Sunday, 10 December 2017

Becoming The Gift We Have All Been Waiting For

We are now fully into the Advent Season, the days that lead to Christmas Day. These are the days of waiting of preparation. The music is playing, we can hear all the familiar songs in every shop as we no doubt begin the process of selecting presents for our loved ones.

Have you done all your shopping yet? I’ve not even begun. I will soon, but not just yet. I’ve got too much to do.

Gifts of course come in many forms. Not all are wrapped in paper and tied up in ribbons. Some come in other forms, some wrapped in flesh, human flesh. I remember at primary school once being asked what was my favourite Christmas present had been, to which my answer was “Our Natalie”, my youngest sister had just been born a few days before Christmas. Her life has proved to be a wonderful blessing, even if she is a little too well named. Our Natalie never stops nattering. That said she is a gift beyond gifts.

When I look back at my life I have known some wonderful gifts in human form. Some of whom I have known for only a short time and others all my life. I’ve been thinking of these folk quite a lot these last few days. While I may not carry those people with me physically, their love is tied up in my heart. I do not forget these things, in fact in many ways my life is an act of remembrance of the love they gave, and certainly my ministry is.

Last week an old friend, someone who I have begun to see a little of once again in recent times, reminded me of a book I had given him as a gift 12 Christmases ago. He told me he had been re-reading it in recent weeks and reminded me of an inscription I had written in it, some simple words of gratitude, simply for being himself. He told me that reading it had led him on a path of spiritual discovery and wanted to thank me for it. I could have wept, I would have wept if I had not being in company. Now while this boy does cry, he rarely does so in the company of others, I am always the minister.

The conversation brought to mind another gift of a blessing that a dear friend gave me 11 months later, on the day my heart was broken, as I lost the most precious gift that ever entered my life, my friend Claire’s son Ethan, my Immanuel. The one who showed to me that God is indeed with us.

The day Ethan died I was utterly broken. I was alone with nowhere to go and ended up with friends from the Cross Street congregation, three in particular Alan Myerscough, Wynne Semeter and Peter Sampson. John Midgley had already come to the hospital and ministered to us as best he could. I will never forget what John gave that day, even though I have since learnt that he felt he let me down, nothing could be further from the truth. What I remember the most though about that day is a simple bowl of soup that Wynne warmed for me, sat me down and made me eat. It didn’t change anything about the hell I was in but the love warmed me physically, emotionally and spiritually. I felt God was with me, expressed in human form, incarnated in those around me. I also remember how much others were friends to me in the coming months, particularly my friend Derek.

The Christmas that followed was a hard for so many people, but in so many ways it was beautiful. A beautiful example of people coming together in love, a glimpse of the kingdom of love that I believe is at the core of the true Christmas message. It is certainly the message I read in Matthews Gospel, to me this is what it means to follow that yonder star the wise men from the east were seeking. I pay homage to those gifts of divine love that I have known in human form, that have blessed my life and shown to me that God is with us indeed.

Christmas is a time of celebration, of family and others coming together once again in love. It is a time when everything is heightened and illuminated. This can be difficult for some people, particularly Christmas Day. For some people who are not feeling so joyous, Christmas can actually increase those feelings of isolation and loss. As we sit round the Christmas dinner table we may notice not so much the ones that are there, but the ones who are not there. Often those we have lost due to death’s dark shadow, but also those who are not there due irreconcilable differences. I notice the empty chairs around my own family’s table. I always have done. I fully feel the joy of the day, but also its sadness.

Yes Christmas can be hard for some people. We need to remember this as we engage in our joy. And if we really want to bring the love at the centre of the season to life, we ought to perhaps think of ways in which we can bring a bit of love into their lives. One simple act of love can change a person’s life for ever. It certainly has mine.

There is a tradition that has developed in recent years that has begun to recognise that Christmas has its shadow side as well as its light. Many places of worship now conduct what are called “Blue Christmas” services. They are held at this time of the year for those who have lost a loved one during the year, or who are remembering losses from previous years.

Grief can sting more sharply at this time of the year because such feelings stand in contrast to what is the ideal of this Christmas season, namely, a time of the fullness of the heart, a time when one is united to all that one loves.

Christmas is about the heart, the ties of the heart, the loves of the heart, the dreams of the heart, the yearnings and longings of the heart. At Christmas we are called to concentrate on the heart; we are called to concentrate on what the heart wants, what it needs, and how it calls us to live. This is not easy if your heart is broken by grief.

By the way grief may not be the loss of person to death, it may be the end of a relationship, or the loss of livelihood and or health.

Sometimes the light of Christmas can illuminate this suffering in our hearts and lives. This can make the lives of some appear more dark and dreary as we are burdened with the memory of too many failures, too many defeats, too much sorrow. Sometimes loneliness, fear, selfishness, discouragement, and resentment turn the bells of Christmas into bitter mockery.

We need to remember this in this season of the heart. Such people need to gift at the heart of this season more than others.

So what can we do?

Well we can give the greatest gift of the season, we can give our heart. How do we do this by giving just a little bit of time and attention to someone who really needs it. In so doing we will truly begin to sanctify this season by giving one another perhaps the greatest present of them all, our true presence. A pearl of great price, a gift beyond material value. The most priceless commodity of them all.

Do you know what we can all bring the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts and lives. It’s quite simple really, it is not even difficult. Anyone of us can do it. All it requires us to do is to open our hearts, to become the gift that we have all been waiting for. How do we begin? Well again that is quite simple too. All that we have to do is look all around us, in our own families and our own communities. You don’t need to look above to find the star to follow, you just need to look around, find the need around you and invite those suffering around you into your hearts and lives. Unwrap the greatest gift you have been given, your own heart. Become a memory that may change someone’s life forever. You have that power within you. Go use it.

This will be my focus this season, I invite you to come and join with me,  in this giving of our true presence, the ultimate present. To open our hearts to those around us. To pay attention to those close at hand. To bring the heart of Christmas alive, to incarnate love in our own lives. To become one another’s Immanuel’s, to show that God is indeed with us.

It really is that simple. We can bring the spirit of the season alive once again. We can bring Christmas alive in the presence of each and every day. We can become the greatest gift that anyone could wish for.

We no longer have to wish it could be Christmas every day, we can make it Christmas every day. By simply blessing each day with our presence, by giving our whole hearts to those who really need it.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Advent: In a Dark Time the Eyes Begin to See

Twice a week I sit in shared meditation, in the dark, with friends. The silence is lit by three simple candles. One of the things I love about the time, early in the morning, is that during the weeks of November and December we begin in darkness, as the silence ends we remain in the dark and then as we share where we are personally at spiritually the sun rises and the day begins. At the end of the hour our space is fully lit by sunlit. I love this time and space as we move from darkness, to half-light, to full light. It is a gentle transition from one spiritual space into another, without physically moving.

There is another time in the week when I do something similar, only it ends very differently. There is not the same transition from darkness into light. As the time ends the lights are switched on and I find the transition from darkness to light, a little shocking. There is no in-between space as we move suddenly from darkness into bright, shocking neon light.

We are approaching the darkest time of the year as we head towards the Winter Solstice, closely followed by the coming of the light that is Christmas. Today is Advent Sunday, the day that marks the beginning of the days leading to the coming of the new light, that is Christmas.

Advent is a time for waiting, a time of preparation. A time set aside to wait for the “coming” of Love in human form symbolised in the birth of the Christ child. A promise of what love can become if we let it grow and nurture in our hearts and lives. For every new life is the gift of promise and possibility. A gift of possibility that can be reborn in each of our lives if we allow it to be.

Advent is a season of preparation and it cannot be rushed. It requires patience. We cannot wish the days away, we cannot wish the winter away. We have to wait patiently, but not passively. We have to adjust ourselves to the coming light. If it was to come all at once, it would be too much for us. Let us not wish away the darkness of winter and look forward too desperately to the future, for what is yet to come. Let us adjust to the limited light we have been given, just enough to take the next step.

We impatient people, we who live by neon light and instant gratification do not like the dark and certainly know little about patience, about waiting. If you don’t believe me just watch yourself the next time your computer freezes when you’re trying to watch a clip on YouTube. We want it all and we want it now. We also want it all in bright lights, with bells on. We certainly don’t want to have to go through the hardships to take us there.

Yes Advent is about the coming of the light, but not something sudden and dazzling, more a journey from darkness into natural light. This is the classic spiritual journey. This is the beauty of the holy month of December. I experience this powerfully in that dark silky silence of early morning, when the frosty winds make all moan. I revere this dark, cold, humbling time that leads to the coming of the light. I have noticed these last few years that if I don’t rush and push my way through this time, If I allow myself to savour it, something shifts deep within me if I allow myself to truly embrace the darkness. Somewhere between Solstice and New Year, probably on Christmas Day, some new light comes into my vision, but not suddenly. Like most good things in life, slowly it rises. It is coming. This is Advent, the coming of the new light. If we allow it to it will work its magic and something new will grow within each and every one of us.

We are afraid of the dark though aren’t we. We want to rush through these weeks and force the light, we people born in neon times. We impatient and expectant folk. The truth is though that in order for us to truly appreciate the light we must first know the dark. Brings to mind those beautiful words from Isaiah chapter 9 verse 2 “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light shines.”

Now of course the very same light shines on us all, it’s just that we don’t always notice it. We only really notice it when we are in the deep darkness. I saw a beautiful example of this during the last singing meditation I experienced. I always light a hundred candles as we sit together in the dark. The candles are meant to light what we are engaging in, to allow those present to read the words we sing around. Now usually I leave the kitchen door open which adds a little artificial light. I now realise how much this has been a mistake. Last week I didn’t and do you know what the room seemed even more illuminated. The candles burned ever more brightly in the darkened room. The light shone even more brightly on we that were singing and sharing silence in deep, deep darkness.

We need to honour the darkness in order for us to truly rejoice in the light, when the moment of magic comes.

But first we must know the dark, we must learn the patience of sitting in the dark. This brings to mind that beautiful short poem “Know the dark” by Wendell Berry

“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

But we don’t want to know the dark, we want to walk in the light. Often we spiritually inclined do not want to look at the darkness, we only want the light. Who really wants to take the time to look at the darkness within ourselves and within our world? The truth is of course that if you refuse to look at the dark, to shine a little light on it, is to truly live in the dark; this is a life without joy, this is not truly living in life. We need to bear witness to all life, to hold life with a steady gaze, to live spiritually alive.

In order to live spiritually alive we need to see life in its fullness. We need to practice holding an unwavering gaze in the dark to not look away or to flush it out with neon light, one that is far too bright.

You see as Roethke said: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

I am learning to surrender to a more natural light, to the dark. I am learning to allow my eyes to adjust to the whole of reality. I need to do so to truly embrace the beauty of the dark. This includes the lingering darkness within myself that leads me to still reject and to turn away from some aspects of life.

I am slowly learning to follow those words of Wendell Berry

"To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings"

I am learning the lessons of the darkness and during these Advent days I will not be waiting passively for the coming of the light. Instead I will appreciate these dark days, shed some gentle light on the dark places within myself, my life and this our shared world, so that when the moment of magic comes I can become a child of the light and become a light for others. This is what we are here waiting for. To be a light to others who may be struggling in their own dark times. We can light the way. This brings to mind the following beautiful words by Mary Oliver “The Buddha’s last Instructions”

The Buddha’s Last Instruction
by Mary Oliver

“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal—a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire—
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

So let’s prepare ourselves for the moment of magic yet to come. Let’s nurture the love within us and prepare to give birth to it in lives. Let’s not wish these dark cold days away. There is a beautiful gift in them if we allow ourselves to fully experience them. We need to experience each and every sensation of this season. We need to not fear the dark, we need to know it and fully embrace it. And when the time comes to once again give birth to the new light.

Amen


Sunday, 26 November 2017

A Drop in the Ocean

"A Drop in the Bucket"

What it says about inadequacy, futility, insignificance!
A drop in the bucket. What’s the sense? What’s the use?
We’re no longer in the center of things.
Copernicus removed the earth from the center of the solar system.
Darwin removed humans from the center of the earth.
Astronomy has removed the solar system from the center of the universe.
Well, who are we, then, and where are we?
Physiologists call us “weak, watery solutions, more or less jellified.”
Just suppose that we are the merest drops in a bucket.
There are unspoken assumptions here.
We assume that a full bucket is what we’re aiming at
and that until the bucket is full, nothing has been accomplished.
There is never a shortage of buckets.
The empty bucket litany is long and tedious:
racism, sexism, ableism, authoritarianism, oppression, injustice,
violence, environmental degradation, overpopulation.
You feel like a drop in the bucket?
Who asked you to fill the bucket - especially all alone?
Remember how many there are who share your concern.
We may feel daunted, but we are not one drop.
A sense of isolation is the parent of the drop-in-the-bucket feeling.
Sometimes one can decide the size of the bucket.
Don’t think you can do a large bucket? Try a smaller size.
Even imparting a bit of hope - a pat on the back, a financial contribution, a
few hours of volunteer service - every drop helps!
It might even be wise to remember why you need to help fill this bucket,
possibly to quench the thirst of someone hard at work on a larger one.
That buckets of whatever size are filled a drop at a time.
If you don’t help, it will take even longer.
That your drop may be one of the last ones needed.
(Why is it that our image is of the first drop in the bucket?)
Where we’d be if everybody gave up putting drops in the bucket? –
probably much worse off.
Persistence depends on patience, on keeping at it when there is little to reassure us.
It would be too bad to give up, to sit back, bemoan the sorry state of the world,
and wonder why somebody, anybody, everybody (but not me, thank you)
doesn’t do something about “it.”
After all, the Grand Canyon was fashioned by drops of water,
As ordinary as they seem.

from Out of the Ordinary, Meditations by Gordon B. McKeeman

I love to go to the sea from time to time. Sometimes I hear it calling powerfully to me. It’s a song I hear singing in my heart. I hear it with the ears of my heart. Now what it is that I love so much I am not sure. It probably has something to do with the vastness of it. Like King Canute I am humbled by the sea. I know it is a power far greater than little old me, but it is more than that, I also find it deeply connective too. While the waves move individually, the sea moves as one. The sea speaks powerfully to me about the spiritual nature of life, both personally and communally.

It seems I am not alone in this. Frederick Buechner in his beautiful meditation titled “Tears” wrote the follow about the great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich

“Tears” by Frederick Buechner

"They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks. One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.

The beauty and the power of it? The inexpressible mystery of it? The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again? The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain? Who knows? . . .

Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to. Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears."

...I think I get it...

I feel fully human when I open my senses to the sea, it humbles and connects me to life. It reminds me that I am not God.

Last weekend and at the early part of this week I felt tired and somewhat weak, I seemed to lack my usual energy. My mood wasn’t low though, my mind was still and I felt connected spiritually, but still I lacked energy. It troubled me somewhat. I began to ask myself what on earth was wrong with me. It took me the best part of week to get back to my usual self. I think it had something to do with being away with my ministry group for a few days and not exercising and eating as I normally would. These days I tend to eat a diet high in protein, fruit and vegetables and this was lacking in my diet during my time away and this impacted on me. I felt weak internally and I didn’t like it. Thankfully I was soon back into my healthier energising habits after a few days and got back to my usual self.

No one likes to feel weak, to experience a sense of powerlessness and yet to a great degree we have little control over the events that go on all around us. Like King Canute we cannot hold back the tides, we cannot control the nature of life. In fact when we try to we just end up going against the tides of life and get into an even bigger mess. Yes we are a part of life, but really just a drop in the ocean.

Now an awful lot of modern day spirituality doesn’t seem to recognise this. It suggest that actually we can do absolutely anything we want if we just believe that we can. We just need to manifest our desires and harness the energy. Now while it is true we can be held back by faulty beliefs that stop us becoming all that we were born to be, my life is absolute evidence of this. These last few years I have found myself overcoming all sorts of faulty beliefs that have held me back. That said I do know that I cannot do anything. I am not omnipotent, no one is. Even the mighty eventually fall. Hubris is perhaps the greatest danger to our own and others humanity.

The key I have found is to discover the power we each of us carry and bring that power alive lovingly for the good of all. To truly become the wave on the ocean. Remembering always that we are not the ocean, just a drop. A vital drop, but one drop all the same.

Power is often misused. Some use their power to control and manipulate others; while still others surrender their power to those who they consider more powerful than them. The daily news seems to be filled with examples of the misuse of power on a daily basis. Thankfully, eventually; life has a way of bringing even the mightiest down. Not without casualties though, how many innocents are left damaged by the misuses and abuse of power? I pay homage to those who take responsibility and speak up against such abuses of power that we witness every day.

Now misuse and abuse of power has occurred throughout history. I suspect that it stems from forms of Hubris that some are considered above or higher than others. We can see examples of supremacist ideas everywhere. Some of the worst horrors committed by humanity have been justified by such ideas. It still goes on by the way, in this land and others too.

It happens in families and communities too, where bullying occurs when individuals try and have their own way regardless of others. I know this feeling well. I grew up such an environment and thankfully it is something that has repulsed me all my life. That said I do from time to time not take full responsibility, I turn away and do not always face such behaviour. I do not use the power I have within me for the good of all, through my own fear. I’m better than I used to be, but I’ve still got a long way to go.

Life has taught me many things. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons is that people who try and laud their power over others, those who act in supremacist ways, are not as strong as they wish to appear. It is generally the weak who desperately hunger for power in order to compensate for their feelings of vulnerability and fragility. It is one way in which they can delude themselves into believing that they can somehow hold back the tide. It can be so terribly destructive. So often of course we surrender ourselves and our own power to such figures. Some bully their way there and others do it through manipulation.

The solution, I have come to believe is to find ways to access the power we all have within us, to become our own authority and to play our roll fully in the sea of life; the key I have come to believe is to become the drop in the ocean, to fully contribute to the sea of life. You see when we wake up to the power we already have within us, that same power that is at the core of all life, a loving power, a connecting power that does not seek supremacy, when we awaken to this power we become our own authority. In so doing we do not need to seek power over others, nor surrender to those who we perceive to be more powerful than we are. In so doing we become authors of our own ideas and actions and we participate fully in the ocean of life. This is essentially true leadership, because by doing we inspire others to do the same. To inspire is to awaken the spirit within another, that source of power within us all. This is true leadership, this is what the great spiritual teachers throughout human history did. This is the task of the spiritually mature.

I have come to believe that this is what is at the core of the ministry of Jesus. That he was attempting to show those of his time to seek the power within themselves, to become all that they able to be and to serve one another and life, to overcome those who ruled them in their time. When he tells the crowd on “The Sermon on the Mount” that they are the light of the world and that they must become beacons to others this seems pretty clear. The parables about the kingdom seem all about this as do other accounts such the story of him calming of the sea. Now this story sadly portrays the disciples as failing to see this, instead they seemingly marvelled at his power to calm the sea. He wanted to show them the power to overcome the fear was within them, but they instead wanted him to calm the storm for them. Faith though is not about calming the storm, it’s actually about coming through the storm together, encouraging and inspiring one another not to be afraid, to become responsible for the welfare of the community, to build the kingdom of love right here right now. Where no one has supremacy over another, that all are at one in the ocean of love.

We cannot calm the sea, we cannot hold it back. That said we can become at one with it and we need not fear it. We do not sail this ship alone. We are in this together all the way.

So how do we begin? Well first of all we need to accept that we are not the all-powerful. That like King Canute we cannot hold back the tide. Neither can we expect another to simply take all our troubles away, we must not surrender responsibility for our lives to someone we consider to be more powerful than ourselves. We then need to recognise that the same power that is at the core of life is also at the core of our being, we need to recognise that great reality deep down within each of us and to bring this to life, to become the light of the world. We need to share that in loving community with one another, to become that drop in the ocean. In so doing we know that we belong and we will no longer feel the need to laud our power over others.

How do we begin? Well I will offer an answer with this simple story that speaks of the power within us, the power to begin to create the ocean of love.

From “Invisible Acts of Power: Personal Choices that Create Miracles” by Caroline Myss

"Years ago I had a conversation with a man who told me that the most important truth he had learned was to be kind. He learned this, he recounted, during a cab ride in New York City. As he was paying the driver, he said, 'Thank you, sir.' At this, the driver leaped, ran around the back of the cab, and opened the door for his passenger. Startled, the man got out and said to the cab driver, 'You didn't have to do that,' to which the driver responded, 'I wanted to. You are the first person in this country to honor me by calling me sir, and I thank you for that respect.' The man had never before considered the power inherent in a respectful gesture, but from them on, kindness became the pillar on which he built his life and the legacy he hoped to pass on to his children. That exchange, he said, changed his life."

May we all become drops in the ocean of love. You never know you might just change someone’s life for the better.

Amen

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Wholeness and completeness

In life there are many things that separate we human beings, often our beliefs and disbeliefs. Whether these be religious or anti-religious, political, social, cultural we separate ourselves through them and yet we are all human. We all love, we all long and we all grieve when we lose those we love. To quote Eugene Ionesco “Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.” We are united by a common humanity; we are united by our shared hopes and despairs. We are each of us unique and complete as ourselves and yet we only truly know ourselves through our relationships with one another and with life. To quote Mark Nepo “It is a great paradox of being that each of us is born complete and yet we need contact with life in order to be whole. Somehow we need each other to know that completeness, though we are never finished in that journey.”

We are living in ever more dividing and divisive times. We do not see ourselves as one people. This is dangerous. Not only to ourselves but to our shared humanity. By separating ourselves we will never know wholeness, we will never truly be all that we can be. No one is an island. We need to be at one not only with ourselves, but with all of life and whatever it is we believe is at the core of all life to truly become completely ourselves, to touch perfection. Remember perfection originally meant completeness, I suspect perfect love is in a sense wholeness. This is one way to salvation by the way. To quote Forrest Church. “What I'm talking about…is salvation. The Latin root, salve, means health. The Teutonic cognates, health, hale, whole, and holy, all share the same root. Being an agnostic about the afterlife, I look for salvation here—not to be saved from life, but to be saved by life, in life, for life.

Such salvation has three dimensions: Integrity, or individual wholeness, comes when we make peace with ourselves; reconciliation, or shared wholeness, comes when we make peace with our neighbors, especially with our loved ones; redemption, in the largest sense, comes when we make peace with life and death, with being itself, with God.”

When we experience this wholeness we are as close as we will ever be to perfection, to completeness, although only for a moment as our lives go on. By becoming whole we begin to truly live our lives. Life is the greatest gift of all, the ultimate Grace. So choose life.

This brings to mind those words I so love from the Sermon on the Mount “Therefore be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” This is heaven on earth, this is the Kingdom of Love right here right now. This is the purpose of the spiritual life, this is the religion of love, of true communal spirituality. This is what it means to live in perfect love. Perfection is not flawlessness as we often think it is. Quite the opposite perfect love is sincere, it’s about showing our cracks, our flaws, our scars, showing who we truly are. The Latin root of perfection is “perfectus” which meant “completeness”, or wholeness, health in mind body and spirit, wholeness with self, others, life and God.

This is the purpose of spiritual community; this is the purpose of the free religious faith I am honoured to serve. This is what it means to me to be a minister of religion in the Unitarian tradition, in my view at least.

But how do we become whole, complete, perfect? How do we become at one with ourselves, one another, life, with God? Well it begins by being truly present in what we are doing; it begins by not being caught up in worry and fear, our own and others. It’s about not going into things hard, but rather by softly melting into what we are doing, by being who we are in what we are doing, by almost not focusing too hard, by looking through soft eyes. By being natural, who we are, by becoming what we are doing.

I remember when I was learning to drive. I did so late in life, when I was training for the ministry. I was never going to drive. I used to proudly proclaim it. The real reason was fear, fear of ridicule. When I was eleven years old I once had a go on a quad bike and I couldn’t handle it. I kept crashing and the man had to sit on the back of the bike and steer it for me. Everyone seemed to be laughing and I was so ashamed I vowed to myself that I would never allow that to happen again. I also remember another time when I worked in a warehouse and we were given forklift truck training. I was utterly hopeless, I just couldn’t do it. So I was never going to drive. Then when I began training for the ministry it became apparent that I had to learn in order to minister, to become who I am supposed to be. So I did.

Driving did not come naturally to me. I remember the instructor telling me that it would take time with me. I remember him saying “you are a thinker. I get some young men who just do it naturally, but you are a thinker, you analyse everything.” I did, every time I made a mistake I would spend time working out why and then I would make many more.

It took me a long time to learn and each time I had a lesson I would dread it. I got a sickly feeling in my stomach. Prayer alone did not take this away. Instead what took it away was walking and connecting and become one with life around me. Something that would come as I walked and connected to the people and geese in Platt Fields Park. It took my mind off my mind and helped me become more at one with what I was doing.

That said it didn’t help on the day I took my second test. I had failed the first time and the second time I was more nervous. I had to pass, my ministry was starting in two weeks time. I was putting intense pressure on myself. My left knee was shaking and it affected me. I made a minor error immediately. The examiner must have been in a good mood as he asked me to stop. He then said when ready I was to pull off. I checked properly and saw a car pulling out behind me, so I stopped and prepared. The car though pulled up next to me. I looked across and saw a car full of pensioners. One was waving at me to wind my window down. I looked at the instructor and he said to me “Tell them you are on your driving test and that you can’t talk”. I wound down my window, but before I could speak the woman said “Can you tell me the way to Manchester Royal Infirmary please?” I looked at the examiner and he repeated Tell them you are on your driving test and that you can’t talk.” I did to which the woman repeated “Can you tell me the way to Manchester Royal Infirmary please.” I again looked at the examiner, who repeated. It went on and the next time he remained silent, they weren’t going. So I paused, worked out where I was and gave them directions. They then drove off and when it was safe I drove off and completed my test and passed. My mind was no longer on my mind I was at one with the clutch and the wheel, the car and the task at hand. I was not at war with anything, I was at one, I was complete. By getting out of my mind I was better able to become what I was doing and to do so successfully.

Learning how to drive was the hardest part of my ministry training and yet it taught me more about how to live, serve and be. How to be whole and complete more than anything else I did in my time at college.

This brings to mind the following beautiful poem by Hafiz

“Each Soul Completes Me”

My
Beloved said,

"My name is not complete without
yours."

I thought:
How could a human's worth ever be such?

And God knowing all our thoughts — and all our
thoughts are innocent steps on the path —
then addressed my
heart,

God revealed
a sublime truth to the world,
when He
sang,

"I am made whole by your life. Each soul,
each soul completes
me."

We are never truly whole, complete, unless we are at one with ourselves, one another, life and whatever it is that we believe is the power that permeates all life. We can never truly become ourselves alone. This is why true community is so vital to the spiritual life. We need right relationship to become wholly who we are. To me this is the purpose of the free spiritual communities I serve. Yes it’s about becoming who we truly are, but this cannot be done in isolation. This is the purpose of free religion. It allows the birth of the true spirit in each of us, but no one can completely give birth to themself, by them self. To repeat those words of Mark Nepo: “It is a great paradox of being that each of us is born complete and yet we need contact with life in order to be whole. Somehow we need each other to know that completeness, though we are never finished in that journey.”

There is no end to any of this...We live in the thresholds of life...Becoming whole is just the beginning of the true journey...To where? Well God only knows...I certainly don't...

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Restraint of Pen, tongue, fingers and thumb

"There is a Hasidic story about a town gossip. This fellow thoughtlessly told and retold stories about others that brought them shame. The town's rabbi met with the man and confronted him with his words. The man was stunned. He had no idea he was spreading such hurt. He broke into tears and begged the rabbi for help. 'There must be something I can do to atone for the wickedness I have done.'

"The rabbi instructed the man to take four pillows out into a field. Once there he was to slice open each pillow with a knife and shake its feathers into the wind. The man thanked the rabbi and rushed off to do as he was told. He purchased four fine feather pillows and cut them open in the field, watching as the feathers scattered in every direction.

"He returned to the rabbi to let him know he had completed his penance. 'Not quite,' said the rabbi. 'Now go back to the field and retrieve the feathers.'

“'But that is impossible,' said the man. 'The winds have taken them everywhere.'

" 'It is the same with your words,' the rabbi said gravely. 'Just as you cannot retrieve the feathers once spilled, so you cannot withdraw words once spoken. No matter how sincerely you desire to undo what you have done, the harm caused by thoughtless speech cannot be rectified.' "

To Practice: Monitor your words so that they do not set in motion harmful things. And when they do, ask for forgiveness.

From “Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity” by Rami Shapiro

I wonder how many times I’ve said the wrong thing and lived to regret it? Sometimes immediately and sometimes later as I have realised that what I have said was wrong or perhaps worse hurtful?

There is a wonderful phrase in recovery circles, I recently saw reference to it on the cover of a magazine at a friend’s house. The phrase is “Restraint of tongue and pen”. It comes from an essay on the 10th step of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The 10th step reads “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Here is the extract that includes the phrase:

“Nothing pays off like restraint of tongue and pen. We must avoid quick-tempered criticism and furious, power-driven arguments. The same goes for sulking or silent scorn. These are emotional booby traps baited with pride and vengefulness. Our first job is to sidestep the traps. When we are tempted by the bait, we should train ourselves to step back and think. For we can neither think nor act to good purpose until the habit of self-restraint has become automatic. -pg. 91, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

These days when I say or do the wrong thing I tend to admit it quickly and try to put right what is wrong. That said sometimes it is still too late, the damage is done and some people just won’t forgive, my all too human frailties. As the Rabbi taught in the earlier story:

" 'It is the same with your words,' the rabbi said gravely. 'Just as you cannot retrieve the feathers once spilled, so you cannot withdraw words once spoken. No matter how sincerely you desire to undo what you have done, the harm caused by thoughtless speech cannot be rectified.' "

Mostly I practise restraint of pen, tongue, fingers and thumb these days, fingers and thumb refers to comments on social media. I don’t always get it right though. Sometimes I fail to pause and respond from self-centred fear. When I do there is usually a price to pay.

That said when I am wrong I do admit and usually promptly these days. This, I have come to believe, is a sign of spiritual maturity. The spiritual immature cannot admit fault, they cannot appear weak, and they cannot lose face. We see examples of this constantly. I suspect that most of us have witnessed this several time in recent months, particularly the last week or so and from the most powerful man on the planet, who would rather bully and harass than admit that he may just well have made a human error. Apparently apology is a sign of weakness. Nonesense. Apology is a sign of strength and faith in life itself.

I know well the damage that such behaviour can bring as I was brought up by such a man. These days I just smile at such memories but I do remember well the pain of fearing to disagree especially if I came across as clever or insolent.

We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by all kinds of opinion, from many sources of media. It comes at us from all directions. Not just the radio, television and press, but many forms of social media too. That said not only are we bombarded by news outlets but also a million and one opinions, often formed from that fear based reptilian mind that we all possess.

Just think about how we take in and respond to the constant bombardment of news, always bad news stirring up fear and separation, from all sides. Now in days gone by most people would just shout at the television or radio, nowadays though people respond through social media and often the responses are not thought out at all, they can be quite viscious. Yes it’s not just restraint of pen and tongue we need these days, its more restraint of fingers and thumb. Once said those feathers are spread all over the world.

This is why it is so important to pause in life, to take stock and to sit in silence. This is not easy in a world that demands our attention and instant response, in a world that is terrified of silence. Yet silence is so vital, it is said it is golden, it is also true humility. It is ok to have nothing to say, to just bear witness to life, whatever is happening. There are at least five occasions in my immensely busy week where I humble myself in silence with other people and many occasions when I pause and humble myself in silence when I am all alone. I pause in silence many times each day.

The problem is that so many of us are talking and not enough of us are listening. It is another sign of our modern hubris, our view that we are all knowing and all powerful, when the truth is we are finite human beings, with our all too human failings, whatever happened to true humility…The recognition of our human finiteness.

Silence though frightens us. How often in life do we have to fill the space we are in with noise, even if it just senseless babble? I remember as a young man how much I treasured the sanctuary of silence I would love to wander off alone in my own silent protective bubble, this though faded as I entered into adulthood. By the time I was in my late twenties I could not even sleep without the radio on. These days silence and space is once again a dear treasure.

Before breaking silence, before filling it with noise, with our words, we really ought to check ourselves, so as not to cast those feathers. But how do we do this? Well there is a test that has been around for a long time. It is referred to as the “Three Fold Test” for right speech. According to this test there are three things that we ought to ask ourselves before speaking:

Is it kind?

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

Apparently It dates back to 1835 and a poem by Beth Day, titled “Three Gates of Gold”.

"Three Gates of Gold" by Beth Day

If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold;
These narrow gates. First, “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?” In your mind
Give truthful answer. And the next
Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.

Now no doubt this poem was influenced by an old Sufi tradition which suggests that we should only speak after our words have managed to pass through four gates.

At the first gate we should ask ourselves “Are these words true?” If so then we let them pass through; if not, then back they must go. At the second gate we ask; “Are these words necessary?” At the third we ask; “Are these words beneficial?” At the fourth gate we ask, “Are they kind?” If we answer no to any of these questions, then what we are about to say ought to be left unsaid.

Luminaries from Sai Baba to Eleanor Roosevelt have offered variations on the same theme over the years “Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary”. There is also the “Triple Filter Test”, usually attributed to Socrates which asked if it is “true, good or useful.”

Right speech seems so be central to all traditions. I suspect that this is because of our own too human capacity to put our foot in in...

Right Speech is central to both Christian and Buddhist morality.

“Samma Vaca” is the third aspect of “The Noble Eightfold Path”, in Buddhism. It is basically abstinence from gossip, slander, lying, maliciousness and hate speech. So to speak wisely or rightly is to do so truthfully with kindness, purpose and meaning.

There are many passage in both the Old and New Testament that refer to “Right Speech. Many preachers in the Christian tradition will offer the following words from Psalm 19 before preaching a sermon “Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God." In the New Testament the book of James makes reference to how a person should use their mouth “With it we bless God, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

The Sufi, Christian and Buddhist traditions as well as other ancient and contemporary ones are saying similar things about how we ought to conduct ourselves with our brothers and sisters. They are saying how damaging wrong speech can be to both our neighbours and ourselves, you sense the essence of the “Golden Rule of Compassion” running through them all in they way that they teach about right speech.

How we communicate is so important. We may not have control over what goes on in the world all around us, but how we act towards others really matters. We need to be mindful in how we speak because what we say and do and what we do not say and do not do has an impact on all around us. As the old saying goes, if you haven’t got anything good to say then its best to probably keep your mouth shut.

It is ok to have nothing to say. It’s ok to not have answer to the question of others. It might not be your question, it might be there’s. Give up on other people’s questions, ask your own.


Words have the power to cause the utmost damage. That said they also have the power to heal. A word rightly spoken can also heal deep wounds, reconcile former enemies and save countless souls. It is amazing how a few words of kindness can lead to a tidal wave of love, another example of that chaos theory of compassion.

The key is to give words their proper respect. They say a person ought to be judged by their deeds and not their words, but I see words as deeds myself. The action of our tongues can have a much bigger impact than those of our hands, unless of course it is our hands with which we are speaking.

I jnow I need to keep on practising restraint of pen, tongue, fingers and thumb.

When we are about to speak we need to ask ourselves.

Is it kind?

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

If what we are about to say fails this test, then it probably best to remain silent. That said, if we do speak and say the wrong thing then the mature thing to do would be to apologise immediately. Apology is not a sign of weakness it is a sign of strength and spiritual maturity.

So may what we say be kind, true, and necessary. And when we are not, lets us be humble enough to recognise this and make amends quickly. In so doing we may just be able to catch one or two of those feathers.

“Patience and Silence” by Charles A Gaines

How quiet it is when we have the patience to be silent
How much we can learn in moments like these.
We can learn to have patience with ourselves,
to better understand and like who and what
we are.
We can learn to have patience with others,
to better listen to what they say and how they
feel.
We can learn to have patience with life,
to better work with it, rather than against it.
How much do we need silence:
Silence for truth so that we may learn wisdom.
Silence for wisdom so that we may love,
Silence for love so that we may be just,
Silence for justice so that we may live fully.
May we be more patient and more silent,
so that we may proceed with courage and
compassion.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Oz or Some Other Place

One of my favourite places on earth is Crosby Beach. What I love are those 100 identical sculpture’s that go by the title “Another place”. There they stand staring out to sea, perhaps looking for another place, any place but here. These naked, lonely scarecrows staring out into the great big nothing, dreaming of another place. Have you ever felt like that? I have. I have stood there staring out to sea so many times dreaming of something other than the life I was living.

There was a pinky orange glow to everything, not just the sky, on Monday morning. I heard people describing it in many different ways, one friend called it a “Vanilla Sky”, a mystical, mysterious sky, pointing to some kind of otherness. Some folk didn’t like it, I know it disturbed them, change can do that to people. The strange sky somehow tapped into the fear of the unknown that is inside each of us.

Now don’t they say “Red sky at night, shepherds delight, red sky in the morning seaman’s warning?/ I suspect that the mysterious sky was a fore warning of Hurricane Ophelia that was coming in from the Atlantic. There have been some terrible destruction caused by such winds on the other side of the Atlantic this year, there was in Ireland on Monday. Are there more storms these days than in the past? There may well be. Or is it that we just hear more about them these days? Is the news of the destructive winds merely a symptom of the fear based global news state that we currently live in? I suspect it is not an either or question, but that both are true.

On Monday as I took in the strange tint of the atmosphere I too dreamt of another place, I too became like one of those Gormley statues. I dreamt of another place, but not for long as I soon entered into the day, I felt at home in my own body and at home in the ground I found myself. As I walked through the streets of Altrincham that morning I realised I was not like those cold lifeless statues; I realised I was not a brainless scarecrow, or a heartless woodman or even a cowardly lion. As I walked through the streets words began to filter into my mind of someone else who dreamed of another place, but who too learnt to find that their treasure was found at home and not some technicolour dreamland.

Someday I'll wish upon a star
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where trouble melts like lemon drops
High above the chimney top
That's where you'll find me

Oh, somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
And the dream that you dare to,
Oh why, oh why can't I?



Dangerous words those sung by Dorothy in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”, for did they not bring the Tornado. In fact the sky that Monday morning reminded me somewhat of her Kansas sky. Dorothy dreamed of another place somewhere over the rainbow, a place away from dull, grey, flat Kansas. Is there another place that we dream about, that we Hope for, a Heaven, a Nirvana. Who knows, I don’t. Either way I do not believe that we are meant to live our lives dreaming of another place, a place beyond this life. Our task, I have come to believe is to create heaven here and it begins within each and everyone of us. I much prefer to follow that simple message in the  “Sermon on the Mount” and become the light of the world. To create the Kingdom here and now.

We bring heaven alive through our loving living or we create Hell by fearing one another, fearing life, turning away and dreaming of some other place, somewhere over the rainbow, somewhere beyond this life.

That said it is so human to dream of some other place, way over there, somewhere over the rainbow, like those Gormly statues. Sometimes to appreciate what we have, what is our heaven, we have to go away or even almost lose what we have. The Holocaust survivor Eli Weisel said of gratitude, that it was a gift of the night. It was not something that came from the good things we have in life, instead it comes almost as a sense of relief as we step outside of a living hell. Finally by almost losing everything, certainly what is dearest to our hearts, we learn to want what we have.

Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" is a wonderful example of learning to want what you have, to find the realm of love within, where ever you are. Her journey is an archetype of the spiritual quest; her journey symbolises a movement towards self-actualisation, whole-ness, atonement, at-one-ment, holiness; her journey symbolises what it means to return, to remember, to become who you are; her journey symbolises re-birth. It is important to realise that the word conversion comes from the Latin “Convertere” which meant to turn, or to return, that is what re-birth means, something that can happen a thousand times or none at all in a person’s life. Re-birth is of course never the end, it’s a new beginning.

All the great stories, especially the journeys of the heroes within them, share much in common. Dorothy is an archetype of what Joseph Campbell called the “Hero’s Journey”, just like Jesus, the Buddha, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Hercules, Arthur, Jack and the Beanstalk and countless others throughout human history.

Dorothy shares many similarities with Jesus in the Gospel accounts. Both had questionable parentage; began life as very ordinary people; had to escape danger when very young; travelled a path that was laid out for them with an end that could not be avoided; battled many forms of evil and power; found imperfect companions who joined them on the way and who fled when trouble hit; travelled through wilderness; found a hidden power deep within that helped them transcend their experiences; eventually returned home leaving behind those same companions; finally they both took a stand for what is right and just, they stood against power. You will see similar characteristics in all the heroes of human mythos.

That said I suspect the characteristic that stands out about Dorothy, more than any other, is her desire to return home, how she learnt that this is where she belonged, that this was her hearts desire, rather than her dreams of some distant Nirvana, or Heaven or Oz. I suspect she is not alone. You see the true spiritual quest is to uncover the beauty where we find ourselves and to bring the love deep within alive in our lives. I believe that the spiritual journey is about learning to be at home, to create heaven here on earth, to bring the love alive in our lives, Dorothy says towards the end of the film that she was looking for her heart’s desire. Isn’t that what we are all looking for, our hearts desires? Isn’t this the spiritual journey, what Joseph Campbell called “Following Your Bliss”

Most folk begin their spiritual quest just like Dorothy did hoping, longing, desiring something more, but her desire like so much desire is aimless, a road to nowhere. So Glenda (The Good Witch) suggests that the best place to start is at the beginning, or what David Whyte describes as “Close in, with the first step”. Dorothy’s journey begins with the yellow brick road. This is the road that leads us home.

No path is ever straight. Dorothy on her journey met all kinds of people, each representing aspects of both the inner and outer life. The most obvious are the three that travel with Dorothy: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. These three were seeking brains, a heart and courage. Now don’t we all need our brains, our hearts, and to keep our nerves on our journeys? For after all isn’t it true that to live spiritually alive is to feel with all our heart, to use our minds thoughtfully and to act courageously. The spiritual life is about using our minds compassionately so that we can give our whole selves to life, in love and service for all.

The three main characters who join with Dorothy believe that they are lacking something, this is why they join her on her journey. Remember also that Dorothy misses home, something she rejected. She left home in the first place because she felt that something was missing. She ran away following some aimless desire. Now she’s in Oz though she has found an aim, to get home. In order to do so she has to find the wizard. Now don’t we all fall for the fools gold of finding a wizard or some other shinning thing that will fix our problem? Don’t we all look for answers outside of ourselves? Don’t we all miss the treasure deep within?

The four companions do eventually find the Wizard, as they arrive at the Emerald City. They ask the Wizard to give to them what they believe they lack. This he promises to do if they would kill the "Wicked Witch" and bring to him her broomstick, a task which he believes is beyond them. But of course they succeed and return to the Emerald City expecting their reward.

Despite doing all that was asked of them, the Wizard disappoints them. During a frantic scene Toto pulls back the curtain revealing the truth about the Wizard. It had all been a case of smoke and mirrors he is an ordinary man, with no magic powers. Dorothy tells him that he is a very bad man. To which he replies "Oh, no, my dear; I'm really a very good man, but I'm a very bad Wizard, I must admit."

A disappointing end it would seem, there was nothing there at the end of the rainbow. But is this true? Let’s look a little more closely.

The scarecrow did indeed find his wonderful brains; the tin man did indeed find his lovely heart; the lion no longer lived as a coward. And in the end Dorothy did find her way back to Kansas as she clicked her ruby slippers and recounted the chant...“there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” She got her heart’s desire, she discovered her bliss.

Surely this is the lesson from this beautiful tale. Wherever we journey, however we get there and whatever it leads to in the end the real purpose is to uncover that pot of gold that we already have within each and every one of us. Hopefully by uncovering our own pots of gold we will help others to do likewise.

Surely this is the purpose of free religious communities. To help one another uncover our pots of gold and to let them shine.

Surely this is the purpose of the spiritual life, to learn to be at home wherever we find ourselves and to help others to do the same.

You see the truth is that Kingdom of God is already here, we just need to let it shine out of us; we just need to learn to become the light of the world; we just need to learn to follow our bliss.

So let’s stop dreaming of some other place, let’s learn instead to be at home, here now, lets learn to let out our heart’s desires and become the light of the world, the ones that we have all been waiting for.


Sunday, 17 September 2017

From Sincerity to Authenticity

“We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved, and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time.

When we hesitate in being direct, we unknowingly slip something on, some added layer of protection that keeps us from feeling the world, and often that thin covering is the beginning of a loneliness which, if not put down, diminishes our chances of joy.

It’s like wearing gloves every time we touch something, and then, forgetting we chose to put them on, we complain that nothing feels quite real. Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world but to unglove ourselves so that the doorknob feels cold and the car handle feels wet and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being, soft and unrepeatable.”

From "The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want By Being Present to the Life You Have"

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks; we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

Parker J Palmer from “Let Your Life Speak”

The greatest danger to living the authentic life, to living with sincerity and integrity is what I think I know; what I think I know about myself, others, life and the spirit that is at the core of all being, that I call God.

With this in mind each morning as I awake, as I begin my morning devotion and open myself in humility, I say a few words of prayer asking that I can lay aside whatever I think I know. I lay myself open to the mystery at the core of life and ask that whatever I believe I know about the four realms of existence does not become a barrier to new experiences. The four realms as I understand them today are of the mind, the body, the heart and the spirit. As a result I am finding new truth being revealed to me constantly; as a result I am finding myself less inhibited by my own self-created fears and the fears created by others that they can attempt to pass on to me.

How many times in life are we held back not only by our own fears, but by taking on board the fears of others.

“Keep it real” it’s a phrase you hear quite a lot these days. It’s about being authentic, living with integrity. Some people go to extremes to prove the realness of who they are. It seems to me that if you feel the need to prove it, then in some sense you are not being real at all, that you are not living with integrity as you feel the need to seek the approval of others.

I remember many years ago the tragic Richey Edwards, second guitarist and lyricist from the Manic Street Preachers, infamously carving the phrase “4 Real” onto his arm in an attempt to prove to “The NME” that they were who they claimed to be. A few years later he disappeared, presumed dead by his own hand. A sad end for such a talented young man.

How many other people have been destroyed by this need to be seen as authentic to others, how many of us have found ourselves standing their naked seduced by the delusion that is “The Emperor’s New Clothes”?


In this age of “Fake News” it is hard to discern what is real. Who and what do we trust? There seems to be little or no sincerity and integrity in life. Dishonesty it seems is not only acceptable, but kind of expected today. This saddens me.

We see this obviously in politics and in the spoken and written news. We also see it very clearly in sport. The Olympic spirit is gone. As money and ratings have become the God that such people worship, the idea of integrity as all but died out. The last Olympics Games was shrouded in questions about drug cheats, no one trusts cyclists. Even in cricket no one trusts the batsmen and fielders any longer. Perhaps the only sport where such integrity exists is in golf where it is still highly regarded.

Does sincerity exist any longer? Is integrity dead?

I recently attended the funeral of my “Auntie Josephine”. Josephine was my dad’s cousin, she had no children of her own. As a result she would take me and my siblings for birthday treats when we were children. Sadly over the last few she has lost who she was through dementia. At her funeral one of the readings was taken from John’s Gospel Ch 14 vv 1 – 7. After the service I was talking with Josephine’s brother my uncle Billy who said about the reading something like “I don’t go for much scripture, but those words speak powerfully to me.” They describe both his and many people’s faith. The service was held in my dad’s side of the family’s church, St Francis of Assisi’s Roman Catholic Church, Morley West Yorkshire. A place I spent many Sunday’s at as a child and one I occasionally attend for family weddings and funerals these days. During the funeral Mass the priest offered communion or to those who are not Catholic a blessing. I went forward for a blessing, as mark of respect to my family and to the occasion even if I do not believe as they do. After the service several friends of the family had also gone forward, but they had offered themselves for communion at which the priest asked them if they were Catholic, they were not they were Anglicans and thus he indicated he could only offer a blessing. They were upset by this and asked me afterwards why it was? Gosh why do I always get these questions, perils of the job I suppose? The truth is that the priest was acting with integrity with regards to his own beliefs. Whether I or others agree with him, is not the real question he was acting with integrity with regards to his own beliefs. I for one respect him for that.

I see faith and life through very different eyes. I am a Universalist in every sense of the word, but I would not expect someone else to subscribe to my truth if they didn’t look at life through the same kaleidoscopic lens.

Whatever we believe about life, ourselves, the world and whatever we believe about what is at the core of it all it is vital that we are sincere about it, whilst also respecting that others will come to various conclusions. It is not enough to simply tolerate that there are different truths, to me that still sounds somewhat judgemental, tolerance is not enough. I for one want to celebrate the difference and to lay myself open to the truths of others. I never want to become a slave to what I think I know.

Sincerity is no easy thing. It is not easy being sincere about who we are, to show the world as we are, to live as we truly are “warts and all and beauty spots too.”

There is a phrase I often here in spiritual communities that irritates me. It is used as an attempt to get people started but to me I find it not only unhelpful but in the long term quite damaging. The phrase goes something like “You’ve got to fake it to make it.” I have found the opposite to be true. In my experience if you attempt to fake it you will never make it. I suspect that the most unspiritual thing a person can be is insincere.

If you attempt to fake it you won't truly make it...just because it rhymes it doesn't make it real...

The key is authenticity, being real, being honest, living by faithful uncertainty...giving it an honesty go.

Now “Sincerity” is a fascinating word and anyone who knows me will know I love etymology. Well there is a disputed theory about the Etymology of the word “Sincere.” One theory suggest that it is rooted in Latin and that it literally meant "without wax"

It is said that during the Renaissance, in Italy, sculptures were in plentiful supply & stones were sold everywhere. It seems that not all stone sellers were honest & some of the stones they sold were imperfect, they had cracks which were filled with wax. They tried to sell these stones as flawless when in fact the cracks were filled in with wax. So an honest stone seller became one who was “sin cere”, without wax who sold his stones revealing the cracks.

For me the spiritual life has to be the same. There are cracks in my belief, but it is honest. Each day I turn in faithful uncertainty and experience toward a life I never dreamed possible. I do so honestly, with integrity in humility which I have found leads to a greater openness.

Is sincerity enough though? John O’Donohue suggests otherwise, he believed that what we really needed was authenricity. That is what it means to be real. To live with our cracks fully exposed and open to life. That it is this that allows us to truly feel life, to live without our gloves on. He stated that:

“Another way to approach this is to look at the huge difference between sincerity and authenticity. Sincerity, while it's lovely, is necessary but insufficient, because you can be sincere with just one zone of your heart awakened. When many zones of the heart are awakened and harmonized we can speak of authenticity, which is a broader and more complex notion. It takes great courage and grace to feel the call to awaken, and it takes greater courage and more grace still to actually submit to the call, to risk yourself into these interior spaces where there is very often little protection. It takes a great person to creatively inhabit her own mind and not turn her mind into a destructive force that can ransack her life.”

It seems to me that live with authenticity is to be truly open in all four aspects of humanity, the four realms of being, mind, body, heart and spirit. I suspect it’s about truly being who you are.

Forrest Church suggested that to “be who you are” is perhaps the hardest task of all. To be who you are is to not "fake your existence." He claimed "each of us is unique, with unique flaws and gifts. The world doesn’t owe us a living; we owe the world a living, our very own." The key is to answer your own calling, going on to say "To envy another’s skills, looks, or gifts rather than embracing your own nature and call is to fail in two respects. In trying unsuccessfully to be who we aren’t, we fail to become who we are."

It seems to me that to live with sincerity, with authenticity is to truly be who you are. Do you know what our world needs us to live authentically; it needs us to be truly who we are, warts and all and beauty spots too. It needs us to be unafraid to revel our cracks, because in so doing we encourage others to be who they are. We need to expose who we truly are to give ourselves fully away to life and thus encourage others to do the same. In so doing we may just begin to create that kin-ship of love right here, right now…

So let’s keep it real, let’s be who we are, let us be unafraid to live the sincere life, to show our cracks, let us live with authenticity…For our world needs us to be...

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Threads

I recently spent a week at Summer School, serving as minister of the week. Now one of the traditions that has developed there over the years are the knitting circles. There is always a group of knitters, working away throughout the week. They even have a "knitting policy" and guidelines for knitters who wish to practice while listening to the theme talks. Some people find the knitters a little distracting.

A few years ago when I attended Summer School it seemed like they had taken over the place, everyone was knitting. There was a charitable project going so it was for a very good reason. I remember at the time saying “You’d never get me knitting” In fact I said “The only time you’d see me knitting is if Bill Darlison did." Now I thought Bill was my friend. Well he set me up good and proper because on the last day they got him to pose for a picture with needles and yarn in his hands and lap. It brought a great deal of laughter, but did not lead me to pick up the needles.

This year there was a group of three knitters that particularly caught my attention. They were always together, it seemed strange to see one without the others. In a odd way they kind of held the week together, a bit like the rug in the film “The Big Lebowski”. They were one of the many stabilising and creative threads that weaved their way through the week. All were needed.

While I was away at Summer School I began to weave a new thread into my attempt to live the four aspects, “The Four Realms”, of my human being more fully. “The Four Realms” are mind, body, heart and spirit. Each morning, before breakfast we were offered the opportunity to be led in either meditation or yoga. I went to meditation the first morning, but after that I decided to give yoga a go. I’d been considering it for a few months, but hadn’t taken the plunge. Well it seems I’m hooked and since I got back I’ve been following a teaching on line every morning, on awakening, after a short time in prayer and meditation. It is a new thread that is helping to weave together the four aspects, realms, dimensions, of my human being. As I have been practising I have felt the thread that runs through my being both lengthening and strengthening.

Ever since I returned from Summers School I’ve been thinking about the many threads that make up my life and the web of creation, made of infinite threads that both holds and creates all life.

In many of the human traditions there are enumerable web and weaving mythos’. The stories describe a creature or perhaps spirit that guides human beings through life, that runs through all of life and holds life together. I have come to believe that we each of us have this very same thread in us, in fact maybe we as individuals are one thread on the universal web of all life, that without our thread and every other thread the web would not exist. The web is what creates, holds and sustains us, but at the same time we create the very same web of existence. Many of the great stories of the ancient traditions speak of this. In the Christian tradition I always think of the Kingdom of God, as being an example of this. You see the Kingdom is not some place we wish to arrive at some day, but something we build or maybe weave right here, right now. We are the builders, we are weavers or we are the destroyers of the web, the kingdom or as I prefer to call it these days, the “kin-dom”.

Now in many traditions there is the mythos of “The Spirit’s Thread” You will find it in the Navajo tradition, and in traditions found in Alaska and Japan. By the way there may be good reason for this, as studies of migrational history suggest that all three peoples’s originate from a tribe that dispersed from Siberia. Both Navajo and the Japanese traditions share a reverence for the larger interconnected net that holds all of life together, the web of life.

In “The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live An Authentic Life” Mark Nepo writes of this. He states:

“The Navajo honor this connection in everything they do. Even when weaving rugs to lie on the earth, the Navajo worldview is present. For somewhere in each rug there is always a single thread that connects the inner weavings to the outer weavings. This affirms a spiritual law which says that if we are to know health, if we are to experience the mystery of being whole, if we are to know joy, there has to be a thread or inlet that allows what lives within out and which allows what lives without in. Indeed, only if in and out are allowed to inform each other can we live in the mystery and strength of the Great Spirit.

This is the Spirit's Thread, which love makes visible. It exists in everything. The thread of Spirit - there in the rock and the rose and the dark heart waiting to be known. And in order to befriend the Whole, in order to stay in relationship with all that is larger than us, we are invited to care for our Spirit's Thread. We are invited to honor the Spirit's Thread in everything, so the light hidden in the rock sand the blood hidden in the rose might help revive our dark and waiting heart.

So, what does the Spirit's Thread mean, then, in a daily way? I think this beautiful notion implies that we are called to care for the small, thin thing that lives in each of us, that connects who we are to the world. We can understand that small passageway as our breath, our heart, or openness of mind. It is the vital tether by which we can tremble in awe at the infinite power and gentleness of life.”

It is vital that we take care of this thread that is our life, body, mind, heart and soul and that we continue to weave into the web of all existence. That we fully play our part in creating and recreating the web. For if we do not we will not be playing our part in the whole and we will feel disconnected, no longer a part of the whole.

Now at times our thread may become a little threadbare, an aspect may become weakened. When this happens we need to take stock and perhaps do what is required to fix our thread or perhaps do more work to repair the damaged whole.

Now the web does not only exist in the present moment. It began to be weaved at the beginning of time and will continue on into eternity, when we are long gone. That said we have played our role in co-creating the whole. As our ancestors did, those who came before us. As I look back at my own life I can see a kind of personal tapestry being weaved and not by myself alone. I did not create this wholly alone, so many other lives have weaved their way into my life and helped create who I am, just as I have weaved my way into the lives of others. There is no neutrality in life, everything is connected. Everything that we do and do not do matters. Every thought, every word, every feeling. It matters for we are all part of the great interconnected whole.

Now for me the main purpose of spiritual community is to aid and encourage both the repair and enhancing of our individual threads while also creating, repairing and beautifying the whole. This is what Rev Dr Martin Luther King called “Beloved Community”, the Kingdom of God right here right now. This is the kind of faith community that is based around responsibility in humility. Not one that expects God to do the weaving alone but for each individual to bring their uniquely beautiful thread and weave it into community, turning up, entering into relationship willingly, learning how to weave their individual gifts to make the most of the whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts. To me this is true religion. Religion comes from the word religiere which meant to bind together and create more than could be done alone with the individual parts. Our single threads, no matter how well developed, no matter how powerful and beautiful can achieve very little alone, in fact they are pretty useless and certainly lonely on their own. This is the greatest problem of spirituality without community, in truth it doesn’t really work. Yet each individual thread weaved into the whole, playing its part, can create something way more beautiful than any of us could ever have imagined.

We are here for a purpose, there is a mighty meaning to our lives. Our lives and the lives of all depend on us taking care of the threads that make up our individual lives and the weaving of our threads as deeply as we can into the web of all existence. As we look at ourselves, our families, our communites, our world, no doubt we can see may tears in the web of existence, tears that won’t heal themselves. It is our task to repair the damage by weaving our threads together. In so doing we not only repair the whole, but we also beautify and strengthen our own threads. In so doing we will begin to create the “Kin-dom of Love” right here right now, we become the “Beloved Community”, we become the ones we have all been waiting for.