Sunday, 30 June 2013

"I acted and behold service was joy"

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

I love these words of wisdom by Rabindranath Tagore. There is such a universal truth revealed within them. A truth I have known from time to time. Even in the midst of difficulty, through service, I have experienced joy and happiness. I have learnt, although sometimes I do still forget, that beauty, truth and meaning truly emerges in and through love and service for life. Through giving myself fully to life I know joy; I know the joy of being alive. I sing the joy of living. Life has taught me that it truly is in giving that we receive.

Through faith in life itself, by giving ourselves fully to life, we know joy. Joy is an attribute of a full, rich and deeply meaningful life. It is radically different to fun, pleasure and happiness, these are merely emotional qualities. Joy is a spiritual quality that is present within us, despite life’s circumstances. Joy is about connection, intimate connection. When I know joy I am at one with life and with myself.

I was recently sat with a friend, his partner and their new born daughter Erin. It was an absolute joy to be in their company and to see the utter bliss that they were experiencing in this new life that had taken over theirs. Now this friend is also experiencing grief and pain right now as he has lost a very dear friend to an illness both he and I have found merciful release from. He is not in denial of the pain of his grief, he is feeling it deeply, that said at the same time he is able to truly know the joy in the life of his daughter. It is a joy we have all known I am sure in one way or another. The joy though is not just in the person, it comes in the connection he is experiencing  My friend’s joy is in that sense of connection he experiences between himself, his partner and their daughter, they are one, they are the one undivided whole. It is beautiful to behold.

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I often feel this kind of joy in the company of people who are willing to truly be themselves, to let their guards down and truly let go. I feel it in the company of certain old mates and I often experience in Cafe Nero on a Tuesday morning after the weekly meditation I attend. In that time there is a real sense of connection, of being fully alive, of utter joy. This Tuesday morning time brings to mind some words by Walt Whitman I recently encountered.

“I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing,
Laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm
Ever so lightly around his or her neck for a moment,
What is this
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.”

“To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, Laughing flesh is enough,”

Those couple of hours I share on a Tuesday morning, is utter bliss, complete joy and deeply inspirational. During this time I experience utter connection.

Now there are those who will say that joy is for the immature, the blind, the Pollyanna’s of life. How can you know joy when we are surrounded by so much unhappiness, when there is so much misery in the world? They say that life is not filled with joy, but, misery and suffering. The epitome of the anti joy brigade would be someone like Thomas Hobbes who in “The Leviathan” wrote:

"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

I will repeat the last few words “And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”

Not a lot of joy to be found there me thinks...maybe maybe not...

Carl Scovel, whose writing was much loved by my old minister John Midgely, has taken a very different view of life. The heart of his faith was something he described as the “Great Surmise” at a talk he delivered at the 1994 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly he described what he meant by it:

“The Great Surmise says simply this: At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we shall at last return. This is the supreme mystery of our lives. This goodness is ultimate-not fate, not freedom, not mystery, energy, order, finite, but this good intent in creation is our source, our centre, and our destiny...Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness. Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict-not even survival-is the aim of life, but joy. Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy.

Life really is about how we see things, our perspective. Is life “Nasty, brutish and short”...Maybe, maybe not?

Or is it a “Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy ”...Maybe, maybe not?

Joy for life itself can be known even during life’s troubles and difficulties. The people Jesus spoke to 2,000 years ago were not living easy and comfortable lives. Those people knew about conflict, oppression, tragedy and almost constant grief. He told them that all that was wonderful, life-giving, life affirming, all that is meaningful was theirs. He said to them “Enter into my kingdom with joy.” He also told them that “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

The kingdom he spoke of can be with us right here right now, we can know and experience the commonwealth of love right here, right now. And how can we know it? Well by following the commandment to love one another. Now please do not confuse this with some mushy sentiment; love is not this at all; love is an act, it is a way of being. The commonwealth of love comes into being by giving ourselves fully to life, to one another; through giving ourselves fully to life and to one another we truly realise the joy of living.

Tagore said: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

This is the purpose of the religious life to awaken joy through service to and for one another. Joy is about connection, intimate connection. When we give of ourselves to others and to life we know the joy that is truly living. That said when we live only for ourselves and live dis-connected from life, we quickly become joyless once again, we lose faith in God given life, our experience of life becomes dulled and meaningless.

True religion is all about connection; it’s about re-binding all of life together. It’s also about commitment, to each other and to life itself. I make that commitment in so many ways, I especially do so during that Tuesday morning meditation group. I see that same connection in the relationship that my friend and his partner have with their daughter.  These are commitments of love, they are commitments of service on so many different levels; service to something more than self; service that brings joy to life.

Tagore said: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

We can make that dream a reality; we can make joy a reality. It becomes a reality through love and service to and for one another. For it is in giving that we all receive.

As Gandhi wisely pointed out “...even as we serve others we are working on ourselves; every act, every word, every gesture of genuine compassion naturally nourishes our own hearts as well. It is not a question of who is healed first. When we attend to ourselves with compassion and mercy, more healing is made available for others. And when we serve others with an open and generous heart, great healing comes to us."

It is in these moments that we truly know joy. Not by chasing after it, like a kite that’s blown away in a storm. We will never catch up with it that way and even if we do it will get blown away come the next storm. Instead it comes to us when we give ourselves fully to life and those around us and connect to it all that is. It is in these moments that we realise that life itself is a joy.

To live life fully is to know joy; to live life fully is to serve one another; to serve one another is to be fulfilled; to be fulfilled is to experience and to know joy.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Humour and Humanity

A monk was speaking with Nasrudin. He said, “I have achieved an incredible level of dis-attachment from myself – so much so that I only think of others, and never of myself.”

“Well, I reached a more advanced state than that,” replied Nasrudin.

“How so?” asked the Monk.

“Well,” replied Nasrudin “I am so objective that I can actually look at another person as if he were me, and by doing so, I can think of myself!”

Oh Nasrudin the wise fool, the holy fool. I’ve been chuckling along to this one all week.

There is real wisdom here. Yes it may initially sound like the ultimate in self centredness, but there is more here. When we look at another person do we see them as we see ourselves, or do we see the stranger and does this spell danger?

In my last blog  I recounted a story my father told me of staring into the water and being told that when he gazed at himself he was also gazing into the eyes of God. The priest who explained this to him was telling him that the Divine dwells within him, as it dwells in everyone. These thoughts echo words from the great 19th century Unitarian James Martineau who stated that:

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

Could this be true? Is humanity the susceptible organ of the divine?

I do believe that there is that of God in everyone, but that is not all that we are. Yes we have the potential to do incredible things we humans and I do believe that God lives through our lives. But that is not all that we are, we are also capable of incredible hatred, destruction and evil. I believe that both these potentials lay within each of us. It is important that I recognise this when I look at another and when I look at myself. When I look at another person I must recognise myself within them. This sometimes fills me with absolute bliss and on other occasions it fills me with nothing but agony. Humanity is a myserious duality indeed.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said the following of man...

“Man is a duality of mysterious grandeur and pompous aridity, a vision of God and a mountain of dust. It is because of his being dust that his iniquities may be forgiven, it is because of his being an image that his righteousness is expected.”

It is an incredible thing to be human, we are fascinating creatures. Even the word human itself interests me. It is formed from the same root as humility, possibly humanity’s greatest attribute. It is also closely related to humus (not to be confused with hummus) and exhume. The root for all of these words is “hum” which originally referred to the earth or dirt. Our earliest forbears perceived that we humans originated from the soil – you would think that this would keep us grounded, but seemingly not - this is made clear in the second creation story found in Genesis II which reads “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” The ancient Hebrew word for Adam is closely related to the word “toadamah” which means soil or earth. There are other ancient creation stories too which associate the origin of humankind with soil or the ground. Such as the Sumerian myth of Marduk who created people by killing Qingu and mixing his blood with clay. Or the Greek myths of Decallion and Pyrrha who by throwing rocks over their shoulders created man and woman.

Now while each of us is formed from the same substance we are also all unique. We all have our own unique characteristics. We each of us have our own personalities, our own finger prints, our own DNA, our own faces.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said the following about “A Face”

“A human being has not only a body but also a face. A face cannot be grafted or interchanged. A face is a message, a face speaks, often unbeknown to the person. Is not the human face a living mixture of mystery and meaning? We are all able to see it, and are all unable to describe it. Is it not a strange marvel that among so many hundreds of millions of faces, no two faces are alike? And that no face remains quite the same for more than one instant? The most exposed part of the body, it is the least describable, a synonym for an incarnation of uniqueness. Can we look at a face as if it were a commonplace?”

“Can we look at a face as if it were a commonplace?”

I’ve never been a good liar, never had a poker face. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. My face hides nothing. A person can tell exactly how I am feeling by looking at my face. I was recently asked by someone if I was comedian (The man had obviously never heard any of my jokes). I said no to which the man said “Well you have a comedians face.” I’m not sure what he meant by this, but I took it as a compliment. I know I have a very descriptive face.

Now going back to etymology and the word human. It has often been incorrectly believed that the word humour also shares its root with humanity and humility. Now it would be great if it was, but alas this is not true.

Humour is actually derived from a medieval medical term for fluids of the human body. It is has its roots in the ‘old’ French word ‘humor’, derived from the Latin ‘umere’. Physicians of the day believed that we had four different types of internal fluids that they called ‘humors’ and it was these that determined our physical and mental health. Therefore if a person became ill it was believed that their humors were out of balance. I do so love etymology, language has had such a fascinating journey.

This though doesn’t sound particularly funny though does it?

I do so wish that humour, humility, humus and humanity were etymologically linked. Why? Well because in so many ways one of humanities greatest attributes is our sense of humour. It helps us deal with the pain and suffering that accompany life.

It is so very difficult to take yourself too seriously when you are laughing at yourself. There was a period in my life when I lost the ability to laugh. It was a sure sign that I had got lost in myself, had begun to reject life. These days I laugh often, thank God.

We humans, we creatures formed from the earth, cannot live without humour, just as a plant cannot grow from the soil without the essential ingredient of water.

John O’Donohue said that:

“There’s something really subversive in laughter and in the smile on the human face. It’s lovely and infectious to be in the company of someone who can smile deeply.

I think a smile comes from the soul. And I also love its transitive kind of nature—that if you’re in the presence of someone who has a happiness and a laughter about them, it’ll affect you and it’ll call that out in you as well.

Your body relaxes completely when you’re having fun. I think one of the things that religion has often prevented us from doing is having really great fun. To be here, in a way—despite the sadness and difficulty and awkwardness of individual identity—is to be permanently invited to the festival of great laughter."

Please click on the link below to see John speaking of laughter

Laughter has a Divine quality about it. It comes from a person who is fully alive; it enables our growth and our full expression. It comes from that eternal spirit that is a part of our common humanity.

Now this all brings me back to that image in the water, of seeing the divine looking back at us through our own eyes. The Sufi mystic Hafiz wrote that “God wants to see more love and playfulness in your eyes for that is your greatest witness to Him.” God wants to see it in our eyes, looking back at us in the water.

I believe that every day is a day when we can bear witness to a power greater than ourselves. We do this when we love one another, when we are glad to see each other, when we play, when we are light-hearted, when we can laugh at ourselves, when we live with exuberance and enthusiasm, when we grow from dust and become truly animated and live life. When we do this we see God in one another and we see it in our own reflection. We do not need to seek God, for God is already dwelling amongst us in each of our hearts. We just need to bring that power to life. We know God’s blessings in our interactions with one another, when we bless one another through love and laughter. The way we look at one another, face to face has the power to make God’s presence known on earth, right here right now.

It is our task to bring this to life, to allow God to incarnate through our lives; it is our task to let it show in our laughter, our playfulness and our love for life.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Father's Day and some thoughts on Panentheism

I love the following by one of my favourite human beings Peter Sampson. Peter was the first Unitarian I ever met as I walked through the door at Cross Street Chapel all those years ago. He has guided me in through the years in ways he will never truly know...

"Things my father could do" By Peter Sampson

Spit into the back of the fire
Turn a piece of metal on a lathe
Dance a quick-step
Ride his bicycle for miles with me on the cross-bar
Solve an intractable mathematical problem for his tearful son
Sing a comic song in the Sunday School pantomime
Play the overture "Poet and Peasant" on the piano
Build a perfect replica of a pullman car for my model railway.
The last thing I saw him do was
Fight the pain in his chest to wrestle with the clasps
On the tin trunk which was to be sent off to Cambridge
Containing all my worldly possessions.
When I received a telegram just before Christmas
To tell me I had won an award at Cambridge
He hugged me; he wept.
When he saw me play Richard the Second at school
He was full of wonder that his own son could be somebody
So different from the boy he thought he knew.
As a boy I had never seemed to be able
To satisfy his stern demands
By doing what he wanted or would have liked me to do
- maths, making models, fighting to defend myself –
But when I started to do the things I wanted to do
(Things I could do) he did not stint his praise,
Almost as if he was glad that I could cope
With what he could never understand.
Almost as if
When he knew that I could do without him
it made his day.

A couple of weeks ago I was collecting for Christian Aid at Urmston Sainsbury’s with Derek Brown the chair of  Queens Road Unitarian Free Church, one of the two congregations I serve. Derek is one of those people who knows everybody and I enjoyed observing him engaging in so many conversations. Derek is also the chair of governors at a local primary school. Three of the people he spoke to were casually dressed men who it turned out were teachers at the school. I commented that it was surprising to see so many male teachers at the school. Derek told me that actually the three men were the only ones at the school. I chuckled to myself as I thought that it was only the male teachers who came to the supermarket to buy their lunch and wondered if the female teachers had prepared their own. I’m not sure what that says about anything all I know is that it made me smile.

There was an item on the news this week reporting on the low number of male teachers, especially in primary schools. Statistics shown that one in four primary schools have no male teachers; that there are only 48 male teachers in state nurseries; that three quarters of all teachers were women; that only 12% of primary school teachers were male. This report appears to coincide with concerns in many areas of society that many children are growing up without any male “role models”, either at home, at school, or within the wider community. Some may say that this is a good thing, but I’m not sure how this can be.

Certainly when I look back at my own life I am very aware of the importance of male role models in my own personal development. Surely in 21st century Britain we all accept the need for both men and women in the development of children and adults for that matter. I know that throughout my ministry and certainly during training that there have been several ministers, men and women, who have been important role models to me. These are people who have shown me the way; people I have turned to as I struggled to find myself within my calling; people who have offered me gentle encouragement as I have doubted myself. Not that I have put them on pedestals, if I have learnt anything in life I have learnt that nobody is perfect, we all have “feet of clay”, I know I make mistakes everyday.

In Exodus Ch 20 you will find the 10 commandments familiar I am sure to most of us. The fifth commandment reads (Unless you are Catholic when it is the fourth commandment) “Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” To me this is essentially what days like Father’s Day and Mothering Sunday (Mother’s Day) are really about. They are days set aside to pay honour and homage to those people who have parented each of us; those imperfect people who have guided our development. Now of course this can be challenging, especially if we have experienced difficult relationships with those people who have parented us. For some people such days can often be the hardest of the year, it is vital to honour this pain too.

As children we may well have looked at our fathers as almost Godlike, certainly I have at times. I still remember the pain when my dad fell of the pedestal I had created for him. The truth is of course that when I placed him there I was not truly honouring him, because by doing so I was not fully recognising his humanity. To truly honour those who have fathered us we need to recognise them for who they truly are warts and all and beauty spots too. Nobody is perfect we are all incomplete we are all constrained by our lives and the pressure it brings and we all make mistakes. No one is immune from selfishness and unloving behaviour, I know I am not.

My father had quite a “romantic” view of life, he often lived with his head in the clouds and he was not always the most responsible of people and he could certainly be deeply selfish. That said he was a lot of fun and was certainly a good story teller. In the few years that I knew him he told me many tales, many of which have stayed with me. How many of them were actually true, I'm not sure. That said I don’t think it actually matters because they all had truth within them; they possessed something of that universal "mythos" within them.

I remember when he was ill and towards the end of his life he recounted a tale when he was once at Appleby horse fare, a place he loved; where he was probably at his happiest. He was talking to me about faith and God. It was during a time of my life when I was a man of little or no faith; I certainly had no belief in God. He recounted that he saw a priest staring down into the water from a bridge. He asked the priest what he was doing and he told him that he was staring into God’s eyes. My father looked into the water and said he could only see himself and the priest. At which point the priest replied that this is where God dwells within you, within me and within everything.

Now whether this actually happened or not I do not really know. I have certainly heard versions of this tale in recent years. Here is a version I came across last week by Mark Link:

“A Little girl was standing with her grandfather by an old-fashioned open well. They had just lowered a bucket to draw some water to drink. “Grandfather,” asked the little girl, “Where does God live?”

The man picked up the little girl and held her over the open well. “Look down into the water,” he said, “and tell me what you see.” “I see myself,” said the little girl. “That’s where God lives,” said the old man. “He lives in you.”

Whether or not the story my dad told me 20 years ago actually happened to him or not, doesn't really matter to me. He did teach me a truth that has grown in meaning over the years. It stayed with me and survived my darkest days, it kept on re-surfacing. The ghost of my father still haunts me. Does yours haunt you?

When I think of God I always go back to the story my father told me, it finally began to make sense when things began to change within me some 10 or more years ago as I began to recognise the truth in it. I realise today that my greatest barrier to faith was that I did not believe that I was lovely of God's love, that I was not formed from it. These days though I see Gof in everything. This is why when I first heard  Forrest Church’s phrase “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that power that is Greater than all and yet present in each,” it immediately made sense, it echoed in my heart. This is why “Process Theology” and Panentheism (not to be confused with Pantheism) speak to me, they chime in my soul. They speak of an essence that is somehow more than life and yet it is present in all of life drawing us on but not controlling everything. Some have described this as the “Lure of Divine Love” that never leaves us; we just need to turn to it. The characteristics of which are both male and female and yet way beyond the limits of gender; way beyond the limit of time and space and human conceived constraints. When I think of God these days I think of a guiding loving hand that holds, guides and sustains and encourages you to be all that you can be.

Father’s Day brings me back to images of children learning to ride backs, or to swim, or more recently in my case learning to drive. How when you first attempt to do these things you are terrified, I know I was; how you don’t want the person guiding you to let you go. Just think about your own attempts to ride a bike. As you begin your body doesn’t seem to be working, you become aware of your awkwardness, as you start pushing at the peddles, as you wobble and no doubt fall a few times, but eventually you manage it, you are guided through it and eventually you make it. Once you do it the first time, you can do it for ever.

Did we do this on our own, no we were helped we were encouraged; we were guided through these fears we were held until we could trust ourselves. Father’s day is about honouring those who have guided us encouraged us and held us when life seemed too scary; those who gave us the faith to trust in ourselves and to trust in life and those who taught us that the divine presence is always with us.  They may not have been our biological fathers, they may not have been men, but we should honour them.
None of them were perfect and to truly honour them is to recognise their imperfection, just as to honour ourselves is to recognise and love who we are warts and all and beauty spots too.

Father’s I pay honour to you on this your special day

Happy Father’s Day

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Worship & The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behoves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

These words by Emerson have been vibrating in the core of my being, the marrow of my bones for quite some time now. A few years ago I would have dismissed them out of hand. I would have simply rejected them and said I don’t worship, how can I worship I don’t believe in anything. That said things did dominate my imaginations and my thoughts and they did determine my character, by falling into non-being and nothingness, by rejecting life I had become nihilistic and this did dominate my thoughts.

But is this worship? 

Well let’s take a look at what we mean by worship.

Worship has its roots in Anglo-Saxon English “worthscipe” or similar variations and meant a condition of being worthy, honoured or renowned . It only became connected to reverence paid to a supernatural being during the 13th century. Worship is not something that is only conducted in places specifically set aside for this function. We worship all the time; we worship whatever it is that we hold in highest regard. As Mr Emerson says what we worship is what dominates our lives our actions. Therefore it is important that we are careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.

A friend of mine recently posted a “Meme” on facebook that read “If money is the root of all evil why does the church beg for it”. Now I know that this was a critique of organised religion, especially the wealth of churches etc and I’m certainly not one to argue against such a critique. That said he is misquoting badly here and failing to understand the point being made in the passage from 1 Timothy ch 6 v 10. The actual quote is “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil...” It is not so much money that is the problem, but the love of it. By loving money you make it the thing of greatest value in your life. You place its value above anything and everything else and therefore by doing so you may begin to neglect everything else; everything else decreases in value. In Matthew ch 6 v 24 Jesus said something similar when he stated “no one can serve two masters. Either you will hate one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."

I do not actually believe that either verse is really about money. They are more about what we value the most in life, what is of ultimate worth to us. We need to pay attention to the things that matter in our lives. We all worship, even if we do not believe that we do. We all give our love, our attention, to something and it is this that dominates our lives.

These thoughts bring to my mind the work Bronnie Ware. Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent many years working in palliative care. She worked with patients who were close to death, during the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded the patients dying epiphanies in a blog called “Inspiration and Chai” (Bronnie Ware's Blog), this led to a book that she published a couple of years ago titled “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”(The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. In the book she describes the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives and what this can teach we who live on. She highlighted that there were five particular themes that emerged from her conversations with the dying.

The five regrets were:

 Number 1

"I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me: She reflected that "This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it."

Number 2:

"I wish I hadn't worked so hard": She reflected that "This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."

Number 3: 

"I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings": She reflected that "Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."

Number 4:  

"I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends": She reflected that "Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."

Number 5:

"I wish that I had let myself be happier": She reflected that "This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had then pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."

A friend recently recounted the final conversations he had with his father as he was dying. He told me his father had always been driven by material needs and had taught him that money was the thing of highest value in life and that you must strive for it. Then during the last few days his father told him that he now understood that this was not the case and that there were things of far greater value in life, perhaps the most important being family and those who truly love you. It is these that require the greatest care and investment; it is these things that really matter. This is the message that he wanted to pass on to his son, during the final days of his life. I believe that it is a message that we all need to hear. We all need to know what really matters in life.

What we worship matters, as Emerson said “A person will worship something have no doubt about that...that which dominates our imaginations and thoughts will determine our lives and character...for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

What we worship, what we love dominates who are and how we are. Therefore it is vital that we are mindful, attentive and critical about our habits. We need to understand what it is that we hold of highest value in our lives and why we do so. This is why we need to pay attention to our lives. 

This is why communal worship is of such high value to me. Yes ok it was life changing spiritual experiences that led me to search for answers in spiritual communities, but it is not this that held me there. I found so much more by coming to commune, to worship with others. I discovered that by worshipping with others , if only for one hour a week, I was then better able to focus my attention on what really matters during the rest of my time.

Worship though does not only take place in buildings dedicated to its use. Nor is worship exclusively about devotion to a divine being. It did not originally mean this and certainly Emerson himself extended the concept universally. 

Everyone desires and we all possess imagination; everyone holds something of highest value in their lives. We worship whatever it is that dominates our thoughts. This is why it is important what we worship, because as Emerson said “What we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

Be careful what you worship because we all do so, whether we care to admit it or not.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

"Thin Places": Reconnecting Past, Present & Future

(This blogspot was originally published in 2013)

Over the last few weeks I have enjoyed reliving re-feeling some old memories. There are two reasons for this. One has been regularly taking the Wednesday lunchtime service Cross Street Chapel, while the minister Jane Barraclough has been recuperating from an operation. The second being the purchase of John Midgley’s book “Wednesday at the Oasis”. John’s book is based on a series of sermons, one for each week of the year, that he delivered at Cross Street while he was minister and I was a congregant there. What has been lovely is that as I have read them I have remembered many of them. These beautiful memories came flooding into my mind as I sat on the tram last Wednesday heading towards Cross Street.

I suspect that Cross Street is one of those “thin places” that the ancient Celts described. A place where there is only a very thin divide between the past, present and future. It certainly feels like that for me or at least it does when I go there on a Wednesday lunchtime. At such times and in this place I reconnect with my past and perhaps get a glimpse into the future which enables me to truly connect with the present. Oddly in those moments time actually feels very “thick”, in the sense that I experience it richly and deeply. In these moments I sense something beyond...

The last few weeks have allowed me to re-feel these memories; it has allowed me to remember them, to rebind my memories. When we remember we rebind our thoughts our memories together. It was not just in my mind though that I recalled these past events that are so vital to my life today. I have remembered through all my senses too; I have re-sensed these memories too. Now of course if I was to say that I re-sensed them you might think I was talking negatively about these memories; you might think that I was harbouring resentment towards my past. Well nothing could be further from the truth. It is another one of the quirks of the English language that the word for re-sensing something only really has a negative meaning. The word resentment comes from the French word “resentir” which meant to re-feel something. Well I’ve certainly been doing that these last few weeks, but not in a negative sense. Oh how I wish we had a word that meant the opposite of resentment, because that’s what I’ve been experiencing. As I sat on the tram last Wednesday I found myself smiling broadly as I remembered oh so much.

Now some may accuse me of being sentimental, nay nostalgic for the past and that this is futile, they may say that you’ve got to live in the present in the now. Now of course to some extent this is true, there is only the now to experience. That said if I’ve learnt anything in life I’ve learnt that you can only live in the present moment if you are peace with the past. You cannot live in the moment if you are plagued with resentment about the past, if re-feeling the past causes you pain.

Why you may well ask?

Well because if you disconnect emotionally from any aspect of your life you tend to disconnect from every aspect. If you are not feeling your past, you cannot feel the present.

Whenever I conduct a child blessing I like to use the following words by Dorothy Law Notte, during the ceremony.

Children learn what they live.
If a child lives with criticism, she learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight.
If a child lives with ridicule, she learns to be shy.
If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilt.
If a child lives with tolerance, she learns to be patient.
If a child lives with encouragement, he learns with confidence.
If a child lives with praise, she learns to appreciate.
If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice.
If a child lives with security, she learns to have faith.
If a child lives with approval, he learns to like herself.
If a child lives with acceptance, she learns to find love in the world. 

The early years of our lives are oh so important. If we are not taught how to love and respect and to connect, or if we are taught shame and hate for ourselves or others we can easily become desensitise both to ourselves and to the lives of others. This can lead to a total disconnection from life. It can lead to a sense of alienation that can be deeply destructive. I wonder how many folk wander around feeling unnoticed, as if they don’t belong, completely disconnected from life.

These thoughts bring to mind a quote by William James that a friend recently recounted to me.

"No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all members thereof. If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met 'cut us dead', and acted as if we were non-existent things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would long well up in us, from which the cruellest torture would be relief."

A sense of disconnection and alienation is hell; I can think of no more accurate a description.

It’s amazing how powerful three little letters can be, “D I S” can completely change the meaning of something.

Those simple three letters “D I S” “dis” have been on my mind of late. It’s amazing how powerful those three letters, at least linguistically can be. To “dis” is to pull things apart, to tear asunder, to spoil. Think about words like dis-abling, dis-orientating, dis-ease, dis-appear, dis-connect, dis-miss. When we diss someone we are speaking badly of them we are rejecting them. To diss someone is to isolate them, to lock them outside of the gate, to reject them and if we ourselves diss life, then we reject life we denounce life, we hate life.

Have you ever felt disconnected from life? If so how did you reconnect? How do we help those who experience a sense of disconnection to reconnect?

Well for me this is the task of religion, perhaps its main task. The role of religion is to bind up the broken. One of religions root meanings is “religio” meaning to re-bind, to re-connect. Even those of us who were taught love and worth from our childhoods can still experience the need to rebind with all life, with love. We all feel excluded from love, from life from time to time, no matter how loving our lives may have been. This is why communal worship is so vital, it allows us to begin that process of reconnection.

Those early days at Cross Street, all those years ago, helped me so much. They helped me connect beyond myself, to something more than me. In worship I connected to a power greater than myself as well as the people I was in communion with. Paradoxically by doing so I was able to connect to the greater aspects of my true self and it was this that allowed me to connect with all life, with my past and potential future and to fully experience the present moment, the gift of life.

A few weeks after I began attending Cross Street I spent a few days back home in Yorkshire. One day I decided I wanted to retrace the footsteps of my child hood and revisited places that I use to play and do lots of things young lads do. It was one of the most beautiful and moving days of my life as I re-felt my childhood years. I re-felt some very painful memories and as I did I loosened up so much joy and happiness. It was one of those days that changed me forever. It was one of those days when I began to re-write my own history. It’s not that the pain and suffering disappeared it’s just that they began to be put into proper proportion with all the joy and happiness and love that had always been present, but that had somehow got lost.

I suspect that like Cross Street that little part of Birstall is one of those “thin places” that the Celts spoke of. Certainly when I walk around there today there seems to be only a very thin divide between the past, present and future and that which is beyond time and place. It certainly helps me to reconnect with my past and perhaps get a glimpse into the future which enables me to truly connect with the present. Ever since that day that I revisited my childhood my life has become richer and deeper in meaning.

I suspect that everyone has there own "thin places". I wonder where the "thin places" in your lives are. Places where you are able to fully connect with the past and therefore present and perhaps get a glimpse of the future, of the eternal. Why don't you think about and perhaps revisit and re-feel those experiences.