Sunday, 10 June 2018

Fullness brings stillness

This year has been full, very full indeed. I have certainly been living in “thick time”. I pretty much limped through May, it was a struggle at times to keep going, but I did. I oh so needed the week off I have just enjoyed.

This year has been full indeed, a near perfect example of the blessings and curses that come with “Choosing Life”, to paraphrase good old Moses. There has been professional fulfilment when I was given the honour of delivering the address at the “Anniversary Service” at our denominational annual meetings. There is no greater honour, especially for a minister as junior as myself. Mixed with this though have been the hardships in both congregations, as we have lost so many beloved members, the pastoral demands have been somewhat overwhelming.

Personally it has been a mixed year too. I have fallen beautifully in love, my relationship with Sue is just the most incredible joy and blessing. That said it has not been without challenges within both our families. My own family has been torn apart by the suicide of my step brother Daniel. To witness the pain and suffering in those I love has been almost unbearable at times.

This year has been oh so full. Too much, oh too much at times. My mind has felt filled to overflowing and this has left my heart almost empty. It’s a strange feeling to be filled up to brim with life and yet at the same time to feel almost empty in my being at the same time. A very strange paradox indeed.

My life and my mind have been too full and as a result I have felt emptied of my inner resources, my heart and my soul. This has led to a disconnect at times.

All this brings to mind the story of a university professor who visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The professor began to ask questions while the master just sat quietly, listening. After a while the master began to pour tea into the professor’s cup. The cup soon filled up, but the master did not stop pouring. The tea soon began to spill over on to the table. Initially the professor just sat there in stunned silence, he did not know what to do. Eventually he could take no more and shouted out “It’s overfull. No more will go in!” The master stopped pouring and simply said “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

It would appear that a full cup, an overflowing cup, is not such a great thing.

Is this so? Is a cup filled to overflowing always a bad thing?

There is another image of an overflowing cup that comes to mind. This is from the 23rd Psalm. Here it is said that King David sings of God as a shepherd who will see him safely through the Valley of Death. “Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” In the psalm the overflowing cup is an excess of goodness, a symbol of abundance, a source of joy. I I believe that the same is true of love. Can you ever be too full of love?

So we have two images of cups overflowing: One depicting a mind that is too full and therefore unable to focus or learn something new; the other depicting a cup overflowing with love that will enable us to live full lives despite the presence of fear.

Is there a contradiction here, is this a dilemma? Well only if you get lost in the metaphor, the curse of the literalist. The two images are of course depicting different aspects of our humanity.

The Zen story is describing the mind, whereas the Psalm is depicting the heart. It is talking of God’s infinite love. So yes we can be full abundantly with love and yet still have a mind that is clear. Experience has revealed to me that it is the full heart that enables me to clear my mind and not a clear head that leads me to a full heart.

As I look back at my life I can see clearly that it is when my heart is filled with love that my mind begins to clear. There have been times when my head has been so full that there just was no more room for anything else; times when my life was just too full and I couldn’t create space, when prayer and meditation was not enough. My head doesn’t spin these days, thank God, but I can still begin to not feel life again, as my body becomes detached from my soul.

This has happened again in recent months. I so needed last week. I needed to stop, my soul needed to catch up with my body. I needed to let my heart be filled; I needed to once again be touched by the joy of living, as I was in danger of becoming detached from life.

You don’t always get what you want though. The week began with pain and suffering as a dear friend of Sue and mine died. It began in sadness as we felt our pain and that of our friends and our friend's loved ones, not least her children. We set off to Yorkshire, with heavy hearts, as we headed over the hills to be with my family. We spent two days with them. It was a time filled with a great deal of joy and love, but also deep sadness. There is a high level of anxiety and suffering about. This is pretty clear as we are coming to terms with Daniel’s death. It was a beautiful but also a painful time.

There was though joy and laughter too as we came together in love and concern. I also spent time showing Sue around the places I grew up. There were several amusing moments. One was walking around Morley town centre. Did you know you can get a haircut there for £4.99. I also showed her the worst statue in England. It is of Ernie Wise, which is nothing compared to wonderful one of Eric Morecambe. The statue looks like it was made on Scarborough Beach and could be of anyone. A drunken man passed us as we stood there aghast, I said “It looks nothing like him.” To which the drunken man replied “ey’ looks less him by the day.” We wandered off in laughter. I then shared stories of my childhood, some sad, some beautiful and other hilarious as we headed up over hills and down valleys. We visited Batley Park. As we got out of the car I looked up at a house opposite and saw something I did not expect to see. I said to Sue “Look there’s Mrs Doubtfire”. She looked at me dubiously thinking I was being rude about someone. I kept on repeating “Look there’s Mrs Doubtfire” until she eventually looked up and stood there wide eyed. There in the upstairs window of the house was a life sized cardboard cut-out of Mrs Doubtfire peering through the curtains. We just burst into laughter, took a picture and have been sharing it with folk ever since. We laughed a lot that week, finding joy, love and humour as our minds began to clear and our hearts filled.

The second half of the week was spent “glamping” (which is merely glamorous camping). We stayed alone in the middle of knowhere sleeping in a Romany caravan and living in beautiful cabin in the middle of an orchard. It was a beautiful time as we slowed, slept, enjoyed each others company and our souls truly began to catch up with our bodies. My heart as never been fuller and my mind could not have been emptier.

We all need to let our souls catch up with our bodies. We are not fully alive when our hearts, minds, bodies and souls are not at one. This brings to mind another favourite tale about a workaholic businessman who decided to take a Safari. He plotted a course and determined a time-table. He hired workers from a local village to carry the various containers and cases. On the first morning, the entire party roused early, travelled very, very fast and went very, very far. On the second morning, they roused early, travelled very, very fast and went very, very far. On the third day, the same. On the fourth morning, the local tribesmen refused to move. The man gestured irately and fumed at the translator to get them going. “They will not move,” the translator relayed.

“Why not?” the man bellowed, thinking of all the time wasted and dollars spent. “Because,” the translator said, “they are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”

We need to allow our souls to catch up with us. We need to fully experience our lives, otherwise we become human doings as opposed to human beings. We need to pause and to make space in our lives, to truly appreciate what is actually there. To fully feel life, to fill our hearts to overflowing this allows us to find stillness in our being and fully live our finite lives.

What I have learnt, again, is that in order to fully live our lives we need space, we need a kind of emptiness, we need a cup that is not overly full in order to focus on what life is offering us. That said in order to do this we need to be still at times, still enough to allow our souls to catch up with our bodies and for the love that is always there to fill our open and vulnerable hearts. We all need to allow this abundant love to fill us up and to flow from us and to let it pour out into our lives. For after all we were all born to love.

So I say to you this day and every day sing and rejoice abandon yourself to love and anoint one another regardless of the troubles that may come your way.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Authentic Belonging

At the recent minister’s conference, that I attended, we were asked to take part in an exercise that invited us to explore belonging; to ask ourselves where in the world we belong? We were asked to consider where we would like to be buried or our ashes to be scattered after we died. It seems that some of my colleagues had no trouble with this question at all, while others really struggled. I was one of the ones who struggled. I initially objected internally as I thought to myself I am too young to think about such things. I soon got over myself and then began to struggle with what I would want to happen to my remains, as I felt belonged to more than one place and or one group of people. It was interesting to listen to what others shared, where and with whom they belonged. I felt relieved when I heard one or two others wanted to separate their ashes. This was because I knew that I would have to do the same. I decided that I would initially split mine in half and that one of those halves would be split in half again. I decided that one quarter would be with my dad and grandparents, in the cemetery at Bruntcliffe, Morley and the other quarter with my mum’s family grave in Batley, where both of my maternal grandparents are. I then left the second half open as I hope I have another half of life yet to live and who knows to where and with who I will belong by then. That second half of my “dash” of loving and belonging is yet to be lived.

It was a really good exercise to participate in as it made me think about who exactly I belong to; what it is that makes me who I am. No one lives completely by themselves we all belong to other people in so many ways. Yes we belong to ourselves, but we also belong to one another.

The other morning, in my meditation group, I was listening to a Jewish friend whose daughter is about to get married. It is going to be a huge wedding and the whole family are travelling to Israel for four days of celebration. My friend had recently travelled back to Leeds, where he grew up, with his other daughter. They visited the cemetery where his parents and sister are buried. They were keeping with the traditions of their religion and inviting the spirit of their dead relatives to accompany them to the wedding. It was a deeply emotional thing for my friend to do as I know that the death of his sister, at such a young age, had affective him deeply. He told me that he left a stone at the grave, which again is part of the tradition and noticed that other relatives must have been there in recent times as there were many stones at the grave. I can see clearly how important this ritual was for him as he moves forward and his family move forward. Ritual is so important in life, something that is diminishing in recent times. I see more and more how vital it is to my life and the lives of others as we move through the many transitions of our lives.

I’ve been thinking a lot about belonging in recent times. The people who have made me who I am, that have influenced my life and the people whose lives I have touched too. I have entered into someone else’s life and family in recent months as my relationship with Sue has blossomed and flowered. I recently spent a day with her siblings and members of her family. I didn’t find this too much of a challenge actually. They have been very welcoming. I suspect that the reason I have been at ease is because I do belong in my own being. I can be myself in the company of others; I don’t need to try to fit into the lives of others and fall for the trap of false belonging.

Now belonging is not always easy for some of us, perhaps all of us at times. During another conversation I had with a friend I was recently reminded of the loneliest time of my life, when I felt I did not belong anywhere. In those days I tried hard to fit it, but this was not authentic and just left me with this sense of utter loneliness. Thankfully these days I feel a sense of authentic belonging to myself, to life, to the spirit of all life and thus feel I can belong pretty much anywhere. I can be myself in the company of most people.

Sadly many people, for a variety reason do not feel like they belong. Now of course some of this can be an inner sense of rejection, but not wholly, some people do feel that they cannot be themselves fully and thus do not always belong. Sadly some people and places do not always welcome all, do not always invite all to come as they are...

How do we help a person to belong? Well it begins with welcome, to say come as you are, exactly as you are. This though is not always easy. Identity and how people identify themselves can be complicated. This has become particularly apparent around gender in recent times. I know I have got it wrong on occassion myself , I have hopefully not hurt or offended anyone in my clumsiness. I am trying, but there is room for improvement in this area.

I do not want to exclude anyone from my circle of love and want everyone to feel that are accepted in my company, that they belong. Certainly as a minister I want people to feel that they can truly be who they are in the communities I serve. I truly want all to feel that they can come as they are and that no aspect of their humanity will be rejected. I do not want anyone to feel that need to fit into some ideal, and that in order to belong they have to do so falsely. Whether that be age, gender identity, sexuality, politics and belief or lack of.

To belong means that you are accepted for who you are wholly, not partially; whereas fitting in means that you have to change who you are in some way in order to be accepted. Belonging is really about being loved without condition. This is the love that Jesus speaks of in the Gospels. This is the perfect love that is spoken of in Matthew’s Gospel, from “The Sermon on the Mount”. “Therefore be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” I actually think that this is the only thing that we can do perfectly. I am striving for this every day. Perfect love is about welcoming one another exactly as we are, warts and all and beauty spots too.

A sense of belonging is a deeply precious thing. It is belonging that helps us become who we are meant to be. It is a sense of belonging that helps us to truly be who we are. By being who we are we encourage others to truly be who they are and thus belong authentically. It is so easy to fall for the trap of false belonging and to try and fit it.

The late John O’Donohue in his wonderful book “Anam Cara”, hits the nail squarely on the head with regard to our struggles to be who we are and to find a real sense of belonging. I love the way that he relates belonging to longing and yearning. He suggests that we need to find a balance in belonging and that often our problems stem from not being truly at home with ourselves. That we should be our own longing. That the key is to be-long within ourselves. If we belong within ourselves then we will feel at ease and belong wherever we are. Therefore the sense of who we are, our identity, will not be ruled by the need to fit in, to belong, externally.

A little while ago a friend of mine posted the following quote by Brene Brown, it was during an on-line conversation on identity and belonging:

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

I’ve listened to quite a bit of Brene Brown over the last few years and I have to say she speaks to the soul of me. I love what she has to say about the difference between “Belonging” and “Fitting in”, that they are not the same thing, although they are often mistaken for one another.

Brene Brown explains that “Fitting in” is really about assessing situations and becoming the person that you believe you need to be in order to be accepted and acceptable. Whereas “Belonging” does not require us to change who we are, but to be who we really are.

Belonging is an innate desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves. This is a primal yearning, deep within the soul of us and thus we often try to acquire it by fitting in and seeking approval from others. Now not only does this not satisfy this yearning it actually becomes a barrier to it. In so doing we lose our identity and feel even more lost and lonely. True belonging you see only happens when we present our true, authentic, imperfect selves to the world, “warts and all” and beauty spots too. Unless we are at home within ourselves we will never feel that we belong anywhere.

I believe that the primary purpose of my free religious tradition, of the communities I serve, is to create an environment where people can find their true belonging. My role as a minister is to create an environment where individuals can truly become who they are and to share that with each other. Yes it is true that each individual is unique but each can only truly become who they are in community with others. No one belongs wholly to themselves. No one is an island. From the day we are born we are part of families and communities. Now of course these can be oppressive and inhibiting or they can be liberating and life enhancing and can give us the environment to truly become who we are, all that we were born to be, without apology. Where we can practice perfect love for ourselves, one another, for God and all life. This is "Beloved Community", a space where you can become all that you are, in community with others.

By coming as we are and being all that we are, without apology we belong authentically, not falsely. Therefore, I have come to believe, our task is to find the courage to come as we are, exactly as we are, warts and all and beauty spots too and to let our light shine on one another and thus invite them to do the same.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Becoming Juicy People with Holy Curiosity

I was out the other night with friends enjoying a meal. It was one of our numbers fortieth birthday. We had a wonderful evening full of life, full of joy, full of laughter and of course full of food. We did get some funny looks from others in the restaurant due primarily to the joy and abandon in our gathering. I enjoy similar experiences on a Tuesday morning with the group of folk I go for coffee with after our early morning mediation. We fill Café Nero with the joy of living, despite its very real troubles. Oh how I love the company of juicy people.

Juicy people brings to mind the following lines from Walt Whitman’s “The body electric”, the fourth stanza:

I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.

There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well,
All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.

Rick Heffern in his book “Daybreak Within: Living in a Sacred World” writes about the twelfth century Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen, she suggested that the key to living spiritually alive is to become “juicy people”. That such people need to be filled with wonder and curiosity and live with lusty appetites and high spirits and that they embrace life liberty and they pursue happiness “with a burly grinning bear hug”, It is suggested that to “be juicy is to be: a fearlessly joyous optimist, a troublemaker tirelessly afflicting the comfortable, a passionate lover of good talk and tasty food, an an anonymous prophet hovering over the cosmological riddle, a frequent violator of the ordinance against indecent exposure of the heart, and a guerilla in the insurrection against Dream Molesters everywhere."

When I think about my friends from the other night and the ones I share meditation and morning coffee with, they are juicy people. They are filled with a enthusiasm for life, they hunger and thirst for a life filled with passion, they seek joy in each moment, despite the real troubles that we all face. They see a goodness in life. They proclaim that all is well, not perfect, but well. They bring alive the juiciness of human being.

There is nothing like eating with and simply sharing the company of juicy people. When you do there is a richness to the company, you experience deep conversation, deep laughter and a joy that no one can take away. They experience the goodness of life and want to share it with you, to welcome you to their table of love and joy. In such company you are challenged to grow, but not grow alone. It is about raising one another up and aiming high, it is not about playing it safe. When I reflect on the near eight years I have meditated with these people I have witnessed deep transformation in our shared human being. Do you know what I think that this has come as much from the hour we have shared in Café Nero as the hour we spent in meditation and sharing. Groovy times with “juicy people”.

Now “Juicy people” are by their nature curious. They are spiritual seekers. They do not merely ask questions, but attempt to live them, to bring them to life. Curiosity always begins with a question. Just think of every two and three year old you have ever known, or every puppy you have ever known for that matter, is there anything more “juicy”? They are full of curiosity and ask questions of everything. Think about the little ones you have known, everything you ever tell them ends with that frustrating one word response “Why?” You can’t take your eyes off them either, their fingers and or noses are into everything.

Now as we get older we lose a little of this, perhaps because we start to realise that there will always be questions that we cannot fully answer. Yes we have gained experience but we do not know everything and I don’t suppose we ever will.

This brings to mind a wonderful little story about an encounter with a Zen master and his student:

“What happens when we die?” asks the student.
“I don’t know,” is the answer.
“But you’re a Zen master!”
“True. Quite true. But I am not a dead Zen master.”

So yes there are many questions that no matter how well we live them we will never be able to fully answer.

Now there are other groups of “juicy people” that I have the pleasure of sharing time with. One is the monthly “Living the Questions” group. An ever changing group by the way. A group which each month explores and attempts to bring to life the questions of truly living. It has been a joy and blessing to be part of this these last few years, it has certainly transformed me and I have witnessed this in others too. The inspiration for the group’s title come from a favourite passage from “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. In it the poet Rilke writes a letter to his protégé the 19 year old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus making a beautiful case for the importance of not merely asking questions, but living them, while embracing uncertainty and allowing for the development of intuition.

Rilke writes:

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

This to me is the essence of living the “juicy” life, to curious living.

Now I’m not sure that our day and age encourages “juiciness” in people; I’m not overly sure it encourages doubt and curiosity, to live the questions. It seems today that folk are encouraged to have an opinion, voice it with conviction and voice it again and again and again. This to me seems to be a faithless form of living, where people cling desperately to partisanship. Certainly this is the case when you look at public dialogue. It would appear that to live juicily, with curiosity is to let go of certainty, now this seems out of step with our current age. Well that maybe, but surely curiosity is the key to faithful living as it allows the transformation of our humanity, this kind of faithful uncertainty requires courage.

Victoria Safford describes what I mean beautifully in her meditation “Open Eyes”. She states:

“The awakened eye is a conscious eye, a willful eye, and brave, because to see things as they are, each in its own truth, will make you very vulnerable.”

This unselfconscious vulnerability, this openness is how the curious, very young live. They see without preconceived notions. They see with open eyes and then ask why, why, why, why?

Now of course we cannot look with children;s eyes, we have to look with adult eyes and this to me is how we begin to live the questions, to become what Heldegard of Bigen suggests as living “juicy lives”. I suspect that Safford captures this beautifully when she writes that “To see, simply to look and to see, is an ethical act and intentional choice; to see, with open eyes, is a spiritual practice and thus a risk, for it can open you to ways of knowing the world and loving it that will lead to inevitable consequences.”

We adults can do what those young children do but with ethical eyes looking out at the world and acting in the world as adults. Through this we begin to be transformed as we live with this curiosity and begin to act differently in the world.

This is where transformation begins. Transformation of ourselves and our world as we begin to live the questions, as we become juicy people as we develop what Albert Einstein called “Holy Curiosity.” Which is to live with the spirit of humility, with an open mind, an open heart and open hands, to search out truth and to live with your eyes wide open in joyful wonder.

I’m going to end this "blogspot" with Einstein’s quote on “Holy Curiosity”. He said:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

So let’s live with “holy curiosity”, living the questions as ever more juicy people.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Grief, the price we pay for Love

I remember attending a funeral many years, long before I became a minister, before I’d even considered becoming one actually; I remember being told before the funeral that many in attendance may not actually be grieving for the person for who’s funeral it was, but for other losses and other people and memories of other funerals they have attended in the past.

Now a strange thing happened at this funeral I did not weep at all. The truth is that I was all cried out at the time. It was just a few days after Ethan’s funeral and I’d been broken in grief for several weeks by then. I remember noticing people crying and breaking down and wondering if they were crying for my grandma, or for others they had lost in the past. It was probably a mixture of both and does not really matter in any case. The tears and sorrow were real, the grief was real, caused by the loss of someone that they loved.

I have over the years felt some guilt for how I shed no tears on the day. I do not today though as I know that at the time I was all cried out, I was in a numb stage of the grieving experience, my heart was not able to express my love for my grandma there and then, it was just too broken by another loss.

Over the years, as I have attended and conducted many funerals, and looked at those in attendance, as they have grieved. As I have connected with them in their tears and grief I have often wondered if they were grieving for the deceased or another loved one, probably a mixture of both. I have wondered about my own tears and grief too on such occasions.

Well last Friday I had my question partially answered. It was my day off and I was spending it with Sue, who almost had a day off too. There was just one thing she had to do and that was conduct a funeral. I decided I’d like to accompany her. One reason was to see her at work, it was beautiful to do so. We arrived and I stood to one side, a stranger amongst people I did not know.

Well actually I did know some of the people, the funeral director and staff.

We entered and I sat towards the back as Sue "held" us through the service. Almost immediately I began to weep and wept throughout most of the service. It was not for the woman whose service it was. Or even her loved ones. I cannot have been as I did not know them. No what was happening is that I was able to fully let go, to be held in love and to experience my own grief. My grief for my step brother Daniel and my whole confusing and wounded family; my grief for an old friend whose funeral I had recently conducted and my grief for the congregants, and their loved ones, that have died in recent months. I also re-felt many other losses from over the years. The tears just kept coming. I was able to sink into my own grief, because for the first time I did not need to think about others in attendance, to watch out for their pain. I was able to let go and to be held by that incredible love that is there at the core of all life when I am fully open to it…As the song goes “All you’ve got to do is surrender.” Well surrender I did.

All of us belong to the largest community on God’s sweet earth, the community of grievers. Grief is the price we pay for love, it is a price worth paying, for what is life without love? It is nothing, it is meaningless, just an empty vessel. The only way to escape grief is to totally armour your heart and deny love. Now who would want to do that, to live without love, to live the life of a zombie?

I have for the last year or so been hosting a grief group “The Colours of Grief: Our Shared Experience of Love and Loss”. It has been an incredible and richly rewarding experience, so deeply moving. It has been about love, as those who have come and gone and come again have held one another in the spirit of love, and shared their own experiences of love and loss.

It has confirmed powerfully to me that grief is all about love; grief is the price we pay for love. No one is immune from it. It is what holds all of us together.

Yes we all belong to the largest community on earth, the community of grievers. Now while it is the largest community on earth it is one that most of us do not want to belong to. I am sure that this has always been the case, but today this seems even clearer than at any time in the past. We live in almost death denying times. We live in times where we are supposed to be able to rise above our problems, our troubles, our struggles. Even modern, so called, spirituality seems to suggest this. That we can rise above anything if we just manifest it. Grief and death though show us otherwise. If I know nothing else I know that grief is not something we rise above or even get over, grief is something that levels us that brings us down to our human finite selves. I suspect that this is why acceptance is considered the last stage of grief, because somewhere in all us is this false belief that it can’t really bring us down to human size.

Grief changes you. That said it is not really the loss that does this, but the love that is at the core of grief. Now what hurts so much about grief is the loss, the very real physical loss of the one that we love. There is no consolation for this and we do not get over it either, the pain of such loss becomes a part of us, just as the love we shared becomes a part of us. What actually happens, in time, is that our life enlarges once again and we are not dominated by the intense feelings as much as we once were. That said from time to time the grief will overwhelm us, this can happen years later. Well that is love and loss, it is meant to overwhelm us from time to time. By the way there is no time limit to love and loss either. To quote Mark Nepo, we humans are fish swimming in the ocean, not God’s who carve our rivers and this ought to humble us. Grief, love and loss always humbles us. As Stephanie Ericcsons says in “Companion through the Darkness”. “Grief is a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes you up into its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces, only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped.”

When we lose someone that we love, it changes us forever. Life will never be quite the same again. We do not rise above the pain of grief, we cannot pretend that it is not there, we don’t simply get over it. What happens is that we are changed by it and as a result our hearts are enlarged by it and we grow as human beings, if the love has truly been realized. You see grief is really about transformation, rather than transcendence, by the way this is the true nature purpose of religion. Grief is not an attempt to explain the loss or even understand some meaning locked into what happened. Instead, it seems to me, that grief is more about finding meaning in the absence of an explanation.

Grief is about finding meaning in the absence of an explanation. This is what the transformative power of love is about too. As I look at my life and my ministry actually it is really about meaning rising once again from the ashes of defeat and loss and suffering. I know why I am here today, there is no despair, for I have a life rich in meaning, despite the very real experience of suffering, of loss and grief.

In “Love and Death” Forrest Church wrote “Love is grief’s advance party.” I know day by day I seem to love even more. As a result I know that I will know more grief. This does not fill me with too much fear. As I look around at the people I serve and the people I share my life with, as I walk the streets of the town I live in and move in the many varied communities that I belong to, I feel my heart filling and sometimes this brings a tear to my eye knowing that the physical aspect will come and go, but still the love will go on transforming my life and all of our lives so long as we find the courage, the heart, to love, so long as we do not harden our hearts.

Grief truly is the price we pay for love, but then what else is their worth dying for other than love. Surely we all want to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for, by the love we leave behind.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Prepare for Surprise

"The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!"

Robbie Burns

No matter how careful we plan and scheme life never works out exactly as we would like. Life is full of surprises, some amazing, some terrible. Life is awry and usually or do I mean unusually incredible. Brother David Steindt Rast said "Another name for God is surprise." Ah yes the God of surprises, isn’t this the true nature of life? Surprise. It fills me with awe.

I’ve been thinking about surprise quite a lot these last few days. I’ve also been thinking about how we respond to life. How the things that happen to us can shape our lives in incredible ways. How many times in life have we received that phone call that has changed our lives forever?

I received one such phone call just a few weeks back when my sister called me, broken, to inform me that our step brother Daniel had taken his own life. A moment of numbing shock, not merely surprise. At our Daniel’s funeral I talked with many people. One conversation in particular stood out. It was with an old friend. Someone I have known for almost forty years. During the conversation he asked me about the work I do. He informed me that he calls himself a “born again atheist”. He talked about church parade etc when we were cub scouts and his early encounters with religion. He then began to talk about his family. Of him nursing his father while he was dying and then of the death of his son in a car accident. He spoke of his step children and his mother. Of his physical difficulties and the amount of opiate based painkillers he has to take each day. We spoke of old friends too and times gone and then he wished me well in my ministry. There was a lot of love, but also pain and loss in the conversation. It was a day filled with conversations about love and loss, but then that is the nature of grief.

Over the last week I’ve been thinking of similar moments in my life, when I have received devastating news about those I love and how I have responded to these moments. There were times when I turned away from life in despair, something that happens rarely these days; these days I usually turn towards the Divine and back towards life. This may seem strange to some, but it is actually in the hardest and darkest times that I experience the Divine most intensely, when I truly feel that God is with us. The God of my limited understanding is not the controller of life, instead I find God with me in suffering, but also Joy. I find the Divine at the heart of experience. Now I cannot adequately explain this, I can only share my experience and to stand here in awe.

This still surprises me…

We live in an almost death denying age. I think I understand why. I have known such temptations. That said by denying such realities we do not transcend the suffering that loss brings all we really do is block ourselves off from the joy that comes with truly living. In so doing we also deny the love and depth of meaning that comes with living, with truly being alive. Life, love and death is meant to fill us will awe. For life is truly awful, it is meant to fill us with awe. We are meant to be filled with awe in the old meaning of the word.

Now while we live in a world that wants to sanitise suffering we see ever more violence on our screens that we spend so much of our time staring into. Our entertainment seems to be ever more violent, punctuated by advertising. How many times I have sat of an evening recently, with Sue, looking for something to watch on Netflix and struggling to find anything worth watching. So much of what passes for entertainment is just full of murder, intrigue and violence. They are so predictable too. I have noticed that virtually every film I’ve watched recently has been so predictable that I have worked out the plot twists in the first 10 minutes. Gosh how I wish for a surprise. When we sanitise death, we sanitise life and it almost becomes unreal. So much so that it no longer touches. Life is meant to touch us deeply. Life is meant to surprise us constantly to fill us with awe.

Yet so often we don’t want this. We want to know what’s coming, so we can prepare ourselves. What was the phrase that the character played by John Cleese in the film “Clockwise” cried out “It’s not the despair, I can live with the despair, it’s the hope” that destroys you. It seems if he could have just given in it would have been easier, but hope kept on rearing its head.

A friend recently sent the following story to me, told by Roger Housden in “Ten Poems to Change Your Life”

"There is a Jewish story saying that when you are about to be born, God takes you to a field covered with bundles. Each bundle represents a particular set of troubles. You can choose any bundle, but the one you choose you have to take to Earth with you. The rabbis say that if, at the moment of death, God were to take you back to that field and let you choose another bundle with which to relive your life, you would always pick the same one.”

By the way it is no doubt we would do the same with our bundles of joy. When I think of all the things we fear in life, it is surprise that we fear the most. We like to know waht's coming, even if it's abundle of troubles. It seems that it is surprise that we fer the most.

We spend so much of our times finding ways to avoid the suffering and pain that are part of life. It seems we can only really bare to look at these things through our screens and devices. This seems to me to be going against the nature of life as it is meant to be. Life is full of surprises, they move us and change us. I have been surprised by many things over the last week. Before Daniel’s funeral I was apprehensive about what might occur. I was worried about what might happen, by how people might be with each other. Yet when the day came I was pleasantly surprised. I was more than that I was deeply moved by the expressions of love and healing shared by so many. I bore witness to almost miracles actually. I’ve bore witness to a few others in the last few days too. I have noticed and absorbed several things. I have been awed by the people and events I am surrounded by.

I have found myself trembling in awe. I have never felt more alive.

Awe is perhaps the ultimate form of surprise. When we are stirred by awe it is so unfathomable, vast and complex that we can’t quite believe it. Like all forms of surprise awe makes us stop, it awakens something within us and it shifts our perspectives. It changes us and makes us want to share our experiences with others. Sadly these days so many of us want to freeze the moment, take out phones and take a picture of it. We cannot capture moments. All we can do is open ourselves to the vastness of life. The most dangerous thing to life is the ability to predict what is coming as it will stop you living life. It will freeze us completely in the moment.

We cannot predict the future. None of us know what is coming. If we could we would probably do all we could to avoid it and thus commit the ultimate sin, to live an unlived life. All we can do is open ourselves to the God of surprises and be filled by the awe of life. Life should fill you with awe, it truly is awe filled, it is literally awful.

Life is meant to be awry, we are meant to be surprised by it. We cannot prepare ourselves for life. All we can actually prepare ourselves for is the fact that we are always going to be surprised, and awed by life…The only way to do this is to be open and to remain open and when we begin to close down, open ourselves again…To live our lives fully alive is to find ourselves constantly trembling in awe at the amazement of life...Life is the ultimate miracle if you think about. Isn't it amazing that we live at all. It should always stir us, move us and ultimately surprise is.

I’m going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with a wonderful, perhaps awful (it certainly fills me with awe) quotation by the great twentieth century Jewish mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was a contemporary of the great twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who was one of his closest friends. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, they were great friends in the civil rights movement. When he introduced King as the keynote speaker to the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative rabbis sang “We Shall Overcome” to him in Hebrew, the language of the biblical prophets who both King and Heschel came to embody for that generation. Dr King was meant to share the Passover Seder dinner with the Heschel family, but was murdered just two weeks after giving that speech, 50 years ago almost to the day.

To truly live our lives we must be stirred by awe and wonder every day. I suspect that Heschel believed in the God of surprises and that the Divine is with us in our suffering and that we bring that love alive when we stand with others in theirs.

He said:

“I would say about individuals: an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. What keeps me alive — spiritually, emotionally, intellectually — is my ability to be surprised. I say, I take nothing for granted. I am surprised every morning that I see the sun shine again. When I see an act of evil, I am not accommodated — I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it; why I can fight against it. We must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”

So let’s attempt to become more maladjusted to life, to live in constant surprise and to stand side by side with one another in total awe.

Let's sing of the total amazement that we are alive. A song of praise, the only true prayer of life.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Four funerals and one wedding: Circles of Inclusion

“Widening Circles” by Rainer Maria Rilke translation by Joanna Macy and Anita

Barrows from “Book of Hours, I 2”

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

I want to share with a story about four funerals and one wedding, kind of the opposite of the classic British film, “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. Actually it’s a story of three funerals, one wedding, a memorial service and a few other things, but that just doesn’t sound as snapping as “Four Funerals and a Wedding.” It’s a story about overlapping circles and the many ways that people, families and communities overlap and interact and how all of us belong to one another and to life in so many ways. Nothing is simple, nothing is black and white, all life is a rich tapestry, a rainbow, we all move in ever widening and overlapping circles. We are all one humanity and one human family, born on one earth, under one sky, with one spirit running through it all and yet we create division and so often see others as somehow different.

The story begins at Queens Road Unitarian Free Church, Urmston, at Betty Hydes funeral. A beautiful and moving occasion for a much loved member of the Queens Road family. Betty had joined the Queens Road circle when she had married John Hydes who had been a part of Queens Road for more than fifty years. Both John and Betty were widowed and had come together and brought two families into widening circles.

Following the funeral I returned home to be with my hurting complicated family. I was going to be with those I love as my step brother Daniel had taken his own life. Daniel had been a part of my circle of life and love for over twenty years after his dad and my mum married. His funeral which I attended last Thursday was the fourth funeral of this story. A hard day, a heart breaking day, but one overflowing with comassion as peole came togther to hold each other in their love and loss, their grief.

The day of Betty’s funeral, as I returned home, ended in the living room of our Mandy. I had gone there at the end of tough and painful day with our Natalie. We shared with one another, sharing our pain together and it ended in a hug as we held one another. Now our Natalie is my half-sister, she has the same mum but a different dad to me. Our Mandy is our Natalie’s half-sister too , but she shares the same father and a different mum to our Natalie. So Mandy was my step-sister for many years at least legally, but the truth is that she is my sister and we have been together since I was three years old. We share a deep love for one another and hold one another in the same circle of compassion. Our wider families are complicated and fragmented but the circle of love we share and are a part of is very strong.

The second funeral was for a man known as Dave, as “Dave the hairdresser” to many of the friends I shared with him. It was a funeral that I knew was coming for several months before he died and I had spent quite a bit of time with him over the last year preparing the service as he wanted it. I have known Dave for over fifteen years. He was my first recovery sponsor and helped in some of the darkest days of my life. We had a complex relationship. There was a time we did not speak, as he hurt me and let me down. That said in recent years we made our peace. It was a beautiful experience learning about his whole life, creating the service and leading it and sharing it with the many people he loved and who loved him. As I led his coffin into Manchester Crematorium emotion and fear hit me, so I did as I always do and prayed for some of that invisible help that runs through all life and I believe is at the core of all life and mine too and as I like to say, I did my job and did it well. The reception afterwards was moving too as I mixed with the many different circles of people that knew Dave, his family, his old friends, his recovery community and his spiritual community, who are mainly connected to the spiritualist church. As I walked away from the reception I was overcome with exhaustion and emotion. Thankfully Sue was with me and I went back to her home. It has been a difficult and emotional time of late, deeply draining in many ways.

Towards the end of last week the exhaustion really hit. On Friday night I spent time in one of Sue’s circles. It is mainly a women’s circle and this Friday night was a dancing circle and a kind of spiritual healing one. I had enjoyed it the last time I went, but this time it was a struggle. It was nothing to do with the occasion, it was me. I was exhausted, emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. I hit a rock bottom that evening, in fact in the middle of the evening I physically laid down in a heap on the ground. I surrendered to the ground of being, to that spirit at the core of life. I had kept going in recent weeks and my body said no more. I have been here before and knew that this would be a turning point. I knew I would be ok.

For the last few weeks I had kept going through my duties, my family’s pain, the week at the general assembly meetings. I fulfilled my duties, I have wanted to do so, although the congregations I serve would have let me take time off, infact they encouraged it, for this I am deeply grateful. The love and support I have received from the many circles of love and community I move in has been just been incredible. I received some beautiful gifts in the post this week too. Two stand out, a beautiful card from the folk from Dukinfield Old Chapel and a prayer shawl from those at the Octogan chapel Norwich. So many beautiful gifts of love have filled my heart and soul.

...The story contines...

Over the last weekend I conducted a wedding for a couple who have attended Dunham Road occasionally. The groom Geoff has been a part of the “Living the Questions” circle for several years. The bride Megan is also a part of another circle of mine. The one I grew up in, as she comes from the village of Birstall in West Yorkshire. The same village that Joseph Priestley, one of key figures of my chosen Unitarian faith’s history. The wedding and the reception I and Sue attended that evening was so needed. The circle at the reception I sat in that night was a beautiful tonic as we shared stories and laughed together. Two of Megan’s aunts were at our table and I think Sue got a glimpse of the spirit found in folk from that part of the world. She will have to get used to it as she becomes a part of my family circle. Something she got a bigger experience off this week at our Daniel's funeral.

...Yorkshire is not just a place, it's also a state of mind...

Last Sunday, after leading worship, I accompanied Sue as she headed into Manchester to conduct a memorial service for someone known as Mary. It was held on Canal street, in a bar in what is known as “The Gay Village” and afterwards in Sackville Gardens. Now Mary had already had her funeral but that was for the male aspect of her life. You see Mary identified as trans-gender and this service was to mark this aspect of her life. It was a deeply moving service as people spoke of her life, of this circle of her life and the impact she had made on so many lives. I even bumped into a couple of people I know from other past circles I have moved in. I cannot go anywhere without this happening. I have moved in many circles in my life

Everyone’s life is complex and made up of many circles. These circles overlap. This is wonderful and beautiful. No one ever fully knows another or moves in exactly the same circle. This is the nature of life and it is a beautiful thing. It only becomes a problem when our cirlces become ones of exclusion, rather than inclusion. This brings to mind the following verse from the poem “Epigrams” by Edwin Markham. It is from the middle section “Outwitted”


He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

These simple four lines speaks to me about the nature of spiritual community; it is about ever widening our circles and inviting others in. Love is there at the core ever empowering us to even widen our cirlces. Sadly too often in life we fail to do this, we draw circles to exclude so many for a variety of reasons. When we look at our own lives surely we will see our own personal circle, our family circle, our community circle, our political circle, our social circle, moving ever onwards. Now while each circle includes ever more people, we still exclude oh so many.

We see circles of exclusion everywhere; we see suspicion of others who we see as different to us growing. This cannot be a good thing. It is happening within nations and between nations; it is happening within cultures and between cultures; it is happening within the faith traditions and between the faith traditions as well as those who wish to see an end to faith. It is happening within ourselves too. I often wonder if we are expanding our circles of experience and understanding or whether are we are in actual fact retreating into what we think we know.

So what can we do? Well I believe we can do much. Where does it begin? Well I believe it begins in our own hearts and souls, in our own homes and in our own communities. We need to begin to expand our own circles. How do we do this? Well we reach deep within ourselves to the ultimate source of love and in doing so we can reach beyond our own human created limits and begin to ever widen our circles. It begins by seeing where and how we exclude ourselves and others from our circles. Now of course this will not stop others from limiting their circles but then that should not matter if we expand our circles of love to include all, even those who wish to keep others out.

Now this is no easy task, of course it is not. That said I believe that it is one that is worth undertaking. I believe it is the challenge of our age. I believe that maybe it is the task and the challenge of my own open faith tradition. I believe that it is our task to ever widen our circle so as include all, for there can be no limit to love. This begins by putting love at the core of the circle and to understand that if we see love as the circumference we will see there is no limit, for no one can be excluded from love. For if they are, it is not love.

For love is eternal and love is perfect and love knows no limits.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Listening with your heart

William Stafford: "Listening"

My father could hear a little animal step,
or a moth in the dark against the screen,
and every far sound called the listening out
into places where the rest of us had never been.

More spoke to him from the soft wild night
than came to our porch for us on the wind;
we would watch him look up and his face go keen
till the walls of the world flared, widened.

My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that other place.

“How do I listen?”

How do I listen to others? As if everyone were my Master speaking to me his cherished last words.”

Words of the great Sufi mystic Hafiz. How do we listen in such a way? Well maybe it begins by listening like the father in William Stafford’s poem above, to be like someone who can listen for what they can hear, far off in the night, “from that other place.” Such people hear so much that they make me want to listen as well. So often in life it has been the example of how others listen and really hear that has inspired me to listen. That said I don’t always listen to others as if everyone were my master, sadly sometimes I don’t listen, or I find it hard to listen.

I have noticed in the last few weeks that I have found it a challenge to listen to others. As a result I have not been as effective as I would hope to be in my work. This is hardly surprising. I am grieving and hurting and deeply concerned for my nearest and deepest. I know well the power that grief has on myself and others being. I have been reminded of this over the last year or so as I have shared deeply with others in the grief group I lead, “The colours of grief: Our shared experience of love and loss”. They have been some of the most treasured moments of my own ministry as we have shared together our own experiences of love and loss, holding one another, listening to each other and beginning to bring some healing. Through our shared experience of suffering we have helped bring healing to one another. Through this deep communion of coming together in love and loss we have experienced what Richard Rohr has described as “dear compassion” which as he has observed “is formed much more by shared pain than by shared pleasure.” In these deeply intimate moments I have heard the Divine Love speak as I have listened with others with my heart open, as we have listened with “the ears of our hearts”.

I found listening particularly difficult at last week’s Unitarian General Assembly Annual Meetings. It was interesting that I found it less difficult engaging in group participation work, but found it impossible to listen to talks and particularly debate in the important business meetings. I tried, but found I just couldn’t sit and listen. So I took the wise move of taking care of myself, spending time in loving company and actually sitting and talking with others in smaller more intimate groups. I heard some beautiful things and was involved in some deeply moving conversations. The Friday morning, the day I delivered “The Anniversary Sermon” was a wonderful example of this. After sharing breakfast with Sue we remained at our table as others left for the buisness meeting. We sat down at 8am after sharing worship and did not move again until noon. Wow! What a beautiful four hours as different people passed by and stopped and shared with us. It was deeply healing, interesting and moving. I laughed and cried and shared, I also heard some pretty eccentric views too. These were Unitarians after all. It was a beautiful morning. Sue enjoyed it too and although the morning had started badly with an unpleasant encounter she met some beautiful and friendly people, with open hearts, minds and souls.

I enjoyed deeply what I heard all morning, I said very little actually. I heard everyone as if they were the Divine speaking to me his cherished last words. I know that it helped to heal something in my heart, it opened my heart and helped me share the anniversary sermon with my heart wide open. It was deeply connective and healing. I listened with the ear of my heart, I let those words sink into my being and as a result began to speak the language of the heart. From what I was told later, this connected with those in the congregation deeply.

The next day my colleague Mark Hutchinson sent the following reflection on my address:

It went by the title “A Danny Meditation”

How many statues
Stare out into the ocean
Wishing only to be
Somewhere else
Not seeing
Or hearing
Or listening

Hold each other
Be held

Not even realising
As the powerful tide is rising
How all statues that wish this way
Are never walking
Or listening
Or talking
Just disappearing
Each and every day.

Hold each other
Be held
This is your domain.

This is a world of pain and joy
For every girl every boy
Everything around and in between
We cannot stop the pain
Nor stem the rising tide
But we can listen
There are things to be said and seen.

Hold each other
Be held
This is your domain
Awaken a new dominion

A man two loving sisters holds
This man is held by them
Not wishing for another place
Despite the seething pain
Just to hold
And to be held.

Hold each other
Be held
This is your domain
Awaken a new dominion
Do your job.

Trusting statues
Talking listening holding,
Stepping back from the tide
Have laughed, sung and cried
And not once tried
To be away
From this very necessary day

In trust and love
Hold each other
Be held
From your domain
Awaken a new dominion
Do your job
Let us hold
Let us be held
Let us all
Do our job.

Mark listened and absorbed every word and created something beautiful from it. It has certainly touched me deeply. He seemed to be listening with his heart and responding with his heart. To me this is what it means to truly live religiously. It is to listen and to live with “dear compassion.”

To truly live religiously is to live in communion with one another, it is to live in “dear compassion”, this is about inviting others truly into our lives and I have come to understand that is about truly listening to each other with our hearts, with the ears of our hearts.

Listening is about invitation. It is about inviting the other into our lives; it is about making space for the other. This is not always easy to do especially when engaging in conversation.

As I have shared many times before “Listen with the ear of your heart”, is one of my ministerial mantras. It comes from “The Rule of Benedict” a set of ancient principles for monastic orders. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with the ear of your heart “.

This is no easy task. It is so easy to get wrapped up in so many other things, particularly our own pain and troubles. That said in order to make space for the other we do need to learn to listen; to listen “with the ear of our hearts”.

Ernest Hemingway once said "When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen."

How many of us can really say that we listen to one another? When we begin to converse do we take time to truly listen to what the other person is saying? Or are we merely waiting for our turn to make our point? When we engage with one another are we really attempting to make space for them or is it all about us? Is it about our need to be heard? Are we engaging with others in the hope that they will agree with us?

In “Forgotten Art of Deep Listening” Kay Lindahl asks us to:

“Think of the difference it would make if each of us felt really listened to when we spoke. Imagine the time it would save to be heard the first time around, instead of having to repeat ourselves over and over again. Envision a conversation in which each person is listened to with respect, even those whose views are different from ours. This is all possible in conversations of the heart, when we practice the sacred art of listening. It takes intention and commitment. We need to slow down to expand our awareness of the possibilities of deep listening. The simple act of listening to each other can transform all of our relationships. Indeed, it can transform the world, as we practice being the change we wish to see in the world.”

By listening we can begin to transform the world; by listening we begin to practise being the change we wish to see in the world.

Listening is about making space for the other, it is an invitation; an invitation to create true spiritual intimacy. Listening is one way to release ourselves from the treadmill of own ego centric little worlds. It can release us from hell.

Yes sometimes it is hard to listen, particularly when we are caught up in our own pain. It happens to all of us, it’s been happening to me of late. I thank God that I have not run and I have not tried to hide, I have simply let others share their time and space with me, to listen to me when I have been ready to speak my own pain and fear and love and truth.

I have lived faithfully, indeed I have lived religiously in intimate company with others. I have lived with others in “dear compassion”

To truly live religiously is to live in communion with one another, it is to live in “dear compassion”, it is about inviting others truly into our lives; it is about making space for the other. It’s about listening with our hearts, with the ears of hearts. It’s about living with others in “dear compassion”

Let us live in “dear compassion”.