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.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Autumn: The Inner harvest

A friend recently sent me the following really got me thinking...

A blind boy sat on the steps of a building with a hat by his feet. He held up a sign which said : ' I am blind, please help.' There were only a few coins in the hat.

A man was walking by. He took a few coins from his pocket and dropped them into the hat. He then took the sign, turned it around, and wrote some words. He put the sign back so that everyone who walked by would see the new words.

Soon the hat began to fill up. A lot more people were giving money to the blind boy. That afternoon the man who had changed the sign came to see how things were. The boy recognized his footsteps and asked, "Were you the one who changed my sign this morning? What did you write? "

The man said, " I only wrote the truth. I said what you said but in a different way."

I wrote : ' Today is a beautiful day but I cannot see it.'

As the song goes “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone”

We do not always notice what we have, the blessings we have been given until we either lose them or truly notice that others do not have them. So much of life is given unbidden, is a real grace a free gift. So much so that we do not appreciate the fruits we are surrounded but.

We need to learn to offer thanks and praise for what we have been given and to use these gifts in creative and positive ways for the good of all.

A good and useful life is one in which we count our blessings, one in which we enjoy our days with a heart of gratitude.

A friend said to me the other day that there had been quite a lot of death this year. I agreed I have certainly found myself being with friends and family as they have come to the end of their lives.

I spent quite some time over the summer months with a friend as his life came to an end. It was an awry experience. Yes it was painful at times, but it was also beautifully moving and definitely awe inspiring. My friend had over the last twenty years lost his sight and had also had to face many other physical difficulties. Finally he slowly succumbed to cancer. What moved me greatly about him was how he accepted whatever happened with Grace. It did not waste his life wishfully thinking that he could have back what he had lost. Don’t get me wrong of course he grieved his losses, particularly his sight, but he adjusted and he accepted. I remember several years ago marvelling at his ability to memories passages from books he had read. His memory was a real marvel as he developed a new gift that he would never have known but for the loss of his sight.

The greatest gift he gave to me as I sat with him over the last few weeks of his life, was listening to his stories. He shared a rich harvest with me. It was both a blessing and a joy to sit and listen to him. He did all the talking. In fact the last thing he said to me, just two days before he died was “The next time you come Danny, I’ll let you do some of the talking”, sadly there was not a next time.

My friend lived a full life. Like any full life there were many things that he got wrong. There was some regret, but not too much. Those last few weeks he passed on much of his knowledge to me. It was a fruitful time as I harvested so much from his life. I hope that I too will be able to pass on what I have gained from his life. That I will be able to nurture these seedlings and bring something to fruit from them.

Yes in some ways this year has been one of personal loss, but I do see seedlings and shoots of hope that can be passed on from those that have been lost. Much of who they were/are lives on.

There is a beautiful chapter in John O'Donohue's book "Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom" "Aging: The Beauty of the Inner Harvest". Below is an extract from it...

"There are four seasons of the heart. Several seasons can be present simultaneously in the heart, though usually, at any one time, one season is dominant in your life. It is customary to understand autumn as synchronous with old age. In the autumn time of your life, your experience is harvested. This is a lovely backdrop against which we can understand aging. Aging is not merely about the body losing its poise, strength, and self-trust. Aging also invites you to become aware of the sacred circle that shelters your life. Within the harvest circle, you are able to gather lost memories and experiences, bring them together, and hold them as one. In actual fact, if you can come to see aging not as a demise of your body but as the harvest of your soul, you will learn that aging can be a time of strength, poise, and confidence. To understand the harvest of your soul against the background of seasonal rhythm should give you a sense of quiet delight at the arrival of this time in your life. It should give you strength and a sense of how the deeper belonging of your soul-world will be revealed to you.”

O’Donohue suggests that “the autumn of our lives.” can be a time of rich harvest, where we can dig deep into our souls and uncover the lessons that are their to be learnt. it is a time to gather in all the moments of our lives, even the ones that have been seemingly lost or even discarded as unpleasant and bringing them in and “holding them as one.” It is a time when we can gather in our inner harvest and thus develop new strength, poise and confidence and therefore enter a "quiet delight" as we harvest our own lives.

I witnessed this with my friend in the last weeks of his life as his spirituality deepened, as his soul bore his fruits and he passed this on to others. We did not do the reaping, we just feasted on the crop that he produced. I hope I can pass on what was so freely given to me. All I gave was my time.

I offer thanks and praise for the life that my friend lived and the harvest that I have shared in. I offer thanks and praise for all the lives I have known and all that they have given to me and countless others, the wisdom that they shared. I offer thanks and praise for all that has been so freely given and I hope I can make the most of it and pass it on to those who follow.

Harvest is a time to offer thanks for all that has been given us. To do so we need to see what has been given to us. It is so easy to see what we do not have and therefore fail to see the gifts that we are surrounded by, gifts that are there for all of us to share in, gifts that are so freely given.

Let us be thankful for what we have and what we have to share and see the gifts we have to give to others. For one day those very gifts may well be gone.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Living in Grace

I recently came across the following“More Than We Deserve” by Robert R Walsh it is taken from his book of meditations “Noisy Stones” got me thinking and feeling and re-membering

"I heard the Second Brandenburg Concerto played in honour of Bach’s 300th birthday, and I was swept away. I remembered a story about the people who send messages into outer space. Someone suggested sending a piece by Bach. The reply was “But that would be bragging.”

Some say we get what we deserve in life, but I don’t believe it. We certainly don’t deserve Bach. What have I done to deserve the Second Brandenburg Concerto? I have not been kind enough; I have not done enough justice; I have not loved my neighbour, or myself, sufficiently; I have not praised God enough to have earned a gift like this.

Life is a gift we have not earned and for which we cannot pay. There is no necessity that there be a universe, no inevitability about a world moving toward life and then self-consciousness. There might have been…nothing at all."

Since we have not earned Bach – or crocuses or lovers – the best we can do is express our gratitude for the undeserved gifts, and do our share of the work of creation."

...It really got me thinking...

The Sufi mystic Rumi wrote:

"Something opens our wings.

Something makes boredom and hurt disappear.

Someone fills the cup in front of us.

We taste only sacredness."

...The something or someone I believe is Grace...

Grace is one of those words that has kept on cropping up in conversations these last few weeks. It has got me thinking about what it might mean to me personally. What do I think of when I hear the word Grace? What does it mean to live in a state of Grace? What does it mean perhaps to die in a state of Grace?

Grace is something I often think of at this time of the year, later September early October. It was this time of year a long, long time ago when something began to change within my experience of life, something I will never understand…something that when I re-member always brings a smile to my face…a smile that comes unbidden...

When I speak of Grace I mean than something that exist beyond the confines of ourselves, that something more that makes life real, special and alive. That something that exists beyond our individual efforts that makes our efforts almost effortless. I have noticed that when I live in a Graceful state life does indeed seem effortless. Indeed when life seems a slog or a struggle it is precisely then that I feel blocked off from the Grace that surrounds me. Grace seems to exist in the spaces of life, therefore when I am blocked it seems that there are no spaces where Grace can thrive and live. To live in a Graceful state is to trust in that which exists in those spaces and allow it to energise our lives. Over the years I have learnt to trust in this when the hard and dark times have struck. It is Grace that keeps me moving forward.

Grace is the “Wow!” of life that can energise us if we would but trust in it. It is Grace that gives us a sense of belonging to life itself. When I began to live in Grace I became fully a part of life.

Now there are those who will no doubt claim that what I speak of is not Grace at all. That I am just trying to re-invent the English language. Well I wouldn’t be the first now would I?

Etymologically speaking Grace is related to thankfulness, certainly in the Latin languages. Think of the Spanish “gracias”, the Italian “grazie and Latin “gratia”. Both grace and gratitude are linguistically linked. One step beyond is the Latin word “gratus” which means pleasing and from which words like gratifying and gratuity are formed. On the other side of the coin comes the phrase “persona non grata” which means an unwelcome person. Likewise a person who has fallen from grace may be known as a disgrace.

Now in traditional Christianity Grace is concerned with God receiving us, forgiving our sins and redeeming us through the death of his son Jesus on the cross. In many ways it was arguments over Grace that led to the Reformation. Martin Luther taught that Grace cannot in any way be obtained by a person or purchased. Luther was protesting against the Church doing just this as it was selling indulgences. Luther taught that Grace is a gift of God, freely given regardless of merit, due to the sacrifice of Jesus. That said Grace has been understood in other ways throughout human history. It is not merely the domain of Luther and or traditional Christianity

“The Grace of God” is said to be a freely given gift of spirit that is unearned and undeserved; something that comes to us, from beyond ourselves. You can’t touch it, but you can know it. You could say that grace is a favour or perhaps a fortune that comes to us unbidden. It does not come because we have done anything to deserve it or not deserve it, it just comes. The part we can play is in recognizing it when it comes and making the most of what it offers. Life itself is probably the ultimate of graces. Think about it we did absolutely nothing to deserve the gift of life itself, in all its joy and suffering, in all its blessings and curses.

The Sufi mystic Rumi wrote

"You are so weak. Give up to grace.

The ocean takes care of each wave

til it gets to shore.

You need more help than you know."

I have heard it said that Grace is like water in that it flows and moves over and under an obstacle. So maybe I am wrong in thinking I can block myself off from it, although it does feel like that at times. Maybe I am never actually blocked from it I just lose my awareness of it. This brings to mind some of my favourite words from Psalm 139

"Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;

10 Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

11 If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.

12 Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee."

So it would seem that Grace is something you just can’t avoid. It is always there, that said there is a part that we must play. As Ramakrishna said “The winds of grace are always blowing, but you have to raise the sail.” It is our task I believe to receive the wind and the waters in the right way.

You see Grace isn’t just going to come in and save us, to take our material troubles away.It is not going to change the natural world, just for us. Just look at the world at our lives, this just doesn’t seem so now does it?

I believe that grace works in and through us; that it comes to life in and through us when we live in a “State of Grace”. While we need not do anything to deserve it, we must do a great deal to bring it to life. As the Buddhist Joanna Macy observed “Grace happens when we act with others on behalf of our world.” Yes it exists in those spaces between our lives and we experience it as it works through our lives, encouraging others to engage with it too. To dance in the spaces as the music plays.

The Unitarian and Process Theologian Henry Nelson Weiman, while rejecting traditional notions of God, did believe that there was a process which he observed had the capacity to transform us into beings capable of doing good, that can enable us to live up to our ideals and therefore relieve us from what some have described as the meaningless despair of our lives. He called this process “Creative Interchange”. He believed that this “Creative Interchange” comes alive as individuals or groups bring new meanings to life and that as it comes to life the richness of the world expands and a deeper sense of integration occurs. For Weiman this was Grace.

James Luther Adams expanded on these ideas believing that this creative power finds its “richest focus” when we work together to serve the divine reality and bring to birth freedom and justice in our world. He believed that God transforms us with “a love that ‘cares’ for the fullest good of all.” It is this then that compels us to act with it in service and thus re-create Grace.

I see real truth in both Weiman’s and Adam’s view of Grace, they help me make sense of my own experiences.

Grace is not about the things we receive in life. We have all been given life, the ultimate free gift. Grace is about what we do with the gift we have been given; Grace is what we create from what we have been given; Grace is what we bring to the table of life with this life we have been given. My dear friend Rev Jane Barraclough, who died earlier this year, explains this beautifully in the following words:

“We can choose to receive the gift with gratitude or we can decide it is never enough for us, or we can decide that we receive what we receive in life because we somehow deserve it. The last has always been a favourite among those most privileged in society. Those with an overpowering sense of their own entitlement to all the good things in life are also often the most difficult to satisfy. Those who can live their lives in a state of gratitude are more likely to know when they have enough.

To experience grace we have to be open to the possibility of its existence. The winds of grace may always be blowing but we need to have our sails up if we are to make any headway.”

We can experience the grace present in life if we are open to it, if we would just let go of the need to control, to open our clenched fists just a little and dance with it in the spaces that contain life. We just need to pay attention, to notice it in life and in the lives of those who live in a Graceful state. You see all life can become a disclosure of Grace. We can experience it in every moment of life. In the wild embrace of one we hold most dear, in those flocks of wild geese that fly overhead, in an act of reconciliation and forgiveness and in a selfless act as we give of ourselves to life.

May we all live our lives in a state of Grace.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Emptiness: The Greatest Paradox of the Spiritual Life?

In a recent “Living the Questions” group we explored “Awe, Wonder & Amazement”. As is always the case it was a fascinating conversation as we wrestled with the subject, exploring what the great minds have said about it as well as share personal thoughts and experiences. It was a wonderfulfilling evening. Afterwards I sat and reflected on all that I heard from those present. I was amazed by what I had experienced, it filled me with awe. A truly awful evening (the evening filled me with awe). I felt filled and yet completely empty of fear and trouble. I felt very much at one with myself and yet a part of everything. I felt like a tiny speck in life and yet one in the midst of a greater whole. I felt a deepening sense of love for all that is, all that has been and all that will ever be. I felt deeply that sense of love for life, for that which makes up life, for all that is out there and I felt a deepening sense of love within the soul of me. The following simple words by Forrest Church came back into my mind “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that power that is greater than all and yet present in each.” I experienced this deeply with the people I was connecting with that evening. It also brought to my mind the following beautiful words by Ralph Waldo Emerson,written while reflecting on the wonder of being in the woods.

“Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

I love the beautiful paradox here “I am nothing; I see all;” and the last part “I am part or particle of God.” As I thought of these words an image of a "Meme", I had recently seen published through social media, also came to mind. It goes by the title “Serbian Proverb”, and read “Be humble, for you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars,” These words and that evening certainly humbled me and I live in the hope that they will enoble me too. I know how important it is that I believe the simple message contained in these beautiful words. These two qualities are vital to a fulfilling life, they are not opposing dualities, more complimentary qualities.

A few days later I was chatting with someone who had attended “Living the Questions” discussion. I asked him how he was doing as I knew he was going through some changes in his personal life. He began to talk and it was clear that something was stirring within him and that he was opening up to something new. We both talked about those moments in our lives when things had changed, when life had humbled us and how in those moments something broke both inside and outside and how this had brought about a new beginning, spiritually speaking. I would personally call these profound spiritual experiences, although I know others would give them a different name. In these moments the humility that opened me took me to another level, you could say it began to enoble me. I live in hope that this will continue.

A few days later I was chatting with my Tuesday morning friends. There was a theme running through the conversation. Several of us described recently experiencing a powerful sense of fear present in our lives. While at the same time experiencing a greater sense of faith also present  within us too. A faith that manifests as a deep sense of knowing that by remaining open and connected that we will walk through whatever fear our minds create.

As we shared together the following words from Luke’s Gospel chapter 12 vv 22-27 came to mind.

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

As the conversation continued the following words from the 46th Psalm also came into my mind “Be still and know that I am God”. If I have learnt anything in life I have learnt that somewhere in this stillness in this emptiness a fullness and a strength can begin to grow.

The problem I suspect for many of us is that we are afraid to stop, to centre and to empty out minds. but stop we must if we wish to begin to be filled, it is crucial that we do so. The great spiritual traditions of the east have understood how vital emptiness is in order to experience the fullness and harmony of life. They have claimed that what is required is silence and stillness in order to truly connect to all that is, to truly know you are a part of God. When we are still we no longer locate ourselves in the past or the future or attempt to become something or someone else. In this stillness we can become like the Lillies of the field or the birds of the air. In this stillness a profound silence of the mind is revealed. It is this silence that embraces and connects the present to all times and places. This stillness is what holds and embraces all the movement of life. In  it we become, as Emerson said, “a part or particle of God”

It is emptiness that reveals the greatest paradox of life. For it is often in this emptiness that we truly understand how important everything is; it is the emptiness that reveals the fullness of life. As I constantly say everything matters, every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed. For everything is a part of everything else. The mistake is to fall into the despair of emptiness, although perhaps this is a stage that we may have to go through. This mistake is formed from a superficial understanding of emptiness, that some see as a dismissal of  life as a kind of dream, that doesn't really matter or exist. In doing so we end up dismissing life itself as empty and unsubstantial, that it doesn’t really matter. Such a view can lead one to see the world with contempt and therefore dismiss the very real suffering of others. There is nothing either humble or enobling in this. To me the very point of emptying and going within is to enable us to truly connect with both the joys and sorrows of life, its difficulties and its successes in a very real way and therefore act in a noble way. It is the very stillness that will hold us in the storms we feel or witness and ensure that we do not turn away but live instead in the way of love.

I believe that this is almost perfectly illustrated in the poem “I am much alone in this world, yet not alone” by Rainer Maria Rilke, there is something powerful in these beautiful words especially in the context of the nothing and everything paradox and perhaps the frustrations it brings.

I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone
to truly consecrate the hour.
I am much too small in this world, yet not small
to be to you just object and thing,
dark and smart.
I want my free will and want it accompanying
the path which leads to action;
and want during times that beg questions,
where something is up,
to be among those in the know,
or else be alone.

I want to mirror your image to its fullest perfection,
never be blind or too old
to uphold your weighty wavering reflection.
I want to unfold.
Nowhere I wish to stay crooked, bent;
for there I would be dishonest, untrue.
I want my conscience to be
true before you;
want to describe myself like a picture I observed
for a long time, one close up,
like a new word I learned and embraced,
like the everday jug,
like my mother’s face,
like a ship that carried me along
through the deadliest storm.

“Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. Between the two my life flows”, said the 20th century Hindu guru, Nisargadatta Maharaji. Carl Sagan once wrote "For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."

For me in the silence in the emptiness I find the love that connects me to all that is in a truly wonderfulfilling sense. In the emptiness my cup once again begins to runneth over. In so doing I can once again know the fullness of life and live in such a way that is indeed enobling.

By deepening in silence we discover that the apparent emptiness holds no real fear, instead it leads us to true beauty and joy; it leads us to the joy of living. In that space we can discover that we are “a part or particle of God”. In doing so we rest in the infinite space that is life and begin to live in both accord and harmony. This silence brings peace, wholeness and well-being. It humbles us for it allows us to see that we are made of the earth and yet also enobles us for we can see that we are made of the stars.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Hope & Enthusiasm: A 200th Anniversary Celebration

Today we marked 200 years of our free religious tradition here in the town of Altrincham. 200 years ago they formed this fellowship of love and service in the town and they have continued sailing in it for many generations. They did so in hope and with genuine enthusiasm. I am very aware that today we stand on the shoulders of giants as we look ahead as a free religious faith offering hope to a community and world that does at times seem so divisive…I believe that this free religious tradition that I serve has much to offer our world, as those who came before us did. I live with hope in my heart that we can continue to build on those firm roots that those who came before us planted. A solid trunk grew from those roots and many branches have stretched from it, leading to buds and leaves and fruits that have flowered and nourished so many.

Today we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Unitarian congregation in Altrincham.

We who live today are connected to both the past and the future, we are links in a chain of history. It is our task to do the best we can with this our link in this time and place. We cannot shape the whole world, but we can do something in this our time and place, in full knowledge that this will influence the whole of history…Everything matters you know, every breath, every feeling, every thought, every deed impacts in some way on the chain of life…Everything matters…

The fellowship of love that we sail in today is a place of nurture where the spirit can grow, but not alone. We do not sail this ship alone we do so in community with one another and with that eternal spirit that is present in all life and yet greater than it all. Our tradition is as much about community as it about individual freedom, something that seems lost in modern spirituality, something that is so needed in our time…We come together in love and to grow and flower in that same spirit…

Here we stand on holy ground. Here the spirit has spoken and been heard, just as the burning bush spoke to Moses. Here the Divine can speak to each of us, as it has for generations and encourage us to keep on moving forward to new freedoms. This though is not holy ground because it is especially sacred. No it is holy ground because we consecrate it with our presence and the spirit that grows in and through us, that we bring to this place. Our task here is to increase the holiness and then take it out into our world where the worst aspects of humanity keep on desecrating.

As Wendell Barry so beautifully put it. “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” It is the task of this our free religious faith to nurture the sacredness from which we are formed and to carry that out into our world, through our lives…Everything matters you know, every breath, every feeling, every thought, every deed impacts in some way on the chain of life…Everything matters…

Trees and bushes have been speaking to me all this year, as have the beautiful flowers that grow from them. It really began at the end of last year, at a time of loss and pain in my own life and those I hold most dear. My sister, our Mand, told me of a single rose she had seen right in the midst of winter, both physical winter and a personal winter too. This rose lifted her spirit and as she told me of it, it lifted me too. That winter rose brought hope that love will survive any of the biting frost that can threaten our lives. This year I’ve been seeing roses everywhere, the most beautiful I have ever seen…They have become a symbol of hope to me…“And I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find and I’ll bring a song of love and a rose in the winter time.”

Like absence of love a life lived without hope quickly becomes empty and meaningless. Please do not get me wrong I’m not talking about optimism here, they are not the same. Optimism is about an expectation of something to come, whereas hope is more about allowing something to grow from within. It is a form of love incarnating in life, something that begins in our own hearts. Hope is knowing that something beautiful will grow, even from what feels like the worst kind of suffering. Hope always overcomes despair as meaning emerges from the suffering…To paraphrase Vaclav Havel “ Hope is an orientation of the spirit...It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

Or as Erich Fromm observed “To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime, Those whose hope is weak settle for comfort or for violence; those whose hope is strong see and cherish signs of new life and are ready every moment to help the birth of that which is ready to be born.”

I see symbols of hope every day and I am certainly ready to help bring them to birth. I see them on the side of the road as I drive. Just like "The Tree of Lost Soles" I saw one day travelling to Warrington. A beautiful symbol made from the stump of an old tree and old discarded shoes. A symbol that has stayed with me this year as I see folk coming to life in my midst. All souls can indeed be found and can begin life again. I’ve seen it in the eyes of so many this year. So I live in hope. Why? Because even in the midst of winter a rose can grow and bring hope to all our lives.

So what can we do in our time and place, how do we plant seeds of hope in our time and place? How do we take care of our link in the chain of life, in the chain of history? How can we ready ourselves “to help bring to birth that which is ready to be born”?

Well I believe that it begins with two things. The first is to truly see our world and our shared life as a blessing, as a beautiful gift that we are a part of. This begins by first of all understanding that we too are blessings. We need to let this form and grow in our souls, our hearts and our minds and then bring it to life. We need to be filled with this spirit, to be enthused by it. To be enthusiastic. By the way that’s what enthusiasm means, from entheos to be filled with the spirit, with God. We need to be filled with this spirit and to set it free and begin to consecrate our world once more. We need to let hope become an orientation of our spirit and to bless our world with this enthusiasm. And do you know what if we do our world will become overflowing with roses, even in the depths of winter time.

I’m going to end today with a little story, entitled “Building a Cathedral” (Taken from "Concentration and Compassion" by Bill Darlison)

When the great Cathedral of Chatres was being built in the 13th century, a traveller happened to be passing by the construction site. He was amazed at the number of workers involved in the project and the variety of jobs being done. He approached a carpenter and asked, “What exactly are you doing here?”

“I’m sawing wood, what on earth does it look like I’m doing?” came the curt reply.

The traveller then approached a stonemason and asked him the very same question, to which he replied,

“I’m earning a living, I’ve got a wife and children to support.”

However, a third man, an unskilled worker who looked to be sweeping up after the others, said with a beaming smile, “Can’t you see? I’m building a cathedral!”

So I say to you let’s go build Cathedrals in our own hearts, let’s take them out into our world and make every inch of this world holy ground once more…Let us consecrate, let us bless everything and everyone we touch...Everything matters you know, every breath, every feeling, every thought, every deed impacts in some way on the chain of life…Everything matters…

“Cos I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find and I’ll bring a song of love and a rose in the winter time,”