Saturday, 25 January 2014

Belonging: What is Your Song?

As regular readers of my blog will know my step-brother Allen is very close to the end of his life due to Pancreatic cancer. I recently visited him in the hospice where he is receiving care. As I sat with him other family members his father arrived and began to sing him lullabies that he sang him as a boy. It was one of the most beautiful moments of tenderness I have ever witnessed, it brings tears to my eyes as I write these words. I could see the comfort that our Allen felt as his father sang to him and I could see that his father was receiving comfort from the words as he sang. Song and the singing of our songs has the power to touch the special hard to reach places in all our hearts; the singing of our songs can bring healing and connection.

A few days later a friend sent me a copy of the meditation “Listening for Our Song” by David S touched a place in my soul...

"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."

Last Sunday I listened to the congregations I serve sing the following words “Roots hold me close, wings set me free” by Carolyn McDade last Sunday. They are beautiful words that touch those special hard to reach places at the core of my being. As I listened it dawned on me that the roots come before the wings, that we are held close before we can be set free. It got me thinking that in order to fly free we need roots that hold us close.

For much of my life I thought that freedom and the attainment of it were the things of the highest value in life; that liberation meant escaping the shackles that hold us back and stop us being all that we were meant to be. I sang songs about freedom as I left behind all that I saw as unimportant. When I look back now what I see is a man who was a slave to freedom.

Over the last few years I have learnt about love; I have learnt something about what love actually is. I am not talking about romance here. No, I am talking about that unseen force that connects all life and that enables us to form deep and meaningful relationships with ourselves, with each other and with all life. I name this God, others may use different words.

It is love that allows me to connect with all that exists now, all that has been in the time before now and all that will be in the future. It is love that has become the roots that hold me close and it is love that allows me to stretch out the wings that will set me free and allow me to glide in the wind. To know love is to know that you belong and it is this that is perhaps the ultimate freedom.

I have known and experienced a great deal of love these last few weeks as I have felt the pain of grief and loss. I felt it last Thursday as I attended and spoke at my my grandad's funeral, as I joined with others to celebrate the old lad's life and to say our final farewell. These last few weeks I have listened to my nearest and dearest and I have listened to those around me, I have listened to life too and to that transcendent voice that lives in the spaces between life. It has been a tiring time and a deeply emotional time and yet through it all there has been a deepening sense of connection and belonging. Something is changing as I feel those roots that hold me close entering deeper into life’s crust. Life has opened up and increased in meaning as I have felt the wings of life stretching and expanding.

I now know what matters more than anything is a sense that you belong, that you are a part of life. You see what I have learnt is that I was not really singing songs of freedom in the past. No they were not songs of freedom, they were songs of escape.

It is the roots of belonging that give me the freedom to stretch out the wings and fly in the wind, free...This is love...

We all belong somewhere, no one exists completely in a vacuum. Even those on the run, as I once was, are on the run from something. Even the loneliest of souls belong to something. Now this may well be our families of birth, our work and or community commitments or friendship circles our social and political networks. Even if you reject all of this you still belong to the community of rejection. We belong to cultures and nations and perhaps social class. We also belong to something more than all these things. We belong to whatever it is that holds and guides us. For me it is the love that I name God, for others it may be something different. We belong to what we experience at the core of life and what that compels us to believe.

One of the many things that makes me smile these days is that even when I believed in nothing I still belonged at least to some degree, even though I really didn’t want to. I belonged to nihilism.

A sense of belonging is a deeply precious thing. It is belonging that helps us become who we are meant to be. It is a sense of being rooted and being held and loved by these roots that allows us to spread our wings and fly free; it is a sense of being rooted that enables us to not fear the wind, but to embrace it and to let ourselves go. When you feel that you do not belong you cannot thrive, you shrivel up and stop living.

Now of course we do not need to belong in exactly the same way; our roots need not, in fact should not, be identical in order for us to belong. Each root has to find its own way into the soil. To truly belong is to be welcomed exactly as you are warts and all and beauty spots too.

How each person finds a sense of belonging may well be different too; people belong in different ways.

Some people find belonging through action; they belong through experiences and challenges. They are the kind of people who live for today, they are impulsive, spontaneous. Such people do not like to feel that they are constrained by their roots and focus more on the wings that can set them free. They need to experience their place of belonging as a play ground. That said they still need their roots that can hold them close even if it’s just within their own hearts and souls.

Some people find their belonging through improvement, whether it’s of themselves or the communities in which they belong. Such people really find their belonging in the future in what might or should be, on what can be built.

Some people belong through finding a sense of meaning. They exist through a sense of openness to possibilities and potentials. I suspect that I’m someone who belongs in this way. They too belong to some degree in the future in what might be in what is yet to come

Some people just need to belong, to be accepted by others. These people often live through the past. They are motivated by the fear of being rejected of being left out. They find their meaning through others. This ought not to be seen negatively, because once such a person feels that sense of belonging it is they who do most of the community building and it is they who enable others to fly free. They are often the foundation on which everything else thrives. They are the nest builders.

I am sure there are other ways in which we find a sense of belonging and most of us are probably a mixture of all these types. Everyone is a complex mixture of needs and wants. That said there is one thing that holds us together, that allows us to thrive as individuals, that is a sense of belonging.

To belong you need to be yourself, while paradoxically in order to be yourself you must first of all feel that you belong.

I love the idea that David Blanchard speaks of that we each have our own song and that we find this song in all aspects of our lives, whether in the seemingly sublime or mundane. He says that “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”...(he continues)...“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.”

He says that it is good to know our own songs and to learn them by heart. This is because there will be days when we do not feel like we belong and we will not perhaps hear life singing our songs back to us. So sometimes we will have to hum our own songs until we find our way back home to that place where we belong.

What are your songs? What is that you sing that makes you feel that you belong? Maybe that’s something to think about. This is something I am asking the congregations I serve to do as we step onwards into 2014. As I do I am reminding them that we don’t necessarily have to sing in unison; as I do I am reminding them that we are free to sing our own songs, but also that we need to sing them together and that sometimes we need others to remind us what are songs are. We all forget our own songs from time to time. We need to hear our songs from the lips of others from time to time, to remind us what our own songs are.

We need to hear every song by the way, not just one or two. Each voice has something to offer; each reveals something of the truth. Sometimes certain voices dominate and to allow this is a mistake. If we don't listen to every voice we will never hear the whole song.

I was chatting with one of my neighbours the other day. She asked how long I had lived in Altrincham. I told her it was nearly three and a half years. We both agreed that it seemed like only yesterday that I moved here. it is hard to believe that I have served the good people of Urmston and Altrincham for three and half years. I have attempted to build on what my predecessors have done to build a free religious community, open to all. I hope that have helped to create a space where those who come feel that they can belong. a place where visitors and those already present can feel loving roots that hold them close so that they can spread their wings and begin to fly free. A place where they can sing their own songs and if they haven’t yet discovered it, a place where they can find their song and take their first tentative steps to begin singing it; a place where they can hear the songs of others and perhaps begin to blend or harmonise with them; a place where we can discover new songs together.

My dream is create communities where the spiritual traveller can rest a while and find sustenance for their journey. My hope is that they find here a place where they belong, where they can can sing their song not only here but out their in the world for all to share and therefore encourage others to join in with them. My dream is to develop a community where all may feel that they belong; a place where the roots will hold us close so that we can begin to spread our wings and begin to fly free.

I will end this little chip of a blog with the following poem on belonging by John O'Donohue.

“For Belonging”

May you listen to your longing to be free.

May the frames of your belonging be generous enough
for your dreams.

My 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


Saturday, 18 January 2014

Trees: Symbols and sign posts of life

Over the last few weeks I have spent a great deal of time watching the world through the lens of my car window. I seem to have constantly been on the road travelling from one place to another, spending time with my nearest and dearest. I have been quite emotional as I have driven and yet strangely I have felt calm and deeply connected to myself, to the world around me and to the source of all life and love that I name God. I have been a keen observer of life these last few weeks; I have seen many things as I have looked at the world from my window.

The other day I was heading to meet with some people in Warrington. I looked to my left out of the passenger side window and was greeted by the most amazing sight. There on a grassy verge in front of what looked like council properties was a tree stump, probably about four feet high. Dangling from this tree stump were a collection of shoes and trainers and attached to the stump was a sign that read “tree of lost soles” That’s soles “S”, “O”, “L”, “E”, “S” not souls “S”, “O”, “U”, “L”, “S”. I drove on smiling thinking about this amazing sight and wondering what on earth it could be about. It lifted my spirits, it filled my soul as I went and shared time with friends before heading to Yorkshire and family and the making of arrangements for my grandad’s funeral.

These last few days I’ve been telling everyone I meet about this road side sighting. Several have heard of it before and one or two have driven past it and wondered what on earth it is about. I have looked a little deeper into it and found out one or two things. It first appeared on Manchester Road Woolston in Warrington during late spring early summer back in 2012. The creator , who has remained anonymous, wrote the Warrington Guardian explaining that this abstract piece of public art is based on a similar tree found on Princess Highway in Woodburn New South Wales Australia. He says he found the shoes while out dog walking in the area and decided to copy what he had seen in Australia. Over the last eighteen months the sculpture has been added to by others and I have since been told that other similar pieces of public art have appeared in other parts of Cheshire. There was even one in Altrincham a few months back. Other examples can be found all over the world. The largest of its type, that I have uncovered, can be found in Holburg, British Columbia, Canada. This was started by loggers 25 years ago who nailed their boots to a tree trunk.

Now I don’t know if there is anything deeply symbolic in all of this. I know it made me smile and it drew me out of myself as I connected with others in telling the tale. Perhaps “the tree of lost soles” means nothing more than a tree with sole less shoes attached to it. Then again maybe it is a commentary on our modern times and our disposable and soulless lives...maybe, maybe not...It did get me thinking though...first of all about symbols and then about trees.

There are many signs that I see as I watch the world from my car window, mostly warning signs about the road and world that is built around the roads. There are also sign posts to all kinds of different things and places. Most are meaningless beyond the information they offer, but some hold deep significance. Some even touch me deep down in my soul, when I pass them I never feel like a lost soul. Whenever I am on the M62 travelling up towards Stott Hall Farm I often feel emotional as it’s a sign I’m heading for home, with all its blessings and curses. I know the road very well by now and as I pass a certain point I always make sure I move to the inside lane so as to be as close to the Yorkshire sign as I can be as I pass it. I always blow a kiss to the “White Rose” then drive on home. Ok it’s only a sign in the road, but it means something to my soul and to the roots from which I have grown. Signs and symbols mean something; it’s no use pretending otherwise.

Symbols can reveal deep and meaningful truth, they have the capacity to reach beyond the limits of the written and or spoken word. Joesph Campbell taught that certain images and pictures invite the eye not to merely rush along but to rest a while and dwell within the revelation that can be found by looking deeply into them. This certainly happened as I passed the “Tree of Lost Soles” I can only have caught a quick glimpse of it and yet I took in every detail. Signs and symbols allow us to get caught up in them and as a result they enable us to see the things in life we would normally miss in our day to day rushing and pushing and pulling. Signs and symbols have the capacity to pull us beyond ourselves to our better selves, they help us engage religiously with the world, as they re-bind us back to life.

The “tree of lost soles” reminds me of another work of art. This though is not found on an ordinary road in the north of England. Instead it is housed in the British Museum. It is titled “The Tree of Life” and is the creation of four Mozambican artists Cristovao Canhavato (Kester), Hilario Nhatuueja, Fiel dos Santos and Adelino Seraphim Mate. Is it the product of “Transforming Arms in Tools” project, inspired by words from Isaiah 2 v 4b “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The "Transforming Arms into Tools" project was set up by Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane in 1995 and is supported by Christian Aid. During Mzmabique’s civil war, which lasted from 1976 until 1992, millions of weapons poured into the country and many still remain there to this day. The project is an attempt to create something out the devastation of the civil war as well as deal with the present danger of the weapons hidden all over the land. It encourages Mozambicans to hand over these weapons for decommissioning. As an incentive they are exchanged for ploughs, bicycles and sewing machines etc. “The tree of life” sculpture and other works of art are created from the decommissioned weapons; the "Tree of Life" is something beautiful that has been created from tools of violence and destruction; it is a powerful symbol.

The “Tree of Life” is a beautiful and universal symbol it can be found in many of the worlds religious traditions. The ancient Chinese, Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians and Samarians all had a tree of life symbol. There is Ygdrassil, the Norse Tree of Life, The Etz Ha Hayim of the Kaballistic Jews. The Bahai's speak of it and Christians of all kinds talk of the tree of life, with healing leaves, found in the Book of Revelations. The book of Genesis tells of two trees: a Tree of Knowledge, which is the tree of good and evil, and the Tree of Life, the tree of immortality. I wonder why Adam and Eve chose knowledge over life? I’m not going explore that here that's another discussion on symbolism that I will explore at a later date.

The trees at this time of year always fascinate me. There is something very beautiful about the trees in winter. These lifeless stick like sculptures stretching out from the hard frozen ground are stripped right down to the bone. They look vulnerable and exposed, but they are not. By next spring they will once again be bursting into life. They look like lost souls, but this is an illusion for they will soon find life once again.

The May Pole is symbolic of such trees, stripped of their leaves to characterize their winter state. On May Day in an act of rebirth and everlasting life, they are re-clothed with decorative bands and flowers, giving us the opportunity to celebrate life’s re-creation. Again this seemingly symbolises the tree of life; it is a symbol of re-birth and renewal; it is a sign post to the path of enlightenment; it is a place where lost souls and even lost soles can come together and once again be found.

The Mozambique “Tree of Life” is a symbol of hope, of what can grow from the devastation of civil war; civil war which puts neighbour against neighbour brother against brother. All war is devastating and horrific but there is something even more destructive about civil war and yet they continue. Not just in foreign lands either, but also in our personal lives, in our families with our friends and neighbours and in our communities. We all fail to see from time that we are are all finite leaves on the infinite tree of life; we all seemingly fall out over the most trivial of things. We never seem to learn.

I live in hope though, not necessarily optimism but definitely hope. I see signs and symbols of hope all around me. I see them on the sides of the road in Warrington and other places too. I see them in the spring that will soon come to clear away winter when the tree of life will once again be in bloom. I see it in the eyes of people as they come to life, in many and varied ways, from seeming devastation.

We can all return to the tree of life, the tree of renewal, the tree of re-birth and follow the path of enlightenment. For all soles and souls are welcome, even those that have been discarded.

I pay homage to “Trees of Lost Soles” the world over and “The Trees of Life” universal.

May they lead us home, may they lead us to life.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Many Rivers: One Sea

My grandad took his final journey back to the great sea this week. He died peacefully after a long and
good life, something I know he greatly appreciated; something that was denied many of his comrades, especially his oldest and dearest friend Percy Hepworth who lost his life at sea. Good old Percy, the old lad will be buried with a picture of his old mate. My grandad was an old sailor having served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, something he only really began to talk about in the last few years of his life. During his funeral service we will sing “For those in peril on the sea” I will sing it with the utmost gusto!

Strangely I went to bed last Sunday night with rivers on my mind. Something inside of me was calling me to explore the subject this week. Sometime over the next 24hours this moved to the sea. I went to bed on Monday night thinking of the sea, as I did my grandad slipped into his final sleep, no doubt dreaming of the ocean. The sea has been calling me again. I now understand why.

The sea has real power I think it always has. It draws people to it. I can spend hours just staring out into the great void. It is calming and yet utterly awe inspiring. This ought not to be surprising. After all we come from water and no doubt to the sea we shall eventually return. In many ways every life begins at sea. In our mother’s wombs we lie in the dark, safe and secure. We are then thrust into the light of life through birth. Maybe this yearning for the sea is a primordial one, a desire to return to the safety of the womb. Or perhaps it’s a call to adventure. Many of the great stories are about adventurers being called to sea. Either way there is something very powerful about the sea, the call of the sea. It has been calling me again these last few days. Maybe it’s a call to return home, to safety, or perhaps it’s a call to adventure and a new beginning. Who knows, I will have to wait and see.

Marry the Sea

Now of course the sea is fed from many sources. All rivers lead eventually back to the sea. They all return back to the source. They go on many different adventures but eventually they return to the source from whence the journey, before the journey, began. Each river is formed from many tributaries, no two are exactly alike. No two go on exactly the same journey back to the sea. Just as no two people are exactly alike. We too are formed from many sources and our lives didn’t just begin when we first tasted the air as we were pushed out into the light. Who we are is part of the lives of those we have come from, going back through the generations.

These last few weeks I have paused to think a lot about family, both blood and not blood. I’ve been thinking about where my physical life grew from, the roots that formed me and the journey that has shaped who I am today. I’ve also been thinking of the rivers that could have potentially joined with me on the way. I have yet to be absorbed into another river, maybe I never will. Maybe it is my destiny to always journey alone until I reach the Great Sea and begin the next voyage. Maybe, maybe not.

To some extent, like the river, we all journey alone in the world. And like the purpose of the river is to return to the sea I believe that it is our nature to seek out belonging, to become a part of something more than just ourselves. Now for some that is family and or community and for others it is God. For many it is all three and a whole lot more. Perhaps for some the yearning is for wholeness with themelves. I’m not sure anyone can adequately answer what drives the yearning but what I do know is that it is there inside every single one of us.

The yearning for belonging is not all that is there though, there is also a desire to maintain our independence our individuality. This causes tension at times; I sense this tension in the lives of most us. Where does this come from? Well I suspect that it comes from our own souls. We are each of us unique individuals. No two people are exactly alike. Even identical twins have their own personality and can be vastly different. The same applies for conjoined twins by the way. No one feels exactly as another feels, no one thinks exactly as another thinks, no one knows exactly what is going on inside the heart of another human being. Each life is uniquely beautiful and yet we are all formed from the same source and have the same breath of life flowing through us. It is vital to recognise both aspects of our humanity and to rejoice and celebrate them. I believe that it is both aspects that compel us to be drawn together to seek out wholeness beyond the confines and limits of ourselves. It is this drive that creates this need to belong. It is this impulse that creates family; it is this impulse that creates community; it is this impulse that compels us to search beyond the limits of our own lives.

The building of family and community is becoming more and more difficult in our age. Increasingly we live isolating and isolated lives. Families move far apart and communities are increasingly fragmented. We want freedom and more of it. There is nothing wrong with this, but I wonder sometimes if by reaching for more freedom we have somehow lost some of the love that truly binds people. Now please do not get me wrong I am not living under the delusion of some golden age of community, much of which was merely tribalism. It is just that I have this sense that somewhere love has been obscured by the drive for personal freedom. While freedom in many ways is about self love, it is not necessarily about relational love in its many forms. Do people truly bind together as we once did?

Now the post modern age that we live in suggests that we can’t bind as we once did as we do not have the one thing to bind around; the one thing to believe in that can hold us all together. Even un-belief is struggling to attain this. In the last few days there has been reported split offs from what the media has labelled the "atheist church", more commonly known as "The Sunday Assembly". Seemingly it isn’t atheist enough for some folk, or it’s the wrong kind of atheism. Maybe the post-modernists are right maybe we can’t bind and belong as we once did.

I am not convinced by the post-modernist claims by the way. I believe we can come together, but not necessarily in the old tribal and exclusivist ways. Perhaps we can come together and join together from our own tributaries.

I am a Universalist by temperament. I believe that there are truths that can be discovered through many sources. I also do not accept that anyone has the whole picture when it comes to truth, whether informed by religion or the secular world. As I have written many times I hold a deep affection for the writings of Forrest Church, particular his beautiful metaphor the “Cathedral of the World”.

Forrest asks us to imagine the world as a Cathedral and to look at the light filtering through the windows, each with its unique design and colour. There are windows beyond number in the cathedral, each unique, each reflecting the light in a different way, each window telling a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. This he describes as a metaphor for 21st century Universalism which honours a variety of approaches to truth or the light. He points out that none of us is able to fully comprehend the truth that shines through another person's window. He claims that the fact that none can see the whole truth and none can experience light exactly as another sees it ought to breed within us humility about truth and an openness to the claims on truth made by others. In his view such an approach ought to draw people closer together and not cause them to pull apart.

As I mentioned earlier my week began with thoughts about rivers and it’s to rivers or perhaps the river that I would like to now return. The medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote that “Divinity is an Underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up.” This image has spoken powerful to former Dominican priest Matthew Fox and inspired his book “One River, Many Wells”, In it he pleads for a deep ecumenism. He has for a long time been a student of the mystical traditions of all the great faiths, breaking new ground in pulling together writings from many religious paths and from science to lay the foundations of a new mythology and spirituality. He calls us to reach beyond the creeds and doctrines that divide and to come together in a shared experience of wonder and awe.

Both Matthew Fox and Forrest Church seem to be in harmony with one another in what one describes as deep ecumenism and the other Universalism. Their thoughts are echoed by the work of Karen Armstrong who talks about what she describes as the essence of all the great faiths,"The Golden Rule of Compassion”.

This image of the tributaries flowing into the rivers and eventually back to the sea that can bring us together, speaks powerfully to me. Whatever source we drink from we only sample a tiny amount of what is available to us. While our need to remain unique and individual may keep us from returning to the sea, our need to find family, community, a place where we all belong will keep on drawing us back. Love in the end is a stronger force that the pulse for freedom, or at least it seems that way to me. Humility also draws us together as it feeds in us a need to seek out new truth. It opens us up to new revelation from all sources of life including one another.

This is why I found a home within the Unitarian tradition. We not only accept diversity in matters of truth we actively celebrate it. We also celebrate the whole concept of community. We are not merely some new age spirituality movement. We are religious communities in the truest sense as, we bind together under the common theme of humility and openness as well as love and freedom. We encourage one another to look through each others windows and drink from one another’s wells and we invite others to bring their truth so we can all experience more of what life has to offer to us.

So why has the sea been calling me again? I don’t suppose I will get a full answer. Is it something to do with the love I felt for my granddad? Is it a sense to return home to be closer to those who have created and formed me? Well that has certainly been strong within me in recent weeks and months. Is it a call to a new adventure either within or without, a call to seek out new truth? The honest answer is I do not fully know. All I can tell you is that it feels very strong right now. I also know that it humbles me and as a result it opens me up in faith, it does not close me down in fear. I trust it I know it we lead me back to source, the eternal source. It will lead me back to love.

For all rivers eventually become part of the one sea

Saturday, 4 January 2014

A Rose in the Winter Time

“And I’ll bring you hope when hope is hard to find and I’ll bring a song of love and rose in the winter time.” Carolyn McDade 

The last few weeks have been particularly difficult within my wider family. Both my grand dad and my step brother Allen are very close to the end of lives. They have over the Christmas holidays been moved into hospices in different parts of the country.

I was feeling particularly low between Christmas and New Year, I hit an emotional rock bottom. I rang my sister Mandy whose birthday it was in the 27th of December. As we talked things began to change within me. During the conversation she repeatedly said to me that she keeps on looking for the love and it is this that carries her through the darker days. A couple of days later she sent me an email that although filled with sadness and suffering, was beautifully transformative; she wrote some of the most beautifully faith filled words I have read in some time.

Mandy had gone to visit Allen, he had been taken into the hospital, for the final time. On arriving she looked around the grounds, there was little or no natural life to be found. All the trees were bare and the plant life had died off. This deepened her sadness as she walked inside. Sometime later, as she was leaving, she noticed a lifeless shrubbery which she gazed at for a few moments. Suddenly her eyes caught sight of something else, one of the most beautiful winter sights anyone could wish to see. A single rose, "a rose in the winter time". In that moment she realised that she had found the love that she had been searching for; this love has continued to grow as she passed it on to me and it brought me hope when I was struggling to find it; the email was a pure song of love as she told me of that rose in the winter time. Strangely I’ve heard the birds outside my window singing more clearly these last few days. I've found that “peace that passeth all understanding”, once again, as I have fully accepted life and stopped doing battle with reality.

There is a somewhat peculiarly worded Celtic wedding vow that I have heard uttered by several people recently. It reads as follows..

“I honour your gods
I drink at your well
I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place
I have no cherished outcome
I will not negotiate by withholding
I am not subject to disappointment”

It is not what you would describe as romantic and yet there is something deeply moving about it. It touches something way down in the depths of my being. It is the line “I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place” that has been resonating with me for quite some time.

I am learning that one of the keys of spiritual living is an undefended, an open, heart. This can be extremely painful and difficult at times, but I have learnt how vital it is for me. When I close down or put on my suit of armour life soon loses its flavour. I suppose that this is why I’ve always struggled with the sentiment of Ephesians 6 vv 10-18, the passage commonly known as “God’s Armour”. I was recently at an Anglo Catholic church where I saw an image based around this passage. I remember thinking to myself “gosh that’s the last thing I would want.”

For me religion and spirituality are not about being at war or in conflict. It is hard for anyone to truly know what God's will for them might be but I am fairly certain the God of my limited understanding does not want me armour plaited. I know these kinds of images appeal to many and certainly to some of my own friends who are Christians. Not to me though and it does seem in conflict with the message I find in the Gospels.

Increasingly for me the spiritual life is about “Living with an unarmoured heart”, easier said than done I know. 

We all have defence mechanism, things we do to protect ourselves from being hurt. I am sure we are all familiar with the fight and flight mechanism. There is another reaction to perceived danger too that perhaps we are less familiar with, it is certainly one that is less talked about. I have come to call this the freeze mechanism. It is something I am very familiar with, for I have utilised it throughout my life. Basically when trouble strikes a frozen person appears to continue to function normally on the outside, but inside, emotionally at least, they shut down, they internally hibernate. When it happens to me my neck and shoulders become stiff, my throat dries up, the base of my skull seems to become warm and itchy, my skin tightens around my face, I tend to blow out a lot and it feels like someone has just dropped a great rock into the pit of my stomach. These are the moments when I build up my walls and try to keep life out.

How many of us spend lifetime’s building walls around our hearts that we think will protect us when in fact all they succeed in doing is block us off from the love present in life? It does not have to be like that. We can live with an undefended heart. Just imagine what that might be like.

To live with an open heart is to live intimately with all that is life. It is to experience life through our felt experience to not be ruled by what our minds project from our past, those disappointments and fears that have been built over a life time. To live with an unarmoured heart is about connecting with all that is there. Zen Buddhism talks about intimacy with 10,000 things, meaning intimacy with all things, all phenomena, that nothing is left out. This is precisely what it means to live with an unarmoured heart.

But how do we know if we are living this way? Well I have discovered that I am living openheartedly when I am not at war with life, when I am not arguing with reality and not avoiding intimacy, especially with my own thoughts and feelings. I have found myself arguing with reality at times these past few weeks, but thankfully this has not lasted, I have not remained in a frozen state for too long. Another sign is the capacity to see joy even when in deep pain and unhappiness.

To live joyfully is live by heart. I think too often we live by the head alone; this so often limits our human experiences. The head should not be master in my book. Why? Well because so often it does not tell us the whole truth, it can limit our experience. There is something deeper something more that occurs when we attempt to live by the heart and an unarmoured one at that.

A few weeks ago, during worship, I shared a version of the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” story with the congregations I serve. After I’d finished I asked them to sing the song to me. Virtually every single one of them did so and they loved it; they enjoyed themselves as they let themselves go. They knew the words too. I am certain that this was not because they had spent hours studying them; no instead they learnt them by heart. They learnt them as they sang the words joyfully. Those words and many other songs and other aspects of our lives are stored somewhere deep within us, much deeper than our minds and even deeper than our hearts. I would say that they are embedded in our souls. This is why they spring from our hearts at certain times. How many times do we find ourselves doing something or going somewhere when suddenly something just bursts out from the core of our being? Some old lost memory, something we probably couldn’t remember if we searched our minds and yet there it comes bursting from our open hearts.

A couple of years ago I attended a session led by “singing therapists” who work with people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. They explained how singing old songs, especially from their childhood and young adulthood, brought many people who seemed almost lost back to life, if only for a few moments. I have since watched several television programs that have explained how this works. Now I do not understand the scientific explanation for this and it’s not my place to attempt to explain, I am after all a minister of religion. You can look that up yourselves. All I know is what I witness and that’s people who are seemingly lost coming back to life, if only for the briefest of times. What I see is heart memory not only surviving but at times thriving. To me it is another beautiful example of that rose in the winter time; another beautiful symbol of pure hope.

Now please do not get me wrong when I talk of living by heart I am not for one moment decrying the mind, far from it. It is vital that in matters of religion and all life that we develop the mind and maintain rational perspective. That said I also believe that we must also watch out for the fetters that can be created by our own minds. We need to be careful that we are not ruled wholly by the mind, that we do not make it a God.

We are now a few days into a New Year. I suppose my simple message as we step further into it is to try and live as open hearted as we possibly can; to not be ruled by the fears of what might be or the frustrations and let downs of the past; to not put on that suit of armour and go into battle with life. It will not protect us in any case; all it will do is block us off from what really matters in life. The God I have come to know does not want or need this from us. I believe that this infinite source of all love would prefer us live with an unarmoured heart and an open spirit. I believe that by doing so we will see the beautiful symbols of hope all around us and by doing so we may just bring some hope into the lives of other. For we all need to know that rose in the winter time.

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

“The Rose

Some say love it is a river 

That drowns the tender reed. 

Some say love it is a razor 
That leaves your soul to bleed.

Some say love it is a hunger 

An endless, aching need 

I say love it is a flower, 
And you it's only seed.

It's the heart afraid of breaking 

That never learns to dance 

It's the dream afraid of waking 
That never takes the chance

It's the one who won't be taken, 

Who cannot seem to give 

And the soul afraid of dying 
That never learns to live.

When the night has been too lonely 

And the road has been too long. 

And you think that love is only 
For the lucky and the strong.

Just remember in the winter 

Far beneath the bitter snow 

Lies the seed that with the sun's love, 
In the spring, becomes the rose.

by Amanda McBroom