Sunday, 18 June 2017

Hubris & Feet of Clay: A Father's Day Reflection

A few months ago I visited my aunty Catherine for the day. I try to visit her regularly, but not as often as I would like. She and her son Edward are really the only surviving members of my dad’s side of the family, that part of my ancestry. We went for a walk around Morley near Leeds, where she lives, the town where I was born. They actually live in Bruntcliffe which is the hill between Batley where my mother was from and Morley where my dad’s butchers shop was. Towards the end of the walk we went to the cemetery to visit the family grave, where my granddad and grandma, her parents and my dad, her brother, are buried. I read the names and I observed the ages they were when they died. As I looked at my dad’s age something shocking dawned on me. My dad was only 47 years old when he died. I turned to my auntie Catherine in a state of shock and said to her “I can’t quite believe it, my dad was only two years older than am when he died, the same age that my brother is now. Her response was interesting she said something like “No way Danny, he seemed like an old man, not like you.” In many ways he was, he had lived his life and I suspect that he was tired, he had run out of life.

My father was a complex man, certainly not the most responsible. My relationship with him was not the best it could have been, although better than my siblings. He was a charismatic man and was certainly someone you would remember being in the company of, as was evidence by his funeral. That said he could be a selfish man and someone who I suspect never knew who he really was himself. He never found peace within himself and could be a completely different person with whoever he met. One thing I do know is that he loved me. That said one thing I have known in my life is that most people I have known have loved me, even those who have hurt me deeply. My step father, my mother’s second husband, was another complex man and an abusive one too, I lived in utter terror of him as I grew up. Even so despite all this he did love me and all his children in his own way. Again though he was and is a deeply selfish man. He has fathered many children and I will hold all of them in my heart today, as they think of their father. Father's day can be a difficult one for so many people, it will bring up a mixture of emotions and ones that at not always recognised. This needs to be acknowledged and not ignored.

I have known many other role models throughout my life. I think as a younger man I constantly sought them out. All of them have been flawed individuals and yet I have known a certain amount of care from them too. Of all of them, perhaps the one I have always felt a deep love and affection for and from was my granddad who died a couple of years ago. I had a deep love for my other granddad too, it’s just that I didn’t see him after the age of 11 except just before he died. I never saw the flaws in my mum’s dad though, although I know he had many. I don’t ever recall him showing anything but deep love towards me. I will never forget visiting him just a few days before he died, in the hospice, and my heart breaking as I saw him lying there. I also remember pulling myself together as he awoke as I didn’t want him to see me upset. Not because I thought this was a sign of weakness, but because I knew how much it would hurt him to see me hurting. The last thing in the world I ever want to do was hurt him and I believe he me.

Growing up I know I didn’t have the best paternal role models. I know this ever more clearly these days as I have spent time with other families in my role as a minister. I am at peace with this today. I blame no one for any troubles in my life and have truly reconciled myself with my past. I take full responsibility today. That said I recognise that many people struggle with their relationships with the paternal figures in their life.

The problem comes I believe from our expectations of people. We often seen our paternal figures as either God like or monsters, not human beings, as flawed as any of us. The truth is we all have “feet of clay” none of us is perfect. Last Sunday I was extolling the virtues of Gandhi. Gandhi was often considered “The Father of India” and yet much has been written about the flawed aspects of his make-up particularly as the father of his own children. Like every one of us, he had “feet of clay.”

The phrase “Feet of clay” comes from the second chapter of the “Book of Daniel” in the "Jewish Scriptures" the “Old Testament.” The book described the people of Israel being exiled to Babylon for worshipping false Gods. The king of Babylon is troubled by a recurrent dream that none of his wise men can interpret. Now just before the king executes the wise men for their failure, one of the exiles from Judah, Daniel, offers to interpret the king’s dream. He begins by describing the king's dream:

“31 ‘You were looking, O king, and lo! there was a great statue. This statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32 The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 As you looked on, a stone was cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all broken in pieces and became like the chaff of the summer threshing-floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”

Daniel then continues and interprets the dream. He explains that the rock that struck the statue represented the one true God and that although the king was represented by the gold head of the statue, if he didn’t base his life and his kingdom on the one true God, it would inevitably be shattered and swept away. It is here that the phrase “feet of clay” comes from.

Today we use the phrase in situations where someone or something appears be invincible but, in fact, is actually based on fragile feet of clay. Something that all who believe that they are powerful need to take note of. It is vital to remember that we are all finite, no one is perfect and we are all fallible. We all have “feet of clay.” It is a warning against “Hubris” that so many of the powerful can become consumed by.

Our expectations of others can be too high at times. By the way I’m not just speaking of our father’s or mother’s we can have it of siblings and other family members, of friends and lovers. We can also have the same expectation of public figures, especially the leaders and politicians of the world. The truth is they most certainly have feet of clay and we should never put them on pedestals. This by the way is not excusing anything, we should most certainly hold them accountable. We should treat them as we would anybody else.

Ever since a week last Thursday’s surprise General Election result I have heard my favourite word used repeatedly. The word is “Hubris”. Our Prime Minister Teresa May has been accused of it in calling an early election in the expectation of a result that would strengthen her position. This backfired badly and has left her with less power. It truly is an example of “Hubris”.

The criticism has continued since, following Mrs May's response to the loss of several dozen lives in the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower. One of several horrific events that have happened in recent weeks in Britain, that has the whole nation in a state of numbing shock and despair and looking for leadership that is lacking from our Prime Minister.

Hubris is the Ancient Greek word for over stretching ourselves; it translates as arrogance or overwhelming pride. The ancient Greeks saw Hubris as the very root of tragedy. Their tragic dramas, played out at their religious festivals centred on human beings, often rulers who forgot their human limitations. In these tragedies the audiences were reminded of the dangers of acting like immortals or Gods. They taught the value of knowing themselves, who they really are and to know what it is to be truly human.

Perhaps those that rule our world, our leaders, the financiers and even the celebrities who many of us lookup to in awe in the same way that the ancient Greeks looked at their God’s should take heed of these stories. The Empires do eventually fall, no matter how powerful they believe they are.

Hubris is an insidious beast. We often fail to see it in ourselves. Because Hubris is so well hidden in ourselves it can have a nasty habit of sneaking up on us. Why you may well ask? Well because it is neatly packaged as the virtue of truthfulness and righteousness.

Fortunately there exists a healthy antidote to hubris, humility!

Humility may well be humanities greatest virtue. It is essentially about accepting our human limitations and of course the limitations of others. By doing so we become teachable, we learn from others, which leads not only to us improving our own lives but the world that we inhabit but do not own; which in turn leads us to nurture and develop healthy relationships with other people. By recognising that we are not, nor do we speak for God we will open ourselves up to voice of transcendence as it speaks to us in life. In doing so we will be honouring life itself as sacred, which will hopefully lead to us taking care of what is our responsibility; our own lives mind, body and soul, our families, our homes, our friendships, our communities, our planet.

Hubris can be the most inhibiting and potential dangerous delusion a human being can suffer from. In the end it actually stops us living the best life we can. Humility on the other end helps us to see the truth about ourselves and others “Warts and all and beauty spots too”. From here we can honestly improve our own lives and those who we share this spinning planet with. It achieves more than that though. It draws us closer together not only to one another but to this amazing universe that we play a small but vital role in. The dangers stem from losing sight of this and believing that this universe and rest of humanity revolves around us and is there to do our bidding.

We all have “feet of clay”, even those we exalt and look up to; the ones we put on pedestals, including our parents, especially our fathers. We all have our flaws, we all walk the line between creation and destruction in our daily living. We all have cracks in us, to quote Leonard Cohen, “that’s how the light gets in.” Gandhi who I spoke of last week, considered “The Father of India” had a difficult relationship with his own children. It’s the same with every figure that we hold up as examples to us. They all have and had “feet of clay”.

The heroes of mythology were not perfect. The ancient Greek heroes all had flaws, even their Gods. It’s the same with the characters found in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet these very same figures are held up to us as models of faithfulness and bravery. The truth is that perfection has nothing to do with greatness, we are all more human than otherwise, we all have “feet of clay.”

These days I tend to take a more realistic view of both myself and the others in my life. This does not mean I have lost any of my idealism as I know that we can all do better. As I wrote in last weeks "blogspot" we can all aim higher than we ever imagined, in the assurance we will always fall short of the mark. For this reason we must aim higher than our imaginations can even begin to envision. In so doing we will become the best version of ourselves.

We must be careful of the dangers of hubris though, we need to always have our feet on the ground, our “feet of clay”. While always remembering that we all have “feet of clay”, particularly those we exalt, and those we hold up.

As I look back at the father figures in my life, even those I feel let down by I do so with loving and accepting eyes. I see clearly that they had “feet of clay”; I see clearly that they were as human as I am and I can certainly see the love that they had within them. A love that they had for me and others in their own cracked and broken ways. I also see clearly my own “feet of clay” and I intend to keep aiming high while also being wary of falling for the dangers of Hubris.

On this day that honours fathers let us do so honestly and compassionately. Let’s remember that we are all far more human than otherwise, that we all have “feet of clay”. Let us also remember the imperfect love that we have all experienced from the father figures in our lives and the imperfect love we have shown to those who have looked to us and who we have at times let down. Let us also aim higher, in the expectation that we will always fall short of the mark.

Let’s remember that we all have “feet of clay” and whatever love we give and receive will never be perfect but if we aim high and give as much as we possibly can it may well be more than we could ever imagine as possible.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Gandhi's Seven Social Sins

There are many things that trouble us, all of us, in different ways. If I was to sit and spend all my life focusing on what I see as unhelpful, as wrong in life, no doubt I would never leave the house and even there I wouldn’t feel safe. In so doing I would be committing what I have heard described as the greatest sin of all, to fail to exist, to live and unlived life. I have wasted enough years doing that and I refuse to do so ever again.

Despite its very real troubles I have faith in life, a love for life. I believe in life. To quote William James. 'These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.' " I have found this to be 100% true.

I was recently chatting with someone I love dearly, it was not an easy conversation, but it was essential. I have had this conversation with them before. The first time I found it almost unbearable it was too painful to hear. Thankfully I love them enough to listen to their pain. What was clear was that they had been ruled by fear all their life; for all their life they had been dominated by fear. Gosh how I wish I could relieve them of it, but alas I cannot. No one can.

Fear is a deeply powerful emotion, it can be crippling in its power, which is why so many of the dark forces of life employ it to control and dominate. In many ways this is perhaps the root of human sin if you like, this use and or instilling of fear to dominate others, it seems to be the root of so many of our human troubles.

No area of life is exempt from using fear in their attempts to get what they believe is right. It has been one of the great evils of religion of course. How often have people been subjugated by fear in so many ways. Modern advertising does it too, in their attempts to sell us a lifestyle that will take all our troubles away and you see it very clearly in politics, particularly around election time. I never saw this more clearly than during last year’s EU referendum and we have seen it again in recent weeks as we have approached last Thursday’s General Election. As each one passes I see the seeds of division being sown and it troubles me deeply, we also see scapegoating too on the increase. This bothers me greatly too and I know I am not immune from this either. I have blamed others for my troubles.

Now of course the temptation is to withdraw, to crawl under some kind of fear based spiritual rock and refuse to engage. This is fear of the highest order, it is selfish and a rejection of life. The spiritual life can only be lived in reality. Its purpose is to bring healing and not to sow seeds of division. We are all in this together regardless of our views about how life ought to be. The spiritual life has to be an ethical life.

If the spiritual life has to be ethical, then how do we live such a life without causing harm and sowing those seeds of division. Well I believe it begins by first of all recognising our one shared humanity. Recognising that we are all formed by the same substance and have the same spirit flowing through us, that not one of us is perfect we all fall short of our attempted ideals, we are all sinners in that sense, we are all driven at times by fear and we are all open to the transformative power of love, no one is beyond redemption. We are all more human than otherwise.

Throughout human history many have attempted to show us ways to live a more ethical life. In recent years Karen Armstrong wrote her “12 steps to a Compassionate Life”, it inspired my early ministry. I spoke of it constantly and I led groups exploring her ideas. It was her attempt to return compassion back to the centre of the social, economic, political and spiritual life. There have been others who have spoken of what has blocked us from living the ethical life. Towards the end of the sixth century Pope Gregory came up with “The Seven Deadly Sins”, which were based on Greek philosophy. The seven were Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride. Unlike the “Ten Commandments” they contained no “Thou Shalt Not’s”, instead they were designed to aid the individual to examine the state of their being.

Now the main problem with the list is that they were still an examination of our inner life and not an examination of how we live our lives.

During the 20th century Mohatma Gandhi published another list. It was named “The Seven Social Sins” and was published in his newspaper “Young India” on October 22nd 1925. The list is as follows:

Wealth without Work.
Pleasure without Conscience.
Knowledge without Character.
Commerce without Morality.
Science without Humanity.
Worship without Sacrifice.
Politics without Principles.

The list had sprung from a correspondence that Gandhi had with someone who he only identified as a “fair friend.” It is understood that the list comes from sermon first delivered at West Minster Abbey. He published the list without commentary. All Gandhi said was : “Naturally, the friend does not want the readers to know these things merely through the intellect but to know them through the heart so as to avoid them.”

Is that possible? Can these seven been known by the heart, so that we can avoid them in our daily living. The focus of the list is on our conduct in society. It is salvation by not only faith but also works, how we live our lives in our daily interactions. They seem firmly in keeping with his own spiritual ethics of non-violence and interdependence and each one is an example of selfishness overcoming the common good. As he himself said "A person cannot do right in one department whilst attempting to do wrong in another department. Life is one indivisible whole. " It is said that Gandhi believed that these social sins were a greater threat to society than the personal sins listed by Pope Gregory.

Many years later in 1947 Gandhi gave the very same list, this time under title “the seven blunders that human society commits, and that cause all the violence”, to his fifth grandson Arun. Sadly within three months Gandhi had been murdered by a Hindu extremist who obviously had fallen into the trap, that so many do. and made Gandhi the scapegoat for so many of the countries troubles. So often the great and the good are destroyed by the violence that is given birth to by fear, by seeing others as something other than human. Sadly things have not changed in the last seventy years.

What do you think of Gandhi’s list? I like them. I think they are a great model for the spiritual life, for living a life of ethical principle and dignity, by attempting to overcome them. In so doing we can begin to bring to life the loving compassion that Karen Armstrong is promoting, a love that is the essence of all the great traditions. We see this love expressed in the teachings of Jesus, it is worth noting that Gandhi, although a Hindu, read the Gospels every day, believed that the Sermon on the Mount was the model of the good life and saw Jesus as the embodiment of Satyagraha. That his life was an example of how to live the spiritual and ethical life. If we were to adopt the principles that would ensure that we avoid living by these sins or blunders then we would begin to create the society that at its core would be justice, equity and compassion. 

Is this possible can we live the spiritual and ethical life can we live in such a way as to avoid these seven sins or blunders as Gandhi named them? I wonder what do these seven statements bring to your heart, mind and soul? I wonder if you can think of examples, in today’s world, of any or even each of them? What about your own life, where do you fall short? How could you begin to live a more connected life?

We all fall short of the mark, every single one of us. None of us is perfect, perhaps it is this as much as anything that makes us more human than otherwise. It is important to understand that to sin originally meant to fall short of the mark, the word "sinare" was an archery term that literally meant this. By the way when I write of sin here I am not writing of original sin, I do not believe that anyone is born this way, it's just that none of us hit the mark every time. In what ways can we aim higher and therefore raise the targets we reach when we all fall short? By the way it’s worth remembering this when we look at the specks in the eyes of others and fail to see the log in our own.

I firmly believe that to live the ethical life requires us to grow spiritually to take care of our inner life, certainly this was Gandhi’s view too. This leads me to ask you who read this "blogsot" to do me a favour. I'd like you to think of ways that this can be achieved, how can we improve our inner lives so that we can be more effective in our own homes and communities and therefore live more ethically. How do we improve our inner lives so as to see where we fall short and therefore live more ethically?

It is easy to look at others and point out where they fall short of the mark, to scapegoat, to blame; it is perhaps less easy to look at ourselves and to see how we fail to live up to the ideals of justice, equity and compassion. The truth is we all fall short of the mark, we are all far more human than otherwise and that perhaps when we criticise others for their very human shortcomings what we are really doing is deflecting from where we ourselves fall short. The truth is we can do something about ourselves, if we take care of our own spiritual needs, where as we can’t change others. We can inspire them by the way we live, but we cannot change them

We can aim way above these “Seven Social Sins”

Wealth without work.
Pleasure without conscience.
Knowledge without character.
Commerce without morality.
Science without humanity.
Worship without sacrifice.
Politics without principles.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Another Place: Don't Turn Away

Last Tuesday morning, like so many people, I woke to the horror and disbelief at what had occurred the night before on Monday 22nd May in Manchester. I could hardly believe my eyes as I bore witness to the brutal murder of 22 innocent people and many more injured. There was a part of me that wanted to come back to be the people of the city that has been my home for twenty years, there was also another part of me that wanted to turn away; there was a part of me that just couldn’t bear to look.

I find it hard at the best of times to watch the news. I prefer to read about the suffering in our world on-line or to listen on the radio, than to watch it with my eyes. I find watching the news too much at times, especially the way the rolling news is presented today. I spent the next few days with family and loved ones, which had been the plan as I took a week’s leave. I spent time at home in Yorkshire and I spent time by the sea. The sea is always a place of solace for me.

I noticed that Tuesday morning as I spent some time walking around the place I grew up, Birstall in West Yorkshire, that I found it hard to even look at people; I noticed that as I passed people and they smiled at me, I found it hard to smile back, but after a while I began to do so. As I walked around familiar childhood places memories came into my being, I re-membered, I re-felt old experiences. Some from 30 or 40 years ago and some from this very same time last year when I walked these very same streets again in shock and horror following the brutal murder, by another fanatic, of the MP Jo Cox. I remembered my visit to Parliament just a few weeks earlier, when only a week later another hater of life had committed more brutal acts of murder. I thought of the troubles in our world of the countless brutality that we witness every day. The weekly shootings we hear of in American, how frequently these take place in schools and work places, the deaths of innocents in Syria and Iraq and the streams of displaced people and the suffering they face. I remembered other massacres of innocents, Dunblane and of course Anders Brevik and the mass shooting of 77 people in Norway in 2011 as well as the countless terrorist atrocities we have seen throughout the world in recent years.I woke again this morning to more horror as three more fanatical haters of life attacked murdered innocent people in London, just heart breaking.

 I also remembered the violence and fear I have witnessed and experienced in my own life. I re-felt these feelings as I walked the familiar streets of home, alone. I passed people and I didn’t want to look at them, I wanted to look away. The people though, they would not let me. As they smiled at me, something inside began to wake up once again, I kept on seeing in them love and decency. That evening and over the next few days I witnessed and heard of countless acts of love that occurred that night in Manchester and in the days that followed. Symbols of love and compassion from all kinds of ordinary people. I saw it with my own eyes. I witnessed people coming together in love, as people always do. We see this every day too and throughout the world.

Later in the week I visited “Another Place”. This is a favourite place for me and I went there with one of my favourite people, a dear old friend. I went to Crosby Beach and stood with the Anthony Gormely Statues and I stared out to sea. I love to stand and stare at the sea, to let my eyes just take in the open vastness and simply experience “Another Place”. Whenever I do I feel fully alive and connected to a Power far greater than myself, I feel conscious of this universal consciousness that creates and connects all life; this deeper aliveness which I have come to believe is the consciousness at the core of everything. As I did that day my eyes felt wide open once more and I could look at the world again. I began to see, once again, with renewed vision. It was powerful and it was deeply healing. “The eyes of my eyes”, were once again opened.

I spent most of the day talking and listening with a dear old friend, a person who has seen me at my worst and who I have shared intensely heart breaking moments with, too many for two people. She reminded me of a time when I had been broken by grief, a grief she herself was not yet ready to surrender to at the time, even though it was infinitely more painful for her. She described how my whole body seemed broken as she looked on me that day. Her eyes witnessed this in me and I know how much it hurt her, for there is nothing more painful that to witness someone you care deeply for in such brokenness and also as she could not visit this place yet.

As she spoke I re-membered and I also remembered how this was another moment of healing when I would once again rise as I found the strength to turn back to life. I wouldn’t be a minister today but for this time. I wish it hadn’t happened, if I could change it I would, but so much has come from that suffering. This is the healing that rises from life’s suffering. This is the meaning that rises from the suffering and dispels all despair. It is this that enables me to bear witness to life, love and community.

It matters how we see life, how we look at life, for how we see life will affect how we live in the world. Yes we all turn away at times, it gets too much, but we cannot do this for long, we need to look at the world with loving eyes, for the world needs it. I know I do. We need to see the world through eyes that are fully awake, through conscious eyes. This is not easy by the way, it will hurt, for the awakened eye is the vulnerable eye, but it is the only way to live and it is the only way to see beauty and love. If we turn away, as we are all tempted to do at times, we will fail to see all that makes life worth living for, worth dying for, for that matter.

In the Gospel accounts there are several examples of Jesus healing people of blindness. There are other occasions where he is found criticising the religious leaders of the time for their blindness. You will also find several occasions where Jesus’s gaze, his eyes if you like, are mentioned, the way he looked at people, always with love and compassion even when rebuking them. There is something powerful in these examples from the Gospels; a powerful lesson is being taught here about how we see and look at things; a lesson about how we all should live in love and compassion, with our eyes wide open, bringing healing and love to all, so that they too can see once again through clear open eyes.

The key is to see the world through “Unfurnished eyes” as Emily Dickinson described them, eyes untarnished by the past and wide open. This is like seeing with the eyes of  the Buddha, uncluttered by attachments. If we can we begin to not only vision but create the Kin-dom of Love, the Kingdom of God right here right now. It begins by not turning away, no matter how hard it can feel at times  no matter how much it hurts.

All we have to do is unfurnish our eyes; all we have to do is see through loving eyes. You see, despite what we are told, love in actual fact is not blind, for it is love that truly sees. Just think about the people and the places you love, have you noticed something, you notice greater detail about them. You see more than is often seemingly there in them. When you gaze through loving eyes you become more conscious, life just seems more alive and you feel more awake. I did that day as the people I passed compelled me not to turn away, by looking at me and simply smiling and I did when I went to “Another Place” and simply opened my eyes and gazed at the sea.

Just imagine what might happen if we saw all life and all people through such loving eyes? Well if we do we will see more, which means life will hurt more at times, but we will also know more beauty and love and we will bring more beauty and love into our world. All we have to do is live with our eyes wide open; all we have to do is not turn away.

Don’t turn away and if you do, don’t turn away for too long. Instead let’s look at the world with open eyes.

To live with open eyes is to see the world as it truly is; to see reality as it really is, warts and all and in its beauty spots too. To live with open eyes is to not turn away from the suffering present in life but also to pay attention to life’s beauty too. To live with open eyes is to see the reality of the whole of life. This is not easy, so often we are tempted to turn away. To live fully connected lives we need to live with open eyes, to see life with all its blessings and curses.

Our open eyes allow us to recognise where we can act in the world, if our minds and our hearts are open. If we live with open eyes we will see clearly how we cannot turn away for our world needs us to look on it with loving eyes.

Let’s turn away no more and look at the world through loving eyes.

“Each New Morning” by Penny Quest

Each new morning two choices are open to every one of us:
The choice to live that day in the joyfulness of Love,
Or in the darkness of Fear.

Each new day, as the sun rises,
We have another opportunity to make that choice.
The symbolism of the sunrise is the removal of shadow
And the return of Light.

Each new morning we have another chance
To rid ourselves of the burdens, sorrows and fears of the past,
To rejoice in the joy of the present,
And to look forward to a future of fulfilment
On every level of our being.

Each sunrise is a fresh opportunity to release fear,
To choose a different life-path,
To commit ourselves to joyful, light living,
To trust in ourselves and in the Universe,
To trust in the forces of Nature and in Mother Earth,
To trust God, the Creator, the all-That-Is.


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.