Sunday, 9 December 2018

Our Rituals of Christmas Time

We are well and truly into Advent now, well into the festival of light at this the darkest time of the year. How are you doing? Are you in the spirit of the season or are you struggling a little. It can be a difficult time for some folk in so many ways. It’s just so easy to get lost in a variety of things. So much so that we fail to fully experience what this time of year is all about. We all have a bit of Scrooge within us do we not, we all have a little bit of “Bah Humbug”.

Christmas means different things to each and every one of us. Do you know what, it always has. People often cry that it’s not what it used to be. Well do you know what it used to be many years ago is not what it used to be many years before then. That said despite all the ever changing rituals and celebrations there does appear to be a universal spirit that has always existed. Do you know what the spirit has existed longer than the Christmas story and stories. Christmas is the ultimate Universal mythos of the heart.

For many people Christmas is a time of love and compassion of bringing to the surface our better selves. For others it is about family (however we understand family) coming together. For some it is about God’s Love incarnating perfectly in life, in the Christ child. For others it is the celebration of the end of winter and the coming of life and renewal in the spring time. I think it is all of this and a whole lot more. It seems to me that Christmas is the ultimate universal festival of the heart. It is a mixture of so many traditions and it has altered so much over time, embracing and incorporating so much of this simple spirit of light and love. Christmas is the ultimate festival of the heart, perfectly placed in the deep mid-winter when we need it the most.

As the years go by the meaning of Christmas has changed for me, as the meaning of life has. I suspect it means more to me today than it has ever done. Every year this meaning grows. Christmas is not just another day to me, in fact it has truly become a season, the season of the heart come to life. Religiously it means more to me too. As time as gone by I have connected more to the many and varied rituals of Christmas and there are many. Ok some may see these rituals as secular, but I am not convinced. I see the spirit at the heart of Christmas incarnating in all of them. I love Christmas, I truly do. I love it because it fills my heart with nostalgia, generosity and goodwill, it connects me to life, to God and to the people around me, it connects me to the past, to my ancestors and to those who touched my life, many who are no longer here. I shed many tears around this time of year. All this allows me to feel more alive. It opens up the present, the ultimate gift of life. The spiritual life is not about passively living in the moment, but truly bringing the moment to life.

Christmas is the heart of the year. Christmas is about Kairos time, not Chronos time. Time slows and our experiences thicken, if we allow them to. If we open our hearts truly to the spirit at work in the experiences. If we open our hearts to one another our relationships will deepen. What is more religious than this? For me to be religious is to increase our connections through they way we live our lives and to be spiritual is to increase our sensitivity, our experience of life.

An example of this are the many rituals that we all engage in each and every year. One example is going to buy a new tree, or fetching the artificial one from where ever we store it in the house. Getting out the decorations and placing them around the home. For so many people this connects us to our past and those who have touched our lives. There are so many memories tied up in these rituals. The memories will be mixed, as life is mixed, to misquote good old Moses “The blessings and curses of choosing life”. How many of us laugh and cry as we engage with these rituals and of course pass on the memories, rebind them, bring them to life, remember, reincarnate them. Isn’t this love incarnated. To me this is the very essence of religion.

Then of course there is the music, whether that be carols and carol singing or the many and numerous pop songs and classic songs from the old movies. For every service during December the congregations I serve insist on only singing carols and I’m with them all the way. The "pop" songs are no less religious, no less spiritual to me. They connect me to my past and those I’ve heard and sung these songs with and they help bring the moment more fully alive. They increase my experience of life too, they open my heart, they incarnate love. A taste of heaven.

Then of course there are the films, those great Christmas stories. For so many of us this is the heart of Christmas. What is your favourite? What film is at the heart of Christmas for you? I will be going to see a couple on the big screen in the next couple of weeks. It’s wonderful to go and see a classic film on the big screen and to do so in company, sharing that experience with folk that you love.

All these rituals to me are deeply religious and spiritual also. They connect us to one another, to life, that spirit at the heart of life, they connect us to our past and those who have touched our lives and they bring the gift of Christmas to life, the ultimate gift of Christmas, the present, the Christmas present. It truly increases our sensitivity to life itself.

Another universal quality is the journeying of Christmas. There is of course the "chronos" journey through the Advent season as we open our Advent Calendars and count down the days. There are the journeys to buy the gifts for loved ones. There is the journey to events and parties. There is the journey home also. Journeying is of course at the heart of the Christmas mythos. Whether that is the journey of the Holy Family of Joseph and Mary, carrying the Christ child in her womb on the road to Bethlehem, of the refusal and the rejection, of the magical birth and adorations and then of course having to flee for their lives, a journey we can all relate to in so many ways. Journey’s people have been travelling on for generations. Then of course there is the journey of the Magi, the wise men, who were called out to cross many lands in order to follow their bliss and bring gifts of love to the beloved.

These are journey’s of distance. But also journeys of depth. They are both "Chronos" and "Kairos" journeys. I will be doing some journeying over the next few weeks. As I am sure you will all be doing so too. They will be journey’s of hope and of sorrow, of joy and laughter and some pain. They will be religious journey’s and spiritual journey’s, journeys of the heart. Journey’s that will increase our sensitivity to life and deepen our connections to one another, to life, to our past, our present and the future. It will open our hearts and in so doing incarnate love here in our lives.

So let’s journey on through this Christmas season and truly open our hearts and engage in its spirit. May our hearts open wider, at this the heart of the year. May our experiences deepen as we remember to slow down as we rush through the business of our days May we know the true gifts of the season; gifts of love, compassion and acceptance. May we bring the spirit of the season alive and in so doing learn to make it Christmas in the days yet to come.

If we want to make it Christmas everyday, then we need to live by it spirit every single day...It is up to us...

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Living your way into the answers

I have a love for detective stories. My favourite tv programs tend to involve mysteries and detection. As I child I was not a great reader of fiction and yet I loved Agatha Christie. Now don’t get me wrong I did read, just not fiction. I rarely read do even today. Why I am not wholly sure, I know I would benefit from doing so. That said when relaxing I do like to watch detective series, new and old. I’m just as happy watching “Murder She Wrote” as I am watching any of the high tech modern series. I’m just as happy watching Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes as I would be watching “The Code” Last year I fell in love with “The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries”, which is a modern historical Australian series, set in the inter-war years, a kind of attractive and daring cross between Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher. I also recently discovered a wonderful board game “Baker Street” based on Sherlock Holmes, myself and Sue had a lot of funny playing this a little while back. There is something in the searching for clues and answers and coming to conclusions that I suspect I love in these books, films and activities. I know I am not alone.

Now the thing I love about all these detective characters is that they pay attention. Yes they look for clues but the key is that they pay attention to the people around them. The classic example of this is of course Miss Marple. The key to her detecting was in her paying of attention and her simple down to earth understanding of people, which she had developed during her time growing up the village of St. Mary Mead. Her gift was to see things in seemingly unique ways and her ability to connect the details and stories together and relate them to people she had known during her long life. She would hear the details of a murder and say something like, “That reminds me of poor Mr or Mrs so and so …” And how this little problem that they had faced or had caused would be related to the murder. Miss Marple paid attention to people. She also paid attention to the world around her, connecting it all together. To me this is the key to spiritual living, to pay attention, to make connections and then to put them into practical application. To not merely ask questions of life but to see the connections. The key was not to merely ask questions and search for answers but to piece it together and live them as a conclusion in life. The key is to do as Rilke suggested “To live the questions” and in so doing you might just live your way into the answers. This is done in our very human and real lives; it is done by paying attention to one another and by paying attention to life.

One of the groups I host is “Living the Questions”. Each month we explore and attempt to bring to life the questions of truly living. It has been a joy and blessing to be part of this these last few years, it has certainly transformed me and I have witnessed this in others too. The inspiration for the group’s title come from a favourite passage from “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. In it the poet Rilke writes a letter to his protégé the 19 year old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus making a beautiful case for the importance of not merely asking questions, but living them, while embracing uncertainty and allowing for the development of intuition.

Rilke wrote:

“I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing, live your way into the answer.”

To me this is what it’s about, to seek and struggle and to live the questions themselves. We need to do more than just ask the questions. You have to live the questions themselves you have to experience them and then somewhere in that struggle an answer may well be revealed, or maybe not. Either way I am convinced that by doing so we will live purposeful lives for the good of all.

If we can learn to not just ask, but live the questions now we might just perhaps one day in the future, almost without noticing it live our way into the answers. This though will only come in and through life itself, through paying attention to all around us, for all life is animated by the same spirit.

Now the one thing we don’t get to choose is what is going on around us. We can’t filter this, however much we try. To live the questions faithfully means paying attention to everything. This means facing not just the beauty of life but its ugliness too and wrestling with all the challenges this brings and then acting in appropriate ways. This is not easy, sometimes it can be deeply painful to face the whole truth of any given situation. You have to do it though if you wish to one day live your way into the answers. As the great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich wrote “Being religious means asking passionately the questions of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.”

Now living the questions, in the hope of one day you may live your way into the answers is not merely about logic, its not just about thinking your way into life. Actually if you live purely by your mind, your logic. you can miss so much. To live the question is a form of artful living, it is deeply creative in fact. My favourite detectives, usually the female ones all use intuition and emotion as an element of their questioning. Another favourite of mine is Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS, who always uses his gut. To truly live the questions requires us to live fully in our bodies as much as our logical minds.

We Unitarians can sometimes be accused of being too logical and to disregard our intuition. I do not see this as a fair criticism. Yes we are encouraged to doubt and ask questions, but we are also encouraged to use our whole human experience and not to merely worship the mind as if it were God.

To truly live the questions and thus therefore one day hopefully live our way into the answers requires us to pay attention, to pay attention to everyone and then relate it our own experiences, like Miss Marple did. To find the answers she paid attention to life, to other people and to her own intuition. She lived her way into the answers by merely paying attention.

The problem is that paying attention is not always easy. It is easy to be distracted and sometimes it hurts too much to pay attention. It certainly does for me at times.

I noticed the other morning that I was paying attention. I noticed while sitting in meditation and then listening to others that life was touching me deeply and as a result my mind became clearer. I heard the language of the heart touch me deeply as people spoke and yet at the same time I could hear, clearly hear, all the sounds of life outside. I could hear the traffic, I could hear the dogs barking, I could hear the birds singing and I could hear the rain falling, as I did the words shared penetrated me more deeply. I listened to their questions and as I did I began to live my own and in doing so I knew I was on my way to live my way into the answers. And what is the answer you might ask? Well the answer is to pay attention, pay attention to everything. In so doing you will begin to live your way into the answers.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Lost and Found

I ended my last "blogspot" with the following words by Mark Nepo

I keep looking for one more teacher, only to find that fish learn from water and birds learn from sky.
If you want to learn about the sea, it helps to be at sea.
If you want to learn about compassion, it helps to be in love.
If you want to learn about healing, it helps to know of suffering.
The strong live in the storm without worshipping the storm.

Mark Nepo

Now don’t we all feel at sea at times, Tossed around by the storms of life. The storms are not life by the way, but they are part of life.

I have felt myself at sea many times in my life; I have done so at times these last few months too; my mind has not been as clear as it could be at times. I have noticed I’ve got a little lost at times and I have lost things at times. My services have not been at the standard I would have liked too. I’ve also felt more tired than usual. Now there are obvious reasons for this as I have been experiencing deep grief and concern for my nearest and dearest. We are hoping that some healing will come now as last week we attended our Daniel’s (my step-brother’) inquest in Bradford. It was a deeply painful day. We held one another as we listened and bore witness. I also felt so powerfully, as powerfully as I have ever done, that loving presence holding us as we lived in the storm, but did not worship it. Something has changed, or do I mean awakened within me since Tuesday.

I have felt lost at sea quite a bit these last few months, it has changed me, but then it ought to. Living spiritually is not about transcendence, it is about transformation, formation, reformation. I feel that I know the sea more intimately than before and therefore feel better able to help my fellow travellers who from time to time, will get caught up in the storm and feel all at sea. We do not sail the ship alone, we travel in the ship of love together, as one and never alone.

I remember during a theme talk at this years Summer School one of the speakers stating something like. “Do not worry if you lose your car, that isn’t the problem. You are in trouble only when you forget that you have a car.” Well last week I thought I’d lost my car, I hadn’t I’d just parked on a different street than I thought near to Sue’s new house. I did though feel that horrible sensation in the pit of my stomach I have felt it a little too frequently in recent weeks. I thought I was losing my mind a little, I wasn’t I was just experiencing what it feels like to be lost. It humbled, it grounded me and it helped me to connect. It certainly brought down any of those barriers I am tempted to put up from time to time.

All you've got to do is surrender...

I have noticed, over time, a large collection of lost items appearing in the small schoolroom at Dunham Road. Items like scarves and hats and gloves and sunglasses and ordinary glasses. It is hard to know what to do with them, perhaps we need a “lost and found” box. I always remember such things as a child. I remember leaving something important on a bus and two or three days later getting it back as it was handed in and kept in the lost and found box. The same thing happened at the gym a few months ago as I had left my spare pair of glasses there on the Friday and only realised it when I returned on the Monday. Well there they were, a few days later, in the lost and found box. Sadly the same thing didn’t happen with my watch and then a little later my wallet when I left it in the post office after buying stamps. At least I remembered I had them and had lost them of course, now if I'd forgotten I had a watch or wallet that would have signified real trouble.

I find something deeply reassuring in the fact that “lost and found” are paired together. There is something very powerful  in the journey of faith in their pairing. There is something beautifully paradoxical in all of this. A bit like Nepo’s line, “If you want to learn about the sea, it helps to be at sea.” Gets me to think that if you want to be found you have to first of all get lost. It is the “Hero’s Journey”.

If I have learnt anything in life, and this year has taught me this once again and more deeply, it is that the problem isn’t whether or not we will get lot at times, the question is how will we live when we get lost. Now of course the first step towards finding my way again is to recognise, first of all, that I am lost. This doesn’t necessarily mean literally lost, but lost in myself, whether that be lost in fear, self-doubt, self-pity, basically lost in my own underpants.

When I am lost in myself and find myself truly “all at sea” I find that what has really happened is that I’ve separated myself once again from what I know to be true, about what is at the heart of me and the heart of life and have blinded myself to the light both within and without and I have once again walled myself in and I begin to feel alone and utterly lost. I have cut myself off from others and the love present in life. In such a state I can really do damage to myself and or others. I have done so in the past. I know that this is exactly where our Daniel had found himself, this is clear to me right now as anything has ever been. I know when I am lost, all at sea, internally, I find myself giving in to guilt, to loneliness and defensiveness. While externally I will begin to blame others for this sense of "lostness", resentment grows as does confusion in others. Don’t we all?

So when I find myself lost, how do I once again find myself? How do I go and look in that “lost and found” box of life? Well it begins, as it did when I left that important item on the bus at the age of 11 or when I lost my glasses recently. First of all I pause and then I ask for help. I ask for help internally and externally and do you know what if life has taught me anything it is that when you ask for help so many people always come rushing. As I have heard said many times, when trouble strikes, when horror and disaster strikes always look for the helpers. When you do it shows the love that is so present in humanity. It restores my faith once again.

I am most lost when I’m uptight and frightened. They key to being found is to lighten and loosen up. It requires patience and trust, perhaps the best qualities of faith. When a person is all it sea it is no use to thrash around, you need to be calm, take a breath and solutions usually come, usually you find yourself found. Sometimes you get rescued as someone else reaches through your defences with a kind word and or gentle touch and sometimes all it needs is a gentle word of encouragement and you can once again find your way back to shore.

Here is a rather lovely poem “The Way” by Edwin Muir

Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.

Is there another way?
The way is one.

I must retrace the track.
It’s lost and gone.

Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.

Then I’ll make here my place –
The road runs on –

Stay here, forever stay.
None stays here, none.

I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.

Oh, places I have passed!
That journey’s done.

And what will come at last?
The way leads on.

Now of course sometimes when you feel lost you aren’t actually as lost as you think. What you are is actually in a place you would rather not be. I have felt that at times these last few months and I have certainly done so for my nearest and dearest. Acceptance has felt distant at times, but eventually it comes and you accept that you are where you are. This is beautifully illustrated in the following bit of wisdom form my old favourite Mulla Nasruddin

Nasruddin was sat on a river bank when someone shouted to him from the opposite side:
“Hey! how do I get to the other side?”
To which Nasruddin replied “You are on the other side!”

We are all always on the opposite side of the river to the other riverbank.

“If you want to learn about the sea, it helps to be at sea.” To be found you have to first of all get lost. I have learnt that it is important to be lost at times.

Whether any of us like it or not, we all find ourselves on the wrong river bank at times, not knowing how to get to the side we would like to. We all find ourselves in an uncertain place, lost and without guidance. We all feel lost at times. By the way we don’t really get lost in the woods and wilderness. Life isn’t really like the fairy tales although they can help us see the reality. These stories have a way of revealing reality through their beautiful mystery.

This brings to mind a rather beautiful poem “Afraid So” by Jeanne Marie Beaumont

Is it starting to rain?
Did the check bounce?
Are we out of coffee?
Is this going to hurt?
Could you lose your job?
Did the glass break?
Was the baggage misrouted?
Will this go on my record?
Are you missing much money?
Was anyone injured?
Is the traffic heavy?
Do I have to remove my clothes?
Will it leave a scar?
Must you go?
Will this be in the papers?
Is my time up already?
Are we seeing the understudy?
Will it affect my eyesight?
Did all the books burn?
Are you still smoking?
Is the bone broken?
Will I have to put him to sleep?
Was the car totaled?
Am I responsible for these charges?
Are you contagious?
Will we have to wait long?
Is the runway icy?
Was the gun loaded?
Could this cause side effects?
Do you know who betrayed you?
Is the wound infected?
Are we lost?
Will it get any worse?

We all feel lost at times, all at sea. I have re-learnt how important that is. It keeps you connected to life and allows you to grow, to be transformed. This is the point of the spiritual life. This year I have learnt once again about vulnerability. Everyone of us is vulnerable to the troubles of life. No matter how comfortable life might be at this moment that can be quickly shaken and all can be lost. That phone call can come, that changes everything, that breaks your heart.

The problem isn’t getting lost, we all get lost at times. The problem is in losing faith that you can be found once again. The key is how we live when we find ourselves lost. Do we close down and get lost deeper in our fear, or do we pause and reach out and ask for help from those loving forces that are all around whether visible or invisible.

I’m going to end this "blogspot" with one final poem, a favourite by David Wagoner that goes by the title “Lost”

Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Sacred the Body: Embracing Embodied Spirituality

“The Way In” by Linda Hogan

Sometimes the way to milk and honey is through the body.
Sometimes the way in is a song.
But there are three ways in the world: dangerous, wounding, and beauty.
To enter stone, be water.
To rise through hard earth, be plant desiring sunlight, believing in water.
To enter fire, be dry.
To enter life, be food.

The twentieth century French Jesuit Priest and Philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin claimed that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” It is a phrase I have heard many times over the years, in a variety of "spiritual" circles. Now while I think I know what people mean by it, it bothers me greatly. The reason is that in my view it appears to diminish the physical life. It seems to suggests that the physical life is of little importance, merely a home for the spirit. That what comes before and perhaps follows our physical life is somehow more important than this life. I am not convinced, dualism has always troubled me. I personally don’t see a separation between body and spirit. This disembodied spirituality troubles me. The reason is that if we see the body as somehow less than spirit, or on the other hand see nothing sacred at all in our humanity this can lead to all kinds of troubles. I personally see the body as deeply sacred indeed. For me the body is a beautiful expression of the spirit come to life.

This view about body and spirit has been described by Jorge N. Ferrer, professor of religious psychology as “embodied spirituality.” He wrote that:

“Embodied spirituality regards the body as subject, as the home of the complete human being, as a source of spiritual insight, as a microcosm of the universe and the Mystery, and as pivotal for enduring spiritual transformation.

The body is not an “It” to be objectified and used for the goals or even spiritual ecstasies of the conscious mind, but a “Thou,” an intimate partner with whom the other human dimensions can collaborate in the pursuit of ever-increasing forms of liberating wisdom.”

For Ferrer the body is the home of the complete human being. It is the physical reality in which we live. It is through the body that we both literally and metaphorically walk our own unique path. The mistake that so many religious understandings have made is that they have seen the body as the prison of the soul. Something that the spirit or soul needs to be liberated from. He claims that the mystery of incarnation never suggested that spirit entered into the body but that the spirit became flesh. To quote John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh.” Through our bodies, our lives, the way we live our lives the spirit comes to life. We are here for a reason, life truly means something and it is our task to bring that something to life, through our lives, through our bodily existence.

Embodied spirituality is about fully inhabiting our lives, our thoughts, our feelings our relationships with ourselves, our lives, each other and the mystery that connects all life. It’s about being fully present in our bodies and lives and therefore fully experiencing our potential, being fully alive. The body is not just a suit that clothes our being. It is through the body that we experience what it is to be fully alive. They say “listen to your body”, sage wisdom indeed. For me the body is not a separate entity to spirit, I cannot agree with this dualistic view, it seems to me that it is through the body that spirit comes alive and further through the body that the spirit is fed.

Embodied spirituality views every aspect of our humanity, whether that be body, spirit, heart, mind and consciousness as equal partners in bringing the self, community and world into a fuller alignment with the mystery that brings into being all life, while at the same time connects all life. I suspect it’s a kind of panentheism, that sees all life as being in God and that God is in all life and that little or perhaps infinite more. It sees the full engagement of the body as being vital to spiritual growth and transformation.

Sadly the spiritual and religious traditions have not always recognised the sacredness of the body; they have not always recognised that it is through the body that that the spirit comes to life. In fact they have seen it as quite the opposite. Plato and Aristotle taught that the physical can never be the ideal. That the spirit or soul was better than the real, fleshly body that contains it. The physical, Plato argued, was only an imperfect shadow of the realm of the spirit. Other traditions placed the cultivation of the spirit as something to be nurtured separate from the body. What Ferrer has named as “disembodied spirituality”. Traditions of both the east and the west have seen the denial of the body as a path way to spiritual enlightenment. In Hinduism Brahmanism calls for the denial of bodily comfort in order to transcend Samsara, the continual dying and rebirth of reincarnation. The ultimate aim being to transcend the body entirely. You can see similar traditions in Christianity, Taoism and Sufism. Buddhist writings have described the body as a source of suffering and that Nirvana could only be reached through the cessation of bodily desires. Many traditions have emphasised the life beyond this physical realm as being more important than this life, thus denigrating our physical being. The flesh has also been seen as the root of human sin. That the body is the source of humanity’s spiritual fall. The classic example is Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden to suffer from bodily pain.

Sadly the body, has not been seen as sacred at all, quite the opposite actually. Instead it has been seen as something of shame, something to escape and transcend. For me though the spiritual experience is about transformation and not transcendence. To be truly spiritually alive is to be engaged in change.

That said it is not only the religious and spiritual traditions that have failed to recognise the sacredness of the body. We live in a secular materialistic age and yet we still struggle with our bodies. How many people have become obsessed with the way they look? How many of us hate our physical being? How many people prey on this too? The body has become big business. In many ways we have swapped the worship for the Divine, and for life itself, for the worship of the approval of others especially with regard to our bodies, the way that we look. This does not see the body as sacred, more as a commodity that can be traded on and with. It does not recognise the sacredness of life, both our own and each other’s.

Science also, or should I say bad science, merely sees the body as a machine and not an expression of the Divine manifested in life. Richard Dawkins has described human beings as “lumbering robots”. Is that all we are? Is there really nothing sacred in life? When you look into the eyes of your neighbour do you see no spirit, no soul? Do you really see nothing? I know I don’t.

Life is a sacred thing.

Next year at Summer School we are going to be exploring “Theology in the Flesh: How Might our Embodied Experience Shape our Answers to Life’s Ultimate Questions?” I have been asked to co-facilitate a group there and I am excited by the prospect. We will be exploring how our personal and communal bodily experiences interact with spiritual understandings and how we interact with the world.

The following quotation from Carol P. Christ came in an email outlining the subject that I received recently.

‘Embodied theology is rooted in personal experiences in our individual
bodies. At the same time, we all live in a relational world, shaped by
social and historical events and forces that are shared.’ – Carol P. Christ

I remember hearing an excellent theme talk given by Rev Bill Darlison at Summer School several years ago. In it he made the claim that if we wished to live life more spiritually alive then we need to increase our sensitivity to life. To me this reveals just how vital our bodily experiences are and how it is through them that our spirit comes truly to life. By increasing our sensitivity to life we will know experiences beyond our imaginings and life will become our constant teacher. We will grow in deeper understanding and most importantly we will become more effective in our daily living and truly become of service to life and those we meet in life. Surely this is the Divine Love incarnating in life.

It seems to me that to live a full life is to truly inhabit our whole being, body, mind, heart, soul and spirit. To do so requires us to truly inhabit our bodies and to fully express our whole being through our bodies. This means we need to learn to be at home in our bodies, to bring our bodies home if you like. You see it is through our bodies that we both give and receive love. It is through our bodies that the word truly becomes flesh and comes alive in our very being. We are so much more than merely chemical processes and our bodies are not some lesser experience than spirit itself. We need to love life and our very being. Our bodies need not be despised, denied or repressed. Our bodies need to know love and for them to know love we need to allow that love to be expressed by our very being. For surely this is the Divine Spirit truly coming alive. This is the Kin-dom of Love right here, right now.

For the word to once again become flesh and dwell amongst us, we need to express that love through our very being. "Sacred the Body"!

May we bless life by our very being in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do.

I’m going to end this little "blogspot" with a little bit of Mark Nepo

I keep looking for one more teacher, only to find that fish learn from water and birds learn from sky.
If you want to learn about the sea, it helps to be at sea.
If you want to learn about compassion, it helps to be in love.
If you want to learn about healing, it helps to know of suffering.
The strong live in the storm without worshipping the storm.

Mark Nepo

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Seeking a Moral Compass in a Post Moral Age

“It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs

It matters what we believe. Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.
Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.
Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children's days and fears of unknown calamities.
Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.
Some beliefs are divisive, separating saved from unsaved, friends from enemies.
Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.
Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction.
Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.
Some beliefs weaken a person's selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness.
Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.
Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.
Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

The other Sunday afternoon and evening Sue and myself attended a friends birthday celebrations. It was an interesting time. It began with yoga sessions at the center in Altrincham. he yoga was followed by a meal at a Sushi restaurant followed by a Gong Sound bath. This was what I was looking forward to the most. From early in our relationship Sue and I have shared these wonderful things together, led by lovely couple that we have nicknamed the “Wizard and his Wife”, they could quite easily be characters from a Tolkein novel and they do love what we call them this.

By the way a Gong sound bath is created from a selection of Gongs that are played over an hour while you simply lie there sinking into the ground. It is a wonderful and powerful experience, I highly recommend it to anyone.

Now as we arrived we greeted the Wizard and his wife, they welcomed us in, and Sue took out her phone and found her compass. She wanted to find East. So she found due north and we took our spot. We then shared with many others in a truly wonderful experience.

As I lay there, sinking into the ground and the sound washed over me, I began to think about her compass and its northward facing needle. As I was doing so the phrase moral compass came into my mind. How we do we find our moral compass, how do we find the right direction in life, the way to face in order to make the appropriate moral decisions in life? Sounds simple, I know, but I’m not certain it is so easy.

Now morality has been on my mind quite a lot in recent weeks. I have just finished reading Bob Woodward’s (of Watergate and all the President’s Men fame) excellent new book “Fear: Trump in the White House”. It is an incredible and frightening book. The president’s morality has come into question for various reasons. The suggestion is that it is not so much that he is immoral, more that he is amoral; that essentially he is not ruled by a particular foundational moral code, other than the situation he is in. If he has a moral compass he is ruled by fear and instilling fear. There is a quote on the back of Woodward’s book in which Trump says “Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word – fear.” The suggestion being made is that if he lives from a moral compass it is one based on fear.

It brought to mind something I read many years ago “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes, written just after the English civil war. It is a striking, disturbing and bleak view of human nature.

Hobbes wrote

"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre (war), where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

I will just repeat the last few words

“And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” Gosh that is hard.

For Hobbe’s what is required to overcome this state of fear is an ultimate authority to bring order to wayward humanity and subjugate our anarchic and brutish nature.

I suppose that you could say that this is some form of moral foundation, that this is something to aim for, but I am not convinced, although I do from time to time struggle with human nature, mine and others too.

Now while I reject this fear based view of humanity, I do have a sense that there is a goodness at the core of life, an ok-ness, I acknowledge that it is not always easy to find a guide. How do we find our true north? How do we find the right direction and make moral decisions about life, so as to give positively to the melting pot of humanity. It is suggested that there is no longer a single meta-narrative, that the foundation stones that we once built our lives on no longer have value. I am not convinced, I do find certain truths that have been with us for centuries and keep on resurfacing. I do believe that there is an ultimate goodness that we can connect to, a goodness that can be found in everything, in you, in me and in everything. A love that can always overcome any fear. For fear ultimately corrodes the soul and reduces life to nothing.

Last Sunday John Midgley led a wonderful service at Dunham Road, celebrating 50 years since he took up ministry here and at Queens Road, he will be delivering something similar at Queens Road next month. John was my first Unitarian minister at Cross Street in Manchester. While there he introduced me to the wonderful Carl Scovel. Now at the heart of his faith was something he described as the “Great Surmise” at a talk he delivered at the 1994 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly he described what he meant by it:

“The Great Surmise says simply this: At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we shall at last return. This is the supreme mystery of our lives. This goodness is ultimate-not fate, not freedom, not mystery, energy, order, finite, but this good intent in creation is our source, our centre, and our destiny...Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness. Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict-not even survival-is the aim of life, but joy. Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy.

Life really is about how we see things, our perspective. Is life “Nasty, brutish and short”...Maybe, maybe not?

Or is it a “Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy ”...Maybe, maybe not?

I have discovered the simple joy of living even in life’s most challenging times. I have found that there is a love at the core of life. It is our moral task, I believe, to find it and being it to life through our own human being. To me this is essentially what Jesus meant when he spoke of the Kingdom of God, what I like to call the kin-dom of love. This is no easy task, but then again it never has been. There has never been an idealised time for any of us. The people Jesus spoke to 2,000 years ago were not living easy and comfortable lives. Those people knew about conflict, oppression, tragedy and almost constant grief. He told them that all that was wonderful, life-giving, life affirming, all that is meaningful was theirs. He said to them “Enter into my kingdom with joy.” He also told them that “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

So maybe this is the key, to live by the “Golden Rule”, to love one another, to love our neighbour as ourselves. That though requires a belief that there is a love at the core of all life, our lives. Do we see this when we look in the mirror, do we see this when we look into each others eyes?

It matters, it really does.

I think the greatest danger to humanity, past present and future looking forward, is this idea that some people are superior to others, have greater value. It is a voice that we hear more and more, a voice that leads to separation, that breeds this idea of us and them. It is there in religion, but also secular society. Some religious groups talk about the saved and the unsaved, others talk of being God’s chosen people. When they speak this way they are talking of a God I do not recognise. The God I know accepts and loves all universally. Experience has revealed to me that we are all chosen by God, it’s just that so many of us turn away and cannot believe that there is a spirit that is there in all life.

Then of course there are the anti-religionists who ridicule people of faith; who see it all as purely infantile projections. They mock, they poke fun, they separate people into the stupid and the wise. In so doing they are saying that they are better than them.

When the epistle Paul talked of the oneness, the unity in Christianity, he wrote that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek.” He did not say that there are no longer Jews or Greeks more that people are no longer separated by these distinctions; that they are all one in love, in body and in spirit; that if all people are viewed in the light they are brothers and sisters to one another.

As Tenzin Gyatso XIVth Dalai Lama has said “Mentally, physically and emotionally we are the same. We each have the potential to be good and bad and to be overcome by disturbing emotions such as anger, fear, hatred, suspicion and greed. These emotions can be the cause of many problems. On the other hand if you cultivate loving kindness, compassion and concern for others, there will be no room for anger, hatred and jealousy.

These words very much chime with a favourite story of mine, “The Two Wolves"

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It’s a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, ego and it makes me cynical about life.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, faith and it fills me with enthusiasm for life. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Maybe this is how we can find a foundation on which we can make moral choices and decisions. It begins by believing that at the core of life is a goodness and that if we feed that in the right way it can grow within us and that we can live in ways that will serve life in loving and positive ways. It will require us to believe that this same spirit is all life. It will require us to live from a place of love and not of fear.

The choice is ours. Do we live by the power of fear, of hate, of separation or do we take the risk to live by love? It’s up to us…Our lives and all life depend on the choices we will make.

It matters, it really does…But then again everything matters…Every feeling, every thought, every word and every deed.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

We're Made Out of Water

“Living Waters” by Stephen M Shick 

We float on a sea
hidden beneath dry surfaces
covered by stones.

Isn’t this why we drink and dive so deeply
go down to the sea in ships
risk drowning, again and again?

Isn’t this why Moses parted the waters
to begin his journey?

Why Jesus crossed the waters
to comfort and challenge us?

We were born in water.
We float free in water.
We are washed clean by water.

Isn’t this why we long to find our inward sea?
To help us wash clean the world?

From “Becoming: A Spiritual Guide for Navigating Adulthood”



“We’re only made out of water, the full moon gets us high. We can bend our shape into anything, as often as we like.” 

I was pushing myself hard, the other morning, in the gym. I was truly present, in a kind of deep meditative state. I felt at one with what I was doing, with my own body and being and with life. There was no separation. I felt like water, just one droplet in the deep wide ocean of life. I noticed the salty water pouring out of my body and the water I swallowed as I re-hydrated constantly.

As the water poured out of me I remembered something a friend had said, in the meditation we had shared that morning; he spoke of the harvest moon he had observed that morning. It got me thinking of the moon and water. How it looks so beautiful against the water; it also brought to my mind how the moon controls the tides and made me think how much it is said we humans are influenced by the lunar cycles. I wondered if this was because, like the surface of the earth, we are mainly water. I thought about how we change shape, maybe not so much physically but in other ways, much like water. Although I am an example of someone who has changed shape and continues to change shape these last few years. As Chris they man who trained me in recent times once said. You have changed in shape so much these last few year. You were skinny fat and went to skinny and now you are bulking up to your natural shape. So we can bend our shape into anything, well at least to some degree, if we really want and truly try.

Oh yes “We’re only made out of water, the full gets us high. We can bend our shape into anything, as often as we like.”

Water is perhaps the most precious resource on this earth, our lives depend upon it. Just think about the number of times you have used water already today. Life is water, it is vital life. It is not lost on me that one of the companies that sell bottled water is “Vitali”. 71% of the earth is made up of water. Yes most of it is in the oceans and glaciers but there is enough of this vital resource for every one to have access to clean water, on this our shared earth. That said “Water Aid” state that “There are still one in nine people across the world who don’t have access to clean water near their homes. That is shocking in this world at this time. Clean water is vital to life, it is “vitali”, surely everyone on this our shared earth ought to have direct access to enough water to grow food, wash the food, cook the food and clean the pots afterwards. Water is vital to the food that we share and the people who care.

Just think about the last time you were without access to clean water, probably only for a few hours, just imagine what it must be like to live like that every single day of your life. Water the most basic element of life, both of the external life and our own bodies.

“We’re only made out of water, the full gets us high. We can bend our shape into anything, as often as we like.”

With water being so central to life it is hardly surprising then that it would play such a large role in the many religious traditions of humanity. It is central to many of rituals of most faiths. It symbolises birth and re-birth and is seen not only as a sustaining substance but as a cleansing and therefore purifying one.

God or the Divine is often portrayed by water. This is hardly surprising when you think of its many qualities. It can bend into any shape and cover and over power all life. It is life giving and sustaining and can be immensely powerful. It brings to mind some words by Forrest Church on God. Forrest said “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that power that is greater than all and yet present in each.” Isn’t that what water is a power that is greater than all and yet present in each.

You will find images of water throughout the Gospel accounts. These images symbolise chaos, rebirth, and new life. Jesus began his ministry by stepping into the Jordan River. As he rose from the waters he awoken to a new spirit symbolised by the dove. He saw a new vision and was awakened or re-shaped, re-formed by the spirit. I don’t see this as a once in a life time experience we can enter into the waters and awaken to a new spirit each and every day. We can bend our shape into anything, as often as we like.

The spiritual, the religious life, is about living in a certain way. The question I suppose is what is the right way? Well maybe water or the qualities it possesses can teach us the way. Perhaps the way is to live like water; to live with the qualities that water has.

Taoism teaches this, claiming that we must go with the flow of life, like water:

Nothing in the world is softer than water,
Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.
This is because nothing can alter it.

That soft overcomes the hard
And gentle overcomes the aggressive
Is something that everybody knows
But none can do themselves.
Therefore the sages say:

The one who accepts the dirt of the state
Becomes its master.
The one who accepts its calamity
Becomes king of the world.

The Martial Artist Bruce Lee offered similar advice when he said:

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You can put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You can put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”



I believe that there is real wisdom in this. We can’t physically bend and shape exactly like water does, but I don’t think this is what is being meant here. I think this is talking about how we live. It’s our persona, our spirit, it is this that needs to bend and shape in order to be in harmony with all life and that eternal spirit that flows like water through all life.

There is something in this formlessness and the bending and shaping that speaks to me of truth, particularly religious truth. In the introduction to “One River Many Wells” Matthew Fox states:

“Meister Eckhart says: ‘Divinity is an Underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up.” Fox himself says that “There is one underground river – but there are many wells into the river: an African well, a Taoist well, a Buddhist well, a Jewish well, a Muslim well, a Goddess well, a Christian well, an Aboriginal well. Many wells but one river. To go down a well is to practise a tradition, but we would make a grave mistake (an idolatrous one) if we confused the well itself with the flowing waters of the underground river. Many wells, one river. That is Deep Ecumenism.”

Again this teaches something of the qualities of water that we can learn form. We can access water as we can access truth but we can never get the full picture, the whole truth and how ever we access the truth is always limited. That said if we come together we can drink from one another’s sources and share the one universal river of life.

We are one, we are interconnected, as we are with all life. We are water...

Water is the basic element of life. We are mainly made from it and we depend upon it. It unites everything that lives on this earth and links us not only to one another but to all that is. It is a power that we can work with and therefore live successfully or against and therefore struggle with. If we remain rigid in all things we will struggle but if we can be moulded and bend ourselves to fit with life and that spirit that permeates all life we can be in harmony with everything.

Today on this harvest Sunday I offer praise to water, that power that is greater than all and yet present in each. That vital resource that we cannot live without.

Water the most basic ingredient of all life, may we absorb the lessons you offer us.

Bend us, shape us, form us in your image.

“We’re only made out of water, the full gets us high. We can bend our shape into anything, as often as we like.”

Sunday, 23 September 2018

A friend in need is a friend indeed: Weaving the threads of life

They say a friend in need is a friend indeed, well don’t we all need a friend? Oh yes indeed. Aren’t we all in need of a friend at times? Oh yes indeed.

I have recently spent some time with old friends. I attended an old friend’s wedding recently. It was great to spend time celebrating with them, it was also wonderful to spend time with mutual friends, some of whom I have shared so many experiences with in the past. Some wonderful, some deeply painful. It was lovely to sit and talk and share with them as I re-felt and remembered. We also remembered old friends no longer with us. A few days later I met up with some old recovery friends as we celebrated one of our numbers 16th sobriety "birthday". Again it was deeply moving to remember old times and friends and re-feel these experiences. Then a few days later I spent time with one of my oldest friends, someone I have known since I was a teenager, we were even in a band together. It was wonderful to talk about old days, to reconnect, to remember, to re-feel all kinds of emotions. Some so happy and joyous and again others much sadder, especially as we remembered old friends no longer with us or current friends who are struggling with life.

The wonderful thing about being with old friends, people you have been through so much with is that as soon as you come together it’s as if you had never been apart. We are bound together by threads, so strong and in some strange way so deep.

I think the greatest blessing of my life has been my friends. I have many friends, loyal friends and loving friends. Friends who have stood up for me and loved me at some pretty dark times in the past.

I have always been blessed with wonderful friends…What about you? Perhaps that’s something to think about…the friends who have blessed and continue to bless your life…

As I look back at my friends and friendships I wonder what it was and is that allowed the connection, that made the connection, or do I mean connections, a web of connections of mutual love. Some people became my friend quickly, while others took longer. I have weaved what Emerson has described as social threads of my own, a new web of creation. I wonder how many threads will be weaved what new web of creation will I become a part of. I love the way that these threads intertwine with the threads of others as new webs are weaved.

There is an old Chinese proverb that states the fifth cup of tea between friends is the best. In days gone by Chinese Tea was made by simply pouring hot water over loose tea leaves in a cup. So it did not come in bags like today. When Yorkshire Tea claims “like tea used to be” it is not exactly being truthful. By the way a good friend of mine gave me some Lancashire Tea for my birthday last year, it’s nice to have good friends. I didn’t drink it of course. As I said at the time “Are you trying to poison me!?!”

Anyhow, back to the proverb…

The Chinese proverb is teaching that when friends meet, busy and tense from the outside world, the first drink shared is done hastily and with little grace. The second pouring of water takes longer to steep the tea leaves, by now the friends are more relaxed and thus the tea is better. The third cup requires even more time, so by now the friends are truly relaxed in one another’s company. By the time they get to the fifth cup it has to stand for quite some time to reach the required strength. It is this fifth cup that becomes the symbol of friendship at its best. This passage of time, measured in cups of tea, defines the deepest friendship. This fifth cup brings wholeness to the relationship, it is the quintessence, the fifth essence, which of course means wholeness.

I was thinking of this as I and my friend shared cups of Yorkshire Tea together as we caught up with one another the other day, as our souls caught up with one another’s bodies.

The great nineteenth century Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson recognised the true value of friendship and the many webs of relationship that make up our lives. Here follows his thoughts on Margaret Fuller after her death, as he describes his understanding of the value of friendship.

"She wore this circle of friends, when I first knew her, as a necklace of diamonds about her neck. They were so much to each other that Margaret seemed to represent them all, and to know her was to acquire a place with them. The confidences given her were their best, and she held them to them. She was an active, inspiring companion and correspondent, and all the art, the thought, the nobleness in New England seemed at that moment related to her and she to it. She was everywhere a welcome guest."

For Emerson “a friend is a sane man who exercises not my ingenuity, but me. My friend gives me entertainment without requiring any stipulation on my part…so that a friend may well be recognized the masterpiece of nature.”

For Emerson it mattered enormously that we matter to others, that we are not isolated beings drifting through life. Gosh how true is this? Doesn’t it matter enormously that we matter to others, and that we are not alone; that are lives are made up of webs of relationships; that our lives thread through many others and that this really matters? We are not isolated beings floating through life, only concerned for ourselves. To me this seems to strike right at the heart of what friendship is all about.

This becomes clearer as I look at the web of relationships that I am part of, but what about you, what are threads that make up your life?

Emerson said “Who hears me, who understands me, becomes mine, — a possession for all time. Nor is nature so poor but she gives me this joy several times, and thus we weave social threads of our own, a new web of relations; and, as many thoughts in succession substantiate themselves, we shall by and by stand in a new world of our own creation, and no longer strangers and pilgrims in a traditionary globe.”

All life is connected, everything is connected all of life is relational.

This brings to mind a rather lovely children’s story, that illustrates both friendship and unconditional love. The story is “Charlotte’s Web”.

Near the end of the story Wilbur the pig is confronted with the awful news that his 'true friend,' Charlotte, is going to die and will not return to their shared barn with her babies. Charlotte had saved Wilbur from the smokehouse and the Christmas dinner plate. He asks Charlotte 'Why did you do all this for me? . . . I've never done anything for you.'

To which she replied 'You have been my friend, that in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I like you. . . . By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.'

To which Wilbur replies 'I would gladly give my life for you — I really would.'

Wilbur lives on and as he does he carries Charlotte’s love with him. He takes charge of her egg sac. He returns it to the safety of the barn and protects it until the spiders hatch, most fly off on the sticky webs, but three remain with Wilbur to continue Charlotte’s lineage in the barn doorway. As Wilbur lived on he had many friends, but none of them took Charlotte’s place in his heart.

Charlotte’s Web is a beautiful illustration of the power of love and friendship, of these threads that weave these mutual webs of friendship that make up our lives. It is a story of unconditional love, of friendship grounded in giving to one another. It’s about relationships rooted in humility, love and giving of ourselves to one another. It’s not about selfishness and self-centredness, but mutual webs of interconnection. Isn’t this the nature of life?

A friend in need truly is a friend indeed, we all need good friends. Yes, we do indeed. We all need and we all need to be friends at times. As I look back at the web I am a part of I see many threads that make it up and I see there are many threads that will continue on when I am no longer weaving my own. We are all a part of the web of creation, we are all weavers of the social threads of life.

So lets keep on weaving those threads of mutual love and intertwining our threads with others. For a friend in need truly is a friend indeed.