Saturday, 30 August 2014

Breadth and Depth

Last Saturday was a first for Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel Altrincham, as we conducted our first same-sex marriage. In fact it was a first for the whole of Trafford as it was the first to be conducted in a religious building in the Borough. I attended the do afterwards and as is always the case many people wanted to discuss the service and as well as ask questions about the Unitarian faith tradition. Of all the things that were said to me my favourite had to be “I am not a church going, but I really liked that service”. I was also involved in many other conversations with a variety of people as we ate and listened to the speeches. It’s amazing what people tell you about themselves their own faith or lack of faith, their frustrations with previous wedding service that they had attended, whether religious or secular ones held in hotels etc. What touched me the most though was that people were able to connect with what they were witnessing on a deep, deep level whether they were “religious” or not. The service was deeply religious, in a very real sense and yet it was able to touch those hard to reach places of folk regardless of what they believed, or not. The service had both breadth and real depth. I left feeling that I had done my job and done it well.

We say all are welcome here, come as you exactly as you are, but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition…That was certainly achieved…I offer thanks and praise for this…

For me in many ways this is what lies at the core of the free religious tradition I serve. This coming together as we are, exactly as we but not expecting to always stay exactly where we are or as we are. There is a real openness and humility in this, which I believe are essential requirements for the corporate transformative experience that ought to lay at the core of a free religious tradition.

People constantly ask me what a Unitarian is, they are always trying to pin me and our tradition down. For some this is curiosity and for others I suspect it is in an attempt to be critical, to pick holes. By the way there are many holes and personally I’m very pleased about this. I would hate to feel I am a part of something that looked at itself and believed that it was the perfect embodiment of anything. I do not believe that anything in life is perfect and therefore must be incomplete. I’m aware every week that I am an imperfect minister, but one I also know is growing.

One criticism that people often make of the tradition I serve is that it is seen as being too broad and as a result shallow. They say yes there is plenty of width, but no real depth. That anything goes, we accept people uncritically. Do you know what there may well be some truth in that, but it’s a truth that I see in a positive light and not a negative one. I certainly want to welcome people exactly as they are, warts and all and beauty spots too. I want to welcome their whole selves, even if I’m uncomfortable with some aspects of them. To me this is not shallow at all, actually I believe that it encourages depth. To me this is real depth and not some shallow imposed depth. That said regardless of what I believe many do still see the Unitarian tradition as wishy washy, shallow, and empty.

This brings to mind a story my brother loves to tell of he and his wife being driven around Dallas in a taxi and the driver pointing to a church and saying “That church is a Unitarian Universalist church and those folks can believe whatever they like”, my brother recounts that this was said in an utterly bemused tone. My brother’s response was oh yes “My brother is a Unitarian”. I think for the first time in his entire life the taxi driver went silent.

By the way as a kind of counter to this thought I have heard many Unitarians say "We so not beleive waht we like, we believe what me must."

I also remember seeing an episode of the cartoon series “The Simpsons” in which the church pastor Rev Lovejoy offers the Simpson children a bowl of Unitarian ice cream. When one of the children replies that the bowl is empty his response is that this is the point. The bowl is empty. He is saying there is nothing in it. It is an empty vessel which will not feed or sustain you.

Now I don’t believe and have certainly not found this to be true, but it is certainly how others view the Unitarian faith. Why is this? Well I believe it is because we find it hard to articulate exactly what our faith is about. We can say what it isn’t far more easily, but find it hard to say what we are really about. I know I find it a challenge from time to time. In fact there has been times when I have done all I can to avoid the question.

There are those within the Unitarian tradition who say the same thing by the way, claiming that we need a clear coherent message, so that we can market ourselves better. The problem of course is that no two people can agree entirely as to what that might be.

Now while there are a variety of views as to what it is to be a Unitarian there does seem to be two distinct themes that emerge and re-emerge as to the direction we ought to be taking in articulating what we are about and the way we should move forward in order to grow. The call seems to be either a return to our roots, a more Biblically based Unitariansism and the other to do away with the past completely as if it never happened and to embrace an almost secular kind of religion, an oxymoron if ever I’ve heard one. I have heard this described as the ABC approach. I remember hearing this phrase quite frequently a while back and asked someone what they meant by it. They said ABC, anything but Christianity. The ABC approach is one that says we embrace anything, well anything but Christianity.

My own personal view is that neither of these two approaches necessarily breed depth as opposed to width, they can both easily become shallow. I believe there is a real depth the Unitarian heritage, in where we have come from and I believe it points to an openness that comes from our natural humility that grows from our traditions faithful uncertainty.

You see I think that real the depth of the Unitarian tradition doesn’t come from becoming tied by our roots or by the rejection of it completely. Instead it comes from our approach. This I believe is found in that simple statement “Come as you are, exactly as you are, but not expect to leave in exactly the same condition”. I believe it comes from the humility and openness that is at the core of this approach.

At the core of the Unitarian approach is the principle of none subscription to imposed creeds and dogmas. We claim that the seat of authority lays in the enlightened conscience of the individual and not an external authority? When I first heard this sentiment expressed and first came into contact with the ideas of the Great Nineteenth century Unitarian theologian James Martineau it spoke to me right down deep in the marrow of my soul. The “Seat of Authority” rejects all external authority in matters of faith whether of Church or scripture. It set Unitarians apart in the nineteenth century from mainstream Christianity. Now of course our tradition has broadened and has widened since this time, but I do think that today it is this that gives the Unitarian tradition its depth. For me this is the essence of the tradition. To me this is our unique selling point, to use marketing jargon for a moment. I believe that there is both breadth and depth in this approach.

I believe that the Unitarian tradition is both broad and deep. This is because it encourages people to include all that they are, all their experiences, all that has brought them to place they find themselves at this moment in time. I believe it is a mistake to reject any aspect of our experiences. There is always a temptation to reject the past, both personal and collective, but it is what has made us who we are today. We need to embrace it and see it fully for what it is, warts and all and beauty spots too. We need to share these experiences with one another in order to bring depth to our kaleidoscope of experiences. For no two experiences are exactly alike.

In the four years I have served the beautiful people at Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel Altrincham and Queens Road Unitarian Free Church Urmston I have discovered that one of the greatest gifts of this work I have been blessed with is that people tell you things, they share their experiences. All kinds of people tell me where they have been, what an honour to be blessed with such conversations, they are precious beyond measure, pearls of great price.

I believe there is real breadth and depth in the free religious tradition I have chosen (or did it choose me?), and that this is to be found in the personal experiences of those within our communities and those who came before them. The past should never be rejected as it can reveal so much to we who live today. To find the real depth in life you need to listen to the whole of life, you must let it speak, past, present and future. You must learn to listen to all the voices, for they are voices just like your own. You must be open to all the stories of life both ancient and modern and those of prophesy too, for they have so much to teach. You must be open to all experiences that are available to you. How can this be done? Well it begins with humility, this is the very key to openness, I believe.

Once again I say to you and I say it to myself too…”Come as you are, exactly as you are, but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition”…For I believe that in these simple words you will know both the breadth and the depth of life...a breadth and depth found in the beautiful free religious tradition I am blessed to serve.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Are You Awake? Consciousness and Self-Consciousness

It is said that soon after his enlightenment that the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha's extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. The man stopped and asked, "My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?"

"No," said the Buddha.

"Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?"

Again the Buddha answered, "No."

"Are you a man?" "No."

"Well, my friend, then what are you?"

The Buddha replied, "I am awake"

The Buddha was awake, he was fully conscious to all that is and all that will ever be. He was fully integrated, he did not see himself as separate, well he did not see himself at all.

Now this is not a claim I would or could make about myself. I believe I am more awake these days than I have ever been in the past, but I am very aware of a sense of separation from time to time. That said I am more conscious than I ever was before. There is a simple reason for this I am less self-conscious than I once was. I feel more connected, at one, with all that is, than at any other time in my life. I feel conscious, I feel awake, but I used to be terribly self-consciousness and I suspect that it was this that was the very root cause of so much of that aching loneliness that used to eat away at me. I felt, separate, cut off, alone. How many of us feel like this, it is so much the plague of the modern age.

The other day I was chatting with my mum, it was a wonderful conversation. She was doing most of the talking. This is the case in most of the conversation I have these days. I like it this way. “Now the ears of my ears are awake.”

We got talking about childhood things and what life was like back then. I asked her a question, which I haven’t asked for years about a birth defect I suffered from. She went into detail explaining how when I was born some of the nerve endings at the base of my spine were underdeveloped. It was something akin to spina bifida, but in a less severe form. As a child I had to frequently go for physiotherapy and there was a period when I was not allowed to engage in any sport. I hated the feeling it engendered in me as I looked at the other kids running around in the playground, knowing I wasn’t allowed to join in.

It was a few years later when the pain really hit me though, in my mid to later teens when I was painfully aware of the way I walked. I waddled when I moved, I still do now. When it was my time to be teased at school I would be called "Penguin, cripple, crip, criptic acid and spina bifida." I remember walking down the street of the town I grew up in and whenever I saw someone walking towards me I would stand up straight and attempt to push my feet inwards in the vain hope that they wouldn’t think that there was something wrong with me. I must have looked a right sight.

I was just so terribly self-consciousness. I was just so locked in on what I believed was wrong with me. I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days and do you know what I’m not wholly convinced that the problem was my perceived physical imperfections. I suspect that if I’d been born without this physical difficulty the problem would have manifested in other areas of my life. The problem was the self-consciousness, I was locked in myself and therefore not fully conscious, I was separate and felt alone.

One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that I am not alone in this. So many of us suffer from this from of self-consciouness. We feel lost, lonely and cut off because we are locked in what we believe is wrong with us. Sometimes it is harder to see what is right, than what is wrong. This is a deeply lonely, isolated, way to be.

Socrates said that “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Now while not wishing to argue with the great philosopher I do wonder if the “over examined life” can prove just as worthless. It is so easy to get lost in oneself, wrapped up in our own underwear to such an extent that we do not live at all. We can become so self-conscious that we fail to become conscious of all that is and all that as ever been. It is so easy to become wrapped up in our own perceived needs that we fail to live in the world with others and then complain about feeling lonely. Yes it is important to examine ourselves, to understand who we are and what makes us tick, but that should not be an end in itself, a destination. It is a staging post in the spiritual adventure, but not the final destination.

Some label extreme self-absorption as Narcissism. A word taken from name of a boy of ancient Greek mythology named Narcissus who fell so in love with his own reflection that he fell into the water and drowned. Now I don't believe that it is entirely correct to name the type of self-consciousness I am discussing here as Narcissistic self-love. There seems very little love here at all. Quite the opposite in fact the pre-occupation is with what is wrong. What I'm describing is a deep form of self hatred and or loathing, not love.

When you look at your own reflection in the mirror, what do you see? Do you see someone that you love? Do you see who you really are? While many of us see ourselves warts and all, how many of us see the beauty spots too? The kind of self-absorption that most people I come into contact with suffer from tends to be a deeply ingrained negative type. The preoccupation is often with what is wrong with them, with their shame, rather than how wonderful they are. This is certainly not what Narcissus suffered from.

This kind of self-consciousness can become so consuming that it takes over our every human interactions. I wonder how many of us suffer from the following kind of commentary when we meet up with people. “What will they think of me?” “How do I look?” “If I say something, will they think I’m an idiot?” and then a little later, “He gave me a funny look, he must have thought me a fool. Why on earth did I have to make that stupid remark? Gosh I’m such a freak, they all seem to be staring at me.”

This kind of inner dialogue can be so crippling. It can haunt us from the moment we wake and continue throughout our day, eating away at our every decision. Oh and of course because we doubt ourselves and every decision we make, we assume that everyone else must be doing exactly the same thing. This kind of self-consciousness can be so inhibiting, so much so that it can block us off almost entirely from the world around us. We can become utterly consumed by this kind of self-consciousness, leading to us seeing the world entirely from this point of view. When we do the world does not look like a pretty place at all.

So what can we do about it? How do we wake up to a greater consciousness? How do we break free from this crippling self-consciousness?

In the Gospel accounts Jesus taught his followers that they must lose themselves in order to be found. This beautiful paradox taught that by emptying ourselves of our self-absorption we begin to be filled with the spirit of neighbourliness. So that when we look deeply into the still waters we are not drawn in by narcissistic self-consciousness and loathing at our own reflection, but rather into a deeper contemplation of our shared lives. We become conscious of all that is, all that has been and all that will ever be. By opening ourselves to and for others we begin to shed that debilitating skin of self-consciousness that it is so easy to become imprisoned in.

Gandhi said “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service of others”

The Buddha talked of Nirvana, of being freed from the suffering that was the blight of humanity. He showed that we all suffered and that it was in seeing our suffering as individual that led to this sense of separation. He suggested that we needed to break through our suffering not only to serve others but to reach a higher state of being, true consciousness, to be awake.

Now please don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting that we neglect ourselves and that we do not need to understand how we tick. All I am saying is that we must not get stuck there, we must not get lost there and we must not see this as a destination, more a staging post on the journey. The adolescent stage I suspect. Sadly for many folk, me included, this adolescent stage often goes on well into adulthood.

So how do we move from self-consciouness to consciousness. How do we lose ourselves so that we can be found? Well Forrest Church in his wonderful book “Lifecraft” offered three simple suggestions, which he called the three “E’s”, “empathy”, “ecstasy” and “enthusiasm”. The key he claimed could be found in the literal understanding of these words. “Empathy”, to suffer or feel with another; “Ecstasy”, to stand outside ourselves; “Enthusiasm”, to manifest the god (theos) within us.

Empathy is a deep felt compassion. When we open our hearts empathically to another we are courageously refusing to allow self-consciousness to stand in the way of a higher consciousness that comes into being as we feel what another is going through. In so doing we serve both ourselves and the other person, as well as that higher consciousness beyond our singular selves.

Ecstasy is one of those words that has often been misunderstood as some kind of hedonistic state and therefore self- indulgent, it is far from this. In its truest sense what it actually does is take us out of ourselves and lifts us beyond our self created confines. In so doing we transcend our self-consciousness and enter a realm in which purpose begins to emerge and meaning is found.

Enthusiasm means to be filled with spirit, with holy energy. Enthusiasm allows us to be fully involved and engaged in whatever it is we are doing. It allows us to see beyond the confines we have created. Forrest himself states, drawing on the imagery of Narcissus, that “Here, once again, consciousness displaces self-consciousness. We escape from our mirrored room. Its mirrors turn into windows. Or the pond grows so still that we can see beyond our own reflection to the trees and clouds and birds and sun. There is, by the way, no higher form of spiritual practice. When we step out of our own shadow, consciousness replaces self-consciousness.”

Experience has revealed to me that in so doing we are set free to walk with others in our own faltering ways. Instead of being lost in what we believe is wrong with us we are set free to do what we can in this our shared world and in so doing we encourage others to do the same, as perfectly imperfect children of God, children of Love.

As I understand it the whole purpose of the spiritual life is to develop a deepening sense of connection. We all have our troubles and our worries either within ourselves, those around us or the wider world. We need to see them for what they are, we need to acknowledge the truth, but we must not get stuck there, for that will paralyse us and stop us doing what we can. We cannot change the way the world is but that need not prevent us from doing what we can do and in doing so we will grow spiritually as we become integrated into all that has been, all that exists and all that will ever.

As a kind of conclusion I’d like to end this little chip of a blog with one final thought, inspired by some wisdom that Forrest Church shared right at the end of his life.

So much of modern spiritually gets it wrong because it is seeking the wrong thing. There is so much talk of finding ourselves, when in actual fact what we ought to be doing is losing ourselves. What we ought to be striving for is integration and to let go of those aspects within ourselves that block this. We all ask the question “Who am I?” when really we ought to asking is “How am I doing? And if we are still feeling utterly dis-connected we need to ask why? And how can I integrate once again? You see if we can begin to integrate with all that is, all that has been and all that has ever been we begin to truly cohere. In doing so we transcend our self-consciousness and become conscious. We become spiritually mature. We become like the Buddha, awake.

So how conscious are you today? Are you truly awake?

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Can we live as one?

Last year I bought a copy of  “Falling Into the Sky: A Meditation Anthology” edited by Abhi Janamanchi and Abhimanyu Janamanchi. There are some beautiful reflections in it, The following “God Has No Borders” by Rod Richards seems particularly pertinent in the current climate.

"We humans are the line-drawers. We are the border-makers. We are the boundary-testers. We are the census-takers. We draw a line to separate this from that, so we can see clearly what each is. We create a border to define our place, so we can take care of what's there. We test boundaries to find if they are real, if they are necessary, if they are just. We congregate within those boundaries in families and tribes and cities and countries that we call us. And we call people on the other side them.

But our minds seek boundaries that our hearts know not. The lines we draw disappear when viewed with eyes of compassion. The recognition of human kinship does not end at any border. A wise part of us knows that the other is us, and we them.

Let justice flow like water and peace like a never-ending stream. Let compassion glow like sunlight and love like an ever-shining beam. The rain, the sunshine, the breeze, the life-giving air we breathe -- they know no boundaries. Neither do our empathy, our good will, our concern for one another.

God has no borders. Love has no borders. Let us lift up the awareness of our unity as we celebrate our awesome diversity on this beautiful day."

John Lennon once sang “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one”.

Well looking around at our world at times this does indeed seem a dream. Pick up any newspaper or switch on the news and we see division and violence growing. The idea that we can live as one does seem like a dream at times.

This last week marked the hundredth anniversary of the commencement of the First World War. Over the coming months there will be many events remembering this. While we remember I do wonder if we have ever really learned. Over the last 100 years there have been very few days when there was no conflict taking place in this our world.

Now while death through armed conflict is responsible for the loss of so many lives it is thought that only about 10% of the one million violent deaths in the world each year are due to them. The conflicts and the violence that takes place in this our world is not just between nations, or even groups and individuals. Half of the 1 million deaths are thought to be through suicide and about one third through homicide. How can we live at one with each other if we cannot live at one with ourselves?

Now of course the divisions in human life take many and varied forms. We see them of course in religious context and between nations and ethnic groups. We seem them in political agendas and we see them within communities and even within ourselves. It seems that when human beings come together in any way shape or form division soon begins to grow. It happens in families too and within our individual selves. How many of us can honestly say, hand on heart, that they are at one with themselves and the world around them?

It seems very difficult to imagine a world where we can all live as one.

A few days ago I came across a fascinating article written about  Buzz Aldrin, the second man to land on the moon. The article recounted something that took place during that first moon landing, something that was intentionally kept quiet at the time.

As Neil Armstrong was preparing to take “one small step for man” Aldrin wanted to mark the moment in a way that was deeply spiritually meaningful to him, something that he believed would symbolise the wonder and awe of the moon landings and that transcended the nuts and bolts and mere technology. He felt that a simple communion would be appropriate. So Aldrin brought with him a piece of communion bread, a sip of wine and a tiny silver chalice amongst the few personal items he was allowed to take into space with him.

So just before stepping foot on the moon, Aldrin conducted the service. As he did he called out to Houston

“Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM Pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to invite each person listening, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.”

Aldrin had wanted to broadcast the event globally but had been discouraged by NASA who were at the time fighting a lawsuit brought by the atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair who was suing them over the reading of Genesis by the crew of Apollo 8. So the communion was kept quiet and personal due to fear of litigation.

Years later while reflecting on the incident Aldrin said himself that perhaps he should have chosen a more universal way of commemorating this incredible human achievement. He said;

“Perhaps if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion… Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”

So many of those early astronauts, as they looked down on earth, were deeply moved by the experience. They certainly saw the oneness and the interconnection of all life on earth and all of humanity.

Thomas Stafford, while looking down on earth from Apollo 10 famously said:

"The white twisted clouds and the endless shades of blue in the ocean

make the hum of the spacecraft systems, the radio chatter, even your

own breathing disappear. There is no cold or wind or smell to tell you

that you are connected to Earth.

You have an almost dispassionate platform - remote, Olympian and yet so moving that you can hardly believe how emotionally attached you are to those rough patterns shifting steadily below."

From space those astronauts developed a deepening spiritual connection to the earth they had been separated from. They saw the world as one, there were no borders from space.

We are all connected on this our planet and yet we build so many walls, so many borders that separate us. How do we begin to live with a greater sense of oneness and interconnection? Well I do not think that the only answer is to blast off into space. I don’t think we need to do this. If I’ve learnt anything I have learnt that the journey towards interconnection and togetherness, the spiritual journey, is not one of distance, nor is it a journey of detachment, the spiritual journey is one of connection.

For me the spiritual life is essentially about connection. It is about connecting to a reality that is greater than our small selves. Living spiritually is about finding ways to connect to whatever it is that is of highest worth to us, whatever we hold sacred, whatever we regard as holy. It is about finding ways to connect through the daily interactions of our lives; it’s about learning how to live more openly even when the tough times come and those around us are refusing to do so.

This is not easy, especially when we see so many of those around us seemingly living more disconnectedly from all life and putting up barriers towards others. So how do we do this, you may well ask? Well I believe it begins with spiritual practise, it is this that will help us to connect in deeper and more meaningful ways.

I’d like to suggest a simple practise to you, one I came across in a book of meditations titled “Singing in the Night: Collected Meditations: Volume Five” edited by Mary Bernard. It is by David O. Rankin and is titled “Our Common Destiny”

“First, I must begin with my own creation. I must celebrate the miracle of evolution that resulted in a living entity named David. I must assist in the unfolding of the process by deciding who I am, by fashioning my own identity, by creating myself each day. I must listen to the terrors, the desires, the impulses that clash in the depths of my soul. I must know myself, or I will be made and used by others.

Second, I must learn to affirm my neighbours. I must respect others, not for their function, but for their being. I must put others at the centre of my attention, to treat them as ends, and to recognise our common destiny. I must never use people to win glory, or to measure the ego, or to escape from responsibility. I must listen to their words, their thoughts, their coded messages.

Finally, I must value action more than intention. I must feel, think, judge, decide, and then risk everything in acts of gratuitous freedom. I must batter the walls of loneliness. I must leap the barriers of communication. I must tear down the fences of anonymity. I must destroy the obstacles to life and liberty. Not in my mind (as a wistful dream). But in my acts (as a daily reality)."

Can we live as one? At one with ourselves, at one with one another, at one with those people who we see as being different to ourselves, can we live at one with all of life? Well I believe it is possible, I don’t see it as an impossible dream. It begins within our own hearts and souls and in the ways that we conduct our lives. It will not be easy though, as the forces of division are all around us and indeed within us.

Therefore it must begin within our own hearts and souls. in the way we live our own lives. It begins by learning to revere life as the most precious God given gift there is. If we do this we will surely no longer be able to create divisions within ourselves, one another and all life.

I'm going to end this little blogspot with some prayerful words by  Rick Hoyt titled “Beyond Borders”. I invite you still yourselves in a time of prayer…let us pray…

“Beyond Borders” by Rick Hoyt

Go forth
Because we are always going forth from somewhere

Going from our homes
Going from our childhoods and younger selves
Going from our cities and states and countries
Going from innocence to experience to enlightenment

Finding borders
Testing borders
Crossing borders.

Go forth
into the night
Because we are always going into some night,

Going into mystery
Going into questions
Going into the desert
Getting to the other side.

Go forth,
Eagerly or reluctantly
Leaving behind the comfort and joy and community and
familiarity of one place
Go forth, into the anxiety and sadness and loneliness and
strangeness of some other place.

Carry with you the love and laugther of this place
And let it light your spirit and your life and your way
as you make your journey.
Carry with you the wisdom you learned and the good memories of this place
And may they give you strength for your journey.

And when you have been away long enough,
far enough,
Done what you set off to do
Been there so long that
That place too, starts to feel like home.

Come back.
Come back.
Come back to the one, universal,
Everywhere and every when and everyone inclusive home,
This beloved community of all creation
That you cannot ever really leave.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Resent or Rejoice

There’s a woman I know who whenever our paths cross, which they do quite frequently, always shouts out to me “resent or rejoice”. It’s been going on for months now and I’ve got no one else to blame for this other than myself. She once heard me talking about my wish to find a word like resentment, but that meant the polar opposite. A word that meant to re-feel a positive emotion or event. Now the word she came up with was “rejoice”. So every time we bump into one another she says to me “resent or rejoice”. I’m beginning to wonder if I actually resent or rejoice in these encounters. Usually I rejoice in the spirit of celebration that she is sharing and in the fact that she is developing something that has grown from a loving aspect of myself. I’ve even begun saying the phrase “rejoice or resent” back at her.

“Resent or rejoice”, it really got me thinking about attitudes and approaches to life. Do I rejoice in the life I have been given and those who surround me or do I resent this life that I am a part of? Do we resent or rejoice in life?

Now personally I would much rather rejoice than be consumed by poisonous resentment, although I'm not sure that this has always been the case.

Resentment is a negative emotion that is re-felt and replayed, over and over again until it becomes all consuming. Frederick Nietzsche said of it, “nothing on earth consumes a man more completely than the passion of resentment.”

When I look at my life there have been examples, some serious and others ridiculous, that have consumed me for long periods of time. I know I am not unique in this, it happens to us all, things from our past can so easily control and even poison the life we are attempting to live today.

I know from truly looking at my own life and honestly acknowledging all that has happened to me and all that I have caused to happen, that many of these resentments I used to carry were really just justifications for the mess I was in at the time. By blaming others for my troubles, the things they had done, real or imagined, I could somehow raise myself above them and place myself on a pedestal. The problem of course was that I just remained lost in this sea of anger and my life went nowhere other than more lost. I was stuck on a ship, created from my own ill feeling, heading for trouble and unable to change direction. The bitter feelings were so all consuming that I could not hear the voices that were offering a different direction and my senses were closed to the joy present in the life all around me. What a waste!

Yes resentment is such a waste of life, as it so quickly becomes all consuming. It can take over your whole life. You will find many examples of this in literature. The classic perhaps being Captain Ahab. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick Ahab is consumed by his rage against the “white whale” “Moby Dick” who in a previous voyage had destroyed his ship and bitten off his leg. So Ahab vowing revenge sets out on a voyage to hunt down the “white whale”. He becomes so consumed by his rage and need for revenge that as time goes by he no longer sees “Moby Dick” merely as the perpetrator of an evil act but as the “devil incarnate”, as the sum and substance of all evil that occurs in our lives.

This is near perfectly illustrated in the following passage from “Moby Dick”

“Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung...All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.”

Ahab grapples with the “white whale” until the end. He hurls his final harpoon and cries out “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

Now I know this is only a work of fiction. A great work of fiction by the way and one written by a man who had links with my own Unitarian faith. I understand that Herman Melville worshipped at “All Souls” in New York. A congregation that was served for many years by my great hero Forrest Church. There is something in this work of fiction that speaks to me and I believe to all of us when we look at the power of rage and the destructive nature of deep rooted resentment. We only need to look at the world we live in today to see example of this all around us.

Have you ever been consumed by such a rage?

The problem of course is that once you become consumed by such intensely powerful emotions it is very difficult to change direction. This is especially true if you believe the resentment is justified. Now while the anger may well be justified I am certain that the all consuming destruction it carries with it is not.

Resentment can close down all our senses to such an extent that we fail to heed all the warning signs around us and end up crashed against the rocks all alone. We may not end up with Ahab’s fate but we can easily find ourselves shipwrecked or lost at sea in a myriad of ways.

This brings to mind a story a heard a little while back about an old ship captain, in the days before modern communication, who one night saw what looked like the beacon of another ship headed straight for him. He asked his signal man to warn them and so he blinked to the other ship “Change your course 10 degrees south.” Moments later the reply blinked back “change your course 10 degrees north” to which the captain ordered the signal man to answer “I am captain change your course south.” To which the reply came back "I am seaman first class. Change your course north." This infuriated the captain, so he ordered his signal man to reply "I am a battleship. Change course south." To which almost instantaneously came the response, "I am a lighthouse. Change course north.”

If only we could just listen and perhaps change course for the good of our own and the health of those who share our lives. It’s not so easy though is it, especially when we believe that we are right and get a sense of superiority by this feeling of being right. If only we could see the damage that this does to ourselves and those around us, but alas so rarely we do as we become consumed by the rage and the hate.

Resentment is a destructive force.

So what is the alternative? Well maybe it is to find a way to learn to rejoice in all that is life. How do we do that? You may well ask. Well I think it begins by learning to see the joy in things, if not in our own lives then in the lives of others. It is so easy to get stuck in what is wrong and to therefore fail to see what is good and rejoice in it. This is such a terrible state for our minds to get in. As the poet Milton said “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Hell of Heaven, a Heaven of Hell.”

Perhaps the key is to change course and not sail into the rocks or to be sunk to the depths by the white whale. The key I suspect is to change our minds. The key is to rejoice, rather than resent.

How does this begin you may well ask?

Well I believe that it begins by learning ways to celebrate our lives; it begins by learning to savour every breath no matter what is dealt to us. This begins by learning to offer that unceasing prayer “thank you”. It begins by following the advice of the Hopi elders who suggested that you should “Gather yourselves…See who is in the water with you and celebrate. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.”

Maybe this is how we begin to rejoice, by looking at those in the water with us and learning to rejoice in who they are.

Pema Chodron claims that “Rejoicing in the good fortune of others is a practise that can help us when we feel emotionally shut down and unable to connect with others. Rejoicing generates good will. The next time you go out into the world, you might try this practice: directing your attention to people- in their cars, on the sidewalk, talking on their cell phones – just wish for them all to be happy and well.”

Maybe this is a way to set ourselves free from the anger and resentful feelings that leave us lost in the sea of life. Maybe this is one way to help us change direction and not leave us shipwrecked against the rocks. Maybe this is one way to begin to rejoice in life. Maybe it can begin by not so much looking for the things to be grateful for in our lives, but instead to offer gratitude for the good fortune of others who we find ourselves in the water with. Maybe it begins by wishing good fortune for the people we meet.

I have found that this really works as it begins to fill us with joy because when our minds are thinking of others good fortune it is difficult for us to be thinking of anything else. Why not give it a go? You never know you might just find that if you do your minds might just become freed from the shackles of resentments, and then you might just be able to learn to live and rejoice in the beautiful gift that is this day.

So what’s your choice to be today, do you resent or do you rejoice?

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Who do you think you are?

I recently invited a friend to an event at chapel. The invitation read “come as you are, exactly as you…but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition.” It’s something I always say. There is something of my slightly mischievous humour in the phrase and there is a serious point too. Now my friend's response was quite interesting and I suspect a little mischievous too. He said “But what if you don’t know who you are.” I laughed to myself as I read it and then it got me thinking.

Who exactly are we? Does anyone truly know the answer to that question? Who do we think we are?

It is a well-known phrase isn’t it? “Who do you think you are? Now usually it’s said to someone who is getting a bit too big for their boots, someone who is standing above their station and needs knocking down a peg or two, or so we think. We say to them “Who do you think you are?”

Now the phrase has taken on new and different meanings in recent years. There is a well-known television series that goes by the same title. Each episode follows a celebrity as they re-trace their family backgrounds and discover interesting facts about their ancestors. The program can be quite moving at times both for those watching and the celebrities who participate in it.

Now no doubt the program is popular because it is about the lives of these celebrities but that is not the only reason. I suspect that its real popularity is due to the fact that it taps into a fascination that we all share. It seems that most of us wish to know where we come from and I suspect that one of the reasons for this is that we believe it will help us come to a better understanding of who we are. Genealogy has grown in popularity over the last few decades, it has almost become a national obsession. My mum has herself become a self-taught expert in it. She has studied our own family history and also takes great pleasure doing the same research into other peoples families too.

I suspect that this fascination with genealogy grows from our need to know where we come from, perhaps in an attempt to better know who we are. No one person lives a life separate from those around them and the history that they come from. Our lives are not singular cellular ones. The whole history of life has brought us to the point we are at today and who we are has been created from this.

This is beautifully illustrated By Thich Nhat Hahn, who wrote in “Present moment, wonderful moment”

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”

All that has been before is a part of who we are. So who do you think you are?

In Genesis ch1 v 26a we hear the phrase "Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind* in our image, according to our likeness;". It is describing humanity being made in God’s image, in God’s likeness. Now what on earth could this mean? Well image, from the Latin “imago” means reflection or portrait it does not mean exactly the same as. I believe that this passage is suggesting that each of us has something of Divine within us, that we are a reflection of the divine and that this brings a duty to humanity to reflect this image into the world in which we live. This is a real responsibility, to reflect the divine love in life, to incarnate it into being. I wonder how often we actually achieve this.

I believe that most of our human problems stem from our rejection of this "likeness", from our inability to see that we are children of love, formed from love. That this Divine spark is an aspect of our very human being. I know when I look back at my darkest days it is this that frightened me the most and so I rejected it. I know that I am not unique in this thinking about who I am. I feel that so many of us are frightened of this spark of "likeness from which we are formed. Marianne Williamson beautifully illustrated this when she wrote “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God?”

So who do you think you are? Oh and who do you think that everyone else is? Well I believe that we are all formed from that same love, from that same image. That includes you who read this blogspot and even I who write it.

Now of course this is not all that we are. We humans are capable of the worst kinds of horrors. We only need look at the news to recognise this. I do believe that this stems from our continual failure to recognise this sacredness either within ourselves or one another. When I look at the horrors that took place under the Soviet systems and other nations throughout the twentieth century I believe that the root of the problem was that we had reduced our human beingness to nothing more than commodity and that this sacredness, this Divine likeness, had thus been rejected. If we could only see who we really are, rather than what we think we are, we would no longer hurt one another and ourselves; we could no longer sacrifice another for some perceived greater reality; we could no longer claim that the ends justify the means. We would be compelled instead to recognise one another’s sacred uniqueness.

So how do we begin to recognise this sacredness in each other once again? Well I believe that the answer is simple and it begins with one another, with the person we next meet. Just take a look at their face.

We only really need to look into one another’s faces to truly recognise this incredible sacred uniqueness, no two faces are exactly alike and each face has so much to tell of the person looking back at us. When was the last time you truly looked at someone?

Abraham Joshua Heschel said of the human face.

“A human being has not only a body but also a face. A face cannot be grafted or interchanged. A face is a message, a face speaks, often unbeknown to the person. Is not the human face a living mixture of mystery and meaning? We are all able to see it, and are all unable to describe it. Is it not a strange marvel that among so many hundreds of millions of faces, no two faces are alike? And that no face remains quite the same for more than one instant? The most exposed part of the body, it is the least describable, a synonym for an incarnation of uniqueness. Can we look at a face as if it were a commonplace?”

The face…”a synonym for an incarnation of uniqueness.”…I like that.

Our faces reveal so much of who we are to one another. Think about when you meet up with and old friend or relative, one who you have not seen for many years. How often do they say or do we ourselves say “come on let’s have a good look at you” and how often do they or do we then look into one another’s faces to see how we are? And isn’t the response often fascinating for it either brings immense joy or gut wrenching sadness as we see our loved one as they are, for it is written all over our faces. I remember in my darkest days how I used to hate people doing this to me, for I was afraid that they would be able to see right into my soul and know that things were not ok.

In “Anam Cara” John O’Donohue wrote the following about the face…

“The face always reveals who you are, and what life has done to you. Yet it is difficult for you to see the shape of your own life; your life is too near to you. Others can decipher much of your mystery from your face. Portrait artists admit that it is exceptionally difficult to render the human face. Traditionally, the eyes are said to be the windows of your soul. The mouth is also difficult to render in individual portraits. In some strange way the line of the mouth seems to betray the contour of the life; a tight mouth often suggests meanness of spirit. There is a strange symmetry in the way the soul writes the story of its life in the contours of the face.”

We never see ourselves exactly as we are, we certainly do not see ourselves as others see us. We see an image of ourselves a reflection, but that is not who we truly are. We need others, others who we know intimately to even begin to know ourselves as we truly are. We need to look into one another’s face and see what it is that they are, in order to truly know who we are. We need to look into one another’s faces and do you know what, if we do, we may just catch a glimpse of the divine incarnating in life once again.

Do not be afraid of the beautiful light that is in each and every one of us.

So who do you think you are? It really matters you know. It matters who you think you are and who you think everyone else you meet is. Our very lives depend upon how we see ourselves and one another. It matters because life itself matters. Well it does if we believe that we are children of love, formed from love. Each unique and each vital and each with something to offer to life.

You see we are all a part of this body that is life. Everything that we say and everything that we do matters, just as everything we do not say and everything that we do not do matters. This is why it matters how we see ourselves and one another, who we think we are and who we think everyone else is, for this will impact on how we live in the world.

We need to pay attention to who we think we are and therefore who we think others are. For if we see that we are formed in the image of divine love we will see that we have a responsibility to this life that we lead and the human story that we are a part of. If we do we can become champions of this life, we can become co-creators of the Love that is Divine.

Let us make it so.

I will end this little chip of a blogspot with this little gem on paying attention by James A Autry.

“Threads” by James A Autry in “Love and Profit”

Sometime you just connect,

like that,

no big thing maybe

but something beyond the usual business stuff.

It comes and goes quickly

so you have to pay attention,

a change in the eyes

when you ask about the family,

a pain flickering behind the statistics

about a boy and a girl at school,

or about seeing them every other Sunday.

An older guy talks about his bride,

a little affectation after twenty-five years.

A hot-eyed

achiever laughs before you want him to.

Someone tells you about his wife’s job

or why she quit working to stay home.

An old joker needs another laugh on the way

to retirement.

A woman says she spends a lot of her salary

on an au pair

and a good one is hard to find

but worth it because there is nothing more important

than the baby.


In every office you hear the threads

of love and joy and fear and guilt,

the cries of celebration and reassurance,

and somehow you know that connecting those threads

is what you are supposed to do

and business takes care of itself.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Circles on my mind

I woke on Monday morning with circles on my mind. I am not entirely sure why, but they were there. Perhaps it had something to do with reaching and passing the mid - point of the year and acknowledging that the day light hours would now be shortening. Maybe it was images of a group of Unitarian young adults attending Stone Henge to mark and celebrate the summer Solstice. Maybe it was influenced by the World Cup and the nations of the world coming together in celebration of “The Beautiful Game”. Perhaps it was that image of the spherical football that had sown a circle seed. Or maybe that thought was actually the flowering of a seed that had been planted a few weeks previously when I attended a talk given by Rev Dr Ann Peart on “How We See The World”, which looked specifically at maps and their meaning throughout history.

I know that this probably sounds a little strange but I have noticed that circles and spheres have been cropping up in conversations everywhere. I have heard talk of circles in the physical circles I move in, as well as the social media ones too. I have lost count of the number of times, in recent weeks, I have heard the phrase “circles of friends” and how society is made up of many over-lapping circles. I wonder how many times such phrases have been uttered by my own lips. I heard it several times as I chatted with friends over coffee on Tuesday morning and within a friendship circle I am part of on Monday evening. Now is this because these things are on my mind that I have been hearing them, or is it because I keep hearing of circles and that this is why they are on my mind? Well who knows? Certainly not I.

I woke up on Monday morning wondering if human lives are made up of circles; I woke up on Monday morning wondering if all human life is made up of circles. Circles that are ever widening or ever decreasing.

The great nineteenth century Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson held this view, he often spoke of circles. His essay titled “Circles” opened with the following words:

“The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. . . . every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”

(You can hear the whole essay by clicking here)

Emerson was suggesting that all life is a series of ever expanding circles; circles ever reaching out and encompassing more and more, as more is revealed. I think I agree with Ralph Waldo, certainly when I look at my life it is built on many circles, that are forever reaching out.

Now I am sure that there are many who will say that there must be a limit to these circles and that life on this sphere the earth is one of them. Well while that was once the case it is no longer true, we can after all blast off into space and so the circles of physical limit seem to be ever expanding too. As they say the universe is ever expanding.

Now when Emerson spoke of these ever increasing circles he was not talking of merely physical ones, he saw this same limitlessness with regard to truth and understanding too. He saw God similarly also. He saw the Divine as being beyond the circumference of these ever expand circles, but he also saw God at the core, the centre of the circle. This kind of Panentheism is something I have great deal of sympathy with. It makes sense to me, the idea that God somehow circles all life; the view that God is somehow more than all that is and yet is also at the core of life and truth; God is greater than all and yet at the core of everything.

So yes it seems that life is made up of circles and perhaps it has always been thus.

The circle is a central symbol of many of humanities religious traditions. It is often depicted as representing the sun, the moon, the door through which we are born and the human eye, I hear Emerson echoing these thoughts in his essay. As the circle has neither a beginning or end it is often seen as representing God’s love which is considered both perfect and eternal. This is why the circle is the symbol of the wedding ring, when two souls bind themselves to each other.

One example is the symbol of eternity and perfection, Ouroboros (Greek for tail swallower), which can be found in the Transylvanian Unitarian crest. This image of a snake swallowing its own tail symbolises infinity, re-birth and eternity and can be found in many other cultures throughout human history.

In many cultures the circle becomes a wheel. In Buddhism you will find “The Wheel of Dharma”, which with its eight spokes represents the “eight fold path”, which keeps rolling on to eternity. Other examples include the native American medicine wheel or Celtic wheel which with its four spokes stands for the four compass points, the four elements, the four times of the day, the four phases of the moon and the four seasons. Both were originally formed from stone circles and depict how everything in the universe is tied together, how even separate things move as one and are centred around the Sun, the giver of life, God. Here humanity is also placed at the centre at one with the Divine, the Great Spirit. Other examples can be found in Pagan and earth centred traditions. In Hinduism Shiva is depicted as dancing in a circle of flames, which represents the “Cycle of time with no beginning and no end. All these examples and many others appear to depict the circle as representing the inter-relatedness of everything.

Throughout human history the circle has appeared and re-appeared over and over again. It usually relates to the concepts of eternity, infinity, re-birth and perfection, with the Divine at is core and yet also somehow beyond the circumference.

Now while the centre is ever present the circumference is not, it is ever expanding. I believe that if we wish to remain in harmony with the core then we need to continue to expand with it. If we allow ourselves to be inspired by the centre we will forever be expanding the circumference. This is beautifully illustrated in the poem "Outwitted" which is the middle section of “Epigrams” by Edwin Markham.


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!

There is something here that speaks to me about what true religion ought to be about; true religion ought to be about ever widening those circles so that all are included within God’s Love. Love is there at the core ever empowering us to widen the circle so as to include all. Sadly too often religion fails to do this as it draws its circles to exclude so many for a variety of reasons.

This is not to say that the exclusion is limited to religion, no you will find this occurring in all aspects of human society. If 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, while doing so it also excludes many others too.

You know it came to me while I was wrestling with the sermon that this "blogspot" was created from, why circles are on my mind. The reason is that I am seeing division all around me. It seems that we are once again seeing the circles being sealed. Lines seem to be increasingly drawn in society. Suspicions of those outside our circles are growing and as a result there seems to be less trust. 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 I believe that we need to reach deep within ourselves to the ultimate source of love and in doing so we can begin to 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.

I would like to end this little blogspot with the following beautiful words by the Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Belletini entitled “Communion Circle”. Please read and then spend a few moments in silence before listening the song that follows...

So I ask you to please still yourselves in meditative silence…

The earth.

One planet.

Round, global,

so that when you trace its shape

with your finger,

you end up where you started. It’s one. It’s whole.

All the dotted lines we draw on our maps

of this globe are just that, dotted lines.

They smear easily.

Oceans can be crossed.

Mountains can be crossed.

Even the desert can be crossed.

The grain that grows on one side of the border

tastes just as good as the grain on the other side.

Moreover, bread made from rice is just as nourishing

to body and spirit as bread made from corn,

or spelt or teff or wheat or barley.

There is no superior land, no chosen site,

no divine destiny falling on any one nation

who draws those dotted lines just so.

There is only one earth we all share,

we, the living, with all else that lives

and does not live. Virus, granite, wave,

city, cornfield, prophet, beggar, child,

slum, tower, mine, robin, eel, grandfather,

rose, olive branch, bayonet, and this poem

and moment are all within the circle,

undivided by dotted lines or final certainties.


everything, for good or ill,

is part of the shared whole:

sky, earth, song, words and now, this silence.

"The Beautiful Game"

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Radical Amazement

Every Sunday when I wake and prepare myself for leading worship I never know exactly what I’m letting myself in for, that said I have a better idea than the congregations I serve. As I take my seat in the worship space and quietly prepare myself I often look at those present and wonder what they have brought with themselves; I wonder what has been occurring in their lives, what joys and struggles are presently with them; I wonder what they are expecting from me that morning and if it will help them in anyway. I always hope that when they leave and return to their lives and the world outside of our windows, that they do so enriched in some way. My hope is that in some way a part of us all has been opened up to what it is to be alive and awake and fully human. That in some we have deepened our connection to ourselves, to one another, to life itself and to that eternal spirit that runs through it all, that I name God. It’s a risky business creating and leading worship, although I know it’s an even riskier one entrusting someone each week to lead you in it. I offer thanks and praise each week that people come and join and engage in this risky business with me…I offer thanks and praise that people open their hearts and minds and souls with me.

I’m often amazed by the feelings that life brings. They are always a mixed bag. The blessings and curses of “choosing life”, to paraphrase Moses. I felt some changes towards the end of last week, like something had shifted once again. I had taken a few days off and I suspect that my soul and body had once again re-aligned. Never a comfortable process, but always a beautiful one.

To be alive, to be human really is an amazing thing; to be alive to be here, is an amazing thing. We can go all over the world, we can blast off into space and look at all that is life and explore millions of galaxies and gaze at the wonder of it all and yet still miss the truly amazing thing, that we as people truly exist at all. Now some might call that the eighth wonder, but I say to you that it is the one true wonder and the one from which all other wonder extends from. How often do we stop and sense and truly feel that we are alive. Isn’t it amazing that we exist at all.

I feel like a child again; I feel amazed by it all again; I feel awake once again.

Life amazes me, constantly. Despite all the darkness and destruction that is present, that can overwhelm it all, life and love always seems to find a way through. Like that little shoot that finds its way back to life every spring time, finding its way through all the obstacles in its way, insisting on reaching out beyond and finding life. That amazes me; I find that utterly amazing.

Last week I was chatting away with a friend on facebook messenger when suddenly on my news feed a “Meme” appeared with a beautiful picture and a quote by Abraham Joshua Heschel that read

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Now it’s one of those quotes that I’ve heard before, it does the rounds every now and again, but that day it really struck me. I paused and I listened to the words as they ran through my mind, my heart and my soul…especially the phrases “to be spiritual is to be amazed” and “Our goal should be to live in radical amazement.”

Now what on earth could that mean?

Well before I explore "Radical Amazement"I would like to just briefly tell you a little bit about the author of the quote. Abraham Joshua Heschel was a rabbi and a leading theologian in post war America. He was a contemporary and friend of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr and marched arm in arm with him during the civil rights protests in Selma Alabama, which he described as “praying with his legs” . I have a wonderful little book of his titled “I Asked for Wonder” and I have shared extracts from it in worship over the years. He writes beautifully about the nature of God and Man and the religious life. There is something about his writing that touches soul and spirit in a real “earthy” way. It is deeply spiritual and yet firmly grounded in reality. The concept of “Radical Amazement” is a classic example of this.

“Radical Amazement” captures those moments, those deeply human moments when we find ourselves intensely connected to the mystery and the majesty of existence. Now Heschel is not really talking about the big moments here when we mark life’s achievements. Instead what he is speaking of is what he himself describes as “the common and the simple” those small things that reveal “the infinite significance” of existence. In many ways “radical amazement” is about paying attention and looking deeply at the routine moments of our lives and experiencing just how incredible they are. There are parallels to mindfulness here, but I think there is more to it than that, there is a sense of eye popping awe and wonder in looking through radically amazed eyes. It’s about seeing the miracle in existence. How many of us truly recognise and acknowledge just how amazing it is that we exist at all?

“Radical Amazement” is about looking into the familiar with what Rumi called “fresh eyes”, it’s about recognising that even the most routine moments are in actual fact outrageous. Just think about our existence here on this spinning planet rushing through a universe some 13 billion years old, or so they tell us. We are formed from stardust and yet made from flesh that are homes to entire eco-systems and billions of cells that are neatly balanced so as to allows us to exist, that are constantly altering and changing and adjusting to all that we experience. We who are made from stardust are more than merely stardust though, we are made up of complex thoughts, emotions and experiences and there is a spirit within each of us. We are more than merely our biology; we are more than merely thinking meat. It is amazing and marvellous to truly be who we are.

And when we see life through “fresh eyes” all this that we are made from reacts in positive and powerful ways, something we can feel it with real intensity at times. I strongly believe that there are times when our whole make up responds to the whole of the make-up of the universe and that this occurs every time that we see the miracle in existence, in a new way. Sometimes this blows me away. It is amazing that we exist at all; it’s amazing that everything came from the same nothing.

Bang…and here we are in a fabulous place…what are you gunna do here…in this sacred place, in this sacred time, in these are sacred bodies, in these are sacred lives…

“Radical Amazement” is about looking into life with truly open eyes, it is an ethical act and an intentional decision, it is the ultimate spiritual practise and as such it is one that involves great risk. This is because it opens us up to all that is, as it truly is. This requires courage, because to see the beauty also requires us to see the horror too. This may seem too awful for some, but it is the awe that accompanies vulnerability that is required to be awakened to radical amazement.

Victoria Safford in the meditation “Open Eyes” asks us to

“Think of yourself as a prism made of glass, reflecting everything as it is, unable to exists dishonestly – reflecting beauty where there’s beauty, violence where there’s violence, loveliness and unexpected joy where there is joy, violation where there’s violation.”

To see the world with awakened eyes, fresh eyes, open eyes is look into the life in “Radical Amazement”. It is life as it truly is in its awe filled beauty. It is to truly let life in and to fill us to the brim.

Victoria Safford sees this as refraction, taking in all that is life and thus allowing it to transform us so that we can begin again anew. She calls it holy work as once we are transformed by it we can let is shine out of us in the prism of our ordinary daily actions as we live in life.

She says that

“To see clearly is an act of will and conscience. It will make you very vulnerable. It is persistent, holy, world transforming work."

It seems to me that “Radical Amazement” is how to live and breathe our human spirituality. At its essence spirituality is about being amazed it is about cultivating greater openness and deeper awareness of the beauty, blessing and mystery of life. Now to me this is the essence of my chosen Unitarian faith.

Openness is at the core of my understanding of the Unitarian spiritual tradition. At our best we encourage and celebrate the kind of openness and intentionality that enables “Radical Amazement” to be possible. When I lead worship each week my hope is to encourage, to challenge and to inspire those who join with me to not get stuck in a frame work of belief or un-belief but instead to cultivate their own experiences and see deep within them so as to bring meaning into each of our lives and thus to bring about transformation both within each of us and the world in which we interact and have our being.

Yes it’s a risky business we enter into each week, but one worth engaging in.

I’m going to end this little blogspot with a short anecdote from the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Whenever he gave an evening lecture he would begin with the following words.

"Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just occurred!"

As the audience began to stir in puzzlement, the great theologian would elaborate…

"Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just take place...the sun has gone down."

How often in life do we even take the time to pay attention to the wondrous workings of the Sun and the Earth that sustains all life that enables our existence?

Never mind anything else, isn’t this amazing in and of itself?

Let’s open our eyes and look into the magnificent mystery of life. Let us live with “Radical Amazement”. Let us not lose our sense of wonder at the miracle that is sheer being.

For it truly is a risk worth taking.