Thursday, 28 February 2013

Elephants a symbol of liberation?

We all have things that hold us back in life, things that tie us down and stop us being all that we can be and doing all that we are capable of doing. What are the chains that that keep you locked down? What are you tethered to? What is the cage that keeps you fenced in?

The animation above is a telling of a tale by Jorge Bucay. It tells of an elephant that believed it could not escape its chains because it had been conditioned to do so. It was tamed, it accepted its fate. It was tied down and trapped by what it believed to be true, even though it was blatantly untrue. It had stopped questioning its reality. Its mind had become fettered. This is something I think that everyone can all relate to, I know I can. How often in life do we settle for our current reality and just accept what feels comfortable and just perform for our master, whatever and whoever they may be? How often do we all just trundle along, accepting our current reality, failing to see the elephant in the room, the problem, the thing that needs to be altered?

Elephants have been on my mind the last few days. I cannot seem to escape them, they are everywhere. Everywhere I turn they seem to be popping up. It began a few days ago when a friend posted the Jorge Bucay story on facebook, or maybe it was a little earlier when I read the beautiful story of the elephants visiting the home of Lawrence Anthony after he died. What an incredible story that is (Click on link) They’ve cropped up in conversations too. People keep on talking to me about elephants. My friend Karl was telling me a tale about having to buy one the other day “that he just couldn’t say no to”. Last Saturday during the training I received from the media trust the instructor suddenly randomly began recounting a Rudyard Kipling verse about elephants; elephants have been cropping up in other conversations too. I called to visit a member of the congregation and began chatting with her about elephants and mentioned that a ministerial colleague had lots of elephant ornaments in their home. She said "well I have a love of cat ornaments, I don’t have any elephants here," or so she thought. As I left her house I just glanced into her kitchen and my eye caught sight of an elephant right there in front of me, on her fridge. She had an elephant fridge magnet that she’d had for years, that she’d forgotten was even there. Now that’s not very elephant like is it? Forgetting that you had an elephant on your fridge. Why did I notice it then, coincidence? Maybe? Maybe not? Jung called it synchronicity (See Link) By the way another friend of mine tells me that the same thing has been happening to her, she has received elephants on cards and has seen them on the news and another friend told her that when she was out shopping with their grandson the other day she kept on picking up things with elephants on them everywhere. My friend is quite a spiritually minded person and she said to me “I wonder what the significance will turn out to be?”  I wonder too. Many other people have told me of other recent elephant tales, too many to go into detail about here.

So here I am writing about elephants, why? Well because I have to. The very same invisible force that compelled those elephants to pay homage to Lawrence Anthony is compelling me to explore elephants and their spiritual symbolism.

In the two clips below Lawrence Anthony's widow Francois talks of his work and the visit of the elephants to pay their respects

Elephants are incredible creatures, beautiful and powerful and deeply spiritual. Many of the religious traditions make reference to them and they are used in so many stories. Did you know that they actually listen with their feet (See Link) and they mourn their dead? So it’s no surprise that they sought out Lawrence Anthony a man who had offered them so much love and came to pay him respect. There is no doubt in my mind that they are deeply soulful creatures.

Elephants are large animals they have small eyes and big ears. They are renowned for their amazing memories. If they have been somewhere once they will never forget it. They are herd animals and look after one another. If they come across the bones of a dead elephant they will cry out to others so that they will come and pay homage to a lost friend or relative. They are generally gentle and obedient creatures although if the leader calls on them to fulfil a task they will endure anything to do so, destroying any obstacle in their way and becoming insensible to pain and fatigue.

Yes elephants are deeply soulful creatures therefore it is hardly surprising that many of the faith traditions pay homage to them and their characteristics. 

It is generally thought that Hindu’s worship elephants; this is actually a misunderstanding of the faith tradition. It is not the elephant itself that they are worshipping but rather what it symbolises; the elephant symbolises obedience to the dharma, the ability not to repeat past mistakes and to take care of their neighbours.

Ganesh (See Link) is one of the most adored Hindu deities. According to mythology he is the first son of Shiva and Pavati and is known as “the remover of obstacles”, a characteristic that is associated with elephants. Ganesh has the head of an elephant, which symbolises wisdom; it is considered that a man who has the head of an elephant is a wise man. He is accompanied by a mouse, which the elephant uses as a vehicle to carry his spirit around in. The mouse is symbolic of the human body that scurries around in the dirt and darkness and the elephant is the spirit that needs to be carried around in the body in order to reach its destination.

According to Hinduism, humans are elephants who believe that they are mice. The story of Ganesh teaches that we need to remove the obstacles that will allow our true human natures to develop.

So we have two stories, inspired by elephants one depicting how we are chained by our minds, by what we believe is true and the other showing how an elephant mind can lead to liberation. Isn’t this so human? So often the very thing that can enslave us is almost identical to that which will set us free.

What are the things that hold you back, that stop you doing what you can do, from being all that you can be? We all have fixed ideas about things, that we probably rarely even question. Sometimes these are very obvious to others, but not to ourselves. How many of us fail to see the elephant in our room, or attached to our fridge.

And even if we see the obstacles can they be removed? How easy is it to break the chains that enslave us? They may look like a flimsy bit of rope, but they can still have great power over us.

In the Psalm 107 vv 13-15, David proclaims that it is God who does this. He sings “thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wondrous deeds for mankind! Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains.” In Luke’s Gospel, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus quotes Isaiah and states “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me, to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,” by doing so he is proclaiming his purpose that he has come to set the people free. I see some real parallels with Ganesh here, the remover of obstacles.

Is this enough though? Can faith alone remove the obstacles that block us from physical and spiritual liberation? Also is it enough to simply seek liberation for ourselves alone?

Well I for one do not think so, on both counts. Faith for me means very little, unless it is accompanied by selfless action. Faith for me has always been about how I live and not about what I say I do or do not believe in. To me what matters is the building of the Commonwealth of Love right here right now, Heaven and Hell are right here right now, not some place beyond this life. What matters is the world in which I live today, faith has to be a living breathing thing and not some imagined Nirvana or Oz at the other side of the rainbow.

Nor is it good enough to simply want liberation for myself alone, wouldn't that be selfish?

And so I return to my Lenten message, what can I give to life to my world instead of simply giving something up, just for myself? What can you who read this blog give to your world too? Where is the need in your world? What gift can you give to your world? Where in your world is love so desperately needed? Look around you, see what you can contribute? Do you know what if you do you might find that you can easily set yourself free from the chains that hold you down; you might find that the barriers that block you from living the life you were born to live can and will be removed.

We can learn so much from the elephant, the most soulful of creatures. Through them we can learn to remember not to forget what love is; we can remember not to forget to pay homage to those who have loved us and shown us the way of love; we can remember not to forget the lesson the first time, so as not to have to repeat the same mistake twice; and perhaps above all else we can remember not to forget that we are all in this ship together, we do not journey alone, nor do we know freedom alone.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Universalism: Hope, Courage and the Everlasting Love of God

“You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.  Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”

John Murray

Whenever I feel despair both with myself or with the rest of humanity I try to remember these words by the Universalist preacher John Murray.

I have been in full time Unitarian ministry for two and a half years now. I have experienced a lot as I have attempted to put into practical application what I learn at Unitarian College Manchester and of course what life, in all its rich tapestry has taught me.

I turned forty a little over a year ago and many friends and contemporaries have reach that milestone in recent months; this has led to a lot of personal reflection. I have changed immeasurably these last ten years. This has not always been easy, in fact at times it has been deeply painful, but I can honestly say that I regret very little of it. Do not get me wrong there are certain things that I wish had never happened, not so much to me, more to the people I have loved. The phrase “We do not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it” from the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”, keeps on returning to my thoughts and emotions. I am a fortunate man indeed and I do count my many blessings, even on the difficult days.

 It seems that I am being increasingly influenced by Universalism, in both the old meaning of the word and it’s more modern incarnations. I remember at a minister’s conference at Great Hucklow a couple of years ago, my friend and colleague Rev Jane Barraclough described me as a Universalist. I was not sure what she meant by this at first, but I think I do today. I both believe in and experience a God of love who accepts all and rejects none; is present in all life and yet is greater than the entirety of it all. I also believe that there are many ways to understand and experience this universal love; it makes no sense to me to think that there can be only one way. This has given me a code of hopefulness that I can live by. It sustains me through the vicissitudes of life.

I have read a lot of Forrest Church’s work these past two years as well as other Universalist too. I like what I have read it as spoken to my head, my heart and above all my soul. It has helped me greatly as I have observed the world these last few months and witnessed the many horrors that we seem to inflict on one another. It has also helped me come to terms with my past and the people I have shared my life with. It has enabled me come to terms with both the hope and despair that I experience from time to time.

I recently read Tom Owen-Towle’s “The Gospel of Universalism: Hope Courage and the Love of God” recently, it spoke powerfully to me. Particularly when he spoke of Hope and Despair and explained how they are joined together, at the hip, like Siamese twins. He describes that in the French language hope (espair) and despair (desespair) share the same root. He concluded from this that the opposite of hope is not actually despair but indifference. Indifference is to live without feeling or passion or care, to fail to respond to the pain and or suffering around, to deny our link to one another, to fail to feel another’s pain, to care less. Yes people in the midst of despair struggle and may even want to give up, but they keep on, hope is never too far away. Hope and despair are two branches formed from the same root of the one tree.

Universalism is a hope filled faith, but that does not make it an easy path. It is not about sitting back and waiting to be rescued by the God of love it promotes. Instead it declares that salvation, in this life, can only be achieved by facing up to the suffering present in all our lives and dealing directly with the despair that accompanies it.

Like everyone I feel deep sadness at times when I look at the horrors that we seem to inflict on one another. That said I also live with deep that I know can fill the void that we all feel at one time or another.

I am very aware how truly blessed I am.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

A Chaos Theory of Compassion

I was chatting with friends the other morning over coffee. The conversation turned to the news and its impact upon us and how some people we know just will not watch it any longer, for fear of being dragged down into a pit of despair. “All we ever see is bad news”, they say. So the reaction is to turn away in indifference. I’ve done it myself from time to time, especially if I’m feeling a bit blue. You see they don’t seem to ever report the good news.
I have also noticed another response to bad news, people who seem obsessed almost addicted to it; people who put on the rolling news whenever a disaster or something unpleasant has happened in the world. This cannot be good for us and I am sure that it only feeds into the fear and dread we already have about life. It can prove to us that the world is an unsafe place and people are not to be trusted. It feeds those feelings of suspicion that we can all have as we go about our daily business. It leads to us looking at each other with fear in our eyes. When we feel like this we are highly unlikely to smile at the stranger. Quite the opposite I suspect and in fact if they did smile I am sure we would view them with suspicion. I know I have in the past.

A friend said to me, as we were walking back from the coffee shop this morning, that what is needed is some kind of chaos theory of love and compassion; that we need to spread this out into the world. I agree and strongly believe that one smile or act of love from a person in Altrincham can to lead to an avalanche or tidal wave of love in some other part of the world. These weren’t his exact words by the way, but it’s what I heard him say. Wonderful words I thought from someone who use to be the king of cynicism. By the way while he may have been the king, I was once the emperor. He told me that some small gesture I had done a while ago had led him to do something similar and that hopefully that would lead to the other person doing the same. The acts individually were nothing much in particular, but who knows what kind of chain reaction they may eventually lead to.

It seems that everything that we do and everything that we don’t do, does in fact matter. Who knows what chain reactions we are all setting off with every feeling, thought, word and action; by the way who knows what chain reactions we are setting off by our lack feeling, thought, word and action too. Everything we do or don’t do has an impact on the world we live in. No one is truly passive, even if they are doing nothing.

Of course there are those who do try to spread the good news. I remember as a child that “The News at Ten” use to have an “And Finally” section at the end of its news bulletins. This would tell of a heart warming story. The comedian Russell Howard has a television series titled “Russell Howard’s Good News” this is a satirical look at the week’s events. Each episode ends with a section called “It’s not all doom and gloom”. This also shows a heart warming or courageous clip from the internet.

It’s not all doom and gloom and it’s great to see people like Russell making the effort instead of just descending into the lazy cynicism of so many of today’s comedians. There is sadness in this world, but there is also beauty, love, compassion, courage too. It’s just a shame that most of the modern media no longer believes that this sells. The News of the World may well have gone the way of the Dodo and the dinosaur but what it traded on is still going strong, stronger than ever it would seem.

Perhaps the real problem is that we have become unreceptive to the good news. Maybe we no longer have ears that hear.

In “The Parable of the Sower” Luke 8: vv 4-8 Jesus tells the crowd that the sower threw seeds on the path that were trampled on and eaten by birds; while other seed fell on rocky ground where the roots were weak and therefore the plants withered and died; still others fell on thorn and the thorns grew up and choked the plants; finally some fell on good soil where they thrived and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing...a hundred fold.

The great sages such as Jesus and Buddha spoke in parables in attempts to help people get to the deeper meaning of their message. These stories told the good news. They wanted the ears that heard to wrestle with what was being said and therefore come to a deeper understanding.

I believe that in the “The Parable of the Sower” Jesus his telling his followers that in order to hear the good news you need to become receptive to it.

I believe that every one of us has the potential for deep compassion as well as the potential for hatred and extreme selfishness. The key is to feed and develop that compassionate aspect of ourselves and then we can indeed impact positively on the world in which we live. I believe that the kingdom of heaven is within all of us, as is hell for that matter and that we can indeed build that kingdom here on earth; or we can build our own living hell here on earth. It really is down to how we all live our lives. “The Parable of the Sower”, programmes like Russell Howard’s, little conversations in coffee shops, smiling at the person that you pass on the street, passing on a good turn given to you can indeed lead to some kind of chaos theory of love and compassion.

Start spreading the news, we can change our world today.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

In the Soup

“In The Soup” by Robert Walsh

My dictionary says that the word minister is etymologically related to the word minestrone. I am not making this up. They are both derived from a Latin root that means to serve.

The image of ministry as minestrone is particularly apt for the ministry churchpeople do all together that make us a ministering congregation. Each bean, each vegetable, each unit of macaroni or pinch of spice gives not only its substance to the soup but also its spirit, its texture its color, its flavour and aroma. Each person offers a unique set of gifts, and if we do our job organizing well, each gift will be creatively matched with a need – so that the whole business becomes a warm, nourishing, life giving religious community.

All who serve the church and the principles and values we hold dear are ministers. If you are doing part of that work, you are doing ministry, no matter how unlikely it may seem. You are in the soup – the minestrone of ministry!"

I really love the fact that ministry and minestrone are etymologically brings together two loves of mine...

Over the winter I have re-discovered an old love, soup. There are many varieties of soup, some are more to my tastes than others. My favourite is pea and ham soup.

Peas, particularly mushy peas, are a great Yorkshire delicacy. In my family we even have mushy peas with Christmas dinner. I love it! I remember as a child one of my favourite meals was pie and peas. My mother would soak the peas the night before so that she could prepare the meal for all of us after she returned from work the next day. At the time I am sure I never really appreciated the loving effort that went into all of this, to provide for her family. Gratitude is something I’ve learned about later in life. It’s taken me a long time, too long actually, to understand that love is expressed in the simple acts we do for one another each and every day. In those simple acts the love that is God comes to life; when we give from our heart to another God's love is once again incarnated.

When I first read Robert Walsh’s meditation “In the soup” it made me smile broadly. I love the fact that minister and minestrone are etymologically linked. As I have written before I have a developing love of etymology, the history of words. It seems to me that often the original meaning of words is more interesting than their modern incarnation. I also reckon that we can trace our human development through understanding the journey that words have been on. For example I recently discovered that as I write this blog I am actually staring at two codpieces on my keyboard. For an explanation please check out the following link

While it is amusing to me to know that a bowl of soup and my work are etymologically linked can they actually be linked in function? Could they possibly be? Well maybe. Maybe they aren’t as different as they initially appear. After all both minestrone and ministry mean to serve.

Now of course it is not just the minister who ministers in church and chapel communities, all who congregate together do so to some degree or another. All bring something to the flavour, the substance and the spirit of the community. Everyone has different gifts and talents and by combining together a wholesome and tasty meal is created. No one ingredient is more important than the other and if one ingredient is missing, the meal just won’t work. It is the sum of all its parts that makes a spiritual community what is is. What the community create together they can then offer to the world outside of their window and by doing so they may well draw others to the community who can bring their own unique flavour to the minestrone.

I believe that is the point that the Epistle Paul was making in his first letter to the congregation at Corinth some 2,000 years ago (1 Corithians ch 12) . In his letter he is pointing out that each of member possesses special gifts and that no gift is superior to the other. These gifts are there for the good of the whole. The key it would appear was to combine their gifts and use them together so that they could then build the Beloved Community that they sought. Is this that different to Ministrone?

This brings to mind a story I first heard at primary school. It has stayed with me ever since. It must be a thousand years old and versions of it can be found in many cultures throughout the world.

This is the story of "Stone Soup"

"Once upon a time, in a remote village, a woman heard a knock on her door. She was surprised to find a traveller on her doorstep – visitors to her village were few and far between. The traveller had journeyed a long way, and he asked, very politely, for something to eat.
The woman replied sadly, ‘I’m sorry, I have nothing in the house right now.’

The traveller smiled. ‘Not to worry,’ he said. ‘I have a magical soup stone in my bag. If you will let me put it in a pot of boiling water, I’ll make the most delicious soup in the world.’

The woman did not really believe the traveller, but she thought she had nothing to lose, so she lit a fire, filled her largest pot with water, and started to heat it.

While it was warming up she popped next door and whispered to her neighbour about her visitor and his magical soup stone. The neighbour whispered the story to her other neighbours, and by the time the water started to boil the whole village was crowded into the woman’s kitchen.

While everyone stared, the stranger dropped the stone into the water. 

Then the stranger tasted a spoonful of soup and smacked his lips and cried out, ‘Ah, delicious!’ He paused for a moment, then added, ‘All it needs is some potatoes.’

‘I have some potatoes back in my kitchen,’ shouted the neighbour and quickly went back to her house. In a few minutes she was back with a huge pile of sliced potatoes. The traveller placed them into the pot. 

The traveller tasted again – ‘Ah, marvellous!’ he said. But then he added wistfully, ‘But if only we had some meat, this soup could become a really tasty stew.’

Another villager rushed home to bring the meat that she had been going to use for that night’s meal. The traveller accepted it with gratitude and added it to the pot.

Then he tasted it again: ‘Ah, most excellent. If we just had some vegetables it would be perfect, absolutely perfect.’ 

One of the neighbours dashed back to her house and returned with a mountain of carrots and onions. These were added and boiled for a few minutes.

Then he tasted again and called out: ‘Seasoning!’ which was quickly handed to him.

The stranger took a final taste and danced with glee. ‘Bowls and spoons for everyone!’ he shouted.

People rushed off to their homes to find bowls and spoons. Some even brought back bread, cheese and fruit.

Then they all sat down to a delicious meal. The traveller ladled out large helpings of his magical soup. Everyone felt happy as they sat down to the very first meal they had shared as a whole village.

In the middle of the meal the stranger slipped quietly away, leaving behind the magical soup stone, which they could use any time they wanted to make the most delicious soup in the world."

I love the stone soup story. Again it teaches about community about working together to create something wholesome and fulfilling; that the community is what each person brings to it. It brings to mind another story about soup. This story is from the Jewish tradition, although again there are versions of it in virtually every tradition throughout the world. Perhaps the best known is the Japanese version known as “chopsticks”.

"There is an old Hasidic story of a rabbi who had a conversation with the Lord about Heaven and Hell. “I will show you hell,” said the Lord, and led the rabbi into a room containing a group of famished, desperate people sitting around a large circular table. In the centre of the table rested an enormous pot of soup, more than enough for everyone. The soup smelled delicious and the rabbi’s mouth began to water with anticipation. After awhile he noticed that no one was eating, they were trying, but not one could get the soup into their mouths. Each diner had a long-handled spoon, attached to their hands, that was long enough to reach the pot and scoop up some of the soup, but too long to get the soup into their mouths. On witnessing such suffering, the rabbi bowed his head in compassions.

“Now I will show you heaven”, said the Lord, and they entered another room that was identical to the first. It had the same round table and same pot of soup and the same long handled spoons. Yet the people in this other room were vastly different. They were full of the joys of life and they were well fed. The poor rabbi, just could not understand why and he looked to the Lord. The Lord answered “It is simple, but it requires a certain skill. You see the people in this room have learned to feed each other.”

Minestrone and ministry share the same root, they both mean to serve. It is the purpose  of communities like the ones that I to serve to be places where people practise serving one another. By doing so they create a meal, made up of so many ingredients, that can satisfy them all. It's more than that though, the meal is for everyone, the point is to serve it to world outside of the communities window. to see if they would like to taste what the community has to offer.this meal to those who would like to taste what they have to offer. 

One of my many roles as minister is to feed the congregation I serve through the worship we share, hopefully the meal is enough to satisfy them throughout the week and hopefully to some extent it inspires them to feed others who they come into contact with during their daily interactions. The feeding though should not be seen as a one way affair. They feed me too, in so many ways. Of all the truths I have learnt perhaps the greatest is that it is in giving that we receive. The Heaven and Hell story teaches this so well. In the very act of feeding another, we are fed ourselves. No one goes hungry we are all fulfilled, we are all fully filled.

If I have learnt anything about the spiritual life I have learnt that at its core are two basic principles, love and service. Surely the spiritual life is not just about serving ourselves, but one another. By doing so we feed one another's spirits. I have learnt that in that relationship, in that space we can experience the Love that is Divine.

Everyone thirsts and hungers even in our seemingly materially abundant lives. We cannot feed this hunger in isolation in self reliance it is only fed in that relationship that occurs as we feed one another. To me this is the purpose of religious communities like the ones I serve, living breathing fellowships of love. It is also my experience that it is in this space, in this relationship that occurs as we serve one another, that God is revealed that God is once again incarnated. By giving one to another we can know the love that is God.

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

As I wrote in my previous blog this is what I will be focusing on this Lent, to find ways to give of myself to others, instead of self serving; to give from my heart, to minister to world that I come into daily contact with. I commend this idea to you who read this, your world needs it too. It needs you to add your own flavour and your own substance to the soup that is life, by doing so you may well inspire others to add theirs.

Remember the stone soup story. The stranger brought the gift of the stone and through it, through awakening their intrigue, he inspired others to bring what gifts they had to offer. And guess what by doing so they all ate and they were all filled and they developed a community of love that they could all benefit from. For me this is the point of the spiritual life, for everyone to bring their stones and inspire others to bring their gifts to the table and join together and begin to create the Commonwealth of Love, right here right now.

Remember we are all in the soup together, so bring your substance and your flavour to the pot and lets create a meal that fully fill us all. We can all be fulfilled.

From you I receive, to you I give, together we share and from this we live. 

If you click on the link below you can view a service of worship which was created from the ideas explored in this blogspot....

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Lent: A time for giving not giving things up

Towards the end of  “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” Karen Armstrong writes

"...the attempt to become a compassionate human being is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or a day - or even in 12 steps. It is a struggle that will last until our dying hour. Nearly every day we will fail; but we cannot give up... We must pick ourselves up and start again. If you have followed the steps carefully you have come a long way. But the process is not over. You will have to work at all twelve steps continuously for the rest of your life: learning more about compassion, surveying your world anew, and struggling with self-hatred and discouragement. Never mind loving your enemies - sometimes loving your nearest and dearest selflessly and patiently will be a struggle!"

Been thinking about the following sentence for the last few weeks...

“Never mind loving your enemies – sometimes loving your nearest and dearest selflessly and patiently will be a struggle”

Love is not as easy as those cards and adverts make it out to be. This is because love is not some sentimental or mushy feeling. Love is tough and love is disciplined and it can really hurt sometimes, too much sometimes...

Love is one of those easy to say words, that are so hard to truly live by. How often do we say each day I love this or I love that? By the way how often do we say I hate this or I hate that? These are very strong sentiments but do we really mean what we say when we say I “love” or “hate” something? Think about it?

Last Thursday 14th February was Valentines Day, the great love fest. Now this festival is about the celebration of romantic love, but this is not the only form of love there is. When the ancient Greeks spoke of love, they were not necessarily talking of romance. They used four different words for love: eros, romantic love; philia, friendship love; storge, a familial love; agape, spiritual love. This final type of love is the form that the great religious traditions talk of. This is a different kind of love as it is meant to be none exclusive, it is open to all, it is suppose to have no boundaries. It is meant to build bridges between the walls we create around ourselves. Whereas the other types of love suggest partiality in one sense or another.

Agape is the love that Jesus spoke of in the Gospels. He commanded his followers to “Love one another as I have loved you.”  He is not talking about something soft and mushy here though, please do not be fooled. 

When Jesus preaches that we should love our enemies he is commenting on the commandment in Leviticus “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” As Karen Armstrong has stated “Leviticus is a legal text and any talk of emotion would be out of place as it would be in a Supreme Court ruling. In the ancient Middle East, ‘love’ was a legal term used in international treaties: when two kings promised to ‘love’ each other, they pledged to be loyal and to give each other practical help and support – even if this went against their short term interests”. When Jesus spoke of love he was talking about an action that put someone or something else at the centre of their life, rather than ourselves; he is talking about yielding for the good of all, instead of self interest.

This message is of course not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the essence of all the “Great Faiths”. It would appear that selfishness and self-centredness has been the root of so many of humanities troubles, throughout our history, therefore it is hardly surprising that the idea of yielding for the good of all is at the core of the great faiths; that putting something other than our selfish needs at the centre of what we do is vital to human survival. The great Chinese guide to statecraft “The Daodejing”, authored by Lao Tzu made similar claims. As Armstrong highlights, the Dao states that “The only person who is fit to rule is the man who has overcome the habit of selfishness.”

The Dao further states that...

“The reason there is great affliction is that I have a self.
If I had no self, what affliction would I have?
Therefore to one who honours the world as his self
The world may be entrusted,
And to one who loves the world as one’s self
The world may be consigned.”

Ah The Golden Rule of Compassion...the rule of love...the essence of true religion...the essence of the spiritual life... 

Agape requires love for all, without conditions and without borders. This is the love expressed in 1 Corinthians 13 which perfectly describes the qualities of such love. It states “Agape is patient. Agape is kind and is not jealous. Agape does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice with unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth, bears all wrongs, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, agape never fails.”

Agape was the foundation of Rev Dr Martin Luther King’s ministry, the great champion of civil rights in 1950’s and 60’s America. He saw it as an abundant overflowing love that seeks nothing in return, that is open to all and rejects self interest. It is not sentimental and has nothing to do with whether we like a person or not. It is the kind of love that recognises our common humanity and reveres the other as our self; it recognises the sacred mystery in everyone. It is this that forms the beloved community that he spoke of. You may call it the Kingdom of God, or the Commonwealth of Love, or simply “Fellowship”.

Although Agape is not soft, mushy or sentimental it is still a condition of the heart, it is a way of being that encompasses all aspects of our humanity; head and heart as well as mind, body and spirit. It is about how we are and how we act. In his sermon titled “Love in action” Dr King preached that “one day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong...only through bringing together head and heart, intelligence and goodness – shall man rise to a fulfilment of his human nature.”

It is a mistake to believe that Dr King's ministry focused purely on the injustices of society external to him. He also talked of healing humanities inner violence. None violent action, motivated by love, that he adapted from the teachings of Gandhi was about committing not only to non-violent resistance externally but also internally. Both he and Gandhi knew how vital it was that we transformed our inner lives first before we looked to the world. Gandhi named this Satyagraha (soul-force). They both knew that in order to transform society for the better, they first had to develop themselves spiritually.

Why was this? Well they knew that if a person did not heal the violence within themselves that when they did overcome the injustice they were experiencing they may well end up replacing it with something just as destructive. Just look at the revolutions of the past two hundred years. They began as a protest against tyranny and yet in many cases they replaced the former tyranny with something worse. We must all be wary of the “dark side of the force”, of how corrupting power and self righteousness can be. The last two hundred years are littered with examples of this.

Love is a way of being. It is not sentimental, it is not soft and mushy, it is tough and it requires effort and discipline. It is something that I will be attempting to focus on this Lenten season.

It always amazes me how something like Lent, which in my view is about self sacrifice, about giving of self for others, has somehow become so self centred. Today people give up things for Lent, but they seemingly primarily do so for their own good. People often given up certain food stuffs, for their own vanity, they do it for themselves. Is this what Lent is about? Well it doesn’t seem to be the right focus to me. Surely it’s actually about Agape, about self giving love, about loving all without prejudice, about recognising the “inherent worth and dignity of all” Isn’t this the example that Jesus gave to humanity, in the same way that Gandhi and Dr King did, they gave themselves wholeheartedly for others. Sadly they were murdered for it. That said their message did not die with their physical bodies; their message survived their physical deaths, it lives on today. 

This loving spirit is timeless, it is immortal, but it needs a body, it needs to be embodied. So I’ve made a decision. This Lenten season I’m going to attempt to let this spirit live through my body; this Lent I’m going to focus on giving, instead of giving up. This Lenten season I’m going to see what I can give to life instead of what I can give up; this Lenten season I’m going to live in what I consider the solution is as opposed to what the problem is. I am going to give love, even if it’s in small ways. I am going to do so while recognising how difficult that is, even to my nearest and dearest. By doing so I know that my outer world is bound to improve and my inner world will continue to heal.

My question to you, who read this blog, is what are you going to give, instead of give up, this Lent?

I will leave you with that one.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Tragic Optimism

The following is an extract from "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl...

“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic "the self-transcendence of human existence." It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself--be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself--by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love--the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

I've been pondering these words quite a lot over the last few days as I have witnessed the suffering throughout our world and much closer to home, as I have attempted to make sense of it all...

Socrates is credited with saying that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I think he is right. To live life fully we do need to know ourselves. That said we can go too far with this. It is so easy to get lost within ourselves in our search for self understanding. I have learnt in recent years that an over examined life is no life at all.

I have wasted so much of my life trying to make sense of the suffering I and those around me have endured; I have wasted so much time looking at the world thinking there is no hope for humanity; I wasted so many years saying what is the point of any of this is? Thankfully I do this far less these days.

We will all experience times in our lives when nothing makes sense; when no matter how hard we try we will be unable to get to the root of the trouble. This is often the case with suffering, both are own and other people’s. How often do we cry out, why is this happening to me. Well the truth is it isn’t happening to you and me, it is happening to everyone and becoming obsessed with trying to find out why this is happening may well stop us from living and learning from what has happened.

Viktor Frankl said:

“What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

I’ve been contemplating these words for quite some time now and looking at my life in retrospect I can see the truth in this claim. I have discovered that by trying to help others come to some understanding about their lives my own life has begun to make sense. I have come to understand, accept and even love who I am by helping others come to terms with who they are. My life today is rich in meaning. It is not devoid of pain I promise you, no life is. There has been real pain these last few days as I and other loved ones have been coming to terms with our Allen’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. A form of cancer that I know is untreatable.

I know that there is nothing that I can do to help Allen, I cannot take away his suffering. That said there is much that I can do to help those I love in their time of need and I know that in doing so I will help myself come to terms with my own suffering.

I have deep affection for Viktor Frankl. He wrote what I believe is the most important book of the second half of the twentieth century, “Man’s search for Meaning”. The book is based on the three years he spent in Auschwitz Dachau and other concentration camps during the Second World War. I do not wish to go into detail about the book now nor give an over view of “logotherapy” which he developed both before and after the war years. What I would like to briefly explore is the concept of “Tragic Optimism” which he describes at the end of the book.

“Tragic Optimism” is about saying yes to life despite its tragedy and suffering, claiming that deep meaning can be unearthed even in the most horrific of circumstances. Remember Frankl’s ideas grew in the hell of Auschwitz.

“Tragic Optimism” describes a “tragic triad” stating that life involved three inevitable kinds of tragedy. These being the pain and suffering present in human existence; guilt for the things we have done or failed to do, the bad choices we have made; and death, knowing that our lives and the lives of those we love are transient. He says that it is hard to find meaning in the face of such tragedies, but that we must in order to live to our true human potential.

He noted that western society had advanced immeasurably during the latter half of the twentieth century and yet people still complained of living empty and meaningless lives, noting that people “have enough to live by but nothing to live for.” He believed that the lack of meaning in modern life was a direct cause of the increase in depression, aggression and addiction, claiming that it was this existential vacuum that led to the cries of “no future”.

Frankl though does not leave us in this existential black hole, he offers a solution. He suggests three ways in which we can find meaning in life. He claims that meaning can and does emerge through our work and or deeds; through experiences and or encounters with other people, through love; and finally and perhaps most importantly through rising above and growing through our suffering.

Frankl suggests that it is easy, in face of the inevitable tragedies of life, to fall into nihilism (meaninglessness) or to chase after happiness, success, power etc instead of allowing meaning to find us. By the way he is not really saying that meaning is the goal, more that meaning emerges as a result of meaningful action. He gives several illustrations, claiming that you can’t just make yourself find meaning in the same way as you can’t just make yourself laugh. We laugh as a result of finding something funny, not because we are told that it will be good for us. The problem it would seem is that we focus on the goal rather than the action itself.
We want to be happy, we want to find meaning, we want to self actualize and we do all we can to strive for this. In striving for these things we fail and yet by giving of ourselves to others, by transcending our own suffering, our lives begin to become rich in meaning.

It is the meaning that emerges from suffering that speaks most powerfully to me.  By the way please do not misunderstand me I am not suggesting that suffering in and of itself is a good thing. As Frankl said if suffering is avoidable then the meaningful thing to do is to do all that can be done to avoid it.

This brings to mind two stories that I recently heard. The first I read in Karen Armstrong’s “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life”. Karen gives the example of Christina Noble as someone who rose above her personal suffering to become a positive force in the world. Christina discovered meaning in her suffering by helping others to a solution to theirs. She is the founder and driving force behind “Christina Noble Children’s Foundation”, which was set up in 1989 to help Vietnamese street children.

Christina herself is no stranger to poverty and homelessness. Following the death of her mother, when she was just ten years old, she encountered a catalogue of horrors, beginning with being separated from her siblings, believing them to be dead, and living under horrific conditions in Irish orphanages. She fled the orphanage at the age of fourteen and learnt to fend for herself in the poorest parts of Dublin. Following a series of  assaults and after being rejected by everyone including the church, she left for London at the age of 18 and suffered further abuse in an unhappy marriage, where she had three children of her own. During this low point, amongst a life time of low points, she had a dream about Vietnam. She says that:

“I don’t know why I dreamed about Vietnam, perhaps it was because the country was so much in the news at the time. In the dream, naked Vietnamese children were running down a dirt road fleeing from a napalm bombing. The ground under the children was cracked and coming apart and the children were reaching to me. One of the girls had a look in her eyes that implored me to pick her up and protect her and take her to safety. Above the escaping children was a brilliant white light that contained the word “Vietnam”.

This vision stayed with her for the next twenty years, it would not go away and it kept her going through some bleak days in her life - In much the same way that Frankl’s vision of his wife kept him going in Auschwitz - The vision finally began to come to fruition in 1989 when she was able to set up her foundation in Ho Chi Minh City. The foundation has grown over the years and has expanded beyond Vietnam into Mongolia and other countries.

The second example that I would like to share with you is much closer to home. It is that of a friend who has watched her father die of sclerosis of the liver in recent weeks. She has herself recovered from alcoholism and is sober many years. That said the pain of watching her father die in such a way has been deeply traumatic. She recently recounted the last hour of his life to me. What touched me the most was that during this last hour, as she watched him slip away, she was able to turn to a young man in the bed next to her father, who is himself in the grip of alcoholism, and offer a helping hand. She was able to help another in the moment of her deepest suffering. She could not do anything to help her father but she could find meaning from his death and her own suffering by turning to offer a hand of love to someone else despite the tragedy in her own life.

Both my friend and Christina were able to find hope, to find meaning, as a result of their own suffering. It was seemingly a suffering which could not be avoided at the time and one which offered no real meaning while they were in the midst of it. That said from their own personal tragedies true meaning did emerge as they offered a helping hand to others who were suffering from a fate they had themselves emerged from. These are just two beautiful examples of hope and meaning emerging from the suffering and tragedy of life.

These are powerful messages of hope, nay even optimism. No one can escape the pain and suffering in life but that does not make life meaningless. We all have to face unavoidable suffering from time to time and yet meaning can be created from this. It is created when the suffering inspires us to attempt to alleviate the suffering in the lives of others. In these very acts we suddenly find our lives are rich in meaning and we can once again look to life through the eyes of optimism even when it is surrounded by tragedy.