Monday, 30 December 2013

A few of my favourite things

This blogspot is a selection of material, written by others that I have shared during worship this year...

The opening poem by Al Young maybe my favourite thing I've come across this year. He wrote for a woman he worked along side who was struggling with grief following the death of her mother. She explained that although her mother had died six months previously she had only just begun to grieve properly as her and her mother ever really got on. Her grief was as much for the their lack of relationship as for her mother's death. Grief you see comes in many forms. It is rarely simple and often complex as all human love is complex. So all wrote the following beautiful poem.

“How the Rainbow Works”

(for Jean Cook, on learning
of her mother's death)

Mostly we occupy ocular zones, clinging

only to what we think we can see.
We can't see wind or waves of thought,
electrical fields or atoms dancing;
only what they do or make us believe.

Look on all of life as color -
vibratile movement, heart-centered,
from invisibility to the merely visible.
Never mind what happens when one of us dies.
Where were you before you even get born?
Where am I and all the unseeable souls
we love at this moment, or loathed
before birth? Where are we right now?

Everything that ever happened either
never did or always will with variations.
Let's put it another way: Nothing ever
happened that wasn't dreamed, that wasn't
sketched from the start with artful surprises.
Think of the dreamer as God, a painter,
a ham, to be sure, but a divine old master
whose medium is light and who sidesteps
tedium by leaving room both inside and outside
this picture for subjects and scenery to wing it.

Look on death as living color too: the dyeing
of fabric, submersion into a temporary sea,
a spectruming beyond the reach of sensual
range which, like time, is chained to change;
the strange notion that everything we've
ever done or been up until now is past
history, is gone away, is bleached, bereft,
perfect, leaving the scene clean to freshen
with pigment and space and leftover light.

 by Al Young

The following pieces explore grace from a variety of perspectives. What is Grace this phenomena that strikes just when we need it the most>

From “Shaking the Foundations” by Paul Tillich

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when year, after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsion reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed."

The following is by a dear friend and colleague who is serious ill and who I am holding in my heart and soul right now...She certainly hits the spot beautifully as she talks here about Grace

“Grace” by Rev Jane Barraclough

“I once attended a course on Dying Well, given by a friend who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and had become a Buddhist monk. I believed he might have something to teach me; and you never know when these lessons might come in handy.

I can’t remember anything of what he said. What I remember was a young woman who had come to Brighton from London, especially for the course. She was Afro-Caribbean and I would guess her religious background was some form of Pentecostal Christianity. Her father was dying and she said something that has stayed with me all these years. She said, “I would like my father to die in a state of grace.” I didn’t know what she meant then, and it has taken me a long time to come to some sort of realisation.

Grace is a gift. It comes from outside ourselves. It has nothing to do with how virtuous we are, or aren’t. We cannot demand it; there are no special prayers.

Last summer we were on a family ramble, complicated somewhat by the fact that the natural pace of walking varies a great deal. At one point I was waiting, with my mother, for my father and his grandson. My father, using a tall stick, walked hand in hand with the little boy, in no hurry to get anywhere. By the distant snatches of conversation, they were discussing the miraculous inner workings of the combustion engine. I looked at my mother and she murmured, “Yes it is difficult to tell who is leading whom.”

In that moment, I knew we were blessed. I was blessed to see the peace my parents had found, with their grandchildren, in their old age. It was a moment of grace. Grace is around us all the time, the moments of grace come when we know it, when we remember that everything comes to us as a gift.

So what was it the young woman wanted for her father, as he was dying? She wanted him to know that he was loved by God, knowing that he was blessed.

To experience grace is not about virtue, it is not about any sense of having worked for the blessings that we have. Nor is it about being abjectly humble, as some religious traditions would have you believe it is. Augustine argued that we are miserable sinners that we could only be saved by the intervention of God, which he called grace. I think he missed the point of grace because he went on determined to be deserving all his life, in a rather life-denying way. Whether we deserve it or not, has nothing to do with it.

The world is simply here for us as a gift. We can choose to receive the gift with gratitude or we can decide it is never enough for us, or we can decide that we receive what we receive in life because we somehow deserve it. The last has always been a favourite among those most privileged in society. Those with an overpowering sense of their own entitlement to all the good things in life are also often the most difficult to satisfy. Those who can live their lives in a state of gratitude are more likely to know when they have enough.

To experience grace we have to be open to the possibility of its existence. The winds of grace may always be blowing but we need to have our sails up if we are to make any headway.

The following is by the great Maya Angelou

“When Great Trees Fall"

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

Finally something that appears frivolous and humorous and yet makes a deep point.

“A Gratuitous Duck” by Barbara Merritt

Maybe I don’t get our much, but I have always heard the word gratuitous associated with “gratuitous sex and violence” in movies I don’t want to see. Other negative connotations include gratuitous humiliation. The definition I always assumed was that gratuitous meant unnecessary, arbitrary, indefensible, senseless, and unjustifiable. Until I purchased a gratuitous duck. On my day off, a friend and I were visiting a an art gallery. I was not intending to buy a duck. I did not need a duck. I was not looking for a duck or any other sculptures of farmyard animals.

But there that duck was, with soulful eyes. Standing a full sixteen-inches tall, made with a hand-carved wooden body, a metal neck and head – a handsome piece of primitive folk art. While it clearly belonged in the mallard family, the colours were a beautiful blend of gold and green. I was surprised to find out that the duck was not very expensive. Completely on impulse, caught up in some whimsy I did not understand, i purchased said duck, intending to place it in the foyer of our home. But this duck gives me such delight that it is now sitting in our living room. Every time I see it I smile.

It has been hard to explain to my family why i felt the need to purchase this rather large, multi-coloured, aquatic bird. And then someone told me it was a “gratuitous duck.” I assumed initially that this was an insult, a way of saying that the purchase had been frivolous and indulgent. But no. I was introduced to the other meanings of the gratuitous.

Gratuitous comes from the same root as gift, pleasing, gratitude and grace. Latin: gratis. Something that comes to us as a free gift, a spontaneous and unmerited, unlooked for and unbidden gift is a “gratuitous gift.” Theologically, grace is often referred to as “gratuitous grace.”

I had not earned this duck, hoped for it, or searched for it. I wasn’t even conscious that I wanted it, let alone needed it. Yet there it sits, in a central place of my living room, offering a blessing that partly has to do with beauty and partly to do with something more mysterious.

The universe offers many uninvited gifts. Some seem unnecessarily harsh and capricious. I’m never happy with such “gifts” – I resist them, resent them, wail against them, and fiercely wish they had not found their way to my address.

And then other gifts are sheer grace, absolutely gratuitous, in the best sense of the word. A smile from a stranger, the first warm day of spring, a flower coming up through an old icy snowdrift, an email from a long-lost friend, a word of encouragement from a colleague. I just need to focus on the truth that grace shows up in surprising ways.

I have a duck to prove it.

We often receive gifts on our birthdays. The following piece by Henri Nouwen speaks of the spiritual importance of birthdays

Henri Nouwen “Birthdays”

Birthdays are so important. On our birthdays we celebrate being alive. On our birthdays people can say to us, “Thank you for being!” Birthday presents are signs of our families’ and friends’ joy that we are part of their lives. Little children often look forward to their birthdays for months. Their birthdays are their big days, when they are the centre of attention and all their friends come to celebrate.
We should never forget our birthdays or the birthdays of those who are close to us. Birthdays keep us childlike. They remind us that what is important is not what we do or accomplish, not what we have or who we know, but that we are, here and now. On birthdays let us be grateful for the gift of life.

The next piece is by one of my favourite writers he talks here of how vital the laughter is the a person spirituality. Sadly the spiritual life can sometime get a bit too serious and life is far too serious a business to be taken too seriously

“Laughter” by John O’Donohue

"I think that laughter is one of the really vital dimensions of the divine presence that has been totally neglected.

I often feel when the Divine One beholds us obsessed in our intricate maze of anxiety and planning and intentionality, that She can’t stop laughing.

It’s great for people, actually, to laugh, too. I love a sense of humour in a person. It’s one of my favorite things, because I think when somebody laughs, they break out of every system that they’re in.

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."

But to get a little more serious once again. I think that following is one of the most beautifully moving poems I have ever read. It is by Denise Levertov

"The Fountain"

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water
to solace the dryness at our hearts.
I have seen

the fountain springing out of the rock wall
and you drinking there. And I too
before your eyes

found footholds and climbed
to drink the cool water.

The woman of that place, shading her eyes,
frowned as she watched — but not because
she grudged the water,

only because she was waiting
to see we drank our fill and were

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water.
That fountain is there among its scalloped
green and gray stones,

it is still there and always there
with its quiet song and strange power
to spring in us,

up and out through the rock.

By Denise Levertov

I think that perhaps the holiest of all holy waters must be tears. I the following two pieces the first by Robert Walsh and second by Forrest Church captures this near perfectly...


Sometimes tears come to my eyes.

Is it about the war?

Is it from getting older?

Or is it just autumn?

I’m self conscious about it,

Afraid people will think I’m grieving,

Or that I’m a sentimental fool.

I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.

It happened when I had lunch with a friend I

Hadn’t seen in a long time.

It happened when I saw a bright orange maple tree

Outside my office window.

It happened when I saw a bride, whom I have known

Since she was six, kiss the groom.

It happened when one of my granddaughters

Held out her arms to me.

It happened when I heard a song about a lost dream.

It happened when I recalled a promise I had broken,

And a thank-you I had not spoken.

It happened when I thought of a friend

Who died in autumn.

It’s happening now, as I write these words.

I wipe the tears away

And go on as if everything is normal.

But it’s not normal, it’s intense, full of joy and sorrow,

And the joy and sorrow are together

In the same moments.

This is the life, and the world, I have been given

For this short times, this blink of an eye.

Thank you

by Robert Walsh

"...the ancient Hebrews honoured suffering, viewing it as a sign of a deeply felt experience, a symbol of their passion. I encountered an intimate expression of this on a recent visit to Israel.

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem contains a collection of tiny ceramic cups. These were sacramental vessels. People cried into them.

Your mother has just died. Someone you love has cancer. Your spouse has left you. You are struggling at work. More likely, you have simply broken down. You burst into tears. So you pick up your tear cup, put it under your eye, and weep into it. When you are finished weeping, you cap it and put it away again. It is a way to save your tears.

Why save them? Because they are precious. It doesn’t matter why we cried, your tears are precious, for they show that you care. A full cup of tears is proof that you have felt deeply, suffered, and survived. Their value is ratified by this simple parable from Jewish lore. When his student complained that he was suffering and so deeply confused that he could no longer pray and study, Rebbe Mendl of Kotzk asked him, “What if God prefers your tears to your studying?”

By Forrest Church

Tears are symbol of compassion and of course they are formed in the eyes. Of all the characteristics of Jesus it has always been his eyes or the way he looked at people that has stood. Whenever he looked on people he showed them love. He never gave a hard look. John O'Donohue seems to capture his eyes in the following poem

"The Eyes of Jesus,"

I Imagine the eyes of Jesus
Were harvest brown,
The light of their gazing
Suffused with the seasons:

The shadow of winter,
The mind of spring,
The blues of summer,
And amber of harvest.

A gaze that is perfect sister
To the kindness that dwells
In his beautiful hands.

The eyes of Jesus gaze on us,
Stirring in the heart's clay
The confidence of seasons
That never lose their way to harvest.

This gaze knows the signature
Of our heartbeat, the first glimmer
From the dawn that dreamed our minds,
The crevices where thoughts grow

long before the longing in the bone
Sends them towards the mind's eye,

The artistry of the emptiness
That knows to slow the hunger
Of outside things until they weave
Into the twilight side of the heart,

A gaze full of all that is still future
Looking out for us to glimpse
The jeweled light
in winter stone,

Quickening the eyes that look at us
To see through to where words are blind to say
what we would love,

Forever falling softly on our faces,
His gaze plies the soul with light,
Laying down a luminous layer

Beneath our brief and brittle days
Until the appointed dawn comes
Assured and harvest deft

To unravel the last black knot
And we are back home in the house
That we have never left.

By John O'Donohue

How we look at others is so important. Whether we give a hard look or whether we look with compassion can make all the difference to how we interact with the world. The following two pieces seem to catch this near perfectly,

I recently came across the following in Bill Darlison's wonderful book of short stories "Concentration and Compassion".

“The Dog in Hall of Mirrors”

"There once was a dog who wandered into a room filled with mirrors. The dog looked around, seeing what appeared to be lots of other dogs, growled and showed his teeth. When he saw the other dogs do the same, he got frightened and cowered. When he noticed the other dogs cowering, he once again growled and started barking. A similar reaction from the others made him cower and become very frightened once again. This continued over and over again until the dog finally fell over, dead from emotional and physical exhaustion.

I wonder what would have happened if the dog had, just once, wagged its tale?"

“Glad To See You!”

The drivers on the island of Dominca blow their horns a lot. I was there for a week and drove a rented car over truly terrible roads, and on the left side too. The roads are narrow mountain roads with no centre lines, no speed limits, and lots of curves.

The car rental guy explained. When they blow their horns, they may be warning whoever or whatever might be around the corner, but more often it’s in the nature of a greeting – they are just glad to see you. I think maybe they’re also glad to be alive, to have a destination ahead, and to have all four wheels on the narrow road, passing through the beauty of the rain forest and the misty mountains.

Soon I got into the spirit of it and began to give a little honk when I met another car. Eventually, I learned to wave at the other driver as I steered with one hand.

At first, I was suspicious of the friendliness of the Dominicans. I assumed they wanted something from me. I assumed they wanted to sell me something, or ask for a handout. Some of them did. But most were just, as the man said, glad to see me. After a while, I began to trust their essential goodwill and relax.

The “kingdom of God” is a mysterious idea to me. I’m not sure what it means. But if it came to be, I imagine as one of its characteristics that people would always be glad to see each other. They would react to the presence of another human being with joy and awe. They would smile and wave and maybe blow their horns or pluck their harps in greeting. Even if the person they met was a stranger, even one of another race or nationality or lifestyle, they would show with their greeting that they really believed that the other person had inherent worth and dignity”

by Robert Walsh

I love the following poem on joy by Annie Sexton

Welcome Morning

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry "hello there, Anne"
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.

I couldn't end without a little more wisdom from Forrest Church. This is taken from "The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology” from the chapter “The Search for Meaning"

“I live according to a few simple principles. One I call “nostalgia for the present” (embracing each day as it passes rather that ruing it after it’s gone). Another way you might put this is “looking forward to the present” (enjoying what you have as if in a state of anticipation rather than aching longingly for that which very likely will not be). By focusing one’s energy, to the extent that is possible, on the present, one is liberated from fears of the future and also liberated from regrets about the past. I have seen people in the last weeks of their lives live every minute more fully than they have before, because they recognise what most of us don’t in our daily living; that each moment is precious.

The opposite of wishful thinking (wishing for something you lack) is thoughtful wishing (thinking to wish for what you’ve got right now). What we have right now is this day with the wind blowing and mottled light on the mountains in this beautiful place, carrying on a conversation with another human being who is also going to die. It’s very precious. It’s a miracle that we’re even able to converse. We tend, I think, to take our lives for granted rather than receiving them daily as a gift. I would hope that each day I live I might, through some encounter, be born again to an awareness and appreciation for the gift, the mystery of being, the wonder and the miracle. Not the miracle out there, but the miracle in here.”

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