Wednesday, 30 April 2014

A Third Anniversary Waltz

This blogspot contains material I have shared in worship recently...comes from a variety of contemporary voices. I am publishing it in celebration of the third anniversary of this Blog...There is no reason for the order that the material comes in...

“Listening for Our Song” by David S Blanchard

On sabbatical in East Africa, I heard a story of a people who believe that we are each created with our own song. Their tradition as a community is to honor that song by singing it as welcome when a child is born, as comfort when the child is ill, in celebration when the child marries, and in affirmation and love when death comes. Most of us were not welcomed into the world in that way. Few of us seem to know our song.

It takes a while for many of us to figure out which is our song, and which is the song that others would like us to sing. Some of us are slow learners. I heard my song not necessarily from doing extraordinary things in exotic places, but also from doing some pretty ordinary things in some routine places. For every phrase I heard climbing Kilimanjaro, I learned another in a chair in a therapist’s office. For every measure I heard in the silence of a retreat, I heard another laughing with my girls. For every note I heard in the wind on the beach at Lamu, I gleaned more from spending time with a dying friend as her children sang her song back to her. What came to astound me was not that the song appeared, but that it was always there.

I figure that the only way I could have known it for my own was if I had heard it before, before memory went to work making sense and order of the mystery of our beginning. Our songs sing back to us something of our essence, something of our truth, something of our uniqueness. When our songs are sung back to us, it is not about approval, but about recognizing our being and our belonging in the human family.

It is good to know our songs by heart for those lonely times when the world is not singing them back to us. That’s usually a good time to start humming to yourself, that song that is most your own.

They can be heard as songs of love or of longing, songs of encouragement or of comfort, songs of struggle or of security. But most of all, they are the songs of life, giving testimony to what has been, giving praise for all we’re given, giving hope for all we strive for, giving voice to the great mystery that carries each of us in and out of this world.

From “Nourishing the Soul” by Angeles Arrien

“Recently I witnessed a moment of deep soulfulness between two strangers. I was sitting at a bus stop, sitting next to a woman reading a newspaper, but I was totally engrossed in the performance of a 14 year old on a skateboard. He had his baseball cap turned around with the bill at the back, and he was skating beautifully and very fast. He buzzed past us once, then twice, when he came by a third time, he accidentally knocked the woman’s newspaper out of her hands. She said: “Oh why don’t you grow up”.

I watched him glide down to the corner of the block, where he stood talking with his buddy. The two of them kept looking back over their shoulders at the woman. She hesitated for a moment. Then rolled up her paper, tucked it under her arm, and walked into the street, motioning to him. “Won’t you come over here?” she called: “I want to talk to you”. Very reluctantly, he skated over to her, turned his cap around with the bill in front and said: “Yeah”?

She said: “What I meant to say was that I was that I was afraid I might get hurt. I apologise for what I did say.” His face lit up and he said: “How cool”!

“For Belonging” by John O'Donohue

May you listen to your longing to be free.
May the frames of your belonging be generous enough
for your dreams.
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing
whispering in your heart.
May you find a harmony between your soul and
your life.
May the sanctuary of your soul never become haunted.
May you know the eternal longing that lives at the heart of time.
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.
May you never place walls between the light and yourself.
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world
to gather you, mind you, and embrace you in

“Living By Heart” by Kathleen McTigue

To learn something by heart is not the same as memorization. Back in elementary school I memorized the multiplication tables up through twelve. I also committed to memory the correct spelling for words like atrocious, which I still retain, and the capitals for all fifty states, which I do not.

There were other things I learned not through memorizing, but by heart. One of these was how to bake bread, following the same unwritten recipe my mother had learned from her own mother. Working next to her to her in a fragrant kitchen, I absorbed this knowledge not only by listening to her instructions but through touch, scent, and taste. I learned by heart the look and smell of yeast as it came to life, the stretch and pull of a good solid dough under the heel of the hand, the enveloping welcome of a home scented with fresh-baked bread, and the rough kiss of a warm crust on the lips. What we learn by heart enters us so deeply that it is incorporated, embodied, not just remembered. It becomes part of who we are.

My friend Shirley visits her elderly mother several times a week. For many years now her mother has drifted on the dark tides of alzheimer’s disease, so lost in that inner landscape that she passes weeks at a time without speaking a word. So it was quite a shock when Shirley walked in to visit one day and her mother looked at her sharply and declared that she needed to go shopping. Startled to hear her mother speak at all. Shirley responded with the first thing that popped into her head: “mother, what do you need to get?” The answer came back, “A pie plate.”

Intrigued and bemused, Shirley shook her hand and tried to enter the place where her mother’s mind had momentarily come back to life. “You want to make a pie? What kind? Her mother murmured, “apple pie,” and then closed her eyes and seemed to drift away again into her illness. A moment later she looked up into her daughter’s face. Speaking each word with careful deliberation, she said “Apples. Flour. Crisco. Salt. Sugar. Cinnamon.” Shirley’s mother learned how to bake pies as a little girl, standing at her mother’s side, and she never used a recipe. She had learned it all by heart.

If we live long enough, the time will come to each of us when the bright fires of our minds begin to dim and settle, perhaps until only a few coals still linger there at the end of our lives, still gleaming with a bit of light. That’s where we’ll hold the knowledge of a few things we’ve most loved doing in the gifted flow of life, the things we’ve learned not just through our minds but through taste, touch, and scent. The things we learned by heart.

From “The Angel and the Deep Blue Sea” by Forrest Church

In any event, with a clear conscience I devoted an entire week, as every son occasionally should, to caring for my poor creaky mother. Because she had the entire ship as an audience, I even managed to reread four Saul Bellow novels. In all, it was a noble expenditure of time and my soul is clearly the better for it.

There was also the sea. I grew up in the mountains of Idaho, but the sea has always captured my imagination more than even the mightiest peaks. Not only in contemplating the horizon which beckons one's mind to thoughts of eternity, but in pondering the hidden depths and mysteries beneath the surface, whenever I look out over the ocean, if I am paying attention, I experience humility and awe: humility in reflecting on how tiny we are in the whole scope of things; awe ­ a wonder tinged at times with a hint of terror ­ at the unfathomable depths and unsearchable breadth of creation. As it is written in the thirtieth chapter of the Book of Proverbs,

Three things are too wonderful for me;
Four I do not understand:
The way of an eagle in the sky,
The way of a snake on a rock,
The way of a ship on the high seas,
And the way of a man with a woman.

Physics, anatomy, biology, and psychology can begin to decode such mysteries, but knowledge has its limits. Quoting an academic study, my newly rediscovered old guide, Saul Bellow, recently observed "that on an average weekday the New York Times contains more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare would have acquired in a lifetime." That includes Shakespeare himself. The Times is a fine paper. I read it every day. But for all its information, it only hints, and then only occasionally, at what Shakespeare knew so very well: that the beauty of the bird, the symbol of the snake, the courage of the pilot, and the power of human love will always be touched by mystery.

We don't need something unnatural ­ like a virgin birth or the stopping of the sun ­ to prove our faith. Neither do we need a gigabyte of data to disprove it. Beyond all proof or disproof, we need only reverence for life itself. Contemplate our awe-inspiring connection, over millennia, to thousands of human ancestors, and ultimately to everything that lives.

"Prescriptions for Living" by Bernie Siegel

You can hear your loved ones no matter how poorly your ears work. I know deaf people who are able to hear with their hearts. And I know people with perfect ears who drive their families crazy with their lack of hearing. I know about this firsthand because our children used to get upset when I read the paper and watched television while they were talking to me. They'd say, "Dad, you're not listening." I would repeat all the things they said to prove I was listening, but they told me that being able to repeat their words was not the same thing as hearing them. Hearing means listening attentively to what they had to say. Today when one of the children wants to talk to me, I put
down the paper, turn off the television and listen to what he has to tell me. . . . I also have learned how to say "m-m-m" in many ways and to stop trying to solve everyone's problems. They thank me for listening. It helps them to clarify and solve their problems.

“Talking Hands” by Victoria Weinstein

I attended a day-long retreat on healing prayer some years ago at Daylesford Abbey in Pennsylvania. I was in my first year of parish ministry and having a very tough time. I needed healing and craved a way to pray that would open my heart, which felt closed and bruised.

In the afternoon the group was called into the chapel for a lecture and a time of spiritual practise. The woman leading the talk started to lead us in prayer and invited us to take the hand of the person next to us. Oh, I thought, Well, all right. I wished I had come with a friend. There was no one sitting to my left, so I glanced briefly to my right to coordinate my hand holding with the hand next to me. Just before my eyes met his, I saw that he had no left hand, but instead a stump where his hand had been.

Within an instant, I had three subsequent, panicked thoughts: first, and selfishly, a sense of terrible self-consciousness, Oh Lord, what am I supposed to do now? Next, also fleetingly, What happened to his hand? I thought of war, of accidents, of birth defects, of disease that required amputation. And then, finally, If I’m uncomfortable, I wonder how he feels

I reached out and took his hand in mine, such as it was. In the moment of joining between hand and smooth place where a hand had been, I realized that this man was no more damaged a human being that myself. We had both come to the retreat seeking spiritual renewal, healing and friendship, we were both in need, and we represented the larger circle of communities that needed us.

As the leader read a meditation, I found that even though this man had no hand, he was, in fact, holding onto mine as surely as though he did.

I could feel subtle pressure from the end of his arm, a sensation of phantom fingers pressing mine in solidarity and understanding. I don’t understand how this is possible. And yet I’m not imagining it.

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” said the fox, famously, in The Little Prince. That quote became unforgettably true for me in that long moment, my hand held by a hand that confidently embraced mine but was, in fact, not physically there. We never exchanged words, but I will always remember with gratitude and wonder that unknown friend who taught me that when we reach out to one another in fellowship and care, we can overcome even seemingly impossible obstacles.

“Right Speech” by Chris Goacher

“Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never harm me.” Remember learning that at school? I believe it is the most erroneous thing that we can teach children. A broken arm will heal in time, a broken soul may take a lifetime, if at all.

Some time ago, following the dubious behaviour of two Radio Broadcasters, we saw the power of words; words can destroy relationships, a career, a reputation; they can also destroy a childhood, a love, a faith. Many people recognised that a boundary had been crossed; and what was suggested as funny or entertaining was anything but.

In Buddhism there is a concept of “Right Speech”. Thich Nhat Hahn writes. “There is a saying in Vietnamese, “It doesn’t cost anything to have loving speech.” It is true , we need only choose our words carefully, and we can make people very happy. Many people believe that they will be generous once they have accumulated huge wealth; young people dream of becoming doctors or movie stars or rich and famous people before they can help people.

There are many ways to be generous to people right now, you don’t have to wait. If you are motivated by loving kindness and compassion you can make people happy right now, beginning with Right Speech. Being aware of the danger of careless or unmindful speech leads us into a world of loving kindness. We can make the world a better, a happier place.

Maybe you could begin to practice mindful speech by using Socrates’ triple filter. Ask yourself - is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful?

We have seen for ourselves the consequences that uncaring, un-mindful speech can bring. Let us promise to be aware and compassionate to each other...beginning now.

“A laying on of words” by Angela Herrera

I know you are wicked busy, but I need a prayer right now. I’m going into emergency surgery, my friend texts. I picture her on the hospital bed with her stomach in knots, casting prayer requests into the 3-G network .

I see the pre-op unit in my mind: rows of beds and blue curtains bent around corners; staff taking vitals, handing out pills, putting in IV’s; student chaplains making nervous rounds, having been on-call all night, having seen some of yesterday’s pre-ops sipping juice, and having seen some dead. Exactly what use is a prayer?

I text a blessing back: Love is all around you. I am holding you in my heart.

And careering through cyberspace, it tumbles together with the blessings sent by her other friends at the exact same moment – all the words weighty with friendship histories and intimate knowing: the loves-hearts-God protects-safe-prayers-healings. Picture them pouring into her hospital room, sparkling through the air, landing all over her: a laying-on of words.

See her brow un-knit and peace sweep through her body. A prayer is love in motion.

“Thin Places” by John Crossley Morgan

I was taking a morning walk down a path outside the Tintern Abbey in Wales when I discovered a rather small but sprawling tree, its branches beckoning to travellers who might rest under its shelter. I crawled under the branches and sat quietly to watch the morning sun break across the ancient abbey sky. It felt safe and even sacred there, a place you might go to rest and reflect on the mystery of life. I sensed the presence of others who had sat in that spot before.

Later over lunch I spoke with a local resident and told him how I had felt sitting under that tree. He looked at me and said quietly, “it’s called a thin place.” I had never heard the name before, so he patiently explained that to the Welsh a thin place is a very special place, a sacred spot, where you feel a presence so deep and mysterious that you have to stretch language to describe it. “That sounds like what inspires poetry.” I laughed. “Maybe that’s why the Welsh are such poets,” he said.

In the months that followed, I became more aware of “thin places” in my life, whether in my backyard garden or by a river. I came to understand that once you feel the power of thin places you tend to experience them often, in places you might have missed before. More surprisingly, I learned that when you carry a thin place in your mind and heart, you can go there wherever you feel the need. I did so not long ago before I was wheeled into surgery - scenes of a Welsh countryside before me rather than the white gowns of nurses and doctors.

Now I carry with me the idea of a thin - place where the veil separating this reality from another is temporarily lifted, so faith and imagination can catch a fleeting glimpse.

“How To Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

“Prayer Meditation and Contemplation” by David Monk from “The Unitarian Life: Voices From Past and Present” edited by Stephen Lingwood

Shortly before he died, the Buddha said to his followers: “Be you lamps unto yourselves; be your own reliance. Hold to the truth within yourselves, as to the only lamp.”

Centuries later , the poet Robert Browning wrote: “Truth is within ourselves, it takes no rise from outward things, whate’er you may believe. There is an inmost centre in us all, where truth abides in fullness...”

Unitarians have similarly emphasised the primacy of inner truth over external authority, and the importance of discovering it for ourselves, so that we can relate to the world authentically with enlightened reason and conscience.

The various spiritual traditions teach a range of meditational practices for discovering the truth within ourselves. In the Christian tradition, for example, there is contemplative prayer, and in Buddhism vipassana (insight meditation), and there are similar practices taught by the Sufi’s, Hindu yogi’s, Taoists, and shamens, each prescribing methods for undertaking a psychological journey through the layers of the human psyche to the ‘inmost centre’

Spiritual guides emphasise the need for sustained courage and faith in those who undertake this journey of self-exploration, for it is a difficult path through the Dark Nights of the soul, in which the person discovers disturbing tendencies and inclinations arising from deep, unconscious roots of ego-attachment. But commitment to the process of self-inquiry brings rewards. As fearful attachments to the ego are progressively dissolved, there is a growing sense of freedom to live and love and relate to the world in a new way.
A deep truth about our humanity comes more clearly to consciousness as the inquiry continues, that beyond the suffering of ego-loss are the eternal springs of Wisdom and Love at the inmost centre – that God, the Tao, Buddhahood, Brahma (whatever cultural form we choose to point to it) is the source and ground of our humanity and that this is the Life that will freely flow through us when the “self” has been surrendered. Meditation is the practice of progressively peeling off layers of the ego so that who I truly am can come to fullness.”

“Some tend the tree of life” by Patrick Murfin

Some water the Tree of life,
Nurturing its enveloping branches, which
cast a cool and welcoming shade when a
blazing sun threatens to scorch and sere our

Some gather the audacious blossoms of
lavender and crimson, azure and vermilion
To spread before the feet of the abject and
abandoned whose bare soles have known
nothing but thorns and stones.

Some glean the windfall fruit, abused and
And by the alchemy of love bring us tarts
and pies, fritters and puddings, jams and
nectars beyond imagination.

Some take the inevitable autumn drop,
melancholy ochre tumbling in foreboding
And do not smudge the sky with their funeral
pyres, but turn mulch to humus and
nourishment for another season.

Some tend the Tree of Life, and we are their
grateful heirs.

“The Tree of Life: The Falcon and The Dove” by Herbert Read

My own attitude towards death has never been one of fear …
My favourite symbol is the Tree of Life.
The human race is the trunk and branches of this tree and
individual men and women are the leaves, which appear one
season, flourish for a summer, and then die.

I am like a leaf of this tree and one day I shall decay and fall
and become a pinch of compost about its roots.
But meanwhile I am conscious of the tree’s flowing sap and
steadfast strength.

Deep down in my consciousness is the consciousness of a
collective life, a life of which I am a part and to which I
contribute a minute but unique extension.

When I die and fall, the tree remains, nourished to some small
degree by my brief manifestation of life.
Millions of leaves have preceded me and millions will follow me;
the tree itself grows and endures.

From "Stirring the Oatmeal" by Robert Johnson

Many years ago a wise friend gave me a name for human love. She called it "stirring-the-oatmeal" love. She was right: Within this phrase, if we will humble ourselves enough to look, is the very essence of what human love is, and it shows us the principal differences between human love and romance.

Stirring the oatmeal is a humble act-not exciting or thrilling. But it symbolizes a relatedness that brings love down to earth. It represents a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, living within a budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night. To "stir the oatmeal" means to find the relatedness, the value, even the beauty, in simple and ordinary things, not to eternally demand a cosmic drama, an entertainment, or an extraordinary intensity in everything. Like the rice hulling of the Zen monks, the spinning wheel of Gandhi, the tent making of Saint Paul, it represents the discovery of the sacred in the midst of the humble and ordinary.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Wounded Healer

A friend recently sent me the following by Rachel Naomi Remen. It came at a time when I seemed to hearing the phrase "The Wounded Healer" quite a lot. It chimes with many of my recent thoughts...

“We all can influence the life source. The tools and strategies of healing are so innate, so much a part of a common human birthright, that we believers in technology pay very little attention to them. But they have lost none of their power.

“People have been healing each other since the beginning. Long before there were surgeons, psychologists, oncologists, and internists, we were there for each other. The healing of our present woundedness may lie in recognizing and reclaiming the capacity we all have to heal each other, the enormous power in the simplest of human relationships; the strength of a touch, the blessing of forgiveness, the grace of someone else taking you just as you are and finding in you an unsuspected goodness.

“Everyone alive has suffered. It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our own experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal. Becoming expert has turned out to be less important than remembering and trusting the wholeness in myself and everyone else. Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. Only other wounded people can understand what is needed, for the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.”

From “Kitchen Table Wisdom” by Rachel Naomi Remen

I’ve been hearing the phrase the wounded healer a lot recently. It perhaps sounds a little strange and maybe it is. There are those who say that you must be healed yourself before you can hope to help others, otherwise you will pour out your pain onto those you are trying to help. I understand this perspective and I see some truth in it and yet somehow the fear, the lack of faith, in it seems to miss the point. If you wait until you are whole, until you are perfect before being of use to others you may be waiting a long time, until eternity.

My understanding of my self, my own suffering and healing and my observations and experiences with others has shown me that we are all wounded to some degree, we all have cracks within us. Nobody is perfect and who would want to be. In fact I have discovered that it is our very wounds and imperfections that put us into a better position to help others come to terms with who they are. Our own woundedness helps to breed empathy and understanding. Who amongst us is not wounded in some way? Who amongst us does not bear the scars of life? And because we are wounded does this mean we cannot help others? I believe that the opposite is true. It is our very wounds and the scars formed from them that makes us better able to help others heal from their own wounds.

The ancient Greeks understood the power of the “Wounded Healer”. Their mythology tells the story of Chiron, a wise and benevolent centaur and a master of healing.

During one of his adventures Heracles (known as Hercules in Roman Mythology) visited the cave of Chiron. He had been invited to a gathering there. Now as we all know it is impolite to attend a party without bringing something for other guests and so Heracles brought along a flask of extremely potent wine. Now the smell of the wine attracted many of the other centaurs who began to fight over it, nothing much has changed over the centuries it seems. During the melee Chiron was accidently wounded on the knee by an arrow shot by Heracles. Now this was no ordinary arrow, it was poison tipped; this was no ordinary poison either it had come from the Hydra a monster with many heads that was virtually impossible to slay. Now while Chiron could show Heracles how to heal the wound caused by the arrows tip, he could not treat the Hydra’s poison. As he was immortal it could not kill him but neither could he fully recover from the wound. He would have to live on into eternity with his wounded knee. Chiron the greatest of healers could show others how they could heal, but he could never fully recover from this wound. His wound would always show. So he walked on into eternity limping. Chiron is the archetype of the wounded healer.

“The Wounded Healer” was one of the most important archetypes identified by Carl Jung. He viewed Chiron as the ultimate example of how we can all overcome the pain of our own suffering by becoming compassionate teachers and show others how they too can transcend their own pain. You see the wounded healer is someone who has gone through great suffering and learnt from the experience. Through transcending their own suffering they are drawn towards the path of service leading them to help others. This process strips away the selfish ego-based feeling of being alone and isolated in their own suffering and woundedness. Instead through seeing the wound through different eyes they can see this suffering in others and they can therefore lead others to find ways to overcome their own suffering. Their wounds may never fully heal, as Chiron’s didn’t, but they can help heal the wider ailments of humanities shared life.

The question this brings to my mind is how do we create environments where the wounded healer can operate?

In his book “The Wounded Healer”, Henri Nouwen envisioned the creation of religious communities that could become a safe haven where people could be open and honest about their own woundedness, their suffering and loneliness; a safe haven where through recognising ones pain, healing and recovery could begin. Nouwen wrote that people today are “Semitic nomads…(who) live in a desert with many lonely travellers who are looking for a moment of peace, for a fresh drink and for a sign of encouragement so that they can continue their mysterious search for freedom.” I can really relate to this. One of the reason I became a part of a Unitarian community was for this very reason. Spirituality on an individual level is fine, but it only really comes alive in community as we search for healing and understanding together. Everyone is wounded in one way or another and everyone is looking for healing and understanding at one level or another, even if they are not entirely sure what from. We are all looking for love, understanding, acceptance and meaning. We are the religious animal, to deny this is to deny an important aspect of our shared humanity. None of us though are the experts, I've not yet found anyone with all the answers and I for one am grateful that the Unitarian tradition recognises this. This is why people need to come together in community, to ask questions, seek answers and find ways to heal ourselves and one another. By coming together in our shared suffering we can breed empathy and live more compassionately.

This brings to mind a quote I read on my Facebook feed this week by the Buddhist Pema Chodron;

“The Places that Scare You”

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

So how do we begin to heal, to live whole lives? Well first of all we need to know our own pain our own darkness and to not be afraid to show our scars. I always remember the scene from “Jaws” when the great white shark hunters are going out to face the man killer and they begin to drink and sing sea shanties and of course show one another their scars. The scars are marks of experience of having lived the lives of shark hunters.

Now I know that this is an extremely macho setting but I think there is something in it for everyone. Our scars our wounds are symbols of the lives we have lived and we ought not to be afraid to show them. Not in some form of vainglory but as symbol of our shared humanity. To show we have lived and have healed from our wounds, although not without one or two scars.

Sadly there is a growing tendency in our age to cover up our imperfections our blemishes. Some even go as far as having intricate tattoos on their skin to cover up past physical wounds. These though are only superficial and do not really cover up the lives we have lived. Neither do they offer much to others, as we remain locked in our own shame about our own only too human imperfections. As beautiful as the tattoos can be I see a greater beauty in what lies behind the scars.

We are all wounded and we all carry the scars of our wounds, no matter how hard we try to cover them up. These wounds aren't always physical either. they can be be emotional, spiritual and mental too.

Now please do not get me wrong I am not attempting to romanticise suffering here. I know how destructive it can be. I spent enough of my life attempting to flee from it. I am aware of how destructive it can be to people and whole societies. It can lead to anger and deep rooted bitterness.

The point I am trying to make is that our suffering can be transformed. If we allow it to be our suffering can become a powerful force for the development of compassion and empathy. We all suffer and by understanding this it ought to bring us closer to one another and lead us to a place of deeper understanding and healing.

Healing can come, so long as we do not hide from our suffering. The key I believe is to uncover the wounds and get down to what is deep within them. By doing so we may just uncover deeper resources that can bring healing to ourselves and others; by doing so we can tap into that greater reality that lies at the core of everything.

Experience has revealed to me that there exists an inner most place at the core of each of us, that is at the core of all life. By understanding our own woundedness we can tap into this and we can then become better able to serve one another. This is a place of healing that remains untouched by our physical wounds. It is the holy of holies. It is that aspect of each of us that is made in the image of the Divine, the Atman, the Real Self, the Soul, the Divine Spark, the Buddha Nature, that aspect of God in everyone. Jung called this the archetype of the Self and believed that this wonderful healing resource was there deep within us waiting to be mined at any moment.

Experience has revealed to me the truth of Jung's discoveries. I believe that it is our task to unearth this true self and to let it out into our lives and to share it with our brothers and sisters in the communities we inhabit. When we do so we can begin to transform our woundedness and we can bring healing beyond our personal pain and suffering. Surely this is the whole point, to bring about connection and not to simply escape all pain and suffering. We all have the potential, the capacity to heal. It is our very woundedness that qualifies us for the task.

In many ways this is why I became a minister of religion; this is why I became a Unitarian minister, because I believe that this free religious tradition has at its core this belief that community can bring healing and wholeness to all. We say "All are welcome here, come as you are, exactly as you are, but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition." surely this is our primary task, our primary purpose. If it is not then why else do we exist? Our communities I believe are not merely here to serve the individuals present within them, but also the wider human community. We are free religious communities. We do not say that you must believe this or that to commune here with us. We say "come as you are exactly as you," but we also say, "but do not expect to leave in the same condition." I know in my time amongst Unitarians I have never left in exactly the same condition. We are here to bring wholeness and not merely freedom.

We are not perfect, but then what in life is. We all bear the scars of life, some inflicted by others and some by own hands. I have discovered that it is only by accepting and fully understanding this that we make ourselves better able to help others come to terms with who they are and live a life of service for the good of all.

I am yet to meet a perfect person anywhere in life, including the communities I serve or have been a part of. That said I have met some of the most beautiful people on God's earth during my time amongst the Unitarians. I like to call them the beautifully strange, or perhaps the strangely beautiful.

We are all beautiful in our own unique ways, but nobody is perfect. By fully understanding and accepting this we can begin to invite other, perfectly imperfect beautiful souls into our lives and by doing we so we might just find ways to bring wholeness to our lives and the lives of all our brothers and sister.

Henri Nouwen wrote “We do not know where we will be two, ten or twenty years from now. What we can know, however, is that human beings suffer and that a sharing of suffering can make us move forward.” By sharing our suffering we can begin to move forward and it is this that can begin to bring about the healing and wholeness that we are all searching for, we are hoping for. This can grow from within each of us as we commune together, work together and do the works of compassion that our wounded world needs. We can begin it today, it begins in our own hearts. We are all “The Wounded Healers.”

I will end this little piece with the following beautiful words by Pesah Gertler

"The Healing Time"

Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy

Saturday, 19 April 2014

From Nothing to Everything: An Easter Reflection

I was recently sent the following on Easter . It struck a chord with me. It got me thinking of the empty tomb, the first symbol of Easter; it got me thinking of love once again coming to life from the emptiness; it got me thinking of the journey from nothing to everything.

"The Tomb is Empty" by Carl Scovel

If the truth of Easter has eluded you, maybe the simple wisdom of this story will bring the wonder of the holiday into your heart.

"An Episcopal Bishop once told me a story about Easter that has stayed with me for many years. It seems that a fourth grade religious education teacher in the Alabama church that he served was trying to explain the Easter story to her children and told them the story of the empty tomb. Then she gave each of them a plastic shell, the kind that pantyhose used to come in. She asked the children to return next Sunday with something in that shell that reminded them of the empty tomb.

On the next Sunday they opened their eggs. One had a flower, one had a tiny felt bunny, one had a small picture of Jesus. Eventually they came to a boy who was mentally retarded. He was older than most of the children because he had been held back for two years. He knew it and the other children knew it. They were uncomfortable with him and avoided him, occasionally mocking him behind the teacher’s back.

When his turn came, he opened his shell and there was nothing inside. The other children snickered. The boy said something rather incoherent, trying to explain his presentation, and the teacher listened carefully to him. Then she looked up to the others and said, “He means the empty tomb.” The boy, of course, had gotten it.

The empty place is the first site and symbol of Christian faith, an absence rather than a presence, and with that space and absence comes a sense that the world is not as simple as we imagine it. For all its laws and patterns, the world still has surprises.

Who could have guessed that a community of martyrs and witnesses would come out of this tiny ragtag group of confused, abandoned followers? Who would have guessed that a man who was choked to death on a stake would become the center of a worldwide religion? Who would have guessed that the power of his message lives today?

Who could have guessed what would come out of an empty tomb?"

This is what Easter is built upon the empty tomb. In the account in Mark’s Gospel when the women go to the tomb and find it empty they flee in terror and say nothing. The real miracle is in what follows, the power of love that comes to life from nothingness, from the emptiness.

This is something we can all surely relate to at one time or another this sense of losing everything, of everything being lost. This though is the essence of the whole Easter Mythos that love can once again grow from the nothingness, from the emptiness. That abundant love can once again grow in our own hearts and our own spirits and that we can incarnate this in our own lives. That this love can be poured out onto our world that so desperately needs it, as much today as when they found the tomb empty some two thousand years ago.

This is our task I believe, our religious task, to once again bring the love that was so evidently present in the life of Jesus alive once again in our oh so human flesh. We can do it, we do not have to be afraid, we do not need to flee in fear, we just need courage gentle courage and this will sustain us. We just need to fill the empty tomb with that abundant love that is present in all life, fill it to overflowing and then let it pour out in all of life…

Easter is a symbol of hope, but I do not see it as an end point. Easter as I see it is the beginning of hope. It is the symbol of love once again coming into life. Carl J. Nelson speaks nearly perfectly of this in the following reflection.

“The Dividend’s of One’s Hope” by Carl J. Nelson

"If nothing else. Easter is a season celebrating the dividend’s of one’s hope. It is not a celebration of hope itself, but of its first fruits – early blooming flowers, budding trees, returning birds. Endlessly without fail, the natural world renews itself following the barrenness of winter.

And too, in the less tangible world of human emotions, we are periodically renewed. Out of tragedy often comes a chastened spirit; out of hate, an ability to love. Beneath the myth and ceremonies of every land and culture, this seems to be the message of the season. Take heart! For hope inevitably will bring about a springtime in the human spirit."

There is something deeply universal about Easter. There is something in its spirit that can speak to all people in every culture at every time and in every place. It points to those moments in all our lives when something deeper within us comes to life, or perhaps it comes back to life. If we truly enter into what is at the core of Easter, its spirit, it can bring us to a deeper understanding of life right here, right now, in our world.

It is possible to celebrate Easter without having to believe in the actual resurrection of the body of Jesus, which is of course the traditional Christian view. You can believe in Easter without having to accept the uniqueness of Jesus’ resurrection. There is something deeply universal in the spirit of Easter that has the capacity to awaken everyone’s spirit regardless of whether or not they believe every aspect of the Gospel accounts.

Easter can also be understood as the festival of the renewal of life that comes at springtime; Easter can be seen as the resurrection of the earth after the seeming death of winter. These last few weeks you surely have all felt powerfully this deep sense of the renewal of life. The other evening I could both feel and smell this powerfully in the air. There is a real electricity in the air at springtime. Now of course the renewal of the seasons is recognised in the pre-Christian roots of our Easter celebrations. The word Easter is after all derived from “Eostre” the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of spring; the goddess of fertility and renewal. Rather like much of the Christmas rituals and traditions many of our Easter ones are a mixture of Christian and Pagan principles.

The Easter “mythos” can also be seen as the triumph of the human spirit over all that would crush it, even death itself. This triumph also has pre-Christian roots, such as the Jewish “Passover” which of course Jesus and his disciples were commemorating on what has become known as Maundy Thursday. In Latin speaking countries Easter is known as “Pascha” or similar words that are derived directly from “Pesach”.

Jesus’ resurrection is a powerful example of love overcoming death; a perfect example of the spirit of love living on even after physical death. I think it is impossible to argue that the spirit that was in Jesus did not live on after his bodily death. The spirit of love that incarnated in his life has survived all that we have done to it these last 2,000 years as we have remembered him, rather badly.

All love lives on, all we have to do to bring it once again to life is remember those who have touched our hearts and souls. What has been bound into one another’s hearts cannot be unbound. Love is stronger than death. This for me above everything else is the universal “mythos” that is at the root of Easter. A festival for everyone.

Easter is for everyone, all we need do is open our hearts to the universal “mythos” and its spirit will once again be born in us.

I believe that it is our task to once again bring that love to life. Love born again from that empty tomb. This truly a journey from nothing to everything. I believe that it is our human task to bring life to life in our world right here right now, to begin build the commonwealth of love, right here right now...

It begins in our own empty tombs, let us roll our own stones away and let love once again incarnate in our lives...In all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do...

I will end this little blogspot with a prayer by Victoria Weinstein

“Being the Resurrection”

"The stone has got to be rolled back from the tomb again and again every year.
Roll up your sleeves.

He is not coming back, you know.
He is not coming back unless it is we who rise for him
We who lay healing hands on the reviled and rejected like he did
on his behalf --
We who rage for righteousness in his insistent voice
We who love the sinner, even knowing that "the sinner" is no farther off than our own heartbeat

He will not be back to join us at the table
To share God's extravagant banquet
God's love feast, all are invited, come as you are
And so it is you and I who must feast for him
Must say the grace and break the bread and pass it to the left
and dish up the broiled fish (or pour the wine) and pass it to the right.
And treat each one so tenderly
as though just this morning she or he made the personal effort
to make it back from heaven, or from hell
but certainly from death
to be by our side.

Because if by some miracle (and why not a miracle?)
He did come back
Wouldn't he want to see us like this?
Wouldn't it be a miracle to live for just one day
So that if he did, by some amazing feat
come riding into town
He could take a look around and say
"This is what I meant!"

And we could say
it took us a long time...
but we finally figured it out.

Oh, let us live to make it so.

You are the resurrection and the life."


Saturday, 12 April 2014

We Are Formed From Love: A Palm Sunday Reflection

Last Sunday I led the evening service at Dukinfield Old Chapel, it is the last time I will do so as their services will soon be moving to the afternoon. During the sermon one of the many things I talked about was something I had done, a mistake I had made that had hurt someone and how it still, to some degree, makes me wince when I think of it. Now it was only for a few brief seconds in the address that I mentioned this and yet as the congregation were leaving one of those in attendance reminded me that we are all human and we all make mistakes and that we should forgive ourselves for our all too human mistakes. As she spoke I smiled, just another reminder that often it is the congregations I serve, however irregularly, that minister to me and not the other way round. I have lost count of the times that people have said things to me that have touched that deep place, in the marrow of my soul.

As I was driving home that evening I became enchanted by the powerfully dramatic sky. It was electric, there was definitely something in the air that evening. I could smell it, I could taste it, so powerful, so alive. As I drove back to Altrincham I felt myself deeply touched and moved by the whole evening and as I did I felt a sensation wash all over me as I thought of forgiveness and our common humanity. I can usually forgive others, but sometimes I find it difficult to forgive myself for my all too human mistakes, especially if what I have said or done, or failed to say or do has let down and or hurt someone I care deeply about.

I know I am not alone in this. I have heard similar things from friends and loved ones these last few days. I have heard those who mean much to me giving themselves a hard time about their oh so very human imperfections.

Today “Palm Sunday” marks the beginning of the holiest of holy weeks in the Christian calendar. Today is the beginning of “Holy Week”. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Christianity and what it means to me. I know several Unitarian congregations have been holding courses during Lent asking what Easter means to them. I myself have been attending the Lent Breakfast courses hosted by Churches Together in Urmston and lead one session exploring “Jesus Our Teacher”. It got me thinking about what Christianity means to me? There is so much that does speak to me, but then again there is much in other traditions too, both ancient, modern and post-modern that speaks to me too. I am a Universalist in every sense of the word. That said at this time of year I feel compelled to look at Jesus, his teachings as well as his passion and death and how that can bring meaning to my life and I hope the lives of those I minister to.

Central to Christianity is this concept of love incarnating in human form. Now it seems clear that this occurred in the life of Jesus as it is told in the Gospels. My main argument with traditional Christian orthodoxy is the view that this occurred only in one form and at one point in human history. This I find impossible to accept. I only have to look at my life and I know I have experienced this love in the lives of so many other people. I can think of several people who through their love and example have not only changed my life, but truly saved it. I have seen the word become flesh and dwell amongst us many times in my life, I have become aware of it again only this week. I believe that we all have the capacity to become channels of the divine in this life. We can all incarnate love in our very being. Sadly all too often we fail to do so; all too often we fall short and we betray one another. This aspect of our humanity becomes all too clear in the narrative of Holy week.

On Palm Sunday Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on the back of a humble donkey and is received by the crowds waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna, hosanna in the highest heaven” The crowds welcome Jesus who they believe will save him. This though does not happen and just a few days later he is betrayed, rejected, brutalised and killed. The body is killed, the figure dies, but the love that is left behind lives on. It is this love that I believe is the true Easter story; a love that can live on and once again incarnate in the lives of all people.

The Palm Sunday narrative is not just about Jesus it is also about the crowd and all the people around him. People just like you and me. We can all get caught up in the crowd mentality can we not? I did myself in a meeting I attended recently. I went along with something I wasn’t wholly in agreement with. I didn’t have the energy or inclination to voice my objections at that moment. I was new to the group and felt I’d already said more than I ought too. That said I probably should have spoken up and may well live to regret not doing so. Although I must ensure that I do not give myself too hard a time about this.

Now while the world we live in today is very different to that experienced by the crowd on Palm Sunday, this should not mean we cannot identify with the people there. We share a common humanity with them; we are all formed from the same breath of life; we all have the Divine spark within us; well at least I believe that we do. We are not God’s. We are fully human just like those folk on the side of the street waving their palms grateful for any reason to celebrate. People are always looking for something to celebrate, doesn’t seem to matter what this is. I can certainly see myself in them. And just like them we all fall short, we get bogged down in little and bigger things; just like them we are finite creatures; just like them we are looking for hope, to lift us out of suffering, to take us to better things; just like them we are looking for someone or something to lead us to better things, to give us another chance to live better lives.

How many times have we fallen short, messed up and wished we could live up to our ideals? Well we can. Or at least we can if we forgive ourselves for the all too human mistakes we all make.

I was recently sent the following words by Maya Angelou on forgiveness, words that strike deep into my soul:

“I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes – it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you, when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white, or too poor, or too fat or too thin, or too sexual or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don’t have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.”

Words as a minister it is vital I take heed of...

So what is that holds us back? What is that stops us being the loving people that we can be?

When I listen to some people what I witness is this need to find forgiveness to start all over again, they are looking for someone or something to redeem them, to set them free. Isn’t that what those people who waved those palms on that day were celebrating “The redeemer who would set them free”. I wonder what that might mean for we who live today?

Well maybe it's about learning to forgive ourselves for those mistakes we make. Maybe its about truly learning to love ourselves "warts and all" and beauty spots too of course; maybe It's about learning to live by the ultimate commandment; maybe it's about being set free to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. We need to learn to love ourselves; we need to see clearly our own glory in the mirror looking back at us; we need to learn to see what we are capable of being.

I believe that we all keep the "Golden Rule", the commandment to "love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The problem is of course that so few of us truly love ourselves. I know I don't always love myself. Sometimes when I look back at that man in the mirror I do not feel love for him. I wish this were not the case, but some days it is.

Just like those citizens of Jerusalem in the story we too can feel love starved; we too can find ourselves seeking someone to redeem us and set us free from our perceived loveless state; we too can find ourselves seeking someone who we will see us as more than we see ourselves who we believe can give us the love we so desperately seek; we too can believe that if someone can love us that we too can then be acceptable. Why do we find it so hard to see that we are children born from love? Why is that so hard to accept? Why do we find this so hard to believe?

Maybe the problem for some of us is that we measure ourselves against perfection, this image of Jesus.

It is very difficult to measure ourselves against Jesus, especially if we see him as the one and only incarnation of Divine Love on earth, as God. How can that help us? How can we learn to live the life he spoke of if we cannot live up to who he was, because he was something that we can never be.

I suspect that by seeing Jesus as different from us leads to us not seeing that same divine breath within ourselves.We need to be able to see that we are all children of love, we need to be able see our own glory in the mirror, to me this is vital if we are to live the lives that we are capable of living and become the people we are capable of becoming. I believe that by doing so we can become lights to others and thus inspire them to do the same. It is vital that we see that spirit that was so clearly in Jesus in one another, especially that person looking back at us in the mirror.

By doing so we can begin to recognise that we are children of love, children of worth and children of value, who stumble and fall from time to time. We sometimes fail and even betray all that is loving and beautiful in our lives. We should not despair at this though. If we recognise what we are made of we can once again rise like the spring does from winter and like love did from the empty Easter cave. We too, can begin again in love, but only if we truly accept that we are children of love, formed from that same breath of love that forms all life.

Here lays the essence of the story of Palm Sunday and the week that follows that leads to the new beginning that is Easter. We can begin again we can start anew, we can forgive and be forgiven for our very human mistakes and shortcomings, for our betrayals of love however it manifests in this our imperfect world. It means that we will get things wrong sometimes, lots of times, but that, if we pay attention, maybe next time, we’ll do better. The Palm Sunday story means that, if we work at it, we can see our own glory in the mirror; it means we can see what we’re capable of being; it means we can recognise that we truly are children of love; it means that we can begin again in love.

Blessed are those who come in the name of the Lord. Blessed are those who come in the name of redemption. Blessed are those who come in the name of forgiveness. And Blessed are those who come in the name of love.

May we be the blessed ones and may we bring those blessing into life…in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

A Journey of One Inch: Living in the Layers

"A Spiritual Journey"

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.

by Wendell Berry

I went to bed last Saturday night not sure how I was going to spend my Sunday off. I’d had a lovely few days away with friends and family and was now happily back at home. I awoke on Sunday morning and instinctively knew what I needed to do. It was “Mothering Sunday” and I thought to myself, today I will keep “Mothering Sunday” and return to the Mother Church and so I set off into Manchester to Cross Street Chapel. Cross Street Chapel is the place that I had discovered the Unitarian tradition, almost by accident, one cold January in 2005.

If it was an accident it was a beautiful one by the way as a whole series of seeming coincidences conspired to bring me to that place at that time in my life. some would call it synchronicity, well maybe, maybe not...I give thanks and praise everyday that it happened...despite the suffering that has accompanied the joy...

As I drove into town, tears began to form and fall from my eyes as memories of times past grew from my soul. Times connected with Cross Street and the people I had known there and of course memories of my own family and friends. I remembered those I have loved and lost in recent times and over the last few years. I remembered the “Mothering Sunday” service in 2006, which Ethan had participated in, just a few months before he was killed. I remembered how much his short life had given to me, both on a human and spiritual level. I thought of his mother, my dear friend Claire and her own journey since his death. I remembered my former ministers both John and all he had given to me and of course dear Jane whose funeral I had attended only a couple of weeks previously. I also had memories of the “Old Lad” (my grandad) as well as “Our Allen” and other people who had touched my life and who are no longer physically a part of it. As I wept and drove I felt a real sense of release coming through my body and the spirit move within as another layer of skin around my soul began to loosen. I thought of The Clash song “Gootta lose this skin, that I’m imprisoned in, gotta lose this skin.” Sung by Tymon Dogg.

It was a moving, thought provoking, service led by the student minister Ralph Catt’s; it was lovely to worship with some faces old and new. As I drove home that afternoon those words of Wendell Berry's poem "A Spiritual Journey" came up from my heart and into my mind. I felt that I understood, maybe for the first time, that the spiritual journey is not really one of length, but one of depth. It’s not really about physically going anywhere and yet the landscape or at least ones perception of it seems to constantly change. We do not need to blast into space to enter a new world. We do not need to enter outer space; what we need to do is learn to truly inhabit the inner space; we need to learn to be at home, to belong here; we need to learn to live in the layers of our own lives. That’s the real journey.

Now no doubt the Wendell Berry poem is inspired by the Christian mystic Meister Ekhart.It was he who claimed that the spiritual journey is not one of distance, that we do not so much travel on a physical pilgrimage from A to B to C to D etc, that the spiritual journey is some kind of linear progression in which we reach some goal, some new state of being way over there in some distant realm. No instead we discover new truths, understandings and experiences as we journey through life in a cyclical sense and that as we do so we move deeper into the layers of our own being and find ourselves at home in the layers of our own lives.

John O’Donohue claimed that

“Meister Eckhart radically revises the whole notion of spiritual programs. He says that there is no such thing as a spiritual journey. If a little shocking, this is refreshing. If there were a spiritual journey, it would be only a quarter inch long, though many miles deep. It would be a swerve into rhythm with your deeper nature and presence. The wisdom here is so consoling. You do not have to go away outside yourself to come into real conversation with your soul and with the mysteries of the spiritual world. The eternal is at home — within you.” (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: a Book of Celtic Wisdom)

O’Donohue further claims that sometimes we don’t see what is already here, what is within us. This is because we have become too familiar with our own surroundings and that this has lead to us losing our sense of belonging. This is why we search out there beyond, because we fail to recognise this sense of belonging within ourselves and our own surroundings and experiences. It is the very familiarity that is the problem. Therefore we need to dig deeper within the layers of our own being in order to see through the façade.

He states that:

“One of the difficulties for people, in awakening to their inner world is the familiarity of their lives. They find it hard to find something that is really new and interesting and adventurous in themselves and yet everything that we really need for our journey here has already been given to us. So there's a great strangeness in the shadows of our soul world, that we should become more conversant with and closer to.”

Last week on returning home I became aware that something had changed both within myself and in my relationships with my nearest and dearest. The familiar seemed less recognizable and as a result I was able to bear witness to everything with new vision; as a result I was able to hear everyone and everything with a deeper clarity; as a result I seemed to understand all that is in a new light; as a result I experienced a deeper intimacy with everything and everyone.

It seems that I have gone down deeper into the layers of my own soul and the soul of life and more has been revealed. What once seemed familiar seemed oh so different. This did not frighten me, far from it. Instead I felt excited by this and felt more at home both in my own skin and the world that I live within. It feels like the beginning of a new adventure and yet one that does not require me to walk down a different road.

And yet while everything felt so new there was still an abiding sense of the familiar too. I noticed a deepening sense of connection to my own past and a deeper understanding of who I am, who I have always been. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot of in recent weeks, as a deeper intimacy with who I am, past, present and even future has developed. I wonder sometimes, when speaking of spiritual matters, if we focus too much on the moment and in doing so if we lose this sense of the richness of our whole lives. It brought to mind a quote I recently came across by Stanley Kunitz

“I think it's important for one's survival to keep the richness of the life always there to be tapped. One doesn't live in the moment, one lives in the whole history of your being, from the moment you became conscious.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Rev Jane Barraclough, these last few weeks, as I have grieved her death. Obviously she came into my consciousness while I worshipped at Cross Street Chapel last Sunday. One thing that Jane’s ministry awakened within me was a love for poetry, especially in worship. This is something I will always treasure. When I qualified as a minister she gave me a book as a gift. The book is “Soul Food: Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds” Edited by Neil Astley & Pamela Robertson-Pearce. I have used many poems from it these last three and a half years. She wrote a dedication in the book “For dearest Danny. All blessings on your many ministries. Love Jane.” She knew me well and understood my many ministries.

In the book is the poem “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz.

“The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The poem was written at a pivotal moment in Kunitz’s long career. He believed that it spoke of something that was central to his whole experience of being a poet and a person. He wrote it in response to a personal crisis. He had suffered several grief’s, including his mother and two older sisters as well as several dear friends. It was a written at a time of change in his life, both personally and as a writer. He stated that

“. . . I wrote 'The layers' in my late seventies to conclude a collection of sixty years of my poetry. . . Through the years I had endured the loss of several of my dearest friends, including Theodore Roethke, Mark Rothko, and - most recently - Robert Lowell. I felt I was near the end of a phase in my life and in my work. The poem began with two lines that came to me in a dream, spoken out of a dark cloud: 'Live in the layers, not on the litter.”

“Live in the layers, not on the litter.” There is some beautiful wisdom here...I wonder from where it came...

In many ways this simple line may well be the key to everything, to live in the layers of our lives, the whole of our lives. So often we want to move on and leave behind the litter, the mess, the pain and the suffering, but to do so is to fail to bear witness to our whole lives. I believe that we have to live in our whole lives, we can’t just pick and choose and no matter how hard we try we can’t really leave our lives behind.

Kunitz was an avid gardener and maybe it is from this love that the idea of the layers grew. In horticulture “layering” is a method of propagation that brings forth new life from the dying or broken stem. This allows new roots to form and therefore life goes, or do I mean grows, on.

We cannot live on the brokenness of our lives, but we can grow anew from the litter if we live within the layers. We cannot completely begin anew, nor should we want too; we cannot leave behind was has gone before, nor should we want too; we cannot escape who we are, nor should we want too. The spiritual journey is not one of distance it is one of depth, it’s about finding ourselves at home in the ground at our feet. It’s about living in the layers.

The spiritual journey is not one of distance, but one of depth. It will at times appear arduous and painful and it will certainly be humbling as we are brought to our knees by the suffering that is a part of life. And yet from this very suffering we will re-awaken once again, like the new spring. It is this that opens us and it is this that brings the joy of living once again. It is this that will bring us home, to greater sense of belonging to all that has been, all that is now and will ever be. It is this that breeds deeper intimacy with ourselves, with those who we share life with and with the eternal spirit, that I name God.

So I say let us continue “in” our journey, let us “live in the layers”

Let’s sing the joy of living in all its mystery and invite others to come and join us in song, for they too can begin again to belong.

Let’s “Live in the layers, not on the litter.”