Sunday, 1 March 2015

Belonging: Be-Your-Longing

Every month at the beginning of the “Living the Questions” that I host, I always offer space for those present to say a few words of introduction, it is an attempt to help them feel welcome. Just a few words about who they are and why they have come. Well at the last get together a regular attender’s husband came along. As he introduced himself he said my name is so and so and I belong to (he gave his wife’s name). He had come along, a little under duress I suspect, as it was his wife’s birthday and this is how she wanted to spend it. Now at that moment I didn’t say anything, I waited until the end of the evening when I would introduce the subject for the next month. The subject was of course going to be “Identity and Belonging” so I thanked the gentleman in question for leading us so beautifully into the subject by the way he introduced himself, he had disclosed both his identity and who exactly he belongs too.

Now of course this was all done in humour but there is a serious point. Who are we exactly and who or what do we belong too? What makes us who or what we are? What gives us a sense of belonging? What is it that gives us a sense of identity? When we say this is who we are is this an invitation to others or does it in fact create barriers? What happens if you feel that you don’t belong? What happens when you hit an identity crisis and all that you believe that you are is taken away? Are any of the things that we identify with permanent? What happens if we are cast out of the group we believe we belong or decide we have to leave because we no longer feel that we belong with them? Where does spirituality, a sense of oneness, God fit into all of this? As you can see it brings up lots of questions; questions I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time.

It’s interesting what it is that we think makes us who we are, what gives us our sense of identity, our sense of belonging. Last week I visited a member of the congregation who has been ill for quite some time. I sat in her home and we talked about many things. I asked about one of the pictures on her wall and as she told me about it she spoke of her first job and how her husband of 60 odd years would come and wait for her to finish work on Saturday before they would go “courting”. She talked of growing up in a Lancashire village that was right on the border of Yorkshire and how folk had often mistaken her as coming from Yorkshire. I half-jokingly said “I bet you didn’t like that”, to which she replied, that it didn’t really bother her. She then went on to speak of her own father, who she described as somewhat eccentric and how he used to write Lancashire dialect plays that were broadcast by BBC radio. I remember a few days later saying to a friend how I’d love to get a hold of those plays, to which my friend replied, “You probably wouldn’t understand them”. I have to concede that this is probably true.

Now I don’t know if it was me who got this conversation started, the lady I was visiting, or some power that has the capacity to influence if not control our lives. What was interesting though is that earlier that day a friend had asked me some questions about accents and dialect and what I thought about them with regards to English language being taught in schools. It was part of survey for something she was studying at college. I said that it saddened me that regional accents and dialect were disappearing. I said I did not think that dialect had had a detrimental effect on my generation and those who preceded us with regard to written English. In fact it would seem that many had a better grasp of the written word than current generations.

This got me thinking about my own grandfather and the loss of some of the things he used to say. Things that my generation would never say. This brought a tear to my eye. I suspect that this sadness had more to do with the fact that I would never hear him speak again rather than the loss of his way of speech. I do wonder though if I will ever authentically hear the greeting “Nah then owd lass” or “Nah then owd lad”. It “allus med mi chuckle” when he called my mum “owd lass”. No doubt if he’d met the Queen he’d have said to her “nah then owd lass.” I mentioned this to my mum and in response she sent me a whole list of sayings from Batley, the town in West Yorkshire where I come from, she had to translate one or two for me, because I didn’t have a clue what they meant.

All this got me thinking about belonging, about where I come from, about what makes me who I am about my own identity and about how we identify ourselves.

It’s a phrase I hear a lot “I identify as…” I think I understand why increasingly people feel the need to do so, certainly those who have been excluded and or persecuted in many ways for certain aspects of who they are, due to race, ethnicity, religion on non-religion, gender, sexual orientation etc. There is a reason why people say that they identify in certain ways. This is why the various pride movements have developed. There is still an awful lot of work to be done too. As a society we do still exclude and reject people due to certain aspects of who they are. It is so important for a person to be able to be who they wholly are in order to feel that they belong. To accept a person we have to accept them wholly as they are.

That said I do wonder if sometime statements like “I identify as this…” creates barriers. When a person says that they “identify as” it is not revealing who they are, just a small aspect of who they are. By the way sometimes it is others who put those very same labels on us. This brings me back to the gay football loving stand-up comedian I spoke about a couple of weeks ago and his struggles to be himself fully and the loneliness experienced in his attempts to “fit in”. Looking for like hearted people

Looking at my own life it was during those days of yearning and longing, when I desperately felt lost and alone, that I tried so desperately to belong to some group of people and always felt that I never did. I have learnt that since I found that sense of belonging in my own soul I have found that I can easily find a sense of belonging with most people. I no longer need to fit in because I no longer feel alone. I belong in my own skin, I belong in the universe. I know I am a child of God, I know the love that passeth all understanding. I can accept myself warts and all and beauty spots too and I can therefore accept others too, well most of the time.

I love the following beautiful bit of wisdom from the late John O’Donohue’s wonderful book “Anam Cara”. I think in this passage he 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. 

“The Trap of False Belonging” by John O’Donohue

The heart of the matter: You should never belong fully to something that is outside yourself. It is very important to find a balance in your belonging. You should never belong totally to any cause or system. People frequently need to belong to an external system because they are afraid to belong to their own lives. If your soul is awakened, then you realize that this is the house of your real belonging. Your longing is safe there. Belonging is relating to longing. If you hyphenate belonging, it yields a lovely axiom for spiritual growth: Be-Your-Longing. Longing is a precious instinct in the soul. Where you belong should always be worthy of your dignity. You should belong first in your own interiority. If you belong there, and if you are in rhythm with yourself and connected to that deep, unique source within, then you will never be vulnerable when your outside belonging is qualified, relativized, or taken away. You will still be able to stand on your own ground, the ground of your soul, where you are not a tenant, where you are at home. Your interiority is the ground from which nobody can distance, exclude or exile you. This is your treasure. As the New Testament says, where your treasure is, there is your heart also.

A friend of mine recently posted the following quote by Brene Brown, 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 recently 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.

This brings me back to my Lenten practise for this year. This need to make time for wilderness, this need to take time be alone in silence and to come to terms with who I am and my place in life and to therefore be fully a part of life. To be - long here. To “Be-my-Longing” if you like. To truly know the soul of who I am, to become the “light of the world” to remember what I truly am or can be and to be that in the world. This is something that we can all be. To feel that sense of be-longing in life. We must first of all be-long in ourselves and if we be-long in ourselves we will no longer have to try and fit-in in the world and we will truly be able to serve our world and be who we truly are.

May we embrace our true be-longing…

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with a blessing by John O'Donohue

“For Belonging” by John O'Donohue

May you listen to your longing to be free.
May the frames of your belonging be generous enough
for your dreams.
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing
whispering in your heart.
May you find a harmony between your soul and
your life.
May the sanctuary of your soul never become haunted.
May you know the eternal longing that lives at the heart of time.
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.
May you never place walls between the light and yourself.
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world
to gather you, mind you, and embrace you in

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Into the Wilderness of Wisdom

It would appear that my job is getting easier, or at least the creative side of it does. I seem to have to do less and less as time goes by. All I seemingly have to do these days is observe and pay attention and perhaps discern and then piece together.

Every Monday morning when I awaken from my dreamless sleep I do so with ideas already formed or at least forming as to what I wish to explore and create in worship for the coming Sunday. It seems my part in the creative interchange is lessening. For the whole of last Sunday I was being fed by every interaction right throughout the day. It began with the first conversation I had when I arrived at Urmston and one or two I had at the end of worship. It continued as I arrived at Altrincham, through Aled’s comments about the Bodhisattva as he delivered the reading I’d given him and other conversations I had as we shared tea and biscuits. It continued as I interacted with a rich tapestry of people throughout the day and into the night. Last Sunday was one of those beautifully rich and deep days, when I just felt spoken to all day long. It brought to mind the following by Robert Walsh

“I moved through the experience with my attention alternating between the present moment and a future time, when I would be back home, telling the story. It’s what preachers call homiletic consciousness, which means going through life thinking, Can I use this in a sermon? But it’s not just preachers who do it. I imagine a painter would do the same. Or a poet. Or a novelist, teacher, composer, or a storyteller – anyone who uses the experiences of life in order to give something to someone else.”

Every time I engaged with someone that day I found myself smiling as it seemed everyone was touching that place deep in the soul of me…Just beautiful…

After leading worship I attended a friend’s son’s Christening. Well actually I attended the reception afterwards at “The Yard” in Alderly Edge, what a beautiful venue. As I arrived I was chatting with folk who asked me about an element of the service that had caused them to pause and feel a little uncomfortable. It was held at a local Anglican Church and during it those participating were asked “Do you renounce Satan and all his works and all his empty promises?”. I was asked what I thought of this and what I thought of Satan. I was asked “do you believe in Satan?” Good golly how do you answer that? Well I said I don’t believe in a being by that name. That said I don’t believe in a personified God either, God as a kind of super person. I then went on to say that perhaps this tempter this questioner that is given many names is really that other silent voice that we hear that separates us from one another and from our better selves and of course that power that is Greater than all and yet present in each, that I name God.

We then engaged in a long conversation about our attempts to live more openly and connectedly, more spiritually and less selfishly and how this is a challenge each and every day. He then left me in peace to enjoy the gathering of friends who were there to celebrate this beautiful gift of a new child that had been welcomed into the family of life.

The conversation beautifully reminded me of the blessings and the curses of my work. I do get to engage in the most fascinating conversations, but also I am rarely allowed to just shake off my shoes and have a laugh. This is partly my own fault, due to the curses of the old homiletic consciousness. I left smiling at so much of what I had experienced with the many friends old and new that I get to share my life with.

We have now entered the season of Lent. I hope you all enjoyed your pancakes on Tuesday. On what some still call Shrove Tuesday, or as many prefer to call it “Pancake Day”, or as I prefer to call it “Flat Yorkshire Pudding Day”…How do you eat yours?

The following day “Ash Wednesday”, for Christians, marks the beginning of 40 days of fasting and self-sacrifice that lead up to Easter, the day of re-birth re-newal and new beginnings.

In the account found in Matthews Gospel, Jesus is “led by the spirit” into the wilderness, a place of transformation and temptation. He is taken to the pinnacle of the temple and to the top of a high mountain. Here he is offered the world, but rejects the allure of an easier showier more obvious path. Instead he chooses the road less travelled, the heroes path. He is tempted by “Satan” but resists the temptation.

This is a universal tale; many of the great sages went on similar journeys, before embarking on their missions to bring healing to their people. The Buddha had to leave the comforts of home, abandon his weeping family, shave his head and don the robes of a world renouncing ascetic when he began his journey to discover a cure for the pain of the world. Long before his revelations Muhammad use to retreat to Mount Hira, outside of Mecca, where he fasted, performed spiritual exercises and gave alms to the poor. He did this in an attempt to discover a remedy for the troubles of his time. When Ghandi began his mission he left the comforts of the elite in which he had lived his whole life and travelled to India carefully observing the plight of the ordinary people.

During their own times in the wilderness the great sages found their answers. Through taking the road less travelled, the hard road, the difficult road, the answers came to them. They discovered the knowledge they needed to impact positively on their people in their time and place. They returned with wisdom to share.

This is the spiritual life in its essence. It is often the hardest most difficult path and it can certainly appear to be the loneliest, one filled with temptations. That said it is the one where the answers are usually found.

The great sages pointed to the “Way” in which salvation or liberation could be attained for each and every one of us. Now of course they weren’t exactly the same but there were certainly parallels in which the “Way” could be trod. They each carried with them wisdom which they did not want to keep selfishly for themselves they wanted to pass on to all of us, so that we could each create the “kin-dom” of God within our own lives and communities. For the wisdom is pretty meaningless unless you give it away.

The recently deceased liberal theologian Marcus Borg in his book “Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings” claims that both Jesus and the Buddha “…were teachers of the way less traveled. 'Way' or 'path' imagery is central to both bodies of teaching. The way of the Buddha is enshrined in the four noble truths of Buddhism, the fourth of which is 'the eightfold path.' Jesus spoke regularly of 'the way.' Moreover, according to the book of Acts, the earliest name for the Jesus movement was 'the Way.' The Gospel of John thus only takes this image one step further in speaking of Jesus as the incarnation of 'the way…'

According to Borg they both pointed to new ways of seeing life, they both wanted to radically change the perception of those they came into contact with. Christian imagery talks about once being blind and now being able to see, about scales falling from eyes of new truths being revealed of being released from old prejudices and pride. While Buddhism talks of enlightenment which means to see differently.

They both taught transformation. In Buddhism this is seen as a liberation from suffering through learning to let go instead of grasping at everything. While Jesus turned around the perceived wisdom of the day through his aphorism such as those who empty themselves will be exalted, and those who exalt themselves will be emptied; those who make themselves last will be first, and the first last. He also claimed that the Christian concept of taking up your cross and the dying of self were similar to the Buddhist concept of letting go. That they were both about being born to a new way of being.

He highlighted that compassion was at the core of both teachings. Stating that this is the way of a Bodhisattva and that this is what Paul has called “Love” the primary fruit of the spirit and the greatest of all spiritual gifts. In fact Borg claimed that “…one might even say that becoming a bodhisattva is the goal of the fully developed Christian life."

In my last blogspot You are the Light of the World I wrote of how we all fall short of what we can be, that we lose our way, that we forget what we can be at the best of times, that we are distracted or tempted away from the path of enlightenment and spiritual freedom, often by self-seeking voices, in the hustle and bustle of our daily living.

Jesus and the great sages of ancient times went into the wilderness, into the emptiness, the loneliness and the silence. This is something that is nearly impossible to do in our time and place. The voices that distract and tempt we who live today seem louder and the wild seems harder to find. Where is the wilderness to wander off alone into and to find the silence to really listen? How do we find the space to see the world with new vision? How do we move away from the need to grasp at things and hold on to what we think is ours, even if that’s just our wisdom or what we think we know? How do we find ways to live more compassionately in our daily interactions with one another? How do we find ways to truly become “The light of the world”, the Bodhisattva who through our lives shows others the way?

Well I believe it begins by making space for vision. It means perhaps by creating a sense of wilderness in our own lives. We need wilderness, a time to get lost perhaps in order to discover the wisdom that is available to us all and then to return renewed and refreshed so we can offer something to our world. As Marcel Proust said “We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us.”

So this is what I am attempting to do this Lent. I’m not giving things up and I’m not even spending my time giving, well no more than I would normally. I am instead spending time making space. Something that can at times feel so difficult. My life is too full at times, all our lives are too full at times. We need more space, we time away alone in the wild, in the wilderness where we can reach those difficult turbulent places and discover what it is we are truly here for. A time to let go of what hold us back and return refreshed and renewed ready to give back to our world on the day of new beginnings. A time for new vision, a time for transformation and a time for love and renewed compassion, but first of all I believe that we all need a little time in the wild.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

You are the light of the world

"...You are the light of the world..."

In a recent “Living the Questions” we explored “Sacred Places & Sacred Spaces”. Now during the evening the use of the word “sacred”, was questioned, by one of those present. It was suggested that while some places touched us deeply they were no more sacred than anywhere else. Special places yes, but not necessarily sacred. One or two others felt the same way too. As the evening went on a fascinating conversation developed, of which it was wonderful to be a part of.

To quote Wendell Berry "There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places." I believe that all life is sacred and yet, like Wendell Berry I do think that there have been times in human history when we have desecrated certain times and places. That said such places in time have once again become sacred once more. I do believe we can consecrate such places again. I got me thinking about ways in which this might be achieved. It also got me thinking about ways in which we can create sacred spaces in and around our being. How we can perhaps create sacredness in the way we interact with life and one another. How do we bless the world and the spaces in which we live, by the way that we live?

This got me thinking of blessing and ways in which we can bring blessings to life in our daily interactions. How we can bless one another and the world in which we live and breathe. How we can bring that eternal and loving spirit to life that I name God, in places where the light has seemingly gone out. We see so much of our inhumanity, of our darkness, in life. You can turn on the news any night of the week to see evidence of this.

How can we bring some of the light into our world? I do not believe that we are corrupt and wrong in our very nature. I do believe that if nurtured correctly a human can bring that divine aspect within us to life. We humans can become a blessing.

Now this got me thinking about “Blessings”. I wondered what a blessing is? Who or what can give a blessing? What form do blessings take? As I sat there thinking about blessings I received a wonderful message from Lizzie Roper. She sent a piece written on the role of humour in the Muslim tradition. It discussed Nasrudin the archetype of the Holy Fool that can be found in virtually every religious tradition. Through his foolishness Nasrudin helps us to see beyond the confines of our often small minds. His blessing is that he shakes those who engage with him out of their often rigid belief systems.

Now the piece ended with this wonderful line. “Blessed are the flexible for they will never be bent out of shape.” How true is this? And yet so often in life we can be so inflexible and therefore if something goes against our perceived understanding we can become so easily bent out of shape.

The line "Blessed are the flexible..." brought to mind those beautiful words from the “Sermon on Mount” in Matthews Gospel, often referred to as the Beatitudes. Here I believe we hear the central theme of Jesus' ministry, his core teachings. Here we hear the blessings, the Good News that he brings. Here we are being shown how we can ourselves become blessings to our world. Here we are being shown how we can create a sacred space in our way being and doing. Here we are being shown the way…

Matthew 5 vv 3-10

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Last Sunday after leading worship I was asked by an occasional attender “what do Unitarians think about sin?” I paused for a moment and then began by explaining that this was an impossible question to answer as I do not speak for all Unitarians. I then went on to explain what I believe about sin. I believe in sin in the sense that no one is perfect and that we all fall short from time to time. As I learnt a while back in the original Hebrew the word for sin in scripture meant to miss the mark or really to forget. In this sense to forget who we truly are. To sin is to basically fail to live up to what you are capable of being. So in that sense I suspect that we are all sinners, I know I am, I have never managed to consistently live up to what I am capable of being. I truly am imperfect, in the sense that I am incomplete. Imperfect coming from imperfectus, meaning incomplete, not meaning that there is something wrong with me, at the core of me.

Having said this I do not believe in “Original Sin” I do not believe that we are fallen by our very nature, quite the opposite. I find that what we do is forget that we have the divine aspect within our earth bound bodies and thus fall short of what we are capable of being. We can all do better, I know I can.

So yes I do believe in sin, just not "Original Sin". Instead I believe in “Original Blessing”, so beautifully described in the writings of Matthew Fox. Fox highlights that before “The Fall” in the second chapter of Genesis there is originally goodness and blessing found in the metaphorical creation story of Genesis I. Remember! At the end of each day, God “Looked at what he had done, and it was good…all of it was very good!” I think if we move beyond a literal understanding of the creation mythos that something deeply important is being revealed here about the nature of life itself. That life is a blessing in and of itself, it truly is the greatest gift of all.

Fox claims that through this creating energy we are continually invited into a co-creating relationship and are called therefore to engage in the on going blessing that is life. He states, in ‘Original Blessing’ that “Blessing involves relationship: one does not bless without investing something of oneself into the receiver of one’s blessing. And one does not receive blessing oblivious of its gracious giver. A blessing spirituality is a relating spirituality. And if it is true that all creation flows from a single, loving source, then all creation is blessed and is a blessing…”

Original Blessing is saying that we all flow from what the 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen has described as “Original Wisdom” and that the trouble is that we have forgotten this. The sin if you like is really that we have forgotten what we are formed from, the one original source. Therefore when we remember this and become at one with it we become a blessing to our world and create an environment, a sacred space, in which we can create further blessings.

Matthew Fox's understanding of "Original Blessing" speaks to me, to the very core of my being. It shows me that the key to becoming a blessing is to remember from what we originally came, what we are formed from and what we are capable of being. We can all be blessings and give blessings to one another. It does not require special training or to be a special or Holy person. We are all Holy if we would but just let that aspect of ourselves come to light.

In the sermon on the mount Jesus says "You are the light of the world..." how many of us truly believe? How many of us truly believe that we are truly formed from love and that this light is their within us. how many of us feel more comfortable seeing ourselves as somehow wrong deep down within  and therefore capable of not much. Rather than bearers of the light who have somehow forgotten that we have that divine aspect deep down within.

Now some of us seem so far from this state at times that this light has virtually gone out. It is those amongst us who perhaps need blessing more than anyone else and yet often they are the ones we fear to touch. Should we give up on them, cast them aside? I don’t think so, for as John O’Donhue has said no life is unreachable we can touch those deeper aspects of one another we can connect soul to soul. You see when we bless we are engaging in the original blessing that brought about life. We are becoming co-creators in this process. By blessing we are affecting what unfolds. All life matters, everything we do and do not do matters.

Below is the beautiful poem “If you knew” by Ellen Bass. Here she describes a way to live with blessing. How to bless every person in our daily interactions, ways in which we can recognise one another’s sacred uniqueness. So often in the busyness of life we fail to do this, we miss what is there.

"If You Knew" by Ellen Bass

What if you knew you'd be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line's crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn't signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won't say Thank you, I don't remember
they're going to die.

A friend told me she'd been with her aunt.
They'd just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt's powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked a half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon's spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

Now just imagine what life might be like if we lived as Ellen Bass describes in her poem. What if  we attempted to see the people we interact with day by day this way, as both fragile and mortal. Perhaps if we truly recognised one another as we truly are we might bless one another as the waiter did in the poem. Not by doing anything special or Holy, just by recognising one another’s sacred humanity. That I believe is to truly bless.

We can begin to bless one another. We can create a sacred space in and around our being. We can become co-creators in that original blessing that formed life. We just need to remember who we are; we just need to remember the original wisdom and our world can then perhaps once again become very good indeed.

I'm going to end this little chip of a blessing with with the following by Monica Cummings

“Bless a Stranger with a Smile” by Monica Cummings

Take time each day to remember you are a part of the interconnected web of life. Bless a stranger with a smile. Tell the people in your life how much they mean to you. And take a moment every day, beginning today, to give thanks for all that you have.

May you have the strength, courage, and commitment to begin or continue the rewarding journey of self-understanding. May you have the wisdom to forgive yourselves, the grace to ask for forgiveness, and the compassion to forgive others.

You are the co-creator of your life. It’s up to you. Forgive your trespasses as you forgive those who trespass against you. May you live your beliefs and feel at one with everyone and everything.

Blessing upon you,
Blessings upon me,
Blessings upon every living thing,
Blessed Be.


Saturday, 7 February 2015

Looking for like hearted people

In Bringing God Home: A Traveler's Guide" Forrest Church wrote

"Universalism is an exacting gospel. Taken seriously, no theology is more challenging-morally, spiritually, or intellectually: to love your enemy as yourself; to see your tears in another's eyes; to respect and even embrace otherness, rather than merely to tolerate or, even worse, dismiss it. None of this comes naturally to us. We are weaned on the rational presumption that if two people disagree, only one can be right. This works better in mathematics than it does in theology; Universalism reminds us of that. Yet even to approximate the Universalist ideal remains devilishly difficult in actual practice. Given the natural human tendency toward division, Universalists run the constant temptation to backslide in their faith. One can lapse and become a bad or lazy Universalist as effortlessly as others become ice-cream social Presbyterians or nominal Catholics."

It got me thinking about my own ministry...Do I backslide in my own faith?

I recently spent a weekend away with a group of what some might call “like minded” friends at Great Hucklow. I almost didn’t go as I was recovering from gastric flu and I certainly wasn’t my usual vibrant self. I must have been bad as I couldn’t stomach the marvellous cooked breakfast on offer there.

Over the weekend we explored prayer and meditation and ways in which we might enhance our personal spiritual lives. It was based around the 11th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out." It was wonderful to engage with different people, from all kinds of back grounds and differing spiritual beliefs. People who when they spoke of God, or a power greater than themselves, did not necessarily mean exactly the same thing. I didn’t do as much talking as I normally would at such events and spent most of the weekend just loving the company of these people and listening. Of course I did chime in from time to time, but mainly I listened.

Now one phrase I kept on hearing over the first evening was “Oh it’s so lovely to be with like-minded people”. I heard it from several people. I remember as I listened I thought I’m not sure that we are like-minded, we certainly don’t think about things in exactly the same way. I then thought I am not sure I would want to spend my time with like-minded people, people who thought just like me. They would drive me mad and no doubt bore me to death.

And then it dawned on me. While we may not be like-minded people we are certainly like-hearted. We may not think in the same way, but I suspect that we feel in the same way and we certainly seem to be searching for that same sense of connection and oneness. There was a true sense of unity in the group. We truly were there lovingly supporting and listening to one another, holding differing views about faith and God and spiritual practise but yet united in a common bond and search.

I think this is what I’ve been searching for all my life, not the horror of like-minded people, but the beauty of like hearted folk. It truly was heavenly and it lifted me out of myself and my worries about my physical well-being.

As I drove home in silence enjoying a beautiful winter scene a phrase entered my heart and rose up to my mind “You need not think alike to love alike”. It is a well-known phrase in Unitarian circles and it is certainly something that we aspire toward. Of course we all fall short of this ideal. It has been attributed to Francis David who is seen as the father of established Unitarianism and was the spiritual advisor to King John Sigismund of Transylvanin, the Unitarian king who pronounced an act of religious toleration the Edit of Torda in 1568.

Now while “We need not think alike to love alike” is a beautiful sentiment and certainly fits in with the principles of religious toleration, it would appear that there is no real evidence that Francis David ever actually uttered the words. There are arguments as to the original source some claim it was the non-Trinitarian martyr Michael Servetus where as others suggest it was more likely the father of Methodism JohnWesley, who asked in a sermon on “Catholic Spirit,” “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?”

Now personally I do not think it matters who first uttered the words. What matters is the meaning behind them and what has grown and developed from them. What matters to me is the spiritual depth at the core of these simple words. “We need not think alike to love alike.” Or to put it another way we need not be like minded to be like hearted. To me this is essence of the free religious faith that I have chosen to belong to. We are none creedal we do not declare a statement of faith and yet we are held together by a sense of love and understanding.

We are more than just a pluralistic movement at our best we uphold those ideals of universalism that Forrest Church spoke at the beginning of this blog. That said these are not easy ideals to live up to. They used to say “Reason, Freedom and Tolerance” but as Rev Stephen Lingwood has said this is not enough. To quote him:

“Love” Stephen Lingwood from “The Unitarian Life: Voices from the Past and Present

Freedom, reason, tolerance and pluralism aren’t enough, not on their own. We need a message to give to people, good News to preach. What good News can Unitarians give to the world? Just this: Love. A Holy Love that transforms, that is powerful and prophetic and justice-seeking. This message has always been at the heart of our faith: from Francis David, who said “you need not think alike to love alike”, to the Universalists who knew that nothing will ever separate anyone from the love of God, even today when Unitarians work to support the rights of gay couples because we know that love is always a blessing, regardless of gender.

Of course this is an ideal and certainly not an easy one to live up to. We can rationally think, believe, in ways that uphold “Freedom, reason, tolerance and pluralism” but to truly love and radically accept someone who appears different can be much harder. This involves the heart and a fully exposed and open one at that. In some ways it requires a vulnerable heart and that aint easy. What if they hurt us?

My ministerial mantra is “Come as you, exactly as you are…but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition” This is an invitation to all, whether they’ve been here for ever or have just walked through the door. It is also an invitation to myself, because I know this aint easy. And just like everyone else I need to keep on leaving in a new condition.

One thing I love about the "Living the Questions" group I host is that increasingly over time people are coming as they, exploring with one another openly. They seem to be listening to one another too. Each time we meet this experience seems to grow. I witness true spiritual intimacy amongst this diverse group of people who are most certainly not like minded, but are increasingly like hearted. Each time we meet, we seem to leave in a slightly different condition, whatever subject we explore. People truly are coming as they, exactly as they are, wherever they are coming from.

It is hard to come as you truly are, to be who you truly are. Most folk fear that they will be rejected for being as they truly are, if they let others see the real them. No doubt it happens to every single one of us at one time or another. It is hard to say this is who I am, will you still love me and accept me anyway. Well actually maybe here in lays part of the problem. By saying this is who I am are we really showing who we are in a truly open sense. I actually think when we make such statements a barrier is already being formed without us even realising it. Surely it is better to show who we really are and this is about the heart more than the mind, this is about love rather than belief or disbelief, this is about deeds rather than creeds.

This brings to mind something I heard from a stand-up comedian many years ago. Now he never became famous and I used to see him wandering around the Fallowfield area of Manchester where I lived. He always looked like a bit of a loner, a little bit lost. He wasn’t even particularly funny, but something he said really stuck with me. Now it turns out he was gay and he talked about coming out to his mates about this and how he was full of fear initially but it went ok and they accepted him as he was, with just a bit of laddish humour. He then went on to talk about how he loved football, which was strange for a man originally from Hull. It’s a rugby town and Hull were not a big club then. Now I can’t tell the joke but the basic punchline was this he said it was much harder for him to come out to his hip cool, arty and gay friends and companions that he loved football and loved all that went with it than it was to come out to the football crowd that he was gay. He said these friends found it harder to accept his love of football, than for his football friends to accept him as a gay man.

As he told the tale I saw the sadness and the alienation in him, this sense that he didn’t quite belong. Every time I saw him wandering around, always alone I kind of sensed that feeling grow. Maybe I identified with him in some ways as for a lot of my life I felt this sense of alienation too. Maybe we all do, maybe everyone feels this sense that they don’t truly belong from time to time. Maybe it’s tough to come as we are, exactly as we are…maybe when we come we don’t expect to change either, maybe we think we will always leave in exactly the same condition.

My hope is that when people enter into the communities I serve that they feel that they can be who they are, exactly as they are. Warts and all and beauty spots too. I hope they find amongst us loving companionship and space to search and explore and open their hearts, minds and souls to something beyond the confines of themselves. I hope when they come, even if it is in despair, that when they leave they do so with a deeper sense of belonging and do not feel alone. I hope they find amongst us communities of like hearted, if not like-minded people.

For we may not think alike, but it is certainly our intention to love alike.

I am going to end this little chip of a blogspot with the following...

“One Love” by Hope Johnson

We are one,

A diverse group

Of proudly kindred spirits

Here, not by coincidence –

But because we choose to journey – together.

We are active and proactive

We care, deeply

We live our love, as best we can.

We ARE one

Working, Eating, Laughing,

Playing, Singing, Storytelling, Sharing and Rejoicing.

Getting to know each other.

Taking risks

Opening up.

Questioning, Seeking, Searching…

Trying to understand…


Making Mistakes

Paying Attention…

Asking Questions


Living our Answers

Learning to love our neighbours

Learning to love ourselves.

Apologizing and forgiving with humility

Being forgiven, through Grace.

Creating the Beloved Community – Together We are ONE.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Somebody To Lean On

"Lean on me" Bill Withers

Where do you turn in times of trouble, who or what do you lean on? I turn to people of course I do but for me the most important place I turn in times of trouble is God. These last twelve months I have turned, turned and turned again in difficult times. By turning to that infinite source that is never not there I am then better able to be of service to others. Something I have been able to do so in some pretty dark days these last 12 months, something I have been able to do these last few years.

I have been physically very ill these last two weeks and I have to say that prayer has helped immensely as I have had to just lay down and come to terms with the being completely incapacitated by illness. I have been deeply moved by the offers of help from so many people. It is good to know that you are loved. I have let people help me too. Perhaps this is the greatest gift you can give a person. For if I have learnt anything in life I have learnt that in that space when we give and receive, when we help one another, the Love that is God once again incarnates in life.

I am also grateful for those souls who have helped me in so many ways at different stages in my life. I have been guided during the darker times in my life. I have also been helped by people I have never even met by people who died even before I was born as everyone has. Those who passed on what they knew and helped those in their time and place that have impacted on we who live today. I noticed last week that 24th January was the 44th anniversary of Bill Wilson’s death. He died nine months before I was even born. He was one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous and the legacy that he has left behind have brought new life to millions of the lost and hopeless. That simple message of love and service that transformed his life and millions of others including me.

I have been carried in so many ways by so many people, often without noticing it. I offer eternal thanks and praise for this.

This brings to mind one of my favourite stories. Ir goes by the name "Heaven and Hell" or sometimes "Chopsticks"...

What are the differences between Heaven and Hell?, a young Zen monk asked an aged Buddhist priest who was renowned for his wisdom.

“There are no material difference,” replied the old monk.

“None at all?” asked the puzzled young monk.

“That’s right. Both Heaven and Hell have a spacious hall with a big pot in the centre in which noodles are boiled, giving off a delicious scent,” said the old priest. “The size of the huge pan, the number of people sitting around the pot and the bowl of sauce placed in front of each diner are the same in both places.”

“The odd thing is that each diner is given a pair of meter-long chopsticks and must use them to eat the noodles.”

“To eat the noodles, you must hold the chopsticks properly at their ends,” the old monk told the young Zen monk.

“In the case of Hell’s kitchen, people are always hungry because no matter how hard they try, they can’t get the noodles into their mouths,” said the old priest.

“But isn’t it the same for the people in Heaven? The junior monk inquired.

“No. They can eat because they each feed the person sitting opposite them at the table. That’s the difference between Heaven and Hell,” explained the old monk.

I love this story, one of my all-time favourites. I have come across several other versions of it from other traditions too. There is an almost identical version that is told from a Jewish perspective. In this tale the chopsticks are replaced with spoons.

In the story Heaven and Hell appear exactly the same and yet they are experienced oh so differently. In Hell all go hungry because everyone tries to feed themselves only, they are purely self reliant. And yet in heaven they attempt to feed one another and are therefore fed in abundance. To me this is as much about the relationships as the food going into one another’s mouths. I believe that we all possess an innate need to serve one another that if we do not do this part of our natural humanity withers away and dies off. By not serving one another we starve our souls.

I think that one of the greatest delusions of the modern era is the myth of self reliance, this idea that as individuals we have all that we need and that we do not need one another. Jeffrey Lockwood in his meditation “to ask is to give” claims that:

“...One of the great blessings of travel is to be put in a position of asking help from others, to be genuinely needful of strangers. Our illusion of self-reliance evaporates as the unexpected and unfamiliar merge into vulnerability. We offer the gift of authentic need, the opportunity for deep trust. We express to another person the most humanizing cross-cultural phrase: “Please help me.”...In our society, self-sufficiency is heralded as a virtue, and chronic dependence on others can be degrading. But never being asked to help another person is isolating, even dehumanizing. In a culture that exalts autonomy, asking for help may be one of the greatest gifts we offer. So much of life has become a calculation of costs and benefits; to ask assistance is to create the opportunity for unconditional giving in raw, spiritual defiance of economic rationality. We become mutually indebted without expectation of repayment. Each person in the relationship becomes a giver and receiver. Each one becomes more human. Each one has something to be thankful for.”

There are several slightly different accounts in the Gospels of Jesus feeding crowds of people. Now there is a real danger of losing the meaning behind these tales by engaging in winding arguments about their factual accuracy; to get hung up on a debate as to whether or not Jesus could feed the thousands of people present with just a few fish and loaves. Is this really what these stories are about? I do not think so. To get hung up on the factual accuracy is to miss the whole point of the teaching behind the story. Mythological tales are not about fact they are about revealing deeper universal truths.

There is a line in one account from Mark’s gospel (Ch 8 vv 1-9) where we hear the words “They ate and were filled”. During a conversation I had with Rev Brian Jackson a sadly recently deceased Methodist minister, this account really came to life. He explained that the story is really about the encounter that goes on between the disciples and the crowd that by feeding them face to face they are serving them, they are ministering to them. Yes the crowd’s physical hunger is met, while at the same time everyone’s spiritual hunger is met. Seemingly everyone ate and everyone was filled, abundantly, to overflowing.

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

It is not always easy asking for help and not always because of pride. In order to sincerely ask for help we have to trust who or what's hands we are putting our lives in.

I recently came across the following extract taken from “Telling Secrets” by Frederick Buechner


I remember sitting parked by the roadside once, terribly depressed and afraid about my daughter's illness and what was going on in our family, when out of nowhere a car came along down the highway with a license plate that bore on it the one word out of all the words in the dictionary that I needed most to see exactly then. The word was TRUST. What do you call a moment like that? Something to laugh off as the kind of joke life plays on us every once in a while? The word of God? I am willing to believe that maybe it was something of both, but for me it was an epiphany. The owner of the car turned out to be, as I'd suspected, a trust officer in a bank, and not long ago, having read an account I wrote of the incident somewhere, he found out where I lived and one afternoon brought me the license plate itself, which sits propped up on a bookshelf in my house to this day. It is rusty around the edges and a little battered, and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen.

...what a beautiful story...

I passed it on to a friend of mine and in reply she sent me the following message...

"Wow!! My mum & sister often see licence plates in the states too, in the traffic or on cars just cruising along in front of them & only yday my sister sent me this......! & this is the license plate they see often."

The name that they see is "Alf", the name of her brother who sadly is no surprise to me that this is the sign they see most often...

“Trust” an interesting word. In whom or what do we trust? What does it mean to trust? I believe that trust is about the heart, more than the head. In many ways it is a matter of faith. James Fowler taught that faith is really about what we trust, pointing out that the word “credo” which one normally translates as “I believe” really means “I trust”. He claims that belief is of the mind but faith and trust is of the heart. Claiming that "Trust" is about passion it’s about embracing life whole heartedly. It’s about awe and humility. It’s an active thing too. It is a way of being and living and breathing and doing. In some ways it resembles hope in that it is something that with give birth to through our own hearts. We gain trust, because we trust wholeheartedly.

Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” We become more trusting by living in a trusting way. It’s about having faith in life and ourselves. That said it does not mean that everything will work out as we want it to just because we trust. Sometimes it won’t.

Trust grows like faith if we live with it in our hearts. It grows through trial and error, by reaching out; like love and hope and anything else that really matters. We develop trust by simply trusting. It takes real courage to trust. And of course to have courage is to live whole heartedly.

Trust is not the expectation that everything will work out as we want it too. Trust is more about how we are in any given situation, how we behave in any given situation. Trust is not just about expecting things to work out immediately but that things will come good someday.

Steve Jobs the creature of Apple, who died a couple of years ago said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Trust is a risk; it is a reaching out without knowing what will come next.

Trust is about something more than ourselves of course. Trust is about relying on more than just our own resources; trust is about learning to rely on the whole of life. It is about leaning on others at times and allowing them to lean on you. It is about more than self. It’s about opening ourselves to one another and to that greater reality that permeates all life. To put it another way. It’s about letting go and letting God.

So in who or what do you trust? In times of trouble who or what do you lean on? Do you trust? Can others trust in you? Something to ponder perhaps...

I’m going to end with a few thoughts by Gunilla Norris titled “Flying with equals” taken from "Journeying in Place: Reflections from a country Garden"

I get a rush of hopeful feeling when I hear geese honking. I have never completely understood why. At first I thought it was because they had the freedom of the skyways . . . something high and romantic . . . something in contrast to my earthbound existence. But lately I have learned more about geese through an article a friend brought to share. This new information has fleshed out that spontaneous inner feeling of mine.

What I learned is that of all the creatures that I can see in this landscape, the geese best represent the communion of saints. They depend on one another. The lead goose does the most work, but when it is tired, it falls back and another takes its place. To be able to rely on others is a deep trust that does not come easy.

The geese fly in the wake of one another’s wings. They literally get a lift from one another. I want to be with others this way. Geese tell me that it is, indeed, possible to fly with equals.

The high honking I hear when I stand on the ground and look up is the sound of encouragement the geese make to keep on flying. It is a loud and happy sound in my ears. I want to honk with others on the journey.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

There are tears of laughter too

Last Friday I attended the funeral of Sheila Jones at the crematorium at Southern Cemetery Manchester. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the place so full. It was a deeply moving service that spoke powerfully of the woman that she was.

 I first got to know Sheila properly when I was a student minister and over the years we have had many deep and meaningful conversations, shared our personal struggles and tragedies and shared so much of our personal experiences. We also laughed many times together at the absurdities of life, both our own and that of others. Sheila was the last, of a long list of people, who have touched my life in so many ways who died last year.

Now during the service they read these beautiful words from Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes 3 vv 1-8

3For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Words that whenever I hear them, more than when I read them, always touch that special place deep in the soul of me. They are words that are fitting for any season and any emotion and speak powerfully to me of the year that has passed and no doubt every year that I will be fortunate enough to experience in the future. Ecclesiastes speaks that truth of truths that whatever we are feeling or experiencing at the moment is always fleeting and that “this too shall pass” that nothing is permanent in life, it is forever changing and however you feel about a situation right now, you will feel differently soon. This is both good and bad news, well actually it is just reality.

Last week was the first anniversary of my granddad’s death. His was the first of so many losses last year. In a couple of weeks it will be the first anniversary of my brother, our Allen’s death. I shed my tears last week as I remembered the old lad and re-felt the pain of his loss, I also spoke with a few folk and remembered the man that he was and all that he meant to me, the gifts he had given me. My granddad had a wonderful sense of humour and could find the funniness in most situations, no matter how difficult. He was very funny, sometimes inappropriately so, but my word was he funny. Such a sharp wit, with little quips. Never told jokes, but never needed to, really funny people don’t need to tell jokes. He still had the capacity to make me laugh, just days before he died as he lay there in the hospice and all I could do was weep. He wasn’t trying to keep his spirits up, he was doing it for me and today I understand why. That is a true act of love. He was more concerned about how I felt in that situation than himself. He had accepted that his life was ending and was at peace with it.

“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” And the seasons turn and pass and come again. Last year one line “A time to weep and a time to laugh” took on a whole new and deeper meaning. Last year I wept more than I have ever done and by the same token I suspect I laughed more than I have ever done. I know for a fact I felt more than I ever done. I have never been more alive. I lived with an un-defended heart and saw the truth that this truly is the only way to live. I felt every breath, I did not turn away. I have never felt the presence of God more deeply.

Now I’ve not always been the kind of man who was easily moved to tears. I was as a boy, but not always as a man. There have been seasons of my life where there were few if any tears, those times when nothing touched me. I can hardly remember those seasons sadly, sometimes trying to remember those soulless days can bring tears to my eyes today.

The seasons of my life that I remember by heart and not merely head are the ones in which I have shed tears. Whether they were tears of joy; tears of sorrow; tears of awe; tears of pain; tears of frustration; tears of relief; tears of laughter. These are the thick seasons when the most profound experiences of life have occurred and deeper understanding has usually followed. During these moments I have learnt what it means to be alive. These moments have shaped my soul and built my character.

I wonder what this season will bring? Let’s not wish it away.

When I was a younger man one thing that always disturbed me about funerals was how much laughter I would hear at them. At that time in my life it was something I didn’t really understand. In those days all I could feel was the sadness. Now while I may not fully understand it today, I do experience it. I understand that just like tears laughter is a communal experience, just as we bind together in our tears and suffering we are also bound together in our joy and laughter. When people laugh together there is nothing more beautiful, it can be infectious too.

Now I’m not talking about the kind of laughter and humour that is simply mocking, especially of those weaker in society, I’m not sure this is humour at all. It certainly isn’t inspired by joyousness, more cynicism, which no one is immune from,

Add caption
Spiritual freedom brings with it the ability to laugh and not to take yourself too seriously, but it’s not about picking at other people’s perceived faults and inadequacies. This does not bring people together it just aids a sense of superiority at the expense of another. There is nothing liberating or freeing in this.

Now religion and spirituality are not often arenas where humour is obviously found and yet I have come to know that the more spiritually liberated I have become, and the more religious in its truest sense I have become, the more I have discovered my own funny bones. When I saw life as a tragedy I never felt more alone and yet when I began to see life more as kind of divine comedy with tragic elements I began to feel a part of life once more.

The ancient Greeks understood this. From their religious rituals grew two forms of theatre. One was tragedy and the other was comedy, the rituals of Dionysius incorporated both elements. The tragedies motto was “woe is me”, they portrayed situations in which the people, due to their natures, were fated to focus on their own suffering. Whereas the comedies motto was “Get over yourself”, they too expressed situations that included suffering but in these tales the people were enabled to discover ways out of these situations.

Comedy is there in the Abrahamic faiths too. There is a rich tradition of humour in Judaism, but humour is also a part of both Christian and Islamic traditions. Mulla Nasrudin is the archetype of the holy fool. found in virtually every tradition. The early Christian Desert Father’s found humour within their spirituality too. You will also find humour in the parables and stories from the eastern traditions as well. You can find many of these tales in "Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart: Parables of the Spiritual Path from round the Word" edited by Christina Fieldman and Jack Kornfield It saddens me that in the modern age so much of this seems to have got lost as the poe faced and more puritanical factions have become the dominant elements in religion. And yet as Karl Barth has claimed “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” "

“laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”

Why is this you might well ask? Well because laughter brings us together, it takes us beyond the confines of our narrow selves. It takes us beyond the confines of our own thinking minds, it helps not to take ourselves too seriously and opens our hearts beyond the confines of our own egos, there is a reason that it is said to be the best medicine. As J.B. Priestly claimed “There is in happiness an element of self-forgetfulness. You lose yourself in something outside yourself when you are happy; just as when you are desperately miserable you are intensely conscious of yourself, you are a solid little lump of ego weighing a ton.”

There is a place for silliness, especially in the most difficult of times. Last week as I was leaving what they called the “get together” after Sheila’s funeral I spoke to one of my favourite and naturally funny people Peter Sampson, I acted the goat and then for some reason apologised for being silly. Peter just smiled and laughed and then rather lovingly said you weren’t being silly, you were being you. I walked away smiling and chuckling to myself. It was one of those lovely moments of connection that lifted both of us up in what was a rather difficult time.

It brought to mind some rather lovely words by the Bendictine nun and author Joan Chittister, that a friend recently posted on facebook

“Humor gives a people dignity in situations that denigrate them. Laughter gives us relief from the burden of dailiness. No amount of coercion can break an unbreakable spirit, humor teaches us.. . . Humor cuts oppressors down to size, takes their sting away, renders them powerless to destroy us. Don't give in to what diminishes you. Learn to laugh at it and reduce its power over you.”

Now these words led me to the following by the great pre-war American theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick, he wrote “Happiness at its deepest and best is not the portion of a cushioned life which never struggled,...bore hardships, or adventured in sacrifice for costly aims. A heart of joy is never found in luxuriously coddled lives, but in men and women who achieve and dare, who have tried their powers against antagonisms, who have met even sickness and bereavement and have tempered their souls in fire…”

An undefended heart is one that both gives and receives laughter.

As John O’Donohue claimed "I think that laughter is one of the really vital dimensions of the divine presence that has been totally neglected.

I often feel when the Divine One beholds us obsessed in our intricate maze of anxiety and planning and intentionality, that She can’t stop laughing.

It’s great for people, actually, to laugh, too. I love a sense of humour in a person. It’s one of my favorite things, because I think when somebody laughs, they break out of every system that they’re in.

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."

In the face of the difficulties that we all face it is laughter and the sharing of it that helps us to stay open hearted and fully engaged. Laughter can hold us together when all around us can appear to be falling apart and it can also connect us once again when we are tempted to retreat back into ourselves. Laughter is the greatest medicine and maybe it truly is the closest thing to the grace of God.

None of us knows what this season will bring. There will be tears, but not always of sorrow, there will be joy and laughter too, if we can but stay open hearted and refuse to retreat back into those shells of self-protection. Let’s not be afraid of our tears, for there are tears of laughter too. Let’s enjoy this season for none of us know how many seasons we have left; let’s not forget, in the words of Conrad Hyers "The first and last word belong to God and therefore not to death but life, not to sorrow but joy, not to weeping but laughter. For surely it is God who has the last laugh."

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Spiritual Well-Being

Often at the beginning of a new year people resolve to live more healthily. Gym membership sores at this time of the year in an attempt to improve our physical lives. I know I would certainly benefit from getting physically healthier.

Physical well-being is of course on many of our minds this winter for other reasons too, there does seem to have been more than the average number of nasty viruses about that have ruined the Christmas and New Year festivities of many.

Yes physical well-being is on our minds at this time of the year.

Now while there is a great deal of talk of improving our physical well-being, which is of course important, there seems to be less talk of taking care of our spiritual well-being, which actually may well be more vital. If I have learnt anything in life I know that my emotional, mental and physical well-being rests on my spiritual health.

I remember that wise man from Oldham saying to me ten or more years ago, “If you are spiritually well, the rest will be taken care of.” How true this is. I learnt many years ago not to put the horse before the cart, a lesson I have never forgotten.

Spiritual well-being is vital. How do I know this? Well for many years it was something I lacked and as a result my life was devoid of all meaning and connection. I was just an empty vessel blown about in the storms of life. I was lonely, I was lost and I was ruled by fear of pretty much everything. This is no longer the case and the reason for this is that I found both an anchor and rudder as well as the ability to set my sails accordingly when the winds really blow. The key to this is spiritual well-being.

Medical practioners are increasingly recognising the potential benefits that spiritual well-being can bring. A spiritually healthy person tends to be at ease with themselves and comfortable in their own skin and surroundings. They have a developing awareness of themselves and those around them; they tend to act with patience, honesty, kindness, hope, wisdom, joy and creativity; they have a healthy relationships with the people they share their lives with as well as a hope filled view of life and a sense of inner peace and acceptance of problems we all face in life. While their recovery from both illness and bereavement tend to be less problematic.

Spiritual well-being is vital to a life of meaning and purpose and yet so many people in our increasing secularised age neglect this. Yes many folks may have a near perfect buffed body and a sharp mind and yet they can still feel empty, lonely and utterly disconnected.

Why is this? Well I suspect it is because increasingly we neglect our souls.

So how do we take better care of our spiritual well-being? Well it probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that Forrest Church offered some thoughts on this. In his book “Freedom from Fear” he offers a simple 10 step regime that was designed initially to overcome self-created fear but as he has suggested in subsequent articles can work just as easily on developing our general spiritual well-being and help get our souls in shape.

I will share and reflect on these ideas with you.

The first thing that he suggest is to breathe, that by simply taking deep cleansing breaths we will quickly discover that the “breath of life communicates the secret to relaxation (that blessed state in which all other spiritual exercises suddenly become possible).”

Experience has shown to me how vital this is. I used to suffer terribly from anxiety and connecting through breath was one way that I overcame that a decade ago. All meditation begins by simply connecting to the breath.

His second suggestion is to “lighten up” Stating that “"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly," wrote the English author G. K. Chesterton. By the same token, surely the devil fell on account of his gravity. What works for angels can’t help but be good for us. Levity addresses worry’s tendency to obsess; scoffs at the demon of perfectionism; and exposes (as our enemy, not our friend) the self-absorption that lies at the root of insecurity and unhappiness. When we laugh—especially at ourselves—we fill the present with instant joy.”

I learnt a long time ago that “life is far too serious a business to be taken too seriously. I remember at school an old biology teacher telling me that a man who cannot laugh at himself will always struggle. It is something I have never forgotten. I hated him for it at the time, because I knew I took myself far too seriously and just couldn’t free myself from this blight. I just took everything so personally. Thankfully I learnt a long time ago that if ever I want a good laugh I just have to listen to myself.

His third suggestion is “Pray for someone you hate” claiming that we should choose our enemies with care as it is likely we could easily become like them. Hatred is a real burden to carry although according to Church it is surprisingly simple to be set free from. He suggests that all we have to do is close our eyes imagine the face of our enemies and simply pray, "May so and so find peace within his or her soul."

My word does this work. I have experienced the reality that it is impossible to both hate and pray for a person at the same time. The key is in seeing our shared humanity. This begins with real empathy. Once I recognised my own imperfections it became easier for me to accept those in others and to therefore wish for them what I would wish for myself and those I love the most. I have been set free from so much of the hatred and anger that used to weigh me down, like Marley’s ghost.

His next suggestion is to “Pray for the right miracle. If healthy, pray for health. Anyone who is ailing will remind you what a blessing health is. Then pray for sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste—whichever of these senses you are blessed with; millions of people aren’t, you know. Finally, pray for the sympathy of those who are concerned about your plight, whatever it may be. The love of those who love you is a gift. Say "Thank you." Miracles happen.”

Thank you truly is the perfect prayer. I remember many years ago hearing a man share that when he went swimming he would say “thank you” with every breath. This really touched me and helped me to truly understand the meaning of gratitude.

His fifth suggestion is “Pool your tears”. Suggesting that our tears whether of joy or sorrows are precious and that we should follow the example of the ancient Hebrews and collect them and share them communally.

I learnt a long time ago that spirituality at its core is about increasing our sensitivity to life. I have shed more tears this last twelve months than any other year of my life. Materially speaking it has been a tough one, I have lost so many people I have loved deeply, and yet in many ways spiritually speaking I have never felt more liberated. I suspect that the reason for this is that I have honoured rather than been ashamed of my tears. I have not hid them away I have shared them communally and thus I have never felt more alive.

His sixth suggestion is “Hang up your troubles”, suggesting that we follow the example set in the following story, “The Worry Tree”

"The Carpenter I hired to help me restore and old farmhouse had just finished a rough first day on the job. A flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit, and now his ancient pickup truck refused to start. While I drove him home, he sat in stony silence.

On arriving, he invited me in to meet his family. As we walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands. When opening the door, he underwent an amazing transformation. His face wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.

Afterward he walked me to the car. We passed the tree and my curiosity got the better of me. I asked him about what I had seen him do earlier.

"Oh, that's my trouble tree", he replied. "I know I can't help having troubles on the job, but one thing for sure, troubles don't belong in the house with my wife and the children. So I just hang them on the tree every night when I come home. Then in the morning I pick them up again."

"Funny thing is", he smiled, "when I come out in the morning to pick 'em up, there ain't nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.""

Forrest suggests that instead of bringing our troubles home with us and infecting everything that we do and engage with at home that we hang them on our worry trees and thus give those we love the attention they both deserve and require. If we do we may just find, as in the story, that when we come to pick them up in the morning there aren’t as many as there was when you left them there the night before.

Gosh how true is this. I learnt a long time I ago that if I deal with each day and put my troubles to bed before I settle down for the evening that not only do I sleep better - I have not suffered insomnia for 10 years and yet for 20 I hardly ever slept naturally – I have also discovered that come the next day the problems are less weighty and as if by magic many of them have blown away in the night.

His seventh suggestion is to “Unwrap the present”. As he states “You may remember the magic mirror in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” It reflects the fondest dreams of anyone who gazes into it. For instance, Ron sees himself being crowned the Quiddich champion. Harry imagines himself reunited with his parents, both of whom are dead. The wizard tells Harry, "It is bad for you to spend so much time in front of that mirror." He explains that only when we look into the magic mirror and see ourselves as we actually are can we be accounted truly happy. Why? Because the past is over and the future uncertain. Nostalgia dwells on loss; and expectation is often nothing more than premeditated resentment. Rejecting both—by wanting what we have, doing what we can, and being who we are—the gift of time is ours to savor and to save”

When I began to learn to love myself warts and all and beauty spots too, to learn to be who I truly I was, I was better able to live a life of good use and purpose and truly live in the present moment. That said that in order to do this I first of all had to come to peace with my past, my whole past. I think of all of Forrest’s suggestions that this one has proved and continues to prove the greatest challenge.

His eighth suggestion is to “Remember the Secret to Everything” that it’s not all about you, that as Rev Bill Coffin said "There is no smaller package in the world than someone who is all wrapped up in himself." That the over examined life is not worth living. That we must not spend too much time lost in our own underwear.

Now this may well be the secret of all secrets. The greatest danger in trying to improve our own lives as how easy it is to become wrapped up in this venture and actually decrease our spiritual well-being. I know above everything that self absorption and self obsession have been the greatest barriers to my spiritual well-being. As the song goes "You do it to yourself, you do and that's why it really hurts."

His ninth suggestion is to “Wish on a star” pointing out that by the latest reckoning there are some two trillion stars in the universe for every single human being. That we should contemplate the incredible odds that we should even exist at all and the fact that we live at all is miraculous in and of itself. While at the same time recognising that we are all connected too by a single incredible unbroken thread that goes back to the moment of creation. He states that “The universe was pregnant with you when it was born. So how about a quick and simple cosmic move. Go out this very evening. Wish on one of your two trillion stars.”

As I began to understand the reality of this that existential angst that plagued my life seemed to disappear and it helped me to understand that everything matters, every feeling, every thought, every breath matters. We are all a part of this one amazing thing that is life.

Forrest’s final suggestion is that we “Let go for dear life.” He asks “ What do you worry about most? Is it your children? Or maybe your parents, suddenly like children in their dependency on you? Is it your health—a disease or condition you have now or fear contracting? How about death—or does the pain and possible bondage associated with dying worry you more? After doing what we can to shape our destiny, the best response to life’s slings and arrows lies in ceding power that was never ours to exercise in the first place. We can do this begrudgingly or with grace, one day at a time, wanting what we have, not lamenting what we lack. The results will be almost the same in either case. Our parents will pass on; our children will leave home in pursuit of their own lives and dreams. The only difference is that fear will not preside over each departure, and love will be free to reign in its stead.”

Of all the things I have learnt in life I have learnt that by letting go of the need to control everything and accepting reality as it is I have been set free to enjoy life as it actually is. It doesn’t take away any of the pain or suffering present in all life, but it does set me free to experience the joy that accompanies that very same suffering.

So these are Forrest's 10 suggestions on how to improve our spiritual well-being. It sounds like quite a task. My suggestion to you is to try implementing perhaps one or two of them. Maybe simply begin with your breath and the sense of connection that we a part of something much greater than our singular selves, but a part that matters, really matters. Know that you are loved and recognise that love that you are formed from both within yourselves and your brothers and sisters, even those you consider to be your enemies.

As we step into the future let’s wish for something we can have, something upon which everything else hangs. Let us wish for improved spiritual well-being. This is not merely wishful thinking, but thoughtful wishing for it is something that is within our breath. And where does this begin? Well it begins with our next breath.

So let’s breathe in life and breathe out love.

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with a few words by John O'Donohue offering us a way to reclaim the sacred in your everyday moments, by suggesting some questions we might ask ourselves at the end of the day...

At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions" by John O’ Donohue

What dreams did I create last night?
Where did my eyes linger today?
Where was I blind?
Where was I hurt without anyone noticing?
What did I learn today?
What did I read?
What new thoughts visited me?
What differences did I notice in those closest to me?
Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?
Did I remember the dead today?
Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?
With whom today did I feel most myself?
What reached me today? How deeply did it imprint?
Who saw me today?
What visitations had I from the past and from the future?
What did I avoid today?
From the evidence – why was I given this day?