Monday, 26 October 2020

Floella and Mr Rogers: Heroes and Inspirations

A few years ago I was invited to Parliament to participate and speak at a “Men’s Health Forum”. It was hosted by Baroness Floella Benjamin. Floella is perhaps the most genuinely wonderful human being I have ever met. The other Friday Christine Anstey, a member at Dunham Road Altrincham, sent me text message telling me that Floella was appearing on “Desert Island Discs”. I listened to her wonderful life story and enjoyed her song choices. What was clear was the deep love and care within her, exemplified by her life. She spoke of her struggles as a black immigrant growing up the 1950’s and 60’s and how she worked hard to develop her career. She has been a campaigner for so many groups of people. She also spoke about being appointed the chancellor of the University of Exeter and how instead of shaking hands with graduates she breaks tradition and hugs every single one. As someone who has received one of those hugs, I have never known a more loving one. Floella is one of those special people who lives by and through love and I believe is a wonderful example of what we can be if we live this way.

Now Floella came to fame as a children’s tv presenter on “Playschool”. Well that very evening after listening to her on “Desert Island Discs” Sue and myself watched a wonderful film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood.” It tells the story of cynical journalist going to interview the much loved American children’s television icon Fred Rogers. It is a beautiful film about reconciliation and transformation, as the cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel, who is a new father struggling with his demons, is transformed by the presence and love exemplified in the life of Rogers. Vogel reconciles with his own father who is dying and who abandoned him and sister during their childhood and not long before their mother died. At one point in the film it is suggested that Rogers could be seen as some kind of saint. Roger’s wife Joanne, who like Floella is a hugger, disputes this and says if he was a saint then no one could aspire to live a life like him. I would imagine that both Floella and Joanne must be struggling with being unable to hug folk at this time, but I am sure that they will adjust being the women that they are.

While speaking with Vogel Roger’s exposed his own vulnerability, he spoke of his own challenges as a parent of two sons. Despite the claims of not being a saint it must have been be challenging to be the child of such a person, just as it must have been to be the child of Floella too. They are both icons of millions of children’s lives, so loved. Well it would appear that Floella’s son struggled at times with her fame and because of this she withdrew from presenting and put her energies into other areas. I suspect that she would not have been made a life peer if she had remained a television presenter, but you never know.

Trying to live up to any ideal is never easy, that though should not mean that we shouldn’t attempt to rise to all that we capable of becoming. Although it is important to always remember that even the greatest examples were always human, they had feet of clay. Remember nobody is perfect, we must always be somebodies.

I have had many heroes in my life, people who inspired me. As a young boy they were mainly sporting ones and musicians too. My current sporting hero is probably Marcello Bielsa, “El Loco” or the “Bucket Man”, the current manager of Leeds United, who has brought the club back to the Premier League. That said my heroes today tend to be more of a spiritual nature. Like David Whyte who has inspired me to live on the frontier between the self and the other, upper and lower case. I love the way that he speaks of the “conversational nature of reality”, or Mary Oliver’s cry of the wild geese crying out that I we do not have to be good, perfect, to know that we are loved as we are, that we just have to let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love, we just have to let our vulnerable bodies, no matter how broken, love what they love. Or Rainer Maria Rilke and his urging for patience “with everything unresolved in my heart” that instead of desperately seeking answers to all the questions all I need to do is to “to love the questions themselves.” It is a beautiful lesson in humility and oh so helps me to love the limits of my humanity and to remember that of others too, when we all fall short. It is utter vanity to think I will ever get a full answer to the spiritual questions I ask and seek. That said I know that by engaging in the courageous conversation I will experience something far more than I could even begin to imagine. All that I have to do is to live on the frontier and to live my way into, if not an answer, a new experience. Viktor Frankl’s call to find meaning by living meaningfully has enriched my experience if life. It still blows my mind that whenever I turn in faith to life that meaning continues to emerge, even when experiencing extreme suffering. No one can avoid suffering, but we do not need to know despair, meaning emerges if and when we embrace life and one another. I no longer seek a particular purpose or meaning in something instead I have discovered that by living at the frontier of life that I come alive and I learned a while ago that this is what the world needs, “people who have come alive,” at least according to Howard Thurman.

On Saturday I was out walking the dog by the canal. I passed a man I often see. We pause and talk for a little. We mostly talk about football. He asked me waht I thought about Marcus Rashford and what he is doing "for the kids". I told him I thought it was wonderful to see a young man doing what he could to help those who are struggling at this timer, that he uis wonderful example, that it was great to see a footballing hero using weaht he has to help others. he agreed and then said "I cannot imagine George Best would have done something similar"/ I laughed and agreed. 

So these are some of my heroes, I wonder who yours have been, either from your childhoods or now. Who are the people who have or who still inspire you? Do you see them as humans or as saints? Perhaps this is something to ponder and perhaps continue to aspire to in this time of struggle and need.

 Heroes tend to be ordinary folk, they are not saints, thus we can all aspire to be like them. They are not superheroes. There is no Superman or woman, something that Christopher Reeve himself discovered later in life. He said:

“When the first Superman movie came out I was frequently asked, "What is a hero?" My answer was that a hero is someone who commits a courageous action without considering the consequences...

 ...Now my definition is completely different. I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

Well this one time superman certainly exhibited great courage in the last few years of his life, following the accident that left him a paraplegic. I don’t know if you know this but he became a Unitarian later in life.

Anyone can be a hero; we all possess those qualities within us. All we need to do is uncover those virtues within each and every one of us. We have all had to overcome many obstacles of varying shapes and sizes, no life is without problems. Further, we can all do little wonderful and caring things that can change our world a little bit at a time. It begins by recognising that we are special unique wonderful and needed just as we are, something I know that both Fred Rogers and Floella Benjamin have tried to teach so many children and adults throughout and through their lives. Well we can do the same.

It is going to be a long winter for all of us. We will need sources of light to help us through these difficult times. Maybe by reflecting on our inspirations it will help us aspire to be the best that can be and in so doing we might just bring some light to those in need, if from a physical distance.

So let’s bring to life the love within each and everyone of us, let’s bring that spirit to life and thus become the hero, the inspiration that we have all been searching for.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Conversation: The Nature of Reality

I recently had the experience of being cut off from folk, from being able to communicate, to converse. I have been having mobile phone trouble. I phoned my mobile phone company over a couple of days and discovered that my software had become “corrupted”. It is not easy to speak with your mobile provider when your phone isn’t working, but thankfully I was able to use my landline. I was told that I would have to remove everything from my phone, save it to my laptop, relaunch the phone and then add everything back to the phone. This was a task way beyond my ability and so I had to call the company who made the phone and I was put through to a man named Alban. Alban who is originally from Albania. What followed was a three hour telephone conversation as he carefully guided me through all the steps, including several twenty minute phases where we waited for things to upload and download and other various technical things. During these blocks we got to know each other. We talked about our lives the things we have done in the past. Views about life, philosophy, politics, religion, music, sport, family, entertainment, the current pandemic and a whole lot more. It was a wonderful conversation, with a complete stranger I will never meet, in fact I will never speak to him again. It was a wonderful encounter, a beautiful conversation, and my phone seems to be working now.

I have been thinking about conversations ever since. I am discovering that they are deeperning, they seem more precious at this time. Whether that be the conversations in the supermarket, taking place behind masks, or the brief ones in the gym or street as I pass folk, moments of connection that are so precious. As well as the various phone calls I receive and all those Zoom conversations and other video based ones I have all week long. Last Monday I hosted the grief group, it was a quiet one, with only a few in attendance and yet it was so deep and rich in meaning. I loved the conversations we share in the poetry group. I reckon we share less poems each week and spend more time talking about the many varied things that the poems bring up.

I find it amazing how even though we are spending far less time in the company of people I am experiencing increasingly deeper conversations in my life. Thank God for that and thank God for modern technology, even social media. Where would we be without it.

Life is about conversation, good conversation. We spend most our lives in conversations, on all kinds of levels. Conversations are not of course always spoken, we are constantly in conversation with all of life, constantly engaging, speaking and listening.

Krista Tippet from “On Being” who spends much of life interviewing and engaging with all kinds of folk claims that “Good conversation is an adventure”. She states:

“I think of a good conversation as an adventure. You create a generous and trustworthy space for it, and prepare hospitably for it, so the other person will feel so welcome and understood that they will put words around something they have never put words around quite that way before. They will give voice to something they didn’t know they knew — and you will be a witness to thinking, revelation, in real time. This is one reason radio/podcasting is such a magical medium: everyone who listens joins that room, becomes a witness, the moment they push “play.” They are also there for the revelation. It’s a form of time travel. And if the conversation is edifying (one of my favorite, underused words), we all sync up in some mysterious way across time and space and grow a little together.”

Life is made up of conversation. We as humans have conversed in all kinds of ways over the years. People communicate in different ways in different cultures and sub-cultures within cultures, there has always been an etiquette in conversation. Now while conversation style has morphed and the methods of communication grown and expanded I suspect that the measure of good and bad conversation has remained the same. To quote William Spielgelman in “Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead”

“Here are some adjectives that do not apply to the best conversation: 'one-sided,' 'monopolizing,' 'condescending,' 'preachy,' 'abrasive,' 'hectoring,' 'loud,' and 'rude.' However many people it involves, conversation is, like chamber music, an exercise in intimacy, of give-and-take, of what Plato, who recorded the talk of one of history's first and finest talkers, called 'dialectic,' a word etymologically related to 'dialogue.' Conversation moves forward, or back and forth in starts and stops, like drama itself. That philosophy, democracy, and drama all began in fifth-century Athens says a great deal about the far from incidental relations among them.”

Conversation is not only about the ability to articulate oneself, it is about engaging in relationship with ourselves, with others, with life and with whatever we experience at the core of life. “The Creative Interchange” is a form of conversation. I am delivering this worship, this address but it is actually a part of wider conversation with life, with you who are listening and with all that came together to create it. You who are listeners will hopefully engage with the words shared and then engage and feed life in someway from it, leading to further conversation, engagement with life.

The goal of conversation is create understanding and connection between our thoughts and words. As Richard Saul Wurman has said “…conversations are an understanding machine, an imminently satisfying forum for the exchange of information.” I have noticed that tithey can be transformative too, they can change my whole psyche, my persona, they can bring to life my whole soul. So many times in the last few days I have felt transformed by a simple conversation.

Conversation though has been challenged for all of us these last six or months due to having to separate, to varying degrees, physically. We have had to adapt how we converse with one another. We are probably talking to one another less and perhaps this is why the conversation have deepened in meaning. I have also noticed a deeper conversation that can be had, that is often unspoken, a conversation with life itself and whatever we consider to be at the core of life, what some of us would call God and others give a different name. We are always in conversation; it is just that sometimes we speak and listen to words.

The philosopher poet David Whyte often speaks of
“the conversational nature of reality.” He says that he became a poet, after a successful career as a marine biologist, because he felt a deeper need to communicate his experiences. As he states in a conversation he had with Krista Tippet:

“I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the “I.” But I was really interested in the way that the “I” deepened the more you paid attention. In Galapagos, I began to realize that because I was in deeply attentive states, hour after hour, watching animals and birds and landscapes — and that’s all I did for almost two years — I began to realize that my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had, inherited beliefs or manufactured beliefs, but my identity actually depended on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself — and that as you deepen this intentionality and this attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence.

I began to realize that the only places where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you, that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it. But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass, and what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level. Half of what’s about to occur is unknown both inside you and outside you. John O’Donohue, a mutual friend of both of us, used to say that one of the necessary tasks is this radical letting alone of yourself in the world, letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out.”

I love the way that David describes the conversational nature of reality, that we are constantly in conversation, whether we are speaking or not, so long as we are alive, awake and fully engaged.

This is beautifully illustrated in his poem “Everything Is Waiting for You?”

After Derek Mahon

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

We are constantly in conversation, even if we haven’t spoken with someone for sometime. Life is about conversation, big and small. Conversation can happen anywhere and in any situation. Our tools for conversation are constantly changing and evolving. To enjoy a good conversation all that is required is for us to engage with life, to be alive and awake to the life around us, to take it in, to absorb it, to hear what it has to say and to respond in kind.

So let is join in the beautiful conversation, to engage in the conversational nature of reality.


Monday, 12 October 2020

Love is the Way: Out of Many One

I enjoy a family zoom conversations each week. It is great to keep in touch with siblings. It doesn’t involve the whole family, just the ones who grew up entirely together. I have other step brothers and sisters, they are just as much family of course they are. We were recently united due to the loss of the father of many of us and the man who was my stepdad and who I lived with from the age of three. Family for me is layered, large and quite complicated.

I often think of this as I look at the whole of humanity. We are connected and interconnected in all kinds of complicated ways. We are all born of the same one human family, on the one earth. Yet we create walls of separation, draw our borders too, but truth be told we are all the same children of the one earth, born under the one sun, children of a universal spirt of love and yet we have so often struggled to recognise this.

I recently watched an interview with Bishop Michael Curry. He is the head of the Episcopal church in the USA and perhaps best known as the Bishop who preached the sermon at Megan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding a couple of years ago. It was a magnificent address that went global. The Bishop has a new book out titled  “Love is the Way”. During the interview he spoke the following words in Latin found on the “The Great Seal of United States”. The words are “E Pluribus Unum”.

“E Pluribus Unum” is translated as “Out of many, one” or sometimes “One out of many” or “One from many”. Bishop Curry explained the origin of phrase claiming that it came from Cicero’s paraphrase of Pythagoras in his “De Offciis”. It is an aspect of his discussion of basic family and social bonds being the very origins of societies and states. The full phrase is “Unus flat ex pleribus” This is translated as “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many.” I suspect it is the same spirit that was the motto of the three musketeers “one for all and all for one”. Isn’t this the principle at the core of the “Golden Rule of Compassion”, something found at the heart of virtually every tradition throughout human history. This is how we should live and yet we seem to find it oh so hard to do so.

This universal guiding principle of making one out of many seems particularly pertinent at this time as every single one of us on God’s sweet earth are united in this struggle with the pandemic. We are of course always caught up in the same struggles, as well as joys, it is just that we don’t always recognise this, that all are one and one are all. Sadly instead, we are caught up in dangerously divisive times, this division seems to have grown in recent years. Many do not see the other as brother and or sister. You see this amplified at the level of public debate. Yes, we should all speak our truth, but must do so in the spirit of love. We need to find ways to unite one another, to connect, to bridge those gaps formed by the walls of division, to learn to live from that love, that Divine Unity, to let love lead the way.

The great traditions, at their essence, speak of this Divine Unity. Yes of course this is not always practised and sadly the forces of division within them have been the driving forces of many of them down the centuries. That said it is not what they speak of from their essence.

The Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) believe that all are created in the image of God, that all are formed from the one divine breath of life. Genesis 1 v 26a states “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness,”. Words that speak to the heart of me. I do believe that the essence of the Divine Love is within us all, therefore I try and live with this in mind, understanding that every act I do to another, is done in that image to another formed in the same image. You find similar words in Qur’an which states in the fourth chapter 'Oh people, be conscious of your Lord who created you from a single soul and created from her, her mate; and from them, many men and women scattered far and wide.' Thus suggesting that the unity of humanity is deep indeed; all people, men and women, are not only created by God but are descended from a single soul.

The Buddhist tradition extends this oneness beyond human beings to all sentient beings. I remember speaking with a Buddhist friend once who suggested that individual beings are like waves on the ocean. Now although each wave has a sense of its own separateness, what is described as its 'lesser self', it is better understood as part of the ocean, its 'greater self'. The key for each soul is to be awakened to the larger truth that we are a part of the ocean. I would say each part precious, a drop in the wider universal ocean. The ocean being the Divine Unity. We are all connected to the one universe. When we see this truth why would we reject or wish to damage another aspect of this Divine Unity. This brings to my mind the words of Jesus “what you do to the least of them you do to me. He recognised his and our Divine Unity. We truly are one.

We are all connected on this our planet and yet we build so many walls, so many borders, that separate us. How do we begin to live with a greater sense of oneness and interconnection? Well, if I’ve learnt anything I have learnt that the journey towards interconnection and togetherness, the spiritual journey, is not one of distance, nor is it a journey of detachment, the spiritual journey is one of connection.

The spiritual life is about connection. It is about connecting to a reality that is greater than our small selves. Living spiritually is about finding ways to connect to whatever it is that is of highest worth to us, whatever we hold sacred, whatever we regard as holy and for me that is everything. It is about finding ways to connect through the daily interactions of our lives; it is about learning how to live more openly even when the tough times come and those around us are refusing to do so.

This is not easy, but it is possible. I would like to offer the following simple practise that might just be able to let us do so. I found it in a book of meditations titled “Singing in the Night: Collected Meditations: Volume Five” edited by Mary Bernard. It is by David O. Rankin and is titled “Our Common Destiny”

“First, I must begin with my own creation. I must celebrate the miracle of evolution that resulted in a living entity named David. I must assist in the unfolding of the process by deciding who I am, by fashioning my own identity, by creating myself each day.  I must listen to the terrors, the desires, the impulses that clash in the depths of my soul. I must know myself, or I will be made and used by others.

Second, I must learn to affirm my neighbours. I must respect others, not for their function, but for their being. I must put others at the centre of my attention, to treat them as ends, and to recognise our common destiny. I must never use people to win glory, or to measure the ego, or to escape from responsibility. I must listen to their words, their thoughts, their coded messages.

Finally, I must value action more than intention. I must feel, think, judge, decide, and then risk everything in acts of gratuitous freedom. I must batter the walls of loneliness. I must leap the barriers of communication. I must tear down the fences of anonymity. I must destroy the obstacles to life and liberty. Not in my mind (as a wistful dream). But in my acts (as a daily reality).

Can we live as one? At one with ourselves, at one with one another, at one with those people who we see as being different to ourselves, can we live at one with all of life? Well I believe it is possible. It begins within our own hearts and souls and in the ways that we conduct our lives. It will not be easy though, as the forces of division are all around us and indeed within us.

Therefore, it must begin within our own hearts and souls in the way we live our own lives. It begins by learning to revere life as the most precious God given gift there is, that all are made in that one image. If we do this, we will surely no longer be able to create divisions within ourselves, one another and all life.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Perseverance: Walking through times of trouble

I drove into Altrincham on Wednesday morning. I set off a little earlier than usual, just as the sun was beginning to rise. I had been awake for a couple of ours, for whatever reason. The sun was just coming up and a warm rain was falling. I was feeling good, despite the many worries and troubles that we are all living with. As I drove towards Altrincham I noticed a beautiful red sky, I remembered the old saying “Red sky at night shepherd’s delight, red sky in morning seaman’s warning” and thought sign of the times. That said it was compellingly beautiful. Then it happened, the sun had risen and I saw it, the most beautiful sunrise rainbow spreading all across the sky. It stretched a broad beaming smile across my face, almost as wide as the arc of the rainbow. What a sight to behold. As I arrived at the chapel I shared about it on social media. What was lovely is that other people witnessed it too. A friend in Stockport posted a picture of it from his tower block in Stockport and another, a friend in Wythenshawe posted a picture of it from his house window. Helen a member at Altrincham, who is on a few days break in Northumberland, said she’s seen one too. Others shared about too. It was a beautiful moment of rainbow connection, lifting our hearts and spirits in these challenging days. I then got on with my day, there is much work to be done.

Summer is over and Autumn is here. The virus and pandemic is not going away and we are having to learn to live with it. This is not easy, having to live with the many restrictions and of course fears for our own health and our loved ones. It is going to be a long winter as we wait for a vaccine and or community immunity. The troubles are not going away, we cannot wish them away and we can’t just wait for arrival at some safe place, somewhere over the rainbow. We have to live and not just grit our teeth and bare this. We have to maintain and sustain our lives and the lives of one another, to endure this difficult time and find new ways perhaps to live. We need to do so as individuals, but individuals who live in community. The idea of looking at the next six months perhaps seems too much and it probably is. We will all struggle at times, we will all feel like we will fall at times, so we need to find ways to help one another through this autumn and no doubt long winter.

No we cannot dream of some imagined place where all our troubles will be over, some heaven, some Nirvana, or Ithaka, some Oz, somewhere over the rainbow. We cannot dream of a Promised Land where all our troubles will be gone. In fact the truth is that even if the virus were to go tomorrow it does not mean that all our troubles in life will be go with it.

So, we are in for a long journey, one that will not be swiftly over. We will need endurance, stready endurance; we will need to persevere, we will need to persevere; we will need to stick to it and stick too it together, if from a social distance. We will need “stick-too-ativeness”. We must not merely grin and bear it though, that would be unsustainable, we need to find ways to live, to find joy in life, we need to find new ways perhaps or to adapt the ways that we already have. By the way have been doing so these last six months. We have stuck at, not merely with grit and determination but also through finding ways to rest and find spiritual renewal. We have asked for help when struggling too, please do not be afraid to cry out, “I am struggling, I’m finding this really hard”, because we have all done so at times, we have all struggled, perhaps particularly these last couple of weeks. None of us have to carry our burdens alone, ok we can’t just hold one another, but we can support one another and we can all help one another to find the practical, emotional, mental and spiritual support that we all need at times.

It is important to remember that we have all been through difficult times, in all of our lives, and we have found ways to stick with it, to persevere and to do so with love and grace and through the journey to be changed for the better and not only for ourselves, but the whole world. So, let’s live in and through and by hope and perseverance through these challenging weeks and months ahead.

Hazrat Inayat Khan said

"All the great persons of the world, whatever had been their mission in life, proved their greatness by this one quality: endurance. The enduring personality is like a ship that can stand storms and winds under all conditions, the ship that saves itself and others. Such blessed personalities, showing the strength of God have been called the saviors of humanity."

We are all the savours of humanity, for we have within each and everyone one of us that same light, let it shine.

How do we endure though, how do we stick too it; how do we persevere? I think it begins by looking around us, looking at our lives and the people we have known. I am sure that we have all known people who have shown an intense commitment to the things that they have done and the lives they have lived. They have been able to do so by sustaining steadfastness even in the face of incredible obstacles and setbacks. I am sure that we can all think of examples in our lives and the lives of others of perseverance.

The word persevere comes from the French word “perseverer and from the Latin “perseverare meaning one who continues steadfastly to the end "one who sees through to the end" and "one who doesn’t yield." These are qualities that all of us need, not just now, but in building a world of love and compassion for all. As Sri Chinmoy has observed: "Patience and perseverance are of supreme importance on any spiritual path."

The problem is of course that fear can blocks in our attempts to stick at it, to persevere. Fear depletes our energy so that we give up on ourselves and perhaps each other. Stress and tiredness, weariness, exhaustion can also bring on these feelings of fear, which is why we need to take good care of our bodily needs in the coming weeks and months as well as our emotional, mental and spiritual ones.

We do not need to persevere alone. We can not only survive but even thrive together, through community, even if we are socially distant. It has been shown that such feelings of endurance can be aided by spiritual practices, religious faith, remaining open to humour beauty, joy, grief, embracing gratitude and forgiveness and practicing self-compassion. Sometimes you just have to stay open, if you do you see incredible beauty, like that sunrise rainbow. We also need community. We need love and support to fully develop our perseverance. This is not easy to do in these times of physical separation, but we are finding new ways to do this. We can’t hold one another and this is hard but we can support one another, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. It is important to remember that we find greater strength, power and sustenance communally, if from an appropriate social distance. This is our first purpose as a free religious community, we must never forget this. This community is here to help us maintain our spiritual perseverance.

We need each other and folk out there need us if we are to persevere against the struggles in life and that we are witnessing in the world at this time. We also need to be able to be vulnerable enough to admit that we need help as we will all struggle at times. When this happens we need to be willing to ask for that help. There will be times when we will need to let others help us to carry our loads or support us through our struggles. We will need to take time of rest, even ministers. We need this rest, it is necessary, nay vital for us to build the resilience required for the journey ahead.

For all of us there are at times when to simply take the next step, to persevere with whatever our burden is seems to take all the courage we can muster. Past experiences can often stop us dead in our tracks. Fear can block our attempts to step out into the world and back into the adventure of life with all its many challenges. Sometimes it seems too much, sometimes it is. So we surrender, ask for help and then through faith, hope and love we find the strength to persevere, but to not do so alone. Remember we never sail this ship alone. We are in this one together all the way.

As I come to a conclusion I would like to share this blessing by John O’Donohue. It is specifically for the traveller, but I believe it applies to all us as we persevere on the daily adventures of our lives.

..A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

No one knows what the future holds it truly is unwritten, but we not fear it. All we need is the faith, hope and love to persevere, to keep on going and encourage one another top do the same. We need to do so in courage, to journey on with open hearts, minds spirits and souls.

And if you get to witness a sunrise rainbow, don’t forget to share it with others, because they might just need it too.

Monday, 28 September 2020

“Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct the Future”

Sue and I recently spent a few days in North Wales. It was our first break away together since we married in March, at the very beginning of “lockdown”. Sue called it our honeymoon. It was lovely to spend some time away together, so needed. We spent time enjoying some of the natural beauty and other less than natural beauty. One morning we went to Portmeirion, made famous as the setting for the cult 1960’s television series “The Prisoner”. It was designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975. It is a strikingly beautiful place to behold, decadent. It looks like a scene from a fantasy movie It is almost like a full sized model village. Some perhaps would say it is a pure “folly” as it serves no real purpose other than it being beautiful to behold. Maybe that is a purpose in and off itself, as life is surely more than prosaic utility. It was certainly a joy to get lost there and in the beautiful gardens and sea front. It did not feel like a “folly” to me. A thought that came to me as we wandered up to a “folly” built within the incredible natural gardens, with flora from all over the world. As we were wandering round we discovered a beautiful cemetery dedicated to beloved pet dogs. We spent a little time there as we were grieving the loss of “Poppy”. In the centre of the graveyard was a beautiful statue of a dog. Sue asked me to take a picture of her with it and then showed me a picture she had drawn of standing with Poppy in the very same pose the night before. Some may say that these sentimental feelings that we have for pets is a folly. Maybe it is, but I am not convinced. These loves, these feelings are what make life what it is. Who is to judge what is folly and what matters in life. I would say that anything that raises the experience and expression of love in a person is never folly. We should mark these loves too, they are never folly.

As I grow older I have a deeper respect for the life I have and have had. I know the people I have known and the experiences I have, made me into the man that I am. It is the past that truly allows me to bring the moment alive. The bringing of the moment I live in alive today helps me create something for the future. Not merely for myself but for others too. Well it seems that this is the philosophy, or something like it, behind the “folly” of Portmeirion. Clough William-Ellis book about the place is titled “Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct the Future”. When I read this I thought to myself, I like that, it speaks to me and as you can imagine it got my homiletic consciousness going. Maybe this is how we should live, something that got me thinking about gratitude and how to live with gratitude. Gratitude is not simply a passive thanks giving, it is an ethical way of living by recognising the gifts we have been given, often unearned, creating something beautiful with it and thus building something for those who will follow us in the future. It is about expanding our experiences of life and truly living in the “Long Now Moment”, in so doing you truly connect the past, present and future and widen your understanding and experience of life. This is not “folly”, this is life and this is love.

I would like to share a story with you.

A blind boy sat on the steps of a building with a hat by his feet. He held up a sign which said :  ' I am blind, please help.'  There were only a few coins in the hat.

A man was walking by. He took a few coins from his pocket and dropped them into the hat. He then took the sign, turned it around, and wrote some words. He put the sign back so that everyone who walked by would see the new words.

Soon the hat began to fill up. A lot more people were giving money to the blind boy. That afternoon the man who had changed the sign came to see how things were. The boy recognized his footsteps and asked, "Were you the one who changed my sign this morning? What did you write? "

The man said, " I only wrote the truth. I said what you said but in a different way."
I wrote : ' Today is a beautiful day but I cannot see it.'

Both signs told people that the boy was blind. But the first sign simply stated this fact. The second sign told people that they were so lucky that they were not blind. It’s no real surprise that the second sign was more effective.

As the song goes “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone”

We do not always notice what we have, the blessings we have been given until we either lose them or truly notice that others do not have them. So much of life is given unbidden, is a real grace a free gift. So much so that we do not always appreciate the fruits we are surrounded but.

We need to learn to offer thanks and praise for what we have been given and to use these gifts in creative and positive ways for the good of all.

A good and useful life is one in which we count our blessings, one in which we enjoy our days with a heart of gratitude. I know the challenges of these last months have given me a greater appreciation of the life I have. My problem is that I don’t always “adorn the present”, something I need to practice more. I do though attempt to “construct a future”, leave a legacy for others by what I create.

There is no doubt that this year has been a difficult one, the troubles are not over. They will not end soon, there will be many more challenging days ahead. We have all known much loss, that said we have also perhaps found new treasure and love within the troubles. Maybe we have had time to reflect on the past, this is difficult at times, but there is also treasure there. Maybe, if allow the past to bear fruit we can find ways to adorn our present and from this construct something for others to enjoy in the future. It matters what we do in this time, not only for ourselves but for others too.

The story I just shared reminded me of an old friend who sadly died a few years ago. I spent quite a bit of time with him over the summer that his life came to an end. I was thinking of this as I thought about how I would be unable to do this at this current time. When this pandemic is over I hope I never forget the precious gift that is being in the company of others. The beauty of being close to another, to simply shake hands and or hug. We do not know what we have got until it goes do we.

Those last few weeks and months with my friend, as his life came to an end were painful, but also beautifully moving. I recall other moments with congregants who have passed over the years and other friends too. How those moments have enriched my life and hopefully made a better person who can adorn his present and therefore construct something better for the future.

My friend had over the last twenty years of his life had lost his sight and had also had to face many other physical difficulties. Finally, he slowly succumbed to cancer. What moved me greatly about him was how he accepted whatever happened with Grace. He did not waste his life wishfully thinking that he could have back what he had lost. Don’t get me wrong of course he grieved his losses, particularly his sight, but he adjusted and he accepted. I remember several years ago marvelling at his ability to memories passages from books he had read. His memory was a real marvel as he developed a new gift that he would never have known but for the loss of his sight. He found ways to adorn his present, despite the real losses he knew.

The greatest gift he gave to me as I sat with him over the last few weeks of his life, was listening to his stories. He shared a rich harvest with me. It was both a blessing and a joy to sit and listen to him. He did all the talking. In fact the last thing he said to me, just two days before he died was “The next time you come Danny, I’ll let you do some of the talking”, sadly there was not a next time.

My friend lived a full life. Like any full life there were many things that he got wrong. There was some regret, but not too much. Those last few weeks he passed on much of his knowledge to me. It was a fruitful time as I harvested so much from his life. It has adorned my present. I have been able to pass some of this on to others and helped construct something for the future. I have nurtured those seedlings that he planted that I hope will bare fruit at some point in the future.

This year has been hard for all of us. That said I do see seedlings and shoots of hope that can bear fruit in the future.

I am glad the memory of my friend returned this week, it has helped adorn my present. I offer thanks and praise for the life that my friend lived and harvest that I have shared in. I offer thanks and praise for all the lives I have known and all that they have given to me and countless others, the wisdom that they shared. I offer thanks and praise for all that has been so freely given and I hope I can make the most of it and pass it on to those who follow. I hope I can construct a future from it.

Harvest is a time to offer thanks for all that has been given us. To do so we need to see what has been given to us. It is so easy to see what we do not have and therefore fail to see the gifts that we are surrounded by, gifts that are there for all of us to share in, gifts that are so freely given.

How do we do this? Well I suspect all we need to do is live by what seem as the “folly” of Portmeirion”, to live by the principles that Portmeirion was envisioned and constructed by, in the words of Clough William-Ellis “Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct the Future.”

So let us be thankful for what we have and what we have to share and see the gifts we have to give to others. For one day those very gifts may well be gone.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Breaking Open the Heart

 I will begin this "blogspot" with this rather wonder reflection from Parker J Palmer

“An Invitation to Heartbreak and the Call of the Loon” by Parker J Palmer

Heartbreak is an inevitable and painful part of life. But there are at least two ways for the heart to break: it can break open into new life, or break apart into shards of sharper and more widespread pain.

A brittle heart will explode into a thousand pieces, and sometimes get thrown like a fragment grenade at the perceived source of its pain — there’s a lot of that going around these days. But a supple heart will break open into a greater capacity to hold life’s suffering and its joy — in a way that allows us to say, “The pain stops here.”

The broken-open heart is not restricted to the rare saint. I know so many people whose hearts have been broken by the loss of someone they loved deeply. They go through long nights of grief when life seems barely worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that their hearts have become more open, compassionate, and welcoming — not in spite of their pain but because of it.

So here’s a question I like to ask myself: What can I do day-by-day to make my heart more supple?

In the poem below, Mary Oliver invites us into heartbreak — not because she wants us to wallow in suffering, but to help us become more open and responsive to a suffering world.

I spent last week in a part of the world where loons like the ones Mary writes about make their summer homes. If ever there were a sound that could break your heart open, it is the cry of a loon late at night on a moonlit lake.

“Lead” by Mary Oliver

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing.,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

It has been a sad time in our house in the last couple of weeks. We had to say goodbye to Poppy our much loved Labrador Springer Spaniel. It has affected us all is different ways. She was such a loving and lovely dog, just the best. It has been particularly distressing at times watching the little dog Charlie come to terms with the loss of Poppy, I believe it is fair to say she is somewhat heartbroken. There has also been some family loss and all kinds of other griefs too. It is hard for me to watch those I love in pain. I can live with my own suffering, but that of others I find harder. To know love is to know grief.

We have all experienced a variety of griefs these past few months, even if it is not the loss of a loved one but instead the loss of some of the things that we love to do in life. The whole globe, to a greater and lesser degree, is experiencing many forms of grief and it does not appear to be coming to an end. To some degree or other we are all going through heartache. We are all heartbroken. Grief is something that we are all living with.

I have led a grief group for a few years now, it has been some of the most important work I have done. I have hosted it on Zoom fortnightly ever since the beginning of the pandemic. Yes there is always grief, there is always sorrow and there is always heartbreak in all of our lives, these feelings though have been amplified these last six months.

All of us belong to the largest community on God’s sweet earth, the community of grievers. Grief is the price we pay for love, it is a price worth paying, for what is life without love? It is nothing, it is meaningless, just an empty vessel. The only way to escape grief is to totally armour your heart and deny love. Now who would want to do that, to live without love, to live the life of a zombie?

Grief changes you. That said it is not really the loss that does this, but the love that is at the core of grief. When we lose someone that we love, it changes us forever. Life will never be quite the same again. We do not rise above the pain of grief, we cannot pretend that it is not there, we don’t simply get over it. What happens is that we are changed by it and as a result our hearts are enlarged and we grow as human beings, if the love has truly been realized. You see grief is really about transformation, rather than transcendence, by the way this is the true nature, the purpose of religion. Grief is not an attempt to explain the loss or even understand some meaning locked into what happened. Instead, it seems to me that grief is more about finding meaning in the absence of an explanation.

Grief is about finding meaning in the absence of an explanation. This is what the transformative power of love is about too. As I look at my life and my ministry it is really about meaning rising once again from the ashes of defeat and loss and suffering and doing the work I am here to do. I know why I am here today, there is no despair, for I have a life rich in meaning despite the very real experience of suffering, of loss and grief. My heart has been broken open many times and no doubt it will continue to be done so.

Who among us hasn’t known heartbreak? No doubt throughout our lives our hearts have been broken, perhaps broken open. Here is lovely little poem by Gregory Orr “Some Say You’re Lucky” about a heart that has been broken open and not broken apart. It beautifully reminds us that loss can allow us to experience beauty, as well as both give and receive love. The fact that our hearts have been broken open allows us to do so.

Some Say You’re Lucky
by Gregory Orr

May it be so for all whose hearts are broken.

Some say you’re lucky
If nothing shatters it.

But then you wouldn’t
Understand poems or songs.
You’d never know
Beauty comes from loss.

It’s deep inside every person:
A tear tinier
Than a pearl or thorn.

It’s one of the places
Where the beloved is born.

Unless we live with armoured heart it is inevitable that we will experience heartbreak. In fact, the only way to avoid it is to immune ourselves from love and who would want to live that way?

We cannot prevent heartbreak; it is natural consequence of love and care. It is something that we begin to experience very early in life and something that continues throughout our lives. David Whyte put it this way: 

“Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life's work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is just as much an essence and emblem of care as the spiritual athlete's quick but abstract ability to let go. Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.”

Heartbreak cannot be avoided and perhaps it is the very essence of our humanity. We feel it deeply too. I know how much I carry my suffering in my body, grief is particularly heavy. It does seem to weigh you down at times, it certainly eats away at your energy levels.

Our hearts, of course, do not only break due to things close at hand. We can feel the ache of the world at times, I know I do. As Sarah Rudell Beach has stated, “Some days, the world breaks our heart. We turn on the news and we learn of another act of violence and anger and hate and rage. Our stomach sinks. Our heart aches. Our throat clenches. Our bodies do feel the suffering of the world.” I have certainly felt the world aching, in my own body these last few months. I know that I am not alone in this.

Of course, sometimes this heartache comes out in anger, which can become dangerous if it means our hearts begin to harden. Something the great religious traditions warn against. A constant biblical theme is a warning against hardened hearts. The Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche suggest that to become a true spiritual warrior means

“renouncing our hard-heartedness and allowing ourselves to be tender, sad and fully present.” This true courage and compassion. You see the breaking open of the heart is about expanding our ability to love. Our broken hearts have the potential to open us to the wider world, to see beyond the confines that keep us separate from others and the world.

The key is to keep our hearts open, to live with broken open hearts. You see love, kindness, generosity, companionship, joy, delight and happiness are rooted in the very same place that sorrow, pain, loss and heartbreak grow. They are rooted in the very same soil, you cannot know joy without knowing sorrow, or perhaps sorrow without joy.

There is a deep love there within each of us, a love that needs to be given birth to. As Wayne Muller so beautifully put it in “A life of being, having and doing enough”

"Here is the final thing we must know. We carry within us a fierce grace that will not be extinguished, does not break, cannot ever leave us comfortless. It lives in us. This life force, whatever it is that allows a blade of grass to push up, up through concrete to reach for sun and warmth, this lives in us, this is what we are made of. If we trust in this impossibly resilient capacity to bear all we are given, and recalibrate our speed in such a way that we allow ourselves to feel the searing burning loss of something or someone precious, then we can stand passionately and honestly before one another and offer our most deeply impossibly suffering heart's fearless, honest, loving kindness. And it is from this shared kindness, born of our own sorrow and loss, that we find, with and for one another, in shared, loving companionship, some tender budding fragrance of enough."

Heartbreak is a part of life, the price that we pay for love. We cannot avoid it, in fact in trying to do so all that we do is armour our own hearts and somehow cut ourselves off from the love present in life whilst also ensuring that the love present in our own hearts cannot be given birth to. Heartbreak can actually lead to a new kind of opening; our hearts can actually be broken open and we begin to give to one another the greatest gift we have and one our world so desperately needs us to share.

There is no immunity from heartbreak, such things are a part of life. All we can do is remain open so that we can continue to touch and be touched by life.

So, let’s give our hearts to one another and to life.

I am going to this morning with a short poem of India origin I am told, an ancient piece on beauty.

I know a cure for sadness:
Let your hands touch something that
makes your eyes

I bet there are a hundred objects close by
that can do that.

Look at
beauty's gift to us —
her power is so great she enlivens
the earth, the sky, our