Sunday, 22 April 2018

Four funerals and one wedding: Circles of Inclusion

“Widening Circles” by Rainer Maria Rilke translation by Joanna Macy and Anita

Barrows from “Book of Hours, I 2”

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

I want to share with a story about four funerals and one wedding, kind of the opposite of the classic British film, “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. Actually it’s a story of three funerals, one wedding, a memorial service and a few other things, but that just doesn’t sound as snapping as “Four Funerals and a Wedding.” It’s a story about overlapping circles and the many ways that people, families and communities overlap and interact and how all of us belong to one another and to life in so many ways. Nothing is simple, nothing is black and white, all life is a rich tapestry, a rainbow, we all move in ever widening and overlapping circles. We are all one humanity and one human family, born on one earth, under one sky, with one spirit running through it all and yet we create division and so often see others as somehow different.

The story begins at Queens Road Unitarian Free Church, Urmston, at Betty Hydes funeral. A beautiful and moving occasion for a much loved member of the Queens Road family. Betty had joined the Queens Road circle when she had married John Hydes who had been a part of Queens Road for more than fifty years. Both John and Betty were widowed and had come together and brought two families into widening circles.

Following the funeral I returned home to be with my hurting complicated family. I was going to be with those I love as my step brother Daniel had taken his own life. Daniel had been a part of my circle of life and love for over twenty years after his dad and my mum married. His funeral which I attended last Thursday was the fourth funeral of this story. A hard day, a heart breaking day, but one overflowing with comassion as peole came togther to hold each other in their love and loss, their grief.

The day of Betty’s funeral, as I returned home, ended in the living room of our Mandy. I had gone there at the end of tough and painful day with our Natalie. We shared with one another, sharing our pain together and it ended in a hug as we held one another. Now our Natalie is my half-sister, she has the same mum but a different dad to me. Our Mandy is our Natalie’s half-sister too , but she shares the same father and a different mum to our Natalie. So Mandy was my step-sister for many years at least legally, but the truth is that she is my sister and we have been together since I was three years old. We share a deep love for one another and hold one another in the same circle of compassion. Our wider families are complicated and fragmented but the circle of love we share and are a part of is very strong.

The second funeral was for a man known as Dave, as “Dave the hairdresser” to many of the friends I shared with him. It was a funeral that I knew was coming for several months before he died and I had spent quite a bit of time with him over the last year preparing the service as he wanted it. I have known Dave for over fifteen years. He was my first recovery sponsor and helped in some of the darkest days of my life. We had a complex relationship. There was a time we did not speak, as he hurt me and let me down. That said in recent years we made our peace. It was a beautiful experience learning about his whole life, creating the service and leading it and sharing it with the many people he loved and who loved him. As I led his coffin into Manchester Crematorium emotion and fear hit me, so I did as I always do and prayed for some of that invisible help that runs through all life and I believe is at the core of all life and mine too and as I like to say, I did my job and did it well. The reception afterwards was moving too as I mixed with the many different circles of people that knew Dave, his family, his old friends, his recovery community and his spiritual community, who are mainly connected to the spiritualist church. As I walked away from the reception I was overcome with exhaustion and emotion. Thankfully Sue was with me and I went back to her home. It has been a difficult and emotional time of late, deeply draining in many ways.

Towards the end of last week the exhaustion really hit. On Friday night I spent time in one of Sue’s circles. It is mainly a women’s circle and this Friday night was a dancing circle and a kind of spiritual healing one. I had enjoyed it the last time I went, but this time it was a struggle. It was nothing to do with the occasion, it was me. I was exhausted, emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. I hit a rock bottom that evening, in fact in the middle of the evening I physically laid down in a heap on the ground. I surrendered to the ground of being, to that spirit at the core of life. I had kept going in recent weeks and my body said no more. I have been here before and knew that this would be a turning point. I knew I would be ok.

For the last few weeks I had kept going through my duties, my family’s pain, the week at the general assembly meetings. I fulfilled my duties, I have wanted to do so, although the congregations I serve would have let me take time off, infact they encouraged it, for this I am deeply grateful. The love and support I have received from the many circles of love and community I move in has been just been incredible. I received some beautiful gifts in the post this week too. Two stand out, a beautiful card from the folk from Dukinfield Old Chapel and a prayer shawl from those at the Octogan chapel Norwich. So many beautiful gifts of love have filled my heart and soul.

...The story contines...

Over the last weekend I conducted a wedding for a couple who have attended Dunham Road occasionally. The groom Geoff has been a part of the “Living the Questions” circle for several years. The bride Megan is also a part of another circle of mine. The one I grew up in, as she comes from the village of Birstall in West Yorkshire. The same village that Joseph Priestley, one of key figures of my chosen Unitarian faith’s history. The wedding and the reception I and Sue attended that evening was so needed. The circle at the reception I sat in that night was a beautiful tonic as we shared stories and laughed together. Two of Megan’s aunts were at our table and I think Sue got a glimpse of the spirit found in folk from that part of the world. She will have to get used to it as she becomes a part of my family circle. Something she got a bigger experience off this week at our Daniel's funeral.

...Yorkshire is not just a place, it's also a state of mind...

Last Sunday, after leading worship, I accompanied Sue as she headed into Manchester to conduct a memorial service for someone known as Mary. It was held on Canal street, in a bar in what is known as “The Gay Village” and afterwards in Sackville Gardens. Now Mary had already had her funeral but that was for the male aspect of her life. You see Mary identified as trans-gender and this service was to mark this aspect of her life. It was a deeply moving service as people spoke of her life, of this circle of her life and the impact she had made on so many lives. I even bumped into a couple of people I know from other past circles I have moved in. I cannot go anywhere without this happening. I have moved in many circles in my life

Everyone’s life is complex and made up of many circles. These circles overlap. This is wonderful and beautiful. No one ever fully knows another or moves in exactly the same circle. This is the nature of life and it is a beautiful thing. It only becomes a problem when our cirlces become ones of exclusion, rather than inclusion. This brings to mind the following verse from the poem “Epigrams” by Edwin Markham. It is from the middle section “Outwitted”


He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

These simple four lines speaks to me about the nature of spiritual community; it is about ever widening our circles and inviting others in. Love is there at the core ever empowering us to even widen our cirlces. Sadly too often in life we fail to do this, we draw circles to exclude so many for a variety of reasons. When we look at our own lives surely we will see our own personal circle, our family circle, our community circle, our political circle, our social circle, moving ever onwards. Now while each circle includes ever more people, we still exclude oh so many.

We see circles of exclusion everywhere; we see suspicion of others who we see as different to us growing. This cannot be a good thing. It is happening within nations and between nations; it is happening within cultures and between cultures; it is happening within the faith traditions and between the faith traditions as well as those who wish to see an end to faith. It is happening within ourselves too. I often wonder if we are expanding our circles of experience and understanding or whether are we are in actual fact retreating into what we think we know.

So what can we do? Well I believe we can do much. Where does it begin? Well I believe it begins in our own hearts and souls, in our own homes and in our own communities. We need to begin to expand our own circles. How do we do this? Well we reach deep within ourselves to the ultimate source of love and in doing so we can reach beyond our own human created limits and begin to ever widen our circles. It begins by seeing where and how we exclude ourselves and others from our circles. Now of course this will not stop others from limiting their circles but then that should not matter if we expand our circles of love to include all, even those who wish to keep others out.

Now this is no easy task, of course it is not. That said I believe that it is one that is worth undertaking. I believe it is the challenge of our age. I believe that maybe it is the task and the challenge of my own open faith tradition. I believe that it is our task to ever widen our circle so as include all, for there can be no limit to love. This begins by putting love at the core of the circle and to understand that if we see love as the circumference we will see there is no limit, for no one can be excluded from love. For if they are, it is not love.

For love is eternal and love is perfect and love knows no limits.

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