Wednesday 31 August 2011

It is in giving that we receive: a paradox

“Make me a channel of your peace. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. It is giving to all man that we receive. And in dying that we are born to eternal life”

I love these words from the prayer of St Francis. By the way they are not words that he ever uttered himself, although they are certainly inspired by his life and his message. The prayer, of which there are many versions, first appeared a little over a hundred years ago in France. It is the line “It is in giving to all man that we receive” or the slightly shorter version “It is in giving that we receive,” that really speaks to me. The emphasis here is ever so slightly different to the words from Acts 20 v 35 “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (King James version).

“It is in giving that we receive”. This is the magic moment, in the very act of giving of ourselves to others that we truly receive all that we could ever possibly wish for. It is the most beautiful of paradoxes. Granted it probably does not make logical sense and yet in my experience it is utterly true.

The world’s religious traditions are no stranger to paradox. Taoism is full, or do I mean empty, of them. Here is one example:

Fullness and emptiness give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complete each other.
Long and short shape each other.
Tones and voice harmonize with each other.
Front and back follow each other.
Therefore wherever the sage is, he dwells among affairs by not doing.
He teaches without words.
The ten-thousand things arise, but he doesn’t impel them.
He gives birth, but he doesn’t possess.
He acts, but he doesn’t rely on what he has done.
He has successes, but he doesn’t claim credit.
So by not claiming credit, he is never empty.

The teachings of Jesus are firmly grounded in paradox. He said “the first shall be last”; “empty yourself and be filled”; “lose yourself and be found”. The epistle Paul wrote “As dying, and, behold, we live”; he said of his fellow Christians “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”; and he said of himself “When I am weak, then I am strong”

Aristotle saw this as absolute twaddle of course. He is the great grandfather of scientific methodology, of all who pride themselves on their critical faculties and all who claim rationality. He talked of the law of the excluded middle. Put simply something cannot be both hot and cold at the same time. How can anyone argue with such logic? We cannot be rich if we are poor; we cannot be first if we are last; we cannot experience joy if our lives are full of sorrow. Can we? Surely we cannot, it just does not make sense. How on earth can we receive when we are giving? It does not seem to make sense, when we think logically.

Of course a paradox does not make sense in a purely logical sense, but to expect it to do so is to fail to understand its purpose. It is the tool that broadens the framework in which we see reality. It stretches the boundaries of truth. Through our imaginations we push truth past its seeming limits. Without imagination, without foresight we would probably never have come down from the trees, or out of the caves. A paradox cannot be solved by conventional truths, it requires unconventional truths. It stretches common sense to the point where it becomes uncommon sense and thus moves our experiences of life forward. It challenges the status quo and the understanding of any given time. This is of course what the great religious sages did; they brought new understanding to their time and place.

Our lives are riddled with paradoxes. How often have we heard the following statements? “I am surrounded by people and yet I am lonely” “My life is so full of choices, that I can’t make a decision about anything” or on the more optimistic end of the scale “I am skint and yet I am happy” or “I have so much, because I have so little”

The wisdom of paradox challenges our desire for certainty and perfection. The only thing that I know for certain is that my body will not last forever. We humans though do not like to believe this we like to think that we are all powerful and all knowable. We homo-sapiens may well be wise men, but we are not God. The book “The Spirituality of Imperfection” by Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham, which was based around the authors work with alcoholics (something I personal experience of) recognises that our attempts to achieve perfection have been our most tragic mistake. It highlights that one of the central theme of the spiritual traditions is the insistence that honesty, particularly honesty with self about self, is an essential requirement for any religious quest; that the greatest and most insidious dishonesty is to deny or refuse to accept our mixed human nature. We are not saints, nor are we sinners. We possess qualities of great goodness as well as the capacity to do great evil within us.

I suspect that many of the troubles of modern living are a direct result of our demands for perfection not only from ourselves but others too. We do not have to be perfectly self actualised human beings. We do not have to surmount every obstacle alone. We need one another. Most of my spiritual experiences have been in those moments when I have given of myself to others, without the expectation of receiving anything in return; or when I have received wholeheartedly from others, when they have wanted nothing in return. You see the truth is that in these deeply religious acts, both are givers and both are receivers.

For much of my life, sadly, I could not allow this. It only began to happen following a complete breakdown and the discovery that I could no longer rely solely on my own resources and ingenuity. From there I was opened up and was able to truly ask for help and guess what, it was there. The help came from two very loving and open sources; one a little boy who had not yet learnt to guard against the pain that accompanies love and the other from people who had managed to rebuild their lives having been completely broken themselves.

I was reminded of this, once again, only last week. Ethan would have been 11 years old. On the day of his birthday I went to his grave with a card which I wrapped in cellophane and I remembered all he had given me, by just being himself. I saw his father on the way to the cemetery; he was pushing his lovely baby daughter along the road on his way home, she had a look of her brother. We stopped and we talked for a while and then we parted and went our separate ways.

Looking back at what happened all those years ago my one overpowering memory was the response of the community towards this family in the midst of tragedy. How they were held so lovingly.  They gave and they received, in the midst of terrible loss and agony.

Life can be so bittersweet at times. I have learned, through growing from my own brokenness and pain how much I need other people and how much I need God. I need that power that is greater than all, but present in each. I need to be in community with others to attain this. It will never take away the pain that is in life, but it certainly keeps me open to life’s joys.

I do not believe that it is better to give than to receive, because I have discovered that it is in the very act of giving that we all receive. In the end it turns out that the giver is in fact the receiver and the receiver is the giver.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Whatever happened to the heroes?

Social networking has had a bad press of late, especially in the wake of the recent troubles in our cities. We have heard similar complaints in the past. It always amazes when people blame developments in communication for society’s ills. Yet again we have heard the cries that it is modern media that is corrupting our youth. It would appear that we humans are always looking for scapegoats but I don’t think you can really blame our troubles on tools of communication.

I cannot claim to be the most technically savvy of people, I’m well behind most of my contemporaries to be honest. That said I do make good use of some elements. I am a big fan of Facebook. It has enabled me to make many useful connections. One of  my favourite aspects are the daily updates and series of quotes that different friends of mine post on there, they have helped me on many occasions as I have struggled for themes to explore in worship.

The other day a friend posted this quote:

“Don’t speak to me about your religion; first show it to me in how you treat other people. Don't tell me how much you love your God; show me in how much you love all His children. Don't preach to me your passion for your faith; teach me through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I'm not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as I am in how you choose to live and give.” ~ Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ

“Deed’s not Creed’s” is a central claim of my chosen Unitarian faith. We assert that religion is more about how a person lives their life rather than what they do or do not believe in.

As I have stated previously I have signed up to the “Charter for Compassion” and am attempting to promote Karen Armstrong’s “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” in my ministry. Step 2 suggests that we look at our own world to discover where we can act and make a difference. She also proposes that when doing so we seek inspiration from the heroes of the past; people who in their day climbed out of their boxes and observed their reality from an entirely different angle. They made a difference to their time and place and acted in the world. She is saying that we too can become heroes of our time and place; that we too can be truly religious people who can influence our world for the better.

She states:

“As we seek to create a more compassionate world, we too must think outside the box, reconsider the major categories of our time, and find new ways of dealing with today’s challenges. But as we approach this task, we need the guidance of such people as the Buddha or Confucius, because they are the experts.” pg 58-59

What is a hero?

Heroes can be found in every single human tradition. They have existed ever since we began telling stories around the camp fire. Ancient Greek and Roman mythology spoke of Aneaus, Hercules, Odysseus and Theseus. The Hebrew Scriptures describe the heroic deeds of David, Joseph, Moses and Samson. Similar stories can be found in every culture. They describe heroic figures who stood up for righteousness and made a difference in their time and place.

The stories we tell today are also full of heroic characters. We only need look at the recent movie remakes of the comic strip super heroes such as Spiderman, Batman, The X-Men, or Star Wars, Harry Potter, Dr Who, the Lord of the Rings, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These are modern day heroes, but they are no different in character to the heroes of ancient times. I myself have a love for detective programs like Columbo, Poirot or Monk. I love the slightly quirky and a little bit odd hero. The obvious hero is not really for me.

Joseph Campbell studied the ancient myths and uncovered a pattern that was common to the heroes described within them. He talked of a journey that they all seemed to embark on. It begins with the innocence of childhood and the call to adventure; a call that is initially refused or rejected, but eventually accepted. The hero leaves behind the comforts of family and community. They experience the pain of separation from all that they know and hold dear. They undergo a series of initiation rights and challenges. They do battle with the monsters and demons both within themselves and externally to them until they hit a point of surrender. They hit rock bottom. From this they emerge with a new found humilty. At this point a female character appears, often in the form of the goddess. She leads the hero to a deeper recognition and reconciliation with both his masculine and feminine attributes. The father figure appears and the hero becomes reconciled with his past. The sons power and prowess is finally recognised, the initiation phase comes to an end and the hero becomes fully aware of the newly found gifts within his possession. It is now time for the hero to return with his new found bounty and wisdom. Although he has returned he is not the same person who left and things will never be quite the same again. He can now give all that he has and all that he is to his world.

Karen Armstrong highlights that you can see these heroic characteristics in the great religious sages. They all underwent their own trials before embarking on their missions. The Buddha abandoned his family, shaved his head and donned yellow robes renouncing the ascetic and set off into the world to cure it of suffering. Jesus began his ministry, following his Baptism by John, by stepping out into the wilderness for forty days of temptation. Muhammed, before his revelation, went to Mount Hiren outside of Mecca. Here he fasted and subjected himself to spiritual exercises and gave alms to the poor; here he meditated on the suffering malaise that had overcome his tribesmen and sought out a solution to their problems.

Armstrong suggests that if we wish to live more compassionately and to affect our world for the better that we should follow the example of these ancient sages. That we should search out the heroes of our time and even uncover the heroes within ourselves; to not merely talk about religion, but to live religiously. To live fully engaged and compassionate lives. For her this is essence and purpose of religion and I for one agree with her.

So who are our 21st century heroes?

I recently came across this quote by Christopher Reeve (1952 – 2004). He said:

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

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

Well this one time superman certainly exhibited great courage in the last few years of his life, following the accident that left him a paraplegic. I recently learnt that later in life that he, like myself, became a Unitarian.

Anyone can be a hero; we all possess those qualities within us. All we need to do is uncover those virtues within each and every one of us. Now we may not all have the opportunity to be the brave courageous hero of the ancient and modern tales. That said I am certain that every single one of us has at one time or another had to overcome many obstacles of varying shapes and sizes, no life is without problems. Further, we can all do little wonderful and caring things that can change our world a little bit at a time.

The key for me to uncovering and developing the hero inside each and every one of us is to make that decision each day to do what we can. To effect change does not require super powers, lots of money, complicated gadgets; we do not need to wear a special outfit and cape. All we need to do is to make a decision and follow it with appropriate action, each and every day.

The question we may well ask ourselves is can we do it? Well I for one believe that we can.

When I personally doubt my effectiveness, my ability to make a difference I simply return to these words by Edward Everett Hale

 “I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything
But still I can do something
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

We do not have to search for our modern day heroes; they are inside every single one of us. All that we need to do is look at the person staring back at us in the mirror and not refuse to do the something that we can do.

Monday 15 August 2011

Hope not Hate: A Universalists Response

“You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.  Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”
John Murray
These word’s by John Murray have been ringing in my ears these last few days.

We need hope more than anything at this moment and we need courage. We are all being challenged by despair and at times hatred.

We have all witnessed the rioting and looting and wanton destruction in some of our cities, although not all. Watching the news last week you would think the whole country had gone up in smoke, when in truth it was isolated to certain areas.

We all witnessed the horror of the gunning down of children in Norway; we have seen the phone hacking scandal and the corruption of journalist, the metropolitan police as well as politicians and public figures; we continue to see war and conflict in north Africa, violence in the middle east and famine in the Sudan, exacerbated by its own government;

We have seen the death of a talented singer, to the disease of addiction. It would be so easy to turn away and give up on life...I know I have been tempted to do so from time to time.

I have also felt, as I am sure we all feel sometimes, the need to condemn to blame to turn again to hate. And then I look in the mirror and remember the words of Jesus “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”; and then I have to be honest and say that yes I too have hated and I too have hurt others. This is not me condoning what has happened, just remembering that I share a common humanity with these rioting youths and corrupt politicians, and terrorists and journalists and soldiers, and addicts and the homeless and the mentally ill. I could be anyone of them and know at times I have been some of them. I have certainly lived in despair and perhaps even hated enough to kill. I am human I am not immune from such emotions, I share a common humanity with these very same people. We all do.

In the very same cities where the violence erupted we have seen people coming together; people from all walks of life, at one, in community. There have been peace vigils in all the major cities where rioting took place; people from all walks of life, sharing in their common humanity.

I would imagine only someone completely lost in their own hatred could have failed to have been moved by the example of Tariq Jehan, father of one of the three young man who were mowed down in Birmingham attempting to protect their community. This man did not speak of retribution or reprisal; yes he obviously wants justice, but not revenge. Instead he spoke of our common humanity and the need for communities to come together. Here is a man of faith and love and compassion and his light has definitely shone brighter than any flame this week.

The Norwegian response to the killing of 77 people, 69 of them young activist on a summer camp is another example of hope triumphing over hate. What do we see from Norway’s politicians? We see them uniting together in partisanship for the coming election. The aim of the killer was to attack Norwegian multi-culturalism and tear the nation apart. How have the people responded? They have come together in unity and mutual support in response to the violence and horror. It will not bring the lost lives back, of course it will not, but it would seem that love and hope is prevailing in the aftermath of such horror.  

It would be easy to despair at humanity and yet I see hope everywhere.

I am a Universalist, in both the old meaning of the word and it’s more modern incarnations. I both believe and experience a God of love who accepts all and rejects none; is present in all life and yet is greater than the entirety of all. I also believe that there are many ways to understand and experience this universal love. I do not believe that there is only one way. Universalism has given me a code of hopefulness that I can live by. It sustains me through the vicissitudes of life.

My Universalism is a living breathing faith and helps me make some sense of the world in which I live. It helps me to make some sense of both hope and despair, emotions that are with us all. Universalism does not separate them. They are joined at the hip; they are like Siamese twins, who depend on one another for life.

In the French language hope (espair) and despair (desespair) share the same root. From this it seems reasonable to conclude that the opposite of hope is not actually despair but indifference. Indifference is to live without feeling or passion or care, to fail to respond to the pain and or suffering around, to deny our link to one another, to fail to feel another’s pain, to care less. Yes people in the midst of despair struggle and may even want to give up, but they keep on, hope is never too far away. Hope and despair are two branches formed from the same root of the one tree.

Universalism is a hope filled faith, but that does not make it an easy path. It is not about sitting back and waiting to be rescued by the God of Love it promotes. Instead it declares that salvation, in this life, can only be achieved by facing up to the suffering present in all our lives and dealing directly with the despair that accompanies it.

There are those who accuse we hope filled Universalists as being nothing more than “Pollyanna’s”, I have had this accusation thrown at me. Is this true? I certainly do not deny the pain of life, quite the opposite I have learnt that love and beauty can only truly be found in the very muck of life itself, this is where the pearls and diamonds are found. Hope is found through honestly living through the vicissitudes of life.

We are all responsible for creating the world in which we live. We bought the newspapers that tapped into the phones of people; we all played our role in creating the current financial crisis. can any one of us truly claim innocence? I know that I can not.

I believe that the Brahma Kumaris hit the nail on the head in this recent public response to the rioting:

“Greed, inhumanity, and lack of integrity in the pursuit of financial or political gain are hardly the preserve of the young rioters. Young people are particularly susceptible to the myth peddled to them by society that happiness lies in material gain; this has left a huge vacuum inside with nothing to fill it.”

We can all point the finger and blame others for the current state we are in, but we all share a common humanity. We are all responsible for the state we are. I will certainly hold my hand up and accept my responsibility. Therefore we are all responsible for the solution, which has already begun by communities coming together. In the very despair of our current situation there is hope.

I have felt incredible sadness at times these last few weeks as I have witnesses the many horrors we inflict on one another, but I live with hope which I believe can fill the vacuum in our world. I will not turn away and sink into depression, which these days I understand differently to sadness.

Sadness is an emotion which any fully connected and therefore awakened human being must feel. If a person never feels sadness or pain, then they never feel love either. Depression on the other hand is something very different. More often than not it is the result of becoming trapped in self pity or crippled by despondency. Sadness is a naturally occurring irremovable part of our humanity, where as depression can be lessened and even totally eliminated, if correctly treated. Sadness can bring us together in our shared humanity, where as depression keeps us apart and in isolation. Sadness breeds hope; depression suffocates it.

Sadness is an emotion that we need as we look out at some of the terrible destruction and corruption witnessed over these last few weeks. It is an emotion I myself have felt many times, but it has not brought with it hopelessness. I have also felt it during conversations with those nearest and dearest to me; people struggling with the pain of their own lives. I have tried to be with my loved one’s but I have not found it easy at times and I know that I have failed them on occasion, I am not immune from diffidence. Sometimes other people’s pain can be just too much.

I also know what it is like to live without hope. I have been the slave of addiction and I have been constrained and trapped by depression. I have hated myself and I have hated my world, but not anymore. I have found love and I have found hope, in the midst of despair. I found it by searching the through the muck of my own life. That great reality deep down within every single one of us.

So to echo, but to slightly alter, the sentiments of John Murray. Let’s give our world hope and not hate. Let’s follow the examples all around us in our own cities and our towns, lets live lives of love and connection.

Love will prevail...

“What the world needs now, is love sweet love”

Thursday 4 August 2011

Pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again

I was sat in my vestry earlier waiting for a friend to come round to talk through some things. Suddenly I heard a loud thud at the door; I looked up to see nothing there. So I got up opened the door and still I could see nothing. I looked all around, but still I could see nothing. I was about to go inside, assuming that maybe somebody had thrown something at the window, when I saw a little bird laid at my feet. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do. I thought that is was dead at first, as it was lifeless, but saw that it was still breathing and was just laying there stunned. It had obviously flown into the glass, the “silly bugger” (as my granddad would say). I was going to pick it up but thought better of this and just left it there, as I didn’t want to distress it any further. I watched over it, kind of standing guard I suppose. I felt I had to just in case my friend arrived and didn’t see it lying there. After a few minutes it got to it’s feet, but did not move, just kept on breathing deeply. Then suddenly it just flew to a nearby bush and I never saw it again. Then my friend arrived and we shared tea and a wonderful conversation.

Another friend of mine told me that they were struggling with something this morning, but that all would be ok, it was not a big deal. This is of course true and I reminded her that today we both have the courage and strength to deal with whatever life throws at us. Of course this is not always instant. Sometimes we do have to take whatever ever comes at us.  At times it can even stun us and knock us unconscious. Sometimes we have to lie there for a while and simply get our breath back; then slowly get to our feet and fly off into the blue yonder to experience life once again.

The biggest difference between the person I am today and the person had become a few years ago is that I have the courage and strength to live, to pick myself up, no matter what happens to either myself or those I love. I have connected to that core, that inner being, that essence of my humanity; that of God that is within myself and all life. I am no longer completely ruled by my fear of life or what I think others think of me. I have found a faith that I can and do live by, that holds and sustains me no matter what.

That said I do need other people too. Sometimes to simply watch over me until I get my breath and senses back and at other times to simply encourage me and tell me that I just need to keep putting one foot in front of other and that all will be well.

This morning was definitely a tale of the unexpected but it has taught me a lot or do I mean it has reminded, me once again, of one or two vital truths.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Do you remember when we use to say...

Every moment of reconciliation is a truly religious act.

Over the last few months I have had the opportunity to spend time catching up with many people I have known through the many stages of my life. There are two primary reasons for this. The first is having the freedom of a car and therefore being able to travel around easily, the second is social networking. I have been able to reacquaint and reconnect with old friends. Some are living happy and enjoyable lives and others it would appear are not. Whatever the individual circumstances I have loved reconnecting with old friends and family.

Memory is a funny thing. It is amazing what we remember and what we cannot remember, how memory can be so very selective. Memory also changes over time. My memory or do I mean my perspective on past events in my life, have changed over time.

My friend and colleague Rev David Shaw says this about memory

“The dictionary reminds us that ‘remember’ literally means to ‘re-member’; to put back together that which has been torn apart. In some way remembering has a similarity to ‘religion’, which means ‘to rebind together’.

Both are about seeking after a wholeness, and isn’t that what we are about most of the time?”

Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing myself these last few months, seeking after wholeness. Maybe I’ve been trying to come full circle with my past. I have of course come personally to peace with much of my life; I have worked hard at this. That said I have noticed, during recent times, that this has moved to a different level. If I am really honest, up to now, it has been primarily all about me wanting to come to peace with my own life. I am not wholly convinced that it has primarily been about building relationships, although this has been a positive consequence of my actions.  That said I have still kept a safe distance at times, I have not wanted to get too involved in the lives of the very people who have shaped me. Therefore I have to conclude that my motives have, to some extent, remained a little selfish. I have enjoyed playing the prodigal son who floats in and out of people’s lives, I wonder if I have been truly present. I have learnt so much these last few months about the importance of family and community. Or maybe I’ve just remembered something that I had previously forgotten.

One of my favourite parables, told by Jesus, is that of the “Prodigal Son” (Luke 15 vv 11-32). I believe that it still has so much to say to us in the 21st century. It’s such a human tale. The story speaks powerfully about healing the broken bonds of family and community. It’s about reconciliation; it’s about wholeness. It teaches just how vital human reconnection is; this applies as much today as it did back then. In so doing it also teaches me something of the nature of God. That God loves and accepts us, no matter who we are or where we have been. God does not choose and reject, although I accept that many portray God in this way. The punishing and judgemental God does appear in both Christian and Jewish scripture, but I believe that there is also a much more powerful Biblical witness that shines through the very same scripture. This is the God that seeks connection and reconciliation and is truly experienced when we make peace with one another and all that is life.

This is the God I know, the one I have experienced when at peace with myself, my past and the people I share my life with. Many would not want to use the word God to describe this experience and I believe that Love in its truest sense fits just as well. But for myself I prefer to name that incredible and beautiful mystery God.

No matter where we have been we can all begin to create the commonwealth of Love again, by simply reconciling ourselves with life itself. In some sense we are all prodigal sons and daughters. To me this is the whole point of religious community; to build a space where compassion toward one another is practised. From this starting point we can begin to build circles of compassion going out into our world, where violence and hatred does seem to be on the increase. Many of the great sages taught this, the Buddha did as did Confucius. Confucius saw each person at the centre of a constantly expanding series of concentric circles of compassion. Thus by taking care of family this compassion then moved out to community, and beyond until it reached the whole world.

Once again I have begun to remember that every moment of reconciliation is a true act of religion.