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.

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