Sunday, 10 June 2012

The courage to be: Don't fear the raven

"No one needs to try to be unique. Nevertheless, being who we are remains a daily challenge. The three things required – self-acceptance, integrity, and the courage to be – don’t happen on their own.

Self-acceptance demands that we aspire to be, not disdain , who we are; it rejects disguise, knowing that it is neither helpful or necessary. Integrity is oneness – being in harmony with ourselves and neighbour. The courage to be is nothing more and nothing less than a fundamental affirmation of our own uniqueness conditioned by the limits imposed by life and death. Practiced together, self acceptance, integrity, and the courage to be lead to human freedom. In contrast, fear disguises reality, trades in duplicity, and rejects human limitations, thereby making freedom impossible..."

"The courage to be" Forrest Church

I was recently invited to lead a “Singing Meditation” at Bank Street Chapel, Bolton. The minister Stephen Lingwood asked if I’d like to come early and watch the Olympic torch (This blog was originally published on 10th June 2012) as it arrived in the town and then go for food. It sounded like a grand idea and so I arrived early!

We wandered to the town square and were entertained by three young women leading what seemed like a mass exercise class. Meanwhile we continued to watch the torch approach via a big screen. Finally it arrived carried by a local man and escorted into the square by an Indian pipe band, playing traditional bagpipe music (Bolton is a truly multi-cultural town).

Once the flame had passed through we went in search of something to eat. As we walked down the precinct we heard the terrifying screech of children and wondered what on earth was going on and then we saw it. In the middle of a crowd of people was an enormous raven wandering up and down. People were crowding round it and it pecked at them in an attempt to scare them off. We carried on a little concerned for the bird, not that we needed to be, and went for food. After enjoying a fish and chip tea we returned to the chapel. On the way we passed back through the town square and as we did I looked up and I saw the great bird once again. He was happily sitting there at the summit of the town hall surveying the scene below. I walked away chuckling to myself and thinking...mmmhhh!!! I think I know who rules this place...yes his time had been disturbed by all the goings on but now he could get back to where he belonged, ruling the roost from his perch high above it all...

It brought the Edgar Allen Poe poem to my mind and those immortal words...”Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’”

The “Singing Meditation” went really well and they have asked me to share it with them again at some time in the future, which of course I will do. I drove home in a state of bliss feeling connected and at peace and then the image of the raven came back into my mind. It had such beauty and majesty and people did seem terrified of it. It brought the film “The Birds” to my mind . That classic 1960’s horror/thriller directed by the great Alfred Hitcock and loosely based on a story by Daphne du Maurier. The film is set in a California seaside town that is suddenly, and for reason never explained, the subject of a series of widespread and violent bird attacks; a terrifying film in its day that no doubt instilled a fear of birds into a whole generation. Hitcock truly was the master of the suspense thriller; he knew how to tap into that fear that lurks within us all. It got me thinking about the things that terrified me as a child...

Fear does have the power to inhibit but it also has the power of allure. I remember those terrifying public information broadcasts from the 1970’s, images that still stay with me, about the dangers of railway lines, and electric pylons and of course water. Not that we headed the dangers, in many ways it kind of made them more enchanting for me and my friends. When I think of the more exciting childhood memories they were all laced with danger. I also remember a collection of “video nasty’s” that my stepdad must have got a hold of and of finding them and watching them and the waking nightmares and terrors that I suffered as a result.

The childhood memory that haunted me the most though was a Saturday night episode of “Hammer House of Horror”. It was a werewolf tale that vividly remains within my psyche. The image that had the greatest impact was of the beast at the window in the black of night and the person turning round and it being in the room with them. This was etched on my memory for years and to such an extent that I never dared look out through the glass of my room after dark. Even to this day there is a part of me that feels nervous if I look through “glass darkly”

Fear comes in many forms. We need not fear fear in and of itself. It is a vital part of our make up, of our animal heart. It sets the pulse racing and heightens our awareness. Fright is a vital instinct. It points to danger, it’s a warning signal. That said there are other forms of fear which are not so useful. Perhaps the most debilitating of all is dread.

Dread and other forms of debilitating fear can overwhelm us and lead to crippling forms of anxiety which can inhibit us from simply living and being. When we are overcome by such emotions everything can appear bleak; our senses become dulled; it drains all the colour and taste from life. This leads to us projecting our anxiety and worry onto everything that we do in life; it takes the very life out of living and leads to abject misery. It drags us into pits of depression and traps us in the very things that we believe protect us from present dangers. As a result we go deeper into ourselves and get lost and trapped in our black holes of doom and gloom. It can be very difficult to find our way out of these black holes. It sucks the life out of us and stops us being who we really are, all that we can be.

So how do we overcome the power of this debilitating fear? How do we find the courage just to be?

Well it takes just a little faith and a little love to create the courage just be. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Which of course it is, but it is far from easy.

This brings to mind a verse from one of my favourite hymns “Others call it God”

The verse goes like this...

“A picket frozen on duty,
A mother starved for her brood,
And Socrates drinking hemlock,
And Jesus on the rood;
An millions, who though nameless,
The straight, hard pathway trod –
Some call it consecration,
And others call it God.”

The straight hard pathway of faith is not easy...

The images depicted in this verse are of characters who had the courage to do what they believed they were there to do, whether a picket on duty, or a mother looking after her children or the likes of Jesus and Socrates who were willing to sacrifice their lives for love or truth...They had the courage to be...inspirations to me, inspirations to us all
Socrates was charged by the Athenian council with “corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognised by the state.”

He courageously contested the charges against him, but ultimately lost and as a result was condemned to die. He accepted the judgement of his peers, while responding with these immortal words “The difficulty is not so much to escape death...The real difficulty is to escape from doing wrong, which is far more fleet of foot.”

He did not fear death because he felt that it would take nothing from him of value. As he said to the court “I have never lived an ordinary life...I did not care for the things that most people care about – making money, having a comfortable home, high military or social rank.” Neither did he fear what death would bring which he saw as either the sweetest sleep or a journey to a better place, a place of justice. As he proclaimed “nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death.”

Socrates would rather have surrendered his life, than his integrity. Both in life as in death he perfectly illustrated the courage to be. He had the integrity and therefore courage to say “I have a more sincere belief than any of my accusers, and I leave to you and to God to judge me as it shall be best for me and for yourselves.”

“Jesus on the rood” (Jesus on the cross) like “Socrates drinking hemlock” is another incredible example of someone living out the courage to be. This is truly an example and beacon to us all. He was not immune from fear though. He struggled with it as he hung dying on the cross. In the Gospel accounts of his life he rarely quoted scripture, but at this moment he did. That said he did not quote the comforting 23rd Psalm “I shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil for thou are with me”. No, instead he quoted the much starker 22nd Psalm “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?” He did not quote the comforting words “My cup runneth over”, instead he cried out “I thirst”.

Some might say where is the courage here? Well it is in what comes next, as he utters “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In these words lies the essence of his message of radical love. For Socrates integrity gave him the strength to be; whereas for Jesus it was love; the love of God and the love of neighbour as for self. He surrendered himself utterly to his purpose and to his God as he uttered those immortal words “Father, I commend my life unto thy spirit.”

This is where we find the courage to truly be, to overcome the power of unnatural fear, through living in and through love, truth and integrity. Love will always overcome fear; love will always enable us to find the courage to truly be all that we can be. It is love that enabled the picket to stand in the freezing cold to stand up for what he believed in; it is love that motivated the mother to sacrifice herself for her children; it is love that enabled both Jesus and Socrates to make their ultimate sacrifices.

We will always know the emotion of fear, we will always feel it. We need it, it is a natural instinct. That said we need not be enslaved by it. We need not fear that raven perched above us. To be free all we need do is live in integrity, live in love and the courage to simply be will shine out of us. In doing so not only do we liberate ourselves, we will be a light to others who in turn may be inspired to liberate themselves and others too.

Let love and truth show us the way to be all that we can be...


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