Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Fellowship: Creating Sacred Space

Below is a link to a talk I delivered at R.E. Summer held at the Nightingale Centre at Great Hucklow in Derbyshire. It includes a short period of devotional worship at the beginning before the talk itself begins. Below the link is the full transcript of the talk.

Light Chalice
Welcome to this sacred love are most welcome
May we be reminded here of our highest aspirations, and be inspired to bring our gifts of love and service to the altar of humanity.
May we know once again that we are not isolated beings but connected, in mystery and miracle, to the universe, to this sacred space, to each other and to God.
Let us begin our worship in the spirit of Love.

Hymn 24 “Come sing a song with me”

I invite you now to join together in a time of prayer...
Oh Great Mystery, help us to experience you here in our lives.
Help us to see you as you blow 
through the branches of the great trees.
Help us to feel you as you gust through our fields and streets.
Help us to taste you on the breath of those we hold most dear.


Be with us when we are afraid to delve within,
when we cannot face ourselves in the glass,
when we are paralysed by our guilt and our shame.

Sustain us as we open the windows to our hearts,
and stand before our world, exposed . . . but ready.


God of love, open our eyes.
Help us to discover that we are not
who we thought that we were . . .
that we need not fear our natures.


What lies at the centre of our being,
and all creation, is love.


Love. . .unconditional. . .love...everlasting. .



Once upon a time...long long Japan, a woman prayed that God would show her the difference between heaven and hell. She wanted to know whether there were fires in hell, and whether the people in heaven sat around on clouds all day playing harps. She didn’t fancy going to either place if that was all they had to offer.

She prayed so hard that God decided to answer her prayer, and he sent an angel to give her a guided tour of both places...angels are good like that...first she went to hell. It wasn’t hot at all; in fact it looked quite pleasant. There were long tables laden with food of all kinds – cooked meats, vegetables, fruit, delicious pies, and exotic desserts. “This can’t be hell,” she thought. Then she looked at the people. They were sitting some distance from the tables, and they were all miserable – emaciated, pale, angry. Each of them had chopsticks fastened to their hands, but the chopsticks were about three feet long and no matter how hard they tried, the people just couldn’t get the food into their own mouths. They were groaning with hunger, and frustration, and anger. “I’ve seen enough of this,” said the woman. “Show me heaven...May I see heaven now?”

The angel took the woman to heaven. They didn’t have far to go. It was just next door. It was almost the same as hell. There were the same kind of tables, the same kind of food, and here too, the people were sitting a little distance away from the tables with three-foot long chopsticks fastened to their hands. But these people seemed happy. They were rosy cheeked, and looked well fed. They were smiling and chatting merrily to each other. They couldn’t put the food into their mouths either, but they had discovered how to be fed and happy: they were feeding each other.

Hymn 200 “What does the Lord require?”

Theme Talk

Every Sunday Morning before beginning worship at Dunham Road I like to look up at the ceiling above me. Have any of you been to Dunham Road Chapel? It is so beautiful. There is so much that you can feast your eyes on, without anything being in your face. Before I begin leading worship I like to look up and offer a prayer; a prayer to remind me of why I am there; a prayer to remind me of what I believe the purpose of worship is; a prayer to remind me of what spiritual community is about; a prayer to remind me of what the purpose of religion truly is. As I look up I feel like I am standing beneath the hull of a great ship. Yes ok it’s one turned upside down. I’m cool with that as I’m someone who is always searching for the un-commonsense as opposed to the commonsense that I am told I should be seeking. Commonsense is so overrated, where as un-commonsense is so rarely absorbed. I hope in some sense that this talk will reveal some un-commonsense to you this morning. Why?  Because I reckon it’s only through un-commonsense that the Great Mystery truly reveals itself. 

When I look up at the ceiling I feel Like I’m dangling down towards the bottom of a great ship and when I then look up at the congregation I feel like we are all in this ship together. We are sailing in this ship together. We do not sail the ship alone. We are fellows in the same ship; we are journeying in a fellowship. I do not see it as an Ark though, more a cruise ship really, maybe it could be called a love boat. It is a fellowship of love, a fellowship of the spirit even. Each week we journey together. Ok I may well steer the ship, but I am not the navigator. After our weekly adventure, on our love boat, we go back out into the world, we go our separate ways and hopefully carry that spirit into our daily lives and into our world; to attempt to share some of this uncommon sense in our own little worlds. We go our separate ways, but are united in that spirit of love we have shared in our time together.

For the next half an hour or so I am going to attempt to steer you through a journey that will explore these concepts of the fellowship of love, of the fellowship of the sprit and hopefully when you leave you can perhaps carry what you have heard into your lives and let it live and breathe through you in your daily activities.

Earlier I shared with you the story “Heaven and Hell”. I first came across it in Bill Darlison’s book “The Shortest Distance”. It’s a great tale don’t you reckon? I have come across several other versions of it from other traditions too. There is an almost identical version that is told from a Jewish perspective. In this tale the chopsticks are replaced with spoons.

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

I think that one of the greatest delusions of the modern era is the myth of self reliance, this idea that as individuals we have all that we need and that we do not need one another. Jeffrey Lockwood in his meditation “to ask is to give” claims that:
“...One of the great blessings of travel is to be put in a position of asking help from others, to be genuinely needful of strangers. Our illusion of self-reliance evaporates as the unexpected and unfamiliar merge into vulnerability. We offer the gift of authentic need, the opportunity for deep trust. We express to another person the most humanizing cross-cultural phrase: “Please help me.”...In our society, self-sufficiency is heralded as a virtue, and chronic dependence on others can be degrading. But never being asked to help another person is isolating, even dehumanizing. In a culture that exalts autonomy, asking for help may be one of the greatest gifts we offer. So much of life has become a calculation of costs and benefits; to ask assistance is to create the opportunity for unconditional giving in raw, spiritual defiance of economic rationality. We become mutually indebted without expectation of repayment. Each person in the relationship becomes a giver and receiver. Each one becomes more human. Each one has something to be thankful for.”

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

There is a line in one account from Mark’s gospel (Ch 8 vv 1-9) where we hear the words “They ate and were filled”.

In this account Jesus had spent three days with the people he feeds. He had not invited them to join him and therefore was certainly not obliged to feed them. I am sure that the crowd were not expecting to be fed by the meagre amount that the disciples brought, which was meant for them only. But what happens? Well Jesus recognises the crowds hunger and the fact that they have travelled a great distance to be with him, he expresses compassion for all of them. He asks the crowd to sit down and to share a meal with him. He then instructs the disciples to serve the people personally. The crowd eat and are filled. Not because their bodies were filled to the brim, but because their hunger was met in the most important way possible. What occurs is a true human encounter between the disciples and the crowd; the people are served face to face and are therefore truly loved and cared for. They had not only been physically fed they had been personally served and therefore their humanity recognised, each individuals hunger mattered.

From you I receive to you I give, together we share and from this we live.
We all thirst and hunger even in our seemingly materially abundant lives. We cannot feed this hunger in isolation in self reliance it is only fed in that relationship that occurs as we feed one another. This is fellowship to me. Fellowship is what occurs in the relationship between the two. In this relationship, in this space, we can know the Love of God.

We all hunger for purpose and meaning. As Viktor Frankl pointed out we are driven by a will to find meaning and purpose. I would go further and suggest that we are also driven to find companionship in our increasingly isolated and isolating culture. We need to serve one another, or our souls will starve. I have discovered and I keep on discovering that our deepest pangs are not satisfied by the food that is laid on the table but in the relationship that occurs as we feed one another and as we drink from one another’s cup. This is fellowship.

William Wordsworth once wrote.

“There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.”

“Spots of time” are moments in our lives that have the potential to change us forever. Moments when life not only feeds but truly nourishes us on a deep, deep level, deeper than the marrow of our bones; moments when the common becomes uncommon; moments when the veils we create ourselves seem to slip away; moments when we seemingly see beyond the ordinary; moments when we experience reality on a deeper level.

These “spots of time” are sacred moments that are made holy by their mysterious ability to nourish us and perhaps even repair us in body, mind, heart and soul. These moments are so special because they seem so rare. I suspect that they are a kind of grace; they seemingly come to us, from a place somewhere beyond ourselves.

Karen Armstrong believes that we can create these “spots of time” in each other’s lives. That small acts of kindness when we serve, feed, nourish one another can be spots that have the potential to change people’s lives forever. Can you recall “spots of time” in your own lives, those moments that lifted you up when once again you had fallen.

I wonder if we could break off into pairs for a few minutes and perhaps think and then share with each other moments in our lives, “spots of time” when someone has done something for you, or given you a moment of their time from their heart that has perhaps changed you, transformed you...a time when they have enjoyed true fellowship with you. After we have perhaps shared with one another we could come back together and perhaps if we would like to we could share with all who are here...

Sharing time for 5mins

I have served the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston for two years now. I feel that we have got to know one another quite well during this time. From the outset I made it a priority of mine to spend time talking, but above all else listening, to them. During the worship we have shared I have encouraged openness by allowing them to get to know me. Leading worship for me is about communicating the language of the heart. An address should never be a lecture that merely feeds the intellect. I hope to God this is not a lecture. This may well have been a challenge for some folk, but was a deliberate decision on my part in an attempt to give those present permission to be open with me. It was an attempt to feed one another; it was an attempt to develop fellowship. I have spent time with everyone connected with both congregations, visiting them in their own homes and talking with them about many things. This has been a real treasure to me, personally. We have some real gems hidden away in our congregations. I cannot begin to express how deeply moved I have been by what people have shared with me. Virtually every conversation has been littered with moving stories of love, of pain, of grief and of faith. I have heard some of the most incredible tales of personal spiritual experience, something I have a deep interest in. I have rarely left someone’s home without feeling that my life has been enhanced by the time we have just shared. I have felt welcomed into the lives of the people within both communities and for that I am profoundly grateful. They have fed me as I have fed them; they have given to me as I have given to them. We have truly enjoyed fellowship together, in this deepening relationship.

“Listen with the ear of your heart”, has become one of my mantras. It comes from “The Rule of Benedict” a set of ancient principles for monastic orders. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with the ear of your heart “.

I see this as a key component of fellowship, listening to one another “with the ear of our hearts” and of course to speak the language of the heart. If we do we may just begin to hear that uncommon sense spoken by that “Great Mystery”

A man approached Nasrudin and asked him, “how does one become wise?”. To which Nasrudin replied: “listen attentively to wise people when they speak. And when someone is listening to you, listening attentively to what you are saying!”

Ah Mulla Nasrudin, the wise fool. The “Holy Fool”. He spoke a lot of un-commonsense.

Ernest Hemingway once said "When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen."

Listening is about invitation. It is about inviting the other into our lives; it is about ‘making place for the other’. This is not always easy to do especially when engaging in conversation.

How many of us can really say that we listen to one another? When we begin to converse do we take time to truly listen to what the other person is saying? Or are we merely waiting for our turn to make our point? When we engage with one another are we really attempting to make space for them or is it all about us? Is it about our need to be heard? Are we in fact engaging with others in the hope that they will agree with us?

In “Forgotten Art of Deep Listening” Kay Lindahl asks us to:

“Think of the difference it would make if each of us felt really listened to when we spoke. Imagine the time it would save to be heard the first time around, instead of having to repeat ourselves over and over again. Envision a conversation in which each person is listened to with respect, even those whose views are different from ours. This is all possible in conversations of the heart, when we practice the sacred art of listening. It takes intention and commitment. We need to slow down to expand our awareness of the possibilities of deep listening. The simple act of listening to each other can transform all of our relationships. Indeed, it can transform the world, as we practice being the change we wish to see in the world.”

By listening we can begin to transform the world; by listening we begin to practise being the change we wish to see in the world.

About nine years ago I met a man in Oldham who changed my life, actually he saved my life. He taught me many things one of which was how to listen. This began with practising noticing when I wasn’t listening, when others were speaking. He taught me to observe when my mind wandered off or to notice when I was listening how much of my time was spent on working out what “brilliant” response I was going to make, in an attempt to refute what the other person was saying. He taught me that when we are listening to another we are extending ourselves to that person, we are giving them a gift; a gift that we can both share in. In making space for the other, we create a sacred space, we make space for God and we get a taste of heaven.

He taught me that when we listen to another we truly give of ourselves. Whereas when we only appear to be listening and are in fact judging or comparing ourselves to them we are in actual fact judging ourselves. He taught me that if we learn to listen to others, without judgement, we can begin to learn to accept them for who they truly are. By doing so we are learning to love them; by doing so we give them the dignity to be themselves; by doing so we dignify ourselves; by doing so we create a sacred space in that relationship between one another.

Now of course not all the great sages come from Oldham. Those of ancient times taught similar lessons to this ordinary man.

Karen Armstrong has highlighted that human dialogue has tended “ be aggressive, a tradition we inherited from the ancient Greeks.” If we look at our world today we tend to debate competitively, whether we are public figures or just talking in the playground, the pub or through social media. Often when we are engaging in conversation we are trying to trip one another up, or prove one another wrong. How many of us can say that we are truly listening to one another?

Since ancient times the great sages have offered solutions to this competitive and aggressive way of communicating, but I’m not sure they have ever won out.

As Armstrong has highlighted:

“The Socratic dialogue was a spiritual exercise designed to produce a profound psychological change in the participants - and because its purpose was that everybody should understand the depth of his ignorance, there was no way that anybody could win.” The key as Plato highlighted “ to ‘make place for the other’ in his mind and to listen intently and sympathetically to the ideas of his partners in dialogue...” Can you imagine this happening during Prime Minister’s Question Time today?

Other great sages such as the Buddha and Confucius conducted discussions in a similar manner. Confucius always developed his ideas in conversation. He did this because he felt that to achieve ‘maturity’ required this kind of friendly interaction. The Buddha taught his monks to converse kindly and courteously with one another. His lay disciple King Pasenadi of Kosla observed the contrast between his Royal Courts and the Buddha’s communities. In the courts everybody seemed to be looking out for themselves and they were always quarrelsome. Where as he observed that the monks were “ together as uncontentiously as milk with water and looking at one another with kind eyes...smiling, courteous, sincerely happy...their minds remaining as gentle as wild dear.” They listened to one another, they served one another and they showed reverence to one another.

Listening is about making space for the other, it is an invitation; an invitation to create true spiritual intimacy. Listening is one way to release ourselves from the treadmill of own ego centric little worlds. It can release us from hell.

Listening is a loving practise and as such it requires discipline, it requires spirit and it requires devotion. It begins by being aware, mindful, of when we do not listen and re-committing to listening once again. It is one step towards living more empathically, more compassionately with one another. This is not an overnight matter. As Karen Armstrong herself says “...the attempt to become a compassionate human being is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or a day - or even in twelve steps. It is a struggle that will last until our dying hour.”

It begins with listening, by attempting to be the change we want to be. By truly listening, ‘with the ears of our hearts’ we can turn away from judgement toward empathy and understanding, we can truly invite the other into our lives.

We do not journey alone, we sail the ship of life together. I hope this little boat trip that we have shared together this morning as opened you up to the concept of fellowship, of the fellowship of the spirit. I hope that in some way it is has shown how vital it is that we invite the other into our lives, how we need one another and how vital it is that we truly give of ourselves to others and let others truly give of themselves to us. Let’s feed one another from each other’s hearts in our thoughts words and deeds.

It all begins by listening with the ears of our hearts. By doing so we may just begin to understand that un-common sense that is spoken through all of life, but so rarely heard.



I would like to end with a short blessing
Go now in peace. 
Deeply regard each other. 
Truly listen to each other. 
Speak what each of you must speak. 
Be ready in any moment to disarm your own heart, 
and always live as if a realm of love had begun.

And may the blessings of God be with us in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do.


  1. I love the metaphor of the upside-down ship. there is a motif from mythology of an upside-down tree that grows downwards from the heavens, bestowing heavenly gifts on the world.

    Really listening to each other is a wonderful thing when it happens. It's so good to feel listened to and not judged. To feel accepted and really seen in one's entirety. And to bestow the same gift on others.

  2. The greatest gift of them...often it is this space when I begin to reconcile my whole self...even the b its I'd rather not look at...I will have to check out that tale Yvonne...thank you