Saturday, 11 July 2015

Emptiness & Fullness: How to Live Spiritually Alive

23rd Psalm, Japanese Translation

The Lord is my Pace-setter, I shall not rush;
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with images of stillness,
which restore my serenity.

He leads me in ways of efficiency
through calmness of mind,
and His guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things
to accomplish each day,
I will not fret, for His presence is here;

His timelessness, His all importance,
will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal
in midst of my activity,

By anointing my mind with His oils of tranquility.
My cup of joyous energy overflows,
surely harmony and effectiveness
shall be the fruits of my hours,
for I shall walk, in the pace of my Lord
and dwell in His house forever.

Translated by Toki Miyashina

I seem to have had an exceptionally busy few weeks. This has occasionally been a little overwhelming and I have certainly felt exhausted at times. That said it has not been a negative kind a tiredness, the kind that comes from a weariness with life. Quite the opposite actually it has been a tiredness that comes from living a full life. A kind of satisfied tiredness. Maybe it’s the kind of tiredness a man is meant to experience.

The other evening I laid out on my settee, feeling tried but at the same time satisfied. You may remember the evening it was the first night of those powerful storms we have been experiencing. What a powerfully electric experience it was. I closed my eyes for a few moments and a lovely feeling came over me. I experienced a beautiful sensation around my brow and also in the pit of my stomach, the place where the intense fear used to inhabit. After a while two beautiful images came over me as I lay there listening to the thunder. There was a wonderful sense of connection and satisfaction in my heart. The images that came to me are two of my favourites. One was of an empty cup and the other of a cup that is overflowing.

Now when I think of these images my understanding is that the empty cup is symbolic of a clear mind, a completely empty and open mind and one that is able to be used to its best purpose. While the overflowing cup symbolises a heart that is filled to overflowing; a heart that is filled with abundant love; love that is being poured out on the world. Now for me these images symbolise the spiritual life. True spiritual living is about having a clear, empty and open mind and a heart that is so full that it is overflowing.

Now you often hear the question “Is the glass half empty or half full” it is symbolic of a person who is either an optimistic or a pessimistic person. I have been both at different times in my life. These days though I am neither, I am no longer a glass half empty or glass half full kind of man. These days I am completely empty glass kind of man, while at the same time I am also a cup that is so full it is overflowing kind of man. Now some folk tell me that you can’t be both, you have to be an either or and my answer to them is, says who? I am both and so can you be too, stop being so literal, open your mind, use your imagination and fill up your heart to overflowing.

This brings to mind a story I have heard in many different forms over the years…

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

This story teachers that a full cup, one that is overflowing is not a good thing to have. It teaches we need an empty cup, which symbolises and empty mind. What the Buddhists call a “Beginners Mind”. A mind that is open to new ideas. It is a humble mind that results in an open mind. Think of the image of the Buddhist monk with his begging bowl held out, an act of humility and interdependence.

The image of an overflowing cup also brings something else to my mind. A line from the 23rd Psalm. In the Psalm King David sings of God as a shepherd who will see him safely through the Valley of Death. At the beginning of this "blogspot" is a wonderful Japanese translation of these familiar words. The translation I believe helps us to make sense of these ancient words in our contemporary time. There aren’t really many shepherds about these days and it can be hard for 21st century boys and girls to relate to this metaphor.

The more traditional translation states that “Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” In the psalm the overflowing cup is depicting an excess of goodness, a symbol of abundance, a source of joy. A heart full of Love. Can you ever be too full of love?

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

So you see it is not a problem to have both an empty cup and one that is overflowing at the same time. This only becomes a problem if you get lost in the metaphor, the curse of the literalist. The two images are of course depicting different aspects of our humanity.

The Zen story is describing the mind, whereas the Psalm is depicting the heart. It is talking of God’s infinite love. So yes we can be full abundantly with love and yet still have an empty mind. I suspect that it is the full heart that enables us to clear our minds, or perhaps it’s the clear mind that enables us to have our hearts filled.

Maybe, maybe not!

It’s a bit like the old riddle “What came first, the chicken or the egg” Do you need to fill your heart in order to clear your mind, or ought you be focusing on clearing your mind in order to allow your heart to be filled to overflowing? Why not try both at the same time.

Now in my case it would seem that it was only when love began to take over my heart that my mind began to clear. My head used to be full of so much that there was no space for anything else. My thoughts would just swirl round and round and round and go pretty much nowhere. These days my head is pretty much empty most of the time. My head is clear, even when I’m really busy and my diary gets too full. This is good thing as my mind can be used for what its true purpose is. I thank God that it is no longer held back by the regret of the past or the fear of the future. As a result I have peace of mind these days, even in the most difficult of times. The cup (my mind) is no longer overflowing and yet at the same time I experience the cup that runneth over, I know that everlasting and eternal love of God. As a result I can experience this abundant love present in life.

That is not enough though. I have also learnt that it is my task to pour this love out onto the world. To bring this love alive. In many ways I suspect it is our task not so much to seek and find God, but to let God out and pour this love on our world, whilst allowing and inviting that love to be poured out on us. Again like the Buddhist bowl this is symbolic of our interconnectedness and our interdependence. We each fill one another’s bowl.

From you I receive, to you I give, together we share and from this we live.

These two images also bring something else to my mind about the spiritual life. This is of course the phrase “faith without works is dead”. For me these two cups also symbolise both faith and works. The empty cup is the faith and the overflowing cup is the works, or maybe it’s the other way around. By working these two together, we become spiritually alive. In order to do the works we need the faith. We need to be still and to connect spiritually, we need to clear our minds and fill our hearts and then to truly bring this to life we need to do the works and pour out this love on the world. By the way if we do this the love will grow and the peace we feel will become realised. That said we must also remain appropriately humble and let others serve us too. We need to accept the love and help of others. We must never think that we can live by ourselves alone. To be fully alive is to understand, accept and embrace our interdependence.

The spiritual life is simple, but it is far from easy. It needs two simple things. One is emptiness and the other fullness. Now this requires an empty mind and a heart that is full to over flowing. How is this achieved you may well ask? Well quite simply actually, through faith and good works. All we need to do is spend time in stillness allowing our minds to become empty and clear and also spend time giving of ourselves to one another and life itself, pouring out our love. That said we must also spend time in silence allowing our hearts to be filled, acknowledging our interdependence and allowing others to serve us too.

It really is that simple.

So let us become like tea cups, empty and ready to filled. And when we are filled to overflowing lets pour out that love on our world.

Let’s follow the advice of “the lads” in those Tetley Tea Bag adverts lets “Let flavour flood out”

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with the following extract from "The Book of Words" by Lawrence Kushner

From “The Book of Words” by Lawrence Kushner

Energy in the form of light is trapped in gross matter. Sparks of holiness are imprisoned in the stuff of creation. They yearn to be set free, reunited with their Source through human action. When we return something to its proper place, where it belongs, where it was meant to be; when we use something in a sacred way or for a holy purpose; when we treat another human being as a human being, the captive sparks are released and the cosmos is healed. The liberation of light is called the Repair of creation.

The process occurs also within each individual. According to one legend, once there was a primordial person as big as the whole universe whose soul contained all souls…

This person is identical with the universe and, for this reason, each human being is at the same time both riddles with divine sparks and in desperate need of repair. Each person is the whole world. And every human action therefore plays a role in the final restitution. Whatever we do is related to this ultimate task: To return all things to their original place in God. Everything a person does affects the process.

Saturday, 4 July 2015


“Touch” by David Whyte

Touch is what we desire in one form or another, even if we find it through being alone, through the agency of silence or through the felt need to walk at a distance: the meeting with something or someone other than ourselves, the light brush of grass on the skin, the ruffling breeze, the actual touch of another’s hand; even the gentle first touch of an understanding which until now, we were formally afraid to hold.

Whether we touch only what we see or the mystery of what lies beneath the veil of what we see, we are made for unending meeting and exchange, while having to hold a coherent mind and body, physically or imaginatively, which in turn can be found and touched itself. We are something for the world to run up against and rub up against: through the trials of love, through pain, through happiness, through our simple everyday movement through the world.

And the world touches us in many ways, some of which are violations of the body or our hopes for safety: through natural disaster, through heartbreak, through illness, through death itself. In the ancient world the touch of a God was seen as both a blessing and a violation - at one and the same time. Being alive in the world means being found by the world and sometimes touched to the core in ways we would rather not experience. Growing with our bodies, all of us find ourselves at one time violated or wounded by this world in difficult ways, and still we live and breathe in this touchable, sensual world, and through trauma, through grief, through recovery, we heal in order to be touched again in the right way, as the physical consecration of a mutual, trusted invitation.

Nothing stops the body’s arrival in each new present, except death itself, which is intuited in all cultures as another, ultimate, intimate form of meeting. Nothing stops our ageing nor our witness to time, asking us again and again to be present to each different present, to be touchable and findable, to be one who is living up to the very fierce consequences of being bodily present in the world.

To forge an untouchable, invulnerable identity is actually a sign of retreat from this world; of weakness, a sign of fear rather than strength, and betrays a strange misunderstanding of an abiding, foundational and necessary reality: that untouched, we disappear.

Excerpted from ‘TOUCH’ From "CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words" by David Whyte

On Monday morning I conducted the funeral of a man, of a similar age to myself, who had taken his own life after many years of struggle. I arrived at Manchester crematorium very early, an hour before the service was due to begin. I always like to be early for funerals that I lead, so I can prepare myself in the setting. I sat in the car park reading over the service so as to get it into the soul of me and to come to terms with the emotion that such things bring up in me. As I was sat there absorbing the words and feeling the sorrow I noticed all the individual rose trees all around me. Each marking a loved one whose life had ended. Each flower unique in colour and complexity of shape. Each had its own identity. Yes everyone was a rose, much like any other rose and yet each one had its own personality. I got out of my car and examined each one. I touched a few, with just my finger tip and took in their uniqueness. Just as I had invited the congregations I serve to do, the day before, during the “Flower Communion” Service. As I did so I felt a sense of connection to all those lives that had been and gone before me. I understood at an even deeper level that sense that everything matters, that each life is unique and sacred and deep and rich in meaning. That every feeling, every thought, every breath, every action really does matter. That life is not indifferent that there is a love present in life and that it is our task to bring that love alive, for however long we flower. That however brutal life maybe at times it is our task to bring the love alive.

As I keep on saying. “Either everything matters, or nothing matters. Either everything is sacred, or nothing is sacred. Either everything has meaning, or everything is meaningless.” Whatever anyone else says I know that everything matters. No matter how it makes me feel, it matters. We have to let life touch us, just as we have to truly touch life. You see if nothing touches and we touch nothing then we truly are living in hell, in a state of non-being.

To touch nothing and to never be touched is to live in hell. Of all the human needs I suspect the one that we cannot live without is touch. We need to touch one another. We need real flesh and bone contact, we are interdependent creatures. We cannot live wholly from ourselves, self-reliance is a myth. When we look at our lives, the moments that really matter, that really count, are those when we have touched and been deeply touched by another person, or by life itself, when love has come alive deep in our souls and is incarnated in lives. The world, our lives, are not changed by big ideas or even big events, not really, but by the moments of deep intimacy when we touch or are touched by one another, or something more...

In “Anam Cara” John O’Donohue writes that “Our sense of touch connects us to the world in an intimate way.” It is with our hands that we reach out and touch the world. Of course it matters how we touch and the intention behind why we touch. We are so frightened to touch these days because people of power have touched and hurt others in their care or who are vulnerable. This has helped to create a distance between people and it is a distance that I believe is causing spiritual harm. We live in an age that is terrified of intimacy. I see it in my own life and in my profession too. People are terrified to touch because of the damage it can do, well what about the deep emotional and spiritual damage we are doing to ourselves and others by keeping our distance from each other?

I remember speaking to a mother recently whose daughter attends a local school. The daughter had only been attending for a couple of weeks when she told me that she had received a letter from school about her daughter’s behaviour. The girl had been deeply upset one day and had reached out her arms to the teacher looking for consolation. The teacher had told her "no" and had then reported the incident. The mother received a letter saying how inappropriate this was and that the child needed to understand that this was not allowed. The mother was upset by this and obviously worried about her daughter’s capacity to cope, as she was a “very sensitive girl”.

Now while I fully understand all of the safeguards that are in place to protect children and teachers these days I do wonder what we are creating. Children are often equipped academically for life, but I wonder if they are equipped to live full human lives. What about our souls, our spirits, our hearts?

Again in Anam Cara John O’Donohue writes:

“It is recognised now that every child needs to be touched. Touch communicates belonging, tenderness, and warmth, which fosters self-confidence, self-worth, and poise in the child. Touch has such power because we live inside the wonderful world of skin. Our skin is alive and breathing, always active and present. Human beings share such tenderness and fragility because we live not within shells but within skin, which is always sensitive to the force, touch, and presence of the world.”

I suspect that it is this vulnerability that we fear the most and this is why we are afraid to touch.

In recent history we have seen, on a mass scale, what happens when this basic human need to touch and be touched is denied. You may remember images that appeared on our television screens some twenty years ago, following the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. When he came to power in the mid 1960’s, in an attempt to force population growth, a policy named “leagane” which translates as “cradles” was introduced. These were basically institutional homes for the infants and the very young. Policies were introduced that coerced people to marry and for families to keep on producing children. When Ceausescu was deposed in 1989 the results of this was revealed to the world as images of infants and children growing up with seriously underdeveloped basic human skills. Research has shown that this was due directly to sensory deprivation and the fact that the babies rarely experienced human contact, they were deprived of touch.

These children were nothing more than a commodity to creating the state that Ceausescu dreamed up. It was just one example of many that occurred in Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century where basic human emotional and spiritual needs were rejected for what some believed was a greater good.

When we reduce everything in life to a purely materialistic level and humanity to a mere commodity anything is justified. When we fail to recognises one another’s sacredness we begin to brutalise one another and life itself.

Now of course this is an extreme example but I do wonder if in our increasingly secular age we are doing this very same thing to ourselves. Yes we have the technology to contact one another, anywhere, in an instant, these days and yet so many people feel utterly alone and untouched by life.  How do I know this? You may well ask. Well because people tell me so. They tell me how alone they feel and how utterly cut off from real intimacy they are. On the surface these people appear to live full lives and yet inside they feel completely empty. There are people in society who walk around being untouched, there are seeming untouchables found all around us. How many of us are cut off from deep, intimate and meaningful contact?

This sense is described beautifully in the following poem “The Hug” by Tess Gallagher

“THE HUG” by Tess Gallagher

A woman is reading a poem on the street and another woman stops to listen.
We stop too, with our arms around each other.
The poem is being read and listened to out here in the open.

Behind us no one is entering or leaving the houses.

Suddenly a hug comes over me and I am giving it to you,
like a variable star shooting light off to make itself comfortable, then subsiding.
I finish but keep on holding you.
A man walks up to us and we know he has not come out of nowhere, but if he could, he would have.

He looks homeless because of how he needs.
“Can I have one of those?’ he asks you, and I feel you nod.
I am surprised, surprised you don’t tell him how it is – that I am yours, only yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to its face.

Love - that’s what we’re talking about.
Love that nabs you with “for me only” and holds on.
So I walk over to him and put my arms around him and try to hug him like I mean it.
He’s got an overcoat on so thick I can’t feel him past it. I’m starting the hug and thinking.
“How big a hug is this supposed to be? How long shall I hold this hug?”
Already we could be eternal, His arms falling over my shoulders,
my hands not meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle in.
I lean into him. I lean my blood and my wishes into him.
He stands for it. This is his and he’s starting to give it back so well I know he’s getting it.
This Hug. So truly, so tenderly, we stop having arms and I don’t know if my lover has walked away
Or what, or if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses - what about them? - the houses.

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button on his coat will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek when I walk away.
When I try to find some place to go back to.

This poem really struck me, deep in the soul of me. It describes a stranger, probably a homeless man, who asks the couple who he sees hugging, “Can I have one of those?” This is a truly audacious request. How often in life do any of us express our naked vulnerability to others, in such a way? It is one thing to ask for change but to ask such nice respectable middle-class people to touch and hold him, to give their love away is seemingly beyond the pale.

At first the narrator is shocked and angered by the request. Here she is enjoying a private moment of intimacy with her lover, only to have it interrupted by this stranger. Her response is No. Don’t you realize that my partner’s love is for  alone? That it’s exclusive, "like a nose to a face?” and yet she cannot resists the strangers raw need and eventually she puts her arms around this strange, large man. She tries to hug him, falteringly at first and then she melts into him and the hug becomes deep and rich in meaning. She snuggles right into his thick coat, pressing her face into his button which leaves an imprint on her face. It would seem that the loving embrace was not so exclusive after all.

The beauty of this poem is in its universality. I’m sure that most of us can identify with both characters. I’m sure that most us have experienced that sense of emptiness and that feeling of being utterly devoid of love that the homeless man feels, so desperate that you would ask a stranger to hold you. And also be too afraid to give your love away, as it is only for your beloved. And then the moment of magic as you give in and you become transformed by giving your love away.

The poem brings to my mind images of Jesus from the accounts in the Gospels. One example is of Jesus healing a man suffering from Leprosy. He touched someone considered untouchable, unclean. The touch itself is an act of compassion and of recognition of their shared humanity. In so doing he recognises him as a man and he recognises his sacredness. Now for me this is where the power lies in the account, this is the universal lesson, that speaks through every generation. Who are the untouchables in our society? Who are the ones who are rejected? Who are the ones who wander around, homeless, alone and untouched by love?

To touch nothing and to never be touched is to live in hell. No one should have to live like this. We are all part of the one human family we all need to love and to be loved, or we just merely wither away and die, not necessarily physically but emotionally and spiritually. When we do we live a life of deadness, no one should be left to live this way. We all need to touch and we all need to be touched. So what do we do? Well I suppose we begin where we stand. We begin in our own lives, our hearts, our own families and our own communities, we begin there. We begin with our next simple human encounter. We begin by reaching out to one another. We begin by being open to one another, by allowing our lives to truly touch one another.

I’m going to end this chip of a "blogspot" with some words of blessing by John O’Donohue “A Blessing for the Senses”…

"A Blessing for the Senses" by John O’Donohue, from “Anam Cara”

May your body be blessed.
May you realize that your body is a faithful
and beautiful friend of your soul.
And may you be peaceful and joyful
and recognize that your senses
are sacred thresholds.
May you realize that holiness is
mindful, gazing, feeling, hearing, and touching.
May your senses gather you and bring you home.
May your senses always enable you to
celebrate the universe and the mystery
and possibilities in your presence here.
May the Eros of the Earth bless you.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Either everything matters or nothing matters

A little phrase has been on my mind for quite some time now “Either everything matters, or nothing matters.” I’ve been talking about it and writing about it for quite some time now. “Either everything is sacred, or nothing is sacred.” Or another variance “Either everything has meaning, or everything is meaningless.” I have lived on both sides of these divides during my 43 years of physical existence. These days I believe in everything and that little bit more than everything. I have noticed that since I turned this way that life has become sanctified and every single breath has become meaning filled.

Everything matters to me and yet the world outside of my window increasingly tells me that there is no meaning to anything and that religion and all forms of spirituality are merely delusions to give us consolation in an indifferent universe. They tell me that the rituals that we engage in are just futile attempts to give our lives meaning.

Is this so? What do you believe?

21st century Britain is on the surface a secular country and yet you see ritual and spiritual activity going on everywhere. A classic example has occurred on the other side of the road to Dunham Road Chapel where I live just a last few weeks ago. A young mother Natalie who worked in the dress shop just round the corner from the chapel was tragically killed on her way to pick up her child. The response to this tragedy has been incredible as all kinds of floral and other tributes have been left at the spot where it occurred. Many have come and marked this passing. This is a deeply meaningful activity where people are connecting beyond themselves and joining together to support one another. There is a real power at work, a power that is greater than all and yet present in each and every one of us. Some may call this Love and others call it God. It is far more than mere symbolism though and it is deep and rich in meaning.

You will see examples of this everywhere. In every town it would seem. Such road side activity is not just about death and tragedy either. Ever since I first saw the “Tree of Lost Sole’s” on the road to Warrington I have noticed other road side symbolism all over the place. It seems to me that they are no different to those Holy Shrines of ancient times, perhaps they too may one day become “Thin Places”, where the barriers between this world and the other world are narrowed. I have noticed that these things are deep and rich in meaning. They have certainly brought meaning and transformation to my life as they have brought me into closer contact with a reality greater than myself.

I believe in everything and that little bit more than everything, that all life is sacred and I also believe that it is our task to sanctify all life; I believe it is our task to realise the sacredness of everything. Everything matters. Every thought, every feeling, every breath and every action.

The Buddha reputedly said “ Whereever you live is your temple if you treat it like one.” All ground is holy ground if we sanctify it. As Wendell Barry so beautifully put it. “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” I believe it is our task to nurture the sacredness from which we are formed and to carry that out into our world, through our lives…Everything matters you know, every breath, every feeling, every thought, every deed impacts in some way on the chain of life…Everything matters.

Pierre Teilhard De Chardin claimed “This world this palpable world, which we are wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place and we did not know it. Venite adoremus."

All ground is holy ground. We all stand on holy ground. We can consecrate it with our presence or we can desecrate it with our presence in how we live on the ground on which we live and breath and have our being.

This is why ritual, worship and acts of remembrance are so important because they remind us of the sacredness of all life, including our own and those of our neighbours. If nothing matters, then nothing matters. If nothing is sacred then any act of barbarism can begin to be justified. When we begin to deny the sacredness of life, we fail to recognise the sacredness of one another and we can begin to deny that we are all part of one human family, we begin to separate ourselves from one another and from life itself.

John O'Donohue described this void beautifully in his book "Bendictus: A Book of Blessing" in piece titled "The Loss of Ritual Leaves us Naked in our Rites of Passage" he wrote:

“A threshold is a significant frontier where experience banks up; there is intense concrescence. It is a place of great transformation. Some of the most powerful thresholds divide worlds from each other: life in the womb from birth, childhood from adolescence, adulthood from middle age, old age from death. And on each side there is a different geography of feeling, thinking and being. The crossing of a threshold is in effect a rite of passage.

Our culture has little to offer us for our crossings. Never was there such talk of communication or such technology to facilitate it. Yet at the heart of our newfound wealth and progress there is a gaping emptiness, and we are haunted by loneliness. While we seem to have progressed to become experts in so many things – multiplying and acquiring stuff we neither need nor truly want – we have unlearned the grace of presence and belonging. With the demise of religion, many people are left stranded in a chasm of emptiness and doubt; without rituals to recognize, celebrate, or negotiate the vital thresholds of people’s lives, the key crossings pass by, undistinguished from the mundane, everyday rituals of life. This is where we need to retrieve and reawaken our capacity for blessing. If we approach our decisive thresholds with reverence and attention, the crossing will bring us more than we could ever have hoped for. This is where blessing invokes and awakens every gift the crossing has to offer. In our present ritual poverty, the Celtic tradition has much to offer us.”

...Ritual helps us to sanctify life and therefore recognise and experience the sacredness of existence...

Either everything matters, or nothing matters. Either everything is sacred, or nothing is sacred. Either everything has meaning, or everything is meaningless. We are all part of the one human family, the family of life. When we no longer recognise we begin to fail to acknowledge one another’s sacred mystery. We begin to separate one another, we begin to dehumanise. We are not all exactly the same we have different qualities, different characteristics, different gifts to offer as well as different needs. That said we are all made of the same substance, the very same substance that the whole universe is made of, or at least the matter we have knowledge of and I believe that the same spirit runs through all life. I do not personally believe it controls all of it, but it is certainly present, always there offering the lure of its love. It is our task to choose this love, because if we do not then we will begin to separate and alienate and I believe that it is this that causes the distrust and fear that leads to hatred and dehumanising violence.

The solution is simple, I believe, as solutions usually are. The solution is a reawakening to this sense of sacredness of all life, all existence.

You see either everything matters, or nothing matters; either everything is sacred, or nothing is sacred; either everything has meaning, or everything is meaningless.” What do you believe? Do you believe that everything ought to be sanctified or that life is devoid of any meaning at all? What is your choice to be?

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Return to Love

“The Map and the Man” taken from "The shortest Distance: 101 Stories from the World's Spiritual Traditions" by Bill Darlison

It was a particularly rainy Saturday afternoon. Two children, John and Rebecca, were becoming increasingly bored, and their father, who was under strict orders to keep them entertained while their mother went shopping, was running out of ideas. He wanted to watch the sport on television and to read his newspaper, but the children had demanded his attention. He’d tried them with paper and coloured pencils, but this barely entertained them for five minutes. He’d tried the television, but didn’t even want to play on the computer. And there were still a couple of hours before mother returned!

Suddenly, he had an idea. Picking up a magazine from the table, he quickly flicked through the pages until he came to a map of the world. “Look at this, kids,” he said. “I’m going to cut this map into pieces - a bit like a jigsaw puzzle – and if you can put it together again, I’ll take you both to McDonald’s for tea! Is it a deal?

The children agreed to give it a try. Their father cut up the map, gave them a pot of glue, and set them to work on the kitchen table. He meanwhile, put on the kettle, made himself a cup of coffee, and sat down with his newspaper in the living room. He was feeling very pleased with himself. “It’ll take them at least an hour,” he thought with a smile.

But barely ten minutes later he heard, “finished dad!” He couldn’t believe it. He went through into the kitchen table and there, sure enough, sitting on the table, was the completed map. “How on earth did you finish it so quickly?” he asked.

“It was easy,” said John. “The map of the world was complicated, but on the other side was a picture of man. We just put the man together.”

“Yes”, said Rebecca. “If you get the man right, the world takes care of itself.”

...There is some real wisdom here...If we get the man right, the world takes care of itself...I hear the wisdom of "First things first here...I here the wisdom I was taught many years "If you are spiritually well, the rest will take care of itself...

Last Sunday was one of life's redemption days. Days I seem to experience increasingly as time goes by.

I had been invited to lead worship at Wakefield Westgate Chapel, back home in West Yorkshire. Little did I know when I began the journey that it would turn out to be one of the most beautiful days of my whole life. One of those days when fruits were finally born. Now as I set off you would not have called it beautiful. The rain was falling and the traffic was heavy. That said once I got on the M62 proper the roads began to clear, if not the weather. No that got decidedly worse as I hit the highest point of the motorway, just as you are leaving Lancashire and entering Yorkshire and approaching Stott Hall farm. It’s always a magical time for me, this sense of coming home. Emotion always begins to build and memory takes over as I re-feel so much. As I drove I had a feeling that something special was going to take place that day. There was a calmness over me as I felt held by the eternal hand of love. It was a strong and reassuring feeling. A feeling I have grown to know so well over the years. A silent kind of strength, not boastful or loud but loving and sustaining. Paul understood it perfectly in the famous words on Love in his letter to the Corinthians. That strength that holds and guides, as you do the things you are there to do in life, your duty for the want of a better word. Some have called it the loving hand of a father and I can understand that, although of course it transcends all human created gender boundaries.

Well amazing things occurred that day. One’s that even for me are too personal to share publicly. All I can say is that they were beautiful and moving deeply redemptive, as I once again witnessed the power of Love at work in human lives. As I drove home that day I wept with both joy and gratitude.

Of all the stories that Jesus told I think it is the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Luke Ch 15 vv 11-31) that speaks most powerfully to me. It is a universal tale that speaks on so many levels about the blessings and troubles with forgiveness and reconciliation. There are three characters in the tale a father and his two sons. The youngest son squanders his inheritance on a hedonistic lifestyle, he loses everything. In desperation he sells himself into slavery and due to a great famine finds himself close to starvation. It is at this point of utter despair and hopelessness that he remembers where he has come from, he remembers his father and reasons that even his father’s slaves have a better life than him. So he returns home to throw himself on his father's mercy, not as his son but as a slave. On hearing he is returning his father rushes to meet him. Now even before his son atones his father does more than forgive him. He kisses him, a beautiful touch of intimacy and then as he son throws himself at his father’s feet he orders that the fatted calf be slaughtered and a huge party of much rejoicing be held, to celebrate the return of his son who was once lost but now is found.

The parable of "The Prodigal Son" is a beautiful tale of redemption and forgiveness, but is it a realistic one? If only it was that easy. Well actually there is so much more to this story than has already been discussed, there is another character who does not find forgiveness so easy to come by. There is the other brother who refuses to rejoice and celebrate the returning of his long lost sibling. Quite the opposite in fact, he is angry, he is indignant, he will not reconcile with his brother and is now at odds with his father. In fact he does not even refer to the "prodigal" as his own brother. Instead he names his as “This son of yours” and by doing so disowns him emotionally. He tells his father all he has done for him and yet has received nothing in return for his good and virtuous life. His father pleads with him and then utters the immortal words, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” He tells his older son that all that is his belongs to him and also reminds him that this brother of his has returned from the dead. He reminds him that he is his brother and therefore a part of him. They were all three of them once bound together and now need to be once again reconciled, they need to be re-bound. Now this to me this is the essence of religious living. For I have come to believe that reconciliation is a deeply religious act.

I wonder sometimes if I myself have become like the older brother who really would rather not recognise the younger brother who is a part of me. It is not easy to forgive ourselves for our failings. I think sometimes I would prefer to disown that aspect of myself, but I know that this is not the right way, the loving way. I know if I want to truly be of service to this world I need to be fully reconciled with all that I am, so as to be able to love without prejudice. I also need to recognise that in each and every person exists each of the three “Prodigal Son” characters. The one who is returning seeking forgiveness, the one offering forgiveness and the one who can feel rejected and neglected by this expression of love. Reconciliation is a process and one that takes time; it is a long journey but one that is certainly worth embarking upon. It is far from easy, but it is without a shadow of a doubt worth embarking upon.

It brings to mind the following wonderful reflection "Mending the Broken World" by Kathleen Mctigue taken from her book of meditations "Shine and Shadow"

“Mending the Broken World” by Kathleen McTigue

In early September I stop to watch my neighbour at work repairing a stone wall that lines the road perpendicular to ours. Built as all the old field walls of our region have been built, the stones are held by balance and judicious choice rather than by mortar. The wall was built well, but the weight of many decades has broken it here and there, with some stones fallen out of place or carried away for some other use.

As I warm myself in the autumn sun and watch him work, I see about half of what he does is simply look at these stones in their haphazard piles, stroking his chin in thought, Then from time to time he rolls one from the pile onto the ground and turns it from side to side, pondering, or walks back to study again the place in the wall he’s trying to mend. When he finally makes his choice, he’s sure. Each stone waits for the right opening, the place where its particular heft and shape fit as though cradled. Once in place it is no longer merely a stone, but an essential piece of the wall, part of a larger thing taking shape as naturally as a tree flows from root to trunk to branch.

My neighbour is an ordinary working man, I know his name, and sometimes we talk together about life and horses and his willingness to help me haul manure to my garden one of these days before the first hard frost. But on this sunny September afternoon as I watch his eyes and hands become familiar with each stone and then lift it to shape the wall, it’s easy to imagine God at work in the immense universe, quietly humming, pulling our lives together into something strong and useful.

I don’t mean we’re mute or helpless, waiting passively for the great Stonemason to lift and move our lives or tell us where we belong. I mean only that there is a place for us, that our gifts – the shape of our minds and talents, the angles of our interest and concern – fit the needs of the world the way my neighbour’s stones anchor themselves in the lengthening wall. I mean that the world’s possibilities shift and change each time we put ourselves into building something large and strong and beautiful. Whether or not we find room in our theologies for the word God, the world itself calls us to imagine ourselves essential to this engaged holiness, bringing forth what is ours to give of creation and strength, toward mending the broken world.

...I hear so much in these words that concept of building or perhaps re-building the "Kin-dom of Love right here right now in and amongst us...

Now of course this no easy task. If I have learnt anything it is that this rebuilding begins with forgiveness. An easy word to speak perhaps but a difficult state to achieve and the reconciliation that it brings with it even harder. That said I suspect it is the purest act of love we can engage in. Now the reason it is so hard, especially with old hurts, is that when we engage in it we bring these painful feelings right up to the surface. Forgiveness is an act of remembrance. In order to forgive we have to truly re-feel all that has happened. We don’t really forgive and forget. What we actually do, if we are to truly forgive is re-member. We re-bind the past to the present and can then begin to reconcile. This is why I say that reconciliation is a deeply religious act, because we are re-binding together what has been separated. That said by so doing we do truly begin to heal our world one stone at a time. It is so easy to look at the world in despair and say I am powerless, there is nothing I can do. The truth is that if we look at the world in this way that is true. That said if we look in our own hearts, in our families and our communities there is much that can be done. Perhaps if we begin here and reconcile ourselves with those closest to us there is much to be done. I wonder sometimes if by focusing on the bigger picture, the whole world, we lose sight of picture on the other side. As the story at the beginning of this "blogspot" teaches, “If you get the man right, the world takes care of itself.” And if we do so we begin to build "the kin-dom of Love" right here right now, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, which I see as being one in the same.

It is said that “God is Love” and for me this portrayed perfectly in the Parable of the “Prodigal Son”, something that is not always portrayed within the Judaeo/Christian tradition and its imagery of the hard paternal father figure and not really the Abba that Jesus spoke of in the Gospels. Now of course if God is understood in a literal sense, when discussing this parable it is easy to see why God has been seen as a patriarchal figure and I see this as a mistake. Seeing God as Love is to see God not as super human figure, but instead as a way of being and doing and living and breathing. God as Love is to see God as the name for that which we hold of greatest value, for the mystery of existence. This is something surely theists and none theists can adhere to, unless of course they view life as being without meaning. And to see life as meaningless is to deny even the existence of love

When I think of this parable what I witness is a story of Love coming alive. It is a return to Love if you like. To me this is what is at the essence of spiritual living. It is about reconciliation. It is about turning away from merely ourselves and connecting with all. Not just with all that is now, but all that has ever been and probably ever will be. It is a story of turning or if you prefer returning to Love and once again coming alive. This comes alive as we begin that journey of reconciliation, almost immediately. As it did in the "Parable of the Prodigal Son". Remember as soon as the father heard the son was returning and even before he asked for forgiveness the father embraced him, he even kissed him and in so doing that powerful eternal Love came alive.

Here for me is the message in this story. In that beautiful intimate act is everything. The parable is about this power coming alive that can heal our wounded and often broken world. It is something that happens on an intimate and individual level, between each of us. It is also something that I believe we are all responsible for.

It begins here in our own individual lives. It begins in our own hearts as we reconcile ourselves with our whole lives. It begins with those who we have shared our lives with. It begins by focusing on the little picture. If we get that right the bigger picture will begin to take care of itself. Remember as the little girl in the story said “If you get the man right, the world takes care of itself.”

It begins with you and it begins with me. It begins by returning to Love.

Now I am going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with some words by Robert T Weston entitled “If Love Be There”.

“If Love Be There”

This day, setting aside all that divides me from others;
This day, remembering that the world is beautiful
To him who is willing that it be so
And that into the open, eager heart
The beauty enters in, if love be there.

This day, I will make a part of the song of life.
There may be grief, but if there be love it will be overcome.
There may be pain, but it can be borne with dignity and courage.
There may be difficulty, but it can be turned to strength.
Remembering that the world is beautiful
If I will let it be so for others whom I meet,
This day I will make a part of the song of life.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Lessons in Living

“Were I to Teach a Course on God” by Nancy Shaffer

Were I to teach a course on God I would begin with a plate of persimmons – the sweet, crisp kind, the ones more orange than red; the hard, squat Fuyus I eat each November morning on hot wheat cereal with almonds.

I would slice the persimmons gently across their fat centers, then hold them out. See the star shape? I would offer them, so all might wonder.

I would slice brown Bosc pears straight down their middles, so the threads of each stem trace wisply down to that rounded place where dark seeds lie, tear-shaped and wet in white, firm flesh. I would hold these halves silently forward, their bottoms smooth in the curves of my palms.

I would teach God with plates of pomegranates, both before they were opened and after. I would bring wet washcloths. We would bury our faces and eat; all that luminescent purple-red, those clear-bright kernels fitted in tight rows on small and tumbling hills – and all that juice, so easily broken, sweet and pucker at once. We would say nothing.

I would teach this way; with plates of fruit, a knife; many washcloths. With my eyes very large; my mouth mostly silent, so all might eat.

...I love these words, they speak to that special place deep down in the soul of me...Been singing in my soul for some time now...If you want to know about God you have to delve into life and just taste those sweet juices in the messiness of will love it...I do...

There was a time in my life when my mantra was “Avoid, everything, avoid everything, avoid everything.” Hardly what you would call a mantra for living, more one for not living. Thankfully those days are long gone. These days if I have a mantra it’s “embrace everything, embrace everything, embrace anything.” As I often like to say “I believe in everything and that little bit more than everything.” That which lies at the core of everything and yet somehow transcends everything. That which allows us to see, to hear, to touch, to taste, to feel, to laugh and to love. The true seven wonders of life. Yes I believe in everything and that little bit more than everything.

Life has so much to teach us if we would just be awake to it, we just need to have our senses open to it. We just need to be here now. Not waste our time wishing we were here, but actually be here bringing this moment fully to life; wanting what we have and not wasting our time wishing we were some place else or living some other life; not wasting our time like the character in the film “Postcards from the Edge”, based on Carrie Fisher's semi-autobiographical book about an alcoholic Hollywood star,   who sends a card home while on holiday that read “Having a wonderful time. Wish I were here.”

I used to think that nothing mattered, that life was meaningless and empty and without value. I now know that the opposite is true, that everything matters, every thought, every word, every feeling, every breath, every moment. Everything matters. I no longer need to go seeking anything in life I just need to be alive to everything and avoid nothing. I have a growing and increasing sensitivity to everything and that little bit more than everything. Now please don’t get me wrong I’m not saying I am more sensitive that I take things increasingly personally, no what I mean is that I have increased my sensitivity my openness to everything.

I think it was Bill Darlison who claimed that if we wish to live life more spiritually we need to increase our sensitivity to life. I believe that if we do we will know experiences beyond our imaginings and life will become our constant teacher. We will grow in deeper understanding and most importantly we will become more effective in our daily living and truly become of service to life and those we meet in life. Certainly this is the lesson life has taught me.

Life is the greatest teacher of them all and we as a part of life can teach just by our presence in this world. People have taught me many things, in so many ways without ever really realising it. I have often only realised those lessons many years later. Lessons I have tried to pass on to others. I remember many years ago my grandma once saying to me “Why do you always say you are sorry, when you don’t really mean it.” I remember at the time going silent and taking it deeply into myself. It was only many years later when I understood what she meant. I used to say sorry all the time not because I was genuinely sorry for what I had done and had the intention not to do it again. No I used to say the word “sorry” as a way of controlling the potential anger of another. It had little or nothing to do with putting right what was wrong. The truth is that I didn’t really mean it at the time. A lesson it took me many years to learn.

I have learnt many things from many seemingly ordinary people throughout my life. One of my greatest teachers was an ordinary man, from Oldham of all places, who taught me , amongst many other things, how to listen. This all began by practising and noticing when I wasn’t listening, especially when others were talking. He taught me to observe when my mind wandered off or to notice when I was listening how much of my time was spent on working out what “brilliant” response I was going to make, in an attempt to refute what the other person was saying. He taught me that when we are listening to another we are extending ourselves to that person, we are giving them a gift; a gift that we can both share in. In making space for the other, we create a sacred space, we make space for God and we get a taste of heaven.

This truly opened me up to people in way I had never been before; it brought me alive to life in ways I had never been before. Now of course not all the great sages come from Oldham. Those of ancient times taught similar lessons to this ordinary man. That said I am not sure that I could have accessed what they taught eleven or so years ago. It required simple language from an ordinary man. He spoke the language of the heart and I was prepared to listen. I learnt a valuable lesson that day; I learnt that the language of the heart is universal, it can break down any barrier. Those simple words opened me to experiences I never knew were possible. Those experiences opened my senses, particularly my ears, I finally had ears that could hear and I began to finally hear so much more than mere words.

There are teachers all around us, as there has been throughout human history. Some have specific names such as masters, gurus, crones, rabbis, elders, sages, priests, sheikhs, even ministers and they have played vital roles in revealing spiritual truths. They have done so both directly and or indirectly through parables, koans, stories, sermons and their personal example and they have recommended methods that can lead us to enhance our spiritual lives and therefore open us up to everything and that which is more than everything and yet can be found in everything. Sometimes we need such people to get us started on our jounrney, just as I needed that ordinary man from Oldham who taught me how to listen, how to open my ears how to have ears that could hear, so that I could finally hear and my other senses could open too. This led to the realisation of the truth that everyone and everything in life can and is a teacher, even seemingly negative and painful experiences, if we remain open to them. In fact perhaps I have learnt more from suffering than joy, from getting things wrong rather than getting them right for these experiences have humbled me and therefore opened me up to more than I could ever have even begun to imagine.

All this speaks to me of the nature of God. My understanding of God is a kind of panentheistic one, not pantheistic, panentheistic. For me there is this something more than everything, that is present in everything and yet somehow more than everything, that is both transcendent and imminent. That said this sense, this spirit, does not control everything, but does communicate through everything. I experience what I would describe as some kind of universal will calling life to be in harmony with it. Calling always calling, what I have heard described as “The Lure of Divine Love”, which I have come to believe communicates through all life and I have discovered that the more awake and open to life I am the more I have a sense that it is communicating with me. When my senses are fully open and awake I feel that life is constantly communicating with me.

I hear this in the words of one of my favourite hymns “God speaks to us in bird and song, in winds that drift the clouds along, above the din of toil and wrong, a melody of love." Something that is echoed in the following beautiful words 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.

Everything, all life can be our teacher if we are open to it. If we have ears that can hear, if all our senses are awake to everything and that something or perhaps nothing that is are the core of everything and yet beyond everything.

Either nothing matters or everything matters; either life is meaningful or there is no meaning at all in everything; either you should avoid everything or experience everything. For me I have come to believe that everything matters, every thought, every word, every feeling, every breath, every moment. Everything matters. We don’t need to seek anything, nor do we need to run from life either. All we need to do is to be alive to everything and avoid nothing; all we need to do is increase our sensitivity, our openness to everything and our lives will become rich in meaning. We will find our place in everything. We will know that we belong, we will find our place in life and give what we have to life which will give back to us in turn, abundantly.

Listen you have ears that can hear. Listen life is speaking to you. You can open yourself to it and if you do it will begin to speak to you and through you.

I’m going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with these words of wisdom by Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro, from “Wisdom of the Jewish Sages.”

"Consider a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has its place, and no other piece can fit that place. Yet no one piece makes sense on its own. Each piece needs the whole for its integrity and coherence. And the whole needs each piece to fulfill its purpose and bring meaning and order to the puzzle. Once a piece is in its proper place, its separateness is surrendered. We know a piece is in its place when it blends with the whole and disappears. What is true for a puzzle is true for Reality, with one exception: There is no hand putting us in our place. We must do that for ourselves. We must discover our place and take it. And when we do this, we discover the integrity and meaning of the whole; we discover the divine energy that flows through all things that links each to the other and all to God."

Saturday, 6 June 2015

We Believe in Human Kindness

“Kindness: The First Gift” by John O'Donohue

There is a kindness that dwells deep down in things; it presides everywhere, often in the places we least expect. The world can be harsh and negative, but if we remain generous and patient, kindness inevitably reveals itself. Something deep in the human soul seems to depend on the presence of kindness; something instinctive in us expects it, and once we sense it we are able to trust and open ourselves…

The word kindness has a gentle sound that seems to echo the presence of compassionate goodness. When someone is kind to you, you feel understood and seen. There is no judgment or harsh perception directed toward you. Kindness has gracious eyes; it is not small-minded or competitive; it wants nothing back for itself. Kindness strikes a resonance with the depths of your own heart; it also suggests that your vulnerability, though somehow exposed, is not taken advantage of; rather, it has become an occasion for dignity and empathy. Kindness casts a different light, an evening light that has the depth of color and patience to illuminate what is complex and rich in difference.”

...John O'Donohue had such a beautiful way of catching the deeper meaning of everything...

“We believe in human kindness” I was told by a lifetime Unitarian that for her these simple words speak of her faith. She says that we believe in human kindness.

Kindness is one of those words that is often derided these days. In fact I’ve heard people mocked for claiming a belief in it. I’ve heard the claim that it is not much of a foundation on which to build a faith. The more cynical and critical may also claim that there is no such thing as human kindness.

Is this so?

I have just spent a week where I have experienced nothing but kindness. Ok so for most of it I was with my nearest and dearest. That said I still noticed kindness, simple human kindness being shown towards me. It was lovely, truly beautiful and I enjoyed it immensely. It refreshed and revived me as I enjoyed the kindness of “kin”. I spent a week truly bathing in “The kin-dom of love”.

Now as it happens this is something I experience in most of my interactions I enjoy with other people. People show me affection and kindness and offer a welcoming space to me. Not everyone of course, but most. Do you know what I rarely even notice these days when folk aren’t and when do I am increasingly learning not to take this too personally. I know today that most of the time when people are unpleasant toward me it is more about where they are at than anything to do me.

Yes most of these days I am shown kindness and experience it in my daily living. I do experience that all-encompassing kin-dom of love both within myself and amongst the people I share my life with. I offer thanks and praise for this.

Now I can’t claim that this has always been the case. Now is this because the world has changed? It would seem not. No, more than anything it due to my experience of life changing. There was a time when I found kindness hard to take and accept. I often rejected it and turned from it. I didn’t trust it and thought to myself “What do they want, you can’t trust kindness.” I grew quite cynical of those who were seemingly kind. I sometimes feel sad about this, as it was a horribly lonely and unfeeling way to live.

I do hear that same tired, lonely voice in the world in which we all live and breathe and have our being. Cynicism is a disease. Kindness is a word that is often scoffed at. How often are the so called “do-gooders” in the world seen as foolish? We do seem to be living in times where the “Kin-dom of Love” is just the idealists dream, or religious nonsense.

I think that they are wrong and it does not have to be like this. We do not have to live in the cynic’s nightmare. If you look around you and look carefully, paying attention with an open heart you will become aware of kindness all around. Our task is I believe is to be both open to it and to allow it to radiate from our being.

“May we be filled with loving kindness, may we be well.”

Now the cynic’s will say I’m merely a dreamer, but I know I am not the only one.

Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop is one too. She has often spoken of her belief in human kindness and the need to develop it as a spiritual practice, something she has seen as the essence of all the great religious traditions of the world. In her book "A Revolution in Kindness she wrote:

"To me, kindness is one of the most important words in the English language. It's enormously resonant and life-enhancing. And yet, over the past generation or so, it has begun to disappear from polite discourse. It's considered insipid, almost embarrassing. People are not praised for their kindness anymore. It is often viewed as something sanctimonious, patronizing and unrealistic — as if being kind somehow ignores the basic causes of a problem in the first place. Kindness carries with it implications of noblesse oblige, even snobbery . . .

Kindness is lumped along with “nice” as unrealistic and not possessing the power to bring about real change in the world, that it is simplistic, syrupy and worse still cowardly. Roddick though suggests the opposite claiming that kindness requires real courage as it goes against the grain of the times and does bring about change on a very human level. She further states that “…kindness doesn't have to be insipid or random to be effective. Far from it: deliberate kindness can be fierce, tenacious, unexpected, unconditional and sometime positively revolutionary…These qualities give kindness its power to create change, to make things happen. And in a period of human history in which we are obsessed with change — personal or political — and are unsure whether it is possible at all, kindness could be our salvation."

Could Kindness be our salvation. Could we actually bring about “The Kin-dom of Love” right here, right now.

John Lydon once sang that “Anger is an energy” and it most certainly is, that said so is kindness. It is a power if not an obvious one, as it does not shout or boast and operates at a simple one to one human level.

We have often heard it said that “Love makes the world go round”, well Forrest Church begged to differ. He claimed that “Love doesn't make the world go round; kindness does. Plus, it's a purer virtue. When you're kind to a taxi driver or check-out person, you expect nothing in return. And yet, if you make kindness a habit, others may find it contagious.” Church saw “kindness” as the purest virtue and the purest form of love, which he equated with agape love, self-giving love. This is the love spoken of in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians chapter 13. Where he states those immortal words. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Kindness is at the core of the great religious traditions. Now in our ever increasing secular age this is just another reason to reject it. I had a conversation with someone I have known all my life about this very subject recently and their response was “That sounds a bit religious” and do you know what I believe that they are right, in fact its more than a bit religious. Kindness it is how to be religious in its most basic and simplest form, which is no doubt why that lifetime Unitarian says that “We believe in human kindness”

Kindness is the purest virtue and yet it is one we have seemingly forgotten, but it is there in the great faiths, at their core, in their essence.

Plato said “Be kind “for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” An ancient Arabian proverb claims that ”Blessed is the person who speaks a kindness; thrice blessed is the person who repeats it.” And in the Talmud it is said, “Deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.” The book of Micah states “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Kindness is the first of the three great treasures advocated by Lao Tzu. The Buddha taught that generosity is a primary quality of an awakened mind. Muhammad regarded kindness as an essential sign of faith. Kindness is at the core of Christian ethics, it is considered the purest virtue.

Kindness is at the core of Buddhism. In contemporary times the Dalai Lama has said that “There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; my philosophy is kindness.” While the Buddha’s Metta Sutta taught “even as a mother protects with her life, her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings: radiating kindness over the entire world spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; outwards and unbounded, free from hatred and ill-will.”

This is religion in its basic and simplest form. As the hymn goes “To worship rightly is to love each other; each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.”

Kindness is a power, it truly is an energy and it can be a transformative one. It can spread and take over and can begin to bring about the “Kin-dom of Love” right here right now. It begins right here, right now in our simple acts, words and deeds. That said it does so quietly and humbly, it does not shout it does not boast. It is the purest virtue.

Every day is a day when we can bear witness to a Power Greater than ourselves. We do this when we practise loving kindness, when we love one another, when we are glad to see each other, when we play, when we are light-hearted, when we can laugh at ourselves, when we live with exuberance and enthusiasm, when we grow from dust and become truly animated and live life. When we do this we recognise the Divine in one another and we see it in our own reflection, looking back at us in the glass, in our own eyes. We do not need to seek God, for God is already dwelling amongst us in each of our hearts. We just need to bring that Power to life. We know God’s blessings in our interactions with one another, when we bless one another with loving kindness through love and laughter. The way we look at one another, face to face has the Power to make God’s presence known on earth, right here right now. This is the “Kin-Dom of Love” and it begins with our acts. It begins with a belief in human kindness. It begins by worshipping rightly and to worship rightly is to simple love each other “Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.”

I believe it is our task to bring the “Kin-dom of Love” to life, right here right now, in so doing we allow God to incarnate through our lives. It begins by simple human kindness. It is shown in our love for one another; it is shown in our laughter, our playfulness and our love for life.

I’m going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with a story from the Desert Father’s, who were earlier Christians who tended to live apart from society and in community although sometimes alone.

There’s a monk who will never give you advice, but only a question. I was told his questions could be very helpful. I sought him out. “I am a parish priest,” I said. “I’m here on retreat. Could you give me a question?”

“Ah yes,” he answered. “My question is, ‘What do they need?’”

I came away disappointed. I spent a few hours with the question, writing out answers, but finally I went back to him.

“Excuse me. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my postulate during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life, Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?”

“Ah I see. Then my question is, ‘What do they REALLY need?’”

Do you believe in human kindness? Do you believe that this is what we the people really need?

I do!

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Language of the Heart: A Pentecost Reflection

“Spirit of the Wind” by Richard S Gilbert

There is nothing more refreshing than the feel of a brisk wind on the face.
It helps if I am at the same time watching sunset over a lake – The sky peach, purple, red, gold, blue, white, and orange at the same time.
It helps if the same wind that refreshes my face and cleans the air also take me sailing across the narrow bounding main.
But the wind – what is there about the wind?
We cannot see it – only feel it – only observe what it does. It has power, unseen power, a power that re-invigorates.
That cools on a hot day, that fortells a change in the weather – outer or inner.
The wind reminds us that the most powerful things are hardly tangible.
There existence we doubt not.
Their power is not in question.
So it is with us.
So may it be with you.
I could not touch the wind, but it touched me, and that was all I needed.

A friend of mine, who has occasionally attended worship at one of the congregations I serve, recently told me that another friend had asked what it was like and what happened and what we believed. She said oh “They believe in everything” and then she said she tried to articulate what she meant by that and struggled. I remember thinking, well at least she did say you can believe anything that you want.

I have much sympathy with my friend’s struggle. I have identified as a Unitarian now for the best part of ten years, been a minister for getting on for five years and I still find it hard to articulate exactly what it means to be a Unitarian. In fact in some ways I find it harder today than I did say eight years ago. I often wonder if I am a very good Unitarian, whatever that means.

It got me asking myself what it means to me to be a Unitarian and why I found and continue to find a home amongst these free religionists. I have identified three things.

One is authority. We say that authority lays within the enlightened conscience of the individual, that we are not only free but encouraged to seek our own truth in matters of faith. That personal experience and reflection upon these experiences is our final authority that no one can tell us what we ought to believe. That does not mean that we can believe what we want, more what we must. We believe what our experiences teach us.

The second is respect and celebration of difference. Now some describe this as tolerance, but I don’t think that is enough. I’m not decrying tolerance, if only we human beings could be more tolerant of one another. That said I still hear judgement in the word tolerant. As if in claiming this word what people are saying is “I am tolerating you and your view, but I still think you are a crank.” I don’t see respect and celebration in this. If I accept that I have freedom to reach my own conclusions and believe that this is a wonderful thing, then to judge or merely tolerate another for the conclusions they reach is neither truly respecting or celebrating this approach. Also such judgement seems to lack humility.

This leads me to the third aspect, which I see as humility and the openness that this breeds. This stems from the idea that whatever conclusions I have reached today I have not sealed this truth. Again this is something to celebrate, the openness that true humility brings. That by rejoicing in the truth that others may reach I can myself experience a deeper revelation if I listen with an open mind, heart and soul. Truth is always subjective. I know myself that my view on faith and many things has shifted at times in my life. This is because my experiences have changed, as have my reflections upon them and my ability to listen to others experiences and their honest reflections upon them too.

These three “freedom, respect and humility” are key to my understanding of my chosen Unitarian faith. These three little words “freedom, respect & humility” just about sum up my understanding of my chosen free religious tradition.

I have been reflected on these three “freedom, respect and humility” as I have contemplated Pentecost and the recounting of these events in the book of Acts Ch 2 vv 1-13, which describes the events known as “Pentecost”, regarded as the birth of the Christian Church. Today is the feast day of Pentecost. Pentecost is not something that is universally celebrated, at least not these days, amongst many British Unitarian congregations. Some do still participate in what are known as "Whit Walks", but very few. This is not the case in Transylvania, which is really the birth place of denominational Unitarianism. For the Transylvanian Unitarians Pentecost may well be the most important day of their liturgical calendar, it is certainly up there with Easter. Perhaps our friends in Transylvania have remembered something important that we have somehow either forgotten or rejected. Perhaps we could learn something from them, for there is something very powerful in this "mythos".

So for the last few days I have been reflecting on Pentecost, especially in light of my own understanding of my chosen free religious tradition. As I have done so I have discovered something beautifully universal in it. The account describes the first time that the Spirit is revealed to more than just a select few of seemingly chosen people. According to the Gospel accounts Jesus gave the spirit to the twelve disciples on Passover night, the night before he died and yet fifty days later at the Jewish festival of Pentecost this same spirit is offered to all, as the Disciples, Galilean speakers began to speak in languages that all people can understand. Is this not Universalism? Now of course some present were amazed and moved by this and began to ask what it must mean, while others just sneered and thought they they had gone mad or were drunk saying "They are filled with new wine."

As I have reflected on the account in Acts 2 vv 1-13 conversations I have had with many people about their own personal transformative experiences have came to mind. Now the words they used to describe their experiences have been different and often less dramatic, that said the effect has been very similar. So many people have described to me moments in their lives when something has got a hold of them and changed them in positive ways. This in some way has helped me make sense of what is described as Pentecost, I no longer see it as a some fanciful tale, rather as mythos or metaphor for the universal life giving spirit, it has taken on a new meaning that actually makes sense to me. It brings to mind the hymn “Spirit of Life”, especially the line “Spirit of Life, come unto me…” In that hymn, so loved by Unitarians I hear this call to the spirit to come unto all of us and bring about transformation, freedom, vitality and creative life giving energy.

When I think of Spirit in this way I think of the God of my limited understanding, but ever expanding experience. I also suspect that this is the same for many Unitarians in Transylvania and why Pentecost is so vital to them. Cliff Reed captured this beautifully in his book “Unitarian what’s that?” in answer to the question “Do Unitarian believe in the Holy Spirit?” Here he claimed that,

“Unitarians do not see any differentiation between the Holy Spirit and God, and use the words more or less interchangeably. We conceive of the Spirit as the active divine presence in individuals and communities, as the divine breath that gives us life, as that ineffable factor that binds us together.

The Spirit, for many Unitarians, is the divine mystery moving among us and within us as we work and worship. Indeed, for many, God as loving, creative Spirit is the primary concept of the divine.”

That beautiful loving, guiding, creating power that is Greater than All and yet present in each, in everything. Some of course simply name this Love and others call it God.

People experience and understand the spiritual aspects of their lives in different ways and when they try to explain these experiences they often articulate them differently.They often use different words to describe the same thing. Or use the same words to talk about different things. The words themselves can often get in the way of describing the experiences that people all have. That said what else do we have to describe what often cannot be fully understood.

One of the great blessings of my job is that people, often complete strangers, tell me about experiences that they do not understand; often experiences that their rational minds don’t believe in and yet they have experienced them all the same. Experiences that have changed them for ever.

There seems to be two common themes to these experiences. One has been the transformative nature of them and the second that they have never dared tell another soul about them, for fear of ridicule. It truly is a humbling blessing that they feel that they can speak to me about them. They must see in me someone who will not think that they had become intoxicated by “new wine”.

I remember one such occasion last year when I went to buy a new laptop computer. I explained to the shop assistant that I needed something that was mobile and suitable for a lot of writing as I often like to write in coffee shops. During the conversation I revealed what I do for a living and as I did it took a completely different direction. He began to recount an experience that happened many years ago, that had totally transformed him and his experience of life. He made me smile as he insisted he wasn’t a religious man, as he couldn’t get along with dogma and the like but he experienced something that day that had transformed him and that he was now able to experience this in every aspect of his life. As he spoke I just smiled and listened and told him how many people have had similar experiences including myself and how the two characteristics he described were common - The fear of speaking about them and the transformative nature of them - I also told him that the “Religious Experience Research Centre of the University of Wales, Lampeter would be interested in his account. This is an archive of some 6,000 spiritual and psychic experiences that was begun by Sir Alister Hardy in 1969 at Manchester College Oxford, a Unitarian foundation. Hardy was both an eminent Unitarian and marine biologist. For years Hardy scientifically researched such phenomena. Research that continues to this day at Lampeter.

Now while there has been these two themes - the fear of speaking about them and the transformative nature of them - prevalent in many of the conversations I have had, I have also noticed many differences too. I suspect that this due primarily to each individuals religious backgrounds, which must influence the conclusions they have come too. What has struck me though has been the honesty and integrity in which what has been described has been recounted. I have never spoken to many of these people again and yet what they have said has been permanently etched on the soul of me. I have also noticed that each time I have listened to others and shared my own experiences something in me has opened up and I have felt that spirit once again. How many times have I smiled and been warmed and yet shivered at the same time? God only knows.

This to me is how the language of the heart operates, this is the transforming energy of the spirit coming alive in our tongues. That said I am sure I was only truly able to hear what was being said because I was myself listening with the ears of my heart. To truly hear what someone is saying we have to actually care for and respect them as a fellow human being and not dismiss any aspect of them, even that which might seem a little strange. Here I see clearly those three aspects I identified earlier as central to my chosen free religious faith in action, freedom to believe as our conscience dictates, respect and celebration of one another and our perspectives, and humility as well as the openness this breeds.

As a free religious community Unitarians may not always understand the language each of them speaks, for each comes from a variety of theological perspectives and life experiences. This I believe is something to be celebrated and when it is done so with humility I see it transforming those individuals present and the whole community.

This I believe is the heart of Pentecost. Just as those people, 2,000 years ago were transformed into something more so can everyone; everyone can be transformed by the language of the heart. It begins by learning to listen with the ears of our hearts and to speak with the tongues of our hearts. For it is the language of the heart that carries the voice of transformation. It can bring about transformation not only in all lives who are touched by it, but also the lives that they themselves touch, propelling each and every one into a new stage of development, with new energy, vision and purpose.

With this in heart and mind and in the spirit of freedom, respect and humility I believe that a new world can begin to be born. We can all begin to live with a new vision, new energy and new purpose. Let us not be held back by what we think we know. Let’s open all our senses to the spirit present in all life. Let our ears be opened to the language of the heart, spoken from every tongue and let us speak the language of the heart in our every interaction.

For the language of the heart, like Pentecost, is Universal it breaks down any and every barrier and touches and transform all who have ears to hear…

I'm going to end this little chip of a blog with these beautiful words by Kristen Harper

“Reformation: The Spirit of the Wind”

Some say the spirit of the wind is in the trees.
You can see it, they say, if you close your eyes and stand real still.
Some say that the same spirit lives in the hills forging mountains and plains.
I smelled it the other night. 
Lying in my bed, my window cracked it crept through the moonlight up under my blanket and wrapped its arms around me.
Entering my blood through my skin I felt alive with an age I had not yet reached.
Made me knew again in a form I’d never known.
I cried out in pain and joy mingled, fear and expectation.
Ecstasy it has been called, I call it reformation.
There was forgiveness in that spirit.
Compassion for my wounds, strength for my weaknesses.
It was no miracle, nor nirvana.
I just closed my eyes and saw the spirit.
The spirit in the wind.
The spirit in the trees.
The spirit that lives in me.