Thursday 30 June 2011

"That which reveals also hides"

I wonder sometimes if my Unitarian tradition is too fixated on words. I wonder if we in fact worship the word to the detriment of other forms of expression. I think I do. I’m more comfortable with words than with silence, music and imagery. Even the music I love and listen to is song. I don’t really listen to music without words, I’ve never fully appreciated music for music sake. As a young man I detested dance music I saw it as far less worthy than song. I know today that I was missing out.

Paul Tillich claimed that whatever reveals “Ultimate Reality” (“Others call it God”) also hides it. If this is the case then worship that neglects artistic expression and imagery fails to fully reach those experiencing it. During my time at Altrincham and Urmston I have become increasingly aware that the worship I create is predominantly word based; granted nothing like as much as it use to be, but still too much. I am learning the value of space and other media but I do not yet think I have fully learnt the value of the image or sound, although I am more open to it than I use to be. “Progress not perfection.”

There is of course a history of distrust of artistic expression within some strands of religion. Within Christianity, there have always been those who have been suspicious of art and aesthetics in general. This essentially stems from the fear of idolatry and the physical form. Throughout the church’s history attacks on art have been made. The early church faced the iconoclast controversy. Here biblical authority was drawn on to support the claim that to venerate icons in worship was idolatrous. During the reformation figures such as Calvin claimed that there was no place for images within worship. The fear stemmed from the belief that imagery would be a distraction from listening to the word of God through scripture. The word has maintained primacy since the reformation, certainly within the Protestant tradition. Even within my Unitarian tradition where authority is held within the conscience of the individual and not the scripture, the preached word is still central to our worship.

Surely, if Tillich is correct in claiming “that which reveals also hides” our worship must be lacking something by focusing primarily on the word, spoken or sung. Is there enough space for mystery and imagination in our worship? Have we fallen into the trap of idolising words or worse still the preacher? Have we become “preacherphiles”? I hope not. The word alone is limited because it fails to connect with people in a truly holistic manner. It fails to reach those parts at the core of a person’s being that aesthetic communication can. Art reveals a greater reality that cannot be achieved by the word alone.

A few years ago I experienced several life changing spiritual experiences. As a result I began to explore religion and spirituality in an attempt to make sense of what had happened to me. One of the places I use to visit was the Holy Name church opposite the university on Oxford Road in Manchester. I would go there almost every lunchtime, just to sit quietly and pray. While there I kept being drawn to “The Sacred Heart” Icon of Jesus. I became fixated by the glowing heart at its centre; it brought me an incredible sense of peace and connection. At the same time I was meditating on some words in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”. The words were: “We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but he was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us.” My problem had been my inability to fully accept this reality within me, but I could see it in someone else my friend Claire’s son Ethan. Over the weeks of meditating on these three things together I began to accept that the sacred heart in Jesus and in Ethan truly was in me. As a result I was finally able to make some sense of the changes that had taken place within me. Today I see that of God in everything, not separate or distant from life but within it. I do not believe that I could ever have reached that conclusion by simply reading or hearing words alone.

I agree with Tillich in his assertion that that which reveals “Ultimate Reality” also blocks it. Nothing, whether that is art, the written or spoken word, personal experience or nature can fully reveal ”Ultimate Reality”I suspect that it is actually beyond our human capacity, I know it’s beyond mine. That said I believe that we can move closer to our own true natures, one another, all that is life and that that runs through life, which I call God, by fully engaging all our senses and appreciating and expressing all the gifts that have been bestowed upon us. Whilst at the same time not making idols of any of them.

Experience has taught me that imagery and artistic expression enhance my experience of the Divine and yet I still create worship that is almost wholly word based. Hopefully in time I will have the courage to create worship that touches those parts that the word alone cannot reach.

Sunday 26 June 2011

Welcoming the stranger

"Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again , come , come." 

These words by the Sufi mystic Rumi speak powerfully to me.
I believe that they teach us what a religious community should be about. Such communities ought to be about welcoming people – whoever they are and wherever they have been.
This welcome is an invitation to join fellow travellers on a journey together. A journey of hope and not despair, that keeps on inviting the wanderer to "keep coming back". The invitation of course is universal, it is open to all.
The importance of welcoming the stranger is at the root of all the great faith traditions. The ancient Greeks cultivated the concept of  “Xenia” or “guest friendship” They believed that the guest may well be a God in disguise and thus treated them accordingly. In Genesis Abraham is visited by three guests, who he treats like royalty. These guests are later revealed to be angels; in fact it is implied strongly that one may well be God himself. They tell the childless and aged Abraham and Sarah that they will have a son.

Being a gracious host is a primary requirement of Islam. The Qur’an 4. 36-37 reads:

“Be kind to parents.and near kins man, and to orphans, and to the needy, and to the neighbour who is of kin, and to the neighbour who is a stranger, and to the companion at your side, and to the traveller...Surely God loves not the proud and boastful such as are niggardly, and bid other men to be niggardly, and themselves conceal the bounty that God has given them.”

This welcoming of the stranger is deeply engrained in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The classic example of this is the parable of the “Good Samaritan” The story tells of a Jewish man who lay on the side of the road beaten, robbed and left to die. He is passed by a Jewish priest and temple official, who both ignore him. Then a Samaritan passes by, a despised enemy of the Israelites. He looks after the man and pays for his shelter at the inn. He welcomes the stranger.

Mother Teresa, an often vilified and dare I say mocked figure, took this teaching to heart and believed that in every suffering and needy person was something of God, she saw Jesus in human suffering. She and others like her saw it as their life task to offer hospitality to the stranger

The monastic tradition has cultivated the practise of caring for the stranger and the poor and needy. Hospitals began in such places. The word hospital comes from “hospitable”. The best example of this has to be the monastery of St. Benedict. Benedict created what has become known as “The Rule of Benedict”, which was a book of rules by which a monastery ought to live. Many monasteries today live by this rule, including some Buddhist ones. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with ear of your heart “.

To welcome someone into our lives we need to listen deeply. This is a concept which the Dalai Lama promotes in contemporary time. It is not some ancient practise lost in the annals of time, it is living and breathing, it is contemporary and it is most urgently needed in our time.

In my time at Altrincham and Urmston I have been warmly welcomed by the various faith traditions. I have certainly felt listened to. Inter-faith relations and respect for those who think about religion differently is healthy and strong here. Sadly this is not the case the world over. I suspect that this is why there is so much anti-religious feeling in 21st Century Britain.
Sadly not all people of faith are welcoming of all, whoever they are. Perhaps this is why so many people have rejected religion all together. How often do we hear “I’m spiritual not religious”?
I think many spiritually minded people reject religion because they see it as authoritarian, unbending, dangerous and not a source of loving compassion for your fellow man or woman. My experience of religion has been very different, both within my own Unitarian tradition and through my encounters with the other faiths here in Altrincham and Urmston. I consider myself to be both spiritual and religious. I am religious because I join with others on a spiritual odyssey seeking truth and meaning. My fellow travellers often do not hold the same beliefs and yet we are able to journey together in compassion, helping one another along the way. I am also spiritual because I do not seek authority over others and no one has authority over my conscience in matters of faith. The religion I practise is free and it is deeply spiritual.
The 16th Unitarian Francis David once proclaimed “We need not think alike, to love a like.”
I have found this to be true among the faith communities I have encountered during my short time as a minister. They have made me, the stranger, most welcome.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Of Mice and Men

“The best Laid plans of mice and men often go awry”

The Robby burns poem was of course the inspiration to John Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men”. I remember reading it at school and it must have struck a chord, because it has stayed with me over the years. It seems to have been the theme of the last couple of weeks, as I have been off duty.

I spent the two weeks visiting and spending time with friends and family and I have to say it has been lovely. That said it was not how I had planned things. I had intended to go away on holiday, when I booked the time off, but because of changes in personal circumstances that didn’t happen and I just did not have the heart to go away on my own. This it seems was the correct decision as it has allowed me to spend time with a lot of folk who have been with me through thick and thin; people I do not spend as much time with as I ought to, if I am really honest. What was amusing throughout the period was that every day I had to change my plans, things just kept cropping up. I adjusted, I accepted, I went with the flow.

I was travelling to Yorkshire the other day listening to New Model Army, very loudly, in my car. It was playing a classic track of theirs “Green and Grey”. It ended at the perfect moment, just as I crossed the border from Lancashire to Yorkshire, the final note played out. The song, of course, is about a small part of West Yorkshire, but what it’s really about is never forgetting where you have come from.
In so many ways the last couple of weeks have reminded me how important roots and long standing loves are to a sustained and happy living.

I am a fortunate man indeed, as throughout my life I have been shown a great deal of love from so many people. I have not always appreciated or easily accepted this, but it has always been there. I hope in the last couple of weeks I have been able to give some of that back.

“It’s the time I think most clearly, it’s the time I drift away...”

Saturday 18 June 2011

Humility and Openness

I recently attended Bolton Central Mosque along with about 50 other people connected to Altrincham Interfaith Group. It was a most interesting and spiritually powerful experience, the hospitality was both warm and generous and I learnt quite a lot that I was not aware of. What surprised me the most was the physical nature of Muslim prayer, which became very clear when observed in the flesh. During the evening several men talked about the mosque and what Islam meant to them. Throughout the night there was one man who shared quite frequently with us. He was a recent convert and talked passionately about what the Islamic faith had given him. There was no doubt that he was at peace and he certainly knew his stuff. He had been a devout Christian most of his life but had become interested in Islam due to the phrase he once heard “people of the book”. This had taken him on a journey of exploration which had led, three years previously, to him converting to Islam. The man talked about the history of Judaism and Christianity and the many shared prophets and figures, particularly the importance of Jesus and Mary. It was Islam’s veneration of Mary that seemed to move him the most; in fact it brought him to tears as he spoke of her. In Islam, of course, all the prophets led to the final prophet, Mohammed. This is where I really take issue with Islam, just as I question the concept of Christian Uniqueness. I personally cannot accept that Divine revelation occurred or incarnated at one time or to one human being at one particular moment in human history and on this small rather insignificant rock rotating through the vast cosmos. It just doesn’t make sense to me. It does not sound like the God of universal love that I have come to know.

The problem with absolute truths and certainty for me is that they lack humility and lead to people needing to protect themselves and what they know. It also seems to me to be a denial of reality and truth. I have come to accept that it is personally way beyond my human capacity, to fully comprehend that great mystery that I feel comfortable today naming as God.

At some point in our lives we all ask the question where do I come from, what is this all about and where are we heading to? We humans seem to be the only creatures that do so, or at least the only ones who can communicate this question. I’ve not met anyone who can answer that question perfectly whether through religion or the secular world. For me this ok today, it is humbling and as a result it keeps me open to seek and to search and to experience. Humility reminds me of my smallness. No matter what we learn about life, death, God, and the universe at the end of our lives we will still know next to nothing.

Openness promises the opposite. For the heart there is no limit on how much we can learn, change and love. Yes we need knowledge gained from honest experience; but we also need to accept that our rational minds, whether informed by religion or science, can never resolve the mystery and miracle of life. I believe it is beyond out human capacity to ever make complete sense of this mystery that creates life from nothing.

Forrest Church asserts that there are two keys to religious living, humility and openness; that by working the two together; remaining humble about how little we can possibly know while maintaining an openness to how the sky is the limit in terms of our growth, we experience a dynamic to life that is wondrous.

He states:

 “No ceiling limits the expansion of the human heart. Yet, humility teaches that when death visits, we will have attained only a flickering notion of what life and death are all about. The light we discover will be framed by darkness. But, when we ponder the nature of our shared mortality, meaning may begin to emerge. Not unlike when we leave a warm, brightly lit room, go outdoors, and contemplate a dark winter sky: one by one the stars come out.”

I do not believe everything is ever revealed to one person and at one moment in time and even if it was I believe it would be beyond our capacity to fully comprehend it. I am not convinced we would even be fully aware of it, even if it was.

Of course for many people this is not what they are looking for in their search for truth and meaning. Many people do seem to be looking for certainty for definite answers. I suspect that they are also hoping to find ways to finally transcend the ultimate in humility, our own deaths. Likewise there are those that will reject any or all of our religious impulses just because religion cannot offer them definite answers any longer.

I remember a few years ago when I was a member at Cross Street Chapel in Manchester that the minister led “A Building Your Own Theology” course. For me it was a defining experience in realising that I belonged in a Unitarian community. I remember our denominational Chief Executive Derek McCauley had recently begun attending when this course started and I often wonder if this played a part in cementing his Unitarianism. Most of us, who were mainly new people, gained greatly from the whole experience, but one man didn’t. He was a man of science who was obviously going through a particular crisis in his life. He was like several of us seeking some answers and perhaps he thought he had found them in Unitarianism. Half way through the course he stopped coming and wrote a letter explaining his reasons for leaving both the course and the chapel. He said that he had begun attending an Anglican church and that the structure and certainty that it offered him was what he needed at this point in his life.

Some people need answers; they need firm solid absolute answers in order to give themselves some order to cling to in the uncertainty of life. Humbly accepting that we cannot know the whole truth does not satisfy many people. This leads many folk to give up on any attempt at religious living or can lead them to take on the whole belief structure of one path without asking any questions. As a result they batten down the hatches, put up the barriers and say this is the truth and I do not want to question it. For me this seems impossible and if I do that and settle for the one truth, forever, I suspect that I might miss out on those other stars as they slowly start to reveal themselves out of the darkness.

Forrest Church offered this advice to his congregants: “If you believe in God, the best thing you can do for yourself is to suspend your belief for a while, because undoubtedly your God is too small and you must grow beyond that God. On the other hand, if you don't believe in God, your very disbelief is a stumbling block. Kick it away and place your faith in something, in something more ennobling than disbelief. Take a flier. Expand your purview. Take a leap of faith."

One by one the stars come out...imagine that

Sunday 12 June 2011

Perfection is a lie

Where does this need to be perfect come from, this need to escape criticism? Why can’t we accept ourselves as we are warts and all and beauty spots too? Why are we trying to become nobody’s? Nobody is perfect.

So many folk seem obsessed with this search for perfection; this quest to live beyond criticism. Why do we need the world to view us as perfect? Do we really think so little of ourselves? 

How many folk long for the perfect body portrayed in our digitally enhanced and airbrushed media? How many of us strive for the perfect family, or job or home that we believe will make us happy?

Perhaps the problem stems from word imperfection itself. For too long we have understood perfection as meaning without fault. The word imperfection actually comes from the Latin “imperfectus” which means incomplete. We human beings are work in progress; all the religious traditions recognise this. The common error has been to link our imperfection – our unfinishedness – with our self-esteem. We humans have made a grave error by suggesting to ourselves and others that to simply be good enough we must be perfect. This has been not only paralysing, but also destructive and it’s time that it stopped. We are good enough; it’s just that we are not perfect.

Sport is obsessed with perfection. A nine dart finish, a 147 break in snooker, a hat trick in cricket, a clean sheet in football. 
The greatest cricketer of them all exemplifies this perfectly, or should I say nearly perfectly. The great Australian batsman Don Bradman is remembered as much for his final failure as his career of incomparable success. In his final test innings he only needed to score four runs to end with a batting average of exactly 100. He failed to do so and was out for nought, a duck. This meant that he finished with an average of 99.94. The next best average in the whole history of cricket is 60. So The Don did not finish with a perfect hundred and for some reason we view this as a failure and not a success. His genius was somehow tarnished because it did not achieve perfect symmetry

It is so easy to see imperfection as a curse! But is it? Did you know that it is an imperfect heartbeat that keeps us alive? Cardiologists are discovering that the heart approaches perfect symmetry and balance only a few hours before we die. I love this it describes everything that is beautiful about our imperfection. As we live and love and laugh and cry; as  we work and play; no matter how well we do, our hearts always maintain a slightly irregular heart beat. There is something so beautiful in the imperfection of this.

In a recent conversation with the Unitarian composer Alan Williams I was told that the most favoured drum machine that creates the beat for rap artists is analogue, which is not quite perfect, as opposed to the perfect rhythm created by a digital one. So not only does a not quite perfect heart beat keep us alive, a not quite perfect beat also seems to connect with us artistically. 

This applies to the physical form too. People who have had ridiculous amounts of plastic surgery do not look attractive they just look inhuman. It’s always people’s little oddities and quirkiness that stand out and draw us in. When we come face to face with so called perfection we do not like it. We recoil from as if it were a hot flame. It does not match our own rhythm or the rhythm of nature. It seems to go against who we truly are.

I love the Japanese concept of Wabi –Sabi, it seems the (im)perfect antidote to all this striving for perfection. Wabi-Sabi is an appreciation of the beauty in the imperfection and incompleteness of things; an appreciation of the beauty in the modesty and humbleness of things; it is an appreciation of unconventional beauty. In Wabi-Sabi beauty is not defined by some lofty arbiters of style like Trinny and Susannah and their ilk. It is found in the real physical world that we all live in; in nature with all its irregularities and flaws. Wabi-Sabi is about accepting the natural cycle of growth decay and death. It is simple and uncluttered and reveres above everything else authenticity. Wabi-Sabi is an understated beauty that just waits to be detected and discovered. It does not seek attention or approval it just is what it is; it does not need to apologise for who or what it is; it is happy with who or what it is. It is what it is.

We are good enough as we are. I do not know whether we are perfect or not, I doubt it to be honest. I do not think we need to be perfect. To be perfect, to be pure, bothers me. How would we measure it in any case? I prefer to be human, warts and all and beauty spots too. I try to love perfectly, without prejudice, but I have yet to achieve even this.

I am happy being somebody today; somebody who delights in the beauty of his imperfection. I love missing my imperfect beats and delight in the finiteness of my humanity. Nobody expects me to be perfect and if they do they will be sadly disappointed.

"I don't give a damn that I never will be worthy
fear is the only enemy,oh,that I still know"

Thursday 9 June 2011

Three Frog's and Nils Bohr: I Believe in Faith

Three frogs were happily sitting on a log. Suddenly one of the frogs decided to jump off the log.
How many frogs were left sitting on the log?

The usual answer is two, but is this true? Did the frog leap off the log? We don’t know. We are not told. All that we are told is that the frog made a decision to leap off the log, not that it actually did so. I love this illustration, it speaks to me. It teaches me that whatever we may say, think or even believe means very little unless it is followed by appropriate action, unless we act in faith.

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook “If you don’t plan your plan, it remains a dream” Interesting I thought and replied “Live it”, which I’m sure sounded a little baffling at the time. What I meant was live the plan, live the dream. We can dream and plan as much as we want, but unless we actually put that into action, it means very little. My friend is a person of action, a person of faith who keeps putting her head above the parapet, despite life’s knockbacks and disappointments. I’m not sure she always sees herself that way, but it’s how she lives her life.

For me the difference between belief and faith is the action. Belief is the plan and the dream, where as faith is putting that into action. Belief informs a decision, which is meaningless unless it is followed up with faithful action. By the way my dictionary disagrees with me. It says “Belief is essentially the acceptance that something is true without the need for proof.” And “faith is a strong belief or confidence in someone or something; or it is a strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.” My dictionary defines belief and faith similarly and yet I experience them differently. Faith is fluid where as belief is static and rigid; faith is active, it is a way of living, where as belief is a mental construction which I see as a possession, which can never be proved perfectly. Faith is a way of knowing, a dynamic process that gives order and coherence to life. It is a crucial life giving as well as sustaining force, in action, that is forever changing and expanding. Faith in its Greek and Latin roots speaks of trust and commitment. Faith is not a place or status to be attained or a stage to be realized. It is a way of being, moving and transforming. Faith cannot be owned or possessed; therefore it can never be lost or taken away. Whenever I feel that my faith is waning I have discovered that all I have to do is to begin acting in faith once more and I begin to experience it again. Instantly! I never stay stuck on my log for very long.

Belief seems so limiting, where as faith I have discovered is incredibly liberating. Faith, or do I mean “faithing”, reaches way beyond beliefs or concepts. It is an experience that involves relationships between ourselves, others, our world and that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Faith is our relationship with life itself and whatever we experience at the core of it all. Faith is so much more than a mental construction or even a decision; it is an active living experience. It’s more than that though; in my experience living faithfully is also transformative. Well it changed me and my life and it continues to do so.

I believe in faith.

I am going to end this little piece with a story I keep hearing and re-hearing from the life of Nils Bohr. It beautifully portrays the difference between belief and faith.

An American scientist once visited the offices of the great Nobel Prize winning physicist, Nils Bohr, in Copenhagen. He was amazed to find that over Bohr's desk was a horseshoe, securely nailed to the wall, with the open end up in the approved manner (so it would catch the good luck and not let it spill out). The American said with a nervous laugh,

"Surely you don't believe the horseshoe will bring you good luck, do you, Professor Bohr? After all, as a scientist --"

Bohr chuckled. "I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you good luck whether you believe in it or not."

How many frogs were left sitting on that log?

Below is a short clip recorded at the end of Carl Jung's life. In it he is asked whether or not he believes in God. He gives a curious answer...just watch the smile that appears on his face as he does is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

"It was truly awful, it was full of awe"

"The white twisted clouds and the endless shades of blue in the ocean
make the hum of the spacecraft systems, the radio chatter, even your 
own breathing disappear. There is no cold or wind or smell to tell you
that you are connected to Earth. 

You have an almost dispassionate platform - remote, Olympian and yet so moving that you can hardly believe how emotionally attached you are to those rough patterns shifting steadily below."
Thomas Stafford Apollo 10.

I can only imagine what Thomas Stafford must have felt as he orbited the earth. Very few of us will ever experience that sense of total physical disconnection from our home, the earth. Yet from this distance Stafford began to appreciate that from which he came. From space he looked on the earth in awe, not wonder, awe. Although he was physically disconnected, his soul appeared completely connected to what he was gazing upon, it shut out all the noises of his spacecraft and even his own breath. Staring down at the earth, took his breath away. It must have been an incredibly beautiful and yet in some sense frightening experience. To me this is worship, this sense of connection that moves way beyond the confines of the physical.

We often hear about the need to develop a sense of wonder, in order to give life meaning. I do not believe that this is enough. What is required is a reawakening of our sense of awe. Awe and wonder are not exactly the same, although the words do appear to be used interchangeably. They both posses an element of surprise or even astonishment about them; they both grab our attention and focus completely; they both awaken our senses. Awe though is different to wonder, there is more to it, this is because it possesses an element of fear and reverence. It is perhaps best described as revered wonder with a sense of fear or trepidation blended in. Wonder opens the senses, where as awe brings them to a different level of being. There is a greater power in awe, than in wonder. It is almost overpowering, over whelming.

I was recently talking with a mother who described the birth of her daughter as the most awful experience of her life. I was a little taken aback by the use of the phrase awful, it didn’t seem right. Then she explained! At the first sight of her daughter she was just full of awe, not wonder awe! She was blown away, by this tiny presence right before her eyes, that she loved revered and worshipped. She described the feeling as over powering and to some extent frightening. It was truly awful, it was full of awe.

Isn’t it strange how awful is understood negatively, where as wonderful has only positive connotations. I suspect that this is because we fear that sense of being out of control that accompanies awe. We do not like to experience powerlessness; we like to believe we are masters of our destiny, masters of the universe. We are not, life is fragile. That’s what makes every moment, every experience, potentially awesome.

Monday 6 June 2011

Hubris and it's antidote

Life really humbles me sometimes. Everything seems to be going really smoothly and then something or someone comes along and metaphorically speaking, punches me in the stomach, knocks the wind out of me and puts me back on my bottom. Life rarely works out exactly how we expect it to. We make our plans and things just don’t come to pass exactly the way we had hoped. Of course sometimes they do, but often they don’t. By the way sometimes they work out far better than we could have hoped for. How often in life have we heard that cautionary phrase? “Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.”

I love the lyrics to this New Model Army song “God Save me”, they keep ringing in my ears. “God save me from everything I really want, God save me from everything I really feel God save me from everything I should have said, Crash down the reckless soul” I discovered some time ago that some of the things I really want aren’t very good for me. It doesn’t stop me wanting them though.

I have noticed how from time to time nature has this ability to cut humanity down to size. It seems that no matter how a hard we try, no matter how much we impose our will, we cannot control the elements, we cannot claim full dominion over them no matter how great our wish, or desire.

Jeffrey Lockwood, in his meditation “Go Fly a Kite” claims, “In an age of technological hubris, we must confront the realisation that the wind is absolutely uncontrollable.

 The wind is a wild beast with no regard for our rationality. It mauls our sense of dominion... Those who are determined to dominate the world are antagonised by the wind. But those who accept the untamed forces of nature avoid such frustrations. And it is possible then to move from a mere defence of our sanity to genuine flourishing.”

The last couple of  years has revealed powerfully to me how little control we have over the elements. The horrors of the floods in Pakistan is a powerful example of this, or the earthquakes in Haiti, New Zealand and especially Japan and the Tsunami that followed. Can anyone ever remember jet planes being grounded by volcanic ash before? The whole of northern Europe was brought to a standstill by this, for weeks, and it would appear that it has returned. Yes we are at the mercy of the elements, there seems little doubt about that.  It sometimes amuses me how we humans believe that the earth is here to serve us, because she doesn’t seem to agree.

It seems in other areas of life humanity has been humbled too. We are currently clawing our way out of the worst financial meltdown in human history. And how was this caused? We overstretched ourselves, we got greedy, we lived beyond our means. They do say that we reap what we sow, well for the last couple of years it has been a bad harvest.

I love these words from another New Model Army Song “Into the Wind”, they keep on ringing in my ears too. “We went to see the fall of Rome - I thought it would please us. To watch how the mighty go in a blaze of hubris. But I just stood there hypnotised by all the beautiful madness Face into the wind, boys, face into the wind.”

“To watch how the mighty go in a blaze of Hubris.”

Hubris is the Ancient Greek word for over stretching ourselves; it translates as arrogance or overwhelming pride. The ancient Greeks saw Hubris as the very root of tragedy. Their tragic dramas, played out at their religious festivals centred on human beings, often rulers who forgot their human limitations. In these tragedies the audiences were reminded of the dangers of acting like immortals or Gods. They taught the value of knowing themselves, who they really are and to know what it is to be truly human.

Perhaps those that rule our world, our leaders, the financiers and even the celebrities who many of us lookup to in awe in the same way that the ancient Greeks looked at their God’s should take heed of these stories. The Empires do eventually fall like the walls of Jericho or burn like Rome. Or they are brought to a standstill by volcanic ash.

Hubris of course manifests itself in many forms. The one place it appears where you’d think it ought not to is in religion. Yet it’s probably more obvious there than in any other area of life. Those who believe they have a direct link to God and know not only what God’s will for themselves is, but what it is for everyone else do appear to be suffering from the worst form of hubris. My response to such thinking is usually “Come off it who do you think you are?” By trying to convert a person to your way of believing seems like the worst kind of Hubris to me. Although of course if I’m honest I’ve suffered from it myself from time to time. I could be accused of it now, while writing this blog.

Sceptics are no different. To belittle someone’s genuine faith by calling it a superstition or merely a crutch is deeply disrespectful. It certainly does not honour or respect their humanity. No one can ever truly know what is to have walked in another’s shoes and to have lived their lives. To be smug about one’s personal so called rationalism seems like the worst kind of arrogance to me. The question I’d like to ask is why we need to spend our time proving what someone else genuinely believes as wrong or false or immature, wherever we find ourselves on the faith spectrum? That said, once again, I have to hold up my hand and admit that it’s not something I’m immune from. As I heard someone say many years ago “To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong”

I need to remember that one more often. “To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong.”
Hubris is an insidious beast. We often fail to see it in ourselves. Because Hubris is so well hidden in ourselves it can have a nasty habit of sneaking up on us. Why you may well ask? Well because it is neatly packaged as the virtue of truthfulness and righteousness.

Fortunately there exists a healthy antidote to hubris, humility!

Humility may well be humanities greatest virtue. It is essentially about accepting our human limitations. By doing so we become teachable, we learn from others, which leads not only to us improving our own lives but the world that we inhabit but do not own;  which in turn leads us to nurture and develop healthy relationships with other people. By recognising that we are not, nor do we speak for God we will open ourselves up to voice of transcendence as it speaks to us in life. In doing so we will be honouring life itself as sacred, which will hopefully lead to us taking care of what is our responsibility; our own lives mind, body and soul, our families, our homes, our friendships, our communities, our planet.

We need to look after these connections because it is they that sustain us in life. Jeffrey Lockwood describes them as the strings that allow the kites of our lives to dance in the sky. He says “To be sane, embrace the wind. But to be joyous, fly a kite. Dance between caprice and control. The wind pulls the fragile sail upward and the flyer plays out the string. Left to the turbulence, the kite will be dashed to the ground or swept over the horizon. Left on the ground, the kite is moribund, stagnant. But between sky and earth is enchantment.
We are kites, buffeted by the vicissitudes of the spirit, the squalls of fortune, the breezes of intuition, and the glorious gusts of chance encounters. And we are stabilized by a tail - the solidity of the mind, the bedrock of reason, the granite of science. If our tail is too heavy, we never leave the ground. If it is too light, we spin crazily.” I love that line “Dance between caprice and control” For me this is where the beauty of life is, it sings to me about the joy of living. As does the line “...the glorious gusts of chance encounters”...I love it.

Hubris for me can be the most inhibiting and potential dangerous delusion a human being can suffer from. In the end it actually stops us living the best life we can. Humility on the other end helps us to see the truth about ourselves “Warts and all and beauty spots too”. From here we can honestly improve our own lives and those who we share this spinning planet with. It achieves more than that though. It draws us closer together not only to one another but to this amazing universe that we play a small but vital role in. The dangers stem from losing sight of this and believing that this universe and rest of humanity revolves around us and is there to do our bidding.

Having said all that it really does not matter how powerful we believe we are because nature has a funny way or cutting us down to right size, as the last couple of years seem to have proved once again. We can believe that we have dominion over the earth but the wind and the rain seem to say otherwise.
I think I might just “Go fly a kite”, “Dance between caprice and control” and see what “chance encounters” get blown my way.

Saturday 4 June 2011

Gifts: It's funny what you find left on your door step

I returned home the other night to find a foot high figurine on my door step. It is a statuette of two people hugging one another. There was no note with it, so I have no idea who left it for me. I put it on my mantle piece and offered a prayer of thanks for this beautiful and wonderful gift from some living breathing angel. I assume it is a thank you for something I have said or done at some point, but what who knows. All I can say is “Thank you universe” it is a beautiful gift.

It got me thinking about the gifts, not particularly material ones, but the talents we all possess that we can share with one another. Gifts are not meant to be hoarded selfishly but shared with all of humanity.

No two people are exactly alike .We all of us possess different abilities, gifts and talents, that need to be nurtured and developed if we wish to live to our full potential. Our own souls require and desire this from us and I believe that this world of ours needs it too, if we are to create the Commonwealth of God, of love, here on earth.

In the last few weeks I have become increasingly aware of my need to sing more. It is a part of my being that I have neglected. I am beginning to feel, deep down within me, the need to reawaken and develop this aspect of myself, it has laid dormant for far too long.

When I was at ministerial training college we spent some time exploring how people learn differently; that not every mind works in the same way. We do not all think alike, it would seem. Some people learn with pictures, others through conversation orally and aurally, some by listening to a speaker and others by reading and reflecting silently, while still others only really learn by giving something a go and practically applying the information. I personally learn by listening and then engaging in conversation, but recognise that not everyone is the same as me...thank God.

Last year I finally learnt how to drive. During my first few lessons I remember my instructor explaining how some young lads just seem to have a natural aptitude for it and within a few weeks are ready to take their test. This did not apply to me. It took me quite some time to come to terms with the coordination of it all. This is probably because I like to think things through and that doesn’t really work while learning to drive, you have to react quickly to situations. I spent quite some time trying to work out the reasons behind my mistakes instead of focusing on what was in front of me, this usually led to a whole series of mistakes. That said I stuck with it and got there in the end. I learnt a lot about myself, while learning to drive.

Like many people I was utterly mesmerised by Barcelona’s performance during last Saturdays Champions League final. The way that Xavi, Iniesta and Melli etc et al destroyed the great Manchester United side, was mind blowing. It was one of the most spell binding performances I have seen, in a final, for many years. Here were gifted young men fulfilling their potential.

Footballers are rightly criticised for their behaviour at times; the adoration they are shown and the wealth they receive often goes to their heads and leads to all kinds of inappropriate behaviour. That said some of the ridicule they receive goes way over the top. Wayne Rooney is often vilified on comedy panel shows such as “Mock The Week” and “Have I Got News For You”, because he isn’t the most articulate of people. I seem to remember that the same thing happened to David Beckham. This seems unfair. These young men are immensely talented at one thing, why should we expect them to gifted in other areas as well? They are intelligent in their own way; in the way they see things on the football pitch. This was perfectly exemplified by Messi, Xavi and Innestia et al last Saturday night. That said we should never deify these talented young men. Yes they have a gift, which they are making good use of, but they are still human.

When we see others doing something with immense skill it is easy to feel envious and wish that we had their talent too. We can even convince ourselves that if we tried really heard we may well achieve what they can do; that if we mastered their skill we could somehow become complete and develop a higher opinion of ourselves and that others would develop a higher opinion of us also. It seems that so many of us believe that we have to brilliant at everything in order for others to think well of us. We are funny lot we humans. 

The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians Ch 12) wrote to the Corinth congregation because he had discovered that each member, in their struggle to be the perfect congregational leader, was getting in the way of the others. As a result they were not working in unity. Each one of them wanted to possess all the good qualities that make up a good leader, to become the perfect leader and to leave the others in their shadow. Paul taught them that the spirit does not allow even the possibility that one person can possess every talent. He suggested a change in outlook and I believe that this still applies today, in our time and place. We all know that we can do some things well but we also know that we have weaknesses too. Often we feel that we must strengthen these weaknesses in order to escape criticism and to turn this weakness into a strength, I am not convinced that this is possible. It seems like a road to nowhere and headache inducing one. We should do our best, but we are all limited. Instead perhaps what we ought to be doing is nurturing our talents, not just for the good of ourselves, but for the whole of society.

By seeing that we all possess special gifts that are ours to be used for the good of all and by accepting that as individuals we will not be given everything we will hopefully stop berating ourselves for being less than perfect and begin to live in harmony with one another, making our community and world all that it can be.

Let us be grateful for the gifts that have been bestowed upon us. Whether they have been left on our doorstep or imprinted on our DNA and let us express them with those we live in community with.