Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Learning From Monkeys: Lessons From History

Can we learn from history or are we doomed to keep on repeating the same mistakes?

Please watch the following clip.

I love the following story probably because it kind of teaches the opposite of the above clip.

“The Monkey’s and the caps” taken from “The shortest distance: 101 Stories from the World’s Spiritual Traditions” by Bill Darlison

Aurangzeb sold caps for a living. He would travel to a village, set up his stall in the market place and sell his caps to the locals. One day while travelling from one village to the next, he was very tired. The sun was shining, and he’d had a busy morning, so he put down his heavy sack of caps and sat down in the shade of a mango tree to snooze. After an hour or so he woke up refreshed, but when he picked up his sack he found that it was empty. “Where are my caps?” he thought. “I’m sure this sack was nearly full when I went to sleep.” Just then he looked up into the tree and saw a gang of monkeys each with a cap on his head. “Hey those are my caps!” shouted Aurangzeb. “Give them back to me!” But the monkeys just seemed to mock him, imitating his shout. So he pulled a funny face, and each of the monkeys pulled a funny face, too. But they wouldn’t give back his caps. He picked up a stone and threw it at the monkeys. They responded by throwing magoes at him. He was really angry now, and in his frustration, he took off his own cap and threw it to the ground. The monkeys took off their caps and threw them to the ground! They were imitating him! Without further ado, Aurangzeb picked up all the caps from the grass, put them in his sack, and went on his way, thinking how clever he had been to outsmart the monkeys.

Fifty years later, Habib, Aurangzeb’s grandson, was selling caps. He’d inherited the family business. He was travelling from one village to the next on a hot day, and he felt he needed a rest. He sought out the shade of a mango tree, put down his sack of caps, and sat down to snooze. He woke refreshed after an hour, but when he picked up his sack he found it was empty. “Where are my caps?” he asked himself. “I’m sure this sack was nearly full when I went to sleep.” Then he looked up into the trees and saw dozens of monkeys, each with a cap on his head. How could he possibly get them back? Then something stirred in his brain. He remembered a story his grandfather had told him many years ago, about how he had outwitted some monkeys by getting them to imitate him. So Habib stood up. He put up his right arm; the monkeys put up their right arm. He put up his left arm; the monkeys did the same. Habib scratched his nose; the monkey’s scratched their noses. He pulled a face, rocked from side to side, stood on one leg. Each time the monkeys copied him. Then...Habib took off his cap and threw it to the ground. The monkeys didn’t respond. So Habib tried again. He put up his right arm, his left arm, he scratched his nose, he pulled a face, rocked from side to side, stood on one leg. Each time the monkeys imitated his actions. Once again he put his hand to his head, took off his cap and threw it to the ground. No response from the monkeys.

Feeling miserable, Habib picked up his empty sack and began to walk home. He hadn’t gone far when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked round and saw a monkey with a big smile on its face. “Do you think you’re the only one with a grandfather? Asked the monkey.

Sometimes it is wise to listen to our grandparents, they have a lot to teach us.

George Santayana once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Is memory enough though? Is knowledge even enough? Can these stop us from repeating the same mistakes we have always made? Can we learn from our pasts? Or are we in fact slaves to it and condemned to carry on repeating it?

In the second story the monkeys learn from their ancestors and are therefore not suckered into throwing down their caps so that Habib cannot take them back from them. Where as in the story of the caged monkeys and the banana it is the monkeys that are already in the cage that hold the newcomers back “because that is the way that things have always been done around there.” The monkeys were frightened to climb up the ladder because of what the other monkeys already in the cage told them. History and old ways held them back.

Yes lessons can learnt from the past, but it can also hold us back. It is important to remember that the fruit of a tree are not found in its roots, although good solid foundations are vital to its sustained growth.

Learning about the history of my Unitarian tradition has been vital to understanding my ministry. We are not some new age flash in the pan. Our roots date back to the Hebrew prophets, people who led the way in religious exploration.

Frank Waller puts it almost perfectly. He said:

“Our tradition is not narrow; neither is it formless. It embraces the Hebrew prophets’ demand for justice. It includes Socrates with his radiant critical spirit, testing all things and holding fast to what is good. It is inspired by the loving generosity of Jesus that still awakens the humanitarian spirit in us. It is receptive to the discoveries of modern science.

Tradition is a life giving stream. Yet it can become icy, so we need to smash the frozen moulds to let the warm living current flow freely again. Tradition and innovation go together.”

Tradition and innovation go together. It is vital to learn the lessons from the past and be inspired by them, but it is just as important to never be held back or stifled by it either.

I recently enjoyed a talk given by the students of Manchester Metropolitan University on the life of William Gaskell. I recognise the work done in the past by Unitarian greats, such as William but I never want to make idols out of them and spend forever looking back at what they did. I’m sure they didn’t, they were people of their time and space.

History has so much to teach us, we need to pay attention to it. That said we should never be held back by it. We should listen to our ancestors so we can learn from our pasts, but we ought not to try and mimic them. We live in a different world today. It is not always the case that just because this is the way that things have always been done, that this the way that they should continue to be done.

Any change always begins with awareness, although I am fully aware that this in itself is not enough. Knowledge alone does not necessarily bring about the power required to change.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Ache of Loneliness

(The following article was written on 27th November 2011)

I was listening to the radio this afternoon, relaxing and preparing myself for leading worship this evening when I heard the tragic news of the death of Gary Speed, the forty two year old manager of the Welsh football team. Gary was a one time hero of my mine as he was part of the championship winning Leeds United midfield of 1992. It emerged a little later that Gary had taken his own life. This was perhaps even more shocking. Why had this healthy talented and seemingly well balanced man taken his own life? No doubt more will be revealed in the coming weeks, but I suspect no satisfactory explanation will ever be unearthed. Suicide, depression and the aching loneliness that so many of us suffer from has never been adequately understood and it has never been resolved. In fact it would appear that as humanity has progressed materially it has regressed emotionally and spiritually. Loneliness, mental illness and suicide appear to be on the increase. I have been there myself and I have witnessed friends and loved ones going through this living hell too. Haven’t we all. I suspect that there is not a family in the land that has not experienced the shadow of suicide.

Today is Advent Sunday, which marks the beginning of the Christmas season; a time of joy and celebration, a time for family and fun. For most folk Christmas is the happiest time of the year. That said for others it can be the hardest. It can bring all those feelings and emotions that they have been trying to deal with to the surface. For some people Christmas can bring them face to face with their own loneliness. For some people Christmas can be hell.

For many years I struggled with Christmas as I struggled with my own humanity. For me Christmas brought me face to face with the extent of my own loneliness and isolation. This is no longer the case I’ve danced with most of my demons, but I do remember how it felt and I know that so many people still suffer with these feelings. I know this because they tell me. Yes people tell me of their joys and triumphs but they also tell me of their pain and suffering. One of the hardest aspects of ministry is being with people in utter despair. It does keep you humble though, as it shows you the limits of your power. Sometimes all that is left is tears and prayer.

Loneliness is a horrible, horrible thing. It separates us from others; it makes us believe we are the only ones. It saps our vitality. It makes us feel scared, insecure and vulnerable. The isolation and disconnectedness that it fosters leaves us feeling unloved and worse still unlovable, Loneliness is an assault on our humanity and our worth and dignity. It makes us ask the question, do I really belong here? It brings us face to face with the void, with those questions and fears we do not want to entertain; the fear that we are alone and of course the fear of death. It brings to the surface the suspicion that there really is no rhyme or reason to life, no purpose, no meaning.

Loneliness can be terrifying. We do all we can to avoid it. We spend an awful lot of time convincing ourselves that we are not alone. How many times a day do we check our e-mails, our facebook updates, or mobile phones, or convince ourselves that someone has knocked at the door? How often do we think we have heard someone call out our name in the street?

Loneliness appears to manifest itself in three basic forms. I have heard them described as intimate loneliness, social loneliness and loneliness of the spirit, an existential or cosmic loneliness.

The primary cause of intimate loneliness is the loss of a loved one. Such as a partner, lover, parent, friend, sibling or god forbid a child. It is not the only cause though. Many people long for an intimate connection that goes way beyond the closeness of everyday friendships.

Social loneliness occurs when we feel cut off from others, when we feel isolated from the social networks that we need. It stems from a lack of companionship and or community. Modern living is a major source of social loneliness. Modern life provides decreasing opportunity to visit friends and loved ones. We increasingly communicate through technology and less so face to face. We expand far less energy on human social interaction. Our culture sees more people working longer hours. Productivity is increasingly prized, while connecting and interacting with friends is seen as a luxury and not a necessity. When I look at how we live today I am forced to ask the question, is this really progress?

The loneliness of the spirit, this emptiness of the soul this existential or cosmic loneliness is more difficult to understand and or explain. Some describe this as a ‘God sized hole’ or hole in the soul. This makes sense to me. How else can this feeling of being lonely or longing for something, without knowing what it is be explained? How else can we make sense of the feeling of missing someone, we’ve never met, that feeling of loneliness in a crowd, that need for something more? This feeling of being cut off from life and the rest of humanity. This feeling that you don’t quite belong. I have struggled with all of these emotions at times in my life and am occasionally visited by these ghosts today. When they come they are as terrifying as they always were. Thank God they no longer linger.

This hunger, this longing, this deep rooted loneliness that dwells in so many of us cannot be filled by relationships or friends. It seems to be woven into our humanity; it is part of our human nature. But why Oh why do we carry this longing in our souls? Perhaps it is there to stir us to reach beyond the confines of ourselves for that something in the corner of our lives that we cannot quite see; that something that speaks in a voice less than a whisper and yet somehow more than silence. Perhaps it is there to compel us to delve deeper to the core of our very being. Who knows?

Social loneliness is not difficult to explain. We all need social contact and community to survive and flourish. No man is an island. We often only truly know ourselves through our relationships with others. The reasons for intimate loneliness seem very clear. In creating close bonds with people, we create families and communities. This gives our life meaning. It is this common humanity that binds people together. When it goes, or is absent, we mourn its loss. We crave for it once again. But what about the deeper longing of the spirit? Maybe this is a manifestation of our longing for wholeness. Maybe it’s a need to return home and perhaps it can only be filled by a relationship with the larger presence of life. But how can this be achieved?

Well perhaps the first thing we need to do is face the void and not try to flee from it and or fill it with other things. Perhaps one answer is to embrace solitude. Solitude and loneliness are not the same. One can experience solitude without being lonely and yet we can be miserably lonely and yet be surrounded by people. Solitude is a physical state; where as loneliness is an emotional, psychological and spiritual state. The difference between loneliness and solitude can be monumental and yet subtle. They may look alike, but aren’t experienced alike. It’s like seeing a body as naked, rather than a person being a nude. Naked is stripped and vulnerable, naked is lacking clothes; where as a nude is a beautiful bare body, it is art. Loneliness describes all that is lost, when we are alone; solitude describes all that is gained in all is beauty.

Loneliness can be caused by past hurts that can lead us to try to protect ourselves from life. We have all experienced the pain of betrayal and loss. No one likes being hurt, so we become wary. Because of these hurts we build walls, until finally intimacy loses its attraction. Loneliness is the price of feeling safe from emotional hurt. Of course it fails to even do that. We cannot escape the pain that accompanies the joy of life. All we achieve by trying to protect ourselves from pain is to create the suffering within the suffering. This is a worst kind of pain. I know this pain only too well as I experienced it for much of my life. This is a living hell. I thank God each day that it rarely visits me these days and when it does it no longer lingers.

This Advent, this season of hope and joy I will be thinking of those people in my life who suffer each day with that empty aching loneliness, whatever the cause may be. I will think especially of those suffering from the loss of those most dear to their hearts. I will do so though with the full knowledge that I alone cannot take away their pain. I can though be with them, I can walk side by side with them and even occasionally hold them in their pain.

Hold close to you the one’s that you love...because none of us ever really knows what they’ve got until it’s gone.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Light of Hope: Which Wolf Wins?

I can only imagine what it must be like to experience utter darkness. I was only a baby during the power cuts of the early 1970’s and therefore have no memory of them. And like most folk of my generation I have seen the images and been told the stories of the war time blackouts, but still I cannot really imagine what it must have been like walking those dark streets. The lights did go out in my home for a short time last year and I have to say I found it very difficult negotiating my way around the house, without anything to guide my way.

It’s pretty scary trying to find your way in the dark. No one likes to feel helpless, hopeless sightless. When we stumble around “in a land of darkness” we cannot protect ourselves and just end up stumbling around our own homes stubbing our toes or falling over furniture. That said it is not only material darkness that can cause us problems, we can also get lost in those metaphorical dark forests of life. This can be terrifying. The book of life is full of stories describing children getting lost in the woods. Those fairy tales explore universal themes that everyone can relate to. After all don't we all feel lost and or confused at times.

When we fall into one of life’s black holes we can lose all hope. In this pit we can begin to compromise the very values that we are trying to live by. In this darkness we can lose our dreams and our goals we can forget the path we are on and why we have chosen it. We can also lose sight of our security and supportive community as we search in the dark unaware of the many pitfalls. Sometimes we drive people away with our fear or perhaps they just walk away because they cannot stand our pain.

Perhaps there is another way; perhaps there is a way out. Even in the deepest darkness light can be found; the light of hope, which can show us a new way. This light cannot be resisted it is constantly revealing itself as life continues its re-birth. Isn't this what the season of Advent is all about, the preparation for the coming of the light.

Children bring that light into so many people’s lives. And of course it is the image of a child on which Advent and Christmas rest. The coming of Immanuel the child sent to rescue the people of Israel from their darkness.

I don’t accept this stories uniqueness; I do not believe that this is once in humanity’s life span thing. Sophia Lyon Fahs is so right when she says “Every Night a Child is Born is a Holy Night.” The potential of every child brings hope; no one can remain completely lost if they can just glimpse this hope. There is that of God in each and every one of us. We all have the potential for great things, if we just nurture that loving compassion within us; we just need a little bit of hope and a sprinkling of faith to show us the way; we just need appropriate nurture. We know this from our own lives and we know it from the lives of those that have walked in the light before us. Even in our darkest hours there is a hidden strength that can be found, often from an unexpected source. All that we have to do is to let that light shine in and through us. Advent is a time of anticipation and as long as we hope, someone will light a candle against the prevailing darkness "and neither the winds of hate nor the gales of evil will extinguish it.” This light is universal and it is eternal.

The light of Universalism continues to speak powerfully to me. The concept of one light and many windows that my great hero Forrest Church spoke so beautifully about, keeps me humble and therefore open. I accept that I will never know the absolute truth about everything or even anything and that this enables me to experience life in a way I could never have imagined. The one light of God or truth is reflected through a variety of windows, which none of us can see directly or perfectly.

Universalism’s message of hope, of the everlasting love of God, also speaks to me. It brings Psalm 139 powerfully to the fore of my thinking, nothing and no one is beyond the reach of this eternal love. The dark and the light are both the same to this eternal love. We cannot escape it completely; we cannot flee from the range and reach of this eternal and universal love.

It is so easy to look at our world and just despair and give in and say we are doomed and lost in our own darkness. It is so easy to see life this way. Is this true though are we lost in despair? Is there no hope?

Tom Owen-Towle’s “The Gospel of Universalism: Hope, Courage and the Love of God” has helped me to understand that hope and despair share the same root, that they are joined together like Siamese twins. In the French language they share the same linguistic root; hope (espair) and despair (desespair).

To live in hope, to live in faith that we all have that light etched into our DNA, is not to deny life’s difficulties and pain. Instead it is to see the realities of who and what we are and what our true potential can be, if we just nurture it correctly. All we have to do is let that light shine that is there within us all. This sounds simple, but it is far from easy. It requires consistent effort to allow that natural compassion to grow, develop and nurture. We have to do it though because otherwise the other parts of ourselves take over and we turn with indifference from life. The opposite of hope is not despair, it is indifference.

I have written many times about the work of Karen Armstrong, the Charter for Compassion and her book “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life”. Her central theme is this concept of nurturing our compassionate natures; that this nurture of compassion is a universal theme central to all the great religious traditions throughout human history. This is a message of hope and it is an eternal and universal theme.

Hope springs eternal all we have to do is to begin to let our little lights shine. Isn't this what Advent is all about, the illumination of hope.

I will end this little chip of a blog with a story I have shared here before. I do love the tale and I believe it is worth repeating.

One winter’s evening whilst gathered round a blazing camp fire, an old Sioux Indian chief told his grandson about the inner struggle that goes on inside people.

“You see” said the old man, “this inner struggle is like two wolves fighting each other. One is evil, full of anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, deceit, false pride, superiority, and ego”.

“The other one,” he continued, poking the fire with a stick so that the fire crackled, sending the flames clawing at the night sky, “is good, full of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith”.
For a few minutes his grandson pondered his grandfather’s words and then asked, “So which wolf wins, grandfather?”

“Well”, said the wise old chief, his lined face breaking into a wry smile, “The one you feed!”

Monday, 21 November 2011

Who is your Immanuel? Who is your “God is with us"?

Immanuel means "God is with us"
Who is your Immanuel? Who is your “God is with us”, the one you were promised, the one you have been waiting for?

For the ancient prophet Isaiah, he was a boy soon to be born who would guide the people of Judah back to peace and harmony with God. He would bring hope for victory and greatness in the tribe. He would be a gift from God to his chosen people.

Who is your Immanuel, your “God is with us”?

For Christians, he is Jesus of Nazareth. The baby in the Christmas story who grew to be a remarkable teacher among the Jewish people; whose ideas about love, forgiveness, and justice changed the world forever.

Who is your Immanuel, your “God is with us”?

Perhaps your Immanuel is a political leader, standing for the rights of the oppressed—a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi. Perhaps in their work with people you feel God is with us.

Who is your Immanuel, your “God is with us”?

Perhaps your Immanuel is an artist, bringing transcendence to the human spirit and lifting our hopes and dreams into the light—a J.S. Bach, a Picasso, a William Shakespeare. Perhaps in the presence of great beauty and creativity you feel God is with us.

Who is your Immanuel, your “God is with us”?

Perhaps it is a child. Created from our bodies, the child who is filled with the potential to do every great thing. Your promise from God that the world has hope for justice and beauty. For in the presence of a child we too can feel that God is with us all.

Who is your Immanuel, your “God is with us”?
Slightly adapted from words by Sarah Movius Schurr 

We are about to enter the season of Advent, beginning this Sunday 27th November. It got me thinking about the following words spoken in the 19th century by James Martineau

The incarnation is true not of Christ exclusively but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine.

This distinctly Unitarian view of the Incarnation speaks powerfully to me. Unitarians have tended to see Jesus as a man worthy of following, rather than as the unique manifestation of the Divine. Cliff Reed hits the mark perfectly when he states.

While Jesus was, like all people, a unique individual, he was not other than human. He was our brother in every sense, sharing the same human lineage as us. And thus when we speak of him as a child of god, as incarnate divinity, as vessel of god's promise to humankind, we speak of him as embodiment, as symbol of what is true of every human baby.

The ministry of Jesus, and those who have walked the same path, was indeed an enfleshment of creative power, supremely that of love, which can re-make human beings by revealing to them their roots in a divine creation, their reclaimable goodness and wholeness, their oneness with the glorious universe.
Cliff Reed

The classic Unitarian position has always been that Jesus was and still is a man worthy of following but not of worshipping as the one and only incarnation of the Divine.

The theologian John Hick argues that Jesus did not know that he was himself God incarnate; that the idea of the incarnation ought to be seen as a powerful metaphorical image; that Jesus ought to only be viewed as the embodiment of God because God's love was manifested through his life. He was not literally God's son though in the sense that he was not the creation of a miraculous birth fathered by God in the Holy Spirit. He highlights that the phrase "son of God" was a common Hebrew metaphor and was given to those who exhibited Godly attributes on earth. Therefore it is not surprising that someone who was considered as righteous as Jesus would have been given this title, although it was not meant in a literal sense.

According to Hick, metaphorically speaking, Jesus incarnated God in three ways. The first being that he was living out God's will, therefore God was living through him in this world; the second being that by living out God's will he was displaying the perfect example of how a human being ought to live and was therefore incarnating God; thirdly in the way that his life was perfect agape, it was purely self giving love. In other words Jesus' finite life reflected perfectly God's infinite love, but he was not literally God in the flesh.

Experience has revealed to me that all life can be an extension of this Divine Love. More and more I see the incarnation manifested in all existence.

Process theology and the concept of the ‘lure’ of divine love has suggested this idea for quite some time. Jesus is the word made flesh in that within his life the divine action manifested itself completely. Christ is the expression of the word, within him is the genuine union of divine activity and human activity. He did not literally come down from heaven, this is pure metaphor. To quote  Norman Pittenger Jesus, “...was never a god; he was always regarded as the manifestation in act of the one and only God.” This would suggest that what occurred in Jesus could occur in all human life.

The former Dominican priest Matthew Fox appears to develop this idea further in what he describes as the "Cosmic Christ". He claims that through the Cosmic Christ is the “I am” in every creature, therefore that all life can become the incarnation. He believes that the purpose of the incarnation in Jesus is to reveal the immanence of the Cosmic Christ and that as we grow into who we really are and as our compassion is developed the divine “I am” takes flesh once more. As Fox states “We grow into compassion and in doing so the divine “I am” takes on flesh once again. Since god alone is the compassionate One, as we grow into compassion we also grow into our own divinity.”

So we humans and all life are potentially expressions of the divine and if we express that divine quality within ourselves we can then hopefully inspire others to do likewise

In recent years I believe that I have witnessed and dare I say experienced what I call Divine love. I experienced it the first day I walked into Cross Street Chapel Manchester and was greeted by Peter Sampson. I know it sounds like nothing, but it felt very special. I experienced as I connected to that short lunchtime service led by John Midgley. This feeling, dare I say experience, developed over the next few months as I became part of the community there. This grew as I listened and worship and shared and most of all sung. I fell in love with singing once again there. Every time I sing I experience life in a way I don't during anything else that I do. I always liked to sing, but I experience it differently today.

I first knew this magical mystical feeling when I experienced pure human love manifested in a unique life. I experienced it through knowing Claire and Ethan. Ethan, especially Ethan, showed me that loves is real and exists in every human heart. By just being a part of his short life I began to see that I had once been like him. I saw in him what exists in every human child and all life. I began to experience what Matthew Fox has described as the Cosmic Christ. “That that connects all life.”

Reverend David Doel captures what I mean perfectly when he states that, “The Christ Child stands for the Hope of the World and represents the great miracle of human birth. In every child God comes down to earth. In every child the 'promise' of God is repeated. Every mother is Mary the mother of God and every child is nurtured by the Holy Spirit - that mysterious, creative and healing essence we call Life. The Christ Child is the symbol of our human potentiality; like the oak in the acorn."

The tragedy of my life was that I lost sight of this. Somehow, over the years, I became disconnected from life and became addicted to alcohol and fear and virtually lost my humanity. What I was able to finally, see, accept and connect to in my own life was "That Great reality deep down within every man woman and child." That the book Alcoholics Anonymous describes.

I again experienced that incredible manifestation of divine love on the day, the weeks and months that followed November the 2nd 2006, All Souls Day, the day that Ethan was killed. I will never forget the way that people came together within the community to hold the family and I will always remember how the people in my own community held and supported me. Not that what all these wonderful people did for me would have been enough if that Great reality, that I had rediscovered, had not already begun to flower. The old me would not, could not have survived that tragedy.

I am a great believer in miracles I see them all the time in my everyday interactions with everyday people. I have learnt to appreciate and value every interaction and every moment of existence. Every breath is a Divine gift, if I am only able to see it that way. Every single human being has the capacity for great things, if they would only get in touch with that great reality deep down within themselves. That said we are all also capable of great destruction and evil, every single one of us. It is as important that we remember that too.

None of this is cast in stone though; I simply cannot believe that. I am NOT convinced that anything is pre-destined and pre-determined. I believe that life and existence is truly open and that all human beings are responsible for their own lives and this spinning planet that we all share. The very characteristic of the universe is one of process and change and the agent of this has to be free will. The Divine mystery does not control everything instead what it offers us is the persuasive lure of love, if we could only see that.

All we need to do is to tap into that great reality deep down within us as so many wonderful human examples have done over the years. If we can't see this within ourselves then hopefully we can see it within other human lives or nature itself and be inspired by the beauty of creation, always remembering that we are all made of the same stuff.

If life has taught me anything it is that in order to live to our full potential we humans need to be connected to that that is buried deep within us and that that is circling all around us. To live successfully and happily in this world all we have to do is to first of all find and then maintain that connection and to simply live our lives.

We don’t need to build boundaries to survive, I say pull them all down. We don’t need to work and develop our self esteem, because we already have it in bucket loads. We just have to live honestly and truthfully and that natural self esteem that we are made of will just shine out of us. Hopefully by doing so we will shine some light onto the lives of others and they will be inspired to do likewise. If we do human life is bound to improve for all.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

"What Spirit is Man Can Be"

“What spirit is man can be”

For most of my life I would have said that this was utter nonsense. I was for most of my life a more or less convinced atheist, certainly agnostic. I would not or could not believe in any concept of God, or Spirit or even Soul. They all seemed unfathomable or unknowable and certainly unreachable. This though is no longer my truth. I believe in Spirit and God and Soul. I’m not overly sure how I articulate any or all of these, or for that matter what the difference is. To be honest I don’t really see the difference, they seem the same to me.

A few years ago, I began to connect to that which is described by these words that are often spoken but never really understood and began exploring religion. It is always interesting to me that the changes and experiences occurred before I began the exploration not after. Exploring religion was really about trying to make some rational sense of my experiences. I’m told that this is classic liberal religion of the old school type and not how people are supposed to do things today. While I accept that this may be true in theory it is not what happened to me in practise. I experienced first and then I sought an explanation. To be honest I’m not wholly sure how much this has helped, it has not provided me with the answers, just more questions. I’m ok with this today. I do not expect to get a full answer
Around this time I was working near Manchester University across the road from the Holy Name church on Oxford Road and every lunchtime I would go there, primarily to pray and sit quietly. I was attracted to one particular figure of Jesus, a “Sacred Heart” Icon. It was the glowing heart at the centre of the icon that I became fixated by and I would meditate every day on this. It brought me an incredible sense of peace and connection.

At the same time as I was experiencing this I was also meditating on the following paragraph in the Chapter “We Agnostics” in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”.
“We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but he was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us.”

The Great Reality deep down within problem was that for so long I could not believe that this was deep down within me. That said I could see it in someone else. I could see it in my friend Claire’s son Ethan. From this I reasoned that what was in him had once been in me. Today I understand this to be the soul that has been spoken of through the centuries.

Classic Christian theology sees the soul not only as eternal and immortal; it also sees it, following the teachings of the Greek Philosopher Plato, as unchanging and separate from the body. This is distinct from the Jewish understanding, if there really is one. What they would refer to as soul is really spirit or breath of life that is bestowed on creation by God. There is no concept of a separate soul in Judaism. Genesis 2 vv 7 says “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” It is spirit that is really being talked about here, ruach, meaning breath of life, wind, spirit. It is this that creates all life, including human beings. It is important to realise here that this is not unique to humans; it is stating that all creation is formed from spirit

In Hinduism the soul, Atman, is understood to live many lives. The purpose of these lives is to unite the soul with the one God, the Brahman, this is known as the Brahman Atman synthesis. It is generally thought that Buddhism rejects the concept of the eternal soul. During his long night of meditation under the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha found no evidence for the basic Hindu doctrines that he was taught.  Through his ESP vision the Buddha looked high and low for the Hindu Godhead Brahman and the eternal and unchanging soul that was our share of the Brahman.  What the Buddha discovered has been confirmed by contemporary physics: nothing, not even an atom, endures; all things come into being and then go out of being; all things flow like a river.

Many later Buddhists assumed that because Buddha did not find the Hindu immortal soul that he did not believe in a soul or even a self.  But this is correct only if you define the soul as eternal, immortal, and unchanging.  While the Buddha rejected this idea, he still believed that every human and animal were "living beings". I believe that this is similar to the Jewish concept described in Genesis.

Personally I cannot separate Soul, Spirit and God for me they seem one in the same. I don’t believe anyone has discovered an adequate explanation for this essence, which comes into being, and yet is so much more than mere material existence, whatever name we give it. Any reductionists arguments I have heard seem wholly inadequate and fail explain many of my own personal experiences.

 I find myself drawn to what Emerson understood as “The OverSoul”. He saw God as spirit which can be found within each of us but at the same time was greater than any of us. He saw “The Oversoul” as the great sustainer that holds and supports us "the Earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere." If we allow it to have its way with us, he said, the Oversoul will animate our being with compassion and love. So it is not just there forming life it can be ever present if we allow it to have its way with us.

The “Oversoul” to me is spirit. If the soul is spirit then it must be in all life and beyond all life or not at all. Therefore it can and is experienced in life itself; it is more than just a life giving force. The soul is experienced in the very reality of life itself and not by fleeing from it.

This is also how the soul is fed, in life itself. Yes it is fed in worship in words in silence, in music in prayer and in the images all around us. It is fed in ordinary human interaction. At meal time, during conversation, walks in the park and listening to people coming to terms with life’s struggles. It is fed in political and social action. I know my soul was fed when I marched with other Unitarians at the Manchester Gay Pride parade recently, carrying that banner proclaiming that “Unitarians Welcome All God’s Children”.

I am grateful that I found my soul, what animates my life, because without it my life seemed devoid of meaning and purpose. I’m also glad I am able to feed and nourish it and that by doing so I am able to help and perhaps inspire others to do likewise.

“What spirit is man can be”

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Every night a child is born is a holy night

Christmas is coming and the year will soon be turning. I cannot believe it will soon be 2012 and yet as I write this it is only mid November. I just doesn’t feel quite right to be thinking of these things just yet, but life compels me to. Well actually the job does. I have to constantly think ahead, while still living day by day, nay breath by breath.

The theme we have been following at the congregations this year for the congregations I serve, Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel Altrincham and Queens Road Unitarian Free Church Urmston, has been nurture. How we nurture ourselves, our families, our communities, our world. We are all born with potential, the ability to do many things but to achieve them we need to both nurture and to be nurtured.r.

I have recently been given the honour of conducting several blessings of both children and one adult. I have incorporated water into these ceremonies and blessed each child’s thoughts, words and deeds by touching them with water on their foreheads, their lips and their hands. Following I present a certificate containing, amongst other things,  the words “Every Night a Child is Born is a Holy Night” by Sophia Lyon Fahs.

And so the children come.

And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come --
Born of the seed of man and woman.
No angels herald their beginnings,
No prophets predict their future courses,
No wise men see a star to point their way
To find a babe that may save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Fathers and Mothers --
Sitting beside their children's cribs --
Feel glory in the wond'rous sight of life beginning.
They ask: "When or how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?"
Each night a child is born is a holy night

by Sophia Lyon Fahs

We are each of us precious and unique and we each have so much to offer our world, if we could just unearth and nurture that greater reality deep within the core of our very being. There truly is that of God in each and every one of us; the potential to do great things. That said there is also the potential to destroy, to corrupt to abuse.

Karen Armstrong Author of “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” once said “Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way you will be transformed.”

The purpose of the religious, the spiritual, life is to nurture and develop the potential within each of us. I see this as the purpose of any religious community. It is more than that though; the purpose of a religious community is to share this in their villages, towns, cities, counties, countries and the wider world; it is their purpose to spread those concentric circles of compassion, that Confucius described two and a half millennia ago, out to the whole world. This compassion begins within the individual, and spreads to our families, to our communities, to our regions, to our countries before it encompasses the whole world. It begins though by healing and nurturing the individual's soul.

Let the light of love heal our souls and let us make each and every moment holy; let’s make every night a holy night.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Power of Now: There's Nothing New in the New Age

This a re-telling of an ancient Zen Buddhist tale

A man was walking across a field when he heard a rustling in the tall grass beside him, and turned to see the hungry eyes of a large tiger staring at him. The man began to run, fear giving him greater speed and stamina than he knew he possessed. But always, just behind him, he could hear the easy breathing of the hungry tiger. Finally, the man stopped, not because his strength had failed but because he had come to the edge of a high cliff and could go no further. "I can let the tiger eat me, or take my life in my own hands and jump." The man turned and saw the tiger slowly walking toward him, licking its mouth in anticipation.
Resolved to take his own life, the man stepped to the edge of the cliff and bent his legs to jump, when he suddenly noticed a thick vine growing out of the side of the cliff, several feet from the top. Carefully, he let himself drop down the cliff face, catching hold of the vine as he slid past, and thanked God when it was strong enough to support his weight. Hanging now, the man looked up and saw the tiger's eyes peering over the edge of the cliff. It roared down at him, then began to pace back and forth along the top of the cliff. For the first time, the man looked at the vine that had saved his life. It was thick enough for him to wrap his legs around, resting his arms, and long enough that he might be able to let himself far enough down to jump safely to the ground below. And the moment he had this thought was the same moment that he saw the second tiger, pacing back and forth at the foot of the cliff, licking its mouth, and looking hungrily up at him. Well, thought the man, if my strength and the strength of the vine are great enough, perhaps I can outwit the tigers. Surely, they'll go some place else to eat when they're hungry enough. And the man prepared to settle in for a long wait. His preparations halted quickly, however, when he heard a scurrying, scratching sound close to his own face. Glancing upwards, he saw two mice, one white and one black, emerge from a small hole in the cliff. They made their way swiftly to the base of the vine, and began to gnaw through it with their small sharp teeth. There was nothing else he could do, a tiger above, a tiger below, and the vine that kept him from their jaws about to break. The man was closing his eyes to begin his prayers, when he noticed, a little to his right, a tiny patch of red colour on the face of the cliff. He reached toward it precariously, pulled, and brought his hand back beneath his eyes. There, in his palm, was a luscious, red strawberry. The man swiftly pressed the strawberry between his lips, onto his tongue, and hanging between those still visible tigers, he enjoyed the finest , juiciest, sweetest meal of his life.

The idea that the gift of life is found through experiencing the joy of the present moment is not a new concept. The faith traditions have been teaching it since the early days of human history, it is one of the great universal principles. There really is nothing new in the “New Age”

While there is something rather beautiful about this ancient Buddhist tale of the man the tigers and the strawberry, there is also something sad. In many ways it is a powerful metaphor for life. How we often only really stop and appreciate the gifts that are there when there’s nothing else to do nowhere else to turn. The tiger chasing the man could be our past, which often we are on the run from; the tiger at the bottom of cliff could be our futures which we are in fear of, the unknown, the unpredictable. The vine could be our minds which we often believe can sustain us through all that life throws at us and the mice could be that corroding thread that eats away at our rationality, our fear and anxiety...seen this way the story does indeed seem a little scary.

And yet there is the strawberry, the beautiful juicy strawberry that can be enjoyed regardless of all that is going on all around us. The problem is of course that we don’t see the fruit until the point of death or at least this man didn’t. It wasn’t until he had surrendered to his fate that he could see the strawberry and then enjoy it.

Is this what happens in life? Do we fail to enjoy its fruit because we try to overcome fear by thinking we can either out run or outwit it? Should we instead simply surrender to the reality of the life we are currently experiencing so as to fully enjoy whatever fruits are available?

Jesus (Luke 12 vv 22-31) reminds us not to worry or be anxious about life, to be like the ravens or the lilies of the field. He suggests that what we need is to have faith and to concentrate on building the Kingdom of God. But what is the kingdom of God? Where can it be found? Well it seems that it can be found by surrendering to the present moment, to the reality of the life in which we find ourselves rather than fleeing it or trying to overcome our anxiety of it with our minds. Perhaps we simply need to accept nature, life, the kingdom of God as it truly is and to trust.

Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed this in the nineteenth century, he said.

“ postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”

Eckhart Tolle, in “The Power of Now” describes an experience he had which led him to transcend his anxiety riddled life. For him the change happened one day while listening to himself think. He realized in that moment that there was more than a single unified and separate him. There is who we are in our daily actions and then there is the part of us that witnesses what we are doing, thinking and feeling. The part of us that watches is our true self. That bears witness to what we are doing without getting trapped in it. It is not wrapped up in the past and is connected to the greater whole. Or put more simply, we are not always what we think we are.

Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” According to Tolle this is the most fundamental error of our time. It is what has set us apart from each other and the rest of creation. We “think” we are somehow separate and therefore unique; unique in our suffering, unique in our troubles, unique in our feelings, and thus utterly alone. The moment we start watching our thinking is the moment we realize there is more to existence than us and what we think. We are not all there is of beauty, love, grace, creativity, joy and peace. Well thank goodness, thank God for that.

How many of us can say that they truly give their full attention to what they are doing? Tolle claims that this is the key to happiness and peace, giving our full attention to what we are doing. When we are truly present in what we are doing we are totally at peace and we are happy, we are not in fear and we are not in anxiety. Being present is life’s gift. That’s why it is called the present. I occasionally get glimpses of this; I occasionally get a taste of this in my life. It happens when I am in the company of some people, in my personal life and also in ministry. One of the great joys of ministry are the conversations I have with people. I become totally absorbed in them at times, especially when people speak from the heart. I also experience it while singing, especially during singing meditation. Here I feel I am floating above time, here I feel I am transcending self. I can experience it in worship too. We all experience it in the activities we love, when we totally abandon ourselves to whatever it is we are doing. Tolle says we can experience it in all that we do. We can give ourselves wholeheartedly and be present in everything that we do; whether that is washing the pots or cutting the grass, or reading a book or watching children play or watching birds flying above our heads, or considering the lilies of the field.

These are the moments that we can truly experience the Divine, in the moment in the NOW. Not in the past which no longer exists; nor in the future, which is yet to come. Fear and anxiety only exist when our minds are not with our bodies in the gift of the eternal now. This is what Tolle is suggesting in our present age; this is what Jesus was teaching when he talked about building God’s Kingdom in our time and not just the time to come; this is what Emerson was teaching and this is what the Buddhist story is teaching too. There is nothing new in the “New Age”, it is an eternal truth.