Thursday, 11 October 2012


Ministry compels me to pay attention. Even during those moments when I really do not want to, this work compels me to pay attention. I now understand that this is one of the great gifts of my work. Ministry compels me not only to pay attention to the people that I serve, but to all life. I now understand how much ministry is a deeply spiritual practice. Why is this? Well because it increases my sensitivity to life.

As the year has developed and as I have created worship and engaged with the communities I serve I have noticed how I increasingly pay attention to the changing seasons. This seems especially so this autumn. Autumn has had a powerful impact on me this time around. This year I seem to have noticed nature more than I ever have before; this year I have heard Autumn’s song more clearly than ever before. I am listening and I am attempting to harmonise with it.

I've been singing these words for weeks now...

“Think of the springtime,
Think of the summer,
Think of the winter,
Soon to be here,
But this is autumn,
Glorious autumn,
Beautiful autumn,
Best of the year.

Beautiful autumn best of the year...

Rilke wrote of “Autumn”

“The leaves are falling, falling as from far, as though above were withering farthest gardens; they fall with a denying attitude.

And by night, down into solitude, the heavy earth falls far from every star.
We are all falling. This hand’s falling too – and have this falling-sickness none withstands.

And yet there’s One whose gently-holding hands This universal falling can’t fall through.”

Everything seems to be falling and dying during the Autumn; "everything is beautiful because everything is dying". This is of course only temporary as all that is seemingly dying today is actually preparing itself for the renewal that will come in the spring time. 

It is hard to miss the glories of Autumn. Those simple falling and fallen leaves turn the most beautiful shades and from a distance can appear to be aflame in a red gold splendour. I noticed them as I was driving back to Altrincham only the other day.

Harvest feasts are celebrated, in many cultures, during the autumn. 

The other day a member of the congregation was telling me of her recent visit to a Sukkot celebration. Sukkot is a Jewish celebration where temporary shelters, with a hole revealing the sky are created in remembrance of ancestors who wandered in the wilderness; as the hardships of ancient times are remembered, so too a celebration is enjoyed and a thanksgiving harvest is shared by family, friends and guests. The shelters are decorated lavishly and are adorned with symbols of home, harvest and perhaps most importantly hope. By spending time outdoors, in these simple shelters, the Jewish people are reminded of their connection both to nature and their heritage.

In the coming weeks Hindu’s will be celebrating “Divali” the festival of lights. This is in essence a celebration of harvest and thanks giving when thanks are offered to the Divine for the blessings of nature. The festival honours the sacredness of light as a symbol of connection to the Divine. Prayers of petition are offered to the “Goddess of Abundance” “Lakshmi” to fill their homes with all that is beautiful and good, during the celebrations. This though is not merely a time to ask for gifts but also a time to offer generosity to family and friends. It is a time of celebration, a time for giving and forgetting and it is also a time of remembrance too; a time to recall deliverance of ancestors by the Avatar Krishna from a tyrant. Divali is a celebration, a time of thanks giving, not only for the harvest, but also of deliverance.

At this time of year many Pagans celebrate Samhain, a new year harvest. Samhain also represents the time when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. It is a time to remember those who have died, to remember and connect to ancestors and to prepare for the harsh realities of the coming winter; a time when the ground will once again become lifeless, only to be reborn again in the springtime.

The Christian churches have recently celebrated their own harvest festivals. We had ours here at Dunham Road, only two weeks ago. The coming weeks are also a time of remembrance with All Hallows, All Saints and All Souls Day, as well as Remembrance Sunday itself. December brings Advent and the Hope that comes with the new light, the Hope of Christmas and that humble birth in a simple stable. Like many of the other traditions this is also a time for giving and for getting (forgiving and forgetting).

Each of these very different traditions honours the past and gives thanks for the present while preparing for the hope that is to come, looking for the light in the darkness of winter and the coming of new life in the spring time.

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I have a deep love for the writings of Forrest Church. Forrest served for more than thirty years as minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York. He authored many books and I particularly love his writings post the year 2,000. With the dawning of the new millennium he changed and developed a more relational heart based theology as opposed to his previous head based one. As he said himself “My heart had always been in play – how could it not with love and death my abiding theme – but now a trunk line opened from my mind straight to my heart, a line that was almost always open. My long standing belief in a distant God slowly transfigured itself into my felt experience of a loving God. Ah, what a difference: to feel, not merely know, what one believes.”

His penultimate masterpiece “Love and Death”, which he wrote while dying of oesophagul cancer, is the most beautiful life affirming book imaginable. It extols the virtue of the power love in the face of death. Church does not bemoan his fate of dying before he himself is ready, instead he celebrates love. He says that death is in fact loves measure...

“...not only because at a loved one’s death our grief, however we express it, is equal to our love, but also because, when we ourselves die, the love we have given to others during our own brief span of days is the one thing death can’t kill. Because we and our loved ones manage to devise so many ways for fear to bind our hearts – fear of intimacy, fear of disappointment, fear of embarrassment, fear of confrontation – because our fear of pain or possible pain manifest itself in so many guises, we often hurt each other without really meaning to. We hurt one another and ourselves by learning, over the practice of a lifetime, how to protect ourselves from pain. Add to this all the mistakes we make, and all the mistakes others make, and only one solvent can loosen our hearts from self protective captivity. Only love. And only a forgiving heart, one capable both of accepting and bestowing forgiveness, is open both to give and receive the saving power of love. (Love and Death pg74)

This to me is a message of hope, a message of love and a message that connects all of us to one another.  It speaks to me powerfully of Autumn of that which is dying, so that it can be born again, so that it can bring about renewal. It symbolises the light of hope, the light of love that is to come only following the death that Autumn symbolises. 

"Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year."

"This is indeed Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year." Everything is indeed beautiful, because everything is dying. We are about to enter a season of remembrance for those who have gone before us. We have already gathered in the fruits of year. We have given thanks for the circling year as well as given thanks for our ancestors who made this life that we enjoy possible. Autumn links the past with the present as well as the future yet to come. A hope filled future, a dawning of new light, which symbolises the love which will always survive death.

"This is Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn best of the year." Autumn may well feel like an ending, but really it is a new beginning. We should not fall for the fool’s gold of death with the first of the winter frosts or the falling of the leaves. Those falling leaves are the first sign of the renewal that is yet to come. They should remind us of our ancestors that lived before us as well as those who will follow us when we are gone. Yes winter will soon be upon us, but there is new light, there is hope yet to come. New life will soon be upon us with the dawning of the spring yet to come.

"For this is Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn best of the year."


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