Saturday, 22 November 2014

God's Work

Whenever we have a committee meeting at either of the congregations I serve, before we begin business, a member always leads us in a short devotion. Now every so often, more often than ought to happen, the person who has agreed to do so forgets. Well last Wednesday it happened again. So what happened? Well they turned to me. After four years I have grown wise to this and for the last few months I have ensured I have brought something with me. Last Wednesday, just before leaving the house, I picked up a book of short reflections “Life Tides” by Elizabeth Tarbox. So when they turned to me, instead of just thinking of a prayer and some words of wisdom, I took the book from my bag and just randomly opened it. It opened on page 8 and piece titled “God’s Work”, interesting title I thought. I then began to share it with the committee. Now before doing so I offered a few words of settlement and invited them to join together and listen in a prayerful state. Most did although one member did continue to shuffle through his papers.

Now the reading seemed to have quite an impact on those at the meeting as several offered comments, including the person who appeared not to be listening but was actually doing so carefully, while shuffling his papers. It was suggested to me that we might explore the ideas contained within it in worship, which I thought was a splendid idea. Here is the reading. I hope it speaks to you, as it spoke to us.

“God’s Work” by Elizabeth Tarbox

What is God’s work? If God is immanent and transcendent, in and out of everything, then how could it be possible not to do God’s work? Surely all work is God’s work – there is nothing which is not of God. Is there?

But that doesn’t do it, somehow. There are times when what I do is strictly for me. God or no God, I’m working for myself, even during those times when God would probably approve. Mostly what I do for myself is compatible with what I believe I would do for God.

But not always. There are times of conflict, when the prompting and urging of my desire are up against the sentinel of my conscience. They square off, these two strong voices somewhere deep in the thick of me where there is no judge, no referee, and mercifully no spectators. “Do it,” say I. “Don’t,” says God. One of them wins and the other goes grumbling away, threatening and complaining in the basement of my being like a boiler with an excess of steam. And I am left to live with my decision, to forgive or applaud, to bask in my nobility or blush in my shame. And God and I make peace once more.

Then there are times when I can’t tell which is God’s voice and which is my own. What about those times when God seems to be saying “Do it” and I am saying “No.” When God says, “This is the right thing to do,” and I, shaking with fear, confess, “I can’t, I’m just too scared.”

“I’ll be with you.”
“How do I know?”
“You can do it, be not afraid.”
“I might fail, make a fool of myself.”
“Yes you might. Do it anyway.”
“But people might not like me.”
“That’s right.”
“But how do I know this is good? How can I be sure?”
“You cannot be sure. This is a risk.”

Yes, those are the toughest times: wanting to do right without losing my safety, not knowing if I am doing God’s work, or using God to do mine. There is no superhighway named Right Way. There are no signposts, no guides, no promises, no guarantees; only the lonely voice of conscience and the cringing cry of fear wrestling each other in inner space. Those are the times of lying awake at night and staring at the detail of the day through a haze of worry, working and reworking the “oughts,” the “should,” and “yes, buts” of the thing.

And what’s to be done, but to listen to the voice that seems to be speaking a consistent truth, move through the fear to trust the moral judgements we have lived by, and pray for courage.”

It is a beautiful and rich piece I hope it inspires you to delve deeper, it certainly has done so with me. It's got me living a few more questions as I have engaged in the creative interchange that Elizabeth has inspired. I hope that the rest of this blogspot has the same impact on you...None of us know exactly what the actions we do, or do not do, will lead to in all the corners of our shared world.

So what is God’s work and how do we know if we are doing it?

Well the first question we might want to explore here is what do we mean by God? It may well mean something different to each and every person. One of the great treasures of the free religious tradition that I serve, the Unitarian faith, is that it celebrates the diversity in religious understanding and expression. When I speak of God here please translate it to that which is of greatest value in your lives, that which is your compass your guide, that which we seek for strength and inspiration, both in times of joy and difficulty and all that lies in-between. Personally I do believe that there is that which permeates all life, that is at the core of all that is and yet is more than all that is, that I can be a part of and that I can seek strength and inspiration from. When I say God I mean that power which is Greater than all and yet present in each, in everything, including all of you and even me. By the way I not only believe this I experience it in every feeling, every thought, every word and every deed, although sometimes my mind will try to deny this.

I believe that each of us carries with us the essence of God and that we can connect with that and therefore truly connect with all that is, all that has ever been and all that will ever be. That great nineteenth century Transcendentalist put it far more beautifully when he said “Let us learn the revelation of all nature and thought; that the Highest dwells within us…there is no bar or wall in the soul where we, the effect, cease, and God, the cause, begins.” Desmond Tutu in more recent times echoed this sentiment when he claimed that “Each of us carries a piece of God’s heart within us.” He believes that we are all children of God and are therefore all one, one human family. He goes further claiming that God’s dream is that everyone reaches out, cares about and laughs with one another’s hearts. And I believe that if we do so we can start to put together the puzzle of life, we can heal ourselves, our families, our communities, our world. I believe this because I too believe that we each carry a piece of God’s heart within us too. So maybe, just maybe, this is infact doing God’s work?

What do you think? Maybe, maybe not? You decide…

Two central themes of two books that have inspired my ministry these last four years have been living with both meaning and compassion. The key to which is to put something or someone else at the core of your life and not to live purely for or from yourself. The key message in both books has been to not live self-centredly. Karen Armstrong made this claim in “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” and Viktor Frankl made similar claims in “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Bill W in his story in the book Alcoholics Anonymous made similar claims too. He stated "Simple not easy a price had to paid, it meant destruction of self-centeredness." The central message of Alcoholics Anonymous is that the sufferer needed to find a power greater than themselves that they could live by in order to recover from their self and other destructive life. What is also interesting though is that in order to find this power one did not need to search very far, that this something is already within everyone. The only real problem being that we human beings build walls that separate us not only from one another but from our true selves. I suspect that doing God’s work is about putting these pieces together, both within ourselves and our ever more divided and divisive world.

Now of course there are many who claim that actually the very people who claim to be doing God's work are usually the ones creating division in our world, they are the ones doing the breaking not the healing. It is not hard to find evidence for this view. Just turn on the news any day and you will see those reaping destruction while claiming to be doing God's work. Many claim that if we just let go of the God idea, which is seen as stupid, irrational and downright destructive that humanity would be able to live as one. Looking at our world you can see why they would think that. That said any right thinking person can see that division in humanity is not just the domain of religion, it is the domain of those who believe they are always right and that no one can argue with their view of what is right. This is not a position unique to religious thinking. Dogma is another aspect of humanity and I believe it is this that builds those walls between us.

The problem with we human beings is that we forget that we are human beings. We lack humility. It is important to remember that humanity and humility are formed from the same linguistic root, from the earth. Yes we learn more and more, but we still know so little. We certainly have not yet learnt to live in love. We still somehow fail to recognise we are all formed from the same stuff. I believe that humility is vital to the spiritual life as it opens us to our true selves, to one another and to God.

Me I’m with Desmond I believe that “Each of us carries a piece of God’s heart within us.” That we are all children of God, that there is one human family and that doing God’s work is reaching out and doing all that I can for those in need and joining in with the dance of life. Weeping with those in tears and laughing along with each others hearts. I also believe that by doing so we open our hearts fully and that piece of God we carry within us can begin to put our wounded world back together again. That said, maybe I’m just a dreamer, but I don’t think I am the only one.

What do you think? Maybe, maybe not? You decide…

The key, as Elizabeth points out, is in the struggle. The spiritual life is by no means an easy one. Answers are not always easy to find and doing the right thing is not easy. It is, I believe only really unearthed in the struggle. When I think of this struggle my mind always turns toward a passage in Genesis ( ch32 vv 22 – 32)

Here is the passage:

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’27So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28Then the man* said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,* for you have striven with God and with humans,* and have prevailed.’ 29Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel,* saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

At first glance this looks like a strange passage, but there is deep meaning half hidden within it. Jacob is depicted wrestling with a mysterious man, who it turns out is probably God, although is not clear.As he wrestles with this being he is grievously hurt, but he fights on. As the night ends and dawn breaks the being tries to leave but Jacob holds on and demands it blesses him as the price for ending the struggle. The being relents and blesses Jacob by giving him a new name “Israel” meaning “one who struggles with God” or as I once heard a friend say “one with whom God struggles.”

I see this as a mythos depicting the spiritual struggle. I think it is a timeless and universal depiction of what Elizabeth is describing in her piece.

Is it we who struggle with God, or is it God who struggles with us?

What do you think? Maybe, maybe not? You decide…

This brought some other thoughts to my heart and mind, if we are a piece of the heart of God then surely it is our task to be the eyes, the ears and the hands of the holy in this world. Surely God’s work is to bind up the broken to rebind the world back together. Re-member, re-bind together that Religion, from “religiere”, means to rebind together that which has been broken apart. Each of us is a precious piece of the puzzle, while at the same time we are bound up together in the one web of life. Once we truly recognise this all our actions begin to take on real purpose and meaning, for we recognise that everything matters, Every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed, everything matters. I have learnt that if we truly believe this it allows us to truly engage with life, to struggle with what we can and cannot do and to join in the wrestling match that is life.

Now these are just my thoughts, each person must decide what God’s work is for them. Be careful of those who claim to know what that is for everyone else. We each have to engage with this ourselves.

That said increasingly I see that we are each a vital part of the puzzle. I have also discovered that in order to unearth the answers we need to engage in two ways, one private and the other corporate. One requires personal and private spiritual practise and the other requires each of us to engage with one another. The two combined bring about true religious living.

What is required is time alone to connect to that greater reality deep down within each of us, we need look no further you know. We just need to spend time in quietness so we can feel that still small voice.

I promise that everyone can hear the "language of the heart", if we listen with the “ears of our hearts” and then of course come together and share what we have uncovered, oh and then do what needs to be done. By bringing our pieces together we can can begin to create that beautiful picture puzzle.

Whatever we believe is the source of that voice is not the most important thing. What matters to me is that we learn to trust in and allow it to give us the courage to do what our world needs us to do. This to me again is God’s work.

This is what needs to be done. As Elizabeth said we need to learn to listen to that voice that has consistently spoken a truth, to move through the fear that we may get things wrong from time to time and to pray for the courage to do what is required.

“Each of us carries a piece of God’s heart within us.” We are all children of God, we are part of the one human family. Doing God’s work is reaching out and doing all that we can. Our ever more divided and dividing world certainly needs it. It is up to us to put the pieces back together, to bind up the broken, our people, our world…

What do you think? Maybe, maybe not? You decide…

I'm going to end this little blog with a final piece of wisdom by Penny Quest

“Each New Morning” by Penny Quest

Each new morning two choices are open to every one of us:
The choice to live that day in the joyfulness of Love,
Or in the darkness of Fear.

Each new day, as the sun rises,
We have another opportunity to make that choice.
The symbolism of the sunrise is the removal of shadow
And the return of Light.

Each new morning we have another chance
To rid ourselves of the burdens, sorrows and fears of the past,
To rejoice in the joy of the present,
And to look forward to a future of fulfilment
On every level of our being.

Each sunrise is a fresh opportunity to release fear,
To choose a different life-path,
To commit ourselves to joyful, light living,
To trust in ourselves and in the Universe,
To trust in the forces of Nature and in Mother Earth,
To trust God, the Creator, the all-That-Is.


Saturday, 15 November 2014

Masks & Persona's & a little on Worzel Gummidge

When I was a child I had an annoying habit of commenting on everything. My siblings would often cry “We don’t need a running commentary on this Danny” or more bluntly “Stop giving us a running commentary”. It was often at its most annoying in the car when I would pass comment on everything I saw from the window. This strange habit resurfaced in my later twenties, during the most difficult time of my life when I would comment, often in a cynically humorous way on everything I passed while staring at the world from either the back or passenger seat.

Looking back I think it was an attempt to connect to the world that seemed oh so far away. I felt very lonely at this period of my life and I noticed that the habit was stronger when I sat in the back seat alone and therefore ever so slightly more cut off.

These thoughts came back to me as I drove back from a spiritual gathering with two friends. The friend in the back seat spent the whole journey commenting and complaining and saying that they did not wish to sit in the back of my car again. It amused me so much and reminded me of myself or a self I had once been.

That night as I settled down and reflected on a wonderfully satisfying day, filled with meaning and purpose I experienced a sense of de ja vu watching television and checking out facebook. De ja vu experiences have been growing in me these last few months, I’m not sure why, but I suspect that it is due to the ever thinning of the layers of life while at the same time my moments of experience have thickened. As I lay there half watching “Match of the Day 2” many memories came flooding into my mind, my heart and my soul.

I wondered about the many persons I have been at different stages of my life, the many masks I have worn that I have believed protected me but have in fact only ever kept me lonely and cut off from experiencing all that is. I also wondered to myself who is the real me? Who am I as a person? I have lived many lives and at each stage it as felt real and yet now, looking back so many of the lives I have lived no longer feel real, feel authentic; when I look back now I do not see my face what I see is another person hiding behind many masks.

We humans have always wore masks, ever since the beginning of human society. The masks have depicted the multiple aspects of humanity, the many ‘selves’ that lie within each and every one of us. In the plays of ancient Greece masks were worn and exchanged by the players to depict each individual’s persona. The word ‘persona” itself is actually derived from per-sonare which meant “to sound through”? It was not only the face of the character that was expressed through the mask, but also the voice was exaggerated too. There is something beautifully powerful in this, it’s a wonderful metaphor for who we are as human beings. In many ways we can be identified as much by our voices as our faces and we can attempt to cover up who we our through our voices too.

I was talking with a friend the other day about how much my voice has changed over time, how my speech has altered. I have to some extent lost my accent, not completely I know but to some extent at least. This is no doubt due in part to having to speak publically and also not living in Yorkshire for nearly 20 years. Now my friend laughed out loud at this as to them I have quite a strong accent, but it is nothing like it used to be. I have not deliberately changed the way I speak but never the less it has happened. It fascinates me how some people seem to pick up accents very easily and yet others hang on to theirs even if they have left their homelands decades before. So much of who we are, our persona is caught up in our voices as well as our facial features. The masks we can wear not only cover our faces, but our voices too.

Masks of course are not only the domain of ancient times either. Many of our modern day heroes wear masks too. In many ways the hero has to wear a mask in order to protect his identity and therefore walk through life anonymously. It seems a hero cannot be a hero twenty four hours a day seven days a week three hundred and sixty five days of the year. The demands and the pressures it seems would be too much. Think about Zoro who has to don his mask in order to fight for his people; think about Batman and Spiderman too whose greatest fears are to be unmasked. There are numerous other examples too.

Now there is a part of me that just doesn’t like any of this. This idea of hiding who we are or having to be transformed into someone else to become a hero or a completely different personality. There is a loneliness in it that I want to rebel against. Think about it, all those heroes have a loneliness about them. They all have a dark side, they somehow can’t quite connect with everyone else.

As I thought of this those childhood memories came flooding back, of staring at the world from the car window. It particularly brought one image that has often haunted me, that of the scarecrow, perhaps the epitome of a loneliness in effigy. They are the loneliest of the lonely.

Now of course usually the scarecrow is depicted as a rather lonely semi-human creature and there was one that I had a deep affection for as a child. That scarecrow was Worzel Gummidge. Do you remember Worzel?

Worzel like so many other children’s characters desperately wanted to fit in to be a part of life, but never really succeeded. Now while he didn’t wear a mask he did something far more extreme. He would have to painfully remove his head and replace it with another totally different one that completely changed his personality. For poor old Worzel whatever he did always ended in disaster and he could never be what he tried so hard to be. He was always on the outside looking at the world alone, a scarecrow not a part of human life. He wore a different head for every occasion but that did not help him become what he wanted to be.

How many of us wear masks or put on different heads in our attempts to be accepted? Why do we believe we are not good enough just as we are, exactly as we are in this present moment, warts and all and beauty spots too? Why do we believe we need to act differently around certain people just to fit in? Why do we think we need to wear different masks or even heads for different occasions and even change the way that we speak in order to fit in and be accepted?

It never works you know, it only leads to loneliness and emptiness. Why? You may well ask, well because deep down inside we know it’s not who we really are. It means we just stand there as scarecrows staring at the world as it passes us by or we just sit there staring at the world giving our running commentaries and criticism without ever participating.

Last Sunday evening as I looked back at the person I have been at times in my life, I did so with compassion, with love. I need to do so in order to understand and accept others who suffer that sense of loneliness that comes when we hide behind the many masks we wear.

I believe that authenticity is at the core of the spiritual life. In fact I would say that the purpose of the spiritual life is to truly become real and to let go of the masks that we think allow us fit in and become acceptable to the world around us. It’s not about what we show to the world outside of us but how we live from our hearts and souls. It’s not about showing this stage character that we think the world wants to see but to be ourselves wholly and fully.

The purpose of the spiritual life is to become who we truly are. It is to remove the masks so that we can truly connect to life and to one another and see each other as we truly are, warts and all and beauty spots too. The spiritual life is about connecting to all that is, all that has been and all that will ever be so that time becomes thick and deep and therefore rich in meaning. In so doing we are able to truly serve our world and the people about us and therefore incarnate God’s love here and now and bring about the commonwealth of love in our very lives.

The spiritual life is about participating fully. It’s not about staring from our windows and commentating on all that we pass by it’s about being open, vulnerable and fully alive…

It’s about removing the masks that shield and separate us and seeing one another face to face and speaking our truth in love.


Saturday, 8 November 2014


"The Young Dead Soldiers" by Archibald MacLeish

The young dead soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them!

They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts.

They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us.

They say: We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done.

They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.

They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them.

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this.

They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.

We were young, they say. We have died.

Remember us.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the out-break of the 1st World War. Not that it was known as the first world war back then. It was given this name following the out-break of the Second World War just 21 years after the sounds of war ceased and hostilities ended on what became known as Armistice Day on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

The 1st World War was known as “The Great War”, not in the sense we understand great today but due to its size and scale. A war so bloody and destructive that it near annihilated the countries of Europe and the lives of millions of people. Nor was the scale of destruction merely a physical one either, it was emotional, mental and spiritual too. So many lives and communities were destroyed and I don’t think people have ever been quite the same since. It brought to an end the optimism of the nineteenth century and the idea of progress onwards and upwards for ever. Yes wars have continued ever since, but I do not think that any had quite the same impact on the soul of humanity.

The 1st World War heralded the age of extremes, human centred ones, that characterised the 20th century.

There follows two poems from two of the great war poets from the "Great War"

The first is by possibly the best known of the 1st World War poets Wilfred Owen and goes by the title “Anthem for Doomed Youth”

“Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifl es' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

This second poem is by Charles Sorley, who killed at the age of twenty on 13th October 1915, in the Battle of Loos. He wrote this poem only days before his death.

“When you see millions of the mouthless dead” by Charles Sorley

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, "They are dead."Then add thereto,
"Yet many a better one has died before."
Then, scanning all the o'er crowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Remembrance Day began as a way to mark those industrial scale losses of human life and human spirit and of course to say never again would we do this to ourselves and one another. The first two minutes silence was held on 11th November 1919, to mark one year since conflict ceased.

Here follows an account of the First Two Minute Silence in London (11th November 1919) as reported in the Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1919.

'The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect.

The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.

Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of 'attention'. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still ... The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain ... And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.'

Now some think this was so long ago and that we should no longer remember those lives that they should now be consigned to history and that we ought to only really remember those who die in conflict today. While it is true we should remember those lives lost today that does not mean we should forget the past. The lives who are lost today are linked to all who have died in conflict. I believe we need to remember them all together as one, past present and sadly future in the Hope, if not the optimism, that one day we humans will learn the lessons that these silent voices still speak and hush the sounds of war.

Below is a poem by Richard Gilbert which I believe truly captures the spirit behind remembrance...Remembrance is more than merely remembering...

“Remembrance and Remembering” by Richard S Gilbert

Two words,
Same root,
Different meaning.
Remembering is a simple act of recalling the past –
Its shape and lineaments and moments.
Remembrance, however, is quite a different matter.
Remembrance is recalling the past in a way
which inspires us to mold a future.

Remembering is easy.
Humans are remembering creatures.
We remember as regularly as we eat and sleep.
It is as natural as getting up in the morning
And going to bed at night.
It is an act of the mind.

Remembrance is hard.
It requires that the memory of the past
Guide our present and inspire our future.
Remembering is passive images coming into us.
Remembrance is active –
It catches up the memory and mixes it in
The alchemy of our lives
And we emerge from the process as new people.

Let us remember, of course –
We need to remember.
Let us hold in remembrance those persons,
Those events, those experiences,
That have the power to transform our lives.
Then is embodied in us past, present and future.
All bound up in the transitory creatures that we are.

We will remember them. Hopefully not just on Remembrance Sunday though, hopefully we can bring this Remembrance to life. How often do we listen to those now silent voices from the past. Even if we do can we learn the lessons from history? Well it would appear not as we keep on repeating them. I believe it was George Santayana who said "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it," Well it seems we are failing to do so as we keep on repeating the mistakes of the past. I only need look at my own life for proof of this. How many times have I repeated the same mistake over and over again?

That said I am a person who lives in Hope. Hope is my light and inspiration. We can change, lessons can be learnt. How do I know this? Well because I see lessons all around, even in the man looking back at me in the mirror. People and cultures do have the capacity to change.

We need to let hope grow in our hearts, minds and souls. To let those now lost voices speak and be heard and come to life in our feelings, thoughts, words and deeds. We can then let the spirit of remembrance take a hold within us and to grow so that Hope may also take a hold and to grow in our souls and we can then begin to share it with those we share this world with.

Let us live in remembrance. Let us light the flame of Hope in our hearts and souls and let us become beacons to this our world.

The following is an extract from Nobel Prize for Literature Speech given by Roger Martin du Gard at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm December 10, 1937, less than two years before the outbreak of the "Second World War"

"I should like to conclude with a more sombre hypothesis, although I am embarrassed to disturb this festive mood by arousing those painful thoughts that haunt all of us. However, perhaps the Swedish Academy did not hesitate to express a special purpose by drawing the attention of the intellectual world to the author of L’Été 1914 [Summer 1914].

That is the title of my last book. It is not for me to judge its value. But at least I know what I set out to do: in the course of these three volumes I tried to revivify the anguished atmosphere of Europe on the eve of the mobilizations of 1914. I tried to show the weakness of the governments of that day, their hesitations, indiscretions, and unavowed desires; I tried above all to give an impression of the stupefaction of the peaceful masses before the approach of that cataclysm whose victims they were going to be, that cataclysm which was to leave nine million men dead and ten million men crippled.

When I see that one of the highest literary juries in the world supports these books with the prestige of its incontestable authority, I ask myself whether the reason may not be that these books through their wide circulation have appeared to defend certain values that are again being threatened and to fight against the evil contagion of the forces of war.

For I am a son of the West, where the noise of arms does not let our minds rest. Since we have come together today on the tenth of December, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel (that man of action, “no mere shadow,” who in the last years of his life seems indeed to have put his supreme hope in the brotherhood of nations), permit me to confess how good it would be to think that my work – the work that has just been honoured in his name – might serve not only the cause of letters, but even the cause of peace.

In these months of anxiety in which we are living, when blood is already being shed in two extreme parts of the globe, when practically everywhere in an atmosphere polluted by misery and fanaticism passions are seething around pointed guns, when too many signs are again heralding the return of that languid defeatism, that general consent which alone makes wars possible: at this exceptionally grave moment through which humanity is passing, I wish, without vanity, but with a gnawing disquietude in my heart, that my books about Summer 1914 may be read and discussed, and that they may remind all – the old who have forgotten as well as the young who either do not know or do not care – of the sad lesson of the past."

Finally I will end with this contemporary piece of writing by David Mace. I think it truly the impact of what we have called "The Great War"...Lest we forget...

“Some Corner of a Foreign Field” by David Mace

We read the books, we watch the movies; read newspapers... maybe write
a line or so, of poetry; or watch on TV, any night
something, somewhere, of some War... the Media Circus, we all know;
but, to see the cost; then to the North of England, you should go.
For you can pick up any map, choose any town or village there,
and should you travel to that place, then you are quickly made aware
of what War really is about... for each place has its own Stone Cross...
The War Memorial; all closely carved with the Communal loss
of a Generation... all the young men from close-cobbled lanes,
who volunteered to fight for King and Country... few came home again.

Grandfather said Recruiting Sergeants travelled round the local pubs,
patriotic fervour... whipping up, in Alehouses and Clubs.
Perhaps, in tow... some floozy from some Music Hall, who danced and sang,
drawing in the young men, with the... "Come on boys, prove you're a Man.
Come and take the King's Shilling... sign upon the dotted line.
All your pals are joining up. Don't be scared, you'll be just fine!"
And "Pals," then, was the fateful word... some fool in Whitehall hatched a plan
to keep the men from each place, all together in a close-knit band;
called "The Pals Battalions," who would fight together... side by side;
not for comradeship... more fear of shaming in each others eyes.

And the young men flooded in; perhaps, to escape drudgery
of Dark, Satanic Mills, Pin Factories or Blistering Iron Foundries.
"By Christmas, it will all be over"... but, so little, did they know,
and, in their hundreds, they signed up, a'soldiering in France, to go.
But, as they marched out of their villages and towns, to cheering crowds,
with flags and bunting gaily waving... old men turned, and said out loud
to each other, shaking heads... no good at all, would come of this;
for in a charge, the Boche could wipe the village out... they could not miss.
And, it was not for nothing, they decried this Military travesty,
for these old men had fought the Boers, and quelled the Indian Mutiny.

Knowing then, what modern weaponry could do to flesh and bone;
knowing that the General Staff were so remote, and quite alone
in their belief that Flanders could be fought, the same as Waterloo;
"Lions led by Donkeys" is the phrase Historians use... how true.
The truth is this... forget TV, and what is on the Silver Screen;
forget the faded photographs, for none of this is what it seems.
Forget the grainy film of "No Mans' Land," and "Going over the Top"...
all filmed at home, on Salisbury Plain... a truthless, propaganda sop
fed to the public in the Picture Palaces, to boost morale,
coercing them to buy War Bonds... concealing truth about "The Pals."

For, "Going over the Top" was very close to orderly suicide...
bayonets fixed, all waiting for the whistle, standing side by side.
Then, the scramble from the trench... and walking forwards, steadily
into "No Mans' Land"... the tangled barbed wire... and Eternity.
Shoulder then, to shoulder; trudging on towards the German wire,
and, shoulder then, to shoulder; swift, mown down, by vicious, withering fire
from machine guns, well dug in, all along the parapet
of the German Front line trench... how could they run that lead gauntlet?
July, the first,1916... the bloody first day of the Somme.
The Accrington Pals, strength seven hundred; close, six hundred dead and gone.

So, too; the Leeds Pals, strength nine hundred... above three quarters cut to shreds,
repeated all along the Front... The Big Push... in which, it is said
The Flower of English youth was sacrificed that day, for an ideal;
innocence had died that day... traditional tactics proved unreal.
The cost?... the whistles shrilled at half-past seven on that sunny morn;
by 10 o'clock... the British losses... fifty-two thousand men were gone.
Most of those within the first hour, whole platoons of Pals cut down;
killed or wounded, out in No Man's Land... for a few yards of ground.
And, at the closing of the day, the Pals Battalions, all, were gone;
sixty thousand men were lost, that bloody First day on the Somme.

And, through the Northern towns and villages, the church bells tolled forlorn,
for days...
in Accrington and Barnsley, Bradford, Leeds... they all were gone.
Brothers, cousins, workmates, friends, in the same factories, pits, or mills,
who often lived in the same street, had gone to the same school, and still
had courted the same sweethearts, or by marriage, were related too;
the Pals, the Chums... so thickly then, their corpses, Flanders Fields, bestrew.
Scarce a household left untouched... scarce a house, no curtains drawn;
smoky, cobbled streets all shrouded, silent... grief, so bravely borne.
All together, tied by bonds of local pride, they marched away,
all together, bonded now, in Death... in Flanders Field, they lay.

The Great War, called "The War to end all Wars"... the facile arrogance
of Politicians, who saw nothing of the carnage there, in France
and Belgium...
and, there have been many conflicts since, more bloody war,
have we not learned a thing, these years?
Is it not time we cried, "No More?"
For if the Politicians had to fight... then, would there still be Wars?
Somehow, l don't think so... for them, the cure would be worse, than the cause.
lf you ever chance to visit Northern England, just seek out
the Local War Memorial; count the family names... if you should doubt.
See there, the Flower of a Generation squandered, out of hand...
sometimes, still... the echoes ripple through this green, and pleasant land.

Every family in the North was touched by that day, it is said,
in some way or another... someone missing, someone maimed... or dead.
For every nine sent out in No Man's Land, five casualties went down,
and of those five, a third were killed... or nothing of them, ever found.
A Husband, Son, or Brother; Cousin, Friend, or Lover, lost that day;
no-one imagined this, as they stood, cheering them upon their way,
back then, down the same cobbled streets; with curtains drawn now, silently;
all round the smoky, terraced houses, grief now hanging, heavily.
A loss that almost robbed a Nation of its future... such a debt
yet owed to those who still sleep, lost
in Flanders Field...

Lest We Forget.

David Mace, 2008

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them."

I will end this with some words of blessing for the whole of humanity...I still live in Hope...

May there be a little more peace among the nations, for other lands and for ours. And may there be peace in our families and peace in our own hearts.

And may we carry that peace with us in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do

Saturday, 1 November 2014

All Souls

Carl Seaburg wrote that  "All Souls Day is set apart for the commemoration of those `holy souls' who have graced our lives and passed from our living circle. Their radiance, their works, their memories, are still with us and on this day we meet to celebrate them fondly. And thoughtfully too, remembering that we also some day shall follow where they went.

Today the 2nd of November is the feast of All Souls. A time in the Christian Calendar to remember all souls who have departed this life. It follows All Hallows Eve or Halloween on the 31st of October and All Hallows or All Saints Day on 1st of November.

Like other Christian festivals, including Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, these three autumn days are a fascinating mixture of pre-Christian, Christian and even post-Christian tradition and mythos. I am fairly certain that the children going door at Halloween are probably not aware that they have created a modern day variant on the pre-Christian festival of Samhain; a festival that not only celebrated harvest, but was also a time to commune with spirits of ancestors. There are similar traditions throughout most culture's, autumnal and winter festivals. Autumn is a time of reflection, a time to take stock before the harsh realities of winter come.

All Souls has grown in meaning for me as the years have passed. This year I have lost my last grandparent and I also lost my first sibling, our Allen, I have also lost several dear friends too. I know I am not alone in my grief, although sometime it can feel this way. Perhaps the most painful loss of my life, thus far, occurred on All Souls Day 2006, when Ethan was killed. He was the soul that first reignited my life when the lights had gone out. He was the spark that rekindled the light in me…whenever I think of the following words by Albert Schweitzer it is his face I see and his soul I feel “ At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lit the flame within us”

Ethan’s beautiful soul helped me discover my own soul and to once again connect to the eternal and universal soul that holds all life.

May Sarton beautifully and I would say perfectly captured the meaning of "All Souls" in the following poem.

All Souls' by May Sarton

Did someone say that there would be an end,
An end, Oh, an end, to love and mourning?
Such voices speak when sleep and waking blend,
The cold bleak voices of the early morning 
When all the birds are dumb in dark November - 
Remember and forget, forget, remember.

After the false night, warm true voices, wake!
Voice of the dead that touches the cold living,
Through the pale, sunlight once more gravely speak,
Tell me again, while the last leaves are falling:
"Dear child, what has been once so interwoven
Cannot be unravelled, nor the gift ungiven"

Now the dead move through all of us still glowing,
Mother and child, lover and lover mated,
Are wound and bound together and enflowing.
What has been plaited cannot be unplaited -
Only the strands grow richer with each loss
And memory makes kings and queens of us.

Dark into light, light into darkness, spin.
When all the birds have flown to some real haven, 
We who find shelter in the warmth within,
Listen, and feel new-cherished, new-forgiven,
As the lost human voices speak through us and blend
Our complex love, our mourning without end

I first came across the poem just a few weeks before the first anniversary of Ethan’s death. A tree was being planted in memory of him at his school and I had been asked to offer some words of prayer. I decided to offer May's poem. It is the lines below that really strike me deep in the core of my being, in the marrow of my soul.

Tell me again, while the last leaves are falling:
"Dear child, what has been once so interwoven
Cannot be raveled, nor the gift ungiven."

Now the dead move through all of us still glowing,
Mother and child, lover and lover mated,
Are wound and bound together and enflowing.
What has been plaited cannot be unplaited -
Only the strands grow richer with each loss
And memory makes kings and queens of us.
Dark into light, light into darkness, spin.
When all the birds have flown to some real haven,
We who find shelter in the warmth within,
Listen, and feel now new-cherished, new-forgiven,
As the lost human voices speak through us and blend
Our complex love, our mourning without end.

Some things cannot be unravelled they are with us forever and nor should they be. The gift of love is priceless and once given is a part of our soul forever. It survives death. It can never be destroyed.

Now what happens to us after our physical lives have ended is impossible to say with certainty. I suppose that has to be a matter of faith. A conclusion for all of us to draw ourselves. One thing I feel safe in claiming though is that it cannot be any stranger than this life. While they say that death is the great mystery in many ways I think that life itself is an even greater one…this is why each day I sing the joy of living in all its mystery.

I have a deep affection for the writing of John O'Donohue. a soul no longer physically with us but who to this day touches so many lives. He caught the spirit of "All Souls" near perfectly in what follows...

"When the soul leaves the body, it is no longer under the burden and control of space and time. The soul is free; distance and separation hinder it no more. The dead are our nearest neighbors; they are all around us. Meister Eckhart was once asked, Where does the soul of a person go when the person dies? He said, no place. Where else would the soul be going? Where else is the eternal world? It can be nowhere other than here. We have falsely spatialized the eternal world. We have driven the eternal out into some kind of distant galaxy. Yet the eternal world does not seem to be a place but rather a different state of being. The soul of the person goes no place because there is no place else to go. This suggests that the dead are here with us, in the air that we are moving through all the time. The only difference between us and the dead is that they are now in an invisible form. You cannot see them with the human eye. But you can sense the presence of those you love who have died. With the refinement of your soul, you can sense them. You feel that they are near."

This speaks deeply to me and brings to mind the following poem “To Music” by Rainer Maria Rilke,

Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps: silence of paintings.
You language where all language ends.
You time standing vertically on the motion of mortal hearts.

Feelings for whom? O you the transformation
of feelings into what? –: into audible landscape.
You stranger: music. You heart-space
grown out of us. The deepest space in us,
which, rising above us, forces its way out,–
holy departure: when the innermost point in us stands
outside, as the most practiced distance, as the other
side of the air: pure, boundless, no longer habitable.

“…as the other side of the air…” Really hits that place deep in the marrow of my soul.

When I think of those we have loved but who are no longer physically with us it seems to me that they have not gone elsewhere but are still bound up with us, their love is tied up in our hearts and souls in a different way and they inhabit that other place at “other side of the air”…but we can know and feel their presence when we remember them, especially when we gather together with others who remember them too. In moments such as these their souls touch our souls once again. “What has been plaited, cannot be unplaited”. We can sometimes feel their presence…The more sensitive souls amongst perhaps more so.

Those we have loved and lost live on in our dreams and memories. Such memories do indeed makes kings and queens of us. Their souls are woven into our souls, they impact on our daily actions and our waking thoughts and feelings. The love that we shared never dies. Yes their death changes our relationship with them, but the love we shared lives on. The love has created a bond that cannot be broken “what has been plaited cannot be un-plaited”. This love is an eternal force that cannot be taken from us. Its influence will continue to impact upon us until our dying day and even beyond as it impacts on the lives that we touch, lives which our loved ones will never have physically known. We are all bound together in a rich tapestry of love. Those who came before us, those whose lives touch us and whose lives we touch and those who live beyond our time and space live on. This love is eternal it never dies.

Today we remember all the souls who have touched our souls and who have shown us the way, who have revealed the love that is God. Let us also think of the lives that have been touched by these souls who they never physically knew.

Let us remember let us offer thanks and praise for those souls who are no longer physically with us but whose love will never leave us. "Love I swear it, is immortal."

"...the ghosts are part of us..."

I'm going to end this little blogspot with another piece from a writer who has inspired me and countless others greatly. A beautiful soul who is no longer Physically with us. It is titled "Meditation on All Souls" by Elizabeth Tarbox

"Who are my people, where are you who birthed me to play in summer's circle? I think I see you out of the corner of my eye, gone before I can look again, working, talking, engaged, and alive.

My ancestors are all about me in the ragged edges of memory, like partially developed film; the details are sketchy now. No princes and ladies among them, but scullery maids and journeymen. I know their faces, but not their voices, not the way their clothes smell, not the soft hands warm and red from a day of washing sheets. did they smile at me? Did they notice the little gifts I bought? I don't remember.

Bits and pieces of my people remain in memory's attic, hardly enough to make a tribe. forebears in small brick cottages with sooty chimneys and outdoor toilets. Women with wrap-around aprons and men with cloth caps. Brown teapots and doilies and unheated bedrooms. My grandmother's slippers, my mother's bone-handled hairbrush. Just memories, without the power to haunt.

So I seek a new tribe, other meanings. the little girl at the shelter shows me a toy, her creased fingers cannot yet turn a key, but there is still strength in her hand as it touches mine. Though she doesn't know my name, she would come with me if I would make her toy work and protect her from a world that has roughed her skin, bruised her heart, and given her only broken toys. She is a needy child; therefore is she not my child?

The old man who hardly knows me says he loves me because I bring him a bowl of food and sit there while he eats it. He is a hungry old man; therefore is he not my father?

At home I listen to a tape of sacred music and I weep in my chair and I cannot say if I weep for the child in the shelter or for the child I used to be. The spirits have no power to haunt , I claim, so why do I weep in nostalgia and regret my forgetfulness?

I look at the faces around a meeting table, across the sanctuary, in the candlelight of a meditation group, and I think, these are my people now, we belong to each other, I pour out my soul in trust to a new tribe. These are my people, who touch my hands, who invite me to come along, who make room for me to sit in the shadow of the candlelight and listen to their songs."

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Bonkers for Conkers: Spirituality & Joy

Last week I was trawling through my collection of anthologies and meditation books for suitable material for the service I created on “Autumn: Impermanence & Change”. As is always the case I found far more than I needed for the task. One piece I chose not to share was “Conker Time” by Elizabeth Tarbox. I will share it with you now...I think it is gorgeous...

"I picked up a horse chestnut Friday, right on the street in Cambridge near Harvard Divinity School.

Imagine that, a perfectly new horse chestnut. There were more for the picking had not my shyness and the stares of passersby prevented me from darting and pouncing to gather them up.

When I was a child, horse chestnuts were currency. Conkers, we called them. Better than a sixpence or even a shilling: a new conker had market value. Kids couldn’t wait to harvest the green prickly cocoon with its polished mahogany prize. We’d climb the branches and knock the conkers off with a stick. No adult would’ve gotten near a bonanza like the one I found on Friday.

Funny the things we value: a new coat or a new car, a job that pays better, a best friend, or a good night’s sleep. Me, I have always valued gifts from the earth. I hold this horse chestnut as I write about it. The warm brown nut fits my palm like a thumb in a baby’s mouth, and the rich shiny skin gives my eyes something worthy of their sight. So I stare at it as if it were a crystal that could show me not the future, but the past; autumns of childhood and wading in Wellington boots through rustling leaves and playing with conkers on my way home from school."

...I love it...Isn't it beautiful...

Now although I had originally rejected it I carried so much of the beautiful wisdom contained with it with me, it has been tapping me on shoulder ever since.

Well a little later I was chatting with a friend who was recounting tales from her childhood. She was telling me how so much of her view about her own life had changed in recent times and how so many of her memories were now so joy filled. She spoke of growing up in Ireland and after a while she began to recount a tale about going conkering and how conkers became currency among her friends. As I was listening to her images of my own childhood came back to me. What was truly beautiful was that my friend’s memories, Elizabeth Tarbox’s memories and my own memories were almost identical, we shared the same autumn rituals, even though we grew up at different times and in different places.

I then told my friend that I had just read a short piece that was almost identical to what she had just recounted to me. We were both blown away by the synchronicity of it all. It was one of those beautiful, magical, moments that living open heartedly can bring.

After the conversation lots of childhood memories came flooding into my mind, my heart and my soul. Memories of Sunday afternoons and going down to Briar Wood with my grandma and brother and sister and hunting for conkers and being totally immersed in the activity. After the harvest we would then take them back to the farm and try to select the best ones and create the champion conker. We would try all the different techniques that we had heard of to create the one that would be able to beat the one of legend that someone at school had, "someone said they had a ‘hundred’er’, someone said they had a ‘thousand’er’."

When I look back at it the whole process was a mindfulness practise, as we became totally absorbed in what we were doing and the people we were engaging in it with.

Think about it…

We became totally absorbed in the thrill and anticipation as we walked down to Briar Woods and as we told tales about the woods and how they came to be and all the mythology about and the place, there were history lessons thrown in too as well as lessons about biology, geography, mythology and a little theology too. The whole enterprise was Hope filled, this time we were going to find and create the champion conker. As we gathered the conkers in we became increasingly connected to the process, filling our bags as we gathered from the ground and throwing up sticks to try and reach the ones that had not yet fallen. Then there was the thrill and connection and conversation as we walked back up the hill, listening and telling stories and dreaming of creating the champion conker. We would then empty our bags onto my grandma’s kitchen worktop and she would add the ones she had obviously lovingly spent time collecting all week. She would tell us of her and friends trip to Harrogate and of them all going collecting conkers for their grandchildren, such loving action.

We would then set about trying all the different techniques to create the champion conker. Again discussing all the myth and mystery in it. Then came the hardest bit of skewering them and putting a strong shoe lace through. I wonder how many potential champions I ruined in my attempts to get the skewers through. Eventually, with a little bit of help, I managed to get a few decent ones.

Then it would be Monday morning and thrill and buzz of conversations in the playground as we became absorbed in our stories about our own conkers and then battle would commence. Yes there was a little pain as we would miss and wrap one another on the knuckles. So we would shorten the string for more accuracy but less power. This would go on for weeks it seems until someone became champion, well at least for one year.

I never became champion, but by golly I never felt happier and never felt more connected to the world in which I lived and the people I shared my life with.

Just beautiful, beautiful memories…

Apparently this year is a bumper year for Horse Chestnuts (the official name for conkers) This is due to the mild weather and lack of rain this year. So you would expect to hear of great stories of conkers and conkering, but alas this is not so. It seems that conkering is another one of those activities that has waned in popularity over the years as children have found other things to do and schools have become afraid of children injuring themselves with these apparent “deadly weapons”. I cannot imagine though that whatever these activities maybe they engage holistically to exactly the same extent as conkering did.

Oh well I have enjoyed remembering happy childhood times these last few days and several friends have also shared similar memories with me of their own childhoods. It has been wonderful for us all as it has brought us closer together both to one another and to our pasts. Something that I believe is vital to those who wish to live in the present moment.

Memory is a funny thing. It is amazing what we remember and what we cannot remember, how memory can be so very selective. Memory also changes over time. My memory or do I mean my perspective on past events in my life, have changed over time. It happened again only this week.

My friend and colleague Rev David Shaw says this about memory...

“The dictionary reminds us that ‘remember’ literally means to ‘re-member’; to put back together that which has been torn apart. In some way remembering has a similarity to ‘religion’, which means ‘to rebind together’.

Both are about seeking after a wholeness, and isn’t that what we are about most of the time?”

Well that again has been happening this week, this autumn. I have been rebinding so many memories and this has allowed me to connect to life on a much deeper level. It has been great. It has certainly brought a deeper sense of wholeness to my life and I hope to the lives of others who I have engaged with.

Playfulness and joyfulness are essential elements of a deep and meaningful life. Sometimes this is an aspect of spiritual life which can easily get lost as we take it and ourselves too seriously. God though surely wants us to be happy joyous and free and not live life glumly, as if it were a veil of tears. Yes there is suffering present in life and there is a time for everything under the sun. Well the last few weeks have reminded me how vital play is, as I have re-membered so many joyful and joy filled times, throughout my life. A couple of weeks ago I even spent a day at Alton Towers going on all the rides and been thrown about and thrilled and exhilarated. It was wonderful and wonder filled time as I let go absolutely. I will be making sure I make more time for play in the future.

Play is vital. It does not have to be physical either, the best kind if play can often be found in conversation or sometimes just the look someone can give. We must play though if we are to live a fulfilling spiritual life.

We each of us have inside us, no matter how old we are, that child who knows how to play, with complete abandon. Our whole world needs us to be playful, God needs us to live playfully. It is a vital aspect of creation and I firmly believe that we are co-creators in the dance that is creation. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said “It is a happy talent to know how to play.” It is playfulness that sets us free and enables us to use our natural creativity as best we can.

Playfulness often leads to laughter. Laughter is not only the best medicine it can also lead us to deeper truths about ourselves and the mysteries of life. Every spiritual tradition has it Holy Fool. Every Sunday, during worship, I share at least one story from our human canon, often there is great humour and playfulness within them, but there is also a serious message, that the humour helps to deliver.

Humour is so vital, it helps us to connect spiritually...It is vital to live in good humour...

To be in good humour means to be in good health. Linguistically humour has its roots in the ‘old’ French word ‘humor’, derived from the Latin ‘umere’. Physicians of medieval times believed that we had four different types of internal fluids that they called ‘humors’ and it was these that determined our physical and mental health. Therefore if a person became ill it was believed that their humors were out of balance. I do so love etymology, language has had such a fascinating journey and an amusing one at that.

So to be in good humour literally means to be in good health. This is why playfulness and humour is so vital to a healthy spiritual life. Humour is best enjoyed with others in the company of others who want to really let go. It is so easy to get caught up in the seriousness of life and to worry about what might be or to live with regret of what has been in the past. This is not healthy you know and I don’t think it helps us or anyone else. Sometimes we need to let go and have some serious fun, to be childlike once again, so that we are then better equipped to live with the serious issues of life.

John O' Donohue said of humour and laughter...

“There’s something really subversive in laughter and in the smile on the human face. It’s lovely and infectious to be in the company of someone who can smile deeply.

I think a smile comes from the soul. And I also love its transitive kind of nature—that if you’re in the presence of someone who has a happiness and a laughter about them, it’ll affect you and it’ll call that out in you as well.

Your body relaxes completely when you’re having fun. I think one of the things that religion has often prevented us from doing is having really great fun. To be here, in a way—despite the sadness and difficulty and awkwardness of individual identity—is to be permanently invited to the festival of great laughter."

So I invite you this autumn to bring alive both within yourselves and one another a festival of great laughter, to bring some joy to our world and to have a little fun…Remember life is too serious a business to be taken too seriously.

To end I'd like to share another childhood memory "The Wombles: A Conkering Hero"

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Autumn: Impermanence & Change

Some folk tell me that Spring and maybe even Summer are the seasons for falling in love. Perhaps they say the same to you. I am not convinced. I think it’s Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year. Everything just seems that bit more precious at this time of year. Maybe the reason for this is because this is the time when things come to an end, or begin to come to an end. Maybe everything is that bit more beautiful at this time of year, because everything is dying. Or at least it seems that way. It’s an awareness of this, a real sense of this in my blood and in my soul, right down in the marrow of my soul, that helps me fall in love with life in a much deeper way. I feel a sense of love for every leaf as it falls. For every leaf is a letter from God. Every leaf teaches us something about life. We are leaves ourselves. Everyone precious; everyone unique; everyone will one day fall.

Autumn is the season for falling in love; Autumn is the season for falling in love with life in every sense. Autumn is the season when we once again see just how precious everything is. Everything matters…Everything matters...

Everything matters because it does not last for ever, it is finite. You know there was a time that I used to think that nothing mattered for this very same reason. Now I understand that everything matters. Every drop of rain, every thought and feeling, every word and every action matters. I hope and pray that you know that. Everything matters, because nothing ever lasts forever.

Autumn I love you, I pay homage to all that you teach me…Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year…

Autumn is the season of change. It reveals to us the impermanence of our finite lives. Here in lays the beauty of life, but also its fear…

There is a gorgeous Buddhist saying that, I recently heard, that captures the beauty of the impermanence of life. It beautifully captures the turning nature of life, it is a call to us to live our lives fully.

“Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world: a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering flame, an illusion, a dream...”

Impermanence is the beauty and the energy of life. Life is forever changing and transforming and turning into something new.

Jesus captured this idea in a gorgeous way too when he described wheat as a metaphor for the resurrected life. He taught that all must die before new life can rise again. In the same way that seeds must die and cease being seeds in order to become life giving food, so must we in order to be transformed into something new. This can happen at many stages of our lives if we allow the natural cycle to just be and don’t get in the way.

Nothing ever stays exactly the same and nothing is ever repeated in exactly the same way again. This was wonderfully expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus some 2,500 years ago. Who said, among many other things, “Everything flows, nothing stands still.” “No one ever steps into the same river twice.” And “Nothing endures but change.” He was saying that the only constant in life was and is change, that life was constantly in flux and that everything is impermanent. In more contemporary times The Buddhist Pema Chodron has said “Impermanence is the goodness of reality…it’s the essence of everything.”

Also in more recent times the now deceased Unitarian Universalist minister Elizabeth Tarbox said

“Dukkha, all is impermanence, nothing lasts. I thought of that yesterday while watching leaves come down in a shower and inhaling the smell of rotting leaves returning to the earth. Leaf to humus and back to earth to nourish the roots of the mother tree, The crows crying as the leaves fall and their nests are exposed – dukkha, all is impermanence.

Life goes by and people who were with us last year at this time have died. All souls pass on, all is dukkha, nothing lasts.”

I have for some time been fascinated by the Buddhist concept of “Dukkha”.

Now "Dukkha is one of those words that is hard to explain. It is often translated as suffering, that "all life is suffering". This though is not an entirely accurate translation, in the sense that suffering is understood in the west. I believe it is trying to teach that suffering is a part of life, that nothing ever lasts for ever. That nothing stays exactly as it in its current state. Impermanence is central to the Buddhist path; the path to enlightenment is to accept that nothing ever lasts forever.

So often in life we try to cling to things, to hold on to things to maintain things exactly as they are. This seems to be going against life and the nature of things. Nothing stays exactly as it is in its current nature, everything changes from moment to moment and to resist this is to resist life.

In “Everyday Spiritual Practice” James Ishmail Ford talks about the lessons he has learnt from practising Zen Buddhism. He tells the tale of Achaan Chah Subato and the story of broken glass. Which he recalls goes something like this:

“One day some people came to the master and asked 'How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness and death?' The master held up a glass and said 'Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.'"

Here lies the lesson of impermanence. Knowing that the glass is already broken we can enjoy it in all its finite beauty.

Those falling leaves that signal Autumn’s arrival remind us of the cycle of nature that is mirrored in our own lives. They are love letters from God reminding us that we too must let go and let the spirit flow in and through us and take charge of our lives, so that we can be at one with all life.

Now the way to do this is to live openhearted. We have to be open to all that is. How do we do this? Well in “Awake Mind, Open Heart” Cynthia Kneen suggest the following Autumnal practise:

"When you are brave and have an open heart, you have affection for this world — this sunlight, this other human being, this experience. You experience it nakedly, and when it touches your heart, you realize this world is very fleeting. So it is perfect to say 'Hello means good-bye.' And also, 'My hope, hello again.' "

It’s about being open to all that is. It is prayer and meditation that allows me to do this. Simple time alone in silence enables me to be open to all that is as I walk through life, slowly but surely noticing all that is, understanding that everything matters. Experiencing that same spirit, God, in everything. And thus receiving love letters from God in every falling leaf.

Autumn is the season for falling in love; Autumn is the season for falling in love with life in every sense. Autumn is the season when we once again see just how precious everything is. You see everything matters…Everything matters because it does not last for ever, it is finite. Every drop of rain, every thought and feeling, every word and every action matters. I hope and pray that you know that. Everything matters, because nothing ever lasts forever.

Autumn I love you, I pay homage to all that you teach me…Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year…

I’m going to end with some beautiful words on Autumn by Robert T Weston

“Autumn Speaks” by Robert T Weston

Out of doors
the colors of bright autumn and the bright sun
tell of the beauty of that which dies
But always comes again.
They speak directly to the heart
of the eternal which outlives all moments
and yet lives only in them,
outlives all forms, yet comes again in them as in ourselves.
It is said that there is nothing new in the world,
no thoughts, even, which others have not thought
yet every thought is new to him who for himself
thinks it for the first time.
Each miracle of life is also rebirth, life born again,
though every individual be new,
existing at his birth for his first time.
Life in each one, as in leaf and flower,
accepts and yet cheats death.
There is a sadness in the autumn leaf: I feel a sorrow that its beauty dies
and feel its message for the lives of those,
as of myself, whom I have known and loved.
The leaf comes not again, though other leaves
and flowers will bloom, and other lives,
richer that we have been, shall take our place.
Perhaps the autumn teaches us a wiser grace
through which we live, by learning to let go.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Lessons from the Animals

Please watch this wonderful animation based on "Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings From Our Dogs And Cats" by Eckhart Tolle and Patrick McDonnell before reading the rest of this blogspot...

I was talking with a friend recently about the animal service that the congregations I serve host annually We were talking about animals and spirituality and got into deep conversations about the soul etc. This is the kind of thing that ministers are supposed to engage in (tee, hee, hee!).

The friend told me how much their dog had taught them, about how to live spiritually, particularly how to live in the present moment and how not get lost in regrets about the past or fears about the future, how walking with their dog allowed them to connect to life and to be set free from the million and one thoughts that can swarm around in their mind. As we walked together with their dog I really got what they were saying, I connected deeply to it. It also reminded me of the time when I was a student minister when I would walk in Platt Fields Park Manchester and watch the geese there and how they helped me connect to life in a deep way. I fell in love with geese during my time, it is a love that has never diminished and whenever I see them flying overhead I always feel a deeper sense of connection and belonging. I feel at one with all that is, all that has been and all that will ever be. I feel alive and awake.

Mary Oliver captures this beautiful in her poem “Wild Geese”.

"Wild Geese"

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver

The conversation also brought to mind the following words from Matthew’s Gospel chapter 6 vv 26-28

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

...Worrying certainly never added a single hour to my life...

Now a little while later I was recounting this conversation with another friend who recommended a book to me. This was by Eckhart Tolle. It wasn’t “The Power of Now” or “A New Earth” but something completely different that he had co-authored with the illustrator Patrick O’Donnell, author of the comic strip “Mutt’s”. The book goes by the title “Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings from our Cats and Dogs”.

Reading the book and getting caught up in the delightful artwork, brought a huge broad beaming smile right across my face. It brought back lovely moments when I myself have become caught up in nature and the way that animals just be. Meanwhile the joy and humour in the pictures somehow enabled me to connect at a heart level with the thought provoking and soul-searching words of Tolle.

In the book Tolle writes

“Millions of people who otherwise would be completely lost in their minds and in endless past and future concerns are taken back by their dog or cat into the present moment, again and again, and reminded of the joy of Being” (pg 60) This is delightfully accompanied by an illustration of a dog taking his owner for a walk and another dog appearing from behind a rock asking “Where are you taking him?”…where are you taking him indeed? well out of himself.

Or another example “Nature will teach you to be still, if you don’t impose on it a stream of thoughts. A very deep meeting takes place when you perceive nature in that way, without naming things.” (pg 98) Again this is delightfully accompanied by an illustration of a cat sitting in nature surrounded by the words “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass goes by itself. Zen Proverb”. There are countless other examples throughout the book also, such as “I have lived with many Zen masters all of them cats”.

In describing the form of the book Tolle says it is like “the oldest from of spiritual teachings: the sutras of ancient India. Sutras are powerful pointers to the truth in the form aphorisms, or short sayings, with little conceptual elaboration…the advantage of sutra form lies in its brevity. It does not engage the thinking mind more than is necessary. What it doesn’t say – but only points to – is more important than what it says,”

“Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings from our Cats and Dogs” is a wonderful book that speaks a deep universal truth. The pets in our lives and all the animals do not worry about what might happen. Instead they just simply eat and play and love unconditionally. They just are, they just be. They can teach us how we could better live this beautiful gift of life that we have been so freely given.

Finally what it left me thinking and feeling as I next walked with my friend and their dog was, it’s not we who take the dog for a walk, but the dog who takes us for a walk and if we let him he will enable us to see the world in a whole new light. 

I'm going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with three little pieces of wisdom on the spiritual lessons that our pets can teach us...All three were shared in this Sundays worship service...enjoy...

“Dog Days” by Gary A Kawalski

Everyone needs a spiritual guide: a minister, rabbi, priest, therapist, or wise friend. My wise friend is my dog. He has deep insights to impart. He makes friends easily and doesn't hold a grudge. He enjoys simple pleasures and takes each day as it comes. Like a true Zen master, he eats when he’s hungry and sleeps when he’s tired.

He’s not hung up about sex. Best of all, he befriends me with an unconditional love that humans would do well to imitate.

Of course my dog does have his failings. He’s afraid of firecrackers and hides in the closet whenever we run the vacuum cleaner. But unlike me, he’s not afraid of what other people think of him or anxious about his public image. He barks at the mail carrier and the newsboy, but, in contrast to some people, I know he never growls at the children or barks at his spouse.

So my dog is a sort of guru. When I become too serious and preoccupied, he reminds me to frolic and play. When I get too wrapped up in abstractions and ideas, he reminds me to exercise and care for my body. On his own canine level, he shows me that it might be possible to live without inner conflicts or neuroses: uncomplicated, genuine, and glad to be alive.

Mark Twain remarked long ago that human beings have a lot to learn from the Higher Animals. Just because they haven’t invented static cling, ICBMs or television evangelists doesn’t mean they aren't spiritually evolved. Let other people have their mentors, masters, and enlightened teachers.

I have a doggone mutt.

“Cat Calling” by Elizabeth Tarbox

The cat entered our lives with her tail up and her eyes alert for possibility, stalking her calling in our home, in our chairs, up the chimney, in every closet, and behind every impossible obstruction.

She stares with magic eyes, inscrutable, all-knowing. She is all cat: stealthy as a winter breeze that skims the top of the snow bank, impertinent as the sudden blast that blows smoke down the chimney and out into the room.

She seduces, lying back in our arms with the wanton abandon of Aphrodite. She exhorts, rumbling like an old volcano or yowling like an exorcised poltergeist.

I am seduced by her unabashed affection, mystified by her eyes which steal my secrets, envious of her unquestioning delight in the warmth of an armchair. It is serious, this partnership between the cat who stalks her calling and we who are called. I am in the presence of Isis, our home is her temple, and we are called to serve.

...And finally a little bit more of Mary Oliver...

“How it is with us, and how it is with them” by Mary Oliver

We become religious,
then we turn from it,
then we are in need and maybe we turn back.
We turn to making money,
then we turn to the moral life,
then we think about money again.
We meet wonderful people, but lose them
in our busyness.
We’re, as the saying goes, all over the place.
Steadfastness, it seems,
is more about dogs than about us.
One of the reasons we love them so much.