Saturday, 21 March 2015

Humility: Grounded in our Common Humanity

I am a follower of David Whyte on facebook, there is something about the way he writes that touches the soul of me. He recently posted the following extract and it chimed with some thoughts I'd been having

“Ground” by David Whyte

Ground is what lies beneath our feet. It is the place where we already stand; a state of recognition, the place or the circumstances to which we belong whether we wish to or not. It is what holds and supports us, but also what we do not want to be true; it is what challenges us, physically or psychologically, irrespective of our hoped for needs. It is the living, underlying foundation that tells us what we are, where we are, what season we are in and what, no matter what we wish in the abstract, is about to happen in our body, in the world or in the conversation between the two.

To come to ground is to find a home in circumstances and in the very physical body we inhabit in the midst of those circumstances and above all to face the truth, no matter how difficult that truth may be; to come to ground is to begin the courageous conversation, to step into difficulty and by taking that first step, begin the movement through all difficulties, to find the support and foundation that has been beneath our feet all along: a place to step onto, a place on which to stand and a place from which to step.

‘Ground’ in “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.” © David Whyte and Many Rivers Press 2015

David's words chimed with thoughts I'd had around being at home within our own humanity and that to be fully human is to be grounded in the one earth, to be human is to be truly humble

In my last "blogspot" I explored the idea of home, of coming home, of their being “No Place Like Home”. I talked about being at home in our own being, in our own selves. About experiencing this sense of belonging within our own souls. It has been a theme I explored quite a bit these last few weeks. I made reference to the Operatta “Clari, or, the Maid of Milan”, where the phrase "There's no place like home" comes from. The complete couplet reads “Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam. Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”

It’s the words “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home” that have been gently swimming around in my heart, these last few days, this idea of home being a humble place. About home being this place where we find ourselves and being grounded in the place that we find ourselves. This idea that being at home is being at peace with ourselves. That when we are at home with ourselves we can be at home with everyone else.

Now this got me thinking about what it means to be truly humble.

I suspect that to be truly humble is to be at home in our own humanity, to be grounded in our own reality. I also suspect that humility has something to do with being grounded in our shared humanity too. To be truly humble is to recognise that we are a part of something larger than our singular selves.

I connected with this even more deeply at about 9.30am on Friday morning, 20th May, as I and millions of others stood outside and experienced a solar eclipse. It was a beautiful and eerie experience, that united people up and down the land and others lands too.

I have recently been attending a series of Lent Breakfasts talks hosted by Churches Together in Urmston, during one we explored the subject of “Humility” as a virtue, specifically looking at the concept of humbling ourselves before God. Within Christianity this is enshrined in the image of the humble servant and message of self-sacrifice. Some of the conversation troubled me as it seemed to portray humanity and humility in a very negative light. There is more to both humanity and humility than this I think.

When I think of being truly humble it is a verse from the Book of Micah Ch6 v 8 that always comes to mind “He has told you what is good, to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” I love these words mainly because they are not about being meek and mild and bowing and scraping, they are not self-deprecating or denigrating. Too often humility is seen in this way, particularly from a religious perspective, as kind of excuse for suffering and or meekness. To me this is not true humility; true humility is about recognising the virtues of doing justice, living in love and recognising our common humanity.

I do not believe that humility is about shrinking and bowing down and becoming servile and scraping. Instead it is about recognising our full humanity and in doing so recognising the duty that this brings both to ourselves, our world, the people we share it with and our God that we walk humbly with.

I believe that  Dag Hammarskjold, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, expressed the true meaning of humility when he said:

"Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe. It is-nothing, yet at the same time one with everything."

Humility is an interesting word, when understood correctly. It has its roots in the word “humus” which means earth. By the way human and humanity share the very same root, something that Forrest Church often spoke of. In “Bringing God Home: A Traveller’s Guide” he wrote:

“The word human has a telling etymology, my very favourite. All the words that relate to it – humane, humanitarian, humor, humility, humble, and humus – are illuminating. From dust to dust, the mortar of mortality binds us fast to one another. Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike trace their ancestry to the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, where God proclaims to Eve and Adam (whose name means “out of red clay”), “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground, for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Being humble is connected to being grounded. To be truly humble is to recognise our honest place in the world and life in general, whilst recognising that life itself does not revolve around us. Humility is at the core of my understanding of my Unitarian faith, I believe that we are a truly humble faith. Our tradition is open and accepting, we welcome diversity, we honour one another’s points of view. Are these not by their very nature acts of humility? And in doing so are we not accepting that each of us have limits to our own individual perspectives; that we need to listen to one another in order to see new and deeper truths; that we cannot make sense of anything alone. This is free religion in its essence, this coming together and experiencing more than we could have imagined alone, by coming together, in love. We honour and acknowledge that on our own we cannot know everything and that by listening to others who may see and understand things differently we are challenged to expand our understandings, doing so in love and respect and honouring these differences. Humility is about rejoicing in the challenge that others who see things differently can reveal to us and therefore expand our understanding. This is encapsulated beautifully by Margaret Wheatley's meditation "Disturb Me Please" There follows an extract from it:

"What if we were to be together and listen to each other's comments with a willingness to expose rather than to confirm our own beliefs and opinions? What if we were to willingly listen to one another with the awareness that we each see the world in unique ways? And with the expectation that I could learn something new if I listen for the differences rather than the similarities?

We have this opportunity many times in a day, everyday. What might we see, what might we learn, what might we create together, if we become this kind of listener, one who enjoys the differences and welcomes in disturbance? I know we would be delightfully startled by how much difference there is. And then we would be wonderfully comforted by how much closer we became, because every time we listen well, we move towards each other. From our new thoughts and our new companions, we would all become wiser.

It would be more fruitful to explore this strange and puzzling world if we were together. It would also be far less frightening and lonely. We would be together, brought together by our differences rather than separated by them. When we are willing to be disturbed by newness rather than clinging to our certainty, when we are willing to truly listen to someone who sees the world differently, then wonderful things happen. We learn that we don't have to agree with each other in order to explore together. There is no need to be joined together at the head, as long as we are joined together at the heart."

Here Margaret captures near perfectly the concept of like hearted rather than like minded people, that I wrote of in a recent blogspot

That’s free religion, that’s a humble approach to faith. That’s true humility and humanity. That’s being grounded in my book.

To be humble is to realise our true humanity and to recognise that we are formed from the same earth as everyone else and that we have that same spirit within us as everyone else. It is to recognise the oneness of us all. It is also about standing in the place where we find ourselves and accepting that reality. It’s about living in the mud and muck that is life. This is where life is and this is where we truly belong.

To be truly humble and therefore human is also to recognise our individual finiteness, that our individual lives will one day come to an end. It is to recognise that we are not all powerful and that we need one another and to be a part of something Greater than ourselves. It’s about immersing ourselves in the ground in which we stand and the world in which we live, there is something about a collective wholeness in all of this, it's about how we treat one another. This I hear in those words from Micah “to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”

This is not the passivity that can sometimes come with ideas around humility. Walking humbly with God, is about being grounded wholly in the life in which we live. It’s about opening all our senses to all that we live within, even that which makes us uncomfortable, it’s about total immersion in life. It’s not about trying to control or manipulate life, but about being at one with it all.

To be truly humble and therefore human is to recognise that we are not isolated beings but truly connected and dependent on one another and all life, it is about being grounded in reality. Humility is in some ways a call to action, to fully engage with the reality in which we find ourselves and do what we can to improve the aspect of creation in which are feet are planted. In so doing we will know that we truly belong here.

To be truly humble and therefore fully human is to be at home both within ourselves and the ground in which we stand. It’s about being fully immersed in reality, it’s to be truly connected to the reality that lays within us and beyond and to recognise that there is a oneness in all life, that we play a small and vital role in creating.

Humility is to be grounded in our common humanity.

I will end this little chip of a blogspot with the following words by Ralph N Helverson “Impassioned Clay" followed by “Poem of Perfect Miracles.” By Walt Whitman

Deep in ourselves resides the religious impulse.
Out of the passion of our clay it rises.

We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.

We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present, some self-respect beyond our failures.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream in the heart.

We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received.

We have religion when we look upon people with all of their failings and still find in them good; when we look beyond people to the grandeur in nature and to the purpose in our own heart.

We have religion when we have done all that we can, and then in confidence entrust ourselves to the life that this larger than ourselves.

“Poem of Perfect Miracles.” By Walt Whitman

REALISM is mine, my miracles,
Take all of the rest—take freely—I keep
but my own—I give only of them,
I offer them without end—I offer them to you
wherever your feet can carry you, or your
eyes reach.

Why! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward
the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in
the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love—or sleep in
the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at the table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of an
August forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,

Or birds—or the wonderfulness of insects in the
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down—or of
stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new-
moon in May,
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that
like me best—mechanics, boatmen, farmers,
Or among the savans—or to the soiree—or to
the opera,
Or stand a long while looking at the movements
of machinery,
Or behold children at their sports,
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or
the perfect old woman,
Or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass,
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me
The whole referring—yet each distinct and in its

To me, every hour of the light and dark is a
Every inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is
spread with the same,

Every cubic foot of the interior swarms with the
Every spear of grass—the frames, limbs, organs,
of men and women, and all that concerns
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.

To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion
of the waves—the ships, with men in them
—what stranger miracles are there?

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Mothering Sunday: There's No Place Like Home

Today is Mothering Sunday or as it is more commonly known these days Mother’s Day. For most of us it is a day of joy; a day set a-side to celebrate the gift of motherhood. That said this is not the case for everyone. For some it will be a day tinged with sadness as they remember the mum’s they have lost, who are no longer here. For some mothers it is a time to remember lost children, either through un-reconcilable differences or deaths dark shadow. This day I will be remembering those mothers too.

I will also be remembering those mothers’s whose children are far away from home and who worry about them every day. I will also think of those of us who have never born children who have never experienced that gift, due to a variety of circumstances. I will also remember those, who for whatever reason, find their relationships with their own mothers or their own children difficult, for who today may bring up painful and difficult emotions...I will pause this morning and hold those for whom today will be a difficult and painful day. I will then celebrate motherhood, perhaps life's greatest gift.

I recently came across the following:

“Where the Heart is” by Jo Ann Passariello Deck

“I used to laugh at my Italian relatives who always wanted to sit in the kitchen. They even built houses without dining rooms. Big kitchens were all they wanted. They lived their whole lives in those kitchen, around the stove, eating, talking, playing cards, reading newspapers, drinking coffee. When they weren’t around the stove, they were in church, in God’s home, but that’s another story.

Home is where the stove is. When I think of all the places I’ve lived, I think of what I cooked in the kitchen: cheese tarts in Cambridge, beet soup in Berkeley, and shrimp curry in Singapore. Home is where I saute the garlic and chop the onion, where the frying pan makes music.

An old Russian proverb says, “The oven is the mother.” Food, warmth, acceptance, I can find it all at the stove.”

Home and food are two places that always conjure up images of motherhood. I don’t wish to get shot down for appearing un-politically correct but that sense of maternal love always brings to my heart images of being fed and of feeling at home in the company of people. People so often express their love through food, they make you feel welcome by feeding you. They offer hospitality by offering food and room at their table. Or at least that’s what they’ve always done with me.

Mothering Sunday, whatever its actual true origins is enshrined in this image of returning home. Whether that is of children returning to the family home having been working away or of people returning to the mother church. Either way it’s about returning home to a place of safety and I believe sustenance, whether that be actual physical food or spiritual food; whether that be Simnal Cake, or the bread of heaven.

They say that home is where the heart is and they also “There’s No Place Like Home”.

Now this instantly brings up two images into the heart of my mind. One is of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. In the film she begins by singing of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” a place away from the drudgery, of the mundainity, of life where she could be set free from the confines of home, but at the end she clicks those ruby slippers and says those immortal words. "There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like like home.” Dorothy has been on a spiritual journey and encountered all manner of fascinating friends along the way. She has also fought off enemies who wanted to destroy her. She has experienced and learnt so much, but in the end she just wants to return home.

Home is where your heart is and it is also where your hearth is. I remember Yvonne Aburrow once telling me that the ancient Romans “viewed the hearth as the centre or focus of the home. It was where the family offerings to the family gods were made.”...she went on to say...”I think a room is incomplete without a hearth or an altar to focus it and in some rooms, the TV is the focus instead of the hearth-fire.”

For many home is the embodiment of safety and acceptance, the heart and the hearth of a loving family. Robert Frost wrote that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

Home is a tiny word but a powerful word and one so rich in meaning. It is a word that can hold such dreams of possibilities or nightmares of hurt. It is more than a physical place it is an idea, a feeling, a vision. It is something that we carry with us as we journey through life; it is not just something that we seek. For some it is a place that they are fleeing from, a place of repression and not a place of loving possibility. That said whatever it is we are fleeing from in the end we all must return home, just as Dorothy did.

The other image that home brings into the heart of my mind is something that has adorned many homes over the years, something that is usually sown, it’s the following simple words “There’s No Place Like Home”. Now the source of these simple words is the song titled “Home, Sweet Home” from the words of John Howard Payne’s nineteenth century operatta “Clari, or the Maid of Milan”. The full verse reads as follows

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home;
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there,
Which seek thro' the world, is ne'er met elsewhere.
Home! Home!
Sweet, sweet home!
There's no place like home
There's no place like home!

These are the words that Dorothy repeats as she clicks her Ruby slippers and wishes to return to that place of safety.

When I think of Motherhood and or the Mother Church this is what I think of, of returning to a place of sustenance of nurture where one feels that they can recharge and renew in safety. These do not have to be physical places or even people. Actually the truth is you need not go anywhere. This place of nurture of sustenance can only really be found in the ground where you stand, in fact the truth is what we really need to do is find ourselves at home within our own being.

This got me thinking of the following I recently came across...

“God Moving Through the Day With Me” by Macrina Wiederkehr

"As the stars again become visible tonight, I am reminded of a feast of leisure from my childhood days. I remember, on summer evenings, sitting outside on a quilt with Mama waiting for the stars to come out. Looking back at that moment with my adult eyes, I understand that God is Someone who has taken the time to sit on a quilt with me waiting for beauty. She is a Mother of Presence. I need only invite her into my moments of leisure. Her presence will empower my presence.

"As I tried to bring a deeper quality of presence to all my works this day, I found God moving through the day with me, like a Mother, opening my eyes to beauty, quietly, joyfully, gratefully, without complaining, I welcomes all the beauty that crossed my path."

“She is a Mother of Presence. I need only invite her into my moments of leisure. Her presence will empower my presence.” These words really struck me as I read them the other day. They sank deep into the soul of me as I thought about the last few weeks of my life. As any regular follower of my blog will know I’ve suffered a couple of bouts of ill health this year, something I’m not used to. In so many ways it has knocked me for six and certainly humbled me as I have not been able to do the things I normally would do. I have had to physically isolate myself for periods of time. I have spent hours, nay days completely physically alone. Do you know what it has done me the power of good as I have sought those deeper resources in the soul of me. I have had to sit, well actually lay with uncomfortable lonely feelings and in the discomfort of this I have connected to those aspects of myself at the heart, at the hearth of my being. It has brought me closer to the God of my own limited understanding as I have not tried to fill the hole in the soul of me with people, places and things. It has brought with it a deeper sense of belonging both within myself, this life and God. It has been a time of nurture and love.

When I think of motherhood and the mother church and mother God for that matter it is nurture that comes into the heart of my mind. For so long I sought in life to feed this hole within when all that I needed was already here I just needed to allow it to come alive, to feed it, to nurture it, to bring it to life. Eileen Caddy of the Findhorn community has said “All you need is deep within you waiting to unfold and reveal itself. All you have to do is to be still and to take time to seek for what is within, and you will surely find it.”

At the beginning of Lent I committed to spending time in the wilderness within; I committed to allow myself to spend time alone so as to come to terms more deeply with who I am and then to be better prepared to truly use the gifts I have and to be of better service to the world in which I find myself. 

Now what Mothering Sunday teaches me is that this needs to be done in a loving and nurturing way. It also reminds me that when I do so I am not really venturing into the wild alone, that eternal love is always present in my DNA, in the marrow of my soul, everything I need is already there. So that if things get too much I can always do a Dorothy and click my own ruby slippers and be transported to the loving arms of “Warm Mother God”.

In “Anam Cara” John O’Donohue wrote “The heart is the inner face of your life. The human journey strives to make this inner face beautiful. It is here that love gathers within you. Love is absolutely vital for a human life. For love alone can awaken what is divine within you. In love, you grow and come home to yourself. When you learn to love and let yourself be loved, you come home to the hearth of your own spirit. You are warm and sheltered.”

It seems to me this is what is at the heart of “Mothering Sunday”. This idea of coming home of truly finding shelter in your own home, which is your own heart. Of returning to that love that is Divine, that is truly a part of who we truly are, of recognising the truth spoken during “The Sermon on the Mount”, that we truly are the light of the world. That we are here to nurture that light from which we are formed and to bring that loving light to life as a loving mother would do.

My simple message this “Mothering Sunday” is let’s learn to truly be at home within our own hearts and our own hearths. Let us learn to truly welcome, love and nurture our own lives. Let us truly recognise that we are the light of the world and let us enable that light shine over all our world. When we let our little lights shine we truly can be of service to this our love starved world.

I will end this little chip of a blogspot with the following words of prayer...

"Prayer for All Who Mother" By Victoria Weistein

We reflect in thanksgiving this day for all those whose lives have nurtured ours.

The life-giving ones
Who heal with their presence
Who listen in sympathy
Who give wise advice ... but only when asked for it.
We are grateful for all those who have mothered us
Who have held us gently in times of sorrow
Who celebrated with us our triumphs -- no matter how small
Who noticed when we changed and grew,
who praised us for taking risks
who took genuine pride in our success,
and who expressed genuine compassion when we did not succeed.
On this day that honours Mothers
let us honour all mothers
men and women alike
who from somewhere in their being
have freely and wholeheartedly given life, and sustenance, and vision to us.
Dear God, Mother-Father of us all,
grant us life-giving ways
strength for birthing,
and a nurturing spirit
that we may take attentive care of our world,
our communities, and those precious beings
entrusted to us by biology, or by destiny, or by friendship, fellowship or fate.
Give us the heart of a mother today.


Thursday, 5 March 2015

Imperfecting Perfection

A friend recently messaged with something that he thought I would like. It was the advertising tag line for the on-line dating website “”. It read “If you don’t like your imperfections, someone else will”. He was right I did like it and had noticed it popping up on adverts everywhere, a very clever bit of advertising I thought. It also tapped into that sadness that I see in us at times, our worries and concerns over our seeming imperfections.

On-line dating does not have a very good reputation. I have lost count of the number of tales of woe I have heard from friends who have tried to meet someone through such avenues. That said I know of some really lovely success stories too. My sister “Our Mand” met her husband through this avenue, he is a great guy. Last Saturday I conducted the wedding a dear friend who met the woman he was marrying through the same avenue. They met through one of the less reputable sites too. It worked for them though, after many previous seeming disasters.

Looking for love or the person that fits you and you fit them is no easy thing in the modern age, maybe the problem is that so many of us are looking for the seemingly perfect person, who fits the right profile, who ticks all the boxes. Maybe such a person doesn’t exist, I am fairly certain that they don’t. Even if they did exist, maybe they are looking for mister or miss perfect too.

Brings to mind one of my favourite stories from the vault of Mulla Nasruddin

One afternoon, Nasruddin and his friend were sitting in a cafe, drinking tea, and talking about life and love. “How come you never got married, Nasruddin?” asked his friend at one point. “Well,” said Nasruddin, “to tell you the truth, I spent my youth looking for the perfect woman. In Cairo, I met a beautiful and intelligent woman, with eyes like dark olives, but she was unkind. Then in Baghdad, I met a woman who was a wonderful and generous soul, but we had no interests in common. One woman after another would seem just right, but there would always be something missing. Then one day, I met her. She was beautiful, intelligent, generous and kind. We had everything in common. In fact she was perfect.” “Well,” said Nasruddin’s friend, “what happened? Why didn’t you marry her?” Nasruddin sipped his tea reflectively. “Well,” he replied, “it’s a sad thing. Seems she was looking for the perfect man.”

I am more like Nasruddin than I would like to be at times.

Perfectionism increasingly plagues our age. This need to get everything right. This need to escape criticism. We put too much pressure on ourselves and on one another. We see it in schools, in the work place, in public services. We have this growing expectation that celebrities and sport stars have to be whiter than white and not fallible humans like the rest of us. People also seem increasingly obsessed with body image and the like, this cannot be good for us. Increasingly we live in an age where all we do is pick at the seeming imperfections in our human make up. I wouldn’t mind but who exactly are we trying to live up to and whose approval are we seeking?

I fall for it myself from time to time and I know it doesn’t do me any good. I am a perfectionist in some areas of my life, but not in others. In the areas where I am I can put far too much pressure on myself and it is not healthy. It is not just about doing a good job either, which is a positive thing, it is about appearing perfect, doing things perfectly and therefore seemingly transcending criticism.

I know this is crazy and un-achievable, but I still put myself through it when locked away researching or writing. Thankfully when I’m out amongst the beautiful people I serve the clown in me takes over somewhat and I am set free from the chains of perfectionism.

"Perfection" is a subject I explored when I candidated for the two congregations I serve, although it was done in a very different way back then. I lead the same service at both congregations. Now things went fairly well at Altrincham,the first service, except when it came to the collection and I froze as I did not know what to do. Thankfully the lovely couple who had received it gently pointed me in the right direction.

Things though went a little bit wrong a couple of weeks later as I lead the service at Urmston. I got a little too engrossed in what I was doing and carried away with it and completely forgot one of the hymns. I only realised what I had done when we got to the third hymn. So I gave them an option, made a joke about it and we sang them together. I was then able to keep on referencing this throughout the sermon which was on "perfection" and that I was far from it myself. Strangely enough we’ve had problems with hymns from time to time their ever since. although thankfully they have accepted me as their Holy Fool.

I was taught many lessons that day…One of them being that people aren’t looking for a perfect worship leader, well they certainly haven’t got one in me…A real one yes, and one who isn’t afraid to appear as a Holy Fool.

I have been reflecting a lot on the "Sermon on the Mount", found in the fifth chapter of Matthew's Gospel in recent weeks. I have made several references to aspects of it in recent "blogspots". These last few days I've been reflecting, once again on verses 43-48 often referred to as "Love for Enemies". Here are the verses below:

43 "‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

These words come at the end of "The Sermon on the Mount". Verse 48 reads “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As I understand it Jesus is speaking of perfect love specifically here, love without prejudice love for all, whoever they are and wherever they have been. I believe that this is the love that the communities I serve are built upon. It is certainly the foundation upon which my ministerial mantra is built “Come as you are, exactly as you are…but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition.” I believe this is echoing Jesus’s belief in humanity that we are the "light of the world", that I explored in a previous blog You are the light of the world He is highlighting what we are capable of being when we remember who we are and the perfect love from which we are formed. What really gets me here though is the realisation that we don’t need to be perfect in all areas of our lives in order to offer perfect love. In fact if perhaps we thought we were we would not be able to offer perfect love to those who need it the most, for we would perhaps possess a false sense of superiority.

Now for a long time I wrongly believed that there was something fundamentally wrong with me and all humanity for that matter. I believed we were broken or “fallen” people who occasionally do something decent. I believed this when I had no religious belief by the way. Actually when I lost faith in the humanism I once had and descended into total nihilism this became even more deeply ingrained. I no longer see things this way I do believe in “Original Goodness”, or “Original Blessing”. I believe that our problem is that we forget we fall short of what we can be at our best. Sadly some people seem cut off almost completely from this, but I always live with hope. We are not perfect it would seem.

Now perfect, perfection and imperfection are very interesting words to me. I do believe our desire to transcend these states has a lot to do with this fundamental belief that at the core of us there is something wrong. This seems to have intensified in our increasingly secular time as we increasingly worship the God of self or even worse the God of public opinion, perhaps the most jealous of any man made God and certainly one that is impossible to please. That critical voice never stops, whether it is imagined or real.

The problem is that we equate imperfection with there being something wrong with us at our core, when actually what it really means is that we are incomplete. That we are looking for wholeness, with ourselves, our world and God.

The thing about life is that nothing is ever wholly complete, but that does not mean it isn’t any good. Life is constantly, changing, moving and bending into new shapes, it wouldn’t be life if it wasn’t.

When we hear the word perfect today we tend to think of something without blemish, being absolutely 100% pure. Yet the word for perfect in those verses above from Matthew was originally “teleo” which really meant fulfilment, or wholeness or completion. It does not mean what we understand as moral perfection today. Some version of the passage have translated it as goodness.

Now of course none of us are wholly complete. Well this is where love comes in, where God comes in. By returning to God I have learnt that I can better offer perfect love to those who need it. I believe that we can all be like the father in the Prodigal Son parable and offer perfect love. This is an example of perfect love, open to everyone.

I believe, stronger than ever that it is our imperfection, our incompleteness that makes us better able to both give and receive love as it opens us up to the love present in life itself. So maybe those folk at “” have it right when they say “If you don’t like your imperfections, someone else will”.

The truth is of course we don’t need something or someone to complete us; the truth is that there is nothing really wrong with us at all. We are human beings we all have our gifts and talents and things we don’t do so well and that’s beautiful. We are after all the the light of the world, we just need to remember this. We have to let all that love light shine for our world needs it.

I realised a while back that in order to imperfect our perfection all that is required of us is that we learn to just be at ease with who we who are, just to delight in our very being and to allow others to do the same. I learnt this from observing two very important people in my life. One was from my nephew Johnny who just happily and confidently delighted in who he was. No fear, no self-consciousness he has not yet learn about all that, sadly no doubt he will soon. The other was my granddad who over the years just accepted me as I was, without ever once criticising that I can recall. My sister has said something similar, he loved us without condition. I think that is perfect love. I see it also in people who are just at ease with themselves. The kind who don’t need to prove anything to anyone else, who just get on with the work and life they are given. These are the people who teach me how to imperfect my own perfection.

Who are the teaches in your lives? Maybe that’s something you could think about. Who shows or has shown you that it is ok to be you and have helped you show that perfect love to others.

Remember perfect love is about accepting those we meet exactly as they are and perhaps that begins by first of all accepting ourselves as we are, exactly as we are, warts and all and beauty spots too.

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with the following "Passing Through" by Robert Walsh. I suggest that they are read in a prayerful state...You may notice something familiar in the pattern of these worlds…

“Passing Through” by Robert Walsh

O Spirit that creates us, sustains us, transforms us, and judges us, may your many names be hallowed.
May there come a world that sings with your justice and mercy, your beauty and truth, and may we be your faithful partners in creation to bring that world about.
Accept us in our brokenness, even as we would accept our mortal sisters and brothers, parents and children, spouses and partners, neighbours, and enemies.
Tempt us with life. Try us with growth and change and loss. But help us at last to find the path, through temptations and trials, to wholeness.
For we are but passing through this world. Yours is the creation, and the power, and the glory.


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. 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 this? How many of us truly believe that we are 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.