Sunday, 12 January 2014

Many Rivers: One Sea

My grandad took his final journey back to the great sea this week. He died peacefully after a long and
good life, something I know he greatly appreciated; something that was denied many of his comrades, especially his oldest and dearest friend Percy Hepworth who lost his life at sea. Good old Percy, the old lad will be buried with a picture of his old mate. My grandad was an old sailor having served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, something he only really began to talk about in the last few years of his life. During his funeral service we will sing “For those in peril on the sea” I will sing it with the utmost gusto!

Strangely I went to bed last Sunday night with rivers on my mind. Something inside of me was calling me to explore the subject this week. Sometime over the next 24hours this moved to the sea. I went to bed on Monday night thinking of the sea, as I did my grandad slipped into his final sleep, no doubt dreaming of the ocean. The sea has been calling me again. I now understand why.

The sea has real power I think it always has. It draws people to it. I can spend hours just staring out into the great void. It is calming and yet utterly awe inspiring. This ought not to be surprising. After all we come from water and no doubt to the sea we shall eventually return. In many ways every life begins at sea. In our mother’s wombs we lie in the dark, safe and secure. We are then thrust into the light of life through birth. Maybe this yearning for the sea is a primordial one, a desire to return to the safety of the womb. Or perhaps it’s a call to adventure. Many of the great stories are about adventurers being called to sea. Either way there is something very powerful about the sea, the call of the sea. It has been calling me again these last few days. Maybe it’s a call to return home, to safety, or perhaps it’s a call to adventure and a new beginning. Who knows, I will have to wait and see.

Marry the Sea

Now of course the sea is fed from many sources. All rivers lead eventually back to the sea. They all return back to the source. They go on many different adventures but eventually they return to the source from whence the journey, before the journey, began. Each river is formed from many tributaries, no two are exactly alike. No two go on exactly the same journey back to the sea. Just as no two people are exactly alike. We too are formed from many sources and our lives didn’t just begin when we first tasted the air as we were pushed out into the light. Who we are is part of the lives of those we have come from, going back through the generations.

These last few weeks I have paused to think a lot about family, both blood and not blood. I’ve been thinking about where my physical life grew from, the roots that formed me and the journey that has shaped who I am today. I’ve also been thinking of the rivers that could have potentially joined with me on the way. I have yet to be absorbed into another river, maybe I never will. Maybe it is my destiny to always journey alone until I reach the Great Sea and begin the next voyage. Maybe, maybe not.

To some extent, like the river, we all journey alone in the world. And like the purpose of the river is to return to the sea I believe that it is our nature to seek out belonging, to become a part of something more than just ourselves. Now for some that is family and or community and for others it is God. For many it is all three and a whole lot more. Perhaps for some the yearning is for wholeness with themelves. I’m not sure anyone can adequately answer what drives the yearning but what I do know is that it is there inside every single one of us.

The yearning for belonging is not all that is there though, there is also a desire to maintain our independence our individuality. This causes tension at times; I sense this tension in the lives of most us. Where does this come from? Well I suspect that it comes from our own souls. We are each of us unique individuals. No two people are exactly alike. Even identical twins have their own personality and can be vastly different. The same applies for conjoined twins by the way. No one feels exactly as another feels, no one thinks exactly as another thinks, no one knows exactly what is going on inside the heart of another human being. Each life is uniquely beautiful and yet we are all formed from the same source and have the same breath of life flowing through us. It is vital to recognise both aspects of our humanity and to rejoice and celebrate them. I believe that it is both aspects that compel us to be drawn together to seek out wholeness beyond the confines and limits of ourselves. It is this drive that creates this need to belong. It is this impulse that creates family; it is this impulse that creates community; it is this impulse that compels us to search beyond the limits of our own lives.

The building of family and community is becoming more and more difficult in our age. Increasingly we live isolating and isolated lives. Families move far apart and communities are increasingly fragmented. We want freedom and more of it. There is nothing wrong with this, but I wonder sometimes if by reaching for more freedom we have somehow lost some of the love that truly binds people. Now please do not get me wrong I am not living under the delusion of some golden age of community, much of which was merely tribalism. It is just that I have this sense that somewhere love has been obscured by the drive for personal freedom. While freedom in many ways is about self love, it is not necessarily about relational love in its many forms. Do people truly bind together as we once did?

Now the post modern age that we live in suggests that we can’t bind as we once did as we do not have the one thing to bind around; the one thing to believe in that can hold us all together. Even un-belief is struggling to attain this. In the last few days there has been reported split offs from what the media has labelled the "atheist church", more commonly known as "The Sunday Assembly". Seemingly it isn’t atheist enough for some folk, or it’s the wrong kind of atheism. Maybe the post-modernists are right maybe we can’t bind and belong as we once did.

I am not convinced by the post-modernist claims by the way. I believe we can come together, but not necessarily in the old tribal and exclusivist ways. Perhaps we can come together and join together from our own tributaries.

I am a Universalist by temperament. I believe that there are truths that can be discovered through many sources. I also do not accept that anyone has the whole picture when it comes to truth, whether informed by religion or the secular world. As I have written many times I hold a deep affection for the writings of Forrest Church, particular his beautiful metaphor the “Cathedral of the World”.

Forrest asks us to imagine the world as a Cathedral and to look at the light filtering through the windows, each with its unique design and colour. There are windows beyond number in the cathedral, each unique, each reflecting the light in a different way, each window telling a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. This he describes as a metaphor for 21st century Universalism which honours a variety of approaches to truth or the light. He points out that none of us is able to fully comprehend the truth that shines through another person's window. He claims that the fact that none can see the whole truth and none can experience light exactly as another sees it ought to breed within us humility about truth and an openness to the claims on truth made by others. In his view such an approach ought to draw people closer together and not cause them to pull apart.

As I mentioned earlier my week began with thoughts about rivers and it’s to rivers or perhaps the river that I would like to now return. The medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote that “Divinity is an Underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up.” This image has spoken powerful to former Dominican priest Matthew Fox and inspired his book “One River, Many Wells”, In it he pleads for a deep ecumenism. He has for a long time been a student of the mystical traditions of all the great faiths, breaking new ground in pulling together writings from many religious paths and from science to lay the foundations of a new mythology and spirituality. He calls us to reach beyond the creeds and doctrines that divide and to come together in a shared experience of wonder and awe.

Both Matthew Fox and Forrest Church seem to be in harmony with one another in what one describes as deep ecumenism and the other Universalism. Their thoughts are echoed by the work of Karen Armstrong who talks about what she describes as the essence of all the great faiths,"The Golden Rule of Compassion”.

This image of the tributaries flowing into the rivers and eventually back to the sea that can bring us together, speaks powerfully to me. Whatever source we drink from we only sample a tiny amount of what is available to us. While our need to remain unique and individual may keep us from returning to the sea, our need to find family, community, a place where we all belong will keep on drawing us back. Love in the end is a stronger force that the pulse for freedom, or at least it seems that way to me. Humility also draws us together as it feeds in us a need to seek out new truth. It opens us up to new revelation from all sources of life including one another.

This is why I found a home within the Unitarian tradition. We not only accept diversity in matters of truth we actively celebrate it. We also celebrate the whole concept of community. We are not merely some new age spirituality movement. We are religious communities in the truest sense as, we bind together under the common theme of humility and openness as well as love and freedom. We encourage one another to look through each others windows and drink from one another’s wells and we invite others to bring their truth so we can all experience more of what life has to offer to us.

So why has the sea been calling me again? I don’t suppose I will get a full answer. Is it something to do with the love I felt for my granddad? Is it a sense to return home to be closer to those who have created and formed me? Well that has certainly been strong within me in recent weeks and months. Is it a call to a new adventure either within or without, a call to seek out new truth? The honest answer is I do not fully know. All I can tell you is that it feels very strong right now. I also know that it humbles me and as a result it opens me up in faith, it does not close me down in fear. I trust it I know it we lead me back to source, the eternal source. It will lead me back to love.

For all rivers eventually become part of the one sea

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