Sunday, 29 July 2018

Dedication: To bless the space we're in

Last Sunday I attended the 80th birthday celebration of Peter Sampson at Cross street chapelm in Manchester (England). It was a joy and blessing to be there and celebrate this wonderful human being’s life. Peter is one of my favourite people and in so many ways epitomises what it is to be a Unitarian. Peter has dedicated his life to living Unitarianially, if such a word exists. He has also been a beloved member of Cross Street since even before the new chapel building was built in 1998. He travels in from Lancaster,sometimes three times a week. He has blessed this place with his dedicated service and loving presence. He has helped to truly make it holy ground. It was Peter who greeted me as I first walked through the door there some 14 years ago, as he has done for so many others.

Now during the celebration Rev Cody Coyne spoke of Peter’s dedication to Cross Street. I listened carefully and as I did my homiletic consciousness began to awaken. It got me thinking about dedication, about how we show our love through what we bless with our presence, it got me thinking about holy places, holy ground and how life becomes sanctified by loving dedication.

Now the word “dedication” itself is one of those words that has changed, nay been reduced in meaning as time has gone by. So here’s a little etymology for you. Dedication comes from an old French word “dedicacion which meant “concecration of a church or chapel”, coming from the Latin word “dedicare” meaning to concecrate, proclaim, affirm or set aside. It later came to mean to give yourself to a purpose. Over the years people have dedicated books and music to people as a thank you for inspiration and support.

When I think about Peter Sampson it is plain to me that he has dedicated his life to living Unitarianally. He has done so by blessing those he meets and living a life of loving presence. He has been his unique self and in so doing he has encouraged those blessed by his presence to become all that they could possibly be. He has dedicated his life to making the ground at his feet holy by blessing it with his presence. Peter is a man of dedication.

As Roy Castle sang as the end of "Record Breakers"

Dedication. Â Dedication. Â Dedication.
That’s what you need.
If you wanna be the best,
and you wanna beat the rest.
Oo-ooh! Â Dedications what you need.

Whenever I go to Cross I am always filled with many emotions, so many beautiful but also heart breaking too. My days there, many years ago, were so important to my spiritual development. It even has a special place in my early relationship with Sue. On the day of our first date we called into the place as we were waiting for the theatre to open. Cross Street is one of my holy places, I feel like I am on holy ground when I am there. I suspect that Cross Street is one of those “thin places” that the ancient Celts described. A place where there is only a very thin divide between the past, present and future. It certainly feels like that for me. In this place I reconnect with my past and perhaps get a glimpse into the future which enables me to truly connect with the present. Oddly in those moments time actually feels very “thick”, in the sense that I experience it richly and deeply. As a result of these feelings I tend to feel this blessing in most places, as I connect to the love present in life.

Once you have felt the power of sacred space and time you can experience it everywhere and as a result I have discovered that you can dedicate your life to love and learn to bless all time and place with your loving presence. Something I see clearly in the life of Peter Sampson, a man of true dedication.

Dedication. Â Dedication. Â Dedication.
That’s what you need.
If you wanna be the best,
and you wanna beat the rest.
Oo-ooh! Â Dedications what you need.

If we live in dedication to love and life we begin to bless all life, we make the ground at our feet holy ground as we consecrate it with our loving presence. This brings to mind perhaps one of the best known references to holy ground, found the Book of Exodus. It describes Moses catching sight of a bush which is on fire, but which is not being consumed by the flames. An odd sight indeed, which draws Moses nearer, to get a closer look. “God calls his name from the bush.” “Moses, Moses.” When Moses answers, “Here I am,” He is told to remove his shoes for he stands on holy ground.

Moses is called to deliver the Hebrew people out of Egypt, to free them from slavery. God says to Moses, “I have seen the misery of my people. I have heard them crying out and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come to rescue them from the land of the Egyptians. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharoah to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Now Moses wondered why on earth the people would follow him, so he asked for a sign, he asked for a name that the people would believe. To which God told him to tell them that “I am” had sent him. He was not offering them certainty, just mystery. They would have to risk everything in order to reach the Promised Land.

Now all this sounds a little strange, but there is meaning here, hidden in the beautiful universal mythos, a truth that can speak to all of us. When I read scripture I do not do so as history more meaningful mystery. For me the burning bush is about Moses uncovering his own meaning, his own purpose. It’s about him being caught by the flame. It’s about him paying attention to the ground at his feet and the people he lived with. It’s about him seeing that the ground at his feet is holy ground and that his task was to lead his people to the Promised Land. So they wandered for forty years in the desert looking for the Promised Land. Something we can all do in our lives searching for Heaven, for Nirvana when the truth is we are already in it. All we have to do is truly live on the land in which we find ourselves and to truly bless it and one another with our loving presence. We don’t need to be led to the Promised Land we just need to realise that we are already standing on it. We just need to bring this space and place alive. We need to risk everything by giving our love away.

We can all hear the call of the Holy from deep within us and from all around us, all we have to do is to listen is to pay attention. All we have to do is risk everything by giving our love away. We too can be like Moses and the Hebrews we can come to find ourselves, after many trials in the Promised Land by learning to live in the land that are feet are firmly planted in. all that’s needed is dedication.

All we have to do is live with dedication, to consecrate the ground at our feet and the people who we meet, all we have to do is live with dedication and become the blessing that we have all been searching for. In so doing we will find ourselves instantly in the “Promised Land”

Dedication. Â Dedication. Â Dedication.
That’s what you need.
If you wanna be the best,
and you wanna beat the rest.
Oo-ooh! Â Dedications what you need.

To live in dedication all we have to do is shake off our shoes and live our lives recognising that this truly is a holy place. Sacred living, holiness, dedication is about being fully alive. Holiness is a life fully lived, a life where we truly pay attention.

All we have to do to awaken the holy is to truly pay attention to the world and the people around us and truly inhabit the space in which we live and breathe and share our being. All we have to do is come to believe that we all walk on holy ground. All we have to do is wholly live our lives. All we have to do is live our lives in dedication to the holiest of holy purposes, to live in love.

All we need is dedication… 

Dedication. Â Dedication. Â Dedication.
That’s what you need.
If you wanna be the best,
and you wanna beat the rest.
Oo-ooh! Â Dedications what you need.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The love of contradiction: The power of paradox

Last week I spent some time in London. It was wonderful to get away and visit a few sights and sounds. It was a time of contrast, you might even say contradiction. On the Tuesday Sue and I set off to the Victoria and Albert Museum of Art and Design, the aim was to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit “Making Herself Up”. We travelled through the hustle and bustle of the city as people went about the business. As we got off the tube we noticed a couple of women who were obviously going to the exhibit, they looked and dressed just like Kahlo. It was a beautiful exhibit using her work and her unique style of dress to tell her moving and remarkable life story. In many ways her whole persona was a work of art, making the most of who she was and her struggles both physical and, emotional, identity and political. A life of contrast and in some ways contradiction. I found it deeply moving. Beautiful actually.

After leaving the exhibition we spent some time enjoying some of the beautiful gardens in and around the V and A, particularly Kensington Gardens. Sue taught me about the different flowers and how well they go together. We also observed the rich variety of people going about their lives. We had a lot of fun just goofing around before heading towards Highbury to watch Lukas Nelson in concert. Another wonderful night. Lukas is the son of country music legend Willie Nelson and his music was a mixture of so many styles. You could hear an eclectic mix of influence in his music. It made me think of the all the great artists he must have met growing up as the son of Willie Nelson.

It contrasted beautifully with the Kahlo exhibition and yet at the same time complimented it. They were both influenced by their upbringing, Kahlo had a German father and Mexican mother and was influenced by the communist revolution of her time, she rejected her Catholic faith and yet her art and her life were obviously influenced the deep spirituality of her ethnically Mexican roots and of course the physical difficulties she struggled with all her life. Nelson’s joy and abandon in his music was just a beautiful spiritual experience. I particularly loved a new song of his in which he suggested that we turn off the news and stop getting wrapped up in the negative aspects of life and go plant a garden or create a family and bring some love and beauty into the world. A sentiment that rang in my ears over the next few days as I became overly absorbed in the troubles of Brexit and the insane visit of Donald Trump both here and all over Europe. I cannot change the world I cannot stop the pain of life, whether personal or global, but I can do something positive and loving in this world. I can create some love and beauty. Something we can all do.

I learnt once again last week that if I want to know life’s beauty all I have to do is be involved in creating it. By merely creating beauty I know beauty I come a part of life’s beauty.

My word what a week of contrast…and contradiction…

Barry Lopez said in “The Big Questions” by Lama Surya Das

“One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once, life would collapse. There are simply no definitive answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

I do love people, even when they irritate me. The thing I love the most is perhaps how contradictory we can all be. People constantly surprise me in loves and dislikes, none can ever be put perfectly in a box. It is the same with life really, it is full of contrast and contradiction.

Now the area where life’s contradictory nature is clearer than anything is in the spiritual aspects of life and living. At the core I have discovered is contrast, contradiction and paradox. Religion and spirituality is not common sense, it is by contrast uncommon sense. You cannot put it in a box and seal it, it is unbound, but then so is life. Our lives, like Frida Kahlo’s, if we are going to truly live spiritually alive ought to be works of art. We are here to create love and beauty, to plant a garden, to make a family, to create Beloved Community.

The world’s religious and spiritual traditions are no stranger to paradox. Taoism is full, or do I mean empty, of them. Here is one example:

Fullness and emptiness give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complete each other.
Long and short shape each other.
Tones and voice harmonize with each other.
Front and back follow each other.
Therefore wherever the sage is, he dwells among affairs by not doing.
He teaches without words.
The ten-thousand things arise, but he doesn’t impel them.
He gives birth, but he doesn’t possess.
He acts, but he doesn’t rely on what he has done.
He has successes, but he doesn’t claim credit.
So by not claiming credit, he is never empty.

The teachings of Jesus are firmly grounded in paradox. He said “the first shall be last”; “empty yourself and be filled”; “lose yourself and be found” The epistle Paul wrote “As dying, and, behold, we live”; he said of his fellow Christians “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”; and he said of himself “When I am weak, then I am strong”

Aristotle saw this as absolute twaddle of course. He is the great grandfather of scientific methodology, of all who pride themselves on their critical faculties and all who claim rationality. He talked of the law of the excluded middle. Put simply something cannot be both hot and cold at the same time. How can anyone argue with such logic? We cannot be rich if we are poor; we cannot be first if we are last; we cannot experience joy if our lives are full of sorrow.

Is he correct? Well he sounds like he is making sense.

Yet the religious sages seem to disagree. They speak an uncommon sense it seems.

How on earth can we receive when we are giving? It does not seem to make sense, when we think logically. Life though is not pure logic, we are more than the sum of our parts. Just look at a garden. It is made up of many and varied flowers, each uniquely beautiful but who come alive as they blend together, they are far more than the sum of their parts. It is the same with our lives that are made up moments but that are made beautiful by the meaning that emerges from these moments, good and bad and oh so beautiful.

Of course a paradox does not make sense in a purely logical sense, it is in its essence uncommon sense, but to expect it to do so is to fail to understand its purpose. It is the tool that broadens the framework in which we see reality. It stretches the boundaries of truth. Through our imaginations we push truth past its seeming limits. Without imagination, without foresight we would probably never have come down from the trees, or out of the caves. A paradox cannot be solved by conventional truths, it requires unconventional truths. It stretches common sense to the point where it becomes uncommon sense and thus moves our experiences of life forward. It challenges the status quo and the understanding of any given time. This is of course what the great religious sages did, they brought new understanding to their time and place.

Here’s a little wisdom on the paradoxical nature of spiritual living by the Sufi mystic Kabir. It is taken from “Songs of Kabir: A Fifteenth Century Sufi Literary Classic” by Rabindranath Tagore

"I am neither pious nor ungodly,
I live neither by law nor by sense,
I am neither a speaker nor hearer,
I am neither a servant nor master,
I am neither bond nor free,
I am neither detached nor attached.
I am far from none: I am near to none.
I shall go neither to hell nor to heaven.
I do all works; yet I am apart from all works.
Few comprehend my meaning: he who
can comprehend it, he sits unmoved.
Kabir seeks neither to establish nor to destroy.”

Our lives are riddled with paradoxes. How often have we heard the following statements? “I am surrounded by people and yet I am lonely” “My life is so full of choices, that I can’t make a decision about anything” or on the more optimistic end of the scale “I am skint and yet I am happy” or “I have so much, because I have so little”

The wisdom of paradox challenges our desire for certainty and perfection. The only thing that I know for certain is that my body will not last forever. We humans though do not like to believe this we like to think that we are all powerful and all knowable. We are mortal we are not God. The book “The Spirituality of Imperfection” by Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham, which was based around the authors work with alcoholics recognises that our attempts to achieve perfection have been our most tragic mistake. It highlights that one of the central theme of the spiritual traditions is the insistence that honesty, particularly honesty with self about self, is an essential requirement for any religious quest; that the greatest and most insidious dishonesty is to deny or refuse to accept our mixed human nature. We are not saints, nor are we sinners. We possess qualities of great goodness as well as the capacity to do great evil within us. We are beautiful balls of contradiction, made up of all kinds of thoughts and emotions and yet somehow far more than the sum of our beautiful parts.

So what I am trying to say is that we need to learn to not only accept but glory in life’s messiness. Let’s not get bogged down in worries and concerns, well not too much. I’m not saying we merely passive accept things, no not at all. Let us instead make something beautiful from life’s contradictions and paradoxes, let’s become artists of our lives. Let’s form something beautiful from our hearts, grow a garden, a family or a community, let’s live by this beautiful and sadly a little too uncommon sense.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Stumbling and falling but always rising

“Prayer in Action”

A number of years ago, my brother lay dying in the hospital. He spent days in the intensive care unit while members of my family, including my mother, sat for many long hours on chairs in the hallway outside his room. Among visitors who came to share the vigil was a member of our church.

“How are you doing?” the friend asked.

My mother was too exhausted to tell anything but the truth. “I’m tired,” she said. “I’m very, very tired. I’m too tired to even pray any more.”

“But don’t you see,” her friend replied, “your very presence here is a prayer.”

There are times when all words fail us, all forms seem hollow, and no one out there or inside seems to be listening. At those times, our presence, just our presence, is prayer. Our bodies, our actions, become our prayer, our connection to God, whatever God may be.

by Jane Ellen Mauldin

...This is the holiest of holy work...

...There is no greater prayer than our loving action of being there for one another...This is the creation of the Kin-dom of Love right here right now

A young woman offered to share the reading that leads into the group morning meditation I attended the other day. Just before she began she admitted that she was feeling hesitant as she was afraid that she might stumble. I said "do not worry if you stumble, we all stumble and even if you do fall we will catch you, sometimes we all fall, but we are in this together and we can all hold one another up, encourage each other to rise again and if really needed we can pick each other up. We do not sail this ship alone."

...It seemedd a little early for such words to be coming from my mouth, it felt like they were coming from another place...

As we sat together in silence I recalled how many times in my day I stumble, I also recalled how many times I had fallen and how often others had held and encouraged me rise up once again. I have been blessed by so much love in my life. I have known so many people who have had faith in me, even when I had none myself. How do I know this, well they have shown me so in their loving works, through their loving example, through their humble human being.

Following the reading we sat together in silence, as we always do. As I sat there, Paul’s letter to the Corinthian’s came mind, particularly those words on Love and the three keys that he says remain “Faith, Hope and Love”. I thought to myself, are these three the key to me? I sat in the silence and somewhere in the soul of me came an answer. Yes it was three things but three slightly different ones to Paul. It came to me that the three keys are “Being real, living in love and doing your job.”

What do you think about these three? Maybe you could consider three of your own. There you go there’s some homework for this week, for those who like it.

I’m going to attempt to explain what I mean by these three: “Being real, living in love and doing your job.”

I will begin by exploring what I mean by “being real”.

Whatever we believe about life, ourselves, the world and whatever we believe about what is at the core of it all it is vital that we are sincere about it. This is what it means to be “real”, to live authentically.

Sincerity is no easy thing. It is not easy being sincere about who we are, to show the world as we are, to live as we truly are “warts and all and beauty spots too.”

There is a phrase I often here in spiritual communities that irritates me. It is used as an attempt to get people started but to me I find it not only unhelpful but in the long term quite damaging. The phrase goes something like “You’ve got to fake it to make it.” I have found the opposite to be true. In my experience if you attempt to fake it you will never make it. I suspect that the most unspiritual thing a person can be is insincere.

If you attempt to fake it you won't truly make it...just because it rhymes it doesn't make it real...

The key is authenticity, being real, being honest, living by faithful it an honest go, no matter how many times you falter, stumble and even fall.

It seems to me that to live with authenticity is to be truly open in all four aspects of our humanity, the four being, mind, body, heart and spirit. I suspect it’s about truly being who you are.

Forrest Church suggested that to “be who you are” is perhaps the hardest task of all. To be who you are is to not "fake your existence." He claimed "each of us is unique, with unique flaws and gifts. The world doesn’t owe us a living; we owe the world a living, our very own." The key is to answer your own calling, going on to say "To envy another’s skills, looks, or gifts rather than embracing your own nature and call is to fail in two respects. In trying unsuccessfully to be who we aren’t, we fail to become who we are."

It seems to me that to live with sincerity, with authenticity is to truly be who you are. Do you know what our world needs us to live authentically; it needs us to be truly who we are, warts and all and beauty spots too. It needs us to be unafraid to let others see us stumble and fall from time to time because in so doing we encourage others to be unafraid to be who they are. We need to expose who we truly are to give ourselves fully away to life and thus encourage others to do the same. In so doing we may just begin to create that kin-ship of love right here, right now…We may just begin to live in love and thus be able to do our job.

This is what it means to be real. By being real we can begin to live in love and in living in love we can begin to give our whole selves to life and begin to do our jobs.

Now what could it mean to live in love?

One of my favourite hymns is “Let Love Continue Long” it is inspired by the following quotations by one of the father’s of Universalism Hosea Ballou, no relation to that bear from “The Jungle Book” …Sing “look for the bear necessities”…I am told that I share some of his qualities…I digress

The quotation from Hosea Ballou is as follows:

“Let brotherly love continue.” If we agree in brotherly love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury; but if we do not no other agreement can do us any good. Let us keep a strict guard against the enemy “that sows discord among brethren.” Let us endeavor to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.” May charity, that heaven born companion of the human heart, never forsake us; and may the promise of the Saviour be fulfilled concerning us, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”

I like this explanation on what it means to live in love. It’s not really speaking about what we often think of love being, which is merely a feeling. To live in love is to act in certain ways. It is to live in certain ways with one another. It’s about living by the “Golden Rule” of compassion “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” It is none discriminatory it is impartial. It is about giving of our selves, wholly to others. It’s about being our authentic selves and encouraging others to be their real selves and welcoming them as they truly are.

When the Book of James says, “Faith without works is dead”, living in love, impartially is the actual works. It’s about helping to create that kin-dom of love right here right now, which in my view is doing my job.

Living in love is about living faithfully and hopefully with one another and with ourselves. It’s about stumbling along through life accepting that you will trip on many occasions and sometimes fall. It’s about encouraging one another to keep on and from time to time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and start all over again and when we can’t to ask for help and let someone pick us up and encourage us to walk on once again.

This is doing our job, our loving work, to encourage one another whenever we stumble and fall.

You cannot do your job unless you are being real, living authentically and doing so in love, without partiality.

To do “your job”, to live faithfully through our works, is as much about how we do what we do as what we actually do. It begins close in, close at handand it begins with the little things too.

It is your love that will show through your works and this is what it means to be real. This is authentic love, the real work of life.

I'm going end this little chip of a"blogspot" with a tale from my life that occurred a little while. I was reminded of it by the young woman who was somewhat self-conscious about stumbling the other morning.

I was sat in my vestry one day waiting for a friend to come round to talk through some things. Suddenly I heard a loud thud at the door; I looked up to see nothing there. So I got up opened the door and still I could see nothing. I looked all around, but still I could see nothing. I was about to go inside, assuming that maybe somebody had thrown something at the window, when I saw a little bird laid at my feet. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do. I thought that is was dead at first, as it was lifeless, but saw that it was still breathing and was just laying there stunned. It had obviously flown into the glass, the “silly bugger” (as my granddad would say). I was going to pick it up but thought better of this and just left it there, as I didn’t want to distress it any further. I watched over it, kind of standing guard I suppose. I felt I had to just in case my friend arrived and didn’t see it lying there. After a few minutes it got to it’s feet, but did not move, just kept on breathing deeply. Then suddenly it just flew to a nearby bush and I never saw it again. Then my friend arrived and we shared tea and a wonderful conversation.

Later that day another friend of mine told me that they had been struggling with something that morning, but that all was well, it would be ok. This is of course true and I reminded her that today we both have the courage and strength to rise again no matter how many times we stumble and fall. Of course this is not always instant. Sometimes we do have to take whatever ever comes at us. At times it can even stun us and knock us unconscious. Sometimes we have to lie there for a while and simply get our breath back; then slowly get to our feet and fly off into the blue yonder to experience life once again.

I have discovered that by being real. living in love and doing my job I somehow find the courage and strength to live, to pick myself up, no matter what happens to either myself or those I love. Sometimes I do need other people too. Sometimes to simply watch over me until I get my breath and senses back and at other times to simply encourage me and tell me that I just need to keep putting one foot in front of other and that all will be well.

That morning was definitely a tale of the unexpected but it has taught me a lot or do I mean it reminded, me once again, of one or two or maybe three vital truths.

I have discovered that if I continue to be real, live in love and do my job that every morning I find that love does indeed continue long and it does indeed show me the way for such love is always and eternal, and as a result no hurt can ever ever have a say.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Fullness brings stillness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Authentic Belonging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Becoming Juicy People with Holy Curiosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rilke writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Grief, the price we pay for Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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