Sunday, 23 October 2016

Inspiration: Breath it in breath it out

In a recent “Living the Questions” we explored the subject of “Legacy: What will we leave behind”. As is always the case it was a deeply rich and moving conversation. One area that we looked at was the people who have touched our lives, have inspired us and left their legacy upon us as individuals. Not so much famous and celebrated people but ordinary and seemingly nameless ones who have touched are lives and continue to touch our lives long after they have gone. People who were living breathing sources of inspiration who were incarnations of love, the word made flesh through the way that they lived. The people who have inspired us. The people who awakened something within us. Who planted seeds in our hearts and souls or who nurtured those seeds and helped them grow.

Who are the people who have inspired you? Who planted the seeds of love or who nurtured those seeds and enabled them to grow and flower. Who have been the inspirations in your lives?

Maybe your inspiration hasn’t come from living breathing flesh or perhaps not exclusively so. Maybe your inspiration has come from the arts, or from literature or perhaps even nature. Perhaps it has been through seeing life in certain ways you have been inspired to do something you previously could not. The photographer William Guion describes such an inspirational experience in the extract that follows from “Leaning Oak and Reflection New Orleans”
"On a hazy, chilly December morning, I walked, camera and tripod balanced on my shoulder, through a stand of oaks toward he edge of a pond. The water was silver-gray and still like a mirror hung in an empty, unlit hall. A thin mist fell, or more accurately, hung in the air. Rain had soaked the landscape during the night, and mud at the water’s edge sucked at my shoes. In the yawning light, I saw an oak leaning at a precarious angle over the water. The soil had eroded over time, dissolving much of the tree’s foundation, yet the oak’s roots were locked tenaciously into the receding land. Against the threat of drowning, this tree survived through an elegant dance of balance, perseverance, and heroism. Almost in praise, the pond mirrored the oak’s profile creating a beautiful mandala-like wheel with spokes of water, leaves, earth and light.

As I set up and focused the tree on my camera’s ground glass, I thought how often in my own life I have lived just on the edge of heroic acts. How I’ve operated within safe, comfortable boundaries that defined the limits of what I could accomplish. At this time in my life, I was considering leaving a comfortable, secure job to follow my heart’s urging to photograph and write. I stood on the edge of an uncertain future, mud sucking at my shoes, and stared out through the mists across silver-gray water at this leaning oak. Through its example, I saw clearly through the mists of doubt separating me from a decision. I stood for a long moment and imagined the worst that could happen if I stretched too far over the edge of my fears. Then, in that second when I snapped the shutter recording this moment on film, I stepped across an imaginary line in my mind. In the pond’s dark mirrored water I saw a face. It smiled back at me."

Public figures are of course inspirations to many. A couple of been in the news recently. One being Jessica Ennis the recently retired Heptathlete and Olympian and another Bob Dylan who was this year awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, who has inspired many through his music, particularly his lyrics. The likes of Sir  David Attenborough or Professor Brian Cox are other examples in the way that they bring a sense of awe and wonder about the natural world and universe. People like Nelson Mandella or Mala Yousafsi, the Afgani girl who was shot by the Taliban for wanting an education are other inspirational figures to many too. 
For still others inspiration comes from the great stories and parables, that reveal truths that are often hidden away deep in our hearts. Jesus and the Buddha are great examples of this. In Luke ch 13 vv 18-19 Jesus was asked:

What is the Kingdom of God like?
And to what shall I compare it?
It is like a mustard seed that someone
took and sowed in the garden;
it grew and became a tree,
and the birds of the air made nests
in its branches.

Parables like these reveal Jesus’ ability to dispel wisdom through his teaching. This parable in particular, I believe, is about connecting to that divine aspect within all of us and bringing it to life, thus creating the "Kingdom" within our own lives and within our own communities, for others to share in and enjoy. In so doing we become an inspiration to others to do the same.

Thomas Keating in "Meditations on the Parables of Jesus"expands on this.

"When rightly understood, the parables help us to see how extraordinary a wisdom teacher Jesus really was, and how revolutionary, in the best sense of the word, was the content of what he taught and to which he bore witness by his life and death.

"These insights cohere particularly well with the actual experience of people on the spiritual journey. When contemplative prayer is seriously embraced, we come upon [a] lived reality … the reversal of expectations, the gradual and often painful liberation from emotional programs for happiness, and the increasing discovery of the kingdom of God in the ordinary and everyday."

But how do we bring this seed of inspiration to life in our lives and how can it be nurtured so as to flower and be shared with others? Well I think one way is to recognise it first and foremost, not only in the lives of others but in our own lives too.
Chade-Meng Tan writes on the subject of “Deeds” in “Joy on Demand”

“Whenever you make a donation of time or labor, or do something out of altruistic intention, take a moment to think, "I am doing this out of altruistic intention. Having this intention makes me so happy."

Whenever you meet or bring to mind an admirable, inspiring person, take a moment to think, "There exists this wonderful person in this world. I'm so happy."

Whenever you see somebody performing an altruistic or heroic act, take a moment to think, "More good is being done in this world. I'm so happy."

It is so vital to recognise these moments of inspiration in others and within ourselves if we are to create the Kingdom of God, the Kin-dom of love in our lives. It matters because I believe everything matters, every thought, every word, every deed and every feeling. Everything matters because everything impacts and effects everything else. We impact on the lives of everyone and everything all the time. We are inspirations to one another, even if we are not aware of it. We need to recognise this, we need to be aware of how important we are and how we impact on life.
We are all inspirations to one another.

But what does it mean to be an inspiration? You may well ask. Well the word inspiration is an interesting one, as so many are. We have reduced its meaning in power. It’s another one of those words that we have attempted to tame. Today it means someone or something that gives you an idea for doing something, but originally it meant “immediate influence of God or a gods”. It comes from the old French word “inspiriacion” meaning “inhaling in or breathing in from the Latin “inspirare” meaning to blow into or breath upon so as to excite or inflame. This is the meaning in the following verse from Genesis Chapter 2 “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” It really meant to infuse or animate to affect to rouse to guide to put life into the human soul. As you can see it meant something much more profoundly powerful in the past that it does today.

That said I believe that we can and indeed do inspire in this way and in so doing we can bring the kin-dom to life in our own hearts and lives. We can ignite that divine spark, we do.

I believe that this is what Albert Schweitzer meant when he said:

“Sometimes our light goes out but is blown again into flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.”

Those who rekindle the light are the inspirers here amongst us.

How do we do this though? How do we bring this spirit alive within ourselves and how do we recognise it in others?

It is ok saying we need to recognise it, but it isn’t always easy to awaken to this. This is where spiritual discipline plays such a vital role. I remember that ordinary man from Oldham, who was one of my inspirations, who helped rekindle the flame in me. One thing he always taught me was “first things first” that if I was spiritually well the rest will follow and the key to that is spiritual discipline. My life is testimony to this. The problem of course though is that seeing evidence of its importance isn’t always obvious. 
Prayer and meditation do not bring obvious results and yet experience has taught me that they are as vital as breathing air and eating food and drinking water. This brings to mind a tale from Margaret Silf’s “One hundred more wisdom stories” from the famous author “unknown”

A disciple once asked his master, “What can I do to attain God?”
The master answered by asking the disciple another question: “What can you do to make the sun rise?”

The disciple retorted indignantly, “Nothing at all. So why are you giving us all these methods of prayer?”

And the master replied, “To make sure you’re awake when the sun rises.”

The key, I have come to believe, is to be awake to the inspiration within me and all around me. To let that spirit come alive. To let it breath onto all life and to breath in all the inspiration present in all animated life.

The key is to breath in the inspiration and to be the inspiration to bring that seed to life and then breath it out on the world all around me. To shine as you are meant to shine and to not be afraid to be all that you are meant to be.

And how do we do this? Well by simply living the life we love, By simply doing so we inspire those we meet to do the same and all life benefits and in so doing we might just bring the kin-dom alive, right here right now. Actually there is no might about it we do bring the kin-dom of love alive within us and in so doing we shine a little bit of light on all those we share our lives with.

I’m going to end this chip of a "blogspot" with a little bit of wisdom from one of my inspirations John O’Donohue. Taken from “Anam Cara”

“Live the life you love”
"If you allow yourself to be the person that you are, then everything will come into rhythm. If you live the life you love, you will receive shelter and blessings. Sometimes the great famine of blessing in and around us derives from the fact that we are not living the life we love, rather we are living the life that is expected of us. We have fallen out of rhythm with the secret signature and light of our own nature."

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Falling Leaves: Lessons in Living

“Tired of Clinging” by Richard Bach

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all - young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks at the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, 'I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.'

The other creatures laughed and said, 'Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you shall die quicker than boredom!'

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, 'See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!'

And the one carried in the current said, 'I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.'

But they cried the more, 'Saviour!' all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.

By Richard Bach, from "Illusions"

I was in the gym the other day going through a stretching routine, trying to loosen up my tight hamstrings. Something I do not enjoy doing as it’s painful, but something I know I need to do. As I was doing so I looked up and noticed one of the trainers I chat regularly to looking a little glum. I asked him how he was and we started to chat. He began by complaining about having to fill in for a colleague leading a class he didn’t seem prepared for. He then talked about feeling weary and not liking this time of year when everything is changing. He said he loved the summer and didn’t mind the cold of winter it’s just that he wasn’t overly keen on these days in between when everything is changing and unsettled. He then cracked on with getting himself in the mood to lead the class, which I’m sure he did a great job of doing. I have no doubt he didn’t have any trouble once it began. It was just the lead up that caused him the anxiety. I don’t think he is alone in this.

Autumn is here. I love autumn, "beautiful autumn, glorious autumn, best of the year." Well maybe not the best. It is a season like every season that has its own beauty. The beauty of autumn is symbolised in the falling leaves. When everything just seems so beautiful because it is dying. Summer is over now. We had a long summer, but it has finally come to an end and now we are in the season of the falling leaves. The season of reflection and the season of change and preparation for the coming winter when stillness reigns before the re-birth of spring.

It easy to see autumn as an inbetween time, but I believe that this is a mistake. In so doing we can miss its beauty and power; in so doing we end up just wishing this time away; in so doing we wish our lives away and fail to experience what is here right now; in so doing we fail to experience the spiritual nature of our lives; and in so doing our lives can quickly become meaningless. To live spiritually requires us to increase our sensitivity to life. This requires us to be fully alive to all that makes up our lives, whatever we are experiencing.

The mistake we can so often make is to wish our lives away. Let’s not do that this autumn; let’s experience the beauty and richness of this season; let’s learn our lessons from it too; let’s learn from those falling leaves.

The falling leaves can teach us so much about the spiritual life and spiritual living. They remind me of another mistake we often make. Yes we often want to rush through things and wish they were over therefore failing to truly experience the gift of the moment. That said we can often do something which inhibits the moment equally. How many of us want to cling on to what we are experiencing right now. David Bumbaugh captures this beautifully in the following meditative poem “Dancing in the wind”

“Dancing in the wind” David Bumbaugh

Except for a few stubborn holdouts
The tree outside my window
Is bare of leaves.
The wind,
This October morning,
Worries those few remaining leaves,
Pulling them this way,
twisting them that way,
tugging at them
until, one by one,
exhausted by the ceaseless effort to hang on,
they go dancing in the wind.
As they waltz past my window,
The stubbornness has left them
And they are finally free.
What is it about living things
That we expend so much energy resisting the inevitable,
Hanging on to what is already gone,
Hoping to sustain a season
Into times that are unreasonable,
Clinging to old habits
Despite the pain and discomfort?

Why are we so afraid to dance in the wind?

Why are we so afraid to dance in the wind? It’s a good question. By clinging to things, whether that be people, possessions, seasons, situations, prestige, appearance, beliefs, disbeliefs, feelings, we fail to experience life fully. We block ourselves from experiencing the full gift of life. We become like the creatures in the story at the beginning of this "blogspot", clinging on but not fully experiencing life. They would rather die of boredom than risk letting go and trust in the current. And then one brave one lets go and they simply mock it as it crashes against the rocks and suffers the pain of freedom until it learns the dance of the current. Still they are afraid though to let go and experience the freedom themselves. They want their messiah to do it for them or they merely want to spin stories of his journey rather than seeing him as the example and letting go themselves and experiencing the freedom of the current.

It is the same with all of life, if we truly pay attention and increase our sensitivity to it. All life can teach us to be all that we can be. We can even learn from the leaves as they fall freely and dance in the wind.

Now all this brings some questions to my mind. Why do so many of us cling to things and will not let go? Why do we want to live with the illusion of control? Or on the other hand why do we want to rush through things and not experience the moment we are in? Why are we always wishing for the end of things? What are we afraid of? Why do we not want to fully experience life? And what is the antidote.

I had several conversations with people last week. Some I have known all my life and others I’ve known for only a short time. In each conversation there was a constant theme. The theme was fear. Fear I believe is at the core the two autumn themes I’ve been speaking of…to either wish days away or to cling to something that is over. These are the fears symbolic of autumn. It is fear that is at the root of the need to cling on and or control and it is fear that causes this desire to wish certain feelings away.

I’m no different myself by the way. I can want to wish certain experiences away, especially if they are uncomfortable, even painful. I noticed myself doing it the other day when I was beginning a hard slog on the cross trainer. I didn’t want to go through the pain of it, I just wanted the results that would come from doing so, but still I stuck at it. I have learnt to develop faith. I’ve also clung onto comfortable things and painful and destructive things at times in my life, for the fear of what might be if I just let go and let the wind of life take hold. It was fear that stopped me.

But what causes the fear, what causes this lack of trust. Well I think that it is lack of faith. Faith in life itself. It comes from a belief that life is hostile, against us and something that cannot be trusted. This is why we cling to things and will not let go. The antidote is faith. Faith in life itself, but this of course is a risk. It is a risk worth taking though and certainly beats the boredom of clinging to those rocks we heard about in the earlier story. We need to learn to let go and trust in the current and trust in the wind and to trust in the ever changing nature of life.

This brings to mind a lovely excerpt from Anthony Demello’s “The song of the Bird” it goes by the title “Don’t Change”

"I was neurotic for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish. Everyone kept telling me to change. I resented them and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn't, no matter how hard I tried. Then one day someone said to me, Don't change. I love you just as you are. Those words were music to my ears: Don't change, Don't change. Don't change . . . I love you as you are. I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly I changed!

Now I know that I couldn’t really change until I found someone who would love me whether I changed or not.

Is this how you love me, God?"

Here lays both the problem and the solution. This is why I believe we cling to things or simply wish them away. This is why so many of us are afraid to fully experience the life we are experiencing right here right now. We don’t trust in life. We believe that life is untrustworthy. We fail to experience that love that is so present in life. We feel unacceptable as we are. Certainly this was my problem for so long. Thank God it is no longer the case. I do, I do, I do…every day…

And how do we learn to love life, to be a part of life? Well it begins by paying attention. By increasing our sensitivity to life. It begins perhaps by being like those falling leaves. By falling like those autumnal leaves, by not wishing away our experiences and by not clinging on…It begins by simply letting go and by learning to dance in the wind…

Let’s all learn to dance in the wind…Lets all become like falling leaves…Let’s all learn to dance the impermanence dance…


Sunday, 2 October 2016

Lessons from the Animals

Every year I conduct an "Animal Blessing" service. It is held on the first Sunday in October, the nearest one to the Feast Day of St Francis. This year we looked at animals as teachers. We explored what lessons we could learn from the animals around us and in our lives. This blog includes material and thoughts that we shared in worship. The first piece is taken from “Journeying in Place” by Gunilla Norris

“What I learned is that of all the creatures that I can see in this landscape, the geese best represent the communion of saints. They depend on one another. The lead goose does the most work, but when it is tired, it falls back and another takes its place. To be able to rely on others is a deep trust that does not come easily. The geese fly in the wake of one another’s wings. They literally get a lift from one another. I want to be with others this way. Geese tell me that it is, indeed, possible to fly with equals."

Geese and the way that they fly can teach us so much about what means to live in spiritual community, what a congregation or any loving community ought to be about. One of mutual love, support and interconnection. Yes one where the individual is encouraged to be all that they can be, but who can only truly become all that they can be through living in common unity, through living in and being in love.

The following is taken from “Medicine Cards” by Jamie Sims and David Carson

"All animals are sacred, but in many traditions White Buffalo is most sacred. The appearance of White Buffalo is a sign that prayers are being heard, that the sacred pipe is being honored, and that the promises of prophesy are being fulfilled. White Buffalo signals a time of abundance and plenty.

Buffalo was the major source of sustenance for the Plains Indians. It gave meat for food, hides for clothing, warm and soft robes for long winters, and hooves for glue. The medicine of Buffalo is prayer, gratitude and praise for that which has been received. Buffalo medicine is also knowing that abundance is present when all relations are honored as sacred, and when gratitude is expressed to every living part of creation.

Because of its desire to give the gifts that its body provided, and because of its willingness to be used on Earth for the highest good before entering the hunting grounds of Spirit, Buffalo did not readily stampede and run from hunters….

Buffalo medicine is a sign that you achieve nothing without the aid of the Great Spirit and that you must be humble enough for that assistance and then be grateful for what you receive."

...In the service we offered gratitude and thanks for our animal brothers and sisters...Here are some thoughts that were shared...

It is wonderful to be here together with our fellow animals. I’m not just talking about our animal friends here by the way. It is important to recognise that we too are animals. That the animals who we share this world with are kin. We are formed from the same flesh and I believe have the same spirit animates us all. Ok we are not exactly the same, but we are formed from the same earth and are animated by the very same breath of life. In fact it is worth remembering that the word “animal” is actually from the Latin word “animalis”, which actually means having a soul and shares the same root for breath “animus”. So yes formed from the same earth with the very same spirit within us.

Now somewhere along the lines of our history we humans began to think of ourselves as far superior to other animals with the intrinsic right to make use of them in whatever way we wished. But this was not always so, in ancient times and in the so-called primitive cultures, people revered the animals as great teachers, purveyors of wisdom, possessors of souls and of spiritual qualities. There was a time when humans and animals were more closely connected. Now some of we  so called rationalists tend to look on all this as ignorance. But I wonder if actually we have forgotten something precious and obvious to them. I wonder if they knew something that we somehow managed to forget.

We can learn so much from the animals, if we have enough humility to do so. They can teach us so much about life. They can be our greatest teachers. Jesus taught his followers to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves, that these were the characteristics for discipleship in a challenging world. Words that our Unitarian brothers and sisters have used as their motto, over the many trials and difficulties they have lived through. The passage in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 10 v 16 reads “Behold I am sending you forward as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be therefore wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Here Jesus is warning his disciples of the dangers that they will face in carrying their message of radical love, to a wounded world. That they will be no safer than lambs amongst wolves; he is saying that they must employ wisdom in the way they impart this message, in a hostile world.

Now the dove of course is an important image in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It makes its first appearance in the story of Noah’s Arc. Noah sends out a dove to find land, eventually it returns with an olive branch. This symbolises the re-birth of life tying humanity to the earth, to the ground, to the soil and the cycles of life. It is important to remember that humanity and hummus are linguistically linked, along with humility. Something we can lose sight of in our technically advanced age. We are not above nature though, we are interdependent with the web of all existence.

We can learn so much from our animal brothers and sisters if we would pay attention. They can teach us how to live in the moment “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew ch 6 v 26). Simply watch a pet and notice how they live in the moment in which they find themselves. They are not caught up in regret about the past or fear of the future.

The animals can teach us how to listen to our bodies. When they are ill they do not push themselves beyond their limits. They are yoga masters too, just watch a cat or dog and how they stretch constantly. They can teach us about balance, for they do not take more than they need. They eat what they need and do not take more than is required for themselves or their dependants. It is only domesticated animals that become overweight, depressed and or obese. They can teach us how to be true to our natures. They can help us to see ourselves as we truly are. As a part of life, as part of the nature of everything. So many of our human problems stem from our sense of separation, that we are not a part of everything. By observing the animals we can once again see that we are a part of everything and that we belong here and that there is nothing really wrong with us. We just forget who we are from time to time.

We can learn so much from our brothers and sisters the animals, they can teach us once again what it is to be fully human and a part of life.

The following is taken from “Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life” by Bonnie Friedman

"Outside the Cathedral holding ancient relics in Valencia, a woman kissed pigeons. She saw these birds as symbols of God. Gray and white and black as discarded shells, these were creatures I'd been taught to think of as 'filthy.' They seemed filthy, in fact, with their staring orange eyes and patchy feathers. But now, while I looked, they turned into doves. Of course they always were doves, or rather, of course doves always really were a type of pigeon. But I never really believed it until this woman showed me her belief. Her kiss transformed ugliness to beauty.

So it was like a fairy tale after all. It was the old story: what is loved reveals its loveliness. Here she squatted, radiant, smiling, enrobed in life, in a dozen pairs of folded wings, in a dozen pairs of pearl gray and, as I looked, yes, even lavender, even royal purple wings — a woman in an ordinary black cotton dress who smiled as if she knew she was the luckiest person on earth, swathed in blessing."

This lovely little tale brought St Francis to my mind. St Francis was a thirteenth century monk who held animals in the highest of esteem. He would commune with animals in much the same way as he would commune with people, he saw no difference. Here is one story, of many told about him, where he was found communing with a bird:

· "Once when Saint Francis was about to eat with Brother Leo he was greatly delighted to hear a nightingale singing. So he suggested to his companion that they would also sing praise to God alternately with the bird. While Leo was pleading that he was no singer, Francis lifted up his voice and, phrase by phrase, sang his duet with the nightingale."

There is a similar concept in Judaism. In “What do Jews Believe” David S Ariel wrote “While Hasidim believed in the importance of observing the mitzvot, learning Torah, and praying with devotion, they believed that there was a deeper spiritual realm of listening to the world as the song of god. The disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, for example, noted that their teacher went to the pond every day at dawn and stayed there for a little while before returning home again. One of his students explained that he was learning the song with which the frogs praise God.”

I have a similar relationship with the blackbird that sits and sings on the top of my house. He sings sweetly and I often find myself singing back at him. To which he often responds. It seems that we are encouraging one another to sing our song of life ever more sweetly. It certainly lifts my spirit and animates my life and increases my sense of connection.

Our relationship with the animals and with all life, including one another ought to help us to develop that most vital aspect of our humanity, compassion. Compassion is at core of all the great religious traditions and it is through living compassionately that we truly live out a full spiritual life. To develop spiritually is to increase our sensitivity to life, to feel life more fully, I have learnt that this is done through compassionate living.

Karen Armstrong teaches that compassion is an act, not merely an emotion, a feeling. It is way of living and being in the world. She claims that if it were an emotion, it would not be a comfortable one, but one of discomfort. Suggesting that if we are to understand compassion for the “Other”, we must cultivate the emotions of discomfort and disturbance, we must feel their pain, we must empathise and not become detached or indifferent. We develop empathy for the “Other” by embracing the word 'umvelt,' which means honouring the world as it is experienced by different people, animals, and organisms. she believes that it is through our capacity to imagine and empathise that we will be brought into a more authentic relationship with the Earth. It is through humility in the face of our own finite humanity that allows us to see ourselves as 'one species among many' not the indomitable centre of a human centred and created world.

By increasing our sensitivity to all life, we see ourselves as part of all of life and through doing so we set ourselves free. Free to what? Well free to live and be in love. You see when we increase our sensitivity to life we widen, broaden and deepen our experience of living.

When we look into our own eyes, when we look into one another’s eyes and when we look into the eyes of every creature what do we see? When we look with intensity at all life what do we see?

I see that same spirit that animates all life. I see “animalis” I see soul and I see the “animus” running through it all, the same breath, the same spirit that animates it all.

Let us give thanks for the animals...Our brothers and sisters in body and in soul...

I will end with the following blessing, the author of which I cannot find...

You – Birds of the Air,
Hawk, Sparrow, and laughing Jay
You remind us of freedom,
delight us with your song, astound us with feats of migration...
Grant us your perspective,
for too often our horizon is limited
and we are blind to the full results of our actions.

You – Worms of the Earth,
Ants, Beetles, Spiders and Centipedes
You are an essential but often forgotten part of nature’s web.
Through you the cycle is complete;
through you new life arises from old.
Remind us of humility.
For the wheel of live does not turn around us;
we are not the axle, but merely spokes
just the same as our unseen, unknown and ignored companions

You – Animals of the field and woods and mountains and desert—
Bear and Bison, Skunk and Squirrel, Weasel and Wolf
Too often we have destroyed your homes in the name of progress,
cutting the forests to gratify our desire,
or covering the earth with tarmac, cement, and lawns.
Pray that we may remember that the earth was not given for our needs alone,
and what we do to you, in the end we do to ourselves.

You – Animals of the farm—
Horse and cow, pig and chicken
Willingly or not, you give your very lives for us,
your milk for our nourishment, your flesh for our meat,
Yet too often we forget that the food on our tables was once as alive as we are.
Forgive our willful ignorance,
and remind us constantly to give thanks for your sacrifice...

And – You – dearest Companions in our lives
Dogs and Cats, Hamsters and Goldfish
Some of you are with us here today
Some were not able to come today
and there are some who will always be present in our memories
You have enriched our lives in so many ways
put up with our failings with calm acceptance
taught us something about being a good person
taught us how to love.

May we hold you in our hearts throughout the days of our lives.
We give thanks for the joy you bring into our lives
and together we give you a blessing
We pray for you – for playful days and peaceful nights;
for lots of tummy rubs and joy in being our companions.
Gracious Creator,
Hear and bless
Thy beasts and singing birds
And guard with tenderness
Small things that have no words

And may we carry that unconditional love with us in all that we feel and all that we think and all that we say and all that we do


Sunday, 11 September 2016

Blue Moments: Epiphany Moments

"The Gift of the Blue Moment," an excerpt from “SMALL GRACES” by Kent Nerburn

Her garden has fallen to ruin. Irene is old now, maybe ninety. Her memory has fled, leaving her eyes like lights in an empty room. I always try to say “hello” to her when I see her. She is guileless, full of wonder, a child in awe of the universe.
Her garden used to be the most beautiful around. She took such pleasure in tending its flowers and plants. She and my wife would share knowledge of bulbs and buds.
There is no such knowledge in Irene now. Her eyes are watching other worlds. When she answers at all, it is in response to questions only she can hear.
I listen to her closely. What remains alive in the dim chambers of her memory?
She thinks I am her son, goes on about her mother. A story about a little dog. It makes no sense.
But this is not about sense. She has woven other tapestries from the threads of her life. She is responsive to other colors, moved by other winds.
I would leave, but there are echoes here.

I am carried back to a time years ago when I was living in the medieval university town of Marburg, Germany.
I was 25, penniless, alone, frightened, and ill. I was living in a garret. I had no friends and I was far from family. My days were spent working in an antique restoration shop of an embittered alcoholic man, and my nights were spent wandering the streets watching the passing lives of people who neither spoke my language nor knew of my cares.
I had never been so alone.
The mother of the man for whom I worked was a very insightful woman. As a child of twelve she had watched the Nazis come into her classroom and take the Jewish children away. No one spoke of it and class went on as if nothing had happened. But day by day, night by night, she saw her friends and playmates disappear.
She became a watcher and a survivor.
For months she watched me struggle with the demons that were driving me. She would see me sitting with the neighborhood children, drawing cartoons in the shadow of the castle. She would see me staring vacantly into the distance when I thought no one was watching.
One day she took me aside.
“I watch you,” she said. “I see the loneliness in your eyes. I watch your heart running away. You are like so many people. When life is hard, they try to look over the difficulty into the future. Or they long for the happiness of the past. Time is their enemy. The day they are living is their enemy. They are dead to the moment. They live only for the future or the past. But that is wrong.
“You must learn to seek the blue moment,” she said.
She sat down beside me and continued. “The blue moment can happen any time or any place. It is a moment when you are truly alive to the world around you. It can be a moment of love or a moment of terror. You may not know it when it happens. It may only reveal itself in memory. But if you are patient and open your heart, the blue moment will come. My childhood classmates are dead, but I have the blue moment when we looked in each other’s eyes.”
I turned and stared into her lined and gentle face.
“Listen carefully to me,” she continued. “This is a blue moment. I really believe it. We will never forget it. At this moment you and I are closer to each other than to any other human beings. Seize this moment. Hold it. Don’t turn from it. It will pass and we will be as we were. But this is a blue moment, and the blue moments string together like pearls to make up your life. It is up to you to find them. It is up to you to make them. It is up to you to bring them alive in others.”
She brushed her hand through my hair and gave me a pat on the side of the head.
“Always seek the blue moment,” she said, and returned to her work.
Irene’s mind is wandering now. A little dog. Her sister. Names I’ve never heard.
I smile and nod. She smiles back and continues. The blue moments are calling to her, filling her memories with light.

I recently attended “Summer School” at the Nightingale centre at Great Hucklow. This year’s theme was “This changes everything”. It was a fantastic week and one in which it was a pleasure to participate in. I gave a theme talk and led a “Singing Meditation”.

Here is a audio recording of the "Theme Talk" I led. Here I talk about many of my "Epiphany moments", moments that changed everything. Just click on the link to hear it...

This changes everything

 I also participated in an engagement group led superbly by Rev Margaret Kirk and Rev Cody Coyne. The title of the group was “Taken at the Flood – Epiphany Moments”. The title comes from Shakespear’s Julius Caesar Act 4 scene 3

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

Words suggesting we must go with the flow of life, that this is where the power is. If we do so we can make each moment precious, we can bring it to life. That each moment can become momentous and perhaps life changing. The key is to “ learn to seek the blue moment,” that Kent Nerburn spoke of in the earlier reading and to string these moments together and bring them alive in the lives of others.

The purpose of the engagement group was to encourage us to look at our lives and uncover life changing, epiphany moments. Now an epiphany is a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is important to you. It can be in the nature of a sudden and profound religious or spiritual experience or less dramatic. I suspect that the “Blue moments” described in Kent Nerburn’s earlier reading are another way of naming such moments.

Now Epiphany was originally understood and is celebrated as the 12th Day of Christmas, when the Magi saw the Christ child and were filled with the presence of the divine, an epiphany. The understanding has broadened over time. We can all experience them. We can all experience moments when we glimpse the essential nature of things in ways that change the course of life dramatically and powerfully for the better. We can all experience moments of sudden discovery and or revelation when things seem to seamlessly fall in place and a new clarity is gained. We can all experience epiphanies.

During the week we were given a variety of tools to explore our lives. The image that they came up with was to describe our lives like a journey through a forest, a deep dense forest, in which there were moments of clearing and illumination where sudden realisations would come. Throughout the week many “blue moments”, many epiphanies came to mind. As I traced my life I saw how these moments seemed to stitch together. The moments of illumination have seemingly accelerated in recent years. I have shared many of these moments with over the years in my "blogging. I wonder as you look back over your lives if you too can uncover similar moments in your lives. What have been your epiphanies your “blue moments”? Can you see a thread through them, do they seem to seamlessly stitch together? Perhaps you could think about them in the coming days and weeks.

As I look back at my life I can bear witness to many “blue moments”, moments of illumination or as I prefer see them moments of awakening. You see every moment our lives can become such moments if we would learn to seek them and learn to bring them alive in our lives and in the lives of others. We just need to be alive and awake to these possibilities.

During the week many sources of material were shared. One being extracts from “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” by Carl Jung from chapter “First Years” pgs 21 and 22

Here Jung is recalling experiences from his early childhood, epiphany moments that shaped his whole life. Moments of illumination, moments of wholeness and connection when he felt safe and protected and finally at one with life and moments that shaped his whole life. He wrote:

“One memory comes up which is perhaps the earliest of my life, and is indeed only a rather hazy impression. I am lying in a pram, in the shadow of a tree. It is a fine, warm summer day, the sky blue, and golden sunlight darting through green leaves. The hood of the pram has been left up. I have just awakened to the glorious beauty of the day, and have a sense of indescribable well-being. I see the sun glistening through the leaves and blossoms of the bushes. Everything is wholly wonderful, colourful, and splendid.”

“From a somewhat later period comes another memory. My mother took me to the Thurgen to visit friends, who had a castle on Lake Constance. I could not be dragged away from the water. The waves from the steamer washed up to the shore, the sun glistened on the water, and the sand under the water had been curled into little ridges by the waves. The lake stretched away and away into the distance. This expanse of water was an inconceivable pleasure to me, an incomparable splendour. At that time the idea became fixed in my mind that I must live near a lake; without water, I thought, nobody could live at all.”

Seemingly these are moments, epiphany moments, “blue moments” that helped to shape him and which he carried with him all of his life. I remember as I read these accounts familiar words from William Wordsworth came to mind and the following words from poem “Prelude” that has been singing in my soul these last few years. The phrase is “spots of time”. Wordsworth wrote:

“There are in our existence spots of time,

That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.”

William Wordsworth, The Prelude (Book XI, ls 258-278)

“Spots of time” are “blue moments”, epiphanies, those moments when life not only feeds but truly nourishes us on a deep, deep level, deeper than the marrow of our bones; moments when the common becomes uncommon,; moments when the veils we create ourselves seem to slip away; moments when we seemingly see beyond the ordinary; moments when we experience reality on a deeper level.

These “spots of time” are sacred moments that are made holy by their mysterious ability to nourish us and perhaps even repair us in body, mind, heart and soul. These moments are so special because they seem so rare. They are a kind of grace; they seemingly come to us, from a place somewhere beyond ourselves.

These moments can happen anywhere. For Wordsworth these “spots of time” occurred primarily in nature. We all experience them in different ways, in different states and in different settings. Those moments when time seemingly stands still; those moments that touch us at the core of our being; those moments that transform our lives; those magic moments. Time seemingly becomes compressed or concentrated in these moments when the senses become heightened, when life seemingly has a deeper meaning. Moments when life becomes denser and deeper. These are not necessarily supernatural moments by the way; no they are firmly grounded in reality.

In these moments time appears to be slowing down, although obviously it does not. Time does not so much stop as become compressed, the moment becomes concentrated. There just seems to be more of life in that moment, but it lasts just as long. Maybe the moment is deeper, not longer. Time is time after all.

When I look back at my life I can think of those moments when deep powerful meaning has emerged seemingly out of nothingness and all of life has felt connected. I can see a thread running through these moments, these “blue moments”, as Nerburn wrote in the extract at the beginning of this "blogspot":

“Listen carefully to me,” she continued. “This is a blue moment. I really believe it. We will never forget it. At this moment you and I are closer to each other than to any other human beings. Seize this moment. Hold it. Don’t turn from it. It will pass and we will be as we were. But this is a blue moment, and the blue moments string together like pearls to make up your life. It is up to you to find them. It is up to you to make them. It is up to you to bring them alive in others.”

We have all of us experienced such moments in our lives, moments that we carry with us, throughout our lives. Moments when time has seemingly stood still, moments that have changed us or as I prefer to see it woken us up or woken something up within us. If we look back through our lives perhaps we can see a pattern form, a thread or string running through it all, or perhaps not. I certainly can when looking back at my own life.

The question is though, what can we do with them? And can we “bring them alive in others”?

I believe so. I also believe it is our task to do so. This is where the meaning comes in our lives. This is the thread and this is how we become a part of the Divine, the “Golden Thread”.

So this is what I’d like you to do. To look back through your life and recall such moments. Moments like Nerburn, Jung and Wordsworth described, moments that have stayed with you. Perhaps you could look for a pattern in moments that either woke you up and or put you to sleep and perhaps think of ways in which you can bring these moments alive in others.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Love Letters: It matters what we leave behind

“Love letters” by Edward Hays in “Secular Society”

"You and I are meant to be “letters” to the world. People who “read” us receive a message from the Divine Mystery. Now, there’s a delightful vocation – to be a sort of “valentine” from God to a love-hungry world! But if we are to be living, divine letters, “words made flesh,” we, of all people, should keep alive and treat with respect the beautiful custom of letter writing. As we take time to do this, let us remember that such activity is always prayer. Let us remember that it is also prayer to receive and read a letter. Perhaps we could pause at the conclusion of having penned a note to a friend and trace the sign of the cross upon the letter to remind ourselves of this fact. Or we could breathe part of our spirit into the envelope. More than just a puff of breath, we could send along with our message a part of our soul. Since love is invisible, some ritual or sign helps us to remember what it is we are really sending when we send a letter to someone we love."

Huw a member of the Urmston congregation recently asked me if people treat me and act differently towards me since I lost the weight. I thought about it for a moment and said, no I don’t think so, or at least I hope not. After all I am still the same person I always was, it’s just that I now I live in a smaller shell than before.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot since. Do people treat me the same way now that I have transformed myself physically? Have the physical changes altered the way I am in the world? Do we judge people more on their appearance than on their inner being? Does the way we see ourselves affect the way we live with others and live in life?

The more I’ve thought about it the more I have become aware of people treating me differently actually. I’ve also realised that I am acting differently in the world and am once again seeing the world through fresh eyes. I have changed once again, or do I more accurately mean I have woken up once again. I am and will always be the same man in essence. This part of myself never changes the spirit that lays at the core of me. Whatever happens to my physical being, my emotional being and my mental being, this core always remains, although I believe that it just more awakened today. In fact there have been times in my life when that aspect of my being has been fast asleep.

There is no doubt to me that my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual being are interconnected, not one is separate from the rest. Just as all life is connected, nay interconnected. Nothing exists in isolation from anything else. Even the time we exist in now is influenced by all that has ever existed before. Yes we live in this moment right now. But this moment does not exist in isolation we only have this moment because of all that happened before and we are only the people that we are, in this moment, because of all that has existed before. We bring our whole selves alive in this precious moment right now. We do so by not rejecting any aspect of our lives up to now. We do so by allowing our whole being to come alive, to come to flower right here right now. This is what being alive really means. This is what bringing the moment alive really means. It is not enough to passively live in the moment, you’ve got to bring the moment fully alive. In so doing you live the life you are here to live and you play your part in the cosmic co-creation. All that we do and all that we do not do matters. Each moment that we live we leave behind us a legacy, a love letter if you like, that others will pick up on as they too continue on through their lives.

Just think of the people that have influenced you in your lives. People who are no longer physically with you, but who are still impacting on you today. Even when they are gone, something beautiful remains.

It matters how we live in the world. It matters how we see the world and think about the world and feel about the world. This is influenced by how we have lived in this world. It’s not just something that comes to us in isolation and it is influenced by how we see and experience ourselves.

Who do we think we are? What do we believe about ourselves? What do we see when we gaze at ourselves in the mirror, in the glass, in the water? Do we see ourselves with loving eyes, or with the eyes that despise? For how we see ourselves will influence how we see life and see others. You see we all do live by the “Golden Rule” we do in fact love or hate our neighbour as we love or hate ourselves. I just that one day we can all live by the Golden Rule of compassion and not of loathing or indifference.

My dad once shared a story with me, just weeks before he died. It’s one of those things that has stayed with me all these years and has only truly begun to make sense to me these last few years. Now whether it actually happened in his life, or not, doesn’t matter. I have come across versions of this story in my reading. What matters is the universal mythos in the tale. This is the story:

He recounted a tale when he was once at Appleby Horse Fair, a place he loved; where he was probably at his happiest. He was talking to me about faith and God. It was during a time of my life when I was a man of little or no faith; I certainly had no belief in God. He recounted that he saw a priest staring down into the water from a bridge. He asked the priest what he was doing and the priest told him that he was staring into God’s eyes. My dad looked into the water and said he could only see himself and the priest. At which point the priest replied that this is where God dwells within you, within me and within everything.

Whenever I remember this moment, that has stayed with me ever since, even in my darkest hours, my nihilistic despair, the memory would come alive deep within me. Its real meaning only really made sense many years later. What I do know is that whenever I looked into the water or into the glass, whatever I saw looking back at me was reflected in how I saw life and lived in the world. It impacted on how I lived in whatever moment, whatever place and whatever people I found myself in the company of.

When I look at life today and when I look deeply, compassionately into the eyes of others I can see something of the Divine present there, sometimes awake and sometimes fast asleep. Most of the time though, somewhere in between.

The very first Unitarian I ever met was Peter Sampson. I met him as I passed through the threshold of Cross Street Chapel all those years ago. He taught me so much about what it means to live as a human being. He is also a talented poet and hymn writer. He wrote the following piece for a collection of named "Heart and Mind" It speaks powerfully to me,

“Incarnation” by Peter Sampson

'"The incarnation is true not of Christ exclusively but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine."

James Martineau (1805-1900)

James Martineau’s distinctly Unitarian ‘take’ on the transformation of God into our human – all too human – flesh and blood has been a constant inspiration to me.

Our responsibility for our own lives and necessarily, for the lives of our brothers and sisters throughout the world lays upon us all a duty which cannot be dodged; our humanity is defined by how we serve and care for the needs of the human family. You can’t have faith without works and working for the good of all inspires our faith in God-given life.

It is a small comfort to me to be told that God died for our sins. I see every one of us missing the mark in our lives and whenever a fellow-creature is harmed we must pray for forgiveness for ourselves. We are all culpable but if we are to serve human progress we have to say ‘sorry’ from the bottom of our heart and move on.

When we look around us we tend to focus on what’s going wrong: suffering – often caused by human ignorance – waste, devastation, degradation, contempt, the whole sorry spectacle of “Man’s in humanity to Man”. I see this as a betrayal of our God-given humanity, a trivialisation of our God-endowed divinity.

Resorting to armaments and inflexible war-talk of politicians, shouting at those we don’t agree with and throwing our weight about if we don’t get our own way – I want to say “Come off it! Who do you think you are? There is that of God in every person, in every creature on the planet.
Peter's piece begins with the following quote by the great 19th century Unitarian James Martineau who stated that:'

"The incarnation is true not of Christ exclusively but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine."

Could this be true? Is humanity the susceptible organ of the divine?

I do believe that there is that of God in everyone, but that is not all that we are. Yes we have the potential to do incredible things we humans and I do believe that God lives through our lives. But that is not all that we are, we are also capable of incredible hatred, destruction and evil. I believe that both these potentials lay within each of us. It is important that I recognise this when I look at another and when I look at myself. When I look at another person I must recognise myself within them. This sometimes fills me with absolute bliss and on other occasions it fills me with nothing but agony. Humanity is a mysterious duality indeed.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said the following of man...

“Man is a duality of mysterious grandeur and pompous aridity, a vision of God and a mountain of dust. It is because of his being dust that his iniquities may be forgiven, it is because of his being an image that his righteousness is expected.”

It is an incredible thing to be human, we are fascinating creatures. Even the word human itself interests me. It is formed from the same root as humility, possibly humanity’s greatest attribute. It is also closely related to humus (not to be confused with hummus) and exhume. The root for all of these words is “hum” which originally referred to the earth or dirt. Our earliest forbears perceived that we humans originated from the soil – you would think that this would keep us grounded, but seemingly not - this is made clear in the second creation story found in Genesis II which reads “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” The ancient Hebrew word for Adam is closely related to the word “toadamah” which means soil or earth. There are other ancient creation stories too which associate the origin of humankind with soil or the ground. Such as the Sumerian myth of Marduk who created people by killing Qingu and mixing his blood with clay. Or the Greek myths of Decallion and Pyrrha who by throwing rocks over their shoulders created man and woman.

We are indeed a mysterious duality we humans. Yes formed from dust but with the spirit of the Divine breathed into our very being.

We need to remember this when we look into one another’s eyes and when we look into our own eyes. For how we see ourselves and how we see one another will impact on how we live in the world and that really matters. We need to look a little deeper than the surface too, for that will change. Beauty is more than skin deep, our real beauty and true essence lays way beneath the surface of our skin; it is way deeper than our thinking minds and our feeling emotions. It is in our essence, our spirit our souls. This never changes, it remains the same it’s just that it awakens and goes to sleep at different times and stages of our lives.

How awake and alive we are in the world in this moment really matters too. For how we live will impact on those around us too and will impact on how they live in the world, for no one and no-thing lives in isolation.

In every moment of our lives we are creating and leaving a legacy for those who share this time and those who follow in this beautiful co-creation that is life. Each moment we leave behind us letters that those who follow will then pick up and read and be influenced. So let us ensure that the letters we leave behind are letters of love and not of indifference, letters of Hope and not of Despair.

I’m going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with this beautiful extract from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd
by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Belong Here

“Talking Heads once sang “you may find yourself in a beautiful house
with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, well how did I get here?”

How did I get here? The song was of course “Once in a lifetime.” And how did I get here? Is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently. I’ve been experiencing a few once in a lifetime moments recently.

Another question I’ve been asking myself too is “What have I done to deserve this?

Another one has been, do I really belong here?

I recently won “Slimming World Man of the Year 2016”, something I had to keep under my hat for a couple of weeks. It has been quite a ride ever since, especially once the news came out.

Now as part of winning the competition I spent a night in luxury suite at the Ritz. I took my mum along and she loved it. On arrival there was a knock on the door. I answered it and there before me stood two men in uniform who walked in and introduced themselves as our butlers and that whatever we required they would provide.

How did I get here? Do I belong here? Well I did win.

It was an amazing, if somewhat surreal, couple of days, in which I was worked to be fair. I spent one afternoon trying on outfits with a stylist and a whole host of women. It was fun and I got into it and in the end chose something I could wear for the "Press Call" that followed the next day. That night we ate at Savini at Criterion at Piccadilly Circus. A place I doubt I will ever eat in again. The next day came the "Press Call" and then home to prepare to lead worship the following day. The next day the news came out and over the next week it spread. No doubt in the coming months more will come out and hopefully a great deal of good will come from it. So far there has been a very positive response to it all.

So yes a truly once in a lifetime experience. It was wonderful to find myself in such places and the truth is I did deserve it and do you know what I didn’t feel like a fish out of water. After all I had earned it. I belonged there. I rarely feel that I don’t belong anywhere these days. I belong anywhere because I have learnt to be at home within my own skin within myself. I know who I am and I am at ease with who I am. I know who I am warts and all and beauty spots too. I am at ease with myself, imperfections and all. I can be myself anywhere and in the company of anyone because I no longer have to strive to fit in, to be a part of someone or someplace else, to seek the approval of others.

To belong you need to be yourself, while paradoxically in order to be yourself you must first of all feel that you belong. When you feel that you belong you will no longer feel the need to fit in, because you will be at ease with yourself.

Brene Brown once said

“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 like Brene Brown, I particularly like 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.

John O’Donohue in his wonderful book “Anam Cara”, 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.

The problem of trying to fit in and not belonging stems from a sense of being different, something I know I’ve experienced at times. This can be a real barrier. Now of course sometimes these barriers are put up by those who would exclude certain types of people for being different. We have seen horrific examples of this throughout human history. People excluded for racial, political, religious, gender and sexual identity reasons. There still are barriers that exist, although thankfully many have come down, although far too many still remain.

It can be difficult to join a group where you feel that you are different from the others. I experienced it myself when I began my Slimming World journey. Such groups are seen as the domain of women, only 3% of members are men in the UK, that is still nearly 50,000 men, but it is a minority. Being concerned about your weight and joining such groups is not considered a manly activity and therefore getting through the door and beginning the journey can be doubly daunting for men. I certainly experienced this when I first joined. I remember looking round the room, feeling very self-conscious at the time and just seeing a room full of women. It would have been easy to use this as an excuse to just run, but thank God I didn’t. One thing I will be endeavouring to do over the next twelve months is to encourage as many men as possible to live healthier happier lives. There are after all more over weight men in this country than women, probably because we feel it is unmanly to face up to the problem.

Most people find it difficult to join something, to belong to something, when they feel different to those already present. It’s the same with any group or community, including church and chapel communities. It is hard to walk into anything you have never been to before. I know it took me some time to pluck up the courage and explore religions community all those years ago

We Unitarians say that all are welcome, to come as you are regardless of who you are, where ever you have been and where ever you are going. You are welcome as you are exactly as you are in this moment. That said people are still reluctant to walk through the door of our places of worship and when they do they often find it hard to belong there, even amongst we who offer religious freedom. The reasons for this is many and varied and how we resolve it is not easy to answer either. I think that the key is to be as open and welcoming as we can be. They key is to cultivate a true sense of belonging, which begins within ourselves. For if we belong we will not need to try to fit in and hopefully the stranger will more easily feel like the neighbour. As Philip L Bermoan wrote in “The Journey Home”

“Truly spiritual people are in the habit of cultivating the nearly forgotten art of basic hospitality, perhaps because they realize that when we are able to make others feel comfortable, the pleasures of belonging are close at hand.”

They key is to cultivate the pleasure of belonging.

The key is to bless one another with our presence and they will fell that they belong amongst we people who belong here as they are exactly as they are in this moment. For as Rachel Naomi Remen wrote in "My Grandfather's Blessings".

"A blessing is not something that one person gives another. A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in one another. By making a place for wholeness within our relationships, we offer others the opportunity to be whole without shame and become a place of refuge from everything in them that are not genuine. We enable people to remember who they are."

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 allows us to find ourselves in beautiful place and feel that we are home. It is a sense of belonging that enables us to be ourselves, in whatever company we find ourselves without feeling the need to fit in. It is a sense of belonging that enables us to truly make every moment a once in lifetime experience. It is a sense of belonging that allows us to become good neighbours and to the bless the whole world with our welcome….

May you find a place where you belong…May you find a house of belonging…

Saturday, 6 August 2016

No Pain No Gain


A man went to a tattooist to have a lion tattooed on his back. He’d always wanted a picture of a lion on his body, because he thought himself to be fierce and brave like a lion.

The tattooist hadn’t been working for long before the man shouted, “Ouch! You’re hurting me! Which part of the lion are you doing now?”

“I’m doing his tail,” said the tattoo artist.

“Well you’d better leave the tail off, I don’t want a lion with a tail.”

The tattoo artist continued, but not for long. No sooner had he felt a few more needle pricks than the man shouted again, “This is killing me! Which part of the lion are you doing now?”

“I’m just getting started on the mane,” replied the tattooist.

“don’t bother with the mane,” I don’t want a lion with a mane!”

The tattooist complied with the man’s wishes, and began work on another part of his back. Once again, after a few moments, the man shouted, almost weeping. “This is intolerable! I can’t bear the pain! Which bit of the lion are doing now?”

“I’m doing the belly.”

“Then stop doing the belly! I don’t want a lion with a belly!”

The tattoo artist put down his equipment. “You want a lion with no tail, no main, and no belly! Who could draw such a creature? Even God couldn’t do it! I think you should leave and come back when you are a bit braver.”

from "The Shortest Distance" by Bill Darlison

My personal trainer works me really hard. It is tough at times but I do stick at it no matter what. The results we are getting together are quite amazing. He told me recently that he had never worked with anyone so determined. I smiled at this. If there is one thing that has grown in me these last few years it is the capacity to stick at things no matter what. To me this is the essential ingredient of the faith I have found. The God of my understanding enables me to do things and stick at things no matter what. In the past this is the one thing that was probably lacking in my life. God doesn’t do it for me, God enables me to do what life asks of me. I have faith to stick at anything despite the pain and suffering involved, whether that be mental, emotional, physical or spiritual.

Well the other day he came to our session in some obvious pain and discomfort. He had recently had a new tattoo done, on his scalp. As he described the process, he had gone through, I found myself wincing at the pain of it all. It has only just begun as well. He will be going through even more pain before it is fully completed. I said to him “No pain, no gain” and he grinned knowingly and then spent the next hour putting me through a gruelling regime. As he did so and as I have continued my daily exercises that little mantra has kept on ringing in my ears. I am continuing to gain in health and fitness and flexibility day by day. I’ve even grown about an inch as my posture has improved and spine has straightened, something I never thought would be possible. The work we are doing is relieving me of some deep rooted pain and shame dating right back to childhood.

Facebook reminded me of a pain I went through last year. only the other day. It was right at the beginning of my weight loss journey. I used to spend a great deal of time in coffee shops. Often meeting and talking with people but also writing. I still do quite often but my habits have changed. Just over a year ago I would probably consume at least a dozen full fat CafĂ© Lattes a week. I used to drink an awful lot of milk and it was one of many contributing factors to my weight problem. Well a year ago I decided that I would, at least for a short time, give them up. I thought I’d go the whole hog and give up caffeine completely. Well I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. The first few days were agony. It began with the headaches but then the pain spread to my whole lower body, the symptoms were very similar to a severe bout of flu as my lower back and upper legs were in agony. Historically the two areas of physical weakness and shame in my body. This lasted about five days but eventually subsided and I was soon reaping the benefits of becoming more energised and sleeping beautifully. I have stuck with being caffeine free and am loving it. Yes I had to go through pain to get there, but my word the results have been wonderful. Yes the gain was most certainly worth the pain.

I remember a few years ago, early in my ministry, a colleague telling that when they were a student a senior colleague had warned then to be careful not to reveal to much about themselves to the people they serve, especially when creating worship. I don’t know if they were attempting to subtly warn me about being too open. If they were I ignored them. I don’t think I could do this work without bringing my whole self into the worship I create. How can others relate to something unless you put human flesh on the words. I have not been afraid to show my pain and joy and struggle and confusion at times, to reveal all that I have gained and learned too. Hopefully this has not been in a self-indulgent way, but in an attempt to show to others that I am as human as they are and to encourage faith in them. If I can anyone can I am as human as the next person.

I don’t pour out my pain on the people I serve. Instead I have people to turn to to in my pain and confusion and joy and suffering. In fact in recent times I have noticed that I can do this more easily than perhaps in the past. I thank God for this. The worst kind of pain is the pain of loneliness and isolation. There are many blessings of ministry but one of its curses is the loneliness that can be experienced at times. This I know is caused by not owning and coming to terms with your own suffering.

These thoughts bring to mind some beautiful hard earned words of advice from Henri J. M. Nouwen in his beautiful book “The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom” written as he reflected on his various struggles. In his meditation “Own Your Pain” he wrote:

“The main question is “Do you own your pain?” As long as you do not own your pain—that is, integrate your pain into your way of being in the world—the danger exists that you will use the other to seek healing for yourself. When you speak to others about your pain without fully owning it, you expect something from them that they cannot give. As a result, you will feel frustrated, and those you wanted to help will feel confused, disappointed, or even further burdened….

…For you to be able to share your struggle as a service, it is also essential to have people to whom you can go with your own needs. You will always need safe people to whom you can pour out your heart. You will always need people who do not need you but who can receive you and give you back to yourself. You will always need people who can help you own your pain and claim your struggle.

Thus the core question in your ministry is, “Is my sharing of my struggle in the service of the one who seeks my help? This question can only be answered yes when you truly own your pain and expect nothing from those who seek your ministry.”

I believe that I can answer yes to this. I have learnt to own my pain.

No one can escape the pain of life. It is as much a part of living a full life as joy. In trying to avoid pain all we ever succeed in doing is cutting ourselves off from the joy that accompanies the pain of life. In fact there are times in life when we must walk faithfully through the pain to fully experience the joy. . Herman Hesse saw the truth in this when he said:

“Love your suffering. Do not resist it; do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.”
It is this aversion that causes the suffering within the suffering. It is this that causes much of what so many people describe as the loneliness of modern life. In trying to suppress our pain all we succeed in doing is to cut ourselves off from the joy of life.

While life does involve pain and suffering, it does not have to involve “the suffering within the suffering”.

Life itself is not suffering.

We need not be identified by our suffering.

Eckhart Tolle suggest that we create needless suffering when we blame others for all our personal pain. He claims that the habit of blaming and cultivating outrage, anger, resentment and other negative emotions, what he has termed our “pathological ego” is what blocks us from knowing the truth about ourselves and the human condition.

He explains that although we do suffer, we are not our suffering, it is not our whole identity. The trouble is that we can become trapped in it and then it identifies all that we are. He calls this the “pain body”. He claims that we can step outside of this and become children of love with worth and dignity. This though is not achieved by simply ignoring the pain and hoping it will just go away.

That said we do not need to go looking for it and it does not justify receiving unnecessary pain and or abuse. There are forms of suffering that cannot to be justified. There are times when passive acceptance of all forms of suffering is not the answer. Dorothy Soelle , amongst others, criticised the claim that suffering is justified because it was the only way to achieve Salvation or Nirvana. As she said

“No heaven can rectify Auschwitz”.

She did not believe that suffering was ordained by God. Instead she saw God within the suffering. For her God suffered with humanity. For her salvation was achieved through experiencing God within humanities suffering, not as a result of it. She saw God as being in solidarity with the victims of oppression in human society. Therefore in her view to fully experience salvation is to work for liberation of the oppressed and to end man made suffering, not passively endure it.

That said we cannot escape all suffering it is a part of life. In fact perhaps it is through our shared suffering that we can come closer together and develop compassion for one another and all living beings, as the Buddhist suggest.

May Sarton saw the truth in this when in “Recovering, A Journal” she wrote

“I woke before dawn with this thought. Joy, happiness, are what we take and do not question. They are beyond question, maybe. A matter of being. But pain forces us to think, and to make connections, to sort out what is what, to discover what has been happening to cause it. And, curiously enough, pain draws us to other human beings in a significant way, whereas joy or happiness to some extent, isolates.”

It is through owning our pain and suffering, growing through it faithfully and passing on what it has taught us that compassion grows and we can truly serve, minister, to one another and the wider world. In many ways this the purpose of a spiritual community. A religious community has to be one of compassion.

Compassion means to suffer with. We can learn to be with others in their suffering and with ourselves in our own. Interestingly the opposite of compassion is apathy.. To be apathetic to the suffering not only of ourselves but to the pain of others is the worst kind of hell any one can suffer from, it’s inhuman, it creates our loneliness and it creates our isolation.

To suffer with is to experience compassion it is the gateway to love and service.

So let us stand in solidarity with ourselves and with one another in our pain and suffering. In doing so we will know the full meaning of compassionate living and in doing so we will fully experience the joy that life offers to us.

And when we do we will know God, we will know love.

Amen and blessed be.