Sunday, 14 May 2017

Time to inhabit space

Last Saturday afternoon I was out with friends, it was my day off and we wandered together around Dunham Massey, a place I love. I wasn’t quite myself. I could feel it in the core of me. I was not enjoying this time with friends in such a beautiful space. Something just didn’t feel right, my heart wasn’t in it. Not that it showed in how I was with them, but in the core of me I wasn’t quite myself. I was not connecting with them or the nature in which we walked. In fact if truth be told I could feel myself getting increasingly irritated as time went on. So much so that I was half relieved to get home and be on my own. Things got worse there though and I had an awful night’s sleep. I discovered that night what the problem was. I had obviously picked up some kind of bug and spent the whole night up and down to toilet.

I was not happy when the alarm went off next morning as I had such a busy day ahead. It was not just caused by the lack of sleep, I felt lousy, I felt weak. On top the services I had to lead I had appointments all afternoon too. I could have cancelled, of course I could, but I felt duty bound to continue on. I got through the day and did a decent, job as tough as it was. So many people were kind and loving and something carried me through. Love is such a powerful and gentle force. Human love and kindness and the love of God is comforting and sustaining. It kept me going all day, although I can’t claim to have truly experienced the day. I was not fully present.

That evening I went for a short walk with a friend just around Altrincham. We walked through the deserted town which just a few hours earlier would have been buzzing with activity, just around the corner the bars and eateries were crowded and full of life as people enjoyed the beautiful evening. I was just grateful for loving company, the ground at my feet and air to breathe. I smiled to myself as I thought that peace is always available to us if we allow it to be, if we allow ourselves to occupy the space. It’s amazing what a little bit of quiet time in any space can do for the soul. There is even peace to be found in the centre of town, although only on a Sunday evening these days; we no longer observe Sabbath, Sunday rest, these days. I wonder how often in life we find the time to truly experience the space in which we inhabit.

I went to bed that night, exhausted, feeling delicate, but with a sense that I would feel better in the morning.

I was wrong, very wrong. If anything I felt worse. I ate a good breakfast and thought I just need to get going, I know I’ll go to the gym. That didn’t work. I lasted less than half an hour before I gave in. So I came home showered and ate and thought, I’ll do some work. I’ve got so much to do this week I’ve got to make a start. I’ve not got the time to be ill this week, but I couldn’t work either. I just felt exhausted, I felt utterly bankrupt, mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. So I went to sleep. All I could do was rest and sleep and find peace in the silence. I dreamed too which is something I rarely am aware of doing. Wow! They were some wild and wacky dreams.

I did nothing that day and nothing that evening. I spent the next few hours in dreamtime. It was a day and night of rest and eating. Did I feel better the next day? No not really. My stomach still felt very delicate, but again I made myself eat. I also went to my usual meditation and in the silence, shared with others, I began to finally revive and reconnect to life. In that time and space I felt held by that all sustaining love and it nourished me. All I had to do was surrender to it. I then returned home and these words just started flowing out of me. I felt alive once again. Not so much physically but most certainly spiritually, emotionally and mentally.

We all need a time for rest, it is vital to living an active life. We all need time to receive love too. I know I’ve been running near to empty recently. I’ve been told off several times for not taking my day off, let alone the two I’m meant to take. I seem to have an increasingly busy life, which I am grateful for, but I do need to find time to rest, in order to truly inhabit the space in which I live. My body told me that last the weekend, it refused to continue on. It was having none of it and I had to obey. It’s interesting that it was in my stomach, the physical home of both love and fear, that it manifested itself. It always seems to be so with me. I remembered the last time this happened a couple of years ago when I got gastric flu. I also remembered another time over ten years ago when I was coming to terms with an intense and heart-breaking grief, around the time of the first anniversary of Ethan’s death when my body just gave in in the middle of Albert Square in Manchester and I had to stop completely. I could not move. I sat down on a bench, for over an hour and wept. This was the last time I suffered a bout of depression in my life, thank God. I was utterly exhausted and my body just refused to move any more. My body forced me to fully experience the time I found myself in. It forced me to stop trying to run from the space of grief. Thank God I obeyed it, because it was in this time and space of surrender that my journey into ministry began.

Last weekend was a warning to me and one I need to take heed of. You cannot run from time. 

Everyone needs a time of rest, a time to fill themselves with love, a time to take in order to give back to life. This is no doubt why a time of rest is so enshrined within the great religious traditions. We cannot live without rest, for without rest we will not appreciate the lives we have, we will not feel the love present and we will be like zombies, live a slow meaningless living death. In Exodus 31 it is said that if a person works on the day of rest they should be put to death. Now this is a bit strong, extreme beyond reason I know, but if you think about, if you don’t read it literally and instead metaphorically, if we live without a time of rest are we not living as if we were dead? Life quickly becomes meaningless and we live like zombies. This seems like a living hell, a fate worse than death, to me.

According to Jewish teaching the seventh day is a time for rest and refreshment, for even God rested on the seventh day and was “refreshed”. The time of rest is needed in order to love whatever it is we create in our lives. For without a time of rest we will not see what we create as good, we will not love those we share our lives with and the world in which we live and breathe and share our being. Such time allows us to live in the space in which we inhabit.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel claimed that “The Sabbath as a day of rest is not for the purpose of recovering one’s strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labour. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.”

We need to take time to rest, to connect to life. This doesn’t have to be a particular day though. I feel frustrated by having to have Friday’s as mine, which to be honest I rarely take these days. My work and life doesn’t allow for this kind of rigidity. In fact I find that such rigidity ends up destroying the spirit of time. It is so easy to find ourselves becoming slaves to such rigidity and resenting the time as a kind of function. This is the problem of prescribed religion in many ways, it kind of destroys the spirit at the soul of the teaching. What I feel Sabbath is really about is a time for sinking into the heart and soul, a time to let go absolutely of all rigidity. It is often called free time, I see good reason for this.

Why are we so afraid to let go of rigidity?  Why are we so afraid to be set free? So many of us are.

During the early years of the twentieth century Sandor Ferenczi, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, discovered a phenomenon that he described as “Sunday Neurosis”. He noticed that seemingly normal healthy successful people would experience extreme mental and physical distress on the Sabbath. Ferenczi believed that these people, having been deprived of their normal busy routine by Sunday began to panic, as they feared that they would lose their usual self-censoring mechanism and therefore their wild impulses would reign. They felt out of control and this terrified them. Therefore this extreme pain and or mental anguish developed as a way of staving off the anxiety.

I see real wisdom in Ferenczi’s discoveries. I suspect that the fear of stopping is somehow rooted in the fear of our humanity, the fear of our animal heart, the fear of the soul, the fear of the spirit and this is why so many of us live in our heads and become slaves to rules. I’m not just speaking of the religiously inclined here either, actually I suspect that this is more of a symptom of secularism and modernism and the worship of the mind. It is a symptom of functionality of not valuing time and space. Time is sacred I have discovered. Life is not just about what we do but the spirit in which we do it. While you may be able to purchase a lifestyle, you cannot buy a life.

Again in “Sabbath” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote

“There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”

Sabbath is a celebration of life, of love, of our part of the creation. It is a time of liberation and appreciation. Jesus recognised this in the Gospel accounts. He was critical of the way his own tradition was practiced and it’s slavishness to the rules, not because he was opposed to a time of rest of spiritual sustenance, far from it in fact. No he was critical because he witnessed that by slavishly following the rules the pious had lost the spirit and the love at the core of the tradition. Sabbath you see is about Love, the love of life, for it is Sabbath time that allows humanity to bring the spirit of love alive in life. Again as Heschell wrote in the 20th century “The Jewish contribution to the idea of love is the conception of love of the Sabbath, the love of a day, of spirit in the form of time.” In Mark's Gospel (Ch 2) Jesus remarks “‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” This is the Love that is at the core of Jesus’s teachings, the love of God, the love of life, the love of other and the love of self. I believe that this same spirit is at the core of all the great spiritual teachings, it’s just that at times it gets lost. The spiritual life is as much about the love of time as it is a love of space and place. It’s an appreciation of the sacredness of every moment of time; the love that allows the space in which we find ourselves come alive.

This to me is our religious task, to bring alive the space in which we find ourselves. This is the whole point of Sabbath time

We need Sabbath time. We need to learn to live in the space in which we find ourselves, this a lesson I’ve once again been taught this last week or so. We need to breath in the air all around us, we need to take in life. We need to feel our feet on the ground. We need to allow our senses to awaken to all that is, we need feel the love in our own bellies and those we share our lives with. We need to appreciate the preciousness of this moment and the sacredness of all life. We need to learn to be people of time and not only of place. We need Sabbath time.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Words Fail Me

From “How then Shall I live” by Wayne Muller

“What we love becomes our language. For Anne Morrow Lindbergh, it was the sea. For Heminway, it was the bulls; for Melville the whale; for Matisse, colour and shape. The things we love hold our experience of grace. They give voice to our heart and spirit. They provide tangible shapes for those things that, deep inside, are formless...

Any language – whether it be spiritual, emotional, artistic, or political – forms a paradigm that shows us where to look, teaches us what to listen for, helps us decide what is most important. Our language affects our orientation, our alliances and our assumptions. It directs all our senses to watch especially carefully for those things that our language holds dear...

If we undertake a journey of spiritual unfolding, we quickly realize it is difficult to find language that will accurately reveal, portray, or reflect the intricate depth of feeling and experience at the core of our being...We all struggle to name what cannot be named the universal force that makes the grass improbably push its way through concrete...the energy that blesses all life...

How can we begin to develop a spiritual language that feels accurate and precise in naming what we love? Perhaps it is only the essential qualities of the divine – wisdom, grace, fertility, compassion – that can even be approximated in words...”

by Wayne Muller

...I am glad I am not the only one for whom words fail to adequately describe those immensely powerful experiences...

I am often asked questions, many of which I struggle to answer. In fact when I think of it most of what I do as a Unitarian minister is in some way an engagement with struggle. I think that is probably a good thing as it keeps me humble. If it was easy it might go to my head, I might begin to think I have all the answer to mine and to other people’s problems. If truth be told the only thing I can claim to know with certainty is that I do not have the answer to the problems of others. This keeps me humble and it’s this very humility that opens me up to infinite possibility.

Each morning when I rise once more from slumber and enter into life I ask that what ever I think I know does not block from the possibility of some new truth and new experience...

Now while I can’t give people definite answers about so much I can offer them my company. I will walk with them and I will listen, the ears of my heart are always open.

At this time of year I always have to focus more on listening. This is because I struggle to hear. It’s due to the pollen it seems which effects my hearing. So I’ve been struggling more than usual to listen to people as they speak. I noticed the other day how badly I was doing so, how much I was mishearing people. It was kind of funny, but also frustrating.

Now I know that none of us ever hear exactly what is being said, or at least meant by what is being said. We all filter, we all judge from our own perspective,  what we hear. I know it happens every Sunday as I share worship and the congregations listen to me going on with myelf. I know that no one will hear exactly what I am saying. No one will hear every word, if they were to do so it would mean that they wouldn’t be truly engaging in the creative interchange that is worship. What is shared is  meant to touch the deeper aspects of the being of those listening and to cause them to  delve deeper within themselves.

I love listening to people, to connect with what they are sharing, what they are struggling with. I love to identify with others, to connect. What I identify the most with is the struggle; the struggle to put into words the questions and the experiences. What I identify the most with is the faithful uncertainty, the humility which leads to the openness. The truth I have learnt is that this is the key true spiritual growth.

I have enjoyed listening to people I serve in recent weeks, in one on one conversations, as they have talked with one another, and the comments they have shared with me following worship. I have been moved by it all, particularly the responses to the worship we share. Each unique and personal. Each being inspired and moved but also struggling with certain aspects, none of which are the same by the way…So beautifully human…Gosh I identify strongly with this. I am with them in the struggle; I am with them in the faithful uncertainty.

I am asked many questions, which I struggle to answer adequately. I am not being evasive when I struggle I am merely being honest. One question I am constantly asked is what it means to be Unitarian? I’ve been asked by several people over the last few days.

Every time I have paused and attempted to find the right words and every time I have felt that my answer was inadequate. The best I can come up with is that we are an open tradition and that we do not subscribe to any particular set in stone beliefs, we are without a creed. That we engage with faithful uncertainty; that the struggle is faithful; that we not only accept but celebrate difference; that authority lays with the conscience of the individual; that no one has authority over another and that we are a community of people, we congregate, we are not private in our faith; that whatever we experience only really comes alive in the company of others.

That’s quite a bit really and yet it never feels wholly adequate. It still seems to say more what we are not rather than what this tradition is. Oh so often words fail me...

When it comes to matters of faith, belief and disbelief language is frustrating in its limitations. It is tough to articulate our inner feelings and beliefs to others. How do any of us express those deep and meaningful experiences? Certainly this is difficult especially when it comes to spiritual matters. The words almost get in the way. And yet so often when people have shared their experiences with me, when we have spoken heart to heart, I feel I have understood on a deeper level.

Now part of the problem stems from how we use words. When as individuals we speak of God, spirituality, soul, religion, prayer, worship do we mean exactly the same thing? I’m not sure anybody really does. I think that perhaps the fundamentalists both of religion and atheism do but they are just a small proportion of the population. It seems that the rest of us are using these words in different contexts and different ways. Personally I see nothing wrong in that. It is honest no two people see the same thing in exactly the same way. I do not believe that anyone has the right to claim ownership of language. I personally want to reclaim the language of faith from the fundamentalists of both religion and atheism.

I find myself constantly saying to folk (and no doubt to myself) "Never be afraid to express what is true to you." And usually add "Just do not expect anyone to fully understand something that is so personal to you. They may identify, but whether they will fully understand I doubt it. Such things are beyond the limit of language."

It is said that the language of faith is the language of poetry. I see truth in this. For poetry is more than the sum of its parts more than the words written or spoken, they attempt to open us up in deeper ways and to help us connect heart to heart. I love the humble honesty of the language of poetry, I didn’t use to. As a younger man I preferred directness and I preferred certainty. Today I see how deluded I was by this, how enslaved I was by these delusions of uncertainty; a kind of faithless certainty.

Poetry is the language of honesty, the language of humility and I believe the language of faith. It is so honest that it can be unbearably so at times. As W.S. Merwin described it, poetry is “the expression of faith in the integrity of the senses and of the imagination”. Poetry is a deep truth, in the way that each writer expresses their own truth, but it is a truth spoken from a faithful uncertainty. It is true humility. It is the opposite of what the writer of Ecclesiates described as “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

Any honest seeker will struggle to put into words what is happening to them on their personal spiritual journey. I want to celebrate this. I know it may go against the grain, but I want to celebrate this faithful uncertainty. We need to attempt to do so because we need one another to do so. Somehow in this courageous conversation, in the struggle, moments of magic, moments of transformation can happen as we connect beneath the words we speak, as we find the language of the heart.

By the way silence is ok too, it is ok to not have formed opinions about things. This is perhaps the most faithful uncertainty of them all. Words will fail us all someday. They do me. How many times have I felt lost for words, tongue-tied, utterly dumfounded and desperately longing to find a way to express what my heart cries out to speak. I feel it often, particularly when I attempt to express what has formed within me during the week and as I attempt to create worship I share with the people I serve. This is truly faithful uncertainty. A truth and faith that can set us free.

Let us be seekers of the truth, but lets us do so in humility, in faithful uncertainty.

"To a visitor who described himself as a seeker after Truth, the teacher said: “If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else.” “I know,” answered the student, “an overwhelming passion for it.” “No,” said the teacher, “an unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.”

Taken from Anthony de Mello's, from his little book One Minute Wisdom

Faithful uncertainty, humility and openness are the key to true truth seeking; or as DeMello put it an un-remitting willingness to admit you may be wrong. For without these we will become blinded by what we think we know, our hearts will be closed and we will we never hear the truth that speaks only really through the language of the heart.

I will continue to practice faithful uncertainty; I will continue to lay aside each morning hat I think I know.  I encourage all to join with me, to share with me in faithful uncertainty that somewhere in that courageous conversation ne truths and deeper experiences will be revealed.

So the next time I am asked “What exactly is a Unitarian” I will attempt to open the conversation in humility and in faithful uncertainty for I believe that this is the key. I will attempt to engage in the courageous conversation, I will listen and hope that in this space, heart to heart, something beautiful will arise. In so doing space and community opens as we share experiences with one another. This I believe is the key to spiritual intimacy and spiritual literacy. This is what it means to be Unitarian to me. This is my truth as I speak it in this moment and in this space.

I invite you to join with me. I invite you to join in the courageous conversation, in true humility, in openness, in faithful uncertainty.

Will you join in with me?  

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Shake Off Your Shoes


Barukh atah, Emeth!
Blest are you, o Truth,
Like the fabled Moses,
I too can never claim to have seen you
“face to face.”
Too often, I’ve hung my own face on you
And pretended that I know something I do not.
Indeed my most honest heart confesses
That at most,
I have only caught the briefest glimpse of you
At the very edge of my eye,
And only when I got out of my own way,
My own rush, my own fury.

I sense your cool shadow on me
When I grow hot from the tears
I’ve been holding back,
Or when I notice the sadness or whimsy
Hiding in the silent eyes of those around me.

I sense your closeness when I gaze
At a star suddenly unveiled by a toreador cloud,
Or catch at an early yellowness
In the leaves of the oak.

It’s then I feel a brush of wings nearby,
And realize that I am only a small part of it all.
Then I know that I am not the
Great high power of the world,
But only a puff of breath hidden amid the
Mighty blast of the great whirlwind
Called the universe.
Like a lacewing barely floating
On the tip of a small blade of green grass is my life
From beginning to end, a short footnote to
A vast essay of stars and space unbounded,
An essay neither signed nor fully symbolic.
And yet this truth, your truth,
Is no sadness, but a joy,
No lack but a blessing,
Like the sight of a child at play,
Totally absorbed in the moment, and glad.
Blest are you, O Truth, who plays in the silence
Like a child in the waves of an infinite sea.

Barukh atah, Emeth.

By Mark Belletini 

I awoke last Sunday with this sense that my heart was in a holy place. To slightly misquote the hymn “I felt blessed with love and amazing grace”. It felt like a week of holy encounters; that I had been blessed by the company of some amazing people over the last few days; that I had enjoyed some beautiful spiritual encounters.

Now strangely I had struggled to get up that morning. I was tired; I had gone to bed tired. It had been a very busy week. An intense week, an absorbed week, but a very good week. I had spent many moments when I had truly known “thick time”. It had been a very involved but also deeply moving week. The day before I had hosted something I had wanted to begin doing for a long time now, and finally, it had got off the ground.

I had felt for a long time the need to create the space for people to come and share together their grief, for the loved ones they had lost; to share their love and to share their pain for their loss. I had not known how to do this, but put my faith in the loving spirit that holds me, leads me and sustains me. So I put something together and I created the space. What followed was deeply moving. It feels like the beginning of something special. I was touched by every moment. It was a deeply spiritual experience and it felt we were truly sharing together on Holy ground.

I say it felt like we were on "holy ground", but this wasn’t because the building was anything special, it was the small schoolroom at Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel, Altrincham. No we had made the space holy by blessing it with our presence. In doing so, in such loving and open ways, I felt the presence of the Divine Love holding us through it all.

The time I share with congregations I serve, especially during worship is a deeply holy time, but not because we are in a building that is any more special than any other. It is just bricks and mortar. It is made Holy by what goes on here and what has gone on there for generations now. We are blessed by Holy ground in those temples of Love because what occurs there is, in my view, concentrated love. We share “thick time”, in what has become “thin places”, for me.

Maybe it’s the falling Cherry Blossom, but at this time of year I feel more alive. I suspect it’s because I just seem to pay more attention to places and the ground at my feet. I feel deeply connected to places at this time of year, I feel like I am constantly walking on holy ground. I feel deeply nourished by the ground at my feet. I feel the Spirit of Life rising up through the souls of my feet. So much so that I want to be like Moses and shake off my shoes.

There’s a deeper sense of belonging going on, I feel at home wherever I find myself. When I feel like, my heart is filled with memories. Good memories and painful memories;  memories that allow the moment to truly come alive. Maybe this is why I’ve noticed myself saying “thank you” a lot to the seemingly inanimate. I can’t seem to stop myself offering a constant prayer of gratitude.

I feel it powerfully in the houses of love that I lead worship in, they are special places of love and attention. I think attention is the key by the way; it is attention that allows us to bless the space in which we find ourselves. As Wendell Berry once said, “This place, if I am to live well in it, requires and deserves a lifetime of the most careful attention.” The key is attention. It is by giving a time and space attention that we make it a Holy place. I felt this powerfully last Saturday as I shared attention with others as we opened ourselves to our shared experiences of love and loss. In that time we made space for the Divine, for the presence of God. In so doing we all make the ground at our feet Holy.
Perhaps the best known reference to "Holy Ground" can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Exodus. It describes Moses, who is out tending his flock near the Mountain of Horeb, he sees a bush which is on fire and yet not burning up with the flames. It must have seemed an odd sight to Moses and it drew him nearer. So he turns away from his flock to get a closer look at the bush. As he turns “God calls his name from the bush.” “Moses, Moses.” When Moses answers, “Here I am,” He is told to remove his shoes for he stands on holy ground.

Moses is called to deliver the Hebrew people out of Egypt, to free them from slavery. God says to Moses, “I have seen the misery of my people. I have heard them crying out and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come to rescue them from the land of the Egyptians. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharoah to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Now Moses wondered why on earth the people would follow him, so he asked for a sign, he asked for a name that the people would believe. To which God told him to tell them that “I am” had sent him.

In saying "I am has sent me" Moses was not offering them certainty, just mystery. They would have to risk everything in order to reach the promised land.  This they did I suspect because the mystery of the unknown was more attractive than the slavery they were currently in. This speaks powerfully to me about experiences I have had in my own life. How many times have I stepped into the unknown?

Now you may well ask what can this mean to we who live now? Well like a lot of scripture I see a beautiful universal mythos, a truth that can speak to all of us. I do not read scripture as history, I read it as meaningful mystery. For me the burning bush is about Moses uncovering his own meaning, his own purpose. It’s about him being caught by the flame. It’s about him paying attention to the ground at his feet and the people he lived with. It’s about him seeing that the ground at his feet is holy ground and that his task was to lead his people to the Promised Land. So they wandered for forty years in the desert looking for the Promised Land. Something we can all do in our lives searching for Heaven, for Nirvana when the truth is we are already in it. All we have to do is truly live on the land in which we find ourselves and to truly bless it and one another with our loving presence. We don’t need to be led to the promise land we just need to realise that we are already standing on it. We just need to bring this space and place alive.
We can all be caught by the flame as Moses was, we can hear the call of the Holy from deep within us and from all around us, all we have to do is to listen; all we have to do is to pay attention; all that we have to do is to live fully alive, to open our senses; all we have to do is risk everything by giving our love away. We too can be like Moses and the Hebrews. We can come to find ourselves, after many trials in the Promised land, by learning to live in the ground that are feet are firmly planted in.

We can live our lives with our hearts in a holy place. It’s quite simple really , holiness is a life fully lived, a life where we truly pay attention. The holy is not some separate place, the spirit is not separate from the body, “sacred the body”; our physical lives are not in exile from the spiritual. All we have to do to awaken the holy is to truly pay attention to the world and the people around and truly inhabit the space in which we live and breathe and share our being. All we have to do is come to believe that we all walk on holy ground. All we have to do is wholly live our lives. It is interesting to note the word holy is derived from the old English word “Hal” which meant whole. To stand on holy ground it to live our lives wholly. The Promised Land is not out there or up there, it’s not some faraway place it is right here right now. All we have to do to find it, is to pay attention. All we have to do is to feel the ground at our feet. Shake off your shoes.

There is something very powerful about coming together in love, there is something very powerful in opening ourselves up to one another and recognise what connects us what makes us wholly human, this is what it means to be holy. I experience this in worship, I recognise this in the deep encounters I experience with people. I felt it powerfully last Saturday as I opened my heart to my love and loss with others. I have never felt more alive. This is holy work and it allows me to live more lovingly with the people I find myself in the company of. Whenever I do, as I look down at the ground at me feet, I want to shake off my shoes for I recognise that what I find myself in is indeed “Holy Ground”.

We can all bless the space in which we inhabit All we have to do is to open our hearts and connect to the Greater mysteries of life, to the Web of being, to know the spirit of life and love, to experience God. In so doing we begin to connect to the greater realities and mysteries of existence. All we have to do is to pay attention to the life around us and to touch the people we meet in our daily living. In so doing we make the ground at our feet holy.

All we have to do is shake off our shoes, to feel the spirit rise up through our feet, to recognise that all ground is holy ground, that all life is formed of the spirit and recognise the sacredness of each person that we meet, in so doing we will bless all life with our loving presence.

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.