Saturday 30 July 2011

Finding Your Voice: Learning to speak the language of the heart

Unitarian College Manchester recently asked me to answer the following question, in just a couple of sentences.

“What aspect(s) of your training or time at UCM has made the most significant or positive contribution to your work as a Unitarian minister?”

A difficult question and this is what I finally came up with.

 “For me it has been about finding and refinding my voice. This happened throughout my training, where I continually found myself forming and reforming, while discovering ways to articulate this. This was difficult at times, but I know it has shaped me for the better."

My journey into ministry has been about finding and refinding my voice.

I now look back fondly on my early days of training, but at the time it was a struggle. I was thrown into several unfamiliar environments, while at the same time I had lost the security of my home congregation at Cross Street. The first few months were very painful as I struggled with my identity. I felt quite exposed and vulnerable at times. Everything I said and did seemed to be under scrutiny. It was tough, but then again so it should be. Thank God for prayer. It held me and it sustained me throughout this period, has it has for many years.

I had to go through this in order to discover and rediscover who I was. I had to examine and re-examine my faith and learn to articulate it. I also had to really listen to what others were saying, to know where they were coming from, to respect them as they were and to learn how to communicate with them. I had to find ways to walk in their shoes, while still remaining true to me.

The first few months were the most challenging, but by the Christmas of my first year things began to change. I found my voice. I was able to be myself and was able to begin to communicate this to others with more confidence. I felt increasingly at ease and less nervous and was able to speak my truth in love. I became less defensive and precious about my personal religious convictions. Put simply I began to loosen up. I found my voice.

The ability to speak publically is a vital tool of ministry, so if a minister loses their voice or ability to speak their effectiveness would be seriously compromised. Well just this did happen to one of the two father’s of British Unitarianism, Joseph Priestley.  For many years Dr Priestley struggled with a stammer.

I have a personal affection for Priestley, which has nothing much to do with his actual achievements. No I have affection for Priestley because he comes from Birstall, in West Yorkshire, where I grew up and he attended Batley Grammar School, where I went. There the comparisons end I’m afraid. I have never been a leading radical, politically and I have never been particularly scientifically minded.

The stammer has been brought into the public consciousness in recent times, due to the success of “The Kings Speech.” During the film King George VI struggles to overcome his stammer, with the help of a highly unconventional speech therapist. The treatment began long before he became King. In fact he was never expected to become the King at all. He never sought the limelight. He had little self confidence and no doubt his stammer contributed greatly to this. I am sure he would have been happy living the quiet life with his wife and two daughters. This though was not meant to be, as life events dictated otherwise, as they so often do. Following the death of his father and the abdication of his brother  he was thrown into the limelight and into a position that did not suit this quiet reserved individual.

The film portrayed how he came to terms with himself and his new life. He found his voice. It spoke powerfully to me in this respect as well as in the sense that it beautifully portrayed how we humans can overcome obstacles with courage and faith and the right kind of guidance.

Dr Priestley struggled with a stammer for years. It must have been terribly difficult to preach with such an impediment. Like the king he did overcome it as it did not affect his later career. That said it did cause him much distress although, as he said, it saved him from being “seduced by the love of popular applause as a preacher”

My tradition lays great emphasis on the word and the preaching of it. Ok today we may not place authority at the door of scripture, this has been replaced by the conscience of the individual. That said the preached word, articulated correctly is still central to our worship.

Is this though the most important element?

Many people can speak well and articulately. I myself have had some training, but I know I will never be perfect and absolutely clear. I do not wish to be. I need to remain true to who I am, to speak my truth in love and in a language that hopefully others will understand.

To truly minister people need to hear what my heart and soul has to say. I need to speak the language of the heart, but not from someone else’s book of life and experiences. No! These experiences must come from my own; otherwise how can I expect others to relate to what I have to say.

I hope that by continually finding my voice I am able to encourage others to do likewise and that they in turn continue to speak their truth in love.

Isn’t that what ministry is all about?

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Mind Your Language

This is the third in a series of pieces I have written on religion

I was recently driving with Derek Brown chairman of one of congregations I serve. I enjoy travelling with Derek it gives me a chance to listen to him. One advantage of driving with people, I have discovered is that I tend to say very little and listen a lot. During the journey he mentioned a telephone conversation he had with the curate at the local Parish church. She was curious to know what exactly a Unitarian is? What they believe in? What they don’t believe in? We chatted about this for a while. Due to the fact I was driving and therefore not really able to talk as freely as I can the answer I gave was pretty vague and fairly evasive. I did not give him a firm straight answer.

It is a good question to ponder though. How do I articulate my faith? There is no easy answer to this. Unlike the Anglicans we do not have a creed to subscribe to. Quite the opposite we say ours is a religion without a creed. One of our cries is “Deeds not Creeds”. A lot the publicity I’ve recently seen declares “one faith, many beliefs”. Both statements speak powerfully to me. I have no desire to be part of a community which tells me what I must believe and what I must not believe. That said my faith must mean something, otherwise it just becomes the empty meaningless vessel that some folk accuse it of being.

Like many folk throughout the world I love the tv series “The Simpsons” It has a wonderful way of communicating to a wide range of people, at many levels. This is why it is so popular. I discovered a few years ago that its creator, Matt Groening, is himself a Unitarian. Religion is explored, along with all aspects of life in the program and Unitarianism rears its head every now and again. It is poked fun at. There are no sacred cows in the Simpsons, except perhaps in Apu’s home. In one episode the church pastor Rev Lovejoy offers the Simpson children a bowl of Unitarian ice cream. When one of the children replies that the bowl is empty his response is that this is the point. The bowl is empty.

This is the point an empty bowl. He is saying there is nothing in it. It is an empty vessel which will not feed or sustain you. Now I don’t believe and have certainly not found this to be true, but it is certainly how others view my faith. Why is this? Well I believe it is because we find it hard to articulate exactly what our faith is about. We can say what it isn’t far more easily, but find it hard to say what we are really about. I know I do.

Language is so very important but it is limited. We all use it differently. When we use words like God, spirituality, soul, religion, prayer, worship are we all talking about the same thing? Or are we more like the blind men trying to discover what an elephant is? I’m not convinced that when we use these words we are all talking about exactly the same thing, it really depends which part of the elephant we are holding. I think that perhaps the fundamentalists both of religion and atheism are but they are just a small proportion of the population. It seems that the rest of us are using these words in different contexts and different ways. Personally I see nothing wrong in that. It is honest no two people see the same thing in exactly the same way. I do not believe that anyone has the right to claim ownership of language. We should never be afraid to express what is true to us.

Of course some Unitarians would prefer our faith to let go of religious language all together. They claim that there is too much baggage that comes with it. How do we overcome this hurdle that causes so many shutters to go down in most ordinary folk when they hear words like God and soul and prayer etc? We can’t simply avoid this language. Many have tried to do so in the past and it is this I believe that has led to the accusation that we are an empty vessel and that there is nothing in our faith. This is not true. We are a genuine and open faith, but one which does not subscribe to creedal statements.

So what exactly is it that holds a Unitarian community together with a network of other communities in this country and throughout the world? And how do we articulate that to other folk out there? How do we get our message across to those people who think that to be in religious community must mean that you have to subscribe and adhere to a certain set of beliefs and practices?

The honest answer is I don’t know. I’m not sure any of us know.

I know that does not sound very helpful and sounds a bit like an empty ice cream tub or just plain evasion.

Is this true? I do not believe so I actually think it’s an honest and dare I say humble starting point. By surrendering to the fact that I don’t have the full and complete answer, I believe I can find the room within myself and encourage that space in others to seek out those answers. This enables dialogue, open and honest dialogue. It encourages folk to ask the questions of themselves and each other, what it means to be people of faith? To be people who come together in a free religious community that is not told what it must believe about life, the universe and everything.

I need to always remember why I joined my first Unitarian community. I came to make sense and explore. Not sure I’ve achieve the making sense bit, but I have found freedom to explore and as a result I have experienced far more than I could ever have imagined or even wished for. Something I could never have achieved on my own by reading or by sitting under a tree and meditating. There is something very powerful about coming together in open relationship. 

To me this is essence of religion.

I am going to end this little chip of a blog with some words by Rainer Maria Rilke

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the question themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

Tuesday 19 July 2011

"What religion has done for me"

The following piece accompanies the blog on "Religion and Spirituality".Here are some thoughts on "What religion has done for me"

I did not have a particularly religious upbringing. As a teenager I cannot claim to have been anti-religious either, I just didn’t see its relevance. I have always been interested in ideas, religious ones being one of many. That said from the age of 11, until my late twenties, I was more interested in political and perhaps philosophical ideas than anything else. Religion just seemed old hat, something from the past.

I grew up in the village of Birstall, in West Yorkshire. In the market square is a statue of Joseph Priestley. Priestley is one of the two founding fathers of British Unitarianism. He was also a major figure in its development in America. I attended the same school that he did, Batley Grammar. Of course we all knew about him but as a scientist, but not as a radical minister of religion. I never once remember any mention of this, as we were growing up. Although perhaps it was mentioned and the reason that it failed to register with me was because I just was not interested. We knew of Priestley the scientist, the man who discovered oxygen and invented soda water...or as we would often say “The man who invented oxygen”.

Throughout most of my life I had very little interest in religion. I was an agnostic who was verging on atheism, although I never quite took the leap of absolute disbelief. My late teens and early twenties were a mixture of hedonism, dark music and left wing politics. I was in a band and we thought we were going to change the world, oh the arrogance of youth. Meanwhile I worked in the civil service. In my mid twenties I came to Manchester and gained a degree in Politics and Modern History and soon after started work as a free-lance historian. It was during this time that Mr Priestley reared his head once again, due to his political radicalism. I hasten to add that even then I paid no attention to his religion.

This all began to change between the years 2002 and 2004 as things changed within me and my experiences of life external to me. This was brought on by my acceptance of and recovery from alcoholism. It was around this time that I began to experience what I know today as God. I had a life changing spiritual experience, I can think of no better way of describing what happened. As a result I began to explore different religions and spiritual groups. I discovered Unitarianism, almost by accident really, but became immediately interested. I soon discovered that there were congregations locally and after a bit more research I began attending Cross Street Chapel, in Manchester.

 I can still remember the first service I attended, led by Rev John Midgley, it spoke powerfully to me. I also remember the warmth of the greeting that the handful of folk in attendance extended to me. I can still feel Peter Sampson's handshake as he passed me the hymn book, and gently spoke to me.

I enjoyed every aspect of congregational life; getting to know people first within the congregation and eventually further afield. I spent months bending John’s ear about everything, as I did with most people. I joined the choir and an R.E. group and just became part of the place. I felt cared for, I felt loved and I felt welcomed.

Hospitality has to be the key to true religion, in practice.  One of my favourite hymns is “All Are Welcome Here” it reads “All are welcome here...all are welcome to seek in spite of open wide to all our hearts...for all are welcome here.” To me this is the whole point of religion, to build communities of love that encourage that search for understanding and meaning, that search beyond the confines of our limited individual selves. I have certainly found that to be true of my chosen Unitarian faith, at its best at least; it encourages each of us as individuals to continue that search but to do so together, unconstrained. I felt welcomed and I was listened to during my time at Cross Street. I found a religious community where I could be myself, but not in isolation; I am certain I would not, could not have discovered so much alone. I did not realise then just how much I would need that community...

I was at work on Thursday morning, November 2nd 2006 to be precise, when I received a phone call from my dearest friend Claire. She told me her son Ethan had been killed on his way to school. I immediately left and went to Manchester Royal Infirmary. I loved Claire and Ethan more than anybody in the world, but today is not a time to talk about that. John my minister came to the hospital to be with us and the family and held us in prayer over Ethan’s broken little body. He was there for us over the next few months. I will never forget all that he did.

I left the hospital later that day and felt utterly alone and lost. Claire had gone with her family and Luke (Ethan’s dad) had gone with his family. John also had to go. So what did I do? Well the first thing I did was pray. That was not enough though I needed to be with people. So I rang up some of the Cross Street folk. Well several of them just happened to be up at our Oldham Chapel, I made my way there and spent the rest of the day with these people. They listened to me, fed me and looked after me. This continued over the next months and year really as I came to terms with everything, while attempting to be there for Claire. The people of my community were able to be there, in an unobtrusive manner while I came to terms with the horrors of all that had happened. I took some time off work and spent a lot of time with these different people. They loved me when I really needed it. I do not believe I would have come through it on my own. I am sure I would have survived I am just not so sure I would have done so without  hardening my heart. They helped me keep my heart open.

It was coming to terms with all of this that drew me into ministry. I wanted to be part of and to attempt to build a community of loving compassion, of true hospitality that attempts to hold people and allow them to be who they really are in every aspect of life. At least that was and is my ambition.

I have been minister to the  good folk of Altrincham and Urmston for over a year and I feel that we have got to know one another quite well. From the outset I made it a priority of mine to spend time talking, but above all else listening, to them. During the worship we have shared I have encouraged openness by allowing them to get to know me. Worship for me must always speak the language of the heart and not just feed the intellect. This may well have been a challenge for some folk, but was a deliberate decision on my part in an attempt to give those present permission to be open with me. I have spent time with everyone connected with both congregations, visiting them in their own homes and talking with them about many things. This has been a real treasure to me, personally. We have some real gems hidden away in our congregations. I cannot begin to express how deeply moved I have been by what people have shared with me. Virtually every conversation has been littered with moving stories of love, of pain, of grief and of faith. I have heard some of the most incredible tales of personal spiritual experience, something I have an interest in. I have rarely left someone’s home without feeling that my life has been enhanced by the time we have just shared. I have felt welcomed into the lives of the people within both communities and for that I am profoundly grateful.

“Listen with the ear of your heart”, has become my mantra. It comes from “The Rule of Benedict” a set of ancient principles for monastic orders, followed by many Christian and some Buddhist communities today. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with the ear of your heart “. What is required is deep listening, a concept proposed, in contemporary times, by the Dalai Lama.

To me this is the whole point of religion; to be an environment that encourages us to listen, to one another and to the voice of transcendence that speaks through all and yet beyond life. Just think of the blind men and the elephant. Maybe just maybe if they had listened to one another they may have got a better idea of what an elephant was really like, instead of just grasping in the dark trying to make sense of the little bit that they were able to get a hold of.

It’s more than that though. The real purpose of religious community is to offer a place of love, support and above all else compassion as we walk through the journey of our lives. We cannot possibly experience that if we journey alone. I want and need to journey with others and I am no longer ashamed to admit this.

Religion has done an awful lot for me.

Sunday 17 July 2011

“We do not regret the past nor wish to shut the door upon it” and a view about God

I was driving back from Wakefield to Altrincham yesterday, listening to music incredibly loudly, tears rolling down my cheeks, when I suddenly, spontaneously began shouting out loud “I’m alive”. This lasted for a couple of minutes. Do not worry I was paying attention to what I was doing, as I drove through the Derbyshire hills, in the pouring rain. I felt so amazing, so grateful to be alive, to be at peace with life and to be at ease with who I am in life. Put simply I felt happy. At this moment the line “And everyone just keeps moving on, you turn around and find there all gone. The lights go out one by one, the prodigal son is not coming home “ was blaring out of my stereo. (The song was “Tales of the Road” by Justin Sullivan)

I had spent the day with many different people I have known over the years. Some I had only met once or twice, but others I had shared a lot with. I had gone over because an old mate Nick and his wife had brought their son up north for family and friends to meet. It was a fantastic day to play a small part in. Nick was the prodigal son coming home and we shared a bounteous feast. We talked about old times and the music we use to play together travelling round the north of England in that white van. There were many tales of the road shared.

I don’t remember a lot of what went on over the years, or I thought I didn’t. I kept being reminded of old adventures and things that we got up during those days. To protect the innocent I will not divulge that here. I honestly could not remember a lot of what went on but then the way I lived my life back in those days, it is hardly surprising.

Memory is a funny thing.

I use to look back with a great deal regret about a lot of my life. Today this is no longer the case. I have made peace with myself and my life. Today I can look back with gratitude and actually a whole lot of joy. I have known some incredible people in my life, I’m just grateful that I today I appreciate these wonderful gifts.
It really is all about altering your attitude (another meaning of AA).

The men of the Altrincham congregation created worship this morning. It was based around a new Unitarian pamphlet “Unitarian Views of God” I was asked to reflect on one of the contributions in the pamphlet.

Here’s what I came up with.

I chose Jimmy Timiney’s view to converse with for several reasons. The first being the most obvious, it speaks most closely to my understanding and perhaps more importantly to my experience. This is key by the way; in our tradition authority lays within our personal experience and our honest reflection upon them. Authority is not external, but within the individuals conscience.

 I will begin with the end of Jimmy’s piece, which probably seems like an odd place to start, but hey.

He says:

 “But does it really matter what I believe about God or the nature of God? If God exists then he/she exists regardless of my reckoning. To try and answer the question is for me to say that I only can tell you how I feel and language limits me in my quests.”

For me humility must always be a starting point, it is beyond me to truly know. I am happy with this as a starting point, as it throws open my experience beyond the confines of my limited imagination.

I am going to get personal now and tell you what I believe and how I got to where I am today.
I was an agnostically inclined atheist for most of my life and was happy being this. I was not anti-religious, it just did not interest me at all. Things though began to change as I headed into a steep emotional and mental decline, this went on for quite a few years. I felt alone, I felt empty and most of all I felt afraid. I basically lost the will to live. In desperation I reached out, right at my lowest, darkest moment. From that very moment things began to change.

Jimmy talks of being aware of something more going on within him, more than his physical being. He doesn’t know what to call this something and neither do I really, like him I believe the words like Soul and God seem too limiting. Although I am much happier using such language today, as I have come to understand these words in my own way. Like Jimmy I don’t see God as some external supernatural being separate from life itself, but I do believe that I experience an eternal spirit that is in all life that can offer strength and guidance if I can be open to it and not lost within myself. I cannot deny that reality today, to me that would be irrational and a denial of my reality.

I have often talked of synchronicity, of life speaking to me at times, this seems to happen the more I am in harmony with life itself and not lost in my own small minded worries and concerns. I experience it in nature, in art, in beautiful conversation I feel it in prayer and meditation and of course when I am singing.

I do feel guided at times

I am much more comfortable with God language today. That said when I say God I am not talking about a being in the way that we are, or a force that controls all that happens in the universe. I believe that life is given free will at the minute level and that God is perhaps not at the beginning of time but is instead drawing life towards that loving reality...For me God is the “Divine Lure of Love” drawing us on beyond the limits of ourselves...
That said I cannot prove any of this to you, this is just what my honest rational reflection on my own personal life experiences teach me, but I could well be wrong.

I will reserve the final word to my old favourite, Forrest Church. This is what he says about God.

“God is not God’s name. God is our name for that power that is Greater than all and yet present in each”
That will do for me.


Wednesday 13 July 2011

The Elephant in the Room: Religion and Spirituality

We all see things differently and we all experiences life differently and we often use language differently to describe what we see. Who amongst us gets the full picture and who amongst us views a situation as it really is? As for the six blind men, each man perceived a portion of the truth. Too bad they couldn’t have combined their experiences to gain a broader idea of the true nature of an elephant.

Every Tuesday morning I attend a meditation group, which describes itself as “spiritual”. It begins with a time for meditation followed by a period where we share about the spiritual dimensions of our lives. For me this weekly ritual is deeply religious, although I know that many of the others attending don’t see it that way. They would be horrified to think that what they are doing could be described as religious.

Many folk describe themselves as being “spiritual, but not religious”, I used to but not any more. I see myself as both spiritual and religious. It seems to me to be either one without the other is to miss out on so much.

I recently discovered this column “Ask Pastor Paul”on For those of you who have never heard of it is an internet site dedicated to conversations about faith, spirituality and inspiration. It explores everything that could come under this broad umbrella. is where I first discovered Unitarianism.
“Ask Pastor Paul” is written by Paul Rausenbush, Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University. Paul is an expert in multi-faith work and offers advice on matters of faith and spirituality to teenagers.
Here is one such dialogue:
Dear Pastor Paul,

I have a good friend who plays with me on the tennis team. I invited him to youth fellowship at my church, but he told me that he was "spiritual, not religious." I have heard this before, but I don't really get it. What do you think the difference is between spiritual and religious?
Dear Friend,

"Spiritual, not religious" is a common phrase among people who may have a belief in God or a higher power; who see the importance of meditation; or just feel the power of nature, but who don't see any benefits to organized religion. There is distrust on both sides of the spiritual versus religious issue. Religious people think those who call themselves spiritual are somehow false, weak or unable to commit to their beliefs. On the other hand, spiritual people are interested in a personal experience of the spirit, and they find that the rules, regulations and rituals of organized religion don't do anything for their own spiritual experience. They think that "Religion is what is left when the Spirit has left the building," as Bono has said. My feeling is that religion and spirituality are better together than either one is alone. Religion can give you a community and a well-considered path to help you along your spiritual journey. However, if religion is lacking in individual spiritual experience, it can become just a habit and be empty of meaning. So you can tell your friend, "I am spiritual and religious"—but only if that is true of you and your youth group.

 I agree with Pastor Paul when he states: “My feeling is that religion and spirituality are better together than either one is alone.” To have one without the other means missing out on something so rich and fulfilling. That said so many people still happily describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”

In 21st Century Britain, interest in traditional religion is decreasing and yet at the same time people appear increasingly interested in matters “spiritual”

The UK Christian Handbook on Religious Trends 1999/2000 notes that regular Church attendance in Britain fell from 4.74 million in 1989 to 3.71 million in 1998; a drop of more than 20% in ten years. Rather less than 8% of the population are likely to be in church on an average Sunday.  On the basis of these statistics some commentators have predicted the virtual disappearance of the churches during the course of this century.

Meanwhile there seems to have been a dramatic increase in reports of religious and or spiritual experiences. "Understanding the spirituality of people who don't go to church" by David Hay and Kate Hunt found that this had increased from 48% to 76% between 1987 and 2000. These figures suggest slightly more than three quarters of the national population are now likely to admit to having had a spiritual and or religious experience. 

These studies do seem to support that view that people want spirituality, but without what they see as the shackles and confines of organised religion. So is religion finished, has it had its day? Should we instead embrace privatised spirituality? Does religion kill spirituality? Is Bono right when he states "Religion is what is left when the Spirit has left the building," I for one do not think so. I am spiritual and I am religious.

I believe that the problem stems from our perception of religion, which is the fault of organised religion by the way. It is seen as unbending, dogmatic, which of course it can be. That though is not true of all religion and it is not my experience of the free religious faith I have become a part of.

Spirituality is about attempting to connect to the core of life and religion is about tying that together with the way we live our lives.

Kent Nerburn says, about spirituality:  

“It is the sense that comes over us as we stare into the starlit sky, or watch the last fiery rays of an evening sunset. It is the morning shiver as we wake on a beautiful day and smell a richness in the air that we know and love from somewhere we can't quite recall. It is the mystery behind the beginning of time and beyond the limits of space. It is a sense of otherness that brings alive something deep in our hearts.”

But is this really enough, surely we must express this in our daily lives in order to experience it fully. I am not convinced that this can be achieved alone. This is why I believe we need  religion. True religion is not there to suppress or control this natural spirituality that we are all capable of experiencing. The purpose of religion is to help us to find a way to share these experiences with one another and to express them in our lives.

We all understand and articulate these experiences differently, therefore if we didn’t share them we would never be able to form a clear picture. Instead we’d just end up like the blind men describing an elephant as a wall or spear, or rope, or fan, or tree, or snake. How can we hope to make sense of it alone? I’m not certain we can really understand in community, but so much is gained by engaging in such conversation.

For me to be religious is to practise spirituality in community with others.

We are communal animals and we need each other. Religion, communal spirituality has so much more to offer than individualised spirituality. For one thing it offers us support, human support, on our spiritual journeys together. Our Prime Minister talks about the “Big Society”, but does 21st Century Britain encourage community, let alone society big or small. We humans need community without it we cannot really live full lives, we miss out on so much of what human life offers. It seems that 21st century spirituality mirrors this with its rejection of religion.

I am spiritual and I am religious. One without the other seems empty and meaningless. That said in the big scheme of things does it really matter what words we use to describe who or what we are, people will interpret from their own perspective in any case.

What really matter is how we live. As the Dalai Llama states “kindness is my true religion... Love, compassion, and tolerance are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. If you have a particular faith or religion, that is good. But you can survive without it if you have love, compassion, and tolerance. Deep down we must have real affection for each other, a clear realization or recognition of our shared human status.”

What really matters is how we behave towards one another, how we treat each other and how we live out our spiritual experiences and religious beliefs, always remembering that what we believe and experience really depends on which part of the elephant we are touching.

David Whyte says:
   It doesn't interest me if there is one God or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world with its harsh need to change you. 
If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.
I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, 
with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of sure defeat.
I have been told, in that fierce embrace, even the gods speak of God.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Dread: “A ship in the harbour is safe, but that's not what ships are built for.”

The other morning I was walking to my car, about to set off, when I saw a woman getting out of hers about to go into the large school room, for an exercise class. I looked at her, nodded, smiled and said hello. She had a terrified look on her face and then she began to speak. She said “Every week I come here and when I set off I do not know why I am coming.” She continued “Every week I have this horrendous feeling of dread in my stomach, I almost feel sick with fear” “And yet every week once I get started I really enjoy it and feel so much better afterwards.” We spoke for a few minutes about, fear anxiety and faith and then some of the other women arrived for the class, so I left and went about my business. It was interesting to note that although she dreaded coming every week, she was still the first to arrive.

Anyway I drove off and began ruminating about Dread! Like you do!

Fear comes in many forms. Fright is a vital part of our human make up, we really need it. It points to danger etc, it’s a warning signal. There are though other forms of fear which are not useful at all. Perhaps the most debilitating is dread.

Dread is a crippling form of anxiety. It is fed by our desire to control what is beyond our control, the world in which we live. We want to be safe, we want to be secure, but is this realistic? Is life really about being safe and secure? I am not convinced that it is. Sadly, it would appear, when some folk begin to see this reality they can become crippled by the dread of life itself.

Dread is the ultimate in negativity. It can make everything appear bleak. It dulls the senses, turns colours into shades of grey and takes all the taste out of life. It leads to folk projecting all their anxiety and worry onto everything that they do in life and thus takes the very life out of living. It leads to misery.

At it’s worse dread can lead to us into a pit of depression. It traps us with the very things that we believe protect us from the dangers that we see in life. As a result we go deeper into ourselves, until we become lost and trapped within our own black hole. It can be very difficult to find our way out of this black hole. We certainly can’t just dig ourselves out.

I am of course familiar with dread, it did in days gone by rule much of my life. From a young age it would often come over me on Sunday afternoons and evenings, usually when Bullseye was on or Surprise Surprise, I think that’s why I preferred to out of the house, so as to deny the reality of returning to school. It was the same in my late teens and twenties, but by then alcohol had become a solution to that hideous feeling in my stomach and everything else for that matter. I really didn’t enjoy having to conform to reality. I am of course a much different man today. I have discovered the gift of reality, I know that this is where the joy of living is to be found.

A friend of mine recently posted this on Facebook:

“A ship in the harbour is safe, but that's not what ships are built for.”

Of course this isn’t entirely true, ships aren’t always safe in the harbour. Think about the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour. That said I did get her point. By living safely in what we know, the old familiar we may well remain safe, but that really isn’t what life is about. It’s about living, it’s about taking risks, it’s about being out of this state of control from time to time. We cannot protect ourselves from life’s dangers, from suffering. In fact by even trying to do so we end up suffering from something far worse “The suffering within the suffering”, we end up not living at all, we stagnate, we lose everything that makes us human, we do not make best use of the gifts we have been given. What a waste! Dread can be soul destroying and life taking. It disconnects us from life itself.

Grief can often lead to dread, whether through the loss of a loved one or through repeated failure or rejection in life. These losses, these defeats can lead us to believe that we will never know joy again. As Forrest Church highlights Dread combines the fear of death with the fear of life. It makes us fully aware of the fragility of life, but  without  an appreciation of its preciousness. Therefore the risk required to find colour and flavour in life is seen as hopeless. We say “why take any chance”; we say  “nothing ventured, nothing lost”; we say “Why bother?” We withdraw from life, retreat into ourselves until it all looks grey and bleak again. We lose our taste for life. We live disconnected lives.

So what’s the solution? Well for me it’s quite simply to have a little faith; to not allow that feeling in your stomach to rule. The lady I met outside the large school room seemed to have it, in spite of her fear, she just needs to learn how not to spoil her morning before arriving at the class. But does this truly deal with the causes of dread? No not really, it only offers a temporary solution to the immediate difficulty. It deals with anxiety one dread at a time, but it doesn’t fully solve the real problem. What about the big picture?

Well it won’t surprise my regular readers to hear that I believe Forrest Church offers a solution.

He said:

"...When suffering overwhelms hope, as it sometimes will, life’s burden feels too heavy for us to shoulder; it may in fact be too heavy to shoulder on our own. We must then turn to others and to God for strength. And for encouragement. Encouraged, we once again take heart. In the face of dread’s most persuasive argument, mustering the courage to act, love, and be, we answer fear’s no with a saving yes”

We are not alone and we do not need to try and face life alone. By reaching beyond ourselves we can find the courage to live and to be all that we are able to be. If we do we will see life in all its colour and taste it in all its flavour. Sometimes that will mean we will get hurt and even seemingly fail, but at least we will be fully alive. We will be connected to life itself.

So yes a ship is seemingly safe if left in the harbour, but it really isn’t what they are made for. 

Friday 8 July 2011

So why did you enter into the ministry?

I am often asked why I entered into the ministry; it happened several times at our denominational annual meetings. It’s a good question to .ask any minister and it was particularly appropriate this year as I was being formerly recognised. That said it is a question that I always feel reluctant to answer, it often fills me with dread. Why you may well ask? Well the reason is that my journey began with agonising, horrific grief; my journey began as I attempted to come to terms with a great loss. The death of my dear friend Claire’s son Ethan and all that followed it, is truly what cast me down the road to Unitarian ministry. Love and loss and finally putting the pieces back together, is what compelled me down this path. As I tried to come to terms with my own grief, while attempting to be there for Claire, I was held and supported by my own minster Rev John Midgley. He was present with a kind heart and a listening ear. He was there the day that Ethan was killed and over the weeks and months that followed. He said very little that I can remember, but he did listen. It cannot have been easy. To me this was a great example of pastoral ministry. John listened and he was there. Claire often tells me how seeing a single tear in his eye at Ethan’s funeral held her through some very dark days. He was no robot, merely going through the motions; there was deep compassion in his presence.

I have now been with the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston for nearly a year and I feel that we have got to know one another quite well. From the outset I made it a priority of mine to spend time talking, but above all else listening, to them. During the worship we have shared I have encouraged openness by allowing them to get to know me. Worship for me must always be speak the language of the heart and not just feed the intellect. This may well have been a challenge for some folk, but was a deliberate decision on my part in an attempt to give those present permission to be open with me. I have pretty much spent time with everyone connected with both congregations, visiting them in their own homes and talking with them about many things. This has been a real treasure to me, personally. We have some real gems hidden away in our congregations. I cannot begin to express how deeply moved I have been by what people have shared with me. Virtually every conversation has been littered with moving stories of love, of pain, of grief and of faith. I have heard some of the most incredible tales of personal spiritual experience, something I have interest in. I have rarely left someone’s home without feeling that my life has been enhanced by the time we have just shared. I have felt welcomed into the lives of the people within both communities and for that I am profoundly grateful.

One of my favourite hymns is “All Are Welcome Here” reads “All are welcome here...all are welcome to seek in spite of open wide to all our hearts...for all are welcome here.” For me the purpose our faith is to build communities of love that encourage that search for understanding and meaning, that search beyond the confines of ourselves; we are about building communities that encourage each of us as individuals to continue that search but to do so together, unconstrained. For me the key to creating this welcome and fostering it amongst ourselves is in the listening; the key is to listen with the “ears of our hearts.”

“Listen with the ear of your heart”, has become one of my mantras over the last few months. It comes from “The Rule of Benedict” a set of ancient principles for monastic orders, followed by many Christian and some Buddhist communities today. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with the ear of your heart “. What is required is deep listening, a concept proposed, in contemporary times, by the Dalai Lama.

This has become the foundation of my ministry, to “listen with the ear of my heart” and to encourage that in others. Of course I often fall short of this mark as I get wrapped up in many things, some important but many trivial. That is ok though, one of my other mantras is “progress not perfection”.

The reason I came into ministry is to keep open my own heart and to encourage others to do likewise.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Learning from geese: There's always something new to fall in love with

When flying in V formation each goose creates uplift for the birds flying behind it, by flapping its wings. The whole flock together creates 71 % greater range than if each bird flew alone.

People who share a common sense of direction and community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are travelling    on the thrust of one another.

When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to lead position.

It pays to take turns doing the hard work and sharing leadership, as with geese, people are interdependent on each others skills, talents, understanding and capabilities.

The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those at the front to keep going.

We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. Groups where the honking is encouraging work much better. The power of 'encouragement (to stand by one's core values and beliefs and encourage the core values and beliefs of others in the group) is the quality of honking we seek.

When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay until it dies or can fly again. Then they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock. .

If we have as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

May we have at least as much sense as geese.

from a speech given by Angeles Arrien,
 based on the work of Milton Olson

One of my favourite songs is “Bluebeat” by New Model Army. There is a line it that goes “There’s always something new to fall in love”. I find this to be a consistent truth of my life.

Last year I fell in love with Geese. It all really began as an antidote to anxiety.

Prayer is really important to my life, it gives me the strength and direction I need to live as openly and honestly as I possibly can and therefore fully experience all that is before me. That said I have discovered, in recent times, its limits; for whatever reason prayer did not take away that anxiety that would come a calling, every Thursday morning, just over a year ago. I can see now that it was the very stillness and solitude of prayer that may well have caused its limitations. When I was in prayer I was still alone. Solitary spiritual practise was not enough it seems, well not at that moment in my life.

So what was the cause of this over powering anxiety, what created this ghost of fear, to come knocking at my door once again?

Well it was learning to drive, something that did not come naturally to me. I let the struggles I had with it get to me at times and I have to say I never thought I would be able to learn. That said I stuck with it and eventually passed.
You may well ask, how did I overcome that anxiety that would almost overwhelm every Thursday morning?

One Thursday morning I rose from solitary prayer and stepped into the cold of winter, crossed the road and walked around Platt Fields Park. I was studying for the ministry at the time at Luther King House, which is where the Unitarian college is, just across the road from Platt Fields Park between Fallowfield and Rusholme in Manchester. I walked and walked and connected to the simple beauty of nature, the people and the animals. Over the next few weeks and months I would continue this walk, often several times a day. I got use to the similar sights. The group of middle aged men, with their cans of beer and their dogs; the students and Asian women jogging; the BMX boys; the mothers with prams; the men fishing and on Sundays the old guys with their model sail boats. I also took friends there and we would walk and talk together. It became more than a weekly ritual; it became a daily one or even sometimes a several times a day one.
Of all the different things I encountered on these walks, it was the geese who had the greatest impact.

You see I’ve fallen in love with the geese.

I’ve fallen in love with the geese.  Just as Milton Olson did in seeing them as an inspiration for how our human societies can function successfully. He observed how every individual gains in power by simply working together for a common purpose, each taking it in turns to lead.

Just by simple watching these geese in a park in central Manchester I was able to connect to the humble reality of my own existence. As I passed them and watched them as they took off and landed as they cried out and honked to one another. I would often chuckle to myself as they waddled about and I observed their funny feet. This love deepened during the spring and summer as they gave birth to their own chicks, which followed them around the lake. 

Just gorgeous, yes I’ve fallen in love with the geese, not the swans, or ducks or other birds. The geese, I’ve fallen in love with the geese.

I fell in love with these simple creatures. They took me out of myself and enabled me to connect to that greater reality that for some reason prayer was failing to do at this juncture of my life. Actually that may not be quite true because it was of course in this quiet time of prayer that the voice in my gut told me get up and walk outside into that cold winter morning.

So what has this experience taught me? Well it taught me once again that I cannot exist as a solitary individual. I need to connect I need to relate. To me this is the essence of spirituality. Spirituality is about relationships and about developing a simple and loving connection to the greater reality. As I understand it spirituality is really all about developing relationships at every level.

Whatever I do in life and wherever I go if I forget this I’m in trouble.  Spirituality is about relationship. Nothing in life exists alone, without something to relate and connect to life will lose its meaning. No man is an island.

I think this is why I despair at so much of what is described as “New Age” spirituality. It is also why I believe my own Unitarian tradition is open at times to appropriate criticism. It can be too individualistic. Rightly no one has authority over another’s right to a private faith, doubt, belief and disbelief. That said we can’t just believe what we want, what we feel like on a whim from one week to next. Our faith offers freedom to search and seek and to ask the difficult questions. This I believe leads to a vibrant faith without certainty. That said Unitarians do not just simply believe whatever they want, at least not in my experience.

A few years ago my brother took a holiday, with his wife, to America. One day they were being shown around Dallas by a taxi driver. At one point they passed a church and the driver exclaimed in a mixture of bewilderment and humour “That over there is a Unitarian Universalist church and those folks can believe whatever they like”

Now when he initially related this story it irritated me. Why people may well ask? Well it’s this caricature that is so often painted about the Unitarian faith that we can believe whatever we like”, that gets to me. As I have heard others state "It’s not so much about believing whatever I like, but about believing what I must." What life in all its mystery and wonder compels me to believe. For me this is a painful and difficult task at times. There are no easy answers.

Also if spirituality becomes a purely private affair, who’s sole aim is to relieve an individual of the pain and discomfort that life can bring, it becomes narcissistic.
Narcissism leads only to more pain and suffering and in the end merely enhances the isolation. Narcissism is the antithesis of spirituality. It is the total annihilation of our humanity. A narcissist is a person utterly absorbed and preoccupied with themselves and their own pain to the total exclusion of others. It was Sigmund Freud who actually coined the term.  He was influenced by Frederic Nietzsche, who was fascinated with the Greek Myths, and how these myths told the stories of our everyday lives.  Freud saw in the myth of Narcissus this common state of preoccupation with our own pain.

Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. As punishment, he was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his own love, Narcissus wasted away over time and changed into the flower that bears his name. He lost his humanity.

A free religious faith cannot be narcissistic and I do not believe that Unitarianism is and I do not for one minute believe it encourages such instincts. Yes we are individuals, who often believe and disbelieve differently from one another, but we are also much more than that we are a community with a common purpose, we do have shared values. By coming together in community we strengthen one another far more than we could do by sitting alone in solitary isolation, trying to make sense of life. We learn from one another but we do more than that we open one another up to many of life's great mysteries.We share each others joys and pains. We cry together, we laugh together and we celebrate together.

Yes I’ve fallen in love with geese, why you may well ask?

Well, because they have taught me what it is to be truly human and how to live in community with other folk.