Monday 26 February 2024

I Offer You a Little Piece of my Heart: The Journey of The Wounded Healer

I will begin with this beautiful little story “A piece of my heart”. I have no idea who wrote it.

One day a young man was standing in the middle of the town proclaiming that he had the most beautiful heart in the whole valley. A large crowd gathered and they all admired his heart for it was perfect. There was not a mark or a flaw in it. Yes, they all agreed it truly was the most beautiful heart they had ever seen.

The young man was very proud and boasted more loudly about his beautiful heart. Suddenly, an old man appeared at the front of the crowd and said "Why, your heart is not nearly as beautiful as mine."

The crowd and the young man looked at the old man's heart. It was beating strongly, but it was full of scars. It had places where pieces had been removed and other pieces put in, but they didn't fit quite right and there were several jagged edges. In fact, in some places there were deep gouges where whole pieces were missing.

The people stared, how can he say his heart is more beautiful, they thought?

The young man looked at the old man's heart and saw its state and laughed.

"You must be joking," he said. "Compare your heart with mine. Mine is perfect and yours is a mess of scars and tears."

"Yes," said the old man, "yours is perfect looking but I would never trade with you. You see, every scar represents a person to whom I have given my love - I tear out a piece of my heart and give it to them, and often they give me a piece of their heart which fits into the empty place in my heart, but because the pieces aren't exact, I have some rough edges, which I cherish, because they remind me of the love we shared."

"Sometimes I have given pieces of my heart away, and the other person hasn't returned a piece of his heart to me. These are the empty gouges
giving love, is taking a chance. Although these gouges are painful, they stay open, reminding me of the love I have for these people too, and I hope someday they may return and fill the space I have waiting. So now do you see what true beauty is?"

The young man stood silently with tears running down his cheeks. He walked up to the old man, reached into his perfect young and beautiful heart and ripped a piece out. He offered it to the old man with trembling hands. The old man took his offering, placed it in his heart and then took a piece from his old scarred heart and placed it in the wound in the young man's heart. It fit, but not perfectly, as there were some jagged edges.

The young man looked at his heart, not perfect anymore but more beautiful than ever, since love from the old man's heart flowed into his.

I love driving to events and occasions with a passenger at my side. Now there is of course the joy of travelling with another, but it is more than that. In many ways some of my most rewarding ministry takes place in this time and place. What I love the most is that as I drive I listen. It is a time that is primarily when my ears do most of the work. I don’t just mean these two lugs at either side of my head, but the inner ear, the ear of my heart. It is a time for deep attentive listening, and I’ve noticed that people sometimes open up, particularly about their woundedness in this time and space. I think it has something to do with the physical proximity as we are close but not face to face and somehow people find it easier to open a wound as they open the mouths of their hearts and I open the ears of mine.

Now I know it is not my task to heal other people’s wounds that is no one’s task. I cannot heal anyone or anything, I don’t even think I can heal myself, not completely at least. Yes, the wounds can be tended to, the emotional bleed can be stopped and the pain relieved but the scars remain and the past cannot be wiped away. I don’t believe they should be, our scars are marks of a life fully lived. They must not be hidden away they are a part of our lives. In fact, these scars can become our greatest assets as they help us to walk side by side with others, showing them that they are not alone in their suffering and that whatever they are going through that they can survive and grow; that love can rise again from that suffering and that meaning can emerge as something beautiful grows from that pain. In many ways my ministry is exactly this. It grew from my greatest sorrow and suffering. It has not completely healed what happened, it does not take away the pain. If I could change it I would, every second of my life I would, but I can’t. All I can do is create something beautiful from it. I can walk with others in their suffering and joy. I can live with courage. I can live from the heart. I can live with my wounded heart cracked open, undefended and in so doing I can know love; In so doing I can live in such a way that my life will prove worth dying for, by the love I leave behind, to paraphrase good old Forrest Church.

I was thinking of the journey that is life as I was driving a friend I have known for 20 years the other day. They have suffered much in their life. They were widowed over 40 years ago and have difficult relations with their sons. They are not the easiest company, as they live alone and are physically isolated due to health problems. They only leave the house if someone picks them up. I do what I can and journey with them from time to time. As I sat and listened to my friend I thought of the number of times I have taken this journey, someone talking and me listening over the years.

Rarely in life do we journey completely alone. We journey in the company of others. Some are there at the beginning and remain to the very end, some are there at the beginning but do not stay until the end, some come and join with us for a while but do not remain. Some are with us later in life and then journey on without us, when we are gone. We never journey alone, we always journey with others, although sometimes it doesn’t feel this way.

Now as they say life isn’t about the destination, but the journey itself. In many ways I’m not even sure it’s even about the journey itself, well not wholly, it’s more about who you journey with. We do not sail this ship alone.

Those we meet along the way have wounds in their hearts and souls, no one has the perfect heart. The most beautiful, as the story “A piece of my heart” illustrates, will have its jagged edges, it will not be smooth and the pieces will not fit together neatly. We are all wounded to some degree or other. Those wounds can be transformed into something beautiful, we can accompany others in their suffering. We can give them a little piece of our hearts and we can receive a piece of theirs. The most beautiful hearts carry their scars. If we live in love we can bring some healing, we can become wounded healers. It is our wounds that put us in a place where we can be of service to one another. We are all wounded to some degree we all have cracks within us. Nobody is perfect, complete, and who would want to be. In fact it is our wounds and imperfections that put us into a better position to help others come to terms with who they are. It is this that breeds empathy and understanding. Who amongst us is not wounded in some way? Who amongst us does not bear the scars of life? It is our very wounds and the scars formed from them that makes us better able to help others heal from their own wounds.

Some say that “Time heals all wounds. I have not found this to always be true, it depends on many others things. I heard someone say this to another recently. They didn’t know what to do and so they came out with this platitude. Martin Luther King suggested that “Time is morally neutral.” Things do not get better or worse in time alone. This applies to the wider society that we live in, which always needs healing and it is also true for our own heart and souls. Hearts do not get better or worse by themselves. Wounds do not heal simply with the passing of time. At least not for all wounds. Sometimes wounds fester as time passes by. We get better, we heal, if we are loved into healing. By being lovingly supported we can tap into that love that over time brings healing to the wounds and then meaning can emerge if as we heal we accompany others in their suffering. We become wounded healers ourselves. Time has a role to play, but time alone does not heal. I have accompanied many people who have touched me deeply by their capacity to become “wounded healers”, their suffering has made them better able to offer understanding and compassion to others and not in spite of their suffering, but because of it.

The ancient Greeks understood the power of the “Wounded Healer”. Ancient Greek mythology tells the story of Chiron, who was a wise and benevolent centaur and a master of healing.

During one of his adventures Heracles visited the cave of Chiron. He had been invited to a gathering there. Now as we all know it is impolite to attend a party without bringing something for other guests and so Heracles brought along a flask of strong wine. Now the smell of the wine attracted many of the other centaurs who began to fight over it, nothing much has changed over the centuries, during the melee Chiron was accidently wounded on the knee by an arrow shot by Heracles. This was no ordinary arrow, it was poison tipped. This was no ordinary poison either it had come from the Hydra a monster with many heads that was virtually impossible to slay. Now while Chiron could show Heracles how to heal the wound caused by the arrows tip, he could not treat the Hydra’s poison. As he was immortal it could not kill him but neither could he fully recover. He would have to live on into eternity with his wounded knee. Chiron the greatest of healers could show others how to heal, but he could never fully recover from this wound. His wound would always show. He walked on into eternity limping. Chiron is the archetype of the wounded healer.

“The Wounded Healer” was one of the most important archetypes identified by Carl Jung. For him the image of Chiron overcoming the pain of his own wounds by becoming the compassionate teacher of healing was a powerful example. The wounded healer is someone who has gone through great suffering and learnt from the experience. Through transcending their own suffering they are drawn towards the path of service leading them to help others. This process strips away the selfish ego-based feeling of being alone and isolated in their own suffering and woundedness. Instead through seeing the wound through different eyes they can see this suffering in others and they can therefore lead others to find ways to overcome their own suffering. Their wounds may never fully heal, as Chiron’s didn’t, but they can help heal the wider ailments of our shared life.

In his book “The Wounded Healer”, Henri Nouwen envisioned the religious community as a safe haven where people could be open and honest about their own woundedness, their suffering and loneliness, a safe haven where through recognising ones pain healing and recovery could begin. Nouwen wrote that people today are “Semitic nomads…(who) live in a desert with many lonely travellers who are looking for a moment of peace, for a fresh drink and for a sign of encouragement so that they can continue their mysterious search for freedom.”

This speaks to me, one of the reason I became a part of a Unitarian community was for this very reason. Spirituality on an individual level is fine, but it only really comes alive in community as we search for healing and understanding together. Everyone is wounded in one way or another and everyone is looking for healing and understanding at one level or another, even if they are not entirely sure what from. We are all looking for love, understanding, acceptance and meaning. We are the religious animal, to deny this is to deny an important aspect of our shared humanity. None of us though are the experts, at least not in our tradition, which is why we need one another. As the Buddhist Pema Chodron wrote in “The Places that Scare You”

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

So how do we begin to heal, to live whole lives? Well it begins by knowing and naming our own pain. our own darkness. and to not be afraid to show our scars. I always remember the scene from “Jaws” when the great white shark hunters are going out to face the man killer and they begin to drink and sing sea shanties and of course show one another their scars. The scars are marks of experience of having lived the lives of shark hunters.

Now I know that this is a very macho setting but I think there is something in it for everyone. Our scars, our wounds, are symbols of the lives we have lived and we ought not to be afraid to show them. Not is some form of vainglory but as symbol of our shared humanity. To show we have lived and found a degree of healing from our wounds, although no one escapes scar free. By understanding our own woundedness and not hiding our scars we can better serve one another and walk side by side with each other in our shared troubles. It is our very imperfectness that best fits us for the task of journeying together in the fellowship of love.

Henri Nouwen wrote “We do not know where we will be two, ten or twenty years from now. What we can know, however, is that human beings suffer and that a sharing of suffering can make us move forward.”

By sharing our suffering we can begin to move forward and it is this that can begin to bring about the healing and wholeness that we are all searching for, we are hoping for. This can grow from within each of us as we commune together, work together and do the works of compassion that our wounded world needs. We can begin it today, it begins in our own hearts. We are all “The wounded Healers.”

We can share pieces of imperfect beautiful hearts; sharing our perfectly imperfect wounded hearts.

I offer you a piece of my heart, treasure it and I will gratefully receive a piece of yours.

So let us journey together, side by side, let us tend to one another’s wounds let us become together, the wounded healers.

Below isa video devotion based on the material in this "blogpost"

Monday 19 February 2024

Songs of solace, songs of hope, songs of the heart

We have entered the season of Lent. It reminds me that there are journeys we all have to make in life. Physical journeys. Spiritual journeys. Some journeys we can share with others, but other journeys lead us into the wilderness alone.

Some people give something up during Lent, others take something on. Whatever we think about this season of Lent, may we know that ours is a journey of hope and a journey of redemption.

I am sure there have been times in our lives when we have felt lost and lonely, out in the wilderness alone. When we have sought out solace in all kinds of places. I know I have. I may not have felt physically alone, I have been surrounded by people and yet I have still felt like I was lost in the wilderness, so lsts and alone.

I was talking with a friend about this recently, someone sharing similar feelings. A little later I shared with them a little clip from Youtube from the Walt Disney film “The Jungle Book”, it is the song “The Bare Necessities” Do you remember it:

 “The Jungle Book” is a wonderful example of what Joseph Campbell called “ The Heroes Journey” and I see direct parallels with his tale and Moses and his journey with the Israelites and of course the ministry of Jesus as it is told in the Gospels, beginning with his Baptism by John in the Jordon and then being cast out into the wilderness for Forty days, “tested by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.” The Jungle Book to me, or at least the animation I loved as a child, seems to be a retelling of this story, actually all the great stories as Campbell taught.

I remember being taken to the pictures to see the film as a child and was immediately enchanted by it. So much so that we were bought an album, which told the story including the songs, there are many classics in it. I would listen to it constantly when I ever I went to my paternal grandparents, it brought me solace then and continued to do so even when they were not in my life. It still brings me solace today, especially the song “The Bare Necessities”. It is my ultimate “Redemption Song”. It brings hope, when hope is hard to find, to quote another favourite hymn. It has been such a joy to share this song again recently.

Now many people have songs, “Redemption Songs”, their songs, that they carry them with, through the wilderness times of life; songs they know by heart, songs that make them feel that they belong. I wonder what yours are, perhaps something to think of during this season of Lent.

David Blanchard in his wonderful piece “Listening for Our Song” wrote:

“It takes a while for many of us to figure out which is our song, and which is the song that others would like us to sing…Some of us are slow learners. I heard my song not necessarily from doing extraordinary things in exotic places…What came to astound me was not that the song appeared, but that it was always there.”

I believe that each of us have a song in our hearts, that will bring us hope when hope is hard to find. We need to find a way to learn it, sing it and share it and thus help one another through those wilderness times, to times of love and joy, so we can enjoy the milk and honey.

Music, whether heard, or just as importantly felt, brings us to life in the life we are in. You don’t have to physically hear these songs, you can feel the vibrations move through your body. You see all of us have the music in us, we have to bring it to life. The songs, the music help us to understand ourselves and our relationships, whether calming us, exciting us, entertaining us, explaining us, teaching us, inspiring us, grounding us, or sheltering us. Finding our song can help us know who we are in heart and soul. It could be a hymn of praise, or a romantic love song, some bubble gum pop, a Disney Classic, or a protest song to inspire us. The song is your song, it’s the one that touched your heart and soul; it is the one that still touches your heart and soul.

It is “Redemption Songs” though that I am thinking of, those that comfort us during wilderness times. I noticed that a biopic of Bob Marely “One Love” was released on Valentine’s Day, perhaps best known for “Redemption Song”. My favourite band, who I have loved since I was a teenager have just released a new album “Unbroken” by New Model Army. One of my ultimate redemption songs is “Poison Street” by them, it has come to my heart at significant moments in my life. So many songs have become redemption songs for me. Another would be “Don’t bang the drum” by The Waterboys. I recently heard a wonderful performance of Tracey Chapman’s “Fast Car”, another lovely redemption song. A friend was sharing with me recently that she and her sadly deceased brother used to listen to this when they were young, driving in his car. It’s a song she carries when hope is hard to find. Another I often share with friends when they are finding life somewhat difficult is “All Will Be Well” a folk song by Unitarian Universalist minister Meg Barnhouse, based words by Julian of Norwich “All be well, all will be well, all manner of things they will be well”. A song offering hope in the very real struggles of life.

Now of course hymns, singing together, whether classic ones or newer ones can bring solace, can bring hope when hope is hard to find. We sang one earlier, which has become much loved by so many. That is “Come sing a song with me” or “Rose in the Winter Time” It is chosen more than any other for rites of passage, whether Child blessings, weddings or funerals, particularly funerals it seems. It has taken over from “Spirit of Life” as a favourite. I wonder what your favourite hymn is, again something to think about.

Songs sing to our hearts and souls, they help us feel that we belong. We have songs sung to us from early in our lives. It is impossible not feel joy when singing happy birthday to child or someone dear to your heart. I love to sing “Happy Birthday to You”

We respond to singing from the beginning of our lives. It is vital to sing to babies. As Anita Collins states in “The Music Advantage: How Music Helps Your Child Develop, Learn, and Thrive”

“From an evolutionary perspective, music and singing have a very ancient human history, at least as old as language. Babies understand the world through their ears as rhythm, pitch, contour, and timbre and they use sound to identify the important things, like who are their primary caregivers, who is part of the family or tribes and, possibly most importantly, who they can trust. One of the most effective mechanisms humans have to convey that information is through song.”

We learn songs from a very early age, these childhood songs are basically mantras, a bit like Zolee the lizard in today’s story. Toddlers quickly become Zen masters. Just think of those nursery rhymes, that always stay with us, such as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”.As Philip Toshio Sudo has highlighted in “Zen 25/7: All Zen: All the Time”

"As children we learn to sing,

Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are

"Through generations, the song endures because it is simple, innocent, and true, evoking the eternal mystery of the universe. Where there is wonder, there is zen — like a diamond in the sky.

"May wonder never cease."

I suspect we connect through simple songs, just as we did as babies and little children throughout our lives, certainly I know I do. These songs of our heart help us feel that we belong and that we are loved and can carry us through the wilderness, can bring us hope, when hope is hard to find.

I love the idea that David Blanchard speaks of that we each have our own song and that we find this song in all aspects of our lives, whether in the seemingly sublime or mundane. He says that “Our songs sing back to us something of our essence, something of our truth, something of our uniqueness. When our songs are sung back to us, it is not about approval, but about recognizing our being and our belonging in the human family”...(he continues)...“They can be heard as songs of love or of longing, songs of encouragement or of comfort, songs of struggle or of security. But most of all, they are the songs of life, giving testimony to what has been, giving praise for all we’re given, giving hope for all we strive for, giving voice to the great mystery that carries each of us in and out of this world.”

He says that it is good to know our own songs and to learn them by heart. This is because there will be days when we do not feel like we belong and we will not perhaps hear life singing our songs back to us. So sometimes we will have to hum our own songs until we find our way back home to that place where we belong.

What are your songs? What is that you sing that makes you feel that you belong? Maybe that’s something you could think about in the coming weeks, as we journey on through Lent. The songs that bring us solace, when we feel a little lost in the wilds of life, our redemption songs. Mine is definitely “The Bare Necessities”

Maybe you’d like to sing them as we move forward as a community in song. Remember though that we don’t necessarily have to sing in unison. We are free to sing our own songs, but we need to sing them together and sometimes we need others to remind us what our songs are. We all forget from time to time. We need to hear our songs from the lips of others from time to time.

We need to hear every song by the way, not just one or two. Each voice has something to offer; each reveals something of the truth. We enjoy here a free religious community. This is a place where I hope that you feel like you belong.

A place where you can sing your own song and if you haven’t yet discovered it; a place where you can find your song and take your first tentative steps to begin singing it; a place where you can hear the songs of others and perhaps begin to blend or harmonise with them; a place where we can discover new songs together.

So let’s journey on singing our song, the songs that bring us hope, when hope is hard to find.

Please find below a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"

Monday 12 February 2024

Attention without feeling is only a report

I have a friend who pays attention, who notices everything. It is a wonderful quality, although it can be somewhat exhausting for them at times. I empathise and am both blessed and cursed by this aspect of humanity. I notice things.

My friend hosted a dinner party at the weekend. It was a wonderful evening. I paid attention to them as they paid attention to the needs of those present. The food was incredible and the company equally so. Each persona needs were fed, each was served in a loving and attentive way and the conversations were listened to with an attentive ear. It was wonderful to observe someone giving their full attention to others. It was a person offering what they had to others in a deeply loving way, it was a joy to behold. It was deep devotion, prayer in action if I have ever witnessed it. My friend reminded me of both Mary and Martha in a passage from Luke’s Gospel.

I saw a similar example last Tuesday morning going for coffee with friends. It was my turn to pay and I was mesmerised by the young woman behind the counter, called Mars, who knew the orders of all 12 of us. Now we are regulars at this place, but I didn’t have a clue what each of us drink. Whereas Mars clearly pays attention to each of her customers, she is devoted to her work and those she dutifully serves. She also pays attention to us as individuals, she listens and shares as we listen to her. I often take time in conversation, I notice when something isn’t right with her and of course we talk. My gift it seems to many.

Mars told me a few days later that generally she has a terrible memory. She is diagnosed with “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” (ADHD). So generally she can struggle with paying attention. Yet her love and dedication to her work seems to focus her attention.

Attention is about love. It is love in its most basic form. When we pay attention to one another, when we notice each other’s needs, we are living by love. By paying attention to another’s needs we are loving them and accepting them as they are. This to me is the love that is spoken of in the great spiritual traditions. It is more than passively observing in a mindful way. It is also more than empathy, feeling with another, true attention leads to devoted action. It is form of deep generous love. When we are generous we give our whole hearts to life and one another.

It is said that whenever the Buddha would teach he would always begin with lessons on generosity. He did this because it brings with it joy and self respect and therefore it is a platform from which to look at all our life experiences, including the very painful ones and thus not become overwhelmed by them. It is thought that the Buddha always began talking about generosity because he believed that we all have something to give. Our gifts might not be material in nature.

Giving begins with attention, in one form or another. It might be by offering a listening ear, enabling another to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation, I have another friend who is wonderful at this. Generosity is a kind of hospitality it welcomes the other, the stranger as they are, exactly as they are. Attention is the ultimate welcome and act of generosity. Something I saw in my friend at the dinner party and Mars in the coffee shop, something I see in many others too. It brings me back also to the welcome of Mary and Martha.

The visit of Jesus to Mary and Martha’s is a fascination to me. It comes at the end of chapter 10 in Luke’s Gospel immediately after “The Parable of the Good Samaritan”, suggesting to me that it is teaching something about how we should offer loving hospitality. To me this is all about paying attention. Something I witnessed with my friend and in Mars at Café Nero, for example. They were both Mary and Martha it seems. Generally Mary’s Way, that of prayerful devotion is seen as the better way. Love though is also about service, both are acts of attention. Remember the visit follows the story of the Good Samaritan. A parable of loving attention and devoted service, a story of love wherever it is needed. Isn’t this the essence of the spiritual life, this is faith and works. The story of Mary and Martha seems to me to be an invitation; an invitation to everyone to decide how we use our attention; to explore how we pay attention and to whom. It is about love in its highest form. For what we give our attention to we love. Attention is true love; attention is the most basic form of love. When we give our attention to someone or something we bless and in turn we are blessed by our love. My friend and Mars both exemplified this love, they incarnated the Love spoken of throughout the Gospels.

It matters what we pay attention to in life. Yes it is vital to the spiritual life, but also the physical life too. Actually, I tend not to separate the two. Attention is the key to problem solving, creativity, and civilization in general. Our lives depend on what we pay attention to. This is why everything competes for our attention. We are so saturated by information these days, that it can be difficult just to pay attention to the life we inhabit. Yet our lives depend upon it. We need to pay attention; we need to pay attention to what really matters.

Unitarian Universalist minister Rev Victoria Safford in her sermon “An Ethics of Attention” said:

“Pay attention, say the mystics and the poets, and the little kids tugging on our legs. Pay attention, says the sunset and the ice-cold morning, and the person telling you their story. Pay attention, say the good friends at the barbecue, and the good food, and the voices in your head and heart. Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

It matters what we pay attention to; it matters also how we pay attention; it matters not only what we look at, but how we look at life. Attention may well be our most precious resource we have. Remember it is how we love; remember it is how we both feel and express our love. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus is reported to have said “You become what you give your attention to. If you don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will.” Attention is not a passive act, it is deliberate, an ethical act. For if we do not choose our attention will be put upon us by all this information that we are constantly drowned by. It matters what we pay attention to and how we pay attention, it shapes our very lives.

The twentieth century French philosopher Simone Weil viewed attention as a moral virtue, just like justice and courage. She differentiated it from concentration. It is not just about focussing on minutiae, it is more than mindfulness. As she observed: Concentration constricts. Attention expands — concentration tires. Attention rejuvenates. Concentration is focused thinking. Attention is thinking suspended.

For Weil attention ought to be seen as the rarest and purest form of generosity. She saw attention as the pathway to transformation, far superior to our human will. In “First and Last Notebooks” she wrote “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.” She believed that the will alone constricts the spirit while attention is about expanding it. Attention opens us up to so much more.

Weil equated attention to prayer. Love and service to me is highest form of prayer. It makes me think of the attention of my friend. Weil wrote “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” This brings me back to both Mary and Martha, Mars in the coffee shop and my friend hosting that dinner party, with such love care and attention.

Simone Weil saw a deep connection between our capacity for paying attention and our capacity for prayer. “Prayer consists of attention,” she said, “It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.”

Now of course paying attention will affect us, it should affect us and deeply. As Mary Oliver wrote “Attention without feeling is only a report”. Everything touched Mary deeply, it affected her and she didn’t merely report what she saw. Her attention was the ultimate prayer and her poetry was devotion itself. As she said “Attention is the beginning of devotion” This is beautifully exemplified in the poem “Spring”, which I will end this morning’s service with. It is a poem about spring, which is on the horizon, but it is also a poem about how we should live our lives. We should live like the black bear coming down the mountain as it awakens from hibernation, showing her “perfect love”. Mary asked the question how should we live our lives? Well attentively, loving the world, living our lives like a prayer. As Mary wrote “There is only one question: how to love the world”. Loving the world means simply paying attention to the life that we are surrounded by, loving it by devoting our selves fully to it, being touched and affected by it. Just like my friend who hosted her dinner party and Mars in the coffee shop on Tuesday morning. They served from their hearts and they paid attention to everyone’s needs without discrimination. They showed me how to simply love the world, it is not that difficult. All you have to do is pay attention, but to do so with feeling.

Here's the poem, I invite you to pay attention to it.

"Spring" by Mary Oliver

a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.

Please find below a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"

Monday 5 February 2024

Sauntering Along Together: The Holiest of Holy walks

“Walking” by Henry David Thoreau

"I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea."

One of my favourite things is to walk and talk side by side with folk, with Molly of course. I probably journey with several folk a week like this. It is always fascinating what comes, what is shared. I suspect I notice and experience far more in conversation with someone, than I do alone. The sum of our parts is far more than our individual units it seems. I was out with a friend and Molly the other day for several hours. We walked much further and longer than we had intended and to places we had not planned to go. We shared a great deal together as the three of us sauntered on, despite the wetness of the air. It was an absolute joy, filled with many blessing, including towards the end seeing the first snow drops of the year. Spring is near it feels and the snow drops are always a sign.

Friday just gone was traditionally considered the beginning of Spring; 2nd of February was traditionally the end of the Christmas Season marked with Candlemass and not Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas. The snowdrops being a beautiful symbol of the new spring coming, a symbol of hope. Legend has it that they appeared as such symbols after Adam and Even were expelled from Eden. Eve was about to give up hope that the winter would never end, but an angel appeared and transformed some snowflakes into the flower snowdrop, showing that the winter will eventually come to an end. The flower is linked to the purification associated with “Candlemass” as the old rhyme goes:

“The Snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head in “Candlemass” day.

It felt this on that walk with a friend and Molly the other day. We stopped and paused and admired the snowdrop, that caught our eye. The first any of us had seen this year. Molly blessed them by sniffing and we sauntered off to find something to eat. I love to saunter with others. It matters not where we go, but how we go and it matters the company you keep on the journey. In some ways life is really about who you travel with, not where you travel too. I love to saunter along.

Now “Saunter” is one of those interesting words of disputed origin. There is a popular Meme floating around the internet. It is a quote, of disputed origin, on hiking or more accurately “sauntering” by John Muir. The quote cannot be found in his writing. It can be found in book written Albert Palmer “The Mountain Trail and its Message” and is reported as something Muir said while they were walking together, sauntering together perhaps.

Here is the quote:

by John Muir on hiking, titled “Sauntering”.

"Hiking - I don't like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not hike! Do you know the origin of that word 'saunter?' It's a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, "A la sainte terre,' 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them."

It seems that no one knows the exact origin of the word saunter but many have suggested it is connected to some kind of pilgrimage to the “Holy Land”. Henry David Thoreau regarded “Sauntering” as making any journey and true walk (from “Walking”) as a Holy Pilgrimage, where a person is at home wherever they find themselves and that the two walking together make the walk a holy pilgrimage, this is a true companion.

I’m with Thoreau, I love such walks, because when you return from them, you feel that you have been enhanced as a person and have enhanced who you have journeyed with, some spirit has come to life in this holy journey together. Now whether the true origin of the word “Saunter” is linked to travellers on a journey to the Holy land or not doesn’t matter to me. I certainly see a lot of truth in both Muir’s reported thoughts on it and that of Thoreau’s.

For Thoreau walking wasn’t a utilitarian activity. It wasn’t purely about exercise. He wasn’t trying to reach at least 10,000 steps in a day. No, he consider it primarily a spiritual activity. I have found this to be true whether walking alone, with Molly and or with those people who I connect with in those special ways. As he said:

“The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours — as the Swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!”

I was out with another friend on Tuesday morning. It was short walk in distance, just an hour around the park and King George V pond. We got talking about spiritual matters. We talked about a lost Biblical word, found in John’s Gospel, the word Paraclete, which meant comforter, companion, advocate, but not in a human form, more a spiritual form. In Christianity, it is what is understood as the Holy Spirit. I suspect that if we walk with others in that spirit and understanding then we are truly living spiritually alive. Maybe this is what it means to truly saunter together.

Jean Varnier in “Drawn into The Mystery of Jesus” catches the meaning nearly perfectly:

The word "paraclete" is one of those rich Greek words
that are difficult to translate completely.
A paraclete is someone who defends and comforts,
and speaks up for and helps a weak person.
So the word "paraclete" can be translated as "advocate," as well as
"comforter," "consoler," or "helper."
Etymologically, the word "paraclete" means
"the one who answers the call."
What a beautiful name!
God is the one who answers the cry of the weak and those in need.
A mother is a "paraclete" for her child
when she answers the cry of her little one,
hold and loves him or her.
Every time we look after a person in need and answer their cry,
we become paracletes.
Jesus was a paraclete for his disciples.

The Paraclete is given
to those who are lonely and need the presence of a friend,
to those who are lost and poor in spirit
and who cry out for God.

Perhaps to saunter with another is what it truly means to be a friend, to truly live spiritually alive. Perhaps this is what we are truly here for. To be a Paraclete to one another.

To saunter together, is to be a true friend, a companion. To walk with a friend is to improve both your lives, to bring a greater spirit to life. Such friendship is a key component of Buddhism. Beautifully illustrated in the following tale.

One day while the Buddha was out walking with his attendant Ananda, who declared, “Teacher, to have companions and comrades on the great way is so amazing! I have come to realise that friendship is fully half of an authentic spiritual life.” They continued walking in silence when eventually the Buddha responded. “No, dear one. Without companions and comrades, no one can live into the deep, finding the true harmonies of life, to achieve authentic wisdom. To say it simply, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.”

Could this be true? Is friendship the whole of the spiritual life?

Well I would say in such relationships, as we saunter together that greater spirit comes to life. This is the key. To be a good friend and companion, to journey on side by side together. To saunter on sharing yourself and in so doing a greater spirit comes to life which blesses your life and the lives of those you come into contact with.

I shared the picture of the snow drop with many people. I know it helped one in particular who finds January a real struggle. It showed them that Spring is nearly here, it lifted their spirit as so many friends have done with me at times.

Something so simple, but so easy to miss. It was by journeying together that we were able to notice those tiny snow drops in Dunham Massey as Molly, a friend and myself sauntered on together on our little Holy Journey together side by side.

Please find a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"

Sunday 28 January 2024

Person Centred Spirituality

I love watching Molly playing with other dogs. She loves to run and chase and wrestle. It doesn’t seem to matter the size of the dog either. When it snowed the other day she must have spent two hours just running and playing. She wore out about a dozen other dogs. They soon gave up, but she just carried on. How she loves to play. She has this ability to bring out the playfulness in other dogs too. I was talking to a woman and her Cavapoo the other day. She said her dog was not very sociable and doesn’t play. Well within a few moments Molly got her running around. She said her dog hadn’t done this for two years, it was only three years old. After a few minutes of joy she put her dog on its lead and walked away. I remember thinking to myself I am not sure that it is the dog that isn’t sociable and playful. It seems that some aspect of this lovely dog was not fully awake, a part that so desperately wants to play with others.

I love watching dogs play. They know intuitively when they are playing. They seem to instantly get in tune with each other. There are these momentary pauses in their wrestling and chasing and then they move into each other again. They are beautifully synchronised and understand one another. They quickly adjust to the size of one another too. They seem to understand each others needs and capacity. They seem beautifully centred on one another. It is a beautiful sight to behold how being in tune with themselves, they are in tune with one another, at least in play. It makes me think that this is a kind of empathy. It also got me thinking that maybe dogs at play is an example of the “Golden Rule of Compassion”; dogs at play seem to be a living example of “do unto the other dog as they would have done to yourself.”

Last Sunday Janine led a child blessing service. It was wonderful to watch her in action. To see how she had created her own service, that fulfilled the needs of the family. I enjoyed how she constructed the service. Afterwards we went for coffee and a chat. We chuckled to ourselves about the elements that she had combined together to create the service. Yes it was her own, but it was influenced by others, including myself. At café nero we were joined by three people who had been at the morning services. One a regular Nick, who had helped with the music during Janine’s service, and the other two had been a couple of times before. They were already there and invited us to join them. Obviously, they wanted to talk about the Unitarian tradition. It was a fascinating conversation as we talked about so many different things. The subject of Universalism came up again. There was a lot of talk about the origins of the Unitarian tradition and our approach to religion. There were many attempts to label things, something I never like as it always seems reductionistic. There were questions about symbols. I talked, but mainly listened. I walked away with a broad grin on my face, went home, got changed and then headed off to the park with Molly. As I watched her play I thought what a beautiful metaphor she is for a free approach to religion and spirituality.

On Monday I was talking with a friend who is studying for a counselling degree. She had been reading Carl Rogers and his view on person centred counselling and the need for deep empathy. It was a lovely conversation and great to hear her so enthused by what she is learning. I love enthusiasm in anything and anyone. She asked me if I had thought about exploring “self actualisation” as a theme. I said I hadn’t, at least not directly. She then started asking questions about counselling, empathy and ministry, suggesting that the work of Carl Rogers seemed to correlate with Unitarian ministry. I think some of his ideas do point towards a person centred spirituality, which to me is the essence of the Unitarian approach to what religion is about. I then thanked her for being one of my Muses for the week, as she had just set my thinking in a direction for this service. How do you like it so far? She liked this.

On his journey towards developing person-centered therapy, Carl Rogers renounced traditional Christianity. Seeing it as imposing judgmental conditions of worth, by the way he viewed all religion this way. Rogers grew up in an extremely conservative Christian family. He had a particular problem with the foundational belief in the doctrine of “Original Sin”, a view I certainly share. The idea that at birth there is something fundamental wrong in humanity, in our nature. This is anti-ethical to Rogers concept of “Unconditional positive regard”

“Unconditional positive regard” is the attitude of complete acceptance and love, whether for yourself or for someone else. When you have unconditional positive regard for someone, nothing they can do could give you a reason to stop seeing them as inherently human and inherently lovable. It does not mean that you accept each and every action taken by the person, but that you accept who they are at a level much deeper than surface behaviour.

I see parallels here with “The Golden Rule of Compassion”, which can be found at the heart of every one of the great faith traditions. It is “Love your neighbour as yourself”, in one form or another. To me this suggest that if we see ourselves and one another as fallen in nature then we cannot love each other and if we can love each other then how can we love God. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the essence of the teachings of Jesus and thus Christianity and every other of the great faith traditions. This is one of the reason why I have never understood “Original Sin” as being in line with Jesus’ teaching. I do not accept that life and humanity is born fallen. I was thinking of this as Janine conducted the “Child blessing” service last Sunday, as she named the child, blessed her life and asked her family and friends to support her in her life. She blessed this beautiful blessing. I reject the concept of original sin, that said I do not deny that we all sin. In the sense that each and every single one of us fall short of our ideal of what we can be. That said despite falling short we should never lose sight that at the core of our being we are inherently lovable. We are formed from love and we are capable of love. Rogers believed that the purpose of psychology is to bring this inherent worth to life, I believe that it is the purpose of communities like ours to bring that alive too and to recognise it in others. In so doing we can begin to bring that love alive through our human being and in so doing we will truly love God with all our hearts, minds and souls.

As you can imagine this all got me thinking and relating to ministry, particularly in our tradition. In many ways the Unitarian approach is very much person centred spirituality. As a minister my role is to meet people where they are and encourage them to seek their own answer to life’s questions, particularly the spiritual nature of life. Surely this is person centred. I was thinking of this as I watched Molly playing with another dog, how in tune with each other they were and how by doing so both were gaining so much, as I watched the dance. Then it came to me what we are about is person centred spirituality, in community. My role is not to tell others what to think and believe, but encourage all of us to seek truth and meaning together and somehow in that dance, something remarkable happens. This does require unconditional positive regard for ourselves and others. We do need to believe that we and others are a blessing, or we will not trust one another, in the way that dogs do as they play.

Coming together with a sense of positive regard for ourselves and others is not a private affair, it is communal spirituality, something that appears to be increasingly lacking in this day and age. Many people report a need for spiritual sustenance but are put off by what is described as organised religion, of any kind, which they see it as detrimental to their own spirituality. I remember a friend once posting the following Meme: “Spiritual people inspire me; whereas religious people scare me.” This is because religion is seen as inhibiting and life constraining, which of course it can be.

Of course, Unitarians claim that we are a free and enquiry religion; that we are free to explore and develop our own personal spirituality in community with others. We, as individual members, of free religious communities, do not think and believe in the same way about many things, but we are bound together in mutual love. We are one faith, but we may not believe in exactly the same way, as that conversation in the coffee shop proved. That said there is love and respect and of course “Unconditional positive regard”. Well at least this is what we aim for. No one achieves this perfectly as none of us are perfectly self-actualised human beings, certainly not me. Maybe one day.

A person centred approach to spirituality and religion, with positive self regard for ourselves and others, recognising each others worth and dignity requires an openness to all that is, life, the universe, everything. It reveals truth and meaning in everything and everywhere and it reveals the divine in all aspects of life. It does not reject. It leads to a reverence for the miracle that is life itself and for one another.

This for me is the purpose of true religion, but it’s no easy task. Forrest Church said that in order to achieve it “We must embrace each day as the miracle it is and fashion our very lives into instruments of praise. This is religious work and it requires religious discipline. We perform that work together weekly in our Sunday liturgy. Once a week we pause and pinch ourselves. We can't take this life for granted. We must receive it as a precious gift, a pearl of great price.”

We need to recognise the oneness, the unity of everything. We are all part of a vast and yet mysterious living system. By recognising this we begin to participate consciously in this vast oneness. The mystics of every faith tradition have proclaimed this divine unity. It is called Nirvana in Buddhism, or the Brahman-Atman synthesis in Hinduism, when Jesus declares “I and the father are one” he is talking of divine oneness. We are all part of the one undivided whole. This is how we love God and our neighbour and ourselves. It is positive regard for everything and that that is at the core of everything.

Howard Thurman described this near perfectly in “Creative Encounter” when he said "It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Muslim, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God."

This oneness, this sense of communion can be experienced by everyone, no one is excluded, it transcends all human created differences. What name we give it matters little, whether it be Universal Mind, Great Spirit, God, The Divine. Whether we name it or not we can certainly know it, I am sure we have all felt that oneness at one time or another.

I know from personal experience and from really listening to others that there is a deep human need to be at one with ourselves, reconciled with our neighbours and at home with the universe. It seems to me that our feelings of friendship and empathy are but a faint reminder of this essential oneness. We can all feel that oneness and it is through this oneness that we can truly know ourselves, our true natures. Can we achieve this alone? Does privatised spirituality allow this? How can we be at with all of life, if we cannot engage with one another spiritually?

To be truly religious is to let the sense of the eternal make a difference in our lives. It’s really all about being good neighbours. It’s about how we live with each other. As Thomas Jefferson said “It is in our lives not our words that our religion must be read”. You can be spiritual on your own, of course any one can, but we can only be truly religious requires us to come together. Coming together does not mean you lose who you are though. In many ways you may learn more about who you are, in interacting with others.

Last Tuesday morning , before I began writing this sermon I took Molly to the park once again. It was pouring with rain. There were only one or two other dogs out and about. Molly didn’t have anyone much to play with. She looked around, chased a few birds and squirrels. She was ok, but not like she had been in previous days. For she had to play alone. She was at ease though. She doesn’t suffer what so many humans suffer from, she doesn’t experience self-loathing, she has a healthy self-regard and as such goes out into the world with a sense of joy. That said Molly has known nothing but love in her life. No one has told her or treated like there was something wrong with her, in her nature. She sees most people in this light. If she has met you once she will greet you as an old friend, she likes to say hello to everyone. She has certainly enhanced my life and taught me so much about how to recognise my own worth and dignity and that of my brothers and sisters and attempt to build a community based on person centred spirituality.

To me this is how life should be and certainly what religion should be. It should be person centred, with love at its heart. With positive regard for ourselves, each other, life and God at the heart of it. Then we will truly live by the Golden Rule of Love and we will begin to bring to life the kin-dom of Love right here right now.

Please find below a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"

Monday 22 January 2024

The Opposite of Schadenfreude: Rejoicing in the Good Fortune of Others

I generally take a positive view of social media, as I do with most aspects of human interaction. When things are used in a positive way they enhance our lives. That said there are downsides. They can be misused. The one I have perhaps struggled with the most is what was once called Twitter and now X. I have never really got it. In fact, beyond posting my blog and videos I rarely interact. There is one person I love on Twitter though, this is Susie Dent from Dictionary Corner on Countdown. She is informative, funny and warm hearted. I have learnt so much from her in recent years as she has shared lost words, often as a way of social commentary. It was Susie who brought “respair” back into public consciousness, that word that means a new or fresh hope. She has also shared lost positive words, that are the opposite of negative versions that have remained in usage. Words like “gruntled”, meaning happy or contended, in good humour, it is the opposite of disgruntled; or “gormful, meaning sensible, not foolish or senseless, the opposite of gormless; or “ruthful”, meaning feeling or expressing pain or sorrow for wrong doing or causing offense, the opposite of ruthless; or feckful, meaning efficient or effective, the opposite of feckless. It is interesting that only the negative versions of these words have survived in common usage.

Another example, of the loss of positives, is the word “resentment”. I resent the word itself. Actually, what I resent is how I and others use the word. The word literally means to re-feel, to re-sense something. That said when we re-feel something wonderful or positive we do not say we resent it. There is no word in common usage that describes a positive way of re-sensing something.

Now one word that is in common usage, but we do not have an equivalent English word for is Schadenfreude, at least not in common usage. We used to have “epicaricacy”, but it has disappeared. Schadenfreude is the experience of pleasure , joy or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, pain, or humiliation of another. A good example would be when a rival football team loses, or the political party you are opposed to suffers a humiliating loss. Or closer to home, someone trips over, provided they don’t get too hurt. When social media is at its worse it seems to be powered by such feelings; Schadenfreude seems to fuel Twitter or X.

Schadenfreude is derived from “Schaden” meaning damage or harm and “Freude” meaning Joy. We think of it as joy in someone’s misfortune. Now what is frustrating is that there isn’t a equivalent word for the opposite of Schadenfreude, say the joy in someone’s good fortune.

We have all lived through difficult times in recent years. As a result there are folk about who are trying to find ways to spread a little joy, to share good news as an antidote to the negativity abound. As a result people have begun using a new word -a neologism - “freudenfreude”. This is seen as the opposite of Schadenfreude.

“Freudenfreude” is described as positive empathy. It is the ability to feel someone else’s positive emotions as if they were your own. A small study published in the journal “Psychological Science” in August 2021 showed that this type of empathy helps people become kinder, more resilient and satisfied with their lives, it creates a sense of gratitude. It also brings people together, so it is thus an antidote to self-centredness. Social media at its worse can increase this insular self-cented way of seeing life.

Anyone can tap into the power of freudenfreude. All you have to do is look for the good things happening to people around you, look for the small examples of good news, not the big bad news on “X” or printed and tv news. Look around you, celebrate other people’s small successes. When you talk with the people in your life ask them about their joys and share in them. Do not be afraid to share your good news too, do not hide your light, let it shine. Be a bearer of the good news. It helps build community you know, something so needed in ever more isolating and isolated lives. This is not to say that we avoid one another’s troubles, freudenfreude is about developing empathy and you can’t have positive without negative. That said when we say we feel what you feel then we must feel positive as well as painful emotions. To feel with another is to do so wholly. This is true empathy.

Now when I think of someone who exemplified “Freudenfreude” Angela Fowler, a member of one of the congregations I serve, comes straight to mind. Sadly, Angela died on News Years Eve. What an example though of someone who encouraged and enjoyed the achievements of others. She did so much herself, despite her very real struggles in life. She certainly lived a life of gratitude and always made the most of every little thing that life gave to her. Not that Angela would have used the word “Freudenfreude”. She was an expert in language, speaking perfect French and was also fluent in German. So, I don’t want to insult her by not using correct language. Not that she would mind too much as she always encouraged me in my ministry and forgave all my terrible pronunciations.

Thankfully there is another word that means pretty much what “Freudenfreude” does. This is the ancient Sanskrit word “Mudita”. Mudita means vicarious joy or sympathetic joy. It is used in Buddhism to highlight the importance of feeling joy for others good fortune even if, or especially because, you do not directly benefit from it. Again, it suggests something community centred rather than merely self-centred.

There is a similar word in Hebrew too, this is “Firgun”, which describes the ungrudging pleasure one takes in someone else’s good fortune. A kind of generosity of spirit, an unselfish, empathetic joy that something good has happened or might happen to another person. I think both “Firgin” and “Mudita” apply to Angela and I am sure as someone who loved interfaith interaction it speaks powerfully to her personal soul.

I experienced a great deal of “Freudenfreude”, “Mudita” and “Firgin” last weekend. On Friday I was at a good friend, Ian Etto’s, album launch at Manchester Art Gallery. It was wonderful to be with Ian and Jules and countless other people from their lives as they performed and we all joined together in celebration. Both Ian and Jules have had their struggles in life and it was wonderful to see them shine their lights so bright and to be together with others sharing in their joy. On Saturday morning I opened proceedings at Altrincham “Court Leet”. During the proceedings Barbara Thackray, a congregational member, was made a “Freeman” of Altrincham. In recognition for the years of dedicated service raising money for St Anne’s Hospice, following the death of her sister. Barbara took up running about 10 years ago, in her mid 70’s. She runs 10k twice a week and runs in events around the area raising money. She has become bit of a celebrity, appearing all over local news and even being the star of an Adidas advert with Mo Salah, her smiling face being the last image as she runs along. It was such a joy sharing in Barbara’s recognition. So wonderful sharing with these people who are a rich part of my life and the lives of others too, who have known recent joys. Yes it is important to be with others in their struggles, but also their joys. This to me is what loving community is all about. I just wish we had a word in common usage to describe such a feeling and to shine that light bright for all to see. So, I am going to join in with those who are using the word “Freudenfreude”, lets make it word of the year for next year.

You may recall I was deeply effective in a positive way by Rutger Bregman’s “Humankind” a few years ago. It came out just as we went into lockdown during Covid. It was a brilliant book and was an antidote to a great deal of negativity about human nature being peddled at the time. He offered a different perspective and suggested, as many have before, that if we only portray a low opinion and expectation of humanity, then this is what we will see and experience. The problem is that we under estimate our capacity and only really promote bad news and bad behaviour. Now one of the solutions that he suggested is that we should come out of the closet for the good that we do and others do. That we need to learn to celebrate doing good and promote it. I see echoes of Freudenfreude in his proposals.

Now this probably sounds a little shocking as it seems to go against the grain of what we are taught to do, to not boast about the good we do. We need though to let our light shine, so that people see another example other than what we hear and read about on the news.

As Bregman highlights

“Unfortunately, this reticence works like a nocebo. When you disguise yourself as an egoist, you reinforce other people’s cynical assumptions about human nature. Worse by cloaking your good deeds, you place them in quarantine, where they can’t serve as an example for others. And that’s a shame, because Homo puppy’s secret superpower is that we’re so great at copying one another.”

I suspect the same applies with “freudenfreude”. Let us come out the closet about the good we do. Let us learn to celebrate the good fortune of others. Let us hold up these lights and share in each others good news. You never know we might just begin to change our world and become a beautiful antidote to the prevailing cynicism that others promote around the world.

Let us not hide the good in ourselves and each other. Let us not deny the dark, what is wrong in the world. It is there of course it, but it is not all that is there. There is goodness, there is light, there is joy and good things do happen for us and each other.

I’m going to end this morning with a classic story, one I have told before, but one that speaks powerfully to me at our human nature and the nature of life. That each of us has the capacity for good and bad within us, for both Schadenfreude and Freudenfreude, what matters is what aspect of ours and others humanity we shine a light on. It is titled “Two Wolves.”

One winter’s evening whilst gathered round a blazing camp fire, an old Sioux Indian chief told his grandson about the inner struggle that goes on inside people.

“You see” said the old man, “this inner struggle is like two wolves fighting each other. One is evil, full of anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, deceit, false pride, superiority, and ego”.

“The other one,” he continued, poking the fire with a stick so that the fire crackled, sending the flames clawing at the night sky, “is good, full of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith”.

For a few minutes his grandson pondered his grandfather’s words and then asked, “So which wolf wins, grandfather?”

“Well”, said the wise old chief, his lined face breaking into a wry smile, “The one you feed!”

Please find below a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"


Monday 15 January 2024

Blue Monday: Finding Comfort, Solace and Joy in Winter

Today Monday 15th of January has become one of those days that have been marked out on the yearly calendar. Not an official public holiday, there isn’t one until Easter. That said it is still a day we mark. It is known as “Blue Monday”, no I don’t mean the song by New Order. “Blue Monday” has become regarded as the hardest day of the year, afterall the Christmas spirit has all gone and we are right in depths of winter. It is dark, it is cold and there is little light around, Spring seems so far away. The day light hours will increase over the coming weeks but still we must face winter. January and February can be difficult as we feel stuck in the cold on these dark winter evenings.

Winter is not an easy time, so many of us want it over as soon as possible. We want spring and the new birth and life that it brings, but that is not the way to live and we know it. To live, always looking towards the spring yet to come, is to fail to fully experience what is present now. There is such richness in the dark cold of winter and we need to feel it and allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. There is a beautiful wonder about winter that we would do well to embrace. There is a need to embrace and fully experience the darkness, the lifelessness and the starkness of this time of year. We should not wish it all away, for everything there is a season and a time for everything under the sun.

Whenever I look at the winter world it looks barren and bleak. Like those trees I passed as I wandered round Dunham Massey with Molly and a friend the other day. The trees look so vulnerable just standing there all alone and yet I know they are alive, standing there bold and upright. They remind me of my own vulnerability and my exposure to the cold of winter and to the challenges of life, challenges I do not shrink from, even though I do from time to time feel tempted to do so.

Like everyone I want to feel safe, protected and warm, I want comfort, I seek solace, I do not want to feel cold, exposed and vulnerable. It is a refuge that we all seek; often it is a refuge that folk seek and believe they will find in religion and spirituality. This sense that we are protected and safe, but is it realistic? So often we seek protection from the troubles of life, from its winter. If life has taught me anything it has shown me that the insulation I often seek so easily becomes isolation. These attempts to protect myself from exposure only increase the suffering. If I have learnt anything in life it’s that self-protection just cuts you off and leaves you feeling all alone, once again. What is needed to live through the winter is comfort and solace, not isolation.

Comfort and solace offer something different; something so needed in winter; something that can be found in many ways. I was thinking of this as I enjoyed some traditional Transylvania soup that a friend had given me, a chicken type broth. It brought comfort to my body, but also my soul. It truly was chicken soup for the heart, the body and the soul.

One of the advantages of ministry is that it really forces you to pay attention to the passing seasons. By doing so you learn to appreciate what each has to offer. Winter has so much to offer if we would but let ourselves appreciate it. I think the trees in winter have much to teach we who would prefer to hibernate. If I have learnt anything I have learnt that the spiritual life is about living openly and vulnerably, it’s about accepting the reality of life. It’s about standing their upright, arms outstretch in the cold vulnerability of life waiting for the time of re-birth and renewal in whatever form this takes, just like the trees in winter.

That said we also need solace and comfort. Unlike those trees we have one another. We can share in each others warmth and we can seek help and comfort from both visible and invisible sources. This is how we live through winter, we find its power and beauty and instead of hibernating we learn to live fulling alive; we do not have to just survive, we can learn to thrive. Sometimes all you need is a bowl of soup, whether that be for the body, the heart and or the soul.

We all need solace, we all need comfort and consolation in times of distress. It is wonderful to be able to receive both visible and invisible help at such times.

As David Whyte so beautifully put in his essay on the word “Solace”

“Solace is not an evasion, nor a cure for our suffering, nor a made up state of mind. Solace is a direct seeing and participation; a celebration of the beautiful coming and going, appearance and disappearance of which we have always been a part. Solace is not meant to be an answer, but an invitation, through the door of pain and difficulty, the depth of suffering and simultaneous beauty in the world that the strategic mind by itself cannot grasp nor make sense of.”

Solace isn’t just about comforting as we understand it today, as a “there, there”, in its original meaning there is a sense of pleasure and joy too. This brings to mind the 5th verse of the 30th Psalm “Despair may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” I and friends were sharing in joy early on Tuesday morning, there was much laughter in our coming together. Yes, some had their struggles and were offered comfort, a hug and listening ear, but we also shared in solace together as we laughed and had real fun. This is true solace and it certainly warmed our cockles on that cold winters morning.

Another thing that has been bringing me solace, a great deal of joy in fact, in recent weeks has been remembering songs my dad and grandad used to sing to me as a child. I have been sharing them with friends. They were often rude and funny musical songs, with a Yorkshire twist. Sometimes a little naughty, but always good hearted. They brought me solace when I was a child and they have been bringing me solace this winter.

Such as “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts”

I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts
Seem them all a standing in a row
Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head
A turn of the wrist a flick of the fist and up the showman said

I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts
Every ball you throw will make me rich
There stands my wife, the idol of me life
Singing roll a bowl a ball a penny a pitch

Singing Roll a bowl, a ball, a penny, a pitch
Roll a bowl, a ball, a penny, a pitch
Roll a bowl, a ball, roll a bowl, a ball
Singing roll a bowl a ball a penny a pitch

Rememebring these old songs has brought me much solace these last few weeks.

Where do we seek solace, when life is difficult? Where do we turn for comfort? Comfort is another of those interesting words that does not mean exactly what it once did.

Comfort comes from the Latin word comfortare, which means “strengthen greatly.” To give comfort is to shore up the mood or physical state of someone else. It may take quite some time to shore up someone when they are lost, in a state or despair, or deep depression. It takes more than just going for a walk, taking flowers, encouraging them to find a love and connection through nature. Yes, these help, of course they do, but you cannot just lift a deep state of depression this way. The support maybe needed for quite some time. To strengthen someone greatly takes some time and effort and above all consistency. It’s about standing or sitting with someone through what is at times a long haul. This is counter intuitive to our age. We are living through the age of the quick fix.

When you are struggling in the need for comfort and solace it can feel like it will never end, a bit like a long cold winter. It will though, at least if we find ways to stick with it, if we find comfort and solace to keep on living through the winter. As Wendell Berry so beautifully put it in “Hannah Coulter”

“You think winter will never end, and then, when you don't expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light.”

Winter is not an easy time, so many of us want it over as soon as possible. We want spring and the new birth and life that it brings, but that is not the way to live and we know it. To live, always holding on to the spring yet to come, is to fail to fully experience what is present now. There is such richness in the dark cold of winter and we need to feel it and allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. There is a beautiful wonder about winter that we would do well to embrace.

We do not have to do so alone though. We can seek comfort and solace from one another. We can walk through this season together, experiencing it all, wholly alive. We can offer comfort and solace. Whether that is by being with one another in our shared suffering, offering something that warms the body, the heart and soul, like that bowl of soup. Solace can also come with joy and laughter. I was with friends on Friday night at my friends album launch in Manchester. A wonderful night of shared celebration. It was just wonderful watching friends shine, following their bliss. It can come in walking together on cold days enjoying the splendour of nature. It can come in so many ways. I hope you all have your oen Molly’s. She is such a treasure, who brings comfort, solace and above all joy to so more, not least me.

Where do you find comfort? Where do you find solace in the cold of winter. How do you find ways to stay alive and awake, rather than hibernate? How can you find ways to support and comfort those struggling around you? How can you offer solace? Whether by shoring someone up or bringing joy to their hearts, Perhaps something to think about this morning, rather than sinking into “Blue Monday”

I will end today with these beautiful words by Kathleen McTigue. A “Winter Blessing”

“Winter Blessing” Kathleen Mctigue

The world catches our hearts through its light:
splintering dance of sun on water,
calm moonlight poured through branches,
candles lit on early winter evenings,
a splatter of stars on a clear night,
and the bright eyes of those we love.
But the brilliance never ends,
even when the light goes out.
Mystery shimmers and shines in the world
in even the darkest corners.
It’s there where the roots push life into soil and rock,
in small lives lived under every stone;
there is the silent pulse beneath the tree bark.
It’s in the depth of slow tides as they turn,
there in the sky on moonless nights
when muffling clouds block out the stars.
It’s there in the prison, the hospital,
by hospice bed,
there at the graveside, in the empty house –
something beating in the dark shelter
of our hearts -
the small shine of hope, the gilt edge of kindness.

May we be granted the gift of deeper sight
that we might see – with or without the light.

Below is a video devotion based on the material in this devotion