Saturday, 29 December 2012

Letting Go Impermanently


We are nearing the end of another year. 2012 will soon be over and we will move onto 2013. It has certainly been an interesting year; so full of moments of absolute joy and bliss and some darker ones too, much like every year, every day, every moment. Life truly is awry, as 2012 has proved once again.

As 2012 comes to a close it is important to prepare ourselves for what 2013 will bring.We must let go of at least some of the old, so that we can let in the new. By the way I am not suggesting that we let go of treasured and beautiful memories, no not at all, I am just saying that now is the time to make room for the new. Who knows what the next twelve months have to offer.

Four weeks ago, at the beginning of Advent, I asked the congregations I serve to prepare themselves for the hopes and dreams for either themselves  their families, their communities, for the whole of humanity. I asked them to envision these hopes at the start of Advent and to spend the next four weeks preparing themselves for 2013, so that they can begin to make those hopes and dreams a reality, come the New Year. It will be interesting to see where this takes us all come the end of 2013.

Now of course throughout our lives we are always letting go and moving on. The truth is that we let go of things every single day. We are always letting go of something, in order to make room for what is right there in front of us. At some point or another we have to give up our childhoods in order to grow up and become adults. Now of course we do not let go of them completely, we always retain echoes of our childhood times. We let go of past struggles as we move on to new ones, although we hopefully do not let go of the lessons learnt from them. We let go of old relationships so that we can begin to connect deeply with new people. We do not always want to, I’m sure that we would like to hold on to some of them for all of our lives. Sometimes moving on is not a choice we make ourselves, but made by others for us. Moving on in life is not necessarily easy, but it is something that we have to do, in order to fully experience the present, the one and only true gift of life.

Mary Oliver said that:

To live in this world you must be able to do three things:

To love what is mortal;
To hold it against your bones
Knowing your own life depends upon it;
And when the time comes to let it go...

Life is impermanent and perhaps this is where it’s real beauty lies, but to love what is mortal is no easy task. Why? You may well ask. Well because fear gets in the way. We want to cling to what is mortal, because we do not want to lose it. This is such a human quality and I do not know anyone who does not do this. It is a part of this loving what is mortal. If you have held someone or something against your bones, as if your life depended upon it, it is no easy task to let it go.

But we must let go in order to experience what is here now, it is in life’s impermanence that the beauty lies. Would we appreciate what we had, if we knew it would last forever?

Think about the experiences that have moved you deeply this year. Surely part of their power was as a result of their impermanence? Maybe they moved us so deeply precisely because they do not last forever. Beauty whether it be human or natural; whether it be artistic or musical can never be sustained. Surely the nature of the beauty lies within its impermanence.

There is a story told of a jazz musician who went to that place where jazz musicians go when they exit this mortal coil. In this other place he met with instruments, the eternal presence of great jazz music. Well the instruments invited him to join them in a session. As he played on he thought to himself “this is heaven” As he played away he thought to himself “This is the greatest session that I’ve ever played, that’s ever been played.” They then began to play the arrangement again and this time they really jazzed it up with some cool improvisation and so it continued, on and on and on and on and on...After the 222nd playing and after every possible improvisation had been repeated, several times over, the musician called out to the other instruments “Hey man, when do we take a break?” to which the lead instrument replied, “Never man, never!”

And so they continued to play...

Even the most wonderful gift imaginable would soon lose its beauty if it was to last forever; it would soon become dull, monotonous, boring if it never ended. It is in the impermanence of life's moments that the real beauty lies. The same is true of the love we can create and give. We only have this moment in which to create and share the love we have; we only have this moment in which to shine.

Now please do not get me wrong I am not suggesting that in order to fully experience life we must let go of everything and live as an empty vessel. Actually I believe quite the opposite. There are some things that we must not only never let go of; there are some things that we need to learn to cling to. I adore the following words by my predecessor at Altrincham and Urmston Rev Celia Midgley titled “I do not let go”

“It is not for me, the emptying and the waiting.
I live in the world’s rush and tumble
Its passion and its strife
Its shouting and its joy.

I do not turn to pitying, solemn quietude.
My mind is with the greening spring
urgent with buds
with birdsong and with flowers.

I do not let go, I grasp and keep hold
of daily matter and yearly miracle
that flies and is lost
 that lingers and is loved."

“That flies and is lost that lingers and is loved” I particularly love those last two lines, they speak to me of what life, mortal life, is all about. 

That said 2012 is coming to an end and we do need to move on from it in order to open ourselves, to prepare ourselves, for what 2013 will bring. We must move forward, as the seasons move forward, toward a new birth, a new year; we must do this so that we can fully experience all that life has to offer to us.

So how do we discover what we must let go of and what we must hold on to? Well it begins with awareness. And to become aware of what needs to be let go of and what we needs to be held onto requires discernment;  we need to be able to discern, to sift out, what needs to be let go of, so that we do not continue playing the same tune over and over again. After all there are so many other tunes out there, just waiting to be discovered.

I love the etymology of words. Interestingly I bought a dear friend a book on the Etymology of words, as a Christmas present. I remember at the time thinking to myself how much I would love such a book. Well guess what? Another dear friend bought me the very same book as a Christmas gift. I just love these moments of connection, there is real magic always in the air.

Now the word discernment comes from the Latin “discernere” which means to separate, to distinguish, to sort out. Just think of prospectors panning for gold or sifting through rocks and dirt in search of gem stones. They are separating, they are sorting through the muck for what is precious, they are distinguishing, they are discerning.

I suspect that discernment is the key to awareness, to understanding what we need to let go of and what we need to hold on to. We need to discover what is of value and what needs to be discarded from our hearts, our minds and our lives. We need to do this in order to live fully and experience all that life has to offer. We need to discard the dirt and muck in order to discover all that is precious in life; we need to do this in order to be fully aware not only of our own lives, but the lives of those around us. This is no easy task and this is precisely why I suggested to the congregations I serve, at the beginning of advent, that we take time to prepare ourselves for the New Year; to prepare ourselves so that we could bring to life those wishes, whether for ourselves, those close to us, or the whole of humanity, to reality.

So how do we clear our minds so that we can discern, so that we can sift through the muck of life? Well I believe that we need to create space and we need silence. Our lives, our minds are so full of stuff that it is really difficult to discern what is right and healthy sometimes. This makes it difficult to make wise choices about life. In order to make those wise decisions we need to be still, we need to be silent, we need to connect to our bodies, to our breathing. We need to prepare ourselves for what life has to offer us. If we do we may just hear that still small voice of calm; that voice that is less than a whisper and yet so much more than silence.

And if we do we will be prepared for whatever life offers to us in the coming year.


Monday, 24 December 2012

Seasonal Inspiration Part 2


This is the second instalment of pieces I have discovered in recent weeks that have inspired me...I hope they speak to you as they have spoken to me...Happy Christmas to you all...

“What is this day that you call Christmas” by Waldemar Argow

An old Buddhist said: “Tell me, what is this day you cherish so, that you call Christmas?”

And the Stranger from the West said: “Christmas is not a day, really. It is light, I think. It comes when days are shortest and darkest and hearts despair, and it reminds us that winter death is a temporary thing and that light and life are eternal.

“and it is hope. For it demonstrates how kind and generous and self-forgetting human beings can be. And we know that what people can be sometimes, they can, if they will, be most times.”

“And assuredly, it is love. Its symbol is a newborn babe, warm and safe in his mother’s arms. To be sure, he was born a long, long time ago. Yet through the ages his influence as he became a man and the truths he taught and the love he incarnated have proved stronger and dearer in matters that matter most than all the kings and armies and governments of history. Oh, whatever else it may be, Christmas is indeed love.”
“I think I understand,” the old Buddhist said. “Christmas is like a lotus blossom. When it blooms, it holds, as in a chalice, the beauty of the world.

“Yes, you do understand,” said the stranger from the West. “When it comes, Christmas brings the light that redeems us from darkness, the hope that casts out fear and the love that overcomes the world. “It is Christmas! We rejoice. And suddenly, the lotus blooms...”



“Let us be that stable” by Patrick Murfin

Today, let us be that stable,
Let us be the place
That welcomes at last
The weary and rejected,
The pilgrim stranger,
The coming life.

Let not the frigid winds that pierce
Our inadequate walls,
Or our mildewed hay,
Or the fetid leavings of our cattle
Shame us from our beckoning.

Let our outstretched arms
Be a manger
So that the infant hope,
Swaddled in love,
May have a place to lie.

Let a cold beacon
Shine down upon us
From a solstice sky
To guide to us
The seekers who will come.

Let the lowly shepherd
And all who abide
In the fields of their labours
Lay down their crooks
And come to us.

Let the seers, sages, and potentates
Of every land
Traverse the shifting dunes,
The rushing rivers,
And the stony crags
To seek our rude frame.

Let herdsmen and high lords
Kneel together
Under our thatched roof
To lay their gifts
Before Wonder.
Today, let us be that stable. 

Here’s a conversation that took place between William L Barnett and a large oldish looking fellow in red outfit with white beard...I think he may have been called Nicholas...

There he sat, red suit, conical hat, fur-trimmed and all, on the chilly park bench, glancing skyward as though assessing the chance of snow.

I sat beside him. “How come you’re not out there on the corner with your iron pot and bell?”

“I am not one of them,” he replied, “I happen to be Santa Claus,”

I smiled, pleasantly enough, but my doubt must have showed.

“I really am,” he said, a trifle wistfully.

“But how can you tell if you are the real Santa Claus?”

“That is the question,” said he, “How can you tell the true prophet from the false?”

“But do you really live at the North Pole?”

“Legend,” he replied, “The fact is that I am everywhere,”

“Are you also omniscient and omnipotent?”

“You mistake me for a friend of mine,”

A little embarrassed, I yet persisted. “Perhaps you only think you are Santa Claus.”

“That would be my problem, not yours. But I might point out that there are no children around.”

“That is odd,” I conceded.

“The reason,” he said “Is that I cannot be seen.”

Like a chess player crying out “Check-mate” I said, “I see you!”

“And that is your problem, not mine.”

We both looked up at the sky. “It might snow,” he said, “It’s better when it snows, but snow or not I must be going.”
Going where?”

“To distribute toys, of course.”

“One last question. What is the spirit of Christmas?”

“Well, if you want to sound scholarly you might call it the ultimate potential. It’s the moment when the best that is human surmounts all the stumbling blocks on the path to becoming. You care, so you help. You love, so you give. And you dream...you dream of the time when this brief season will be extended to the whole year.”

“Don’t you sometimes get discouraged?”

“Dear me, I’ve only been at this for a few centuries. Give me time.”

Then he called out: “Blitzen, Blitzen! Where is that dratted dear?”

Suddenly there came a whole cloudful of snow, right upon us, and by the time I had wiped my eyes clear, I was alone on the beach. But there were hoofmarks in the snow and one dry spot on the bench, a very broad spot where he had sat, 


“The Strange Arithmetic of Christmas” by Jeremiah Jenkins

I deliberately requested your minister to allow me to write to you about Christmas. I was a teacher of arithmetic for fifteen years in a preparatory school, so I want to write about the inverted arithmetic of Christmas.

Christmas differs from figures and sums and dollars and crows-at-a football game. You can add these together and get more. But with Christmas, you can add all the Santa Clauses on earth and there is still only one Santa Claus. Or all the trees and there is still only one Tree. Or perhaps all the births of children but there is still only one Bethlehem story. Or all the families, and there is still one family – yours!

It is when you start dividing Christmas that it begins to grow. It multiplies with division. It defies the rules. If you have six TV sets ad give two or three away, you have less. But when it comes to the richness of love, the currency of gratitude or the document of faith, the more you give the more you possess. To teach is to learn. To encourage someone and give them your faith is to strengthen your own faith. To love is to know love.

Christmas is like a lot of things; it can be misused. I think it was never meant for raucous public displays. Its carols were not intended to be blared into the streets. Its colors probably were not meant to be emblazoned like advertising – or even associated with advertising. Christmas is the artistry of the world; it is the subtle touch, the gentle word, the endearing act, the loving gift. Share these qualities, divide them, and you will find miraculously that they have grown with division. This is the strange arithmetic of Christmas.


"A Christmas Prayer" Rev Maureen Killoran

Not gold, nor myrrh, nor even frankincense 
would I have for you this season, 
but simple gifts, the ones that are hardest to find, 
the ones that are perfect, 
even for those who have everything (if such there be).
I would (if I could) 
have for you the gift of courage, 
the strength to face the gauntlets 
only you can name, 
and the firmness in your heart to know 
that you (yes, you!) can be a bearer of the quiet dignity 
that is the human glorified.
I would (if by my intention I could make it happen) 
have for you the gift of connection, 
the sense of standing on the hinge of time, 
touching past and future 
standing with certainty that you (yes, you!) 
are the point where it all comes together.
I would (if wishing could make it so) 
have for you the gift of community, 
a nucleus of love and challenge, 
to convince you in your soul 
that you (yes, you!) are a source of light 
in a world too long believing in the dark.
Not gold, nor myrrh, nor even frankincense, 
would I have for you this season, 
but simple gifts, the ones that are hardest to find, 
the ones that are perfect, 
even for those who have everything (if such there be).

Friday, 21 December 2012

The Religion of Christmas

Below is a copy of a piece I wrote for December edition of "The Unitarian" magazine.

Christmas is the season for giving and for getting, but surely this ought not to be limited to the material life. It is not only about what we get from others or what we give to them. It is also about forgiving and forgetting. It is a time of reconciliation and not merely a time for giving and getting goodies, a time of wanton materialism. There is a bigger difference between "for giving and for getting" and forgiving and forgetting" than the space between the "r" and the "g".

Christmas is a time to put aside past differences and to let bygones be bygones; a time to heal old wounds and of course new ones too. Radical inclusion and acceptance is the true message of Christmas. To me this is what religion is all about. Religion is about how we live in community with others and not merely an idea or belief system. 
Radical inclusion and acceptance is the true spirit of Christmas. 
How though do we bring this spirit, of radical inclusion and acceptance, into our lives, right here right now? How do we bring the spirit of Christmas into our homes and communities today and for that matter every day? How do we create a Christmas religion? Where is Christmas hidden under all those ribbons and bows and songs and merriments?
Well I believe it is still to be found in that story of the ordinary boy, born in that lowly stable. The message of radical inclusion and forgiveness has survived the centuries. The message that Jesus brought to us has survived all that we have done to it over the last two thousand years.

Jesus in his short life taught only love, Agape, spiritual love. By the way he was not unique in teaching this, it is a universal principle found in all the great faith traditions. It is this love that is there within each and every one of us that has the power to transform our hearts and souls and brings us into harmony with all creation and that power that runs through all of life, that I call God.

This is the message of Christmas, the religion of Christmas, the expression of faith, hope, love and of course joy. These are the qualities that need to be brought into this day and every day in order to bring to life the Christmas magic.  If we feel, think, speak and act through these qualities we can connect heart to heart and break down those old cold barriers. I discovered some time ago that the language of the heart is universal and that it breaks through any barrier, created by fear and resentment. This is the religion of Christmas.

 There have been times in my life when I have been cut off from those I have loved and those who have loved me. Today I do as much as I can to ensure that this is no longer the case. I will travel to Yorkshire after leading worship on Christmas morning and visit several family members and old friends too. I will no doubt travel to and from Yorkshire several times over the Christmas period as I try to take care of those connections, those lifelines that support me. If I have learnt anything in my life I have learnt that I need loving connection. This is the Christmas message, the building and development of compassionate connection. This is the religion of Christmas.

It is a message of hope that is found there in the Christmas stable in that ordinary boy born from an ordinary family who did extraordinary things in his short life. This is surely an inspiration to us all, for we all possess within us, what was also in that boy. All that we have to do to incarnate that reality is to bring that love into our daily lives; we can bring that hope found in the stable into our daily lives. This is a message of hope that does indeed bring glad tidings of comfort and joy. This is the religion of Christmas.

Love begins within our own hearts and incarnates through our thoughts words and deeds, until it touches others. It spreads to our friends and families, our communities, our countries and throughout our world. These concentric circles of compassion are the religion of Christmas. This message pre-dates the Christmas story; a message spoken of by Confucius two and half thousand years ago; a message of loving compassion expressed by all the great sages of human history. To bring it to life all that we need do is remember that we have that love within us and that it can be developed if we would only nurture it. This is the religion of Christmas.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Seasonal Inspiration: Part 1

Over the last few weeks I’ve come across several pieces that have inspired me greatly. I have shared them in worship during this Advent Season. I thought I’d share some of them with you in this the first of two blogs...

The following was sent to me by a friend. I can't read it without it bringing a tear to my eye. I couldn't even listen to it being read out in worship without having the same effect...

For the Man Who Hated Christmas” by Nancy Gavin

It’s just a small, white envelope stuck among the branches of our Christmas tree. No name, no identification, no inscription. It has peeked through the branches of our tree for the past ten years or so.
 
It all began because my husband Mike hated Christmas--oh, not the true meaning of Christmas, but the commercial aspects of it--overspending... the frantic running around at the last minute to get a tie for Uncle Harry and the dusting powder for Grandma---the gifts given in desperation because you couldn’t think of anything else.
 
Knowing he felt this way, I decided one year to bypass the usual shirts, sweaters, ties and so forth. I reached for something special just for Mike. The inspiration came in an unusual way.
 
Our son Kevin, who was 12 that year, was wrestling at the junior level at the school he attended; and shortly before Christmas, there was a non-league match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church. These youngsters, dressed in sneakers so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together, presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and sparkling new wrestling shoes. As the match began, I was alarmed to see that the other team was wrestling without headgear, a kind of light helmet designed to protect a wrestler’s ears.
 
It was a luxury the ragtag team obviously could not afford. Well, we ended up walloping them. We took every weight class. And as each of their boys got up from the mat, he swaggered around in his tatters with false bravado, a kind of street pride that couldn’t acknowledge defeat.
 
Mike, seated beside me, shook his head sadly, “I wish just one of them could have won,” he said. “They have a lot of potential, but losing like this could take the heart right out of them.” Mike loved kids - all kids - and he knew them, having coached little league football, baseball and lacrosse. That’s when the idea for his present came. That afternoon, I went to a local sporting goods store and bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church. On Christmas Eve, I placed the envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what I had done and that this was his gift from me. His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year and in succeeding years. For each Christmas, I followed the tradition--one year sending a group of mentally handicapped youngsters to a hockey game, another year a check to a pair of elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground the week before Christmas, and on and on.
 
The envelope became the highlight of our Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning and our children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents.
 
As the children grew, the toys gave way to more practical presents, but the envelope never lost its allure. The story doesn’t end there.
You see, we lost Mike last year due to dreaded cancer. When Christmas rolled around, I was still so wrapped in grief that I barely got the tree up. But Christmas Eve found me placing an envelope on the tree, and in the morning, it was joined by three more.
 
Each of our children, unbeknownst to the others, had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown and someday will expand even further with our grandchildren standing to take down the envelope.
 
Mike’s spirit, like the Christmas spirit will always be with us.

The following inspired me to explore the two spirits that are present at Christmas as they are throughout the year. It is also inspired me to look at "Scrooge" as the Christmas archetype. He is the perfect embodiment of both spirits and I believe he speaks to all aspects of our shared humanity

“Two spirits at Christmas” by Max D Gaebler

There are really two spirits of Christmas, each very different from the other, yet both deeply ingrained in our celebrations of the season. and I suspect most of us have more of both within us than we ordinarily recognise.

The first, of course, is the one we usually talk about, the spirit of good will and peace. It is this spirit that bids us renew our hopes amid the gathering darkness, that kindles our generosity and our concerns, that attunes our ears to the ever-renewed angelic chorus.

But the second, equally inseparable from the observations of this season, is the spirit of Scrooge’s “Bah! Humbug!” We all know that hatred and distrust will not disappear from human relationships just because we say it ought to be so. We all know that peace on earth is lot more complicated than it sounds in the Christmas hymns. We all know that if the world and the lamb and the leopard and the kid, the calf and the young lion all got along with one another as famously as Isaiah prophesied that they would, then some of these animals would die of starvation.

What is comes down to is that we give voice at Christmas to extravagant hopes that are beyond the range of any possible fulfilment. They are, as we say in our more sober moments, unrealistic.

But the real question is whether this is so bad. Perhaps the part of wisdom is to accept this reminder of the gap between the real and the ideal for what it is, a spur not only to our hopes but to our imagination and energies. It would be foolish to ignore the element of wishful thinking in our Christmas hopes. But how unspeakably more foolish it would be if we were to accept present reality as the last word and to stop dreaming altogether.

Our hopes are bound, of course, to be disappointed, at least in part. So long as time endures we shall remain creatures in the making, somewhere this side of perfection. Yet there is always hope for moving beyond the tragic failures of the past – if not all the way, at least a few steps farther. Our hopes are forever bound to fall to ashes; yet out of the ashes there can always emerge new hope – again and again and yet again.

I love the following story which was sent to me by my friend and colleague Rev Gillian Peel. It got me thinking of my favourite Carol "In the bleak mid winter" and the line "what shall I give him, give my heart". It's not really about the gifts we give but the spirit in which we give. when we give from our hearts we receive all that our hearts could ever desire. The gift truly is in the giving


"Long Walk Part of Gift" by DAVID S. BLANCHARD

The best story I ever heard about gift-giving has nothing to do with Christmas, and everything to do with Christmas. It's about an African boy who wanted to give a gift to his teacher, who was going home to England. The child had no money and his options were few. The day before the teacher was to leave, the child brought her a huge seashell. The teacher asked the boy where he could have found such a shell. He told her there was only one spot where such extraordinary shells could be found, and when he named the place, a certain bay many miles away, the teacher was speechless.

"Why ... why, it’s gorgeous ... wonderful, but you shouldn't have gone all that way to get a gift for me." His eyes brightening, the boy answered, "Long walk part of gift."

"Long walk part of gift." Most of the meaningful gifts we give to each other require some version of that "long walk." The long walk we sign on for with children, who need our patience, our wisdom, our honesty, and our trust more than we might first have imagined when their lives began. The long walk we share with our spouses, which takes us through uncharted, unexpected territories of sickness and health, richer and poorer, better and worse. The long walk we take with our friends when they are grieving the loss of someone they love, when they are ill, when they are discouraged. The long walk of feeling a sense of unity with those whom prosperity has left behind. The long walk of reconciliation with all that separates us from a deep sense of life’s great purpose and meaning. "Long walk part of gift."

When Christmas has been tidied up and packed away for another year, the gifts acknowledged, many already forgotten, the New Year stretches in front of us. What will get us through those months, with all that they may hold, will not be the things in the boxes. We must look to the hands of those who bought and wrapped and carried those gifts. With their gifts, they are telling us something too wonderful, perhaps too embarrassing, for words. They are telling us that, for us, they will take the long walk.
So when you open the box and find the socks, the bath salts, the fruitcake, the pot holder, or the seashell from a distant ocean, remember that it's not just "the thought" that counts. Remember too,
"long walk part of gift."

This follows a similar theme and makes the point that the value in the gift is in the love contained within it. I actually remember John preaching on this several years ago when he was my minister. “Poinsettia” by Rev John Midgley 

In recent years a plant, the poinsettia, has become a new symbol of Advent, because of its joyous red colour and the story associated with it.

It originates from Mexico where the associated legend is a miracle story, told to the children as part of the Festival of the Holy Journey, a re-enactment of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. It comes to its climax when the couple arrive in Bethlehem and find no room at the inn. For the Christmas Eve service the people of the towns and villages attend their church and bring gifts for the Christ child, as the three Wise Men did.
The story tells of Pepita, a poor Mexican girl who wanted to attend but had no gift to bring. As she walked slowly to the chapel with her cousin Pedro, her heart was filled with sadness rather than joy. “I am sure, Pepita, that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes,’ said Pedro to her, consolingly. Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. Looking at the scraggy bunch, she felt more saddened and embarrassed than ever by the humbleness of her offering. She fought back a tear as she entered the small village chapel. All this was made worse by the jeering remarks of those who had bought much grander gifts.
As she approached the alter, she remembered Pedro’s kind words: “Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes.” She felt her spirit life as she knelt to lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene.
Suddenly the leaves of the bouquet of weeds changed. They were transformed into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle, right before their eyes. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.
“Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable”

Again this continues the same theme...how does Santa do it? Well because he fuelled by love...the gift is in the giving and the caring...We can be in top physical shape but that is of no use to us if we aren't in tip top spiritual shape...

“How does Santa do it” by Bruce T Marshall 

I came across a study conducted by psychologists from Harvard and Yale that may shed light on the age-old question. How does Santa Claus do it? How does he keep fit year after year despite a break-neck schedule?

In this study, two groups were told that the plant was theirs to take care of and that its fate would depend on their efforts. They also were told that they were competent men and women who should be making decisions for themselves.

People in the other group were told that their plants would be looked after by the nursing home staff just as the staff took care of them because, after all, they were in the home to be cared for.

Within a few weeks the researchers found a noticeable difference between the two groups. Those who cared for their own plant showed an increase in emotional and physical well-being and a visible increase in activity levels. Eighteen months later, the mortality rate of this group was only half that of the other.

A theme of the holiday season is giving. Giving of course, can become obligation and a cause of considerable stress, but it also enhances our lives as it connects us with others. We are reminded of those who are important to us and who depend on us. Our gifts are in thanks for those who keep us involved in life.

Santa Claus, after all, is overweight, smokes a pipe, and lives on a diet of mince pies and milk (whole milk at that). How does he do it?

It’s probably all that giving and caring – and those people depending on him – that keeps him such a healthy and happy old elf.



Sunday, 16 December 2012

Two Spirits of Christmas: Hope and Despair

(This blogspot was first published during December 2012)

There are two spirits alive at Christmas time. Now of course these two spirits are alive throughout the year, it's just that they seem to really come to life as we approach the magical day. One brings hope, love, compassion, forgiveness, joy and concern for one another. The other is the opposite it is the spirit of despair and greed and selfishness and violence. One brings to us glad tidings of comfort and joy, while the other proclaims it all to be humbug, it’s nonsense, its rubbish, it’s a delusion it’s a marketing con, it’s an opiate that keeps us all in our place.

To some extent both are true and I suspect that all of us have both spirits within us; I suspect that we feel all of these emotions at times during the Christmas period. I know myself that no matter how much joy and good will I attempt to spread out to my little world it will not alter the fact that violence will continue and people will still be cruel to one another. I am not a fool. I have seen the news this week. The horrendous shooting of twenty children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton Connecticut, the violence erupting again in Northern Ireland, the continuing tensions in the Middle East, the latest scandals. None of us are fools we know that the darker sides of life do not go into hiding during Advent. In fact maybe they seem worse in this season of light and hope.

It is so easy to sink into despair and say, there is no hope for humanity, but is this true? There are two spirits alive at Christmas, just as there are throughout the year. Those spirits are alive in you the reader and in me the writer as they are alive in everyone, as they are alive in all life. I believe that mine and everyone’s task is to feed that loving, hope filled, spirit and not allow the spirit of despair to win out. 

Like most good Universalists I know that the spirit of hope is formed and rooted in the very same place as that spirit of despair. I am writing this blog because I know that from utter despair can and does grow hope. Hope and despair are even linked linguistically; in the French language they share the very same root, espoir and desespoir. Hope and despair grow from the very same place. Those two spirits dwell within everyone. I believe it is humanity’s task to bring the spirit of hope alive at this time of year. Actually I believe that it is our task to bring this spirit to life throughout the year. 

When I think of the two spirits of Christmas I immediately think of Scrooge. In many ways he is the Christmas archetype. If we want to truly engage with the spirit of Christmas we need look no further than this 100% fictional character, who perfectly portrays the universal Christmas “mythos”. Remember this man, who was seemingly beyond all hope, who believed it was all humbug, came out of the story rather well. Christmas, for him, became a time of integration, of the past, present and future; of both the light and the dark of life; of hope and despair. Remember in the story he was visited by three spirits, the ghosts of the past, present and yet to be.

Remember that “The Ghost of Christmas Past” forced him to not only look back at his past but to relive it, to truly feel it. He was made to remember what Christmas had once meant, before cynicism had taken hold. It showed him both the happiness and the sadness present in his past, there was no sugar coating. Of course it is humbug to pretend that all the sadness in life is washed away at Christmas time. And yet while there is sadness present in all life there is also love and joy, there is much to be grateful for. Remember that the “The Ghost of Christmas Past” revealed this to Scrooge.

Remember that “The Ghost of Christmas Present” showed him the full picture of the world in which he lived, especially at Christmas time. He saw the warts and the beauty spots too. It revealed the affluence as well as the want. It showed Christmas being enjoyed in far off places, on the high seas in lighthouses, it showed every heart being warmed by the season. This surely touched Scrooge, as his heart was warmed by the universal love, present in all life, regardless of material circumstances, expressed by the spirit of Christmas.

Remember that “The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be” brought the reality of Scrooge’s own lonely and un-mourned death to him. People either did not care or actually cheered his passing. All that he owned was quickly stripped from him; it meant nothing in the end. They even took the curtains from his bed. When the spirit showed him his grave, he did not recognise it as his own, he tried to deny it, but the spirits finger pointed from the grave back to him. This terrified Scrooge who cried out that he was a changed man, as he begged for mercy clutching the spirits robe. And then from his lips came those immortal words, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The spirits of all three will strive within me. I will not shut out the lesson that they teach.”

Scrooge truly is the Christmas hero because he brings the reality of what Christmas is all about to life; through him the spirit of the Christmas “Mythos” comes to life. It is the same for everyone, regardless of time and place. For surely Christmas is about honouring life in its wholeness; surely it is about reconciliation in its completeness. Yes it’s about celebrating the light of hope in life, symbolised by the Christ child. That said it is also about recognising the darkness also present in all life. Scrooge’s redemption teaches the importance of fully acknowledging the past, both our own and the whole of humanities; it’s about un-covering the warts, so that we can celebrate the beauty spots; it’s about allowing that spirit to fill our hearts in the present and to express it in our lives, for our world really needs it; for the future truly is unwritten and it is our task to allow that spirit to lead us in the ways of righteousness and loving kindness, so that we can build a land fit for all our futures.

We can build temples of hope in all our hearts, in spite of the despair that we see within our own lives and those all around us. We can bring glad tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, glad tidings of comfort and joy to our world. We can honour Christmas in our hearts and try and keep it for the whole of the year. We can feel that blessing in our past, present and future and as we do we can carry that blessing with us in all that we feel and all that we think and all that we say and all we do.



Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Gift is in the Giving when we Give our Hearts



“What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what can I give him: give my heart.”

Christina Rossetti

I like most people I love singing carols, well if truth be told I pretty much love singing anything. "My life goes on in endless song, how can I keep from singing?" “In the Bleak Midwinter” may well be my favourite carol. Yes I know it is not the jolliest, but I suspect it is the most beautiful. It is certainly the one that touches me the deepest, in the roots of my soul. It is the final line that has always tugged at my heart strings. The words “Yet what can I give him: give my heart.” This to me is the message of the whole Christmas story; this is the message of the universal Christmas “mythos”. This is the religious message of Christmas and the message that the life of Jesus brought to humanity and it is a message that can still reach we who live in the materially obsessed 21st century. So what is it that we should be giving? Well I beleive that we should be giving our hearts. We should be giving ourselves wholeheartedly to one another.

The Carol brings to mind the following story of "Poinsettia" told by my old minister 
John Midgely.

"In recent years a plant, the Poinsettia, has become a new symbol of Advent, because of its joyous red colour and the story associated with it.

It originates from Mexico where the associated legend is a miracle story, told to the children as part of the Festival of the Holy Journey, a re-enactment of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. It comes to its climax when the couple arrive in Bethlehem and find no room at the inn. For the Christmas Eve service the people of the towns and villages attend their church and bring gifts for the Christ child, as the three Wise Men did.

The story tells of Pepita, a poor Mexican girl who wanted to attend but had no gift to bring. As she walked slowly to the chapel with her cousin Pedro, her heart was filled with sadness rather than joy. “I am sure, Pepita, that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes,’ said Pedro to her, consolingly. Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. Looking at the scraggy bunch, she felt more saddened and embarrassed than ever by the humbleness of her offering. She fought back a tear as she entered the small village chapel. All this was made worse by the jeering remarks of those who had bought much grander gifts.

As she approached the alter, she remembered Pedro’s kind words: “Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes.” She felt her spirit lift as she knelt to lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene.

Suddenly the leaves of the bouquet of weeds changed. They were transformed into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle, right before their eyes. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.

'Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable.'"



“Even the most humble gift if given in love will be acceptable," or as we often hear, this time of year, “It’s the thought that counts”. After all isn’t the giving of gifts symbolic of the expression of love. It is not really about the gift at all, but the love expressed in selecting and then giving the present. There is real religion to be found in those ribbons and wrapping paper.

Whenever I hear the phrase “It’s the thought that counts” I always think of my brother and the time he was a poor music student in the late 1980’s. He was studying in Leeds and would often walk from Headingley to Birstall some eleven miles, because he couldn’t afford the bus fare home. Well one Christmas he was so poor that he couldn’t really afford presents for anyone and so he bought the family a joint present of both The Christmas Radio and TV Times, bumper double editions of course! As you can imagine he has suffered from years of stick for this. I also remember him one year beautifully wrapping a gift for our step brother Alan’s two boys. They opened it with a great deal of excitement to reveal a raw potato inside. One of the boys looked most disappointed while the other leapt about in excitement and said “Yes we can have chips”. Yes it definitely is the thought that counts. The two boys who are now fully grown men remember the gift very well and were joking about it at a recent family wedding.

So if it’s the thought that counts, why do we give presents, however humble, at Christmas? Well it obviously dates back to the three gifts of the Magi “Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh”. Gifts of great value 2,000 years ago, although only gold has retained its worth today. Now in early Christianity the journey of the Magi was celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January, the 12th day of Christmas, hence the Carol “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree” etc...

The early Christian church did not celebrate Christmas as we do today. The tradition of giving Christmas presents is really a modern one. By Victorian times the culture of gift giving and the myth of Santa Claus was beginning to take hold, immortalised in the fiction of Dickens and the like. As the twentieth century moved on into the twenty first this culture developed into mass consumerism. Today it would seem that buying, wrapping and giving gifts has become nothing more than a mechanical chore and one of the worst examples of mass consumerism going. Is this really what Christmas is about? Is this really giving by heart?

“What shall I give him? Give my heart” or if you prefer   “Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable”

Perhaps these are thoughts that we ought to be thinking about as we continue our Christmas shopping. I will certainly be doing so as I begin mine. I will bring my heart into the experience. I will practise not making it a chore, but an expression of the love I feel and know for those I am buying gifts for. I will try not to rush the experience. I will attempt to make space as I purchase the gifts. I will attempt to increase my sensitivity to the experience instead of just trying to get it out of the way. How many of us just rush through the whole season instead of absorbing the love, the religion that this gift giving expresses?

Christmas can only be experienced, enjoyed, if we slow down and really feel and watch the love that is at the core of it. Now some would see this as a luxury as wasting time, but is it? As David H Cole points out “Antoine De Saint-Expury wrote in ‘The Little Prince’: ‘It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes your rose so important’” He extends this to Christmas time claiming it’s really important to ‘waste’ time at Christmas. What he is saying is how important it is that we slow down in this season of Advent and pay attention to what we are doing to see the love expressed in the time we ‘waste’ thinking about the gifts we buy and wrap, or the scarves we knit and cakes we bake. By paying attention to these activities we give our hearts, remembering always that “Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable”

Of course if we give from our hearts, if we buy, wrap and offer our gifts in love we will receive exactly what it is our hearts desire. For it truly is in giving that we receive. This is where the Christmas magic incarnates in our very lives. When we give with our hearts to and for others we truly receive all that we could have ever wished for.

The Christmas “Mythos” is that of perfect love incarnating in human form. That love can manifest itself today in our hearts and lives. We all have the capacity for great good, if we would but feed the good wolf within each of us. It is surely here that the hope for the whole of humanity lies. If we feed the loving wolf within ourselves then the wolf of hate and fear dies off. If we do we have already begun to spread love and we have begun to bring joy to the world.

There is so much that is wrong with our world. Watching the news each night highlights this, so much destruction, so little love. There is so much that mocks those bells at Christmas time and there does indeed seem to be a deficit of “peace on earth and good will to all.” I do not believe that it has to be like that. We can incarnate that love in our lives and we can begin to spread it out into our world. We can create tidal waves of compassion, that can swamp the whole of the earth.

So how do we achieve this? Well it begins as we pay attention to the love that we feel for those that we buy or make our gifts for, it continues as we take time to wrap those gifts and really comes to life as we give them to those we love and experience that moment of magic as they open them...it is in those moments that we come to know that the gift truly is in the giving.

“What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what can I give him: give my heart.”

And if you do it is you who will receive in abundance