Monday, 25 January 2021

Living the Quiz of Life: What is Your Question

For a while we have been hosting a joint congregation quiz on Zoom. It has been a lot of fun and thankfully each week it seems someone different wins. Zoom quizzes have become very popular ever since the first lockdown, helping folk beat the loneliness of our time. Now the popularity of quizzes ought not to surprise us, as they have become a staple diet of modern popular light entertainment on television.

One frustration many of us experience during quizzes, whether on tv or at home, is the inability to quite get to the answer, even if you know you know it, something I have suffered from many times on a Friday afternoon. Well, it seems there is a word for this. “Lethologica” (pronounced LETH-og-LODG-ik-a), which is the inability to remember a word or put your finger on the right word. It is the reason that words like “whatchamacallit” and “thingymabob” exist. Helpful, but just try and remember the word “lethologica”, especially when the answer to the question just won’t come. It is amazing what is buried deep there in the recesses of memory.

Now can you guess what all this got me thinking about? Well, it got me thinking about about the word “Quiz” and where it came from. Does it mean what it always did? I had my suspicion that it probably doesn’t. I also wondered if there may be lessons in how we may live our lives spiritually alive from this popular human pastime. Can we ask the right questions about life? Can we live in the quiz of life?

First things first though. What is the answer to the question, where does the word “quiz” come from?

Well there is a story told, which is likely acrophyll, of a prominent Dublin theatre manager named Richard Daley in the late 18th century who placed a “wager” (now there’s another word of interesting origin) that he could make up a word of no meaning and that it would become common talk in the city within “twenty-four hours. Now in the course of a day the letters “Q.U.I.Z” were chalked or pasted on the walls of Dublin, and it is said that by the end of the day everyone was talking about it and thus he won the wager.

The story has been disputed, although there was a theatre manager named Richard Daley in the Dublin of the day, it is just suggested that the word was in use before his time. Whatever the word “Quiz’s” origin it has certainly changed in meaning over time. The word originally meant an eccentric person or object. Later it meant “to make fun of” or “one who mocks”. It appears in Charlotte Bronte's “The Professor” 1857 “He was not odd – no quiz – yet he resembled no one else I had ever seen before.” As well as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey “Where did you get that quiz of a hat? It makes you look like an old witch.” It soon became applied to a person who makes fun or mocks another, or a practical joke. As in Charles Dickens “Martin Chuzzlewit "For goodness sake, Mrs. Todgers," interposed the lively Merry, "don't call him a gentleman. My dear Cherry, Pinch a gentleman! The idea!" "What a wicked girl you are!" cried Mrs. Todgers, embracing her with great affection. "You're quite a quiz I do declare!" By the late nineteenth century it began to morph into our current understanding, referring to test or questions, obviously influenced by words such as “question” and “inquisitive”.

So that is where “quiz” comes from and yes it has certainly changed in meaning over time. Can we learn lessons from this on how we may live our lives spiritually alive from this popular human pastime? Can we ask the right questions about life? Can we live in the quiz of life?

The idea of quizzing or being quizzed is I believe vital to living spiritually alive, to living a life of virtue. To do so requires us to ask questions of life and ourselves, to become inquisitive, to make a quiz out of living, to become skeptics in the truest sense of the word. A sceptic is someone who inquires, who questions, who doubts a truth given unless they explore it themselves. Note the title of the Unitarian publication, that I contribute a monthly column to “The Inquirer”. It seems to me that to Inquire is to quiz, to be a skeptic about “truth”.

The first skeptics were found in ancient Greece. Socrates is the father of Scepticism. For him it was impossible for humans to truly know the absolute truth about anything, that the human mind isn’t designed to do so. As he said “I am the most ignorant man in Athens”. He knew more than anyone else it seems and he truly knew how little knowledge about life he truly had. It is this humility that leads to openness and was also a guard against the hubris of some of the great and the good of the day. Humility with respect to the search for knowledge is the key to skepticism, I wonder if this is still the case today.

Now over time sceptical thinking developed from the idea that it was impossible to truly know anything, to being humbled by how many competing wonderful ideas about life existed and the conclusion that as wonderful as they are, they can’t all be right, thus developing into a study of probabilities. Therefore to doubt and question is not to be against an idea it is about asking the ultimate questions of existence. This to me is the essence of living spiritually alive of religious living. A true skeptic is not against things, they are open to the possibility of things. Rene Descartes, considered the father of modern enlightenment thinking, is a wonderful example of this. He decided that in order to arrive at absolute truth, he must discard any belief that could be doubted. He did so until he arrived at a single remaining certainty within himself, the fact that he existed. He could no longer doubt this doubt and from there he was able to build something.

Sadly, I think that doubt and scepticism has at times got stuck in Descartes starting point. We live in a time where we have eroded all truth and truth claims, in this post-postmodern era. Meanwhile paradoxically there is a growth in belief in all kinds of conspiracy theories for which there is little or no true evidence, thus it seems that true skepticism is being eroded. How often do we hear the line “I’ve done my own research” which often usually means the rejection of most knowledge and the acceptance of something seen on YouTube or some of the dark places on the internet. There has been a rejection of Socrates and Descartes humility and an acceptance of some unverifiable source without really question. It blows my mind that so many people throughout this world have accepted with question the cult of Q-Anon and similar “conspiracy theories”, despite the fact that their predictions never come true. Sadly, the followers have reached the point where to question this truth would destroy everything that they stand for. This is not scepticism, it is the antipathy of it. This is not asking questions of life. This is not being life’s quiz master or mistress.

In the modern age we have things like “Alternative Facts” from former President Donald Trump’s special advisor Kellyanne Conway, which is essentially another way of saying a lie, but making it more palatable. It is interesting that since Trump’s ban from social media, following the horror witnessed in Washington on January 6th that there is now 75% less disinformation being spread on these platforms. Hopefully, this will lead to folk discerning the truth from the dangerous disinformation. It will not be easy though, as skepticism seems so far removed from much of the world today. We need to learn how to become skeptics again. Former President Trump has proved to be one of the biggest spreaders of disinformation our there. According to the Washington Post's "Fact Checker he made a total of 30,573 false or misleading statements during the four years of his presidency. By the way this was a question asked in this weeks quiz. No one got near the total, everyone underestimate the amount by wide margins.

The key to true scepticism is humility with regards to the search for truth, it is the ability to see you are wrong, to actually doubt your doubts. This is what Rousseau did. He could not deny his own existence, “I think therefore I am”. Like Socrates the key is humility which leads to an openness to truth. Sadly it seems that some folk can never admit to being wrong about anything, due to the fear that it might lead to them to seeing that what they believe is untrue. The truth is though, to echo good old Socrates, none of us ever gains access to the whole truth.

Humility, is always the key in the search for truth. This is wonderfully illustrated in the following piece of wisdom from Anthony DeMello’s “One Minute Wisdom”

"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.”

To seek the truth one needs humility and openness and enough self-esteem to see that we are wrong sometimes and of course the capacity to admit to this. If we cannot, we will not be able to see the truth, even when it is right in front of us. It is so easy to become blinded by what we think we know. We need the openness that comes with true humility, it’s a truth that will set us free.

In John’s Gospel Jesus said “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Words that are echoed in DeMello’s wisdom shared above. I have discovered that this can only be the case if we are truly quizzical about the truth we think we know,  and the truth that is offered to us. Not by accepting the truth we are given but by seeking truth, by asking open questions by being quizzical, by becoming true quiz masters and asking open and humble questions about life. If you want to be a seeker of truth then above everything else what you need is an unremitting readiness to admit that you may be wrong. The truth is of course. Once you can see you are wrong about something, admit you are wrong about something, do whatever you can to put right what was once wrong, then you are no longer wrong, you are right.

The key, as Socrates taught, is humility and acceptance that you will never see the whole truth about everything, a humitly that will open us up to deeper and greater truths about, life, ourselves and our world.

It is said that when Isidor Rabi, the 1944 Nobel Prize winner in physics, was interviewed about his achievements, he said he owed it all to his mother. "When we got out of school, all the mothers would ask their children what they had learned that day. My mother would inquire instead, 'What did you ask today in class?'"

So let us all become life’s quiz masters. Let us be humble and open enough to not merely answer the questions that others ask of us, but to learn to ask life’s most important questions. What did you ask today?

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

To See the World In Our Eyes

Over the last year I have found making eye contact ever more important. We cannot physically touch, shake hands, even speaking close to one another is potentially damaging. That said we can still stay connected, primarily through eye contact. I have noticed people eyes more and more, particularly while wearing masks. The eyes are revealing more and more and they seem even more vital in keeping us connected. As time goes by I am attempting to pass on loving connection more and more, through my eyes. What they reveal about my own soul and what they reveal about the soul of the world, in the way I look at the people and life all around me. Walking around with fear and or suspicion is no use to anyone and it can itself becoming viral, negativity can spread quickly.

 

They say that our eyes are the windows to our souls; they say that our eyes reveal our personalities. Why you may well ask? Well because they reveals a deep truth about humanity. We can hide so much about ourselves, behind a thousand and one masks, but if you look into someone’s eyes and really pay attention, you will see the soul of the person.

 

How we look at others matters. We can look on people with compassion, or we can give them a “hard look”. Think about it when someone gives us a “hard look”, what do we do? Well often we turn away in fear, or respond in anger or aggression. What if someone looks at us with compassion, how do we respond to this? Well usually we look back with compassion. Well we do unless we have fallen so far down into that pit of nihilistic despair that we respond to love with utter hatred. I’m sure most folk have been there at some point. I know that I have.

 

How we act towards others really matters. But it’s not just about doing what is right; it’s also about the spirit in which each task is conducted. We can appear to be encouraging and loving and doing the right thing, but our eyes may well say otherwise..

 

I often hear people say that they can’t smile at people in public any longer, due to the need to wear masks, but is this true? We think we smile with our mouths, but we do not, we smile with our eyes. When I smile my eyes almost slant shut. Whatever we do, and however we do something, our eyes will reveal the truth of our hearts and people will intuitively pick up on this. They will see it into our eyes. We can see what is going on in some one’s eyes, even from a distance. All you have to do is look with soft eyes, with open eyes.

 

I recently came across a story about the writer Alice Walker. She tells of the moment her young daughter first noticed an imperfection in one of her eyes. She braced herself for a reaction of horror at seeing this stigma that had caused Walker such shame since childhood. Her daughter’s reaction was not what she expected, for her daughter was both amazed and delighted by what she could see with her own eyes. She cried out 'Mommy, there's a world in your eye...Mommy, where did you get that world in your eye?' What her daughter saw taught Walker that it was possible to love even the damaged eye that had caused her so much shame ever since she was a child. I wonder if it is possible for all of us to look into the eyes of one another and see the whole world in their eyes.

 

This is not always easy, especially when looking at the world in which we live and breath and share our being. How do we look at the world, how do we look at one another? Do we narrow our eyes, or do we widen our vision?

 

I know there are times when I look at the world that my vision narrows. It happened again a week last Wednesday as I watched the attack by the mob, inspired by Donald Trump and others, on the Capitol building in Washington. It happened as I heard and witnessed some of the insanity that followed. It happens when I have witnessed other acts of senseless violence inflicted on others or the spreading of hatred of others. I can at times think that I am somehow different from these people. I can fall for the lie that there are two types of people in this world, that I am not like them. The truth is that I too narrow my eyes and experience feelings of hatred and I that this is what fuels that kind of violence, this sense that the other is different from me; I too can experience a sense that I am superior to some people. I believe that everyone of us has the capacity for great love and compassion as well as great violence and that each and everyone of us can fall down a rabbit hole of madness. My goodness I have sadly witnessed this in people ever more this last year. The key is how we view the world and how I see our brothers and sisters. Do we see the whole world in their eyes, or do we see something other? It matters you know, it matters what we see and how we see, everything matters, it really does.

 

A facebook memory by Parker J Palmer came up the other day. It was a reflection on Rumi’s much loved poem “The Guest House”  

“The Guest House”

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Jalaluddin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks (The Essential Rumi)

Palmer highlights how the poem reminds him of what it means to be human, as he writes: “I have a lot of characters inside of me, and each has a voice of its own. Some of those characters and voices I like. Some not so much! But I need to listen to all of them—not censoring the ones I don't like—and try to host a life-giving inner conversation.” I agree with him, we have to hear all the voices within ourselves, to recognise them as a part of our humanity and also listen to all the voices out there, even the ones that disturb us greatly. We have to listen to them if we want to bring healing not only to ourselves, but our communities and our world. This does not mean tolerating hatred or allowing abuse at any level, but it does mean listening and looking deeply and seeing the whole world in one another’s eyes. It means not seeing the other as alien, as those causing violence do, or rejecting either ours or another’s humanity. This is hard work, tough work, but if we want to bring healing it is something that we must do. If we do not then we will fan the flames of otherness and rejection and peace and healing cannot begin to happen. It matters how we look at the world, do we narrow our eyes or do we widen our eyes? Do we overcome, or do we lower ourselves and become the worst we can be? It is up to us.

Bill Darlison responded to Parker J Palmer’s post stating “I hope we’re gradually learning the truth of what Walt Whitman said, “ I am large, I contain multitudes”. Or what the gospels tell us, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Acknowledging and learning to live with our own variety, our own conflcting personalities – and those of others – is a major part of spiritual awareness.”

Thank you Bill, real wisdom here. I need to remember this when I look into my own eyes, the eyes of others and the eyes of the world. There are not two types of people in this world. A little later Bill posted the following quotation by Leo Tolstoy from “Resurrection”.

“One of the most widespread superstitions is that every person has his or her own special definite qualities: that he or she is kind, cruel, wise, stupid, energetic, apathetic, and so on. People are not like that. We may say of a man that he is more often kind and cruel, more often wise than stupid, more often energetic than apathetic, or the reverse, but it would not be true to say of one man that he is kind and wise, and another that he is bad and stupid. And yet we always classify people in this way. And this is false… …Every person bears within him or herself germs of every human quality, but sometimes one quality manifests itself, sometimes another, and the person often becomes unlike him or herself, while still remaining the same person.

 

Like Tolstoy when Whitman says “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I  am large, I contain multitudes.) he is not only speaking of himself he is speaking of humanity. We are a ball of contradictions and we all possess these contradictions within us all. Like Whitman our world is large and it contains multitudes and yes we all contradict ourselves. We have to look and listen to these contradictions both within ourselves and each other. We need to look and listen, but not with narrow eyes or hearts or ears closed to the world, no we need to be wide and open. Can we look at the world and see it in each others eyes, those windows of the soul? It is not always easy. I know that there are times when my eyes narrow.

It matters how we look at the world, it matters how we look at one another it matters how we look at ourselves. When we look with soft eyes, welcoming eyes, open eyes, we see the world in each others eyes, the whole world with all its contradictions we recognise the sacredness of everything and we contribute to the world. That said if we look with narrow eyes, ones that separate and see the other as different, we begin to reject the world and see that which causes discomfort as the other, then we begin to become a part of the destruction of the world.

It matters how we look at the world, it really does. Let us look with open eyes, with soft eyes. Let us recognise the other in ourselves and ourselves in the other and begin to bring healing to this our wounded world, even in this time of fear, in the midst of the pandemic. Let us recognise the whole world in each others eyes.

Monday, 11 January 2021

Living on the Growing Edge

New Years Eve was a strange one this year. Not very surprising I know. We could not mark and celebrate as we would normally, so we had to adapt. I hosted the “Watch Night Service” as 2020 crossed over into 2021. The service was enjoyed by folk in person and on Zoom. The evening had begun on Zoom with our weekly poetry night “Consolation, Sorrow and Joy” I then kept the Zoom open until midnight. It was perhaps not the smartest move on my part, as I was only wearing a shirt and jacket and it was a cold night sitting for six hours in the chapel. A few people did log on to say hello and have a chat. Sue arrived at about 10.30pm and we enjoyed some lovely food together that she had lovingly prepared. That night as I crossed the threshold, in that inbetween space, that liminal space, I enjoyed my time alone waiting and reflecting on what had been and what was yet to come. I felt like I was on the edge of something, not just time and space but life, it felt like the growing edge of everything, of life.

The time alone in the chapel allowed me to reflect on the year that had passed and the year that we are all stepping into. These will be difficult days ahead for us all and we need to prepare ourselves to live through it. It is no point just clinging on and hoping for the day after Covid, we need to live now and live the best way that we can. Yes of course we need to plan for the future, but we cannot stop living while we do so. We have this time now and we must not stop living. These were the thoughts I was reflecting on as I sat there on the edge of the year, the living edge, the growing edge, wondering what we were all stepping into.

Earlier that evening, during the poetry night, I had decided to break protocol and share a short piece of prose, “The Growing Edge” by Howard Thurman.. Earlier that day I read a beautiful reflection via Facebook on the piece by Parker J Palmer posted for the New Year. Parker J Palmer along with Carrie Newcomer whose poem we read earlier host a wonderful online resource titled “The Growing Edge” which I highly recommend to you all.

The Growing Edge

That evening as I sat alone I could feel “The Growing Edge” was stirring in me. As I sat there that night I thought I might include Howard Thurman’s words in the service. So I printed it and a few other pieces off and had them in reserve along with the script I had prepared. I had a full reading desk that night, they were almost hanging off that ever growing edge.

From about 11.30pm folk began to arrive for the service, Sue greeted them as we followed all the usual Covid secure procedures. There was not the usual number but about a dozen of us joined together on that “Growing Edge” of the old and new year, while others joined us on Zoom. An old friend was present. He was in particular good spirits as his daughter had given birth the day before. I had heard of a couple other new births in the last few days, it has been suggested that they should be called “Lockdown” babies. Who knows, babies are born constantly. It was lovely to see the obvious joy on my fiends face, especially considering the fact that he had only reconciled with his daughter some 18 months earlier after a big family fall out. It was a beautiful reminder that life does go on despite all the real loss that we are all experiencing. Yes, loss by the death of loved ones but also loss of the things we would normally do in our lives. As we live through another necessary lockdown this is something, that we are all experiencing again. We are in the middle of a long, difficult winter. That said life goes on, it will always go on. We are living in and through this it is of no use to anyone to just live for the day when the pandemic will be over, to completely hibernate. We cannot live this way; we have to find ways to live in these times of challenge. Yes, plan for life in the future, but we still must live fully alive in this day, as difficult as it is. Me must of course stay physically distant, as much as possible, but that does not me that we shut down who we are. What is required is adjustment in how we live; what is required is adaptation.

Here are the words I shared, “The Growing Edge” by Howard Thurman

“All around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge!

This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of the child—life’s most dramatic answer to death—this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!”

That night as I shared the “Watch Night” service I looked into my friend eyes, you could only see his eyes because of the mask. I am noticing peoples eyes more and more these days. As I looked into the joy and deep emotion in his eyes the line from Thurman came to me:  “The birth of a child—life’s most dramatic answer to death—this is the growing edge incarnate.” As I did, I knew then that I had to share the words of Thurman in the service. I certainly needed to remember that in this year that has known so much loss on so many levels, that new life is forever being born again. It is so vital to remember this at this time of lockdown. We need to keep on creating life, I do not mean babies necessarily, but in every area of existence, even in this time when we are restricted by what we can do. We need to create and build not only for the future but in the present too. Yes, we cannot mix physically but we can create ways to help one another and of course ourselves. So, let us look well to the growing edge, for this is life.

By the way, we are always living on “The Growing Edge”, this is the way of life. I had an interesting Zoom conversation with a member of the chapel who is also a regular in the poetry group on New Years Eve. It was suggested that perhaps we should rename it as “Consolation, Sorrow and Joy” seemed a little negative sounding as we have such fun in the group. Certainly, we do, but we do share all kinds of poetry some recognising the sorrows of life, some offering consolation and others uttely joy filled and of course some that are simply chuffing hilarious.  There is a lot of joy shared, even in difficult times. We could change the name and if a better one comes up then I am certainly open to it. Do you have any ideas?

The poetry night speaks so powerfully to me of the “Growing Edge”, for during that time we experience all aspects of it. To quote Parker J Palmer while reflecting on a conversation that he Carrie Newcomer had following the death of a dear friend and the news of another’s pregnancy:

“That afternoon, we talked about the way death and life, grief and joy, dance nonstop with each other around the world, day and night. It might not be a friend who dies; it might be a hope, or a work, or a relationship. It might not be a baby en route to being born; it might be a vision, an opportunity to learn or serve, or a small nudge towards who-knows-what.

To see life steadily and see it whole, we must find ways to hold the paradox of life-in-death and death-in-life. We can’t live lives of meaning and purpose if we succumb to the horrors of “apocalypse now” or fly off into the Aquarian fantasy of a day when “peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.””

It is not just at the new year, or in the midst of a pandemic, but all days that we need to look to “The Growing Edge”. It is about living in and through hope. “The Growing Edge” seems like the perfect antidote to fatalism and cynicism, there is much we can do to bring hope, when hope is hard to find.

I wonder what your “Growing Edge” is, I wonder where you find it. Maybe this is the time to discover what can be done and I don’t just mean somewhere over the rainbow, when the pandemic is over, but right now. The seeds can be planted in the here and now, even if it is perhaps difficult to find. It is found only in the muck of life and there is plenty of that around at the moment. We don’t have to wait for the end of the rainbow, for the spring or the summer we can living on the “Growing Edge” now. We have the time as we have to be at home to prepare ourselves to begin planting those seeds, nurturing them, and help them grow. To quote Margaret Atwood “In the spring, at the end of the day, you shall smell like dirt.”. I suspect that if we live on the “Growing Edge”, even in the midst of winter we can live as though it were the spring or summer time. It will not be easy, but it can be done.

Life forever invites us to grow into new challenges, new adventures, new opportunities to learn and to serve. Maybe this is the time to look within ourselves and our world. Maybe we need to begin to live on the growing edge. If we do, we might find that we can help carry ourselves and one another through this difficult winter and as we do so bring new life to fruition.

Yes, we are living with deep restrictions and my word we need to be, for the good of all. That said it does not mean that we must completely hibernate, to stop living. We cannot live for that day, somewhere over the rainbow, after the pandemic, for that is not living and we don’t know when that magical day might come.

So instead let us live on the “Growing Edge”, for this is life. All around us life is dying and life is being born. So, let us live and look to the “Growing Edge”, for this is life and life goes on.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Impermanence and Eternity: What can sustain us in the uncertainty of life?


A famous spiritual teacher begged an audience with the king, and was shown into the palace.

“What can I do for you?” asked the king.

“I would like to spend the night here in this hotel,” replied the teacher.

“But this is not a hotel,” said the king. “This is my palace. You cannot stay here.”

“May I ask who owned this place before you?”

“My father.”

“And where is your father now?”

“He’s dead.”

“Who owned the place before him?”

“My grandfather.”

“And where is your grandfather now?”

“He’s dead.”

“So, this is a place in which people live for a while and then move on. How is it different from a hotel?”

 

Many years ago an American tourist visited the famous Polish rabbi Hafrez Hayyam. He was astonished to see that the rabbi’s home was only a simple room filled with books. The only furniture was a table and a bench.

“Rabbi, where is your furniture?” asked the tourist.

“Where is yours?” replied Hafez.

“Mine? But I’m only a visitor here.”

“So am I,” said the rabbi.

 

However many years we have lived it is important that we remember that we are merely visitors on this earth…Nothing is permanent…Nothing lasts for ever…The only thing that is permanent in life is change…


For better or for worse the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one is often a time of measurement, or it is for many of us. Not than you can actually measure life, or even take stock in the way you would in a shop. Life is not mathematics, it is far more than the sum of its parts and the problem with such measuring is that we end up reducing our lives to those material components and thus begin to reduce the meaning of our lives. Besides which those material aspects are always subject to loss, they are impermanent we cannot hold on to them. We are, all of us, merely guests in this life. Welcome guests, wanted guests and loved guests, but just as we came into life, one day we come out of life also. There is nothing in this life that is permanent that we can absolutelty rely on and cling to, surely 2020 has taught us this.

The only thing permanent in life is change. “Nothing ever lasts for ever” as Echo and the Bunnymen once sang. Life is impermanent. We are all guests in life. We cannot cling to anything. Whatever we are feeling or experiencing right now, “This too shall pass”.

 
Impermanence is the beauty and the energy of life. Life is forever changing and transforming and turning into something new. Nothing ever stays exactly the same and nothing is ever repeated in exactly the same way again. This was wonderfully expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus some 2,500 years ago. Who said, among many other things, “Everything flows, nothing stands still.” “No one ever steps into the same river twice.” And “Nothing endures but change.” He was saying that the only constant in life was and is change, that life was constantly in flux and that everything is impermanent.

So often in life we try to cling to things, to hold on to things to maintain things exactly as they are. This seems to be going against life and the nature of things. Nothing stays exactly as it is in its current nature, everything changes from moment to moment and to resist this is to resist life. Yes everything changes but life goes on.

The mistake we often make is to try to cling onto things, whatever that might be, in fear. In so doing we fail to experience life itself. We resist the beauty and the power of life.

When we stood at the beginning of 2020 we had no idea that the year would pan out as it did. I’m sure if we had known there may well have been a temptation to stay hibernating. We do not know what 2021 will bring. It is hard to make plans of any kind. There is hope that the many vaccines will slow begin to allow us to mix once again as we once did, but there is no guarantees. It certainly is not going to happen in a matter of weeks. The last months have shown once again how we cannot really cling to anything in life, there are no guarantees.

It is so easy to look at the year just gone, to see all that has gone wrong and to therefore face the future in fear and or dread of how things might turn out. We really do not know, the future truly is unwritten.

So how do we overcome the power of this debilitating fear? How do we find the courage to continue to “choose life”?

Well it takes just a little faith, a little hope and a little love to create the courage to just be, to accept what is in front of us. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Which of course it is, but it is far from easy. I believe in love and I believe in life and through living in love and remaining open to life, despite its difficulties I find the courage to “choose life”, to overcome the power of unnatural fear. Love will always overcome fear; love will always enable us to find the courage to truly be all that we can be.

We cannot escape the pain and suffering that accompanies the joy of living. If we want to know the love present in life we also have to accept the pain and suffering we all experience in life too, no one is exempt from this. As we all know only too well.

Life is constantly changing, nothing ever stays exactly the same and no moment is exactly like any other. We all experience these moments differently too; we each bring our pasts with us into each moment and this always impacts on the present.

So what can possibly sustain us in this ever changing life? Well Paul of Tarsus in his first letter to the Corinthians chapter 13 named three eternal and universal truths, faith, hope and love. I have to say that looking back at my life and these last few months these three have sustained me. But what do these three mean? What do we mean by faith, hope and love?

Faith is about trusting in life itself; it is about living as openly and honestly as possible; it is about accepting that there is pain in life, but that there is also so much joy; it is realising that the mere fact that we exist at all is life’s greatest gift. This allows us to sing the joy of living, in all its mystery. It is also about seeing that we are all in this together and to take care of that which sustains us through the vicissitudes of life. Life does not offer much certainty, but we need not despair at this, or at least not live in a state of despair.

Hope is the second of those eternal, universal truths. Hope is rooted in despair; it grows from the same place. To live in hope is to believe that if we live with conviction and compassion that we can effect positive change in our world, even if we ourselves do not get see to see its full fruition. Hope is about planting those seeds when and where ever we can.

To live with hope is to live with the attitude that the future is genuinely open and to work with and not against life. The God of my understanding works with us and guides us but leaves life open, it is not pre-ordained. “The Lure of Divine Love” draws us out of ourselves, but it also allows life to develop freely. The past does have power, I have a strong sense of history, this is very important. That said I do not believe that the past defines the future, not everything is inevitable. The future is unwritten. We play a significant role in how life develops. Everything we do and everything we do not do has an impact, there is no neutrality in life. If virus has taught us nothing else it has shown just how interdependent and interconnected we all are.

Life is definitely a journey worth taking, even during its toughest moments. Yes we all despair at times and we all live with uncertainty, but the beacon of hope is always there. The writer of the book of proverbs reminds us “Where there is no vision (no hope) the people perish.” Hope is a vital lifeline it both holds and sustains us. It is an eternal and universal principle and one that also requires nurture.

What about love? How can it sustain us? When I say love I am speaking of spiritual love, Agape. Spiritual love is that power that connects us to our true selves, one another, the life we share and whatever it is that connects all life. What I myself call God; that power that is greater than all and yet present in each. It is love that at our best powers our lives. Love is about caring deeply and passionately about life itself. This of course requires attention and nurture. Love reminds me that we do not live for ourselves alone or by ourselves alone. “no man is an island” or as Kurt Vonnegut once put it “one human being is no human being”. The universal and eternal truth is that we need the love, the care, the companionship of others in order to fully experience what it is to be alive. By ourselves we are never fully alive.

If we live by these three faith, hope and love we will know what it means to truly live and experience the joy of living, even in the dark days. They will sustain us in the ever changing uncertainty of life, they will enables us to live in the time that we get to live here, in this life that is lent to all of us.

So here are at the beginning of a New Year. Let us step forward in faith, hope and love with a commitment to life itself in its glorious impermanence, let us love this precious life that has been lent to us.

Whatever this year brings us, let us resolve as individuals and as a community to build a home of faith, hope and love.

Let’s begin again this day and every day in faith, hope and love.


Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Turn, turn, turn again

 


“The King's Highway” author unknown

Once a king had a great highway built for the members of his kingdom. After it was completed, but before it was opened to the public, the king decided to have a contest. He invited as many as desired to participate. Their challenge was to see who could travel the highway the best.

On the day of the contest the people came. Some of them had fine chariots, some had fine clothing, fine hairdos, or great food. Some young men came in their track clothes and ran along the highway. People traveled the highway all day, but each one, when he arrived at the end, complained to the king that there was a large pile of rocks and debris left on the road at one spot and this got in their way and hindered their travel.

At the end of the day, a lone traveler crossed the finish line warily and walked over to the king. He was tired and dirty, but he addressed the king with great respect and handed him a bag of gold. He explained, "I stopped along the way to clear a pile of rocks and debris that was blocking the road. This bag of gold was under it all. I want you to return it to its rightful owner."

The king replied, "You are the rightful owner."

The traveler replied, "Oh no, this is not mine. I've never known such money."

"Oh yes," said the king, "you've earned this gold, for you won my contest. "He who travels the road best is he who makes the road smoother for those who will follow."

Remember those words of wisdom as you travel the road of life!

"He who travels the road best is he who makes the road smoother for those who will follow."

This is the turning season. The day light hours are beginning to get longer, we have passed the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice. We are coming to the end of the Calendar year and will soon be stepping into 2021. What has the year been like for you? A year like no other ever experienced before, not in our life times at least.

If it has been like mine it has been a mixture of many things, some beautiful, some painful. This is life it and brings to mind those words of Moses, during his final sermon as the people were about to step out of the wilderness to the Promised Land, without him. In Deutronomy 30 v 19 he said   I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,”

I love that phrase “Choose Life”. Not necessarily an easy ride, but definitely one worth taking. There will be bumps in the road and troubles to face, but there will often be treasures too. Those treasure can often be found in those very obstacles, rather like those faced by the man in the story we heard earlier. That said if we face the obstacles and do not flee them we will know a life that is both rich and rewarding and we may well become inspirations to others too. By doing so we can lead the way to a freedom open to everyone

In life we are faced with many decisions each and every day. We are constantly making decisions about which path we are to follow. If you are anything like me you won’t always make the right one; if you are anything like me sometimes you will try to avoid having to make the decision, you will wander around in the wilderness of life, hopefully not as long as Moses and the ancient Israelites, before daring to enter into the promised land of life. Also, truth be told, by not making a decision we are actually making a decision. Passivity, doing nothing, is an action in and of itself. In the end we all have to make a decision one way or another; we all have to turn down one path or another. Standing still is not the nature of life.

It is an interesting phrase to turn, or to turn again or even to return. It brings to mind a pantomime that is very popular at this time of year “Dick Whittington”. Pantomime is another of those wonderful traditions that we cannot enjoy this year, we will again. Dick Whittington is loosely (very loosely by the way) based on the life of Richard Whittington who was in fact made Lord Mayor of London four times, despite what the rhyme says. He did all kinds of good public works during his career. Now in the pantomime he comes to London from Gloucestershire to make his fortune, “where the streets are paved with gold”, accompanied by his cat. Initially he meets little success and is about to return home. As he turns back and climbs Highgate Hill, he hears the sound of the Bow Bells of London ringing. The bells though seem to be doing more than merely ringing, they are speaking to him. He hears them say...

“Turn again Whittington, once Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, twice Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London!”

So he turns again, he turns around, he does not return home instead he turns back to London and a whole host of adventures. One such adventure is on a ship where his cat is employed as a rat catcher, which leads to him gaining many friends. The adventures continue and eventually he becomes very prosperous and marries his master’s daughter Alice Fitzwarren and is made Lord Mayor of London on three occasions (Well actually four it would seem).

Now like all great tales, some of it is true and some of it is not. The fact that not all the tale is factually accurate does not mean that the story has no meaning. There is a universal truth in this tale that has spoken to those who have seen the pantomime or heard the story and it is in the rhyme and the voice Whittington heard through sounds of Bow Bells.

“Turn again Whittington, once Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, twice Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London!”

Whittington did not turn away he stepped forward into the unknown. He chose the heroes path. Like in so many of the stories of life he heard the call to adventure and he answered it.

It is a curious phrase to turn, or to turn again or even to return. Did you know that to turn or to re-turn was the original meaning of the religious word “conversion”. Conversion is rooted in the Latin word “convertere”, which meant to turn around to transform.

Now for a long time I use to think that if a person had been converted that this was the end of a process. Thankfully I no longer live under this delusion. Today when I think of conversion I think it as the beginning of something of the start of a journey, down another direction perhaps or perhaps not, maybe we can turn and keep on turning down the same path. Today I see conversion as an ongoing process, not a once or perhaps twice in lifetime experience. We turn, we turn and we turn again.

This is also how I view this beautiful Unitarian tradition that I have chosen to walk down and continue to do so breath by breath, moment by moment and day by day. This is not something that comes easily to me, I am not someone who came naturally to religion. In fact I only became interested because of life changing spiritual experiences. I came to religion seeking answers, this eventually led me the Unitarian tradition, where the search has gone on. Have I found the answers? No if truth be told what I have actually found are more questions as the experiences have grown and developed. Do I believe that one day I will uncover the answer? I very much doubt it. Unless the answer is simply the question itself. That said what the last few years have shown me is that this spirit of humility and openness will lead to experiences way beyond my imaginings. I am sure I will be born again and again and again, I will keep on turning and resisting and turning again. I believe that this is the best way to travel, “platinum class” if you like.

In his seminal work “Varieties of Religious” experience William James talks about those who are religiously inclined as being once born or twice born, born again as some would describe it.

Both concepts, especially with regard to the spiritual life seem problematic to me. Both definitions too static and nothing in life is static, everything is forever changing, thus the spiritual life must also be constantly in flux. To me it would appear that we are often born again and again and again or perhaps what actually happens is that we keep on waking up and going back to sleep. We are forever turning and returning over and over again. The nature of life is forever changing, nothing moves in a straight line, there is no straight path. Our return to live as we once knew it will not be smooth and we will not return to things exactly as we were. We are going to keep on changing as is life itself. Beware the dangers of nostalgia, for it is a form of homesickness.

I think what I love the most about our free religious tradition is that it not only recognises this continuing process of continual process but it does more than that it celebrates it. It’s kind of accepted that Unitarians will keep on turning and returning that your understanding of your faith will go down many avenues. This does not make the tradition woolly or empty in any sense, just honest. I believe one of the roots of our tradition is that we make the space to hold one another in our searching. In many ways it is probably harder to be a Unitarian than to follow a more orthodox tradition or to reject religion all together. We do not offer absolutes instead we ask that you search, that you trust your own experiences. We ask you to seek and ask questions not only of yourself, but of each other and to actively engage with each other; we ask to search the holy books of human history and of modern inquiry but not to be chained down by any of them. We say keep on turning down that road and keep on returning. Don’t be afraid to discover what is on offer out there and in here.

We do not all think in the same way, we don’t all believe exactly the same things and we celebrate this. This is a joyous thing. Because even though we may not “believe” exactly the same we still journey together in this our fellowship of love and attempt to carry what we experience and understand into our daily lives together.

I believe that by being so we can become beacons to others and give them the courage to do the same, to keep on turning and returning. So let’s continue on, let’s keep on turning and not fear what we may or may not uncover on the way. You never know it may be a real treasure.

So here we all stand at the turning point of the year. Ready, I hope, to let go of what has been but without regret and to step out into the unknown; to keep on turning down that unknown road, to keep on choosing life; to keep on being born anew, again and again and again...You never know by doing so you may just make the road smoother for those who follow.

Monday, 14 December 2020

Angels Without Wings

Last Monday was one of those days when I just couldn’t get going, I was constantly interrupted by people either by telephone or coming to the chapel. I found myself getting somewhat frustrated by this, but by the end of the day I found myself laughing about it all, especially my frustrations. The truth is that everyone was bringing gifts of the heart, I suspect that I was visited by angels, if ones without wings.

That morning as I got back from the gym I noticed I had a message on my mobile phone from Rev Angus Parker. Angus is a retired minister living in Tameside. It seems he recently read an article I had written for “The Inquirer” back in September. He was concerned about my well-being and had gone all around the houses to get in touch with me. We had a lovely conversation and then I tried to get on with my work. I could not as Aled arrived to take the toys we had collected to “The Wood Street Mission”. He also had a few other matters to discuss. I tried again to get back to work but seemed to be interrupted over and over again, by people wanting to talk with me. In the middle of this I received a wonderful email from Oliver with a poem he had written in response to the toy service he had taken part in. This led to more conversations with folk at Unitarian headquarters as we might use the material as part of daily offerings to support people at this time . Then Aled appeared again this time with Mrs Khurana and a woman named Katie, they had come baring gifts both for me personally and also for the toy collection. We talked for some time and then I returned to try and get on with my work, all the while Aled was loading up the toys. It wasn’t long before there was another knock on the door, this time it was Barbara again with gifts for the toy collection, again we talked for a while before I returned to my work. I sat and began to smile to myself as a theme for the this week began to form in my heart and mind, my homiletic consciousness had awoken. As I thought about all the conversations I had had I realised that I had been visited by angels, all be it ones without wings. I call them angels because they had visited or communicated messages of love and concern for others and they had brought those gifts to me. It brought to my mind the following verse from Hebrews ch 13 v 2  “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers; for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares”.

Thankfully I was able to show hospitality to all those visitors and everyone of them were angels, they brought messages of love, I had indeed entertained them unawares.

Angels are central to the whole Nativity mythos, actually you will find them throughout the Bible, both in the Hebrew and Christian books. By the way you will also find them in many other religious traditions too. Many people today speak of a belief in angels as well. Do you believe in angels?

Now I have to be honest with you and admit that there is much in the Christmas mythos that I cannot literally believe, but then mythos has never been about historical accuracy and more about universal truth. There is a truth within the stories that can teach us a great deal about how we should live with one another and I count the angels as part of this.

The Hebrew and Greek words for angel (malak and aggelos) simply means “messenger”. In the Christmas mythos, the Nativity, it is the Arch Angel Gabriel who delivers the news that Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptist and that Mary will soon be carrying Jesus. These are both described as miracles as Elizabeth cannot have children and Mary is a virgin. Gabriel appears again to the Shepherds and it is said during the Easter story too. Within the Judea-Christian tradition angels are seen as the deliverers of the “good news”.


The Jewish scriptures are littered with individuals encountering angels. In some of these accounts it is suggested that not only are these angels delivering a message from the Divine but may well be God itself. They are sometimes referred to as “the angel of the Lord” and not just simply an angel.

Angels are holy messengers, delivering a holy message, that has to potential to transform our lives or the lives of others. Now in my eyes everything is holy, for everything matters. Therefore everyone and everything can be a holy messenger. Anyone who delivers goodness, wisdom, hope, who lifts us up when we have fallen is an angel; anyone or anything that delivers the message that everything matters and cares for that matter is delivering a holy message, they are a holy angel, even if they don’t have wings.

You do not have to be a beautiful androgenous figure from a Renaissance painting, with classical features, flowing long hair, and wings, to be an angel. You just have to be an ordinary person delivering a gift of love in some form or other. I was thinking of the children and parents from Mrs Hare’s dance school who answered the call to bring all those gifts of toys for the children last week and those from both congregations who brought their gifts too. I thought of Christine placing Paddington Bear at the top of the bag and OIliver noticing him peeking out which led to the poem he wrote right there on the spot. I thought about all those angels that have done small and great things these last few months, finding ways to help people in their time of need, despite the truly difficult circumstances that we have all been living through. As I was writing these words I heard of the 90 year old woman Margaret Keenan who was the first to be given the vaccine and the second man from Coventry the wonderfully named William Shakespeare who was the second, I heard of another wonderful man named Martin Kenyon, again 91 years old who was announcing to the world that he would be able to hug his graddaughters at Christmas, something that they didn’t even know yet, but he was going to tell them, what a beautiful message that would be for the whole family. It is hoped that life will begin to get back to normal in the not too distant future and save some many lives from this horrific pandemic. If the vaccine is not a message of holiness then I don’t know what is. Our lives, everyone of our lives matter so much. Oh there are angles everywhere, none of which have wings, although they have certainly earned them.


By the way not all angels walk on two legs. I was greeted by a little furry four legged one as I walked into an empty home last Monday night. Little Charlie was delivering a message of love as I arrived home. She even came upstairs to be with me as I took a long relaxing bath.

An angel doesn’t even need to be a living breathing thing either. Nature has the capacity to lift us up when we feel we have fallen once again, it can deliver a message of love too. I can feel that message at times in the wind, whispering a message of faith, hope and love; or in the calm that falls after the storm; or in one of those red dawn rainbows; or in another heroes sunset as you think about going home after a long hard day.

Angels come in many forms, rarely with wings it seems, although the wild geese and the song of the blackbird certainly teach of the holiness of everything, so sometimes they have wings. However the message comes I know that I have encountered an angel when it teaches me of the holiness of everything, that everything matters, every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed, that all is holy.

The messengers may not be bringing glad tidings of comfort and joy, they may be bringing a message pointing out what is wrong in the world or in our life. One angel might be a friend pointing something out to you, or someone reaching out for your help, or it might be something you see or hear on the news that leads us to respond in loving ways, to use our own holy love to bring repair to the fabric of our world, this is holy work. The messages and messengers are angels for they are delivering holy massages about holy matter and of course life really matters. If the messages awaken in us compassion, love, greater understanding, or a thirst for justice, then they are the holy speaking of what is holy to us. Everything matters, so everything is holy, thus those who deliver such messages are angels, even if they don’t have wings. To repeat those words from Hebrews (Ch 13 v 2) “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers; for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares”. Even if the message appears unpleasant, apparent bad news please do entertain them, welcome it all in, for it may be delivering something holy to you.

Brings to mind those wonderful words of Rumi “The Guesthouse”

The Guest House

 

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

 

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

 

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

 

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

 

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

 

— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

The message is to welcome them all in, whatever they might be, for they are baring holy gifts. We need to be open to the unexpected, the unknown, the seemingly mundane, for we do not know what gifts of the holy might be in that message. Rumi reminds us that even that which shakes us up may well be clearing us out for some new delight. Do not keep out the holy for it may be preparing us for something wonderful, some holy action, just like those angels did in the Nativity.

The message needs to be heard and then acted upon; It might be to go on some adventure like Mary and Joseph or the shepherds or in more subtle ways like the wisemen responding to the star and their ancient knowledge, their reason and their dream. They sought out the holy infant and did not tell Herod where he was, they responded to their holy messages. Or maybe its that message that we need to “bring glad tidings of peace on earth, goodwill to all people.” Just like the angel brought to the shepherds, a message that we have failed to hear or at least create.

Maybe now is the time, maybe that is the massage of Christmas, the universal Christmas, maybe that is the only massage that really matters. That this is our holy duty, that this is how we make all life holy, that we make all matter really matter. Maybe that’s what we are all here to do, to finally bring peace on earth and goodwill to all and then when we do so maybe we will all finally receive our wings and love will finally be born in the mangers of all our hearts and lives.

So listen my friends, there are angels everywhere.