need is courage; what we need is to live with open hearts. Did you know that courage originally meant just this? Its etymological root is the Latin word “cor”. Courage meant to speaks one’s mind by telling all of your heart. Now these days this seems to have negative connotations. To speak one’s mind often means to speak critically, but that wasn’t the case in ancient times. To speak one’s mind by telling all of your heart meant to speak from love; it meant to speak the language of the heart; it meant to speak the language of Divine Love.

This can come again; we can live with real courage again. All we need to do is to live in the world with an open heart; all that we need to do is give all that we are to life. We don’t need to put one another down in order to feel a little better about ourselves and to deflect from our own inadequacies. Instead we can see the world through loving eyes and encourage both our selves and one another to be the best we can be and therefore create the best of this our world.

So what are you going to be today? Are you going to be the critic who stands on the sidelines pointing out the imperfections in others or you going to be all that you can be in life, give all that you have to give and encourage others to do the same.

"Do they come to see a man fall – or to see him fly?"

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Openness: Creating Temples Of Our Ears

I often "hear" it said that we have a growing literacy problem in this country. Now while I have no wish to dispute this I actually think there is a bigger issue. I think what we really suffer from is declining "listency". Most people can talk and write freely but how many of us have truly learnt how to listen? How many of us can say that the ears of our ears are awake? How many of us truly know how to worship at the altar of our ears? How many of us can truly say that we have learnt to listen with the ears of our hearts? Everyone's talking, but who's listening?

Last Sunday, during worship, I explored the question "What is Love". It was also the subject of my last blogspot. During the address I talked about the butterfly and how in order to truly understand its beauty you have to watch it fly through the gardens of life, that you can’t really understand a butterfly by pinning it down and pulling it apart. Yes you can understand what it is made of, but you can’t appreciate what it is. I used this analogy for love, explaining that you can’t understand love by pulling it apart; you can only understand it by watching it fly through the gardens of life.

Now I shared this service with three congregations, ending in the evening at Dukinfield Old Chapel. Just as worship was ending and I was offering the blessing a remarkable thing happened. A butterfly appeared in front of me and began fluttering all around my head. I stopped, half way through the benediction, and just watched it fly around the chapel, open mouthed. As I stood there in silence some of the congregations began to notice it too. After a few moments, which seemed like an eternity, I returned to my blessing and left with a broad grin on my face.

Now what on earth a butterfly was doing in an old chapel in the north of England on a wet February evening? I cannot answer. I do know that it was a beautiful moment of synchronicity and it got me thinking about the butterfly and how it opens up and is born again and that it is only after it has truly opened up that it can then fly around the gardens of life, if only for a short time.

Now the first thing I need to admit, before I continue with this conversation, is that it was not infact a butterfly that I saw it was obviously a moth; a very large and colourful moth, granted, but a moth all the same. Not that this really matters for they are related; they are both from the lepitoptera order. I will not get bogged down in the minutiae of detail. (I have since been informed by people in the know that it was very likely it was a butterfly)

In some spiritual traditions, especially those who see animals as totems, the butterfly is a symbol of transformation. It is said that when the butterfly comes into your life as a spirit guide it usually means you are either going through or will soon be going through some internal changes. It symbolises moving from one state to the next in the same way the butterfly emerges from one state to a new birth, as it metamorphosises from the pupa to the final adult stage. It is a beautiful opening up from a closed state, to a new form of life. It is this image of the beautiful butterfly opening up from the pupa that was in my mind as I drove home from Dukinfield.

I wonder if this is what is happening to me at the moment. I do feel like I am going through a process of change I have certainly been opened up in so many ways these last few weeks and months as I and those I hold most dear have lost two of our loved ones. I have spent a lot of time listening to my nearest and dearest as we have held one another in our loss. “The ears of my ears” have most certainly been reawakened in recent weeks.

Several people spoke to me last weekend about coming to new conclusions about their own lives and finding the courage to live more openly, more authentically. They talked of how they had closed down over a period of time, in an attempt to protect themselves and how this had utterly diminished their lives, they seemed quite depressed it would seem and were certainly not flying around the gardens of life, the gardens of delight. I had also heard Rev Bill Darlison discuss opening up during his talk at the Altrincham Interfaith Group Meal that Saturday night. He was specifically relating this to how as a society we had opened up so much over the last 50 years especially towards those who are different to us whether socially, ethnically and or religiously. Ok there is a long way to go, but we do at least listen to one another and engage in ways we never did before.

Bill made reference to one of the healing accounts found in Mark’s Gospel and how this was symbolic of opening up in dialogue and truly listening. The account is known as “Jesus Heals a Deaf Man” (Mark Ch 7 vv 31-37). I asked Bill about his thoughts and he sent me a sermon he’d delivered on the subject a few years earlier. In it he explains what he believes the passage and this particular section of Mark’s Gospel is attempting to teach. First of all he points 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 this section of the Gospel. 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.”

Earlier in the address he also states that:

“ objective of the spiritual life is to identify and then try to eliminate those instinctive factors which work to give us short term survival advantages, but which have now outlived their usefulness and which actually impede our development as a species.”

This brought that butterfly image powerfully to my mind and the thought of being reborn to new ideas. Remember that after the butterfly opens up it is then able to fly around in the gardens of life, the gardens of delight.

Please click here to read Bill's thoughts in full

I feel that so many of our troubles are caused by our inability to truly listen to one another and to new ideas; our troubles are caused by our arrogance and belief that we know best. Therefore by not really listening we fail to understand and therefore empathise with each other and we remain trapped by what we think we know. We are too closed down and we need to open up, to one another, to life and to God. We need to be opened up like the Buddhist Monk, arms out with his begging bowl. An image which as Thomas Merton explained “represents not just a right to beg, but openness to the gifts of all human beings as an expression of this interdependence of all beings...Thus when a monk begs from the layman it is not as a selfish person getting something from someone else. He is simply opening himself to his interdependence.” The key is to live openly and of course the key to openness is humility. No one lives apart from anyone else we are all interdependent. Also none of us knows everything, we all see through the glass dimly.

I remember the first time I heard Forrest Church’s assertion that humility and openness are the two keys to religious living, how much this struck me deep inside. I saw the truth in it. There is limitlessness in openness. Who knows how much we can truly change and learn to love if we just stay open, in our hearts and minds and senses.

It begins with our ears; it is these that need to be opened. We are after all listening creatures. Our lives begin in our mother’s wombs listening to the many sounds that surround us. Our lives end similarly; I understand that the last faculty that shuts down when we are dying is our hearing. And yet throughout our lives the thing we pay attention to the most is what we see or do not see with our eyes. Not that I’m decrying the eyes here please do not get me wrong, after all it was with my eyes that I saw the butterfly/moth last Sunday evening; nor am I really talking about the two ears either side of our heads, it’s the ears of our hearts that I really mean. What I’m really talking about is being more open to all that is life, because by doing so we will improve our “listency” skills.

So let’s begin again; lets open ourselves up to the altar of the ears.

Let’s improve our “Listency”