Saturday, 31 October 2015

Faces of Fear

Today the 1st of November is All Saints Day or All Hallows Day. It is sandwiched between All Hallows Eve or Halloween on the 31st October and on 2nd November All Souls Day, a time in the Christian Calendar to remember all souls who have departed this life.

Like other Christian festivals, including Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, these three autumn days are a fascinating mixture of pre-Christian, Christian and even post-Christian tradition and mythos. I am fairly certain that the children going door to door at Halloween are probably not aware that they have created a modern day variant on the pre-Christian festival of Samhain; a festival that not only celebrated harvest, but was also a time to commune with spirits of ancestors. There are similar traditions throughout most culture's, autumnal and winter festivals. Autumn is a time of reflection, a time to take stock before the harsh realities of winter come.

Halloween in the north of England is something that is marked, at least in a secular way, far more
these days than I remember in my earlier childhood. When I was a child it was Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night that took on greater significance. I don’t really remember going “Trick or Treating”, until a significant film came out in 1982 and then everything seemed to change. The film was E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. One of the most commercially successful films of all time and one that changed something significantly, certainly in my life and perhaps the culture of the North of England. I recall, as many others did, that after this going door to door, trick or treating replaced the tradition of going “Door to Door” asking for “a penny for the guy” and of course “Mischievous Night”. It seems that these traditions all got swallowed up with “Trick or Treating”. “Mischievous Night”, at least in Yorkshire came on the 4th November and was linked to the “Gunpowder Plot” or “Fireworks Night” that is marked on the 5th of November. Things could get pretty wild on “Mischievous Night” and some, I’m sure, are glad to see that it has pretty much been lost to history. You do hear of little pockets of it in Liverpool and Leeds, but mainly it has gone the way of the Dodo and been replaced by “Trick or Treating”. There’s a part of me that wishes this wasn’t true. I remember the thrill of getting "up to no good" with friends and of hearing similar tales of other friends who were far more daring than I. I also remember my granddad telling me of things he and his mate Percy used to get up to. I remember the delight in this night of freedom that the children used to be granted. A freedom that I fear children of today do not enjoy.

Now when we think of Halloween today it is horror movies and the fear that accompany them that immediately springs to my mind. Such horrors can stay with us for many years and make us afraid to step out in the dark or to sit in the house alone. I recently went to see a horror film with some friends. I have to say I didn’t enjoy it and for a few days, as I went on my early morning walks, there was a sense of fear in my mind, my heart and my soul.

As a child I could easily be affected by such films. I remember being haunted for years by a Saturday night episode of “Hammer House of Horror”. It was a werewolf tale that vividly remains within my psyche. The image that had the greatest impact was of the beast at the window in the black of night and the person turning round and it being in the room with them. This was etched on my memory for years and to such an extent that I never dared look out through the glass of my room after dark. Even to this day there is a part of me that feels nervous if I look through “glass darkly”

Fear is a powerful emotion. It has the power to inhibit but it also has the power of allure. Fear comes in many forms. In "Freedom From Fear: Finding the Courage to Act, Love and Be" Forrest Church identified five different types, which he associated with the body, intellect, conscience, emotions and soul. These being:

“Fright” (Centred in the body), which is a kind of instinctive fear, designed to protect us from physical danger. It’s that feeling that makes us jump while watching a horror film or the thing that gets our blood pumping and awakens our senses and allows us to respond to physical danger.

The second being “Worry” (Centred in the intellect), this is a fear that is produced by our worst imaginings. Often they are not real and can be blown out of all reasonable proportions. Shortly before he died Mark Twain mused, “I am an old man and I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened”

The third being “Guilt” (Centred in the conscience). This is a fear of being caught out or found out due to something that we have done in our past. It’s a fear we often carry with us and can be projected into so much of our lives. It’s the feeling that can come over us as we pass through security at airports, even though there is no reason to feel it, or when walking out of stores and passing through the security senses, even though we know we haven’t stolen anything.

The fourth being “Insecurity” (centred in the emotions), this is fear prompted by feelings of inadequacy. It is a fear that breeds a need to seek approval from others. It’s form of Narcissism and forms deep self-consciousness which makes us unconscious to life itself.

The fifth and perhaps worst of all is “Dread” (centred in the soul), a fear that is generated by life’s general uncertainty. In “Freedom from Fear” Church wrote “ ‘Man himself produces dread, wrote the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. We manufacture it whenever we attempt to control things over which we hold no final authority. We reduce life to a battleground, where we struggle against insurmountable odds. Fearing every transition from certainty to uncertainty, we devote our full energy to protecting ourselves against loss. Dread is the opposite of trust. The more we dread death and dying, the more alarming life and living turn out to be.”

Yes fear has many faces and all of them powerful in their own ways. We each of us experience every type at different times in our lives.

The other morning I was out walking before sunset. As I headed towards John Leigh Park I noticed a woman was standing on the edge of the park, with her large German Shepherd dog. She looked at me, with fear in her eyes, and said “I’m not going in their while it is still dark.” I smiled and said “I think you’ll be ok with the dog”, she looked back at me nervously and said, “yes everyone says that”. I just carried on walking on into the park and then onto the neighbourhood circuit. About twenty minutes later I passed through the park again, by now the sun had come up and the woman and her dog were happily playing right in the middle of the park. Nothing had really changed and yet she felt safer now that the sun had come up.

So many of us fear the dark, the unknown, the unseen, the uncertain. The truth is though that so much of life is uncertain. I have learnt that it is vital to accept this, to surrender to this and through this you find the courage to simply live and truly be yourself and to discover real faith in life once again.

The encounter in the park reminded me of a story I once heard of a young boy who lived with his parents on a farm. His job each afternoon was to fetch the afternoon paper so that his dad could read, after a long days work, while eating his tea. Now one November day he forgot to fetch the paper and by now it was turning dark. It turned four o’clock, nearly tea time, and his mum noticed that he hadn’t fetched the paper, she asked her son if he would get it. Twenty minutes later she asked again and then ten minutes later, still no paper, so she asked once again. This went on until the mum completely lost her temper and shouted at the boy, will you get your dad’s paper. At which point the boy burst into tears. His mother realising something was wrong went to boy, who was inconsolable by now. After a while she calmed him down and asked him what on earth was wrong. He began to explain that all his life he had been afraid of the dark, but was too afraid to let his parent know. His mother soothed him and then asked. Now then you are a boy of faith and you believe in God, you believe that God is in you and with you. That God is in everything, even the dark. The boy nodded and then his mother said “There is no reason then to fear the dark, for God is in the dark, and God can do anything. Now be a good lad and go and get your dad’s paper.” At this the boy looked up at his mum smilingly and went to the door. He opened the door and confidently and shouted “God will you get me my dad’s paper please.”

This brought to mind a passage from Mark's Gospel Ch 4 vv 35 – 41. The passage depicts Jesus and the disciples being caught in a storm. It follows many verses depicting Jesus speaking in parables, at the river bank, about faith and the Kingdom of God. After Jesus has finished preaching he and the disciples cross the waters and are caught in the storm. The disciples become afraid for their lives and waken Jesus who calms the seas and then rebukes them with the following words ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ Just like the lady on the edge of the park, or the boy they were afraid, they lacked courage, and they lacked faith in life. It seems to me that living in this kind of fear is the very thing that so often reduces life. The key to overcome this fear, it seems to me is courage.

Courage in many ways is the essence of life, maybe it is our daily bread. Anais Nin once said “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” I’m sure we can all think of moments when our own lives have either expanded or shrunk in proportion to our courage. Courage itself comes from the French root “Cuer” meaning heart. To have courage is to have strength of heart. Courage is a consistent and sustaining love, it is a spiritual energy that sustains us in sickness and in health in loss or disappointment.

It is said that there are only really two emotions fear and love. Which I think can be translated as fear or courage. Now I do not believe that to feel the emotion of fear is to lack love, or courage or faith. That said to be ruled by fear and to be paralysed by it, may well mean a lack of faith. How often in life, do we say no to life because we have become paralysed by fear? How often do we expect someone else to do what we can do ourselves, because of fear? For me faith is all about having the courage to be all that we can be do and to do all that we can do in love and service.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to the size of our heart; life shrinks or expands in service to life itself. It’s about heart, it’s about courage, and it’s about being all that we can.

To have courage is to have strength of heart and to live from our hearts in our ordinary everyday activities. Courage is a way of living and breathing it’s about living openly and vulnerably in the world. Courage comes in those ordinary acts of love as we walk slowly through life. It is courage that allows us to learn that even when life has betrayed us, love is still present.

It is courage that allows us to stay open to life even when the storms are really blowing. It is courage that is formed in the heart; it is courage that is the ultimate act of faith; it is courage that keeps us open to life so that we can live in love and service.

I'm going to end this chip of a blogspot with this beautiful poem...

"Triumph of being" by Edith Södergran

What have I to fear? I am a part of infinity,
I am a part of the all’s great power,
a lonely world inside millions of worlds,
like a star of the first degree that fades last.
Triumph of living, triumph of breathing, triumph of being!
Triumph of feeling time run ice-cold through one’s veins
and of hearing the silent river of the night
and of standing on the mountain under the sun.
I walk on sun, I stand on sun,
I know of nothing else than sun.
Time – convertress, time – destructress, time – enchantress,
do you come with new schemes, a thousand tricks to offer me existence
as a little seed, as a coiled snake, as a coiled snake, as a rock amidst the sea?
Time – you murdress – leave me!
The sun fills my breast with sweet honey up to the brim
and she says: all stars fade at last, but they always shine without fear.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Odyssey: Return, Return, Return

“Odysseus” by Tom Leonard

it took me so long to get back to who I am
why was I away so long why was the journey so tortuous
all those false masks against a backdrop narrative to do with authenticity

but now arriving back there is still much debris to clear
the clearer to see the point from which I started

that from which I set out confused in sundry identities at war with themselves
now to find calm on that setting-out point as the final destination

As any regular reader of this "blog" will be aware as part of my healthy living drive I’ve been going for daily walks. Most days I set out very early in the morning as it’s probably the only time I can do so. Usually when I step out of my front door it is still dark and yet when I return home it is light once again. It was so this last Monday. As I walked ideas about this week’s little adventure came to me. I walked from darkness into light and I walked away from home and back again. As I walked two little words kept on forming in my mind. One word repeated three times “Return, return, return” and the other word was “Odyssey”. What came to me was this thought that we are all on an adventure, a kind of Odyssey. That throughout our lives we step out of the warmth and comfort of home, often in the dark, but that eventually we return home, or at least yearn to return home, often enlightened by the adventure. The call for home is a powerful one.

Human history is littered with stories and adventures inspired by the search for treasure, for wisdom, for enlightenment. Think of the great figures of religion Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, they all stepped out into the wild alone and returned enlightened. Think also of the heroic figures from the great stories, they did likewise. They were called out into the unknown, only to return with something new and inspiring. They stepped in the dark, but came home in the light. Stories such as Jason and the Argonauts or many of the other Greek tales, Pilgrims Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Lord of the Rings the list is endless. Human history is littered with folk tales and myths which teach us so much about what life is in all its potential both for beauty and horror.

Joseph Campbell, who spent years exploring such myths, believed that these stories helped us to fully understand how each of us at some point in our lives or at many moments of our lives are called out to journey forth. He identified four distinct stages of the journey. The first stage Campbell named “The Call to Adventure”. This he claimed is caused by discontent, which draws us out of the comfort of our lives to risk something new; the second stage is a form of initiation where the hero goes through a series of ordeals that test their mental and physical skills; The third stage is the time of revelation the discovery of truth and treasure; the final stage is the return to one’s community. With wisdom gained and with treasure to share. Coming home in the light if you like.

These adventures began and ended with a call. They began with a powerful call to adventure, but they also ended with an equally powerful call, to return home. Just think of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and those immortal words as she clicked her ruby slippers “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” Similar to those three words that came to me on Monday morning “return, return, return.

The call to return, especially to return home is a powerful call. This call though is not just about returning to a place, it is also about time I believe; about returning to a time in life when everything was simpler and safer. I’m sure that this was Dorothy’s call in “The Wizard of Oz”.

This is the call of nostalgia. To return to the place of safety the place of paradise, where we were cared for and looked after. Nostalgia though is often blind and perhaps senseless. It can also be painful. Things are never quite as we remember them.

Nostalgia is one of those words that has changed in meaning over time. Originally it meant “severe homesickness considered as a disease” from the German heimweh (home+woe) homesickness. It is rooted in the ancient Greek words “algos” meaning pain, Grief, distress and “nostos” meaning homecoming. I wonder if the Welsh word "Hiraeth" is also related to this. Nostalgia is a painful homecoming. The call to return home is powerful and, at times, painful. It can cause a deep yearning ache in our hearts and souls

The physical return home can also be painful, especially if what we are returning with is seemingly not wanted. Sometimes you might be rejected on the first return. Think of Jack and his beans in the story “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Or Jesus, in the Gospel accounts returning home and being rejected and almost mocked. As he said to his disciples ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’

Sometimes we might not be recognised when we return home, how painful can that be. We can feel like a stranger in our own land. Think of Odysseus who is recognised by no one on his return. It is only as he begins to speak that his old, now blind, dog recognises his voice and his tail begins to thud with joy and love and recognition. I wonder if it thudded out those words I heard on Monday morning… “Return, return, return…”

I remember a painful experience in my own life some ten or more years ago. There had been quite sudden and dramatic changes in my life, I have never been quite the same person since. I remember over the months that ensued that I would go home for a few days and return quite frustrated, with this feeling that my family and my loved ones were not accepting me as I was. I remember going to see my minister at the time, John Midgely and voicing this. I remember John calmly saying to me, after listening to me going on with myself for quite some time, “Danny you have gone through some quite dramatic changes and while you have adjusted to this it will take others some time. People are not quite sure how to be with you. They are used to you being a certain way and it will take them some time to adjust to the new you.” I remember thinking to myself how wise these words were. I also reflected some time later that perhaps I’d not changed that much as it was still all about me. Instead of me wanting them to adjust to and understand me, I was the one who ought to have been adjusting to and understanding them. These days I never feel unaccepted wherever I go and am gratefully received if I come to preach in my home town. I am loved amongst my kin and welcome in every home. I am recognised as I truly am too.

I love the following poem "Art of poetry" by Jorge Borges

"The Art of Poetry" By Jorge Luís Borges

To look at the river made of time and water
and remember that time is another river,
to know that we lose ourselves like the river
and that faces go by like the water.

To feel that wakefulness is another sleep
that dreams it is not dreaming and that the death
that our flesh fears is that death
every night that is called sleep.

To see in the day or in the year a symbol
of the days of mankind and of his years,
to change the outrage of the years
into a music, a rumor, and a symbol,

to see in death sleep, in sunset
a sad gold, such is the poetry
that is immortal and poor. Poetry
returns like dawn and sunset.

Sometimes in the evening a face
looks at us from the bottom of a mirror;
art should be like that mirror
that reveals our own face to us.

They tell that Ulysses, tired of wonders,
wept with love at the sight of his Ithaca,
green and humble. Art is that Ithaca
of green eternity, not of wonders.

It is also like the endless river
that passes and remains and is the mirror of one same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and is another, like the endless river.

Like Joseph Campbell Jorges Borges recognised a common theme in all the great stories. In this poem he explores some of the great ancient Greek stories. One being Ulysses (which is the Latin translation of Odysseus) and his painful return to Ithaca. He also talks of the philosopher Heraclitus who suggested that we can never return to the same river. This is because water continual flows on and on and the water we step into is never quite the same, but also because we who stand in the river are not the same person either, life will have changed us too…Like the river our lives, go on and on, ever changing. The lesson is that it is not about yearning to return to some mythical ideal, but to fully experience the adventure, the beautiful journey as the poem by Constantine Cavafy, “Ithacca” suggests. This is the lesson of Homer’s Odyssey and perhaps all the great stories. The treasure is the journey itself.

Life is a journey and a beautiful one at that. One in which we are constantly turning and returning again and again and again. It is not always an easy, no there will be troubles and difficulties on the beautiful journey. There will be times when we will not be recognised and may not even recognise ourselves; there will be times when we will feel completely lost and won’t know where to turn for sanctuary; there will be times of darkness too, but we all must journey on. In the end of course we return from where we came. We return, return, return, from the beautiful Odyssey. We step out in darkness for the final time and return into the light…

I'm going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with the following "Prayer for Travelers" by Angela Herrera

“Prayer for Travelers” by Angela Herrera

This is a prayer for all the travelers.
For the ones who start out in beauty,
who fall from grace,
who step gingerly,
looking for the way back.
And for those who are born into the margins,
who travel from one liminal space to another,
crossing boundaries in search of center.

This is a prayer for the ones whose births
are a passing from darkness to darkness,
who all their lives are drawn toward the light,
and keep moving,
and for those whose journeys
are a winding road that begins
and ends in the same place,
though only when the journey is completed
do they finally know where they are.

For all the travelers, young and old,
aching and joyful,
weary and full of life;
the ones who are here, and the ones who are not here;
the ones who are like you (and they’re all like you)
and the ones who are different (for in some ways, we each travel alone).

This is a prayer for traveling mercies,
And surefootedness,
for clear vision,
for bread
for your body and spirit,
for water,
for your safe arrival
and for everyone you see along the way.


Sunday, 18 October 2015

Self Portrait

“How could anyone ever tell you

You were anything less than beautiful

How could anyone ever tell you

You were less than whole

How could anyone fail to notice

That your loving is a miracle

How deeply your connected to my soul”

We sing these words in one of the song chants during the “Singing Meditation” I lead. I think that they are beautiful and yet deeply sad. Why sad? You may well ask. Well because there are many people who fail to see this truth. They believe that they are less than beautiful, they believe that they are less than whole, they live disconnected lives.

I suspect that this is why so many of us constantly crave attention and approval from others; why so many of us so desperately need to have ourselves and our love acknowledged and recognised. What’s even sadder though is that often when it is, it is still not enough. By the way I am not immune from it myself, I know this only too well. Got to keep an eye on this need for approval from others.

Every couple of weeks I have been updating my weight loss progress on Facebook. I have now lost 4 and a half stone in just 12 weeks and I feel fabulous. The encouraging replies from friends has been wonderful. Some, who haven’t seen me for some time, have asked if I would take a picture of myself and post it for them to see. My response has been “I don’t take pictures of myself”. Now some of my friends have mischievously replied claiming I have hundreds of pouting images of myself and that’s all I ever do all day long. Now while this is wholly untrue I have noticed a little vanity creeping into all of this. I am enjoying the positive comments made both through social media and real face to face contact. I am also aware that people only want to see pictures because they are interested, they care.

That said I do not take pictures of myself. I find the whole concept a little strange and self obsessive if I am honest and perhaps a sign of our ever growing preoccupation with ourselves in negative ways. It’s not just about posting pictures either, it seems to be about eliciting a response, a need for approval.

Where does this come from? Well I suspect that is comes from this deeply ingrained sense that there is something wrong with us. This feeling that we are in fact less than beautiful, that we are not whole.

This “Selfie” obsession of continually taking images of ourselves reminds me of the Greek Myth of Narcissus. The story of the boy who fell so in love with his own reflection that he fell into the water and drowned. I get the feeling that the “selfie” phenomenon is very much a modern day version of this “mythos”, but on a mass scale. That said, rather like in the original tale there is no real love at the root of all of this, more a need that we will recognised as beautiful. Why? Well because deep down in the core our being so many of us do in fact feel less than beautiful, do in fact feel less than whole.

Some say that the solution to this need for the approval of others is to no longer care what other people think of you. Now to me this seems just as unhealthy and lacking in a real sense of loving connection. Indifference has little or nothing to do with love and to a large extent is not real at all. There is a world of difference to not being ruled by the need of the approval of others and not caring, of becoming indifferent.

Now of course this taking pictures of ourselves and displaying them for the world to see is not a modern phenomenon. There really is nothing new under the sun. All that has happened is that this has now grown to mass a scale, we can all do it today. In days gone by only the artist could do so, as they painted pictures of themselves. The great artist all created self-portraits, many became utterly obsessed with it, it seems. Frida Kahlo being one, who explained why she did so saying "I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best." Maybe there's a little bit of Frida in all of us. Some of the great works of art are self-portraits. Perhaps the most famous of them all is the one of Van Gough, just after he has cut part of his ear off and allegedly sent it to a woman he believed he was in love with. A powerful image of unrequited love if ever there was one. Here Van Gough is making himself somehow less than whole, somehow less than beautiful and yet somehow in the image that he paints of himself there seems little self-pity, he just gives us the facts in stark imagery. Another destructive image of the self-portrait. I have seem similar images of friends on social media showing too much of themselves, that the world really doesn’t need to see. Images they no doubt regret publishing afterwards.

The “selfie” is not for me, I don’t really like taking images of myself. I have very few pictures. I was recently askrd by someone who came to speak with me in my vestry, where my picture was? They had noticed that all my ministerial predecessors adorned the walls all around me, but they could not see one of me. I could not answer their question. I am glad there isn’t though as I’m not sure I would want to see a picture of myself, staring back at me each day. There is a mirror in my vestry. If I want to know what I look like I only need to look into it.

Isn’t that a living breathing self-portrait?

Below is a wonderful poem “Self-Portrait” by my favourite poet David Whyte. He wrote it after seeing an exhibition of Van Gough’s portraits in Amsterdam. He was deeply moved by the images, particularly the one with his bandaged ear. After visiting the exhibition he returned to his hotel room, looked at himself in the mirror, got out a piece of paper and wrote at the top of it "Self Portrait" what followed was the poem below which just flowed out of him. Hie self portrait were the questions that he believed really mattered, were important.

"Self Portrait"

It doesn't interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
falling toward
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.

David Whyte from "Fire in the Earth"

The poem is addressing someone he knows very well, himself. In so doing he is inviting us to do the same. The questions being asked are universal ones; questions we ought to be asking our true authentic selves. Not questions about the nature of God or God’s or even if there exists a greater reality, more about what it is to truly live, to be alive. Questions that most of us struggle with. Perhaps the most profound is the struggle to come to peace with trying to live up to the world’s expectations of each and every one of us whilst also trying to live authentically. How do we live authentically? How do we live freely? How do we live without being ruled by what others think of us, while not resorting to indifference to no longer caring about the opinions of others?

Whyte asks:

“I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the centre of your longing.”

The poem is asking for absolute honesty here. For it is the longing that brings about transformation in the human soul.

Finally the poem asks the ultimate question about love and how we live with all that love brings, not just the joy but the suffering too. This is the Love that is at the core of all the great faiths and is the highest goal of humanity

“I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.”

Finally, at the end, the poem he does return to God question, the question the poem seemingly rejects in its opening.

“I have heard in that fierce embrace even the gods speak of God”

Here I suspect is the real beauty of the poem. Here through love and loss, joy, pain and suffering. Through living and growing through these experiences we can truly explore the mystery and the unknown and perhaps the unknowable that is the transcendent.

Whyte’s Poem always brings me back to those opening verse from Ecclesiastes chapter 1

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity."

Perhaps vanity is one of the things that makes us human. I’m not just talking about the vanity of Narcissus or the “selfie” generation. There’s also the vanity that the world needs to know what I think about everything, my opinion on all and sundry. Often my opinion on things I know little about. It’s not just about expressing opinion either, there is also this need for the world to agree and validate this very same opinion. Again I suspect that this comes from this sense that there is something wrong deep within us, that we are somehow less than whole, that we are something less than beautiful. I suspect that it is this that leads to either the total consumption with the opinions of others or their total rejection and the statement “I don’t care what other people think of me.” Not caring what others think about us is in my view just the other side of the vanity coin.

“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity”

The biggest problem with vanity, whichever side of the coin we are referring to, is that it stops us truly living the life we have been given. The preoccupation with the need for validation from others or the total rejection of what others think of us stops us truly living our lives. There is an unhealthy self-absorption in and a rejection of the love waiting to be expressed through us. “Vanity” stops us being fully alive. It is not about love at all and more about fear. In the second century AD the theologian and philosopher Irenaeus said “The glory of God is the human person fully alive” To be fully alive is to recognise that each of us are beautiful and whole and all that we really have to do is allow our loving to be a miracle and ensure that we are connected soul to soul.

The key to bringing this love alive lies in living the questions expressed in that wonderful poem “Self-Portrait” by David Whyte

The key I believe is to give ourselves fully to the love that lies deep within each and every one of us and all life. The key is to melt, holding nothing back, into that fierce heat of living that feels like nothing less than falling toward the centre of your belonging, living day by day with the consequences and the commitments we have made in our lives. With that love that both nourishes and tears at our hearts, knowing that one day we will return to the dust from which we came.

Love is what really matters and recognising that love in each and every one of us. For if we do we will not need to seek it from others or reject it when others recognise it in us. What really matters is that we bear witness to the love, beauty and wonder of life, that love that connects everything and rejects nothing.

“How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful
How could anyone ever tell you
You were less than whole
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle
How deeply your connected to my soul”

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Reverence for Life

Albert Schweitzer on “Altruism”

'Wherever we find the love and sacrificial care of parents for offspring…we find this ethical power. Indeed, any instance of creatures giving aid to one another reveals it. Let me tell you of three instances which have been brought to my attention.

The first example was told me by someone from Scotland. It happened in a park where a flock of wild geese had settled to rest on a pond. One of the flock had been captured by a gardener, who had clipped its wings before releasing it. When the geese started to resume their flight, this one tried frantically, but vainly, to lift itself into the air. The others, observing his struggles, flew about in obvious efforts to encourage him; but it was no use. Thereupon, the entire flock settled back on the pond and waited, even though the urge to go on was strong within them. For several days they waited until the damaged feathers had grown sufficiently to permit the goose to fly. Meanwhile, the unethical gardener, having been converted by the ethical geese, gladly watched them as they finally rose together, and all resumed their long flight.

My second example is from my hospital in Lambarene. I have the [opportunity] of caring for all stray monkeys that come to our gate. Sometimes there will come to our monkey colony a wee baby monkey whose mother has been killed, leaving this orphaned infant. I must find one of the older monkeys to adopt and care for the baby. I never have any difficulty about it, except to decide which candidate shall be given the responsibility. Many a time it happens that the seemingly worst-tempered monkeys are most insistent upon having this sudden burden of foster-parenthood given to them.

My third example was given me by a friend in Hanover, who owned a small café. He would daily throw out crumbs for the sparrows in the neighbourhood. He noticed that one sparrow was injured, so that it had difficulty getting about. But he was interested to discover that the other sparrows, apparently by mutual agreement, would leave the crumbs which lay nearest to their crippled comrade, so that he could get his share, undisturbed...

(With thanks to Rev Feargus O'Connor for these words by Schweitzer on "Altruism")

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Albert Schweitzer, one of the great figures of the twentieth century. He was incredibly gifted. By the time he was thirty he had achieved more than most of us could even dream of doing in our lifetimes. He was an accomplished musician, minister, theologian and university professor. Then in his early thirties he qualified as a medical doctor and devoted the rest of his life to serving the medical needs of the people of Africa. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel peace prize.

In 1915, while interned in France during the First World War, Schweitzer began to struggle to understand what made life “purposeful”, eventually he came up with his universal ethical principle “Reverence for Life” He said “I am life that wants to live in the midst of other life that wants to live.” He recognised a universal “will to live” in all living beings and claimed that ethical humans would feel compelled to approach all life with the same reverence they have for their own lives. Claiming “‘good’ means to maintain life, to further life, to bring developing life to its highest value. ‘Evil’ means to destroy life, to hurt life, to keep life from developing.” This laid the foundation for his simple universal ethical principle. He saw that "Reverence for Life contains all the components of ethics: love, kindliness, sympathy, empathy, peacefulness, power to forgive." Reverence for life became the by-word of his life and teachings, he promoted the concept that to be an ethical person required us to honour all life and to be a friend of the world, cherishing all aspects of creation. As he wrote “Profound love demands a deep conception and out of this develops reverence for the mystery of life. It brings us close to all beings.”

“Reverence for Life” though is more than ethics, it is a religious imperative. Hence the appropriate use of the word “Reverence”. “Reverence” is a word of real power. “Reverence” literally means “profound, adoring, awed, respect”. “Reverence for Life” has the power to transform, to change the way that life is experienced. Through it an ethical person not only respects life but experiences awe and adoration for every aspect of creation. It is the “Golden Rule” in its purest and most universal form. Through it you see all life as your neighbour and and you love all life as you would wish to be loved yourself.

Nothing in life is separate, everything is interconnected. “Reverence for Life” speaks of life as being interconnected that nothing is separate. Therefore when we disrespect one aspect of life we are disrespecting all and when we revere one aspect, we revere all life. Or to paraphrase Jesus What you do to the least of them, you do to me. Everything is interconnected, nothing lives separately from all life and I believe that is all connected by a Great Universal thread from which all life exists. I call this thread God.

The Great twentieth century theologian and Process philosopher Charles Hartshorne recognised this and as a result urged people of faith to widen their circle of kinship beyond the confines of their own species. He described the universe as a living network rather than a collection of inert forces or senseless objects, He asked: "Is it likely that God takes no delight whatever in the more than a million other living forms on this planet, yet does delight in, derive value from contemplating, the one human species lately emergent on the planet? If such an idea is not sheer anthropomorphic bias, what would be such bias?" Schweitzer did not suffer such speciesism, even as a young boy he recognised God’s love for the animals as he wrote “As a small child, I could not understand why I should pray for human beings only. When my mother first had kissed me good night, I used to add a silent prayer that I composed for all creatures.”

“Reverence for Life” helps us to recognise the importance of everything. It helps us see that everything matters. Every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed. It helps us recognise the intrinsic value of our own lives too. It reveals how we see life and how we live in life impacts on everything, including our own souls, our own beings. I am recognising this more and more as I live and breathe and enjoy my own being and that in which I live and breathe and share my being. In recent weeks as I have simply enjoyed walking round where I live I have felt more connected to the people and the nature that I pass and interact with. As my reverence and love for life has grown, so has my love for my own being too.

Today on the day that the congregations I serve pay homage to the animals and the gifts that they freely share with all life I would ask you the reader to also pay homage to Albert Schweitzer and his lasting legacy. When he died, more than 50 years ago, on 4th September 1965 he left a legacy which in my belief is very much at the core of liberal religious thought. This great humanitarian, musician, theologian, medical doctor and ethical philosopher believed that all life should be revered. That life really mattered, that each and every one of us matters, that this world matters and every living creator living in it matters too. That we do not live purely from or for ourselves and that we are connected and held together in so many ways. That if we share our suffering that we can together begin to lift ourselves from this suffering. That we, each of us, have within us the power to make the difference. I did not say change the world, but make a difference. You never know one small act of compassion might just begin a tidal wave of compassion that can impact throughout all life.

It can happen you know. You’ve just got to believe and then make that belief an action. It simply begins by recognising the Divine in all life. It begins with “Reverence for Life”

I'm going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with the following meditation by Kenneth Collier. I have grown to love the stillness of deer in recent weeks, they bring out an awe filled reverence in me...

“The Deer” by Kenneth Collier

You must stand perfectly still and look like a peculiar tree. And if you move, it must look like it was the wind that blew your hand to your face. And the deer will look back at you without moving their tails. They will look right back at you without moving their tails. They will look, and you wil think that maybe they are not really there. But then, they will move their ears, and you will know they are real.

And that is what it is like. It is like the sweet, almost immovable deer. It sounds green, like rain falling through leaves. It sounds blue, like wind across the bay and the sea. It sounds silver and black, like the sky when there is nothing left of the day but sleep and soft sounds of breathing and dreams that drift upwards like smoke and disappear.

It moves as slowly and carefully as a heron stepping deliberately through the still water of the pond. And it is almost silent. Almost. Not quite. Silent like the falling snow is silent. It whispers against the window, or sings, or even hisses like a fire made of apple wood hisses.

Or maybe you won’t know it is there until it stops. Until the whispering is hushes. Maybe you won’t know it is there until it is not there. And then you will long for it, like the dry grass longs for the rain, And all you can do is be still and wait.

But do not worry. And do not hurry. For the clouds will gather eventually and the rain will fall with a rattle into the grass. The whisper will return like the deer that moved its ear and you will sigh a long, sweet sigh, And I know that it is there.

The throaty sound of knowledge, the sudden splash of understanding, washes over you like a waterfall, like starlight, like a dream that makes the day come alive. And you will know it in the little daily things; the smell of coffee, the touch of hands, the sound of light falling on grass, the taste of air after rain. You will never know it and never forget.

But maybe you ask, “What is this thing?” What is it that moves as silently as snow?”

And what shall I answer? It is nothing but the deer.