Saturday 31 December 2011

New Years Day: Holding on to what is Good

Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of existence:
The bliss of growth,
the glory of action, the splendour of beauty;
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision
But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.

words attributed to Kalidasa, a 3rd century Indian author.

New Years Day is a time for new beginnings, a time for hope of what might be and a time to reflect on what has been before us. And yet it is just a day, much like any other day really. The sun has risen, as it has always risen and in a few hours time it will set, as it has always set.

As we look out into the unknown future, it has become our custom, on this day, to resolve to do things differently than we have in the past. We make New Year’s resolutions and begin to practise them, on this day. The problem is of course that we rarely keep them up; we quickly slip back into those old habits.

I wonder if this will ever work. I suspect the reason it doesn’t is that we focus too much of our attention on the negative, on what is wrong. Perhaps what we ought to be doing is focusing on what is healthy and good and actually work and practise these habits. Maybe by focusing on what is wrong all that we end up doing is actually strengthening these weaknesses and give them more power.  Perhaps the problem is that we spend too much time living in our problems, as opposed to living in the solutions to our problems. By doing so are we actually strengthening the destructive aspects of ourselves as opposed to our compassionate sides? As I keep reminding myself - the wolf that wins is the one that we feed.

Life is constantly changing, nothing ever stays exactly the same, and no moment is like any other. Each of us experience these moments differently too; we each bring our pasts with us to each moment and this always impacts on the present. We cannot completely let go, nor should we. Yes we need to let go of what stops us living as best we can, but we also need to hold on to what is healthy, that which feeds and nurtures us. We need these lifelines to live happily and healthily.

But what is it that we need to develop? What should we hold on to? What do we need to nurture in order to live healthy and happy lives? And what are the lifelines that sustain us, when life seems really tough?

Paul of Tarsus, in the 13th Chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians names three truths that can hold us through any of the storms of life. These truths are secured, they are rock solid, they are eternal and they are of course universal. We can hold on and depend on these three, but only if we nurture and strengthen them. Something we will find difficult if we focus all are energy on what is wrong with us on what we must let go of. Actually we may well find that our troubles begin to disappear as we develop these three.

And what are these three? 

They are faith, hope and love.

And what do these three mean?

Faith is about trusting in life itself; it is about living as openly and honestly as possible; it is about accepting that there is pain in life, but that there is also so much joy; it is realising that the mere fact that we exist at all is life’s greatest gift. This allows us to sing the joy of living, in all its mystery. It is also about seeing that we are all in this together and that we need to connect as much as possible to the life in which we share. We need to ensure that this lifeline is secure and not worn or frayed at the edges. This is something we need to hold onto and not let go of. Why, you may well ask? Well because it sustains us through the vicissitudes of life. Life does not offer much certainty, but we need not despair at this. Again you may ask why? Well because from despair grows hope.

Hope is the second of those eternal, universal truths. Hope is rooted in despair; it grows from the same place. To live in hope is to believe that if we live with conviction and compassion that we can effect positive change in our world, even if we ourselves do not get to see its full fruition. Hope is about planting those seeds when and where ever we can. This is why I committed to leading the 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life Reading groups in the congregations I serve. It was an attempt to develop the connection to our compassionate natures and therefore improve our own lives and those around us.  I have faith in the hope that Confucius’s concentric circles of compassion can bear fruit in our age and that by developing our compassionate natures we can go out into our communities, our regions, our countries and even our world and be the change we want to see.

To live with hope is to live with the attitude that the future is genuinely open. The God of my understanding works with us and guides us but leaves life open, it is not pre-ordained. “The Lure of Divine Love” draws us out of ourselves, but it also allows life to develop freely. I accept that the past does have power, I have a strong sense of history, this is very important. That said I do not believe that the past defines the future, not everything is inevitable. The future is unwritten.

Life is definitely a journey worth taking, even during its toughest moments. Yes we all despair at times and we all live with uncertainty, but the beacon of hope is always there. This brings to mind a line in from "Proverbs" “Where there is no vision (no hope) the people perish.” Hope is a vital lifeline it both holds and sustains us. It is an eternal and universal principle and one that requires nurture. It is all about love.

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

So my New Year’s message this year is not really about letting go, it’s actually about holding and developing those lifelines that sustain and nurture us. Instead of focusing on the problem, let’s focus on the solution. Remember the wolf that wins is the one that we feed. Therefore if we spend our time focusing on the problem we may well end up making it bigger than it actually is; where as if we simply feed and develop our compassionate sides, thereby feeding the solution, the problem will simply wither away and die.

Whatever this year brings us, let us resolve to develop lives of faith, hope and love and be the change that we want to see. The future truly is unwritten, no one knows what tomorrow will bring.

Lao Tzu once said:

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbours.
If there is to be peace between neighbours,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

Saturday 24 December 2011

The Snobbish Ox and a Question: What is the Christmas Religion?

“The Snobbish Ox” by Albert Q Perry

 “My favourite Christmas story concerns the rather snobbish ox who shared the stable with the family from Nazareth.  With considerable amazement he witnessed the visits of shepherds and the strangers from the East: heard all the talk about stars and angelic choruses; and finally watched Mary and Joseph flee with their son.

For days the other animals could talk of nothing but their human guests while the ox silently chewed his cud over in a dark corner.  Finally he reproved his companions with this reflection:  “I don’t know why they are so interested in this vagabond family.  If they had been anybody worth knowing, they would never have stayed in this broken down shack.  As for the baby,--it was very like any other baby I ever saw. They were ordinary people, I would say. Very ordinary people indeed!”

Oxen are long lived creatures, and this one proved to be the Methuselah of his kind.  He was still around thirty odd years later to witness the dismal end of the stable-born child.  He then remarked to his companions, “I knew it at the time.  That chap was of no account.  He was the ordinary son of some ordinary people.”

Then it was the donkey who had carried Jesus many interesting miles spoke up to say:  “Perhaps you are right.  This man may have had a humble birth and a humiliating death; an ordinary birth and an ordinary death for such people, but he certainly led an extraordinary life.”

Regardless of how we react to this story, it contains a hint as to how our Christmas may become significant.  Most of us can confess to being even more ‘ordinary’ than the family from Nazareth, but our Christmas season may be a time of extraordinary living.  Unusual neighbourliness, unusual generosity, unusual expressions of love, and unusual attention to things of the spirit are all fitting tribute to bring to the stable-born one, who became the spiritual guide to many.  May the Christmas season thereby, bring extra-ordinary grandeur to our otherwise ordinary lives.”

I recently came across the above meditation by Albert Q Perry, I do love got me thinking about Christmas and what the message of that baby born in ordinary circumstances, but who lived an extraordinary life, is all about and what it could possible mean to us living 2,000 years later. It's not the virgin birth or whether he was the one and only Immanuel that matters to me. What I  I am interested in is what lies there beneath the story and what his life and teachings can offer to us. I am interested in looking at a different religion of Christmas.

Happy Christmas by the way...hope you’ll enjoy a wonderful and wonder filled day.

Christmas is the season for giving and for getting, but surely this ought not to be limited to the material life. It is not only about what we get from others or what we give to them. It is also about forgiving and forgetting. It is a time of reconciliation and not merely a time for giving and getting goodies, a time of wanton materialism. There is a bigger difference between "for giving and for getting" and forgiving and forgetting" than the space between the "r" and the "g".

Christmas is a time to put aside past differences and to let bygones be bygones; a time to heal old wounds and of course new ones too. Radical inclusion and acceptance is the true message of Christmas. To me this is what religion is all about. Religion is about how we live in community with others and not merely an idea or belief system. 

Radical inclusion and acceptance is the true spirit of Christmas. 

How though do we bring this spirit, of radical inclusion and acceptance, into our lives, right here right now? How do we bring the spirit of Christmas into our homes and communities today and for that matter every day? How do we create a Christmas religion? Where is Christmas hidden under all those ribbons and bows and songs and merriments?

Well I believe it is still to be found in that story of the ordinary boy, born in that lowly stable. The message of radical inclusion and forgiveness has survived the centuries. The message that Jesus brought to us has survived all that we have done to it over the last two thousand years.

Jesus in his short life taught only love, Agape, spiritual love. By the way he was not unique in teaching this, it is a universal principle found in all the great faith traditions. It is this love, that is there within each and every one of us, that has the power to transform our hearts and souls and brings us into harmony with all creation and that power that runs through all of life, that I call God.

This is the message of Christmas, the religion of Christmas, the expression of faith, hope, love and of course joy. These are the qualities that need to be brought into this day and every day in order to bring to life the Christmas magic.  If we feel, think, speak and act through these qualities we can connect heart to heart and break down those old cold barriers. I discovered some time ago that this universal language of the heart can break through any barrier, created by fear and resentment. This is the religion of Christmas.

There have been times in my life when I have been cut off from those I have loved and those who have loved me. Today I do as much as I can to ensure that this is no longer the case. I will travel to Yorkshire after leading worship on Christmas morning and visit several family members and old friends too. I will no doubt travel to and from Yorkshire several times over the next few days as I try to take care of those connections, those lifelines that support me. If I have learnt anything in my life I have learnt that I need loving connection. This is the Christmas message, the building and development of compassionate connection. This is the religion of Christmas.

It is a message of hope that is found there in the Christmas stable in that ordinary boy born from an ordinary family who did extraordinary things in his short life. This is surely an inspiration to us all, for we all possess within us, what was also in that boy. All that we have to do to incarnate that reality is to bring that love into our daily lives; we can bring that hope found in the stable into our daily lives. This is a message of hope that does indeed bring glad tidings of comfort and joy. This is the religion of Christmas?

Love begins within our own hearts and incarnates through our thoughts words and deeds, until it touches others. It spreads to our friends and families, our communities, our countries and throughout our world. These concentric circles of compassion are the religion of Christmas. This message pre-dates the Christmas story; a message spoken of by Confucius two and half thousand years ago; a message of loving compassion expressed by all the great sages of human history. To bring it to life all that we need do is remember that we have that love within us and that it can be developed if we would only nurture it. This is the religion of Christmas.

My simple Christmas message to myself and anyone who cares to listen is to let the religion of Christmas be at the centre of all we do this day and in all the days yet to come. Let us bring this love into all that we feel and all that we think and all that we do from this day forward and in all our days to come.

I wish you a joy filled Christmas and a New Year full of love.

Friday 16 December 2011

The Ache of Loneliness Continued: Grief & Suffering

No person on this earth is immune from suffering and grief, it is part of human life as is joy and love and of course mystery and wonder. Everyone has experienced the loss of someone they have loved with all their heart. If we have not, then we have never truly loved; if we have never truly loved, then we have never fully lived. This sounds like the worst kind of suffering of them all.

While life may well be simple it is not always easy. M Scott Peck began his seminal book “The Road Less Travelled” with these words: “Life is difficult."

"This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

Life is awry, there is pain and suffering in life and no matter how hard we try this cannot be avoided. Modern day attitudes to grief and death highlight this growing immaturity. We live in a death denying culture that so often wants to rush people through grief and sorrow to some imagined place at the other side of the rainbow, where there is no pain. Oz does not exist! Sorrow and suffering are conditions that we must acknowledge and accept. They cannot be simply let go of and thrown in the bin of life. Not only can they not be thrown away it would wrong to do so and disrespectful to those we have lost and claimed to have loved. Where is the love in this?

In trying to flee our suffering we actually intensify the pain. Herman Hesse saw the truth in this when he said:

“Love your suffering. Do not resist it; do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.”

It is this aversion that causes the suffering within the suffering. It is this that causes much of what so many people describe as the loneliness of modern life. In trying to suppress our pain all we succeed in doing is cut ourselves off from the joy of life. While life may well be difficult and does involve grief and suffering, it does not have to involve “the suffering within the suffering”. Life itself is not suffering. We need not be identified by our suffering.

Eckhart Tolle suggest that we create needless suffering when we blame others for all our personal pain. He claims that the habit of blaming and cultivating outrage, anger, resentment and other negative emotions, what he names as our “pathological ego”, is what blocks us from knowing the truth about ourselves and the human condition.

He explains that although we do suffer, we are not our suffering, it is not our whole identity. The trouble is that we can become trapped in it and then it identifies all that we are. He calls this the “pain body”. He claims that we can step outside of it, but not by simply ignoring the pain and hoping it will just go away.

There are other forms of suffering that can never be justified. We should not simply passively accept all forms of suffering. Dorothy Soelle rightly criticised the claim that suffering is justified because it was the only way to achieve Salvation or Nirvana. As she said

“No heaven can rectify Auschwitz”.

She did not believe that suffering was ordained by God. Instead she saw God within the suffering. For her God suffered with humanity. For her salvation was achieved through experiencing God within humanities suffering, not as a result of it. She saw God as being in solidarity with the victims of oppression in human society. Therefore in her view to fully experience salvation is to work for liberation of the oppressed and to end man made suffering, not passively endure it. 

What is required is a compassionate response to suffering.

Compassion means to suffer with. We can learn to be with others in their suffering and with ourselves in our own. The opposite of compassion is apathy. To be apathetic to the suffering not only of ourselves but also that of others is the worst kind of hell any one can suffer from, it’s inhuman, it creates our loneliness and it creates our isolation.

To suffer with is to experience compassion and of course to grieve is to love.

Forrest Church claimed grief is not really about death at all but more about life and the courage to love. Grief is truly about love and therefore it is not an end point, it is not a land of sorrow and regret in which we become lost, but a bridge that leads us back to life from death. He claimed that grief is so intensely powerful that it has the capacity to lift up our lives to the most sacred of moments and remind us what really matters. That said it loses its power if the grief is suppressed or silenced or neatly packaged and sanitised. Life is not neatly packaged so why on earth should we expect grief to be?

When grief is allowed to speak its truth it does so powerfully. It is personal in its power to change individual lives and it is also universal as it will visit all who dare to love what is mortal.

 I agree with Forrest’s belief that the choice is not between love and death but between a life lived in fear of love, because of the reality of death and loss, and a life lived courageously with love despite death’s presence.

Love and grief have the power to change us forever. 

As Forrest has reminded me once again, from the grave, the purpose of life is not to avoid grief and death. Instead the “purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for by the love that we leave behind.”

Monday 12 December 2011

The trees in winter

I was travelling through the Derbyshire hills the other day, on my way to the Nightingale centre at Great Hucklow. I spent most of the journey simply staring out of the window and taking in the beautiful winter scene. The fields were white with snow and sheep. I also noticed the lonely winter trees, stretching out from cold pale ground.

There is something very beautiful about the trees in winter. These lifeless stick like sculptures stretching out from the ground are stripped right down to the bone. They look vulnerable and exposed, but they are not. By next spring life will have returned and I know this scene will be very different. If I travel this way then I will see the new lambs and the rolling fields, separated by dry stone walls and the trees will once again be bursting into life.

I am enjoying this winter, I have a new found sense of appreciation for it today. This is because I am able to empathise with it. I feel that I have been stripped of some unwanted and unneeded skin these last few weeks; I feel that some of those barriers that block me from life, from love, from God have been removed; I feel that I have been opened up once again. Now some may see this as making myself vulnerable, well I have no problem with that. Life is a vulnerable experience; you cannot be protected from it. Actually by trying to protect myself from life is to actually live in fear and I do not believe that this is living at all. I know that my attempts to protect myself in the past have only ever made me feel increasingly lonelier and cut off. I need to feel the cold this winter, to truly experience it. I need to feel bare and stripped at times because I know by doing so I am preparing myself for the new birth of the new year and the coming of spring; I need to prepare myself for the pink snow that I use to see falling from the cherry blossom in the courtyard at Luther King House. But first I must feel the cold and not fear it. It’s funny I don’t seem to mind the cold this winter, in fact I’m actually enjoying the fact that I can feel it. I know that I am alive and by golly do I want to be alive.

I have been talking an awful lot about the coming of light these past few weeks, this is of course in celebration and appreciation of Advent. I have also talked about darkness and the “ache of loneliness”. Well now I am beginning to question myself. Is the dark all bad? Should we fear it? I am not wholly convinced that we should, it has its place in the circle of life, just as much as the light. The winter Solstice will soon be upon us. This year (2011) it will fall on the 22nd December. This is the shortest day of the year, in terms of daylight hours of course. Every day last 24 hours, obviously. This shortest day marks the end of the descent into darkness and the beginning of the new light.

In Hinduism, which has recently celebrated its own festival of lights, the Deity most associated with darkness is Kali. On the surface she is seen as destructive, she drinks blood and wears a chain of skulls. Seen literally she would have to be viewed as monstrous and terrifying. This though is not what this icon is about, at all. There is something much deeper going on in the imagery. It is a mistake to get lost in the metaphor, this is true of all religious symbolism by the way. “Kali” in Sanskrit is the feminine word for time. In time we all die, it is a fate that cannot be avoided, no matter how clever we think we are. She is black, not because there are racial undertones here but because death is a mystery; we cannot know what will happen to us when we die. Kali represents the mystery of life and death and the continuing cyclical relationship between the two.

This is an image that seems particularly pertinent during the winter when everything has died off. The ground is hard and the trees are bare and generally speaking people’s moods seem a little lower. This though is not something that we should fear, in fact perhaps it should be celebrated. Everything that lives and grows, including we humans, needs to lie fallow for periods of time. We need this because we need to rest and regenerate. The leaves that fell from the trees in the autumn are now regenerating in the soil. By spring this will lead to new life. It is the death of these leaves that actually makes new life possible.

We need not fear the dark it is both regenerative and nurturing. Darkness symbolises the holy, just as much as the light. There can be no Easter without Good Friday. To ignore the darkness or to try and flee from is to ignore elements of the Divine revelation in life itself. There is nothing in life that is beyond the range and reach of God. These words from Psalm 139 always come to my mind when I think of darkness and light.

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence? 

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 

9 If I take the wings of the morning

   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 

10 even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’, 
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you. 

Advent truly is the season of darkness and light. Both of these qualities offer vital religious insights and both are worthy of our reflection during this sacred season. In the symbol of Yin and Yang, we see clearly the relationship between the light and dark. Where the whiteness of Yin is most dominant we see the seeds of Yang emerging and where Yang is more dominant we see Yin emerging. You see the light and dark give way to one another, they complement each other. You cannot have one without the other. Neither is beyond the reach of the Divine either, for they are both a like to this universal love. I do not believe that God would reject anything or anyone. This is not the way of love.

This year I am learning to appreciate the cold bareness of winter. Yes I am celebrating the coming of new hope and light, but not by ignoring the dark. I need the dark, I need to be stripped bare at times, I need to lose this skin that sometimes I feel so imprisoned in. I need to let the new life within me spring into being and thus allow my soul's recycle to continue.

I now understand how important it is to really feel the cold at times.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Myth & Mystery: Glad Tidings of Reason and Fact

From “Lifecraft” by Forrest Church from the chapter “A Mystery Story”

"Reckon the odds. That we should even exist staggers the imagination. Then take it back further, back to the ur-paramecium. All of us are connected genetically to the beginning of life and kinetically to the beginning of time. The universe was pregnant with us when it was born. I find this far more amazing and inspiring than most theological reflections. Simply being here - my having written, your reading - is a miracle. Consider my awe at the underwater world on the Great Barrier Reef, how impossible is was to be blasé in the presence of a giant clam. We should never be blasé when reflecting on the creation or our place in it. As it is written in thirtieth chapter of the book of proverbs,

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a woman.

Physics, anatomy, biology, and psychology can begin to decode such mysteries. Yet knowledge has its limits. Quoting an academic study, novelist Saul Bellow observed “that an average weekday New York Times contains more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare would have acquired in a lifetime.” That includes Shakespeare himself. The Times is a fine paper. I read it every day. But for all its information, it only hints, and then only occasionally, at what Shakespeare knew so very well: that the beauty of the bird, the symbol of the snake, the courage of the pilot, and the wonder of human love will always be touched by mystery."

Oh I do love Forrest Church...he speaks to my condition...

I was round at a friend’s house the other night, we were just chatting away about a few things that we as adults see as being so important. My friend has a six year old son and during our rather serious conversation his son burst in with incredible excitement. A tooth had fallen out and obviously he wanted to show it to his dad. I am told that the going rate for a tooth these days is £5 and a set of football cards. It seems that the global recession has not yet impacted on the tooth fairies. A little later he burst in again this time desperate to show something he’d received on his laptop. It was a personalised video message from Santa Claus. Santa addressed him by name and was in possession of a great many details about his life, He had pictures too. Santa discussed how my friend’s son had been behaving for the last few months. At the end of the message Santa told him to be nicer to his brother.

It was an absolute delight to hear this little boy asking when his brother would be home, as he wanted to give him a hug. It was beautifully magical just getting lost in this family's little world, if only for a short time. I had gone to the house to help someone, spiritually I suppose, I had gone to teach. That said I left feeling I was the one who had learnt a lesson and I was one who had received the greatest gift; the gift of joy and wonder; the gift of seeing life through the eyes of a child. A priceless gift if ever I have received one. We can learn so much from children.

They do indeed bring “Glad tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy”

Sophia Lyon Fah’s is so right when she says that every night a child is born is a holy night. For in every child is that wonderful gift of potential. It is important to always remember that we did absolutely nothing to deserve the gift and privilege of being born; we truly had no say in it, it is a gift freely given. What we do with the Grace that is life itself though is another matter all together. This we do have some say in, but we did absolutely nothing to deserve it.

We are now well and truly into the Christmas season. The music is being played in the coffee shops and the other shops too no doubt. I am yet to venture into the other shops and can only vouch for what is being played in Cafe Nero in Altrincham. The adverts are everywhere. The season of Christmas re-runs has already begun. As has the bah humbugging. I heard a bit of it the other morning from a friend. A friend who always makes me chuckle when I sit with him. He makes me chuckle because he reminds me of the cynical guy that I was a few years ago, I was the emperor of scepticism. This was back in the day when my brother would call me Alan Rickman. This was because I reminded him of the character he played in Galaxy Quest, I used to be a real ranter back in the day. And yes Christmas really was a humbug. The awe and wonder at the mystery of life that I had once possessed had become covered by a cloak of cynicism and bah humbug.

Advent is about preparation. Now I used to be someone who was well prepared for misery, I sought it out in actual fact. You may well say I was utterly addicted to it. I certainly worshipped it. What I am becoming increasingly aware of is that I now have to make myself equally prepared for joy. This is my focus at the moment to open myself up as much as possible to the joy that is there in life. This will not take away the pain and disappointment that is there in all our lives. That will hit me just has hard as it always has. That said it will not have the same impact as it once did, because I am also working on preparing within myself a nest, a home, for the joy that is present in life, in love, in mystery. I am learning not to dwell on my troubles, because I keep remembering the lessons that the children I have known in my life have taught me. This advent for me is about preparing for joy and magic and mystery.

A friend recently sent me this play on the Christmas carol “God rest thee merry gentlemen”, it was written by the Unitarian Universalist minister Rev Chris Raible. He is playfully mocking himself and our tradition for its idolatry of reason. Reason and fact aren’t everything. There is more to humanity, and to life itself than we are ever capable of seeing and knowing. True humility always leads to a greater openness to new and wonder filled experience.

"Glad Tidings of Reason and Fact" by Rev Chris Raible

  God rest ye, Unitarians,            
  Let nothing you dismay!             
  Remember that there is no proof     
  There was a Christmas Day            
  For Christmas really started as     
  A pagan holiday.                    

  Oh, glad tidings of reason and fact, 
  Reason and fact. 
  Glad tidings of reason and fact. 

  No wise men travelled from the East, 
  The journey's far too long. 
  There were no shepherds in the fields, 
  The time of year's all wrong; 
  We don't believe in angels; 
  That rules out the angels' song!    


  We're too sophisticated to 
  Believe in tales so old. 
  We know that human avarice means 
  Too much bought and sold; 
  We only celebrate because 
  This season is so cold. 
Now I will not argue with the factual accuracy of the words, but is this really what the Christmas story is about?  Is it really about what actually happened or didn’t happen all those years ago? Does this really bring glad tidings of anything? Does it help us to live better lives, to offer love and compassion to one another?
Advent is about preparing us for the coming of hope that can be found in a humble birth of a lowly child in a lowly stable. A child with incredible potential and yet who is rejected. Isn’t this a universal tale? Doesn’t it speak of all of us at times? There is more to the Christmas myth than the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of the Biblical accounts. In fact to get lost in detail of what did or didn’t actually happen is to miss the whole point of the story. It sounds as ludicrous as those medieval theologians who argued over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Is that what really matters? Surely there is more to the story than reason and fact. Gosh I’m starting to sound a bit like Alan Rickman again.

Joseph Campbell taught that myths such as the nativity story are actually metaphors for human life. That they are eternal and universal tales that can teach us about our lives right here right now. He believed that by understanding these mysteries we can begin to understand who we truly are and what life is all about.

Carl Jung taught that these myths originate within our “collective unconscious”. He said that we each have a conscious level that we are aware of in our waking moments (this is what is operating now as you read this blog, or at least I hope it is, are you still awake?). Beneath this is our personal unconscious level, our closet. This is where we store memories, experiences, desires, fears, urges, compulsions etc. It is here that our personal “stuff” is stored, which from time to time we dip into. Some of this stuff is beautiful and some of it is terrifying. This is the domain of our devils and demons.

Jung described our “collective unconscious” as our “collective closet”. He uncovered common themes, symbols and motifs while working with his patients and he noticed that these same themes, symbols and motifs were also to be found in the religious stories and myths. From this he concluded that these common myths and stories are part of humanity's “common closet”. These myths are drawn from a common human well of memory and thought and that they teach us about ourselves and the mysteries of existence. The problem today is that when we hear the word myth we equate it with an untruth, a lie, instead of seeing them as revealers of deeper universal truths. As Campbell observed, to view them as lies is to actually get “stuck in the metaphor” and to fail to see the deeper universal truth that is being revealed.
Why these are imprinted into our human consciousness I cannot answer. Richard Dawkins talks of the evolution of the meme (pronounced like cream) that these ideas, tunes, catchphrases and stories are just past on down the line to help us cope with life. He sees the myths as untruths as lies, as I once did and my friend in the coffee shop still does. Today though I see more; there is something in the corner of my life that I cannot quite see and yet I can experience, so long as I don't get stuck in the metaphor.

Yes the reductionist can dissect life and understand the minutiae but by doing so they can still miss out on its beauty and true meaning. You see the truth is the more we know, the more we realise how little we can ever know and so the mystery grows. I suppose it is here where the magic is and where the God of my misunderstanding is discovered, in the unknown and unknowing. This power is both redemptive and it is divine. It brings out our heart and it brings out our soul. By opening myself up to the unknown I have discovered the hope and joy that I had once lost and I have found the peace that passeth all understanding.

So yes this advent I am preparing myself for the coming of hope, love, peace and joy. I invite you to come and join in too.

Come Christmas come...most needed of seasons.