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?  

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