Sunday, 19 March 2017

Love and Fear: What do you feel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 John Lennon said:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s Wait and See”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Between Winter and Spring a Lenten Journey

“Lent” by Bruce T Marshall

The season of Lent takes place on the Christian calendar for forty days before Easter.

Lent does not exactly catch the popular fancy. Many of the references I hear trivialize it: “This year I’m giving up liver for Lent.” Or treat it as opportunity for commercial promotion. “Macaroni and cheese! The perfect meal for Lent!”

Lent is defined as a time of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter. In this day and age both fasting and penitence may seem peculiar.

And yet during this season of Lent – when the earth is still barren from winter – our lives too may seem on hold, waiting for a miracle.

It’s a time when I become deeply aware of the suffering in the congregation, the community, the world. On any given day we all look pretty much all right, but beneath the appearances many struggle.

It’s a time when I revisit the sorrows I have caused others. Old memories that hide from summer’s sun and spring’s brilliant colors and the excitement of fall activities – these make themselves known during this fallow time of the year.

It’s a time when “doing without” seems the appropriate way to nourish our spirituality. As the earth still is “doing without,” as we reach the end of our store of energy and spirit that was gathered and packed away during the harvest. Now we do without and await a word of hope – the promise of a future.

Religious liberals sometimes are accused of wanting Easter without Lent or Good Friday. Given our attitude of hope and affirmation, we may skip past the struggles that give birth to new life.

But I have not found that to be true. Suffering and struggle come to us, whether there is room for it in our theology or not. The faith that speaks to this experience is not specifically Christian but universal – that there is meaning in our struggles, that we may be transformed in our suffering. That Easter awaits beyond the barrenness of this season of Lent."

Last Friday evening I attended an event with some friends in Northwich, a part of Cheshire I am unfamiliar with. We travelled there and back being guided by Sat Nav, trusting the voice of the lady in the machine. It is amazing how reliant on technology I have become, I know I am not alone in this. On the way back home there were many diversions, which the machine couldn’t quite cope with. The voice in the machine kept trying to get me to go one way, but I had to ignore it and basically trust my instincts. I did eventually find my way back to Altrincham, although it took a lot longer than it should have. We made the most of it, we told many stories of our lives and enjoyed a lot of fun driving in the dark in unfamiliar territory. I know that this time in the wilderness brought the three of us closer together.

I have driven both of these friends to numerous events over the last few years and it is usually quite a fun adventure. One in particular always brings a smile to my face when I think of the crazy conversations we have had. She is as stubborn and belligerent as I can be. I recall a conversation we had this time last year when she was complaining about the cold. I remember at the time saying “Well it is winter” to which she said “that it wasn’t, winter is November December and January but spring begins in February.” I spent a little time explaining when winter is meant to be and the four seasons in general, but she wasn’t having any of it. Our conversations often go like this. A few days later she finally relented after scouring the internet obsessively in an attempt to prove me wrong. I have lost count of the number of similar conversations we have had over the last few years.

It is now March and we have stepped into the season of Lent, but we are still experiencing wintery weather. It even snowed this week. There have been some signs of spring these last few weeks but it is not quite here yet. I know most of us want winter over and the new life of spring. We want Easter and the re-birth of spring to come oh so soon, but first we have to travel through the barren wilderness of March and Lent. Soon though the new life will be here, we will soon be enjoying that gorgeous pink snow that comes with the cherry blossom, the new life will soon be with us.

We have entered the season of Lent. I hope you all enjoyed your pancakes on Tuesday. On what some still call Shrove Tuesday, or as many prefer to call it “Pancake Day”, or as I prefer to call it “Flat Yorkshire Pudding Day”…How do you eat yours?

The following day “Ash Wednesday”, for Christians, marks the beginning of 40 days of fasting, reflection, penitence and self-sacrifice that lead up to Easter, the day of re-birth re-newal and new beginnings.

Lent is a time of reflection, a time of temptation, a time to observe and find answers. It’s a time of preparation. These forty days or so are meant to be a barren time, where we strip ourselves down of luxuries and distractions to give birth to new treasures that can be symbolically born again at Easter time. Not an easy time and a time to experience a sense of loneliness as we enter our the inner wilderness.

In the account found in Matthews Gospel, Jesus is “led by the spirit” into the wilderness, a place of transformation and temptation. He is taken to the pinnacle of the temple and to the top of a high mountain. Here he is offered the world, but rejects the allure of an easier celebrated more obvious path. Instead he chooses the road less travelled, the heroes path. He is tempted by “Satan” but resists the temptation.

This is a universal tale; many of the great sages went on similar journeys, before embarking on their missions to heal their people. The Buddha had to leave the comforts of home, abandon his weeping family, shave his head and don the robes of a world renouncing ascetic, when he began his journey to discover a cure for the pain of the world. Long before his revelations Muhammad would retreat to Mount Hira, outside of Mecca, where he fasted, performed spiritual exercises and gave alms to the poor. He did this in an attempt to discover a remedy for the troubles of his time. When Ghandi began his mission he left the comforts of the elite in which he had lived his whole life and travelled to India carefully observing the plight of the ordinary people.

During their times in the wilderness the great sages found their answers. Through taking the road less travelled, the hard road, the difficult road, the answers came to them. They discovered the knowledge they needed to impact positively on their people in their time and place.

This is the spiritual life in its essence. It is often the hardest most difficult path and it can certainly appear to be the loneliest, one filled with temptations. That said it is the one where the answers are usually found.

Lent is not just about giving up luxuries whether that be food and drink. or as I have seen with some friends and colleagues giving up their dependence on technology. I know several people who have come of social media and one collegue who has said he has given up “plastic” for Lent.

Lent is also a time of reflection a time to go inward and search out answers to the troubles we face as individuals, families, communities, nations and the world. It is a time for repentance and for re-building relationships with those we share this world with.

Lent shares this focus on repentance with many other religions. It shares a focus on atonement with Yom Kippur the Jewish New Year where prayer and fasting accompany acts of atonement. There are parallels with Ramadan in the Islamic tradition, a time for fasting and spiritual engagement as well charitable works and act acts of atonement. Both have a key focus on putting right relationships with God and the people around us. You see similar rituals in both Hinduism and Buddhism too, where fasting atonement, forgiveness and reconciliation are key components.

You can see clearly two key components in all the traditions that is at the core of Lent. One being fasting, denying oneself of life’s luxuries and therefore connecting with those less fortunate and the other healing relationships with one another and with whatever we believe is at the core of all life. It is a time to go inward, but with a sense of purpose. The purpose being to return outward with the intention of bringing healing to our shared world.

The Lenten journey is not an aimless one...

Lent is not an easy path. If only we could simply see what the problem is and change what needs to be changed. Life holds many distractions both internal and external. Lent recognises this, it is part of the mythos. In the Gospel accounts Jesus is tempted from his path by Satan. Satan means “the hinderer”. Temptation can be understood as anyone or anything that hinders our attempts to live the lives we are choosing. It hinders us from seeing who we truly are, children of life, children of love, children of God as it does the same with those we share this world with.

Temptation is that force that separates us from ourselves, from one another and from all life. A force that seems to be growing in power in our time and place.

We do seem to be living in ever more dividing times. Walls are being built, peoples are being separated and scapegoats are being named. I see this in the people I share my life with and I see it on a local and global scale too. Lent to me seems like an antidote to this.

We need Lent more than we have ever needed it. We need time to slow down and to reflect on our own lives and those who we share our lives with. We need to look inwardly and face our own troubles, to see what can be improved in our own lives. We also though need to look outwardly at the world in which we live and breathe and share our being. We need to see where the barriers are in our lives and those close at hand and we need to bring atonement both to our inner and outer lives. It is so needed. We need to take this time so that we can begin to bring some healing to our suffering world. As Jesus did and as the great sages throughout human history have done. We can follow their example, we do not need to be diverted by “the hinderers” both within and without.

Lent is an opportunity to prepare for a new beginning, a fresh start. The cold winter is coming to end, spring is coming, new birth and new life is coming. We need to prepare ourselves for this. We need to go inwards and reflect in this time to face our own demons, our distractions, the things that hinder us. We then need to turn outward to our world and begin to build bridges in our time and space. To me this is the message of Lent and of Easter that is to follow. It will not be pain free, there will be personal suffering, as there is in all life. Remember before we have Easter comes the horror of Good Friday. This is the example I see powerfully in the life of Jesus and the other great sages too, but particularly Jesus. His ministry was at its core about bringing love and reconciliation to humanity. This is the heart of his life and death and the love that lived on from his death, a love still alive today. If we look for it, we will find it. We can follow this great example we can bring this love alive.

We are responsible for our lives and our world. Are we going to be “the hinderers” to this love, the wall builders or are we going to be the ones who bring this love alive, the bridge builders.

It is up to us.

Lent is about attempting to practise love in life day by day, despite the distraction both within and without. It’s not about giving up sweets or chocolate or plastic or neon, it’s about giving of ourselves to life each and every day in whatever small ways that we can. It’s about building bridges of reconciliation rather than walls of separation, it’s about facing up to our demons, those within and those without and about attempting to build the commonwealth of love right here, right now.

It’s about preparing for the new love that can be born again in our hearts and lives…For this we are all responsible…