Saturday, 21 June 2014

Radical Amazement

Every Sunday when I wake and prepare myself for leading worship I never know exactly what I’m letting myself in for, that said I have a better idea than the congregations I serve. As I take my seat in the worship space and quietly prepare myself I often look at those present and wonder what they have brought with themselves; I wonder what has been occurring in their lives, what joys and struggles are presently with them; I wonder what they are expecting from me that morning and if it will help them in anyway. I always hope that when they leave and return to their lives and the world outside of our windows, that they do so enriched in some way. My hope is that in some way a part of us all has been opened up to what it is to be alive and awake and fully human. That in some we have deepened our connection to ourselves, to one another, to life itself and to that eternal spirit that runs through it all, that I name God. It’s a risky business creating and leading worship, although I know it’s an even riskier one entrusting someone each week to lead you in it. I offer thanks and praise each week that people come and join and engage in this risky business with me…I offer thanks and praise that people open their hearts and minds and souls with me.

I’m often amazed by the feelings that life brings. They are always a mixed bag. The blessings and curses of “choosing life”, to paraphrase Moses. I felt some changes towards the end of last week, like something had shifted once again. I had taken a few days off and I suspect that my soul and body had once again re-aligned. Never a comfortable process, but always a beautiful one.

To be alive, to be human really is an amazing thing; to be alive to be here, is an amazing thing. We can go all over the world, we can blast off into space and look at all that is life and explore millions of galaxies and gaze at the wonder of it all and yet still miss the truly amazing thing, that we as people truly exist at all. Now some might call that the eighth wonder, but I say to you that it is the one true wonder and the one from which all other wonder extends from. How often do we stop and sense and truly feel that we are alive. Isn’t it amazing that we exist at all.

I feel like a child again; I feel amazed by it all again; I feel awake once again.

Life amazes me, constantly. Despite all the darkness and destruction that is present, that can overwhelm it all, life and love always seems to find a way through. Like that little shoot that finds its way back to life every spring time, finding its way through all the obstacles in its way, insisting on reaching out beyond and finding life. That amazes me; I find that utterly amazing.

Last week I was chatting away with a friend on facebook messenger when suddenly on my news feed a “Meme” appeared with a beautiful picture and a quote by Abraham Joshua Heschel that read

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Now it’s one of those quotes that I’ve heard before, it does the rounds every now and again, but that day it really struck me. I paused and I listened to the words as they ran through my mind, my heart and my soul…especially the phrases “to be spiritual is to be amazed” and “Our goal should be to live in radical amazement.”

Now what on earth could that mean?

Well before I explore "Radical Amazement"I would like to just briefly tell you a little bit about the author of the quote. Abraham Joshua Heschel was a rabbi and a leading theologian in post war America. He was a contemporary and friend of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr and marched arm in arm with him during the civil rights protests in Selma Alabama, which he described as “praying with his legs” . I have a wonderful little book of his titled “I Asked for Wonder” and I have shared extracts from it in worship over the years. He writes beautifully about the nature of God and Man and the religious life. There is something about his writing that touches soul and spirit in a real “earthy” way. It is deeply spiritual and yet firmly grounded in reality. The concept of “Radical Amazement” is a classic example of this.

“Radical Amazement” captures those moments, those deeply human moments when we find ourselves intensely connected to the mystery and the majesty of existence. Now Heschel is not really talking about the big moments here when we mark life’s achievements. Instead what he is speaking of is what he himself describes as “the common and the simple” those small things that reveal “the infinite significance” of existence. In many ways “radical amazement” is about paying attention and looking deeply at the routine moments of our lives and experiencing just how incredible they are. There are parallels to mindfulness here, but I think there is more to it than that, there is a sense of eye popping awe and wonder in looking through radically amazed eyes. It’s about seeing the miracle in existence. How many of us truly recognise and acknowledge just how amazing it is that we exist at all?

“Radical Amazement” is about looking into the familiar with what Rumi called “fresh eyes”, it’s about recognising that even the most routine moments are in actual fact outrageous. Just think about our existence here on this spinning planet rushing through a universe some 13 billion years old, or so they tell us. We are formed from stardust and yet made from flesh that are homes to entire eco-systems and billions of cells that are neatly balanced so as to allows us to exist, that are constantly altering and changing and adjusting to all that we experience. We who are made from stardust are more than merely stardust though, we are made up of complex thoughts, emotions and experiences and there is a spirit within each of us. We are more than merely our biology; we are more than merely thinking meat. It is amazing and marvellous to truly be who we are.

And when we see life through “fresh eyes” all this that we are made from reacts in positive and powerful ways, something we can feel it with real intensity at times. I strongly believe that there are times when our whole make up responds to the whole of the make-up of the universe and that this occurs every time that we see the miracle in existence, in a new way. Sometimes this blows me away. It is amazing that we exist at all; it’s amazing that everything came from the same nothing.

Bang…and here we are in a fabulous place…what are you gunna do here…in this sacred place, in this sacred time, in these are sacred bodies, in these are sacred lives…

“Radical Amazement” is about looking into life with truly open eyes, it is an ethical act and an intentional decision, it is the ultimate spiritual practise and as such it is one that involves great risk. This is because it opens us up to all that is, as it truly is. This requires courage, because to see the beauty also requires us to see the horror too. This may seem too awful for some, but it is the awe that accompanies vulnerability that is required to be awakened to radical amazement.

Victoria Safford in the meditation “Open Eyes” asks us to

“Think of yourself as a prism made of glass, reflecting everything as it is, unable to exists dishonestly – reflecting beauty where there’s beauty, violence where there’s violence, loveliness and unexpected joy where there is joy, violation where there’s violation.”

To see the world with awakened eyes, fresh eyes, open eyes is look into the life in “Radical Amazement”. It is life as it truly is in its awe filled beauty. It is to truly let life in and to fill us to the brim.

Victoria Safford sees this as refraction, taking in all that is life and thus allowing it to transform us so that we can begin again anew. She calls it holy work as once we are transformed by it we can let is shine out of us in the prism of our ordinary daily actions as we live in life.

She says that

“To see clearly is an act of will and conscience. It will make you very vulnerable. It is persistent, holy, world transforming work."

It seems to me that “Radical Amazement” is how to live and breathe our human spirituality. At its essence spirituality is about being amazed it is about cultivating greater openness and deeper awareness of the beauty, blessing and mystery of life. Now to me this is the essence of my chosen Unitarian faith.

Openness is at the core of my understanding of the Unitarian spiritual tradition. At our best we encourage and celebrate the kind of openness and intentionality that enables “Radical Amazement” to be possible. When I lead worship each week my hope is to encourage, to challenge and to inspire those who join with me to not get stuck in a frame work of belief or un-belief but instead to cultivate their own experiences and see deep within them so as to bring meaning into each of our lives and thus to bring about transformation both within each of us and the world in which we interact and have our being.

Yes it’s a risky business we enter into each week, but one worth engaging in.

I’m going to end this little blogspot with a short anecdote from the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Whenever he gave an evening lecture he would begin with the following words.

"Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just occurred!"

As the audience began to stir in puzzlement, the great theologian would elaborate…

"Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just take place...the sun has gone down."

How often in life do we even take the time to pay attention to the wondrous workings of the Sun and the Earth that sustains all life that enables our existence?

Never mind anything else, isn’t this amazing in and of itself?

Let’s open our eyes and look into the magnificent mystery of life. Let us live with “Radical Amazement”. Let us not lose our sense of wonder at the miracle that is sheer being.

For it truly is a risk worth taking.

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