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.

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