Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Power of Words Spoken: Like Bullets or Like Seeds?

As a minister of religion I am asked many questions. I try to humbly and honestly answer them, but often I cannot. There are two particular ones I am asked frequently. The first, which I am asked kind of jokingly but sometimes seriously, goes something like this “So what do you do the rest of the week?” I am usually asked this question after leading worship. I tend to respond with laughter. The second goes something like this “How do you keep on producing something new each week?” I actually find this one even harder to answer. The truth is that I have no idea. All I do is live my life as openly and as lovingly as I can and somehow I am fed by all that goes on around me. I do my best to keep my senses as wide awake as possible.

Now I was recently asked a question, that I struggled to answer, by an occasional visitor to one the chapels I serve (Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel, Altrincham), after the service. She asked me why I went into the raised pulpit to deliver the sermon. She further added it didn’t seem to fit with what I shared which was more open, inviting and inclusive and not really preaching and looking down on people. I remember thinking she made a good point and it’s not something I do at Queens Road Unitarian Free Church Urmston, they don't have a raised pulpit. I remember coming up with some nonsense about it being historical and her husband saying it was about the primacy of “The Word” in the non-conformist tradition. She wasn’t having any of it and do you know what I agree with her. It does create a barrier and kind of goes against the words I am sharing.

Words are very powerful, it matters what we say. That said it’s not just what is said, but also the spirit in which the words are spoken. It really matters, it really does…

 As I was thinking about all this I remembered the the following little tale I recently heard…Like the tales about Nasruddin it spoke to me…

There’s a story about a Unitarian minister’s new car breaking down just after the Sunday service. The next morning, the minister managed to drive the vehicle to his local garage for repairs. “I hope you’ll go easy on the cost,” he told the mechanic. “After all, I’m just a poor preacher.”

“I know,” said the mechanic. “I heard you preach yesterday.”

Now I hope this isn’t true about the worship I create. I know I perhaps don’t speak perfectly. In fact I’m sure sometimes the language I use gets some getting used to but I do hope that what I share with the people I serve touches them and not only speaks to the mind. If I fail to touch their hearts and souls, occasionally at least, then I know I am a poor preacher. I don’t believe that I am, well at least not always.

Like most ministers I am a sensitive soul, I think a good minister needs to be. I used to think this was a handicap, but no longer do so, for although I feel things intensely I don’t take things too personally. I have outgrown that serious handicap over the years. That said sometimes harsh critical words can still feel like “sword thrusts” into my soul. People tell me fascinating things after the words I have shared have stirred them in some way. I often think afterwards oh I wish I’d heard this before. Only I couldn’t have because it would not have awoken in them before. This is the mysterious beauty and power, of the “Creative Interchange”, that we sharers of words are engaged in.

It matters what we say and it matters how we say it, in the spirit that it is delivered. It is important how we speak. Are words we utter about creation or destruction, separation or connection, is it about authority above or it’s about inclusion? It matters you know it really does.

 Now the power of the spoken word is a concept recognised by many cultures, both now and throughout history. It pre-dates the written word. In many ways some of the power has been lost as we have bound up words in books; books written by men at a certain time and place and claimed to be the ultimate authority. Well who gave them that authority? It is claimed that the printing press and to some extent the internet liberated people, but did it really? Well it depends; it did if we give authority to the written word…Well I’ve never really been a believer in taming things, particularly creative things I suspect it is the root of all our human created problems. We are constantly trying to tame and control things, to reduce them to our all too human level. How vain we can be.

Words are powerful they can be either destructive or creative. Perhaps an example of their creative power comes at the beginning of John’s Gospel and the following lines:

 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.'

According to John the spoken word can literally create life, in fact all life. Now of course in the original Greek, which these opening words were written in, the word for “Word” was originally “Logos” which roughly translated actually does mean merely “word,” but also “speech,” “principle,” or “thought.” In Greek philosophy, it also referred to as universal, divine reason or the mind of God. So it could mean God speaking life into being, linking it to the first verses from Genesis when God is said to have breathed life into being, remembering always that he saw this creation as “Good”. So “word” here means, in my view, that life is the meaning coming into being and Jesus is the example of this in human form. An example we can all aspire to. For we can all incarnate Love, we can all be a part of the Divine creation. It begins in our words and how we say these words for they are an expression of our meaning.

Now I believe what we say and how we say it really matters, as everything really matters. Others beg to differ. They say that nothing really matters, especially what we say. This is exemplified in the following familiar rhyme.

'Sticks and stones may break my bones but names (words) will never hurt me.'

Now if this is true then words don’t really have power, that they can’t really hurt us. What do you think? Do words have power? I believe that they do, in fact that are they so powerful that they can either create or destroy life. Or do you believe that they really have no power at all? Do you believe that words can never hurt.

I believe that the spoken word is very powerful. That said it is not just what is said that matters but how and in what spirit. I have come to believe that the words we speak are actually expressions of our spirit and where we are spiritually. They express whether we are part of the creation or the destruction of life. Words do become flesh and they do dwell amongst us, the spoken word far more than the written word I believe, for they are far more of an expression of our spirit.

 Yehuda Berg an author on the Kabbalah a mystical form of Judaism said:

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.”

Words are very powerful, what we say and how we say them have power. We affect people and life just as we affect ourselves with our words. So are we speaking creatively or destructively? Or has Proverbs 18 v 12 put it (written words I know) “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Gary Chapman in his book, “Love as a Way of Life” uses a similar metaphor for words as being either ‘bullets or seeds’. When we use words as bullets or like sword thrusts we are playing a part in the destruction of life, we are building barriers of separation and or exclusion; where as if we speak from wisdom and love we become part of the creative process we are part of the love becoming flesh, we are building bridges of healing and restoration and holding out our hands in an inclusive and embracing way.

Be careful what you say and how you say it, in what spirit, for what you say and how you say it, will play a part in the creation or the destruction of life. It matters what you say and in what spirit you say it.
Words are powerful, it matters what we say and how we say it, and in what spirit. We hear words and how they are spoken before we can understand them with our minds. We hear them from the moment we are born, perhaps even before we are born in our mother’s womb. Here in these powerless and utterly dependent moments the words we hear and digest have a powerful influence on the people we become. Words are very powerful, the words spoken and the spirit that they are spoken in have the power to create and or to destroy life.

 Everything matters, every thought, every feeling, every action and every word spoken. What we say and how we say it is not the only power at work, of course not, but never ever let anyone tell you it does not matter. You have no idea the power that you are involved in with the words you speak. Your very next sentence maybe the beginning of something beautiful in the life of another, it may well play a part in changing or giving life to someone. Or on the other hand it may aid in their destruction.

So choose your words carefully, ensure they are spoken in the spirit of love of creation.

May your words be like seeds that create life and not bullets that destroy life.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Awakening to the Possbilities of a New Life: An Easter Reflection

“Rolling Away the Stone” by Sarah Gilbert

"In the tomb of the soul, we carry secret yearnings, pains, frustrations, loneliness, fears, regrets, worries.
In the tomb of the soul, we wrap ourselves in the security of darkness.
Sometimes this is a comfort, Sometimes it is an escape. Sometimes it prepares us for experience. Sometimes it insulates us from life.
Sometimes this tomb-life gives us time to feel the pain of the world and reach out to heal others.
Sometimes it numbs us and locks us up with our own concerns.
In this season where light and dark balance the day, we seek balance for ourselves.
Grateful for the darkness that has nourished us, we push away the stone and invite the light to awaken us to the possibilities within us and among us-possibilities for new life in ourselves and in our world."

Easter begins with the empty tomb; Easter begins with despair and fear; Easter begins with a sense of emptiness of nothingness. In the account in Mark’s Gospel when the women go to the tomb and find it empty they flee in terror and say nothing. The real miracle is in what follows, the power of love that comes to life from nothingness, from the emptiness.

This is something we can all surely relate to at one time or another this sense of losing everything, of everything being lost. This though is the essence of the whole Easter Mythos that Love can once again grow from the nothingness, from the emptiness. That abundant love can once again grow in our own hearts and our own spirits and that we can incarnate this in our own lives. That this love can be poured out onto our world that so desperately needs it, as much today as when they found the tomb empty some two thousand years ago.

This is our task I believe, our religious task, to once again bring the love that was so evidently present in the life of Jesus alive once again in our oh so human flesh. We can do it, we do not have to be afraid, we do not need to flee in fear, we just need courage gentle courage and this will sustain us. We just need to fill the empty tomb with that abundant love that is present in all life, fill it to overflowing and then let it pour out in all of life…

We need to awaken to the new possibilities, we can start living at any time once again...

These thoughts bring to mind the following wisdom from “What Happens When We Stop Living?” by Nathan C Walker

The question is not,
“What happens when we die?”
Nobody really knows.
The real question is,
“What happens when we stop living?”

The stoicism we face on a daily basis
is a symptom of a larger illness
called a dually-dulled life.

Our lives can be hypnotized
by the monotonous commutes,
multiplied by the flickering florescent light
that falls upon the micromanaging boss
who thinks everything you do in your cubicle
is an extension of his or her power.

Who here is dying a slow and numbing death?

There’s no time to be lulled by monotony.
There is no time to be blaming
other people for our own feelings.
If you don’t like it, change it.

There’s no time for crying, or complaining,
or gossiping, or clinging to that fashionable grudge bag.

No. It is time to wake up, to rise up,
and to carry ourselves into a day worth living.

Let us live one day—this day—
with passion and a sense of collective synergy.

Let us live one day—this day—
by asking questions that truly challenge us
and make us feel alive.

For today’s question is not
“What happens when we die?” it is
“What happens when we stop living?”

 “What Happens When We Stop Living?” excerpted from Nathan C. Walker (2014) Exorcising Preaching: Crafting Intellectually Honest Worship. St. Louis: Chalice Press

Easter is seen through many lenses, some are very clear precise, they are certain as to what Easter is about. Others  though see Easter through a kaleidoscope of ever changing colours and shapes. What comes to your heart and mind when you think of Easter?

Easter is a deeply universal festival in my eyes, I think there are so many layers to this mythos, that if we allow it to can touch all of us. In order to be touched by the magic of Easter you do not have to believe in the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus, you can believe in Easter without having to accept that this actually happened. In fact perhaps it loses some of its power if we focus purely on this. Maybe actually if we view Easter through this very clear lense we will miss much of what it can teach us. Maybe it is better to view Easter through a kaleidoscope or at least partially clouded glass, maybe we see more through the mystery than the seeming clarity.

What is clear to me is that Easter is about the Power of Love that grew from that empty tomb. Whatever we may think about bodily resurrection, something definitely lived on beyond the physical death of Jesus. While his body may no longer have remained in the empty tomb, some beautiful aspect of his life certainly remained. Love was born again, even after the body as killed.

Resurrection probably means something different to each and every person. As the meaning of Easter probably means something different to each and every person. Whatever it means to you I hope you live out that belief in your lives. I do my best to.

I have experienced many deaths to what I thought I knew throughout my life and have experienced what it means to live once again. I know what is means to experience resurrection, to finally wake up from an earth bound slumber, and I do not believe I am alone in this.

 Resurrection for me is about bringing to life the love that was born again on Easter morning. I have come to believe that this is truly our religious task. I believe that this is what it means to bring to life the “Kingdom of Heaven” that was constantly spoken of in the Gospel accounts.

Now of course many believe that the Kingdom is the place that we go to when we die, if chosen. I do not believe that this is what Jesus was speaking of in the Gospels. Remember he said that the “kingdom is within you” or that it is “at hand” (here now). I believe that he was teaching that the key is to bring the kingdom alive within ourselves and to share that with our world, therefore building the beloved community of love. I have come to believe that this is the love that is born again as the stone was rolled away and seemingly found to be empty, because from that emptiness love was once again, born again.

From nothing comes everything.

 I have heard it said that the greatest sin is the unlived life; to find yourself at the end of your life full of regret for the things you have done, or failed to do; to not make the most of the incredible gift that is this life; to not bring alive what is within you. So often in life we postpone what our heart desires, usually because of fear. I know I have. I have allowed fear to stop me living this life I have been given. I have allowed my heart and soul to become inhibited by fear, not always my fear but the fear of others. What I feared the most was what was within me.
And yet by bringing forth hat is within me I have begun to create the Kingdom of Love right here right now and in so doing I have begun to live fully alive…

We all have this day, we all have this time, what shall we do with it? The key I believe is to fully live it. To bring forth what is within us. To incarnate love in our lives is to become fully alive. The second century philosopher Irenaeus said “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” This to me is the word becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us, this is the divine love fully alive. This is truly bringing forth the kingdom that is within us. If you want to experience the divine in life, then all you have to do is to find the courage to live fully alive and then to bless the world with your very presence and thus inspire others to do the same. And thus enjoy the kingdom of God, the kin-dom of love right now.

It’s time to bring the kin-dom of love to life. It is time to begin living this one wonderful life we have been given…

This is the Love that is born again on the eternal Easter morning. This is what grows from the emptiness of the tomb when the stone is rolled away…From nothing to everything…

I’m going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with the following poem by Mary Oliver “Summer’s Day

 “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

...So what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Happy Easter

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Still We Rise

One of blessings of my work is that people tell you things, they really tell you things; things that they perhaps cannot tell other people. They open their hearts to you and somehow find the ability to expose their all too real and vulnerable humanity. I’m not just talking about the people I serve, but people I meet in general. Now I say it is a blessing of my work but actually this has happened all my life. People, for whatever reason, open up to me.

Now there was a time in my life when this bothered me somewhat, I did not see it as a blessing. I would take on board and absorb the pain of others and it would weigh me down. There was a time when I wished above all things to be freed from this sensitivity, it was too much. I saw it as a serious handicap and one I wished I didn’t have.

Thankfully this is no longer the case. I am as sensitive as I have always been. if not more so. I feel more today than I ever done. The difference is that I no longer carry the burden of the suffering of others around with me. This for me is one of the great gifts of faith and living openly. Life passes through me as I believe it is meant to. It is this, I have come to believe, which allows me to truly be of service to others.

People speak to me, they open up to me and they tell me things. Most of us carry much pain around with us, many disappointments, so many experiences of betrayal. Yes we all know joy and love and acceptance, but we also know betrayal both by others and of course by ourselves.  

What I love about the conversations, as hard as they can be at times, is that what I witness in so many people is true courage, as they continue on living and loving despite the many struggles, worries and disappointments. Something we don’t always recognise in ourselves. 

What I see in the people I meet and share life with is something I fully recognise in myself. I recognise our full and complex humanity. That we are all made up of many things, we have all fallen short and fallen down many times but still we rise oh still we rise.

Brings to mind this beautiful poem by Maya Angelou

Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise. 

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Now of course I am not an African American woman, I have not walked in her shoes but I identify, as so many of us can I am sure, we all continue to rise.

Today “Palm Sunday” marks the beginning of “Holy Week”, regarded as the most important in the whole Christian calendar. It begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem riding on the back of a humble donkey or Colt. He is received by the crowds waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna, hosanna in the highest heaven” The crowds welcome Jesus who they believe will save them. This though does not happen and just a few days later he is betrayed, rejected, brutalised and killed. The body is killed, the figure dies, but the love that is left behind lives on. It is this love that I believe is true Easter mythos. A love that can live on and once again incarnate in the lives of all people. On Easter morning once more we see the love rise.

There is though more to the Holy week narrative than the concept of universal love. It is not just a mythos about Jesus, it is also about the crowd and all the people around him. People just like you and me. Just like them we can all get caught up in the crowd mentality can we not? We can all identify with the crowd despite the world in which we live being very different today. We share a common humanity with them. We are all formed from the same breath of life, we all have the Divine spark within us; well at least I believe that we do. We are not God’s though, although we can become the light of the world if and when we live in love. We are fully human just like those folk on the side of the street waving their palms grateful for any reason to celebrate. People looking for joy, looking for meaning, looking for love. People who just like us are prone to disappointment, who fail to live up to the very ideals they would like to strive for. People who fall short, get ill, and become bogged down in little and bigger things, finite human beings. People who are looking for hope, to lift them out of their suffering. People looking for someone or something to lead them to better things, to give them another chance to live better lives.
How many times have we fallen short, messed up and wished we could live up to our ideals? Well we can. Earlier I shared a wonderful poem, “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. I’d like to share with you now some other words by her, words that strike deep into my soul, on forgiveness:

I don't know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes – it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you, when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white, or too poor, or too fat or too thin, or too sexual or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don’t have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.”

This is so key I believe, this sense of forgiveness and wholeness this sense that we are ok, they are so essential if we wish to keep on rising. We all fall down at times, we all give in at times what we need is a sense of true forgiveness to come if we want to start over again.

What I sense so often when I listen to people is that they are not just wanting to unburden themselves but are looking for a reals sense of forgiveness to be able to start again, to be redeemed from all those things that hold them back from being the loving people we are all capable of being.

Here lays the essence of the story of Palm Sunday and the week that follows that leads to the new beginning that is Easter. We can begin again we can start anew, we can forgive and be forgiven for our very human mistakes and shortcomings, for our betrayals of love however it manifests in this our imperfect world. It means that we will get things wrong sometimes, lots of times, but that, if we pay attention, maybe next time, we’ll do better. If we work at it, we can see our own glory in the mirror; we can begin to see what we’re capable of being; we can begin to recognise that we truly are children of love; we can begin again in love. No matter how many times we fall we can rise again.

This week begins in glory and celebration, before moving onto to betrayal, denial, torture and brutal death. Love and compassion is destroyed by the end of it, only to rise again and far more powerfully than ever before.

For love will always rise again.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Please Help & Thank You

Last Saturday I was invited to speak at Midland Unitarian Union’s Annual General Meeting.  It was lovely to spend the day with many Unitarians from the district at the beautiful Kingswood Meeting House in Hollywood, just south of Birmingham. The talk went really well, I enjoyed myself. I was grateful to be there. During the AGM the district’s treasurer Sandy Ellis was honoured for over thirty years of service. In fact there were many votes of thanks given throughout the day, something that is entirely appropriate for such occasions. So much work is done behind the scenes both in congregations, districts and at a wider level that enables these free religious communities to function; tireless work that is done mainly out of love.

A few days before this I had come home to find a box on my doorstep, a very large box. I opened it wondering what it was. Inside was an extensive selection of the most wonderful fruit and a lovely note from “Slimming World”. A thank you for all I’d given freely to the Parliamentary Workshop aimed at combating obesity. A wonderful gift. I have received many gifts in recent weeks and some rather lovely letters and cards all saying thank you for little things I’ve done in my many varied ministerial duties and my life in general. Thank you.

This all got me thinking about "thank you", just those two simple words. I say thank you a lot if truth be told. I have this odd habit of thanking things, it seems I’m not alone as I’ve found others do it too. I thank the tram and the train as I get off and I thank the cash machine after using it. I thank people constantly and I offer silent thanks of praise and prayer throughout my day. It’s funny but after particularly frustrating and challenging spells in my life I find myself saying thank you an awful lot. It’s not the only prayer of course. I have noticed another prayer as I walk faithfully through the difficult times and that prayer is “Help me, please help me.” I offer thanks and ask for help to the great mystery but I also offer thanks and ask for help from the people I share my life with. This act of humility, of opening up connects me to all that is…

They do say that you should watch your “P’s” and “Q’s”, your please and thank you’s, well perhaps that is simply what prayer, or the act of prayer is about, recognising the need for assistance and reaching beyond ourselves. Maybe it is also a simple thank you and acknowledgement for all that life offers us, an acknowledgement of gratitude. The prayers in themselves do not change anything, other than perhaps our attitude, but they do play a vital role. Never forget that the action is always ours.

Meister Eckhart said “If the only prayer you said the rest of your life was thank you, it would be enough”. I see a great deal of truth in this, but not the whole truth. It does come close, but I have also come to believe that another prayer is just as vital; the other prayer is “please help”.

In terms of prayer these two are enough. That said prayer alone is not enough, faith without works is meaningless. It’s ok saying thank you, expressing gratitude but these are just empty words unless this gratitude is shown in how we live our lives. Meanwhile asking for help means nothing unless it is followed by appropriate faithful action. Prayer is the beginning and perhaps end of something, but what goes on in between is what really counts.

For me the spiritual life is about connection and interdependence. No one is an island, no one lives wholly from and by themselves. I was chatting with a friend the other day about how often in my life people have so freely given things to me, especially food. And yet I often hear it said that “There is no such thing as a free meal”. What utter tosh, I’ve received many free meals in my life, people just giving to me from their hearts without expectation. We are given free meals from the moment of our birth until our deaths. If we honestly look at our lives how many times have people given us free meals? Think about your first meal, given by your mother, that’s the ultimate example of a free meal. No one is purely self-reliant, we need one another and the world needs us to give freely of ourselves.

We constantly live lives of please and thank you, it’s that we do not always recognise these two and we don’t always show it. It is oh so easy for us to see what is wrong. I actually think when we offer thanks, when we offer the gift of ourselves and when we ask for help from each other, from the spirit of life. what we are doing is blessing the world by our presence, what we are actually doing is gracing life with our presence, we are actually living in a state of grace.

From the cradle to the grave we need to keep asking for help and we need to make ourselves available to be of assistance to others in their need. This is not to say that we become unhealthily dependent on others and society as a whole, no not at all. We are though a part of a whole, a complex whole, that makes life and community. As we grow and change and become the people that we are this changes shape and reforms constantly, it seems that we are being born again and again to new versions of ourselves. Of course we cannot do this alone. We cannot give birth to ourselves, no one can. We need help and sometimes we need to ask for help from others and in so doing we are of course doing not only a service for ourselves, but for them also.

No one is an island. We are communal beings entirely dependent on each other and life itself. We are interdependent and all life is interrelated, what affects one affects all. This has never been more true. When someone reaches out in a time of need it is our God given duty to help and when we need help we need to be faithful enough to ask for help too. Interdependence is a physical fact, but it is also a spiritual reality. And when we receive the help we need to offer thanks and praise for the gift freely given, not just merely in our words, but in deeds and in our simple daily living. This is what it means to live in a state of grace.

This to me is the whole point of spiritual community, of religious living, to create states of Grace. To see, understand and experience this oneness, this Divine Unity. To see that we are all one. To be of help to one another and to seek the help when it is needed. In this way we all grow and become the best that we can be and serve life to the utmost of our ability. In so doing we bring into being a state of Grace.

By minding our “P’s” and “Q’s” by asking for help and giving thanks and living with these attitudes to the for front of our lives we begin to create the Kin-dom” of love here, we create a state of Grace. We not only see that we are all one, we live in this oneness and in so doing we will begin to recognise life as the ultimate gift that it is, the ultimate free meal.

Life is the greatest gift of all, the ultimate Grace.

Grace comes to us unbidden. It does not come because we have done anything to deserve it or not deserve it, it just comes. Life itself is probably the ultimate of graces. Think about it we did absolutely nothing to deserve the gift of life itself, in all its joy and suffering, in all its blessings and curses. Grace is about what we do with the gift we have been given; Grace is what we create from what we have been given; Grace is what we bring to the table of life with this gift we have been given.

Grace works in and through us. While we need not do anything to deserve it, we must do a great deal to bring it to life. As the Buddhist Joanna Macy observed “Grace happens when we act with others on behalf of our world.” Grace an unseen force exists in those spaces between our lives and we experience it as it works through our lives, encouraging others to engage with it too. To dance in the spaces as the music of life plays. Grace creates the interconnection.

We can experience the Grace present in life if we are open to it, if we would just let go of the need to control, to open our clenched fists just a little and dance with it in the spaces that contain life. We just need to pay attention, to notice it in life and in the lives of those who live in a Graceful state. You see all life can become a disclosure of Grace. We can experience it in every moment of life. In the wild embrace of one we hold most dear, in those flocks of wild geese that fly overhead, in an act of reconciliation and forgiveness, and in a selfless act as we give of ourselves to life.

We can all live in a “State of Grace.”

It begins quite simply, by simply minding our “P’s” and “Q’s”, our please and thank you’s. By simply asking for help when needed and offer thanks for what is given and returning this in our daily living.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

The Spirit of Mother

The celebration of Mother has a long history. It dates back to the time of ancient Greece and Rome. It is not merely, as some would suggest, a creation of the greeting cards company to make money out of us. The celebrations of mother and motherhood has been with us for many centuries. In Britain Mothering Sunday was about returning home either to family and or the Mother Church. Returning to a place of total acceptance and love, a place where the love within us can grow, a place of nurture.

 These days Mothering Sunday in the UK has become known as Mother’s Day, following the American tradition that is celebrated in May, and not the middle Sunday of Lent.

Mothering Sunday, Mother’s Day, whatever its actual true origins is enshrined in this image of returning home, and this sense of belonging to something more than ourselves. Whether that is actually of children returning to the family home having been working away or of people returning to the mother church. Either way it’s about returning home to a place of safety; it is about returning home to a place of renewal, of re-birth, not only for ourselves but for others too; it is about returning to a place of love and total acceptance of who we are, exactly as we, no matter what we have done or where we have been, we are accepted with open loving arms. It’s about returning to that place where love is not only born but nurtured and grown and brought into true being.

Mother’s Day is the celebration of being held and nurtured in the spirit of love. Mother’s Day is about celebrating the spirit of mother.
Today we celebrate the spirit of mother; today we celebrate and give thanks to those who gave birth to our being, but we do more than that. Today we celebrate those who have nurtured and brought to life the love within us whether they are the ones who gave birth to our bodies or helped nurture and bring to life something within us. Today we celebrate the spirit of mother; today we celebrate those who have nurtured our lives whether in body, in mind, in heart or spirit.

Also today in celebrating the spirit of mother we acknowledge our responsibility to one another as individuals and a community to nurture, to bring to life, the love within ourselves, one another and the wider human community.
The truth is that all of us are constantly giving birth to something each and every day. We are all a part of the Divine Creation and re-creation it is really important to recognise this. As Annie Dillard wrote “ We are here to witness creation and to abet it…We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are all around us and to praise the people who are here with us.”

This is nurture, this bringing alive the spirit of mother, this is what we celebrate this day.
There are many ways to nurture and countless opportunities each and every day to do so. What have you given birth to and nurtured today? Perhaps a new sense of family or community? Perhaps you have held or encouraged another, given them hope? Perhaps something to improve your local community or wider society? What can you give birth to or nurture today? What gift have you been given that could be brought to life or what could you encourage to bring to life in others?

In what ways can you bring to life the spirit of Mother?
Over the last few weeks I feel I have awoken once again to the spirit of Mother, the spirit of nurture. I felt powerfully caught up in it only last week as I attended the parliamentary workshop and reception on combatting obesity. I participated in the roundtable discussion looking at ways to reach men. Many avenues were explored. At one point we discussed children and the role that not only mothers but fathers play in nurturing their children’s eating habits and how this would be one way to reach men to help them live healthier lives. It was reassuring to witness the recognition these days in men’s roles in nurturing children.
During the day I witnessed this nurturing love being expressed and participated in conversations about how we all have a role in bringing it to life. I saw a deep sense of collective responsibility and witnessed numerous examples of ways in which we can all show the way. None more so than in Baroness Benjamin, a wonderful example of mother. I’m not just talking about childhood memories here either. Although I did remember being a little boy and watching with my own mother as she touched so many children’s lives in the 1970’s. What I witnessed and was honoured to be in the presence of, was the embodiment of nurture, such a warm and deeply loving human being who just put you at ease by their presence. Someone who made you feel welcome as you are and someone who by simply being themselves invited you to be yourself. This is the spirit of mother for me and also the model for religious community too, the mother church a place of nurture, love and acceptance, a place where you can be yourself and your spirit can grow.

I felt powerfully the spirit of mother that day.

Subsequently I have felt a sickening sadness this week as only seven days later this very same place was a scene of bloodshed and murder as the Houses of Parliament came under attack from a man with murderous intent. That terror, that fear, will not overcome love though, of this I am certain. The spirit of love, that embodies the spirit of mother will overcome the spirit of destruction that occurred that day. We have seen this spirit come to life as people have come together ever since this appalling atrocity was committed...The spirit of love will always over come...
Today we honour the spirit of mother. Yes we honour the mothers who gave birth to us and raised us but also all the others who have nurtured and brought to life this love within us. We also honour that which lays within us, that spirit of mother that can help bring the very same love alive in others.
All of us have the potential to give birth and raise something in the world. Not all of us can give birth to children, but we can give birth to ideas, to art to music to all manner of creativity, we can all give birth to love through our very being. Some of us raise children, but children are not the only things that we can raise. Some of us can raise animals or flowers and vegetables; some of us can raise those in our community to be the best that they can be; some of us, later in life, find ourselves raising our own parents as they come to end of their lives; some of us can raise interest in a cause that we feel is worthy of working for, for me in recent times it is obesity and issues about our own bodily being. A love that has grown from my own pain and suffering and struggle. If we cannot raise interest we can raise money to support causes or just point out to others where love is needed. We can all raise and nurture love in this world, we can all give birth to love through our being. We can invoke the spirit of mother through our very own human being.

So on this day that honours mothers, let us do so in the true spirit of mother. Let us honour the mothers who gave birth to us and those who raised us. Let us give thanks for all they gave, whilst acknowledging their human limitations. Let us also give thanks for all those who have shown unconditional love and acceptance to us, those who have nurtured that loving spirit within us, who encouraged us to be the best that we could be. Let us also acknowledge that spirit of mother within each of us, that capacity to accept, love, encourage and nurture. Let us acknowledge our responsibility not only for ourselves but for one another and the whole of humanity.

Let’s all of us pay homage to the spirit of mother…

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Love and Fear: What do you feel?

“I bet you feel nervous don’t you?” “No not really,” I said “I feel ok about it. I know why I’m going and it’s a real honour to be asked. Any way I won’t be travelling alone.” “Who are travelling with?” I was asked “Oh I am travelling with love all the way. I only travel first class these days.” Several people have asked me this question or similar ones these last few weeks about my attendance at the Slimming World Policy Workshop and Parliamentary Reception exploring ways to tackle obesity that I would be taking part in and given a speech at, in the Houses of Parliament. The truth is I wasn’t feeling nervous about it at all. I felt good. I knew why I was going and do you know what I knew I belonged there, I knew I had something to offer from my own lived experience. I knew what had got me to where I am and that I could trust in this loving power to guide me through the day. I knew why I was going and I knew it wasn’t about me, it was about being of service to others who struggle with shame about their own physical being. It was about being in love.

Even on the morning as I set off, really early, there was no fear. I felt at ease, I knew why I was going and I knew I wasn’t alone. I was travelling with love flowing through my veins. I arrived at the Houses of Parliament early and walked around the square looking at the statues of the great and the good, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln rising from his chair, Gandhi, Nelson Mandella and others. I thought about the history of the place and the people who had spoken there in some form or another. Yes these are great figures but they were no more human than any of us. It was strange there was no fear, love held me through it all. I then went, through security and to the round table discussions on obesity, something I know much about. Again I passed statues of the great and the good and took in the immensity of the place. The only time I felt any fear at all was when I passed through security and I got that weird guilt feeling so many feel at airports and also as I passed the armed police with their automatic weapons, sad signs of the time. I joined in the discussion at my table with a variety of health experts from many fields and Lord’s and M.P.’s from all the parties. I spoke my truth in love and I listened with the ears of my heart, in the room named after the great orator Winston Churchill. Later was the reception when again I listened to speeches first from Baroness Benjamin, Floella Benjamin from my childhood, what an amazing woman, even more wonderful in real life, then politicians and a young weight loss champion and then it was my time to speak. I stood at the podium I opened my mouth and I just let my truth come out. When I had finished speaking the response was amazing and Floella held out her arms to me and hugged me like no one has ever hugged me before. She then spoke so lovingly and glowingly about what I said, saying that she wants me back and telling me that I need to keep on sharing my story. I then mixed with many others and photos were taken and arrangement s were made to speak again and join in the efforts to help so many people out there who are suffering with obesity. I know the truth that love can help anyone overcome whatever it is that is holding them back and stopping them living the life that they are born to live.

I had travelled, spoken and been in love all day, there had been no fear. Perfect love and truly cast out all fear that day...

Fear haunts so many lives. It has certainly done so with mine over the years. We seem to be living in ever more fearful times. Actually I think it is the biggest epidemic that is crippling humanity. I suspect it is at the root of virtually all our human troubles. Fear is on the increase, humanity seems to be increasingly losing faith in itself. This troubles me, because I know it doesn’t have to be this way. I know the power of love can and does overcome crippling fear. The last third of my life is proof of that.

Thankfully I’m not alone in this. I know others who see the world through similar eyes, through the lens of love. It was very clear that Baroness Benjamin is one of them and so are many others I spent my time with that day. If I could have one wish it would be to encourage everyone I meet to look at the world, at one another, and themselves through such lenses. 

Now as a minister of the Unitarian tradition you would perhaps expect me to see life this way. I remember speaking with Rev Jill McCallister at our General Assembly meetings a couple of years ago. She was visiting from the US as a representative of the International Council of Unitarian Universalists (ICUU). I talked with her quite a lot over the days, I enjoyed her company immensely. I remember her telling me of her greatest concern in pastoral ministry, this growing sense of fear and pessimism in the people she served. She told me they were not poor, they were fairly privileged and had lived and were living good lives but still she noticed this growing fear amongst them. She said if she could give them something it would be to give them the loving faith they needed to overcome the fear. Oh how she wished she could give them the love they needed to feed their souls and thus overcome their fear, for if they didn’t they would not live the lives they needed to live in order to live in hope and dispel their growing despair.

 John Lennon said:

 “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.” 

Fear is a powerful force and it comes in many forms. There are of course phobias such as of spiders, or heights or people we can perceive as different. There are internal fears such as commitment and loneliness, the sort of fears that shut us down and close us in. There is fright a healthy kind of fear that kicks in if we nearly get run over or a brick falls from a building being worked on from above. Then there is dread, the worst kind of fear, the kind that stops us living at all.

Love is as equally a powerful force, in fact perhaps even more powerful than fear. It too comes in many form, there is not just the romantic kind that we talk about on Valentine’s Day. There is also a deep sense of happiness that comes from a love for life itself, the opposite of dread. There’s the love we feel for friends and family and community too. There is also another kind of love, the type that David Whyte talked about extensively in his book, “The Three Marriages,” this is a deep engaged love with life whether that be with our inner selves, others, life itself, a work or calling, for nature and of course a love for God. There are many forms of love.

These two forces “Love” and “Fear” pull and push at us constantly, like the great tides and whichever one we feed is the one that consumes us. Fear can stop us functioning, as it shuts us down completely or perhaps worse, it can lead to terrible destruction, as we make wrong choices about life and take wrong action. Fear can block us from experiencing the one thing we all need to live happily in this world, it can stop us from knowing love.

Love though can drive out fear, it does so by nourishing our souls. As John wrote (1 John Ch 4 vv 18)

 "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love."

 To know love and to share it with others will always overcome fear. It has always done so. I know this from personal experience. By constantly turning to love fear is overcome and cannot take hold and by living in love we become beacons of hope to others of what living in and through love can do. Love gives us the courage to overcome fear, to face whatever is causing us fear and to walk through it and as we do the fear diminishes. As we do we can feel the love flowing again. All we have to do is turn in love and the tide can begin to change direction. Hard to believe I know, but true. It’s up to us, by simply choosing love we can cast out fear and be of service to ourselves and the whole world around us. Fear and cynicism are the easy lazy choices. Love is harder, well actually it’s tougher, but it is most certainly worth it.

So as I set off on last Wednesday morning I did so in faith. I knew what I was engaging in was an act of love. An act not only for the good of myself, but for the good of many. It was an act worthy of engaging in. at the core of what I was doing was love. A love for self, a love for others, a love for life and a love for God. Ever since I have known this love any fear I have known has been easily cast out. This love is at the core of all that I do in life these days. Who knows what adventure it will lead me on next? God only knows.

I’m going to end this little chip of a "BlogSpot"morning with the following “Love Verses Fear” by Sarah Nean Bruce

LOVE IS UNCONDITIONAL (fear is conditional)
LOVE IS STRONG (fear is weak)
LOVE RELEASES (fear obligates)
LOVE SURRENDERS (fear binds)
LOVE IS HONEST (fear is deceitful)
LOVE TRUSTS (fear suspects)
LOVE ALLOWS (fear dictates)
LOVE GIVES (fear resists)
LOVE FORGIVES (fear blames)
LOVE CHOOSES (fear avoids)
LOVE IS KIND (fear is angry)
LOVE IGNITES (fear incites)
LOVE EMBRACES (fear repudiates)
LOVE CREATES (fear negates)
LOVE HEALS (fear hurts)
LOVE IS MAGIC (fear is superstitious)
LOVE ENERGIZES (fear saps)
LOVE IS AN ELIXIR (fear is a poison)
LOVE INSPIRES (fear worries)
LOVE DESIRES (fear Joneses)
LOVE IS PATIENT (fear is nervous)
LOVE IS BRAVE (fear is afraid)
LOVE IS RELAXED (fear is pressured)
LOVE IS BLIND (fear is judgmental)
LOVE RESPECTS (fear disregards)
LOVE ACCEPTS (fear rejects)
LOVE DREAMS (fear schemes)
LOVE WANTS TO PLAY (fear needs to control)
LOVE ENJOYS (fear suffers)
LOVE FREES (fear imprisons)
LOVE BELIEVES (fear deceives)
LOVE “WANTS” (fear “needs”)
LOVE versus fear: what do you feel?

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Good or bad: Maybe, maybe not...Let's wait and see...

“Oh it’s an awful day, truly dreadful.” I wonder how many times I have heard these words uttered. I heard it several times last Sunday. I heard it as folk arrived for worship. I heard it as I chatted with people at the gym and heard it from several friends that evening. Now granted these friends are members of a walking group and it had been pretty wild last Sunday. It certainly didn’t feel like the beginning of spring.

It is said that we British are obsessed with the weather. Oscar Wilde said that conversation about the weather was “the last refuge of the unimaginative”. Bill Bryson, that great observer of this nation, noted that the most striking characteristic of British weather is that there “ain’t much of it.” None British people are puzzled, it seems, at our obsession with talking about the weather. I’ve lost count of the number of storm warnings over the last few weeks and yet if truth be told none of them were severe in comparison to other parts of the world. And yet we never stop talking about the weather. In a recent survey 94% of respondents admitted to having talked about the weather in the past six hours while 38% admitted to doing so in the last hour. Which means according to social anthropologist Kate Fox who performed the study in 2010 for her book “Watching the English” “…at almost any moment in England, at least a third of the population is either talking about the weather, has already done so or is about to do so.”

We British are obsessed with the weather. How many times have you talked about it already today? When was the last time you did so?

Please don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong in this. I actually think it is lovely way for people to connect. The problem isn’t so much that we talk about the weather. No the problem I see is something else. It’s the way that we divide our conversation into “good” and “bad”. We talk about “good” and “bad” weather. It seems to me that we do this with all aspects of life. We divide life into “good” and “bad” and we do it with people too.

How often do we hear the phrase “There are two types of people in this world?” Well there aren’t there are people and people. We are all made of the same stuff, we have the same spirit within us. Dividing up people into different camps helps no one and in my view it is this that leads to the evil that we do to one another, it is this that justifies so many of the wrongs we have commit against one another. When we look into one another’s eyes do we really see someone other than ourselves? Do we really see a different type of person?

Yet we all do it. I do it, I’m no different to anyone else. We all have our scapegoats those we blame for our troubles or life’s troubles. It is not just with people and weather that we do this either, we do it with good fortune and with fate. We talk about good luck and we talk about bad luck.

Of all the stories I’ve told in my time as minister, the one that people seem to remember the most, the one that folk have told back to me more than any other is the following one on good luck and bad luck. A story that the people I serve physically tell back to me by lifting one or the other shoulder. Here it is…

“Let’s Wait and See”

There's an excellent Taoist tale of a farmer who has a balanced view of life. This view often confuses those around him that expect him to react or behave according to the "norm".

The story goes that an old farmer is working hard in the fields. He has a wife and a son, and ekes out a meagre living. One day, his only horse runs away. Upon hearing this, his neighbours comment "Oh, how awful! That is terrible! Such bad news!" to this the farmer replied:

"Maybe, maybe not. Let's wait and see."

A few days later, the farmer's horse returns and with it is another, exotic horse from far away. The horse is a mare, and is of rare value. The neighbours, upon hearing this, exclaim "How wonderful! It's fantastic that your horse returned and brought another horse with it! Such good news!". The farmer shrugged and said:

"Maybe, maybe not. Let's wait and see."

"The farmer's horses gave him many young, prized colts making the farmer very wealthy in the town. The neighbours were very happy for the farmer saying; "This is so fantastic! Your new horses have brought you much fortune! Such good news!" The farmer responded:

"Maybe, maybe not. Let's wait and see"

The farmer's son, now a young man, tried to tame one of the young colts and was thrown from the horse, breaking his hip. This left the son unable to walk. The neighbours came to help and tried to console the farmer saying; "Oh, how awful! Your only son will never walk again! Such bad news!". The farmer, who was not upset, simply said:

"Maybe, maybe not. Let's wait and see"

Later that year, the farmer's country went to war, and the army came by to conscript every able bodied man for duty. The farmer was too old to be taken, and his son could not walk, therefore he was excused. The army simply took the farmer's horses, leaving him just his original horse to allow him to keep farming.

Was the farmer's life good? Maybe. Was the farmer's life bad? Maybe not.

Good luck and bad luck are two sides of the same really depends on the perspective that we choose to view in any given situation.

“Good” and “bad” are aspects of all life and each and every person. Sometimes what we see as “good” and “bad” turn out to be the very opposite. It’s the same with people. There are not two types of people that we divide into “good” and “bad” camps. There is simply one type of person. Division and divisiveness are very dangerous things indeed. Where on earth do we draw the line?

It matters how we speak about life, it matters how speak about one another and it matters how we speak about ourselves. By saying this is “good” and this is “bad” and standing in this judgement we are creating a wall between aspects of ourselves and aspects of each other. This creates division both within ourselves and each other. What we need is reconciliation. We and all life is formed from the same source, we cannot separate any aspect of it from another.  We need to learn to create the environment when the lion and lamb can lie down together. Both the lion and the lamb within ourselves, but also the lion and the lamb in each other and all life.

Our world really needs this now. We seem to live in ever more dividing and divisive times. Our world needs healing and I believe it is the task of free religious communities to take the lead in this. It is up to us and it begins with us, in our own hearts and in our own communities. For it we get this right we can begin to bring healing and reconciliation to our wider world. It begins with how we engage with one another and with life. It begins with how we view life, maybe it begins with how we even view the weather. Maybe it begins by stopping seeing the weather as “good” or “bad”, and simply see it as weather.

The spiritual life is not a passive life. How we live in the world really matters. How we see life, how we see ourselves and how we see one another really matters. How we speak about life, how we speak about ourselves and how we speak about one another really matters. We impact on life constantly we are not just blown and battered by life. We can set our sails and even gain mastery of the elements if we take care our sails. We are not powerless in life and our lives are not meaningless. It is important that what we actually do is recognise our power and responsibility. To truly pay attention to how we impact on life and one another. To live spiritually is to take responsibility and to fully live our lives. We are not all powerful of course not, but we are an important part of the whole and our world needs us to recognise this and to play our part fully in life.

We need to fully recover our true identity, we need to recognise our interconnectedness we need to awaken our true sense of self and embrace fully our being and our inter-being with each other and all life in reverence, in love and in care. In so doing we will begin to embrace an attitude that is an antidote to separating life into “good” and into “bad”, into “them” and “us”

If we do we can begin to create the environment where the lion does indeed begin to lay down with the lamb.

It is up to us. For this we are all responsible.