Thursday 26 April 2012

An Anniversary Waltz: You keep on inspiring me

I entered the blogosphere exactly one year ago to the day. It began after a presentation at the ministerial conference I attended at the annual meetings of the Unitarian and Free Christian denomination that I serve. I have been a very busy boy since. It seems I have quite a bit to say. I believe that this will be my 80th blog. I am sure I don't go about it the way you are supposed to, but hey who cares. I have found a way that works for me. I hope that these little blogs have helped those who have read them. I know by creating them they have helped me immensely.

I was wondering how I might celebrate "I Dream of the Ocean's" first birthday and then it came to me. I thought I would share words by other Unitarians, Universalists and Free Christians that have spoken to me personally. I will also throw in a bit of music about the sea, well why not?...let me know what you think...

The first piece is by my great hero Forrest is describing what he see's as a 21st century Universalist theology..."The Cathedral of the World":

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of grime, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each window tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through.

Because the cathedral is so vast, our life so short, and our vision so dim, over the course of our pilgrimage we are able to contemplate only a bit of the cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect on the play of light and darkness through a few of its myriad windows. Yet by pondering and acting on our ruminations, we discover insights that will invest our days with meaning.

A twenty-first-century theology based on the concept of one light and many windows offers to its adherents both breadth and focus. Honouring multiple religious approaches, it only excludes the truth claims of absolutists. This is because fundamentalists claim that the light shines through their window only. Some, as we know from painful experience, go so far as to beseech their followers to throw stones through other people’s windows.

Skeptics draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshippers, they conclude that there is no light. But the windows are not the light. They are where the light shines through.

We shall never see the light directly, only as refracted through the windows of the cathedral. Prompting humility, life’s mystery lies hidden. The light is veiled. Yet, being halfway in size between the creation itself and our body’s smallest constituent part, that we can encompass with our minds the universe that encompasses us is a cause for great wonder. Awakened by the light, we stand in the cathedral, trembling with awe.

Some people have trouble believing in a God who looks into any eyes but theirs. Others have trouble believing in a God they cannot see. But that none of us can look directly into God’s eyes certainly doesn’t mean God isn’t there, mysterious, unknowable, gazing into ours through the windows of the Cathedral of the World”

The second piece is by Jeffrey Lockwood. Jeffrey Lockwood is a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming. The piece is titled "Go Fly a Kite". I love this attitude to life...

Wind has a dark power over us, the capacity to trigger depression, despondency, and even - according to eighteenth century physicians - madness. How is it that moving air, an invisible presence, can so deeply disturb the human psyche? We have created our own vulnerability. 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. Umbrellas keep us dry, moisturisers keep us wet, silk keeps us cool, wool keeps us warm, creams keep us from burning, but nothing vanquishes the wind. 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.

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.

The people in our lives - family, lovers, friends, community - are the braided strands, a kite string that sustains the dynamic tension between heaven and earth. They are a lifeline that allows us to be uplifted, to see farther, to live more fully. And the higher we fly, the stronger our string must be. For when our connection becomes worn and frayed it can snap, and we will come tumbling back to earth, landing far from where we left, with nobody to repair our breaks or mend our tears.
and so rejoice in the wind - but attend to your string.

Here's a bit more Forrest Church...on religion...

"I define religion more inclusively than many others do. Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. We are not the animal with tools or the animal with advanced language; we are the religious animal. Because we know that we are going to die, we question what life means. Death also throws meaning itself into question, for some people rendering it moot. Yet, for most of us, knowing that we are mortal inspires a search for answers that will remain valid in spite of our mortality. If religion is our response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die, the purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.”

Oh and a bit on God...

“God language can tie people into knots, of course. In part, that is because ‘God’ is not God's name. Referring to the highest power we can imagine, ‘God’ is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. For some the highest imaginable power will be a petty and angry tribal baron ensconced high above the clouds on a golden throne, visiting punishment on all who don't believe in him. But for others, the highest power is love, goodness, justice, or the spirit of life itself. Each of us projects our limited experience on a cosmic screen in letters as big as our minds can fashion. For those whose vision is constricted (illiberal, narrow-minded people), this can have horrific consequences. But others respond to the munificence of creation with broad imagination and sympathy. Answering to the highest and best within and beyond themselves, they draw lessons and fathom meaning so redemptive that surely it touches the divine.” 

I love this little piece by Don Beaudreault. A superb Jazz pianist who served in Merseyside for a short while. It is entitled “Angels Among Us”

I believe that there are angels among us all the time, especially at Christmas. But what exactly is an angel? Here is how I suggest we can tell if we bump into one:

Angels deny they are angels. They don’t all have wings or halos or smiles – those are only the ones who like to dress up. Angels don’t expect anything in return for services rendered. They don’t always tell us what we want to hear.

Oh, yes, every once in a while, we think we see them! Angels aren’t all called Michael or Gabriel. We might even be angels and not realise it.

Yes, angels are here among us – giving us gifts beyond measure. Gifts of humour when we think the sun will never shine again, passion when we believe we are unlovable, inspiration when our life force wanes, confidentiality when we can’t tell anyone else our secrets, forgiveness when we sorely need it, advice when we don’t know which direction to turn, frankness when we try to tell less than the truth about who we really are, and the gift of just being there when we are so very alone.

You see, the angels are the people who care about us. This is their message as they sing over Bethlehem infant, hover at the bedsides of those who suffer greatly, walk hand-in-hand with those whose lives this year have been very tough, and who are there source of strength and understanding when life doesn’t seem to make any sense.

Yes, angels are real, and they can bring Christmas to us every day of the year if only we let them into our lives.

Truly, the angels are among us!

Here's a little more Forrest he discusses the sacredness of our tears...

In contrast to the Buddhist (and stoic) ideal of detachment or dispassion, the ancient Hebrews honoured suffering, viewing it as a sign of a deeply felt experience, a symbol of their passion. I encountered an intimate expression of this on a recent trip visit to Israel.

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem contains a collection of tiny ceramic cups. These were sacramental vessels. People cried into them.

Your mother has just died. Someone you love has cancer. Your spouse has left you. You are struggling at work. More likely, you have simply broken down. You burst into tears. So you pick up your tear cup, put it under your eye, and weep into it. When you are finished weeping, you cap it and put it away again. It is a way to save your tears.

Why save them? Because they are precious. It doesn’t matter why we cried, your tears are precious, for they show that you care. A full cup of tears is proof that you have felt deeply, suffered, and survived. Their value is ratified by this simple parable from Jewish lore. When his student complained that he was suffering and so deeply confused that he could no longer pray and study, Rebbe Mendl of Kotzk asked him, “What if God prefers your tears to your studying?”.

I stumbled across this a short while ago...I love it...I asked a member of the congregation to read it in worship and she loved it is entitled "Old Tree" by Naomi Linnel

To everything there is a season.
And a time for every purpose under the heaven.
Ecclesiastes 3

I am the old tree in the corner of the forest;
Bark crumbling, I watch my dead wood fall;
I am hollow-hopeless, no squirrel enjoys my shelter;
My November-withered strength lies crushed beneath Spring's quiet glory.
Budless branches mocked by lustrous ferns,
I am a thing empty and barren in the midst of burgeoning plenty.

I am the old tree in the corner of the forest;
Around my dried out roots new life escapes the earth,
Oak seedlings and oxslips, hazel and juniper,
Wood sorrel and the common purple mallow;
Yellow-necked mice burrow beneath my rotting leaves,
Beaks full of insects, treecreepers spiral up my fissured trunk.

I am the old tree in the corner of the forest.
Dancing children circle me, singing in the shadowed sun of evening;
They have brought scarlet berries and blue-violet daisies
To decorate my cracked and rotting woody carapace,
Strewn sweet herbs and rose petals about me;
And their song to God the Mother is a Hymn of Praise

 Here's a bit more Forrest he discusses the importance of humility and openness...when I accept the limits of my human knowledge it opens me up to experiences I could never have even begun to imagine...certainly been how I ever experienced life these past few years...

“In every field of human inquiry, ignorance increases as knowledge grows. The Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “I am the most ignorant man in Athens.” He wasn’t indulging in false modesty. He was pointing out that others, knowing far less, had no idea how ignorant they were. Socrate’s ignorance, the knowledge of how much remained for him to learn, expanded in direct proportion to his learning. Of both belief and knowledge, the same is true for us. When reflecting on several years of contemplation on the origins of the cosmos, one cosmologist sighed, “It’s not only queerer than we imagined; it’s queerer than can be imagined.”

“Whether informed by religion or by science, our minds cannot unwrap life’s mystery. This is why, in offering evidence to corroborate religious truth, true believers may more honestly be accused of being too rational than too irrational. They are not alone. We all use our minds to figure out things that can’t be deciphered by anything as small as our minds. On the one hand, the attempt is a noble one. Trying to decode life’s mystery is what makes us human.”

“Balancing these two apparent contradictions. I base my own theology on contrasting principles: openness and humility. 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.”

This piece was written by the first Unitarian I met when a walked through the doors of Cross Street Chapel one Wednesday lunchtime several years ago. This is what Peter Sampson has to say on the Incarnation.

The incarnation is true not of Christ exclusively but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine.
James Martineau (1805-1900)

James Martineau’s distinctly Unitarian ‘take’ on the transformation of God into our human – all too human – flesh and blood has been a constant inspiration to me.

Our responsibility for our own lives and necessarily, for the lives of our brothers and sisters throughout the world lays upon us all a duty which cannot be dodged; our humanity is defined by how we serve and care for the needs of the human family. You can’t have faith without works and working for the good of all inspires our faith in God-given life.
It is a small comfort to me to be told that God died for our sins. I see every one of us missing the mark in our lives and whenever a fellow-creature is harmed we must pray for forgiveness for ourselves. We are all culpable but if we are to serve human progress we have to say ‘sorry’ from the bottom of our heart and move on.

When we look around us we tend to focus on what’s going wrong: suffering – often caused by human ignorance – waste, devastation, degradation, contempt, the whole sorry spectacle of “Man’s in humanity to Man”. I see this as a betrayal of our God-given humanity, a trivialisation of our God-endowed divinity.
Resorting to armaments and inflexible war-talk of politicians, shouting at those we don’t agree with and throwing our weight about if we don’t get our own way – I want to say “Come off it! Who do you think you are? There is that of God in every person, in every creature on the planet.

I’m going to end with several extracts from the book Forrest Church wrote as he was dying from Esophageal  cancer, “Love and Death: My Journey Through The Valley Of The Shadows” It may well be my favourite book.

Here he describes how his own faith changed during the latter years of his life and describes a deepening and much more personal relationships with God...Speaks powerfully to me...

"Those who return at times of trouble to the Twenty-third Psalm as a lifeline know the central role God can play in comforting a grief-stricken life. In my journey through the valley of the shadow, God leads me by the heart. When God dwells in my heart, I abide in God's presence. I live in an apartment of the creation furnished by the Creator. However humble my abode, its occupant but animated dust, the whole universe is my dwelling place. God's dominion is my domicile.

It hasn't always been this way for me. For years I dealt with grief and fear less imaginatively: I drank. Shortly after Princess Diana's death and one year before the terrorist attacks. I put an end to my lifelong affair with the bottle. Sobriety didn't change my theology, certainly not the premium it placed on the axis of love and death, but it did deepen it in one significant sense. I now fully felt what before I mostly thought. My heart had always been in play - how could it not with love and death my abiding theme - but now a trunk line opened from my mind straight to my heart, a line that was almost always open. My long standing belief in a distant God slowly transfigured itself into my felt experience of a loving God. Ah, what a world of difference: to feel, not merely know, what one believes.

During the final, most conflicted, decade of my drinking, I paid more lip service to God than I did devotion. My career continued to thrive. I didn't get drunk, I self-medicated. By outwards appearances, my life prospered. But it was increasingly hollow at the core. Delving into this hollowness taught me (as I had heard somewhere once) that when we don't really believe in God, it is not that we believe in nothing, rather we believe in almost anything. Because my wife, Carolyn, refused to look the other way, and because I had grown bone weary of my penchant for evasion, I couldn't live like this much longer. All my excuses and rationalisations had far outrun their expiration date. After several aborted attempts and long experimentation with variously successful half measures, with the turning of the millennium in the year 2000 I quit drinking."

Here he describes the importance of being cautious about our safety and daring to live before we eventually die...he reminds us that we do not sail this ship alone, we are in this ship together all the way..."an overexamined life is not worth living. I know that. some of you who come to me for couselling are so wrapped up in your own and your parents' underwear that I sometimes wonder if you will ever get out, if you will ever get naked. Just remember, you are not alone on the Titanic. we are all here together, on this extraordinary ship - different classes, yes, and not enough lifeboats - but when it comes to death there are never enough lifeboats. the ship is magnificent but one day it will sink. All hands will be lost.

This advice may return to haunt you, but I commend you to ignore life's dangers as readily as you protect yourself from them. Even as an overexamined life is not worth living, an overplanned life lacks wonder and sponteneity. The harder we work to get things exactly right, the more cautious we become, the more careful not to fail. Risking nothing, we stand to gain little beyond the security of battened-down existance. We miss the sea breeze and the ball. We will know little failure, or only little failures, but consider the cost. any sure thing is almost sure to be so carefully packaged that when we unwrap it, the size of the box will turn out to be so many times larger rhan the size of the gift that we cannot help but be dissapointed.

So if you are struggling with a relationship, out of touch with an old friend, unsure of whether to risk a new job, uncomfortably estranged from your father; if you are hiding to be safe, taking care not to be wrong, I suggest you take a chance. Don't wait until you are sure. Don't wait until you have it right. Though waiting till we have it right works for some things - mostly little things - often our most important decisions and actions are so fraught with danger that we will never surely get them right. If we don't fire before we take perfect aim, we may never fire at all.

Life is filled with danger. that's just the way it is. finally, the Titanic always hits the iceberg. Hence this simple, if imprudent, bit of advice. Before it does, pick up the phone. Pick up the gauntlet. Do whatever it takes. take a few chances. Dare to live before you die"

I love this final little piece. I have for sometime talked of a theory I have named as "The chaos theory of Love"...which is a more anarchic and spontaneous version of Confucius "Concentric Circles of Compassion...

"Why is kindness a pure virtue? Precisely because kindness is a gift that demands no response. For each such acts of kindness, you get nothing tangible in return, save the feeling, the sacrament, of human sympathy. Kindness is by no means inferior to love. In fact it is a kind of love, agape, God's love, poured out upon the earth without a quid pro quo - a pure unadulterated gift" 

Wednesday 25 April 2012

"Let Love Continue Long"

Love is a word that is often misunderstood, over used but under practised and in many cases ridiculed and yet it is the most powerful force I have ever experienced in my life. It changes you forever.

Love has had many great detractors through out human history. Plato saw it as “divine madness”, Schopenahaur saw it as “natures” great deception” played on humanity merely to preserve the species. Erich Fromm saw it as a coping mechanism to counter the pain of separateness and existential isolation and Freud saw love as a form of psychopathology, he saw it as being essentially an irrational aberration. Freud obviously didn’t think much of it. 

The ancient Greeks wrote endlessly about love. For them it manifested in three main ways. These being eros (romantic love), philia (love between friends and family) and agape (spiritual love). We though have just one word which incorporates all forms. All we have is love. All forms have the capacity to change us, but when we speak of love what do we mean?

When the great faiths talk of love, it is essentially Agape or spiritual love that they speak of. This is the love that Jesus preached in the New Testament, this is the loving kindness that is talked of in Buddhism. It is a universal principle found in all the great faith traditions. This is the love that transforms human hearts and souls, that can bring us into oneness, into harmony with all creation and God.

This is the love that is referred to in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul wrote:
1If I speak in the tongues[a] of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,[b] but have not love, I gain nothing.
 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

The Buddha’s word’s on loving kindness, the Metta Sutta says.
“So with a boundless heart; Should one cherish all living beings; Radiating kindness over the entire world:”

Agape love is a universal principle it is not only found in the message that Jesus brought to humanity but is central to all the great faith traditions theistic and non – theistic.

Agapaic love has no boundaries, unlike that felt for family or lovers. Agape melts the differences between “us” and “them”. It removes the barriers we humans create between gender, class, colour, religion, sexual orientation age. It recognises that all of us are children of life, children of love, children of God and we all deserve compassion no matter where we have been, whatever our pasts.

“Simple, but not easy” as a great man once said.

If we are to follow the way of love and to truly experience love then we will have to learn to love our enemies. Is this possible? Well if we do not we will remain bound to them, they will own us and the hatred we feel for them will stop us truly practising love for others. We may well become just like our enemies and then we will come to despise ourselves. Where is the love then?

Many years ago I embarked upon a spiritual programme of change, it is still central to my life today.  At its core is the principle of self giving love and it is this love that changes the person involved. It enables them to live in the world. Free!

One vital element was to go back through my life and clear up old wreckage. I had no issue with most of this. The part I found the hardest though was going to see those who had caused me and those I love the greatest pain. The most difficult of all was mother’s second husband. A man who for most of my life I was terrified of.

I say it was difficult, when the truth is that it was virtually impossible, I did it though and do you know what it set me free. It was hard and it was painful but I managed it. By the way it was during this time that I discovered the power of prayer it certainly held me through this difficult process.

I met him at my sister’s house, his daughter, and do you know what all the ill feeling left me there and then. We sat and we talked and I left knowing who and what he was and all that he had done but without the bondage of hatred. I’ve never been quite the same person since. I was able to love him as a human being, while not forgetting all that he had done.

Agape love is not a sentimental feeling it is a decision we must make. It is a decision we must make towards all people no matter how undeserving they may appear to be. As M. Scott Peck said Agape love is “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” "Simple, not easy."

I have learnt that in order to live freely in this world I need to offer love to all regardless of who they are. I do not have to be their friend, to offer familial love and I do not need to go out of my way to spend time with them. I see my former step father at family occasions, I have no issue with him today. I can sit and talk with him, knowing the truth but with no ill feeling. This is nothing short of a miracle.

Besides which I’ve been no angel myself I have hurt the ones I claimed to love and I’m certainly by no means perfect.I only have to look at the last seven days of my life to be aware of how often I still mess up, often through foolishness, but I still do it.

The key of course is to not become inhibited by the fear of our mistakes, and to keep on reaching out beyond ourselves so that we can continue to experience this love.

As Paul said:

“13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Without love all that we accomplish in life means nothing. We can have everything we could have ever desired but if loves is not present it means nothing. Without love life becomes a living hell.

Of the three Faith, hope and love, why is the greatest love? Well because it is love that connects us to our true selves, to one another and to the great mystery that is essence of all life. We need this connection. Love has to be at the centre of life.

Love must be the greatest because without love how can we have faith. Without connecting in love to one another we have nothing to be faithful to. Without love our hope, our vision and our experience of life’s possibilities implodes into a black hole of self absorbed narcissism. Love feeds our deepest hope. our deepest hope transcends our petty desires and our deepest hopes transcend the physical limits of our lives life. It transcends our very selves and sets us free from every kind of bondage of the mind.

Love must be at the centre of all we do or all that we do will have no meaning.

“Let love continue long and show to us the way and if that love be strong no hurt can a say”

Saturday 21 April 2012

Vanity all is vanity

...The following was originally published in April 2012..the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic...

Last weekend was the one hundredth anniversary of the Titanic's fatal maiden voyage. The sinking of the unsinkable ship is the subject of countless films and books. It is one of the most famous tales of the twentieth century, perhaps because it symbolises the end of Victorian and Edwardian optimism and the idea of progress ever onwards and upwards. For within two years of her sinking the First World War would begin with all the horrors of industrial scale conflict.

So yes a century has passed since the Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage, when the inconceivable happened, to this flag ship of the “White Star Line”. The Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ocean liner ever to be launched. Designed by the Unitarian Thomas Andrew. She was built from the finest materials and by a highly skilled workforce; she boasted the most technologically advanced equipment, replete with a super-redundancy of water-tight compartments forming an inner hull with bulkheads that could be closed with the flip of an electric switch; she was believed to be virtually unsinkable.

So what happened?  Well on April 15th 1912 at 11.40, just four days into her maiden voyage she collided with an iceberg, resulting in a 230 foot long gash. Over the course of the next two hours, with lights still blazing and the band playing on she sank. All the brilliant machinery, all the carefully conceived splendour and 1,509 lives (69% of those on board) sank to an icy oblivion; a gruesome and a needless death.

Now I’m not going to discuss the why’s and wherefore’s of the Titanic’s demise, I am no engineering expert; nor am I going to discuss how the collision could have been avoided; nor am I going to discuss the horrific class division in those who survived the sinking. No I am talking of the Titanic because she seems to be an almost perfect example of hubris and human vanity; the belief that we can somehow transcend life and almost become Godlike. Yes, as I stated in my last blog, I do believe that we are capable of so much more than we often think, but we can never transcend the limits of life, well at least not within the limits of our human bodies. What happens beyond this life, well no one knows the answer to that. No one, it’s just another form of vanity to think that we do.

I have a growing affection for the Book of Ecclesiastes. In the first verses of the first chapter the writer claims that all is vanity.

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity."

We humans demand to know the answers to everything. Even if we could discover the answers to everything I am not convinced it would help; I am not convinced that it would fill that existential hole. Would it make life safe? Would it guarantee immunity from pain and suffering? Of course it would not, they are part of life.

Of course that does not stop us asking the question that we have pondered since time began; it does not stop us asking the ultimate question of them all, what is the meaning of life? The author of Ecclesiastes tells us that he spent quite some time himself not only asking this very question, but really striving for the answer. He tells us that he first sought pleasure, he spared himself no sensual delights; yet he found these pleasures hollow and meaningless, it was as if he were “chasing after wind”. He then threw himself into working hard and he succeeded, but discovered he received no greater reward for his labours than those who did little; hard work alone failed to make him happy nor did it give him a sense of accomplishment. So he devoted himself to righteousness, hoping that God would reward him for this; but soon discovered he was no better off than those who had robbed and cheated and stole from their neighbours. So he sought and won unimaginable power and what happened? Well that brought him little satisfaction too. Finally he concluded that all of this striving for rewards was meaningless and without substance; he concludes that it was all vanity; that once we see all that we gain, it just vanishes into the air. It’s all vanity, all is vanity.

Vanity all is vanity. This was Narcissus’s problem he was consumed by his own vanity. He was wrapped up in self adoration and was thus incapable of loving anyone else.  He stared into his own reflection and became consumed by his own love for himself and as a result he withered away and died. Maybe this is the problem. In our search for meaning and happiness we become consumed by ourselves and our own reflection. In so doing we become cut off from one another, from life and from God. Maybe the pursuit of happiness becomes so addictive and all consuming that we fail to experience life and therefore fail to experience the love that is already here. Chasing after happiness is like chasing after the wind. Well the wind is a wild and untameable beast. She doesn’t need taming, she just needs to be felt and or experienced and delighted in.  The gift is life itself and yet we spend so much time failing to truly experience it because we get lost in the whys and wherefore’s, in our own reflection, in our own vanity.

Below is an animated version of the Greek Myth "Echo and Narcissus"

According to Forrest Church:

“The word vain carries two complementary connotations: puffed up and empty (or impossible). To elevate ourselves above others is vanity, because from dust we all come and to dust we shall return; and attempting to do what cannot be done or to know what cannot be known is a vain, or impossible, endeavour. In common parlance, vanity is pride. We cannot form saving connections when we permit pride to distance us from others. And when we tether our hopes to a vain object, our lifelines will not hold. On the other hand, compassion unites us with others, and humility concedes our human limitations.”

Vanity, all is vanity...

Last Saturday I attended a joint fortieth birthday party for three old mates of mine. It was a great night, a lot of joy and a lot of laughter and a lot sharing of memories of years gone by. It was a wonderful and wonder filled occasion. As I drove back on the M62 I reflected on the places we have been together and my own life and its meaning.

I have struggled with life's purpose and meaning at many and varied stages, I have on occasions got lost in my own reflection, as have most of my friends. How do I know this? Well they have told me so. I don’t believe that any of us, at one stage or another, have failed to enter that existential black hole of meaninglessness and nothingness. Thankfully most of us made it out of it, but some did not. As I drove back I also reflected on friends I have known and lost over the years. I know how fortunate a man I am and for this I am eternally grateful. As Forrest Church so often points out we did nothing to deserve the God given gift that is life itself. Life truly is the greatest gift of all. Maybe to even ask the question why, is a form of vanity in itself. Why not me?

Although I do like the way that Ecclesiates critiques humanities vanity I do find it overly pessimistic and this pessimism does need questioning. There is great meaning to be unearthed in life. That meaning emerges in the work we do together, in those simple acts of compassion and love and in those simple acts of joy. Yes, ok, if we measure our success purely on whether or not it has made us happy, we may well be chasing the impossible. Happiness is not easily measured, despite the efforts of our government and the like. Happiness is not a commodity, it cannot be held onto, and it cannot be clung to. To chase happiness is to chase after the wind. Happiness, like the wind, is an untameable and an ungovernable beast.

So how do we measure the worth of our lives? Well maybe it’s only in the light of what we bring to the lives of others in their struggles and worries. If you have managed to put a smile on someone’s face this day then you have been a success or if you were able to sit with another in their pain than you have succeeded, in my eyes.

Yes if we live lives purely for ourselves, for our own purpose then our lives will become as frustrating as chasing after the wind. Likewise if our goal is to build that perfect Utopian society and we fall short, no doubt we will become frustrated at our inadequacies. Does this mean that we should do nothing? No of course not, just because the building of the “New Jerusalem” is probably beyond us it does not mean that we cannot make a difference, an important difference in this our world where caring and compassionate efforts truly are needed.

That’s not vanity, that’s love...and it is through acts of love that we know meaning and that we can know God. This is the kind of love that we ought to become consumed by, the love for others and the love for God. By doing so we will begin to experience true love for ourselves and not become consumed by our own reflection and sink into the depths of the water. That isn’t love that is Narcissism.

Remember we do not sail this ship alone. We all belong to the fellowship of the spirit, the fellowship of love. There is no turning the ship around; we are in this together all the way.

Friday 13 April 2012

Sticks and stones only break our bones, but words can utterly destroy us

“Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt me.” We’ve all heard that one haven’t we?

Is it true? Well no not really. Yes ok words do not leave physical marks and scars, but the wounds that can be caused through ill thought out, or just plain viscous speech can be deeply damaging and can still cause pain many years later. We do need to be careful what we say, because what we say has an impact. While it is true that “actions speak louder than words” words can still be powerful actions in and of themselves.

When I was a student minister a support group was set up to help me through my early days of training. They were there to offer constructive criticism of me in a loving and supportive way. I found it invaluable at a time when I was a little bit of a lost sheep, stepping into a world that I knew little about. Those early days as a student minister were tough, as they should be and I am so very grateful for the loving support I received. I was nurtured.

That said I struggled greatly with one member of the congregation, who was not actually in the support group. Whenever I did anything she would come up to me and tell me very directly what she liked and did not like and the things about me that really irritated her, mainly my manner and body language. Now this would probably not have hurt so much except for most of my life I have had problems with regard to my body image etc. As a child I was constantly criticised for not standing up straight etc and I am very aware of the fact that I was born with “a bad back”. I remember my mother taking me for physiotherapy, on a weekly basis and not being allowed to sports for quite some time; I remember the hurtful words of school days, when I was called penguin and or cripple. People may also find this hard to believe but I also grew up with the idea that I was a small person. I suppose I was in comparison to my older brother and stepfather. I do remember being called stumpick (the runt of the family) and this stayed with me for many years. Those words hurt me greatly as a child, although not today. I have been set free from that nonsense.

I learnt a lot from those early days of ministry training and I dealt with the criticism well I believe. I worked my way through it and was able to see what were my own insecurities, what was constructive criticism and what was simply worth disregarding completely. It also taught me the importance of right action and speech.

“Right speech” is one element of the eight fold path of Buddhism. Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

 “There is a saying in Vietnamese, ``It doesn't cost anything to have loving speech.'' We only need to choose our words carefully, and we can make other people happy. To use words mindfully, with loving kindness, is to practice generosity...Many people think they will be able to practice generosity only after they have accumulated a small fortune. I know young people who dream of getting rich so they can bring happiness to others: ``I want to become a doctor or the president of a big company so I can make a lot of money and help many people.'' They do not realize that it is often more difficult to practice generosity after you are wealthy. If you are motivated by loving kindness and compassion, there are many ways to bring happiness to others right now, starting with kind speech. The way you speak to others can offer them joy, happiness, self-confidence, hope, trust, and enlightenment. Mindful speaking is a deep practice.”

I hear echoes in the Epistle Paul’s letter to the Collossians (3vv 8-10) he wrote:

 “ must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive  language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

The concept of “right speech” also brings to mind Socrates “Triple filter test”:

It is said that one day an acquaintance met the great philosopher and wanted to share some juicy gossip with him. He said “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about your friend?” “Hold on a minute,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me anything you must first pass the ‘Triple Filter Test.’” “Triple Filter?” “Yes that’s right,” Socrates continued, “before you talk to me about my friend, it might be a good idea to take a moment and filter what you’re going to say. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?” The man replied, “no actually I just heard about it and”...Socrates interrupted him before he could continue...”All right so you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second filter, ‘Goodness’. Is what you are about to tell me about my friend something good?” The man replied “No, on the contrary...” again Socrates interrupted...”you want to tell me something bad about him, but you are not certain it’s true. You may still pass the test though, because there is one filter left, ‘Usefulness’. Is what you want to tell me about my friend going to be useful to me?” to which the man replied “No not really.” On hearing this Socrates concluded, “well if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor even useful, why tell me at all?”

Wise words indeed and they show why Socrates was held in such high regard. It also shows why he never found out that his best friend was sleeping with his wife.

How we communicate with one another is so very important. What we say, what we don’t say and how we say it can have such a powerful impact on others. I try to practise consideration when communicating with people, it is vital in ministry. Of course I often fall short of the mark, but thankfully most people are fairly forgiving.

In “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life”, Karen Armstrong describes how important right speech is. During “The Sixth Step: Action” she asks us to remember times in our lives when people have done or said things that have helped and or encouraged us. She also asks us to “...consider the effects of the unkind remarks that have been a corrosive presence in your mind over the years.” She says it is vital that we become aware of how powerful words and deeds can be and the effect that they can have on the lives of others.

By practising living by the “Golden Rule” she believes that we can transcend are seemingly selfish and self centred natures. For her this is the true purpose of religion, the reaching of this ecstasis, or enlightenment. What is required is discipline and practise. She writes:

“Sceptics argue that the Golden Rule just ‘doesn’t work’, but they do not seem to have tried to implement it in a wholehearted and consistent way. It is not a notional doctrine that you either agree with or make yourself believe. It is a method – and the only adequate test of any method is to put it into practice.”

This of course is not an overnight job and it does require persistence and discipline. That said it is something that anyone and everyone can achieve. She suggest that we begin by resolving to act once a day in accordance with the positive version of the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” A grand gesture is not required here it could begin by simply making a little time each day in commitment to someone in need. Secondly she suggests that each day we also commit to fulfil the negative version of the Golden Rule: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” This requires awareness and mindfulness. She suggests:

 “Try to catch yourself before you make that brilliantly wounding remark, asking yourself how you would like to be on the receiving end of such sarcasm – and refrain. Each time you succeed will be an ekstasis, a transcendence of ego.”

Thirdly she suggest that once a day we attempt to catch ourselves when our thoughts turn to negativity, to anger, to hatred and to attempt to change our thoughts to more positive things, such as focussing on the many gifts that are present in our lives. Finally she suggests that at the end of each day we reflect on what we have been attempting to practise but not in an overly critical spirit and then resolve to continue practising the next day. After we have practised this for a while she suggests that we begin to double and then triple and quadruple our efforts etc...etc...etc...She concludes the chapter with a couple of simple promises:

 “It will not be easy. The goal is to behave in this way ‘all day and every day’. By that time of course, you will have become a sage.”

Wow! Could that really be possible?

Everything that we say and do and everything that we do not say and do not do matters. We are not all powerful, but we do impact on our world with every thought, word and deed. We cannot create the commonwealth of love over night, but we can do something. It begins with us and begins by simply attempting a few simple spiritual disciplines day by day. If we do this, in a disciplined manner, the seemingly impossible can happen. That said we must always maintain humour and compassion for ourselves as we do so. Change is never easy.

Word’s can hurt us, but they can also begin to heal the wounds within ourselves, within each other and throughout our world.