Sunday, 7 September 2014

Hope & Enthusiasm: A 200th Anniversary Celebration

Today we marked 200 years of our free religious tradition here in the town of Altrincham. 200 years ago they formed this fellowship of love and service in the town and they have continued sailing in it for many generations. They did so in hope and with genuine enthusiasm. I am very aware that today we stand on the shoulders of giants as we look ahead as a free religious faith offering hope to a community and world that does at times seem so divisive…I believe that this free religious tradition that I serve has much to offer our world, as those who came before us did. I live with hope in my heart that we can continue to build on those firm roots that those who came before us planted. A solid trunk grew from those roots and many branches have stretched from it, leading to buds and leaves and fruits that have flowered and nourished so many.

Today we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Unitarian congregation in Altrincham.

We who live today are connected to both the past and the future, we are links in a chain of history. It is our task to do the best we can with this our link in this time and place. We cannot shape the whole world, but we can do something in this our time and place, in full knowledge that this will influence the whole of history…Everything matters you know, every breath, every feeling, every thought, every deed impacts in some way on the chain of life…Everything matters…

The fellowship of love that we sail in today is a place of nurture where the spirit can grow, but not alone. We do not sail this ship alone we do so in community with one another and with that eternal spirit that is present in all life and yet greater than it all. Our tradition is as much about community as it about individual freedom, something that seems lost in modern spirituality, something that is so needed in our time…We come together in love and to grow and flower in that same spirit…

Here we stand on holy ground. Here the spirit has spoken and been heard, just as the burning bush spoke to Moses. Here the Divine can speak to each of us, as it has for generations and encourage us to keep on moving forward to new freedoms. This though is not holy ground because it is especially sacred. No it is holy ground because we consecrate it with our presence and the spirit that grows in and through us, that we bring to this place. Our task here is to increase the holiness and then take it out into our world where the worst aspects of humanity keep on desecrating.

As Wendell Barry so beautifully put it. “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” It is the task of this our free religious faith to nurture the sacredness from which we are formed and to carry that out into our world, through our lives…Everything matters you know, every breath, every feeling, every thought, every deed impacts in some way on the chain of life…Everything matters…

Trees and bushes have been speaking to me all this year, as have the beautiful flowers that grow from them. It really began at the end of last year, at a time of loss and pain in my own life and those I hold most dear. My sister, our Mand, told me of a single rose she had seen right in the midst of winter, both physical winter and a personal winter too. This rose lifted her spirit and as she told me of it, it lifted me too. That winter rose brought hope that love will survive any of the biting frost that can threaten our lives. This year I’ve been seeing roses everywhere, the most beautiful I have ever seen…They have become a symbol of hope to me…“And I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find and I’ll bring a song of love and a rose in the winter time.”

Like absence of love a life lived without hope quickly becomes empty and meaningless. Please do not get me wrong I’m not talking about optimism here, they are not the same. Optimism is about an expectation of something to come, whereas hope is more about allowing something to grow from within. It is a form of love incarnating in life, something that begins in our own hearts. Hope is knowing that something beautiful will grow, even from what feels like the worst kind of suffering. Hope always overcomes despair as meaning emerges from the suffering…To paraphrase Vaclav Havel “ Hope is an orientation of the spirit...It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

Or as Erich Fromm observed “To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime, Those whose hope is weak settle for comfort or for violence; those whose hope is strong see and cherish signs of new life and are ready every moment to help the birth of that which is ready to be born.”

I see symbols of hope every day and I am certainly ready to help bring them to birth. I see them on the side of the road as I drive. Just like "The Tree of Lost Soles" I saw one day travelling to Warrington. A beautiful symbol made from the stump of an old tree and old discarded shoes. A symbol that has stayed with me this year as I see folk coming to life in my midst. All souls can indeed be found and can begin life again. I’ve seen it in the eyes of so many this year. So I live in hope. Why? Because even in the midst of winter a rose can grow and bring hope to all our lives.

So what can we do in our time and place, how do we plant seeds of hope in our time and place? How do we take care of our link in the chain of life, in the chain of history? How can we ready ourselves “to help bring to birth that which is ready to be born”?

Well I believe that it begins with two things. The first is to truly see our world and our shared life as a blessing, as a beautiful gift that we are a part of. This begins by first of all understanding that we too are blessings. We need to let this form and grow in our souls, our hearts and our minds and then bring it to life. We need to be filled with this spirit, to be enthused by it. To be enthusiastic. By the way that’s what enthusiasm means, from entheos to be filled with the spirit, with God. We need to be filled with this spirit and to set it free and begin to consecrate our world once more. We need to let hope become an orientation of our spirit and to bless our world with this enthusiasm. And do you know what if we do our world will become overflowing with roses, even in the depths of winter time.

I’m going to end today with a little story, entitled “Building a Cathedral” (Taken from "Concentration and Compassion" by Bill Darlison)

When the great Cathedral of Chatres was being built in the 13th century, a traveller happened to be passing by the construction site. He was amazed at the number of workers involved in the project and the variety of jobs being done. He approached a carpenter and asked, “What exactly are you doing here?”

“I’m sawing wood, what on earth does it look like I’m doing?” came the curt reply.

The traveller then approached a stonemason and asked him the very same question, to which he replied,

“I’m earning a living, I’ve got a wife and children to support.”

However, a third man, an unskilled worker who looked to be sweeping up after the others, said with a beaming smile, “Can’t you see? I’m building a cathedral!”

So I say to you let’s go build Cathedrals in our own hearts, let’s take them out into our world and make every inch of this world holy ground once more…Let us consecrate, let us bless everything and everyone we touch...Everything matters you know, every breath, every feeling, every thought, every deed impacts in some way on the chain of life…Everything matters…

“Cos I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find and I’ll bring a song of love and a rose in the winter time,”

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