Saturday 29 September 2012

I Still Feel the Wonder

This is one of my favourite songs... "Changing of the Light"

"...I still feel the wonder as the sky turns to fire..."

The following words by ee cummings have been floating around in my consciousness these last few days...

i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky;
and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun's birthday;
this is the birth day of life and love and wings:
and of the gay great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any
--lifted from the no of all nothing—
human merely being doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake
And now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

I also love the fact that cummings hasn't used capitol letters, not even for his own name, except for two words...

" the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened..."

D. H. Lawrence once declared “The sense of wonder, that is our sixth sense and it is a natural religious sense”.

Our sixth sense is a natural religious sense, what on earth could that mean? I suspect that he is saying that the sense of wonder is something that is natural to us all and it this that sparks our natural religiousness. Viktor Frankl drew similar conclusions, with regard to our natural religiousness, claiming that we possess a will to find meaning; that in some sense we human beings are the meaning makers; that there is something within us that searches for meaning in life; that there is something that occurs when we truly see life in all its majesty; that there is something that ignites this natural religiousness within us. We are the religious animal.

We each of us seemingly have this religious impulse ingrained within us. Now of course sometimes that gets shut off and or closed down by life’s busyness and or suffering. We can all become desensitised to life from time to time, but the impulse is still there and can be reignited, even when all seems lost.

“I still feel the wonder as the sky turns to fire”

There is wonder present in all life. To see it we just need to reawaken the ears of our ears and open the eyes of eyes. Religious practise is one way of achieving this. It helps to create those Angelus moments I spoke of in the previous blog. We cynical adults need such moments to reawaken that natural childish enthusiasm and sense of wonder at life. It is no mistake that Jesus (Mark 10 vv 13-16) when speaking to his disciples told them that they needed to receive the kingdom of God like a child if they wanted to enter it. I suspect that he was talking here of the Kingdom now and not just what was to follow. He was teaching them that in order to experience that Kingdom that was already here and now they had to view life through the eyes of child; that they needed to reawaken the ears of their ears and open the eyes of their eyes; that they needed to reawaken their sense of wonder.

Prayer helps me to pay attention. Actually it does more than that; it helps me to connect to all of life. When I pray I feel that I am connecting beyond myself to the greater reality. This I believe enables me to reawaken the ears of my ears and open the eyes of my eyes. According to Thomas Heschel “to pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments.” I would go further than this and claim that the practise of wonder is itself a form of prayer.

Thomas Carlyle viewed wonder as the basis of worship. I see real truth is this. I believe that the purpose of worship is to reawaken, to maintain and to develop this sixth sense, this natural religiousness, this sense of wonder. One of the reasons I worship with others is to remember how to connect to that natural spirit in all life; to remember what is important in life; to connect beyond the confines of myself and then to carry that into my everyday activities. To worship is to remember, to re-bind together, this is the essence of religion.

That said I do not believe that mediators are required in order to achieve this. We can reawaken our natural religiousness, that sixth sense, that sense of wonder, alone. The nineteenth century transcendentalists brought this insight to western religion. They said that we do not need clergy, priests or religion itself to mediate our experience of God or the truth; we do not need the mediation of others in order to find meaning. They said that it was the inalienable right and duty of every soul to approach God directly. In fact they went further and said that there was no other way to know the holy or Divine other than to experience it directly through the creation, through nature.

Could this be true? Can the sense of wonder only truly be awoken through nature? Well personally I'm not convinced of this. That said I do suspect that if you cannot connect to the divine through nature it is unlikely that you will you will be able to connect to it through worship and words.

I recently came across the following words by Wendal Berry.

“I don't think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a "hypaethral book," such as Thoreau talked about - a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine - which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

I suspect that this applies to all religion and philosophy, which can never be fully understood or experienced within the confines of walls, institutions or books. As I have heard many times "The religious life is not a theory, we have to live it." and in order to live with, we have to truly experience it. This means embracing all that is life and increasing our sensitivity to it.

The sense of wonder is never lost. We can reawaken the ears of our ears and open the eyes of our eyes. We can re-awaken this sixth sense, this natural religiousness, this sense of wonder. Wonder can re-open doors which invite us to a greater experience of living that can transform our experience of life. This can enable us to fully sense life in all its forms; to fully sense our senses. We can be swept away by the elements or stand next a mountain and feel as insignificant as a speck of dust. All that is required is that we let the natural wonder at the core of our being work through our senses and as a result we become instantly connected to the joyfulness woven into the core of all creation.

Everyone can awaken to the wonder of life; everyone can find that sustaining joy which is at the core of all life; everyone can reawaken the ears of their ears and open the eyes of their eyes.

"I still feel the wonder as the sky turns to fire."

Saturday 22 September 2012

Give thanks for life: Receiving each day as an invitation

“To Receive Each Day as an Invitation” by John O’Donohue
"One night recently I visited our family farm. A calf had just been born. It had slumped to earth in a wet, steaming mass. At midnight, I went out to look at the cow again; by this time she had licked her new calf dry and he had sucked his first milk. Everything was mild and gentle, illuminated by the moon’s mint light. What a beautiful night it was to arrive on earth. Even if this newborn were a genius, it could never possibly imagine the surprise of the world that was waiting when the dawn would break in a miracle of colour illuminating the personality of mountains, river and sky
The liturgy of dawn signals the wonder of the arriving day. Magic of darkness breaking through into colour and light is such a promise of invitation and possibility. No wonder we always associate the hope and urgency of new beginning with the dawn. Each day is the field of brightness where the invitation of our life unfolds. A new day is an intricate and subtle matrix; written into its mystery are the happenings sent to awaken and challenge us.

No day is ever the same, and no day stands still; each one moves through a different territory, awakening new beginnings. A day moves forward in moments, and once a moment has flickered into life, it vanishes and is replaced by the next. It is fascinating that this is where we live, within an emerging lacework that continually unravels. Often a fleeting moment can hold a whole sequence of the future in distilled form: that unprepared second when you looked in a parent’s eye and saw death already beginning to loom. Or the second you noticed a softening in someone’s voice and you knew that a friendship was beginning. Or catching your partner’s gaze upon you and knowing the love that surrounded you. Each day is seeded with recognitions.

The writing life is a wonderful metaphor for this. The writer goes to his desk to meet the empty white page. As he settles himself, he is preparing himself, for visitation and voyage. Each memory, longing, and craft set the frame for what might emerge. He has no idea what will come. Yet despite its limitations, his creative work will find its own direction to form. Each of us is an artist of our days; the greater our integrity and awareness, the more original and creative our time will become."

“Give thanks for life, the measure of our days,
Mortal we pass through beauty that decays,
Yet sing to God our hope, our love and praise:
Alleluia, Alleleluia!”

This is one of my favourite hymns from “Sing Your Faith”, more commonly known, by many Unitarians, as the Purple Hymn Book or new Hymn book. Words by Shirley Erena Murray set to “Sine Nomine” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The words offer a simple and yet beautiful sentiment, to give thanks for life itself. After all it is the ultimate of graces. It is a truly free gift. It is given to us and involves no effort, at least at the beginning, on our part. Now what happens throughout our lives, well that’s a different story entirely.

I wonder how often we give thanks and praise for the fact that we draw breath at all; I wonder how often we give thanks and praise for all the things in our lives that are given to us through no real effort on our part. I believe if we saw each second as a precious grace, a free gift, we may just begin to see life as an invitation; an invitation to who knows what?

It is so easy to take life for granted and to just simply consume what is there, without really paying attention to how it got there in the first place. It is often less easy to be grateful, to offer genuine thanks for all that we are surrounded by.

To give thanks, to be grateful for what is here in our lives takes real discipline. To pay attention is a labour in itself, but it is one that truly bears fruit. It begins by paying attention carefully to just one thing, perhaps your next meal or conversation or the people in the street that you pass by. If we are able to pay attention to one thing, our attention will eventually begin to pay attention to everything that is connected to that one thing and that is everything. Everything in life truly is connected and interconnected. This has never been more true than today.

In “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” Karen Armstrong suggests a mindfulness practise that can help us engage with this interconnectedness. She suggests that we begin by paying attention to our homes and bring to mind all the people who were involved in building them. Not just the team that put them together but those who created the brick, the cement, the timber. Those who installed the plumbing and the electricity, those who created the many fabrics that adorn the interiors of our lives and those who laboured to supply these things. She also suggests that we pay attention and consider where the tea and coffee we consume in the morning comes from, as well as the food on our table. To think of every slice of bread we place in the toaster and consider all the efforts that went into getting it there. She further suggests that as we leave our homes we pay attention to the transport systems we travel by. To think of all the workers who built and maintain our roads, our cars, buses, trains and planes and to continue this exercise as we move through our day, paying attention to everything and offering a moment of thanks for all the labour that has gone into making all that we enjoy possible.

This mindfulness practise brings to mind a talk I recently heard at the R.E. Summer School I participated in at Great Hucklow. It was a talk delivered by Bill Darlison. Here Bill was encouraging us to engage with a variety of spiritual practises. He began by defining what he means by spiritual and spirituality. For Bill spirituality is about increasing our sensitivity to life. One of the many things that he spoke of was the Irish tradition of the Angelus prayer. This has been practiced in Ireland for many years and is a moment when the people are meant to pause for a moment and send a message of good will to everyone on earth; at 6am at 12 noon and at 6pm. He said he was particularly struck by the 6pm one as it preceded the 6 o’clock news and the world’s horrors that followed. Bill suggests that in our daily lives we create our own Angelus moments; moments when we pause, give thanks and offer good will to all. Bill said that whenever he hears a siren in the street he will pause for a few seconds and offer a silent prayer to whoever is obviously in distress.

Life is the greatest gift of all and one that ought to be revered. If we offer simple moments of gratitude for this ultimate of graces, we will notice the many blessings we are surrounded by. I am grateful for the many gifts I have been given. This work I do with you wonderful folk, the home I have in Altrincham, my little black car, my health, physical, mental and spiritual and the love I know in life. Above all I am grateful for the people I know and have known. That said I could do more to appreciate these many gifts. I could pay more attention and could offer more prayers of thanks for all that life offers me. This is why I am committing to the suggestions of Bill and Karen and why I commend them to everyone. I will practise paying attention and I will practise offering little prayers of thanks giving and of concern for those in distress.

Afterall we are all connected; we are a part of the one undivided whole.

Let us all give thanks for life; it is the greatest gift of all.


Sunday 16 September 2012

Building bridges not walls

Below is the most beautiful of meditations written by Rev Margaret Kirk, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall. (inspired by the poem of the same name by Robert Frost no doubt). It speaks powerfully to me. I first heard it during the anniversary service where Margaret preached the address at the British Unitarian General Assembly meetings a few years back. I seem to remember that David Dawson set some music to it. I’d love to get a hold of it and perhaps learn to sing it sometime. We shall see...

Here are those beautiful words...

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” by Rev Margaret Kirk

We see barriers erected between people of different lands,
We see sheets of steel and towers of concrete called Protection.
We see boundaries policed, 
watch men, women and children running from hunger and persecution,
looking for a gap in the wall………

Something there is that doesn't love a wall…………

We see walls of fear –
Fear of the young, fear of the stranger,
Fear of sexuality that is different, fear of the educated, fear of the poor,
Fear of the Muslim, fear of the Jew – 
Fear upon fear, endless and perpetuating,
And we offer our silent prayer that solid walls of fear will crumble to dust.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall…………

We hear the language of separation,
The jingoistic chant, the racial slur,
words of indifference and dismissal,
words arranged for the purpose of exclusion,
words that sting and taunt, 
words that lie.
Let us find words that ring with love and truthfulness,
that reach out through the emptiness of separation.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall…………

We see the deluded barriers of the mind protecting self,
We see relationships stripped of affection
as one person becomes closed to another.
We see people trapped in misunderstanding,
old hurts re-ignited,
bricks placed higher on the wall,
goodwill and trust suspended.
and we ask for boundaries that are not impenetrable, 
through which light can shine and distance be dissolved.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall………….

And when we need these boundaries for our own well being,
Let us know them for what they are,
Use them wisely and kindly,
Recognising our own vulnerability and that of others – 
So each of us can find the space for retreat and succour,
find that peace that passes all understanding
and be renewed with strength and love
for the task of living life joyfully in communion with all others.

Rev Margaret Kirk

So often in life we hear of the need for healthy boundaries in order to live happily and successfully. I do not disagree with this, boundaries are important. My only concern is that so often these boundaries quickly become barriers, nay walls; walls that can quickly separate us from one another. And as Margaret has so beautifully described these walls can be created in so many other ways too. There are many walls that separate one from another...

There is an ancient Persian tale known as,  “learning to write in the sand” The story depicts two men crossing a river. One gets into trouble and is saved by his friend. As a way of thanks the rescued man has the account carved in a nearby stone. Sometime later the two men again reach the same stretch of river only this time they get into a silly argument and one strikes the other. When the argument calms down the very same man who wrote in the stone gets up and once again writes about the incident, only this time he carves it in sand. He says "I hope to forget this argument before the wind and water erase my words from the sand."

It is important to know what should be written in stone and what should be written in stand.

It brings to mind an account from John’s Gospel ( John Ch8 vv 1-11) of the “woman caught in adultery” The woman is about to be stoned to death, in accordance with the law. The Pharasee’s test Jesus and ask him what should be done. He does not answer immediately and simply sits down and begins to write in the sand. They continue to press him and after a short while he stands up and utters the immortal words “Let those amongst you who is without sin, cast the first stone” and then bends down and continues to write in the sand. One by one the crowd disperses, beginning with the elders and after they have all gone, Jesus rises and asks the woman where they are? And if anyone has condemned her? She tells him that no one has. To which he replies “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

I have often wondered what Jesus wrote in the sand. Maybe he wrote the misdeed, maybe he wrote his own misdeeds. Who knows?

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Can any one truly say that at some point in their life they have not caused harm to another? I think it is safe to say that to this extent we are all sinners, I am. Now do not get me wrong I do not believe, to quote ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ “there is no health in us”. I am not talking of original sin. I do not believe that anyone is born into this world tainted in any sense. I believe that we are all born with a clean slate and with the potential for so many things.

This afternoon I am conducting a blessing of a child. I will use water in the ceremony, but not to cleanse him of sin. No instead I will use water, the most basic element of life, to bless the child. I will touch his brow, his lips and hands, to bless his thoughts, words and deeds. 

Each week at the close of worship I offer similar words of Benediction. I ask that we receive the blessings of God, the blessings of love in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do; that we carry this vision into all of our lives. The hope is that we go out into the world and live the best life that we can. As I have said before I believe that we can change the world, just one smile at a time.

I was chatting with Carolyn Jones (a member of the Altrincham congregation) about sin the other day. Now Carolyn is a lover of the etymology of words. She said that Unitarians don’t do sin. “Don’t we”, I thought.  Now I believe that she was actually talking about “Original Sin”. I explained to her that I’m quite happy talking about sin, because I know that I sin. I sin in the sense that I fall short of the mark. Who doesn't?

Now what do I mean when I speak of sin? Well first of all it is important to understand that in the original Hebrew and Greek sin meant falling short of the mark.
The Unitarian Universalist minister Frank Muir, in an attempt to explain sin's etymology says that:

“The Garden story was all about cheyt, the Hebrew word meaning “to miss the mark,” which was their definition of sin-like shooting an arrow at the target and missing. After you miss, of course it’s a disappointment, but you try again, you try to hit the mark. In other words, sinning is a part of life, no different than breathing, eating, or sleeping. So we sin-what else is new! anything that I do that isolates, ostracizes, or separates me or others from the human community (and by extension, from the web of life) which results in robbing or denying human uniqueness and potential. Call it evil or flawed behaviour; call it missing the mark; call it brokenness; call it denial, repression, or reaction formation-it’s all sin if it separates, ostracizes, or isolates us from the ground of our being, from that which defines us as human beings. Sin is behaviour that prevents a person from living out their potential for human being-ness."

The great twentieth century liberal theologian Paul Tillich defined sin as anything than leads to estrangement from ourselves, from one another and from God. I see it as a state of brokenness, alienation and division. I am certain that we have all experienced this; we have all experienced division within ourselves, estrangement from our neighbours and those we love and from whatever we believe is at the core of all this.

Forrest Church says that “the opposite of sin is salvation, a word that means health or wholeness. Not only is this clear from the Latin root, but the parallel Teutonic etymology suggests the same meaning: hale, health, whole, and holy spring from the same root.”

This brings me back to those walls that Margaret talked of in her meditation. It also gets me thinking of a poster that is hanging in the school room at Dunham Road that reads “Unitarians building bridges not walls”.

This I believe is the key to living religiously. True religion is about building bridges between what separates us from one another, from ourselves and from God. It's all about wholeness.

When we build these bridges we are atoning, we are becoming whole again. Atonement literally means at-one-ment. It is about bringing back together that which was once separate. I believe that to atone is to begin to build those bridges between our true selves, between one another and between God. This is true religion, building bridges that can begin to heal the troubles within ourselves and within our world.

So let’s not build walls that separate us from one another, let’s instead build bridges of reconciliation between one another and all life. If we do we have already begun to build the Commonwealth of Love right here, right now.

We can make ourselves and all life whole again.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Wanting what you have...

I have recently re-discovered a distant love, sherbet lemons. I remember as a child my grandma had a jar of them in her kitchen cupboard. I would often sneak a few, in-between meals, and enjoy their sweet and tangy taste as I sucked and chomped on them. I believe that we can learn so much from these simple sweets...Why? You may well ask well because rather like the sherbet lemon, life can be so bitter sweet...

I recently came across the following story in Bill Darlison’s wonderful book “The Shortest Distance: 101 Stories from the World’s Spiritual Traditions”

It is simply called “Dandelions”...

A certain man took great pride in his new lawn. He mowed it regularly, watered it daily, and sprayed it with all kinds of substances to make it grow thicker and look greener. One day he woke up to find his precious lawn covered in dandelions! What could he do? He dashed into the shed, took out his lawnmower, and gave the grass a thorough mowing, cutting off the heads of all the dandelions in the process. “That should do it,” he thought, feeling very pleased with himself.

Gazing out of his window the next morning he discovered that the dandelions were back! Down he went to his garden, but this time, instead of mowing the lawn, he pulled out each dandelion by the roots. Surely that would be the end of it.

But he was wrong. In a few days, dandelions were there once again; their little golden heads were completely ruining his beautiful green lawn. He hurried off to the local garden centre and told one of the assistants about his problem. “What you need is some weed killer,” said the young man. “Take this”, he said, handing him a bottle.” It is the most powerful weed killer we have. Mix it with water, spray it on your lawn, and tomorrow all your dandelions will be gone.”

The man did as instructed and sure enough, the next day there were no dandelions in his lawn. Success!

But his joy was short lived. Within a week the dandelions were back. He returned to the garden centre. “What can I do about those wretched dandelions now? he asked the assistant. “I’ve tried mowing them, pulling them up by the roots, destroying them with weed killer, but they still keep coming back. Do you have any suggestions?”

“Yes,” replied the assistant. “I suggest you learn to love them!”

...I recently had the privilege of spending a week in Bill’s company...I learnt so much and enjoyed some great laughs the way I am not comparing him to a dandelion...

The “Dandelion’s” story brought these word’s by Forrest Church to my mind. It is an extract from “Lifelines: Holding on and Letting Go”...

  “Meaning doesn’t emerge from longing for what we lack, things we have lost or will likely never find. The past is over. Pine over it and what we are pining for is probably very different in selective memory than it was in reality. And longing for something in the future may distract us from our enjoyment of the present. Wishful thinking tends to be both sloppy and sentimental. We should wish to think instead for things closer at hand.

          The courage to bear up under pain;
          the grace to take our successes lightly;
          the energy to address tasks that await our doing;
          the meaning to be found in giving of ourselves to others;
          the liberation that follows when we forgive another;
          the comfort to be taken in opening our hearts to another;
          the joy to be gained even in the most common endeavour;
the pleasure of one another’s company;
the wonder that wells within the simple fact
 of our shared being.

I call this “thoughtful wishing”: wishing for what can be ours, what we can do, who we can be. Unlike wishful thoughts, thoughtful wishes tend to come true.” me really I sucked and then chomped on another sherbet lemon...

...I have noticed (on facebook) this week countless pictures and read numerous updates of friend’s children returning to or starting school, in their brand new uniforms. Seeing this has brought a broad smile to my face. I’ve also seen other friends who are starting out on new projects or re-entering education. Good news! Exciting news!

That said I have also seen other friends suffering and struggling with a variety of life’s troubles too. I myself have lost several friends this year and have witnessed numerous others as well as family members going through the mill. Life, a bit like the sherbet lemons I so love, can be so bitter sweet at times; life is so full of every kind of joy, but also full of every kind of sadness too.

When the hard times hit us it is so very human to wish them away. To ask why is this happening to me? To wish that things could be different. I like everyone try to escape the pain from time to time, to change what so often cannot be changed. But eventually I quit fighting and learn to accept what is happening. As a result I do indeed find the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed.

The dandelion story depicts this nearly perfectly. Like all the great tales it is simple and yet so rich in meaning. The man takes great pride in his garden, it means everything to him. He invests so much love and energy into it. Then one morning he wakes up to find dandelions everywhere. Dandelions to this man mean ruin. He sees them as an eyesore something that must be cut out and got rid of. Over the next few weeks he does everything that he can to get rid of them. He seeks out expert advice and tries numerous methods. Some of them work, for a short time at least, but the dandelions keep coming back. Try as he might, he cannot be rid of them. Finally he goes back to the expert (the garden centre assistant) in despair and asks if he has any more suggestions. To which he replies “I suggest that you learn to love them.”

The solution is to accept things as they are. Well actually it’s more than that the solution is to learn to love what is there, even if you don’t like it.

So often in life we try to change our circumstances in our pursuit of what we believe will make us happy. We attempt to perfect our outer or even inner world thinking that this will rid us of the potential troubles that accompany life. We attempt to wish our troubles away, when maybe what we ought to be doing is learning to love what is there in its wholeness. Maybe we all spend too much time weeding the garden and not enough time learning to love what is already there.

After many years of personal struggle Forrest Church discovered, but only during the last ten years of his life, what he believed was the secret to happiness and fulfilment. He learnt three simple things: “Want what you have; do what you can; be who you are.”

Now no doubt you are asking yourself what on earth he meant by this? I will briefly attempt to explain...

There is a wonderful ancient Jewish story about Rabbi Gamaliel. He was asked by one of his students if he thought he had done enough with his life. He pondered the question for a moment before answering...

“When I die, God will not ask me, ‘Gamaliel, why were you not an Abraham or a Moses? God will ask me, ‘Were you Gamaliel?’”

To be who we are means that we must embrace our God-given natures and talents; it means that we accept who we are and make the most of it; it means that we do not try to be something or someone we are not.

By being who we are makes us better able to do what we can. Some people tell us that we can do whatever we want if we only desire it enough. I have never believed this. There are many things that I have wanted and desired in my life, but they will not be mine. There are many things that I am not great at too and no matter how hard I try I will never be the greatest at these things, or even above average, or even average actually. That said I have learnt that by embracing who I am at every level and developing the gifts I have been freely given I can become at peace with who I am and therefore do what I can.

Our job is to nurture and develop these gifts not merely for ourselves, but for the good of all. I have discovered in recent times a gift for writing and I am hoping to develop this over the coming months and years. During the week I recently spent at Summer School I was told several times “You must write, you must keep on writing”.

It’s the same with ministry. I never dreamed of becoming a minister, but circumstances and deeply painful ones at that, called me to the role. Did I want those circumstances, no of course I did not, but I have learnt to accept those things that I cannot change. Would I change them if I could, I would do absolutely anything to do that, but I cannot. That's just wishful thinking and it leads nowhere. So therefore I practise thoughtful wishing. I do want this life that I have been given. I want what I have “warts and all and beauty spots too.”

It brings to my mind these words from the book of Ecclesiastes 5 vv 17-18 “The right happiness of mortals is to eat drink and be content with all the work they have to do under the sun, during the few days God has given them to live, since this is the lot assigned to them”

These words are finally beginning to make sense to me, just as Forrest’s mantra is too. Each day I attempt to practise “wanting what I have; doing what I can; being who I am.” I do not pretend that this is easy, but I do it all the same.

It is not easy accepting and learning to love who we are, but I believe that it is one of the keys to a happy and successful life. It is the essence of the Golden Rule of Compassion, central to all the great faith traditions. In Matthew (22: 37-40) Jesus said “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” To love life in its entirety is to love God; to love ourselves is to accept who we are and to reject the fool’s gold of self delusion, which I believe is the key to learning to love our neighbours exactly as they are too. Of course if we cannot love ourselves as we are, we will never love our neighbours and we will never be able to accept them as they are. And who are our neighbours, you may well ask? Well our neighbours are everybody and everything, even the dandelions of our lives.

No one really wants what they see as the dandelions of life, but we must learn to not only accept them, but love them too. By the way if we do so we will then be able to tend to and nurture the abundant beauty we are surrounded by. As Forrest himself says “ obsess on the bad things that befall us squeezes out a just appreciation for the good. The time we waste on wishful thinking or regret detracts from the time we might devote to being grateful for all that is ours, here and now, to savour and embrace.”

He says what we really need to do is develop “thoughtful wishing”. We need to learn to wish for what can be ours, what we can do, who we can be and that “...unlike wishful thoughts, thoughtful wishes tend to come true.”

As for me well I'm just going to keep on sucking and chomping on those sherbet lemons, so bitter sweet...I do love them...

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Fellowship: Creating Sacred Space

Below is a link to a talk I delivered at R.E. Summer held at the Nightingale Centre at Great Hucklow in Derbyshire. It includes a short period of devotional worship at the beginning before the talk itself begins. Below the link is the full transcript of the talk.

Light Chalice
Welcome to this sacred love are most welcome
May we be reminded here of our highest aspirations, and be inspired to bring our gifts of love and service to the altar of humanity.
May we know once again that we are not isolated beings but connected, in mystery and miracle, to the universe, to this sacred space, to each other and to God.
Let us begin our worship in the spirit of Love.

Hymn 24 “Come sing a song with me”

I invite you now to join together in a time of prayer...
Oh Great Mystery, help us to experience you here in our lives.
Help us to see you as you blow 
through the branches of the great trees.
Help us to feel you as you gust through our fields and streets.
Help us to taste you on the breath of those we hold most dear.


Be with us when we are afraid to delve within,
when we cannot face ourselves in the glass,
when we are paralysed by our guilt and our shame.

Sustain us as we open the windows to our hearts,
and stand before our world, exposed . . . but ready.


God of love, open our eyes.
Help us to discover that we are not
who we thought that we were . . .
that we need not fear our natures.


What lies at the centre of our being,
and all creation, is love.


Love. . .unconditional. . .love...everlasting. .



Once upon a time...long long Japan, a woman prayed that God would show her the difference between heaven and hell. She wanted to know whether there were fires in hell, and whether the people in heaven sat around on clouds all day playing harps. She didn’t fancy going to either place if that was all they had to offer.

She prayed so hard that God decided to answer her prayer, and he sent an angel to give her a guided tour of both places...angels are good like that...first she went to hell. It wasn’t hot at all; in fact it looked quite pleasant. There were long tables laden with food of all kinds – cooked meats, vegetables, fruit, delicious pies, and exotic desserts. “This can’t be hell,” she thought. Then she looked at the people. They were sitting some distance from the tables, and they were all miserable – emaciated, pale, angry. Each of them had chopsticks fastened to their hands, but the chopsticks were about three feet long and no matter how hard they tried, the people just couldn’t get the food into their own mouths. They were groaning with hunger, and frustration, and anger. “I’ve seen enough of this,” said the woman. “Show me heaven...May I see heaven now?”

The angel took the woman to heaven. They didn’t have far to go. It was just next door. It was almost the same as hell. There were the same kind of tables, the same kind of food, and here too, the people were sitting a little distance away from the tables with three-foot long chopsticks fastened to their hands. But these people seemed happy. They were rosy cheeked, and looked well fed. They were smiling and chatting merrily to each other. They couldn’t put the food into their mouths either, but they had discovered how to be fed and happy: they were feeding each other.

Hymn 200 “What does the Lord require?”

Theme Talk

Every Sunday Morning before beginning worship at Dunham Road I like to look up at the ceiling above me. Have any of you been to Dunham Road Chapel? It is so beautiful. There is so much that you can feast your eyes on, without anything being in your face. Before I begin leading worship I like to look up and offer a prayer; a prayer to remind me of why I am there; a prayer to remind me of what I believe the purpose of worship is; a prayer to remind me of what spiritual community is about; a prayer to remind me of what the purpose of religion truly is. As I look up I feel like I am standing beneath the hull of a great ship. Yes ok it’s one turned upside down. I’m cool with that as I’m someone who is always searching for the un-commonsense as opposed to the commonsense that I am told I should be seeking. Commonsense is so overrated, where as un-commonsense is so rarely absorbed. I hope in some sense that this talk will reveal some un-commonsense to you this morning. Why?  Because I reckon it’s only through un-commonsense that the Great Mystery truly reveals itself. 

When I look up at the ceiling I feel Like I’m dangling down towards the bottom of a great ship and when I then look up at the congregation I feel like we are all in this ship together. We are sailing in this ship together. We do not sail the ship alone. We are fellows in the same ship; we are journeying in a fellowship. I do not see it as an Ark though, more a cruise ship really, maybe it could be called a love boat. It is a fellowship of love, a fellowship of the spirit even. Each week we journey together. Ok I may well steer the ship, but I am not the navigator. After our weekly adventure, on our love boat, we go back out into the world, we go our separate ways and hopefully carry that spirit into our daily lives and into our world; to attempt to share some of this uncommon sense in our own little worlds. We go our separate ways, but are united in that spirit of love we have shared in our time together.

For the next half an hour or so I am going to attempt to steer you through a journey that will explore these concepts of the fellowship of love, of the fellowship of the sprit and hopefully when you leave you can perhaps carry what you have heard into your lives and let it live and breathe through you in your daily activities.

Earlier I shared with you the story “Heaven and Hell”. I first came across it in Bill Darlison’s book “The Shortest Distance”. It’s a great tale don’t you reckon? I have come across several other versions of it from other traditions too. There is an almost identical version that is told from a Jewish perspective. In this tale the chopsticks are replaced with spoons.

In the story Heaven and Hell appear exactly the same and yet they are experienced oh so differently. In Hell all go hungry because everyone tries to feed themselves only, they are purely self reliant. And yet in heaven they attempt to feed one another and are therefore fed in abundance. To me this is as much about the relationships as the food going into one another’s mouths. I believe that we all possess an innate need to serve one another that if we do not do this part of our natural humanity withers away and dies off. By not serving one another we starve our souls.

I think that one of the greatest delusions of the modern era is the myth of self reliance, this idea that as individuals we have all that we need and that we do not need one another. Jeffrey Lockwood in his meditation “to ask is to give” claims that:
“...One of the great blessings of travel is to be put in a position of asking help from others, to be genuinely needful of strangers. Our illusion of self-reliance evaporates as the unexpected and unfamiliar merge into vulnerability. We offer the gift of authentic need, the opportunity for deep trust. We express to another person the most humanizing cross-cultural phrase: “Please help me.”...In our society, self-sufficiency is heralded as a virtue, and chronic dependence on others can be degrading. But never being asked to help another person is isolating, even dehumanizing. In a culture that exalts autonomy, asking for help may be one of the greatest gifts we offer. So much of life has become a calculation of costs and benefits; to ask assistance is to create the opportunity for unconditional giving in raw, spiritual defiance of economic rationality. We become mutually indebted without expectation of repayment. Each person in the relationship becomes a giver and receiver. Each one becomes more human. Each one has something to be thankful for.”

There are several slightly different accounts in the Gospels of Jesus feeding crowds of people. Now there is a real danger of losing the meaning behind these tales by engaging in winding arguments about their factual accuracy; to get hung up on a debate as to whether or not Jesus could feed the thousands of people present with just a few fish and loaves. Is this really what these stories are about? I do not think so. To get hung up on the factual accuracy is to miss the whole point of the teaching behind the story. Mythological tales are not about fact they are about revealing deeper universal truths.

There is a line in one account from Mark’s gospel (Ch 8 vv 1-9) where we hear the words “They ate and were filled”.

In this account Jesus had spent three days with the people he feeds. He had not invited them to join him and therefore was certainly not obliged to feed them. I am sure that the crowd were not expecting to be fed by the meagre amount that the disciples brought, which was meant for them only. But what happens? Well Jesus recognises the crowds hunger and the fact that they have travelled a great distance to be with him, he expresses compassion for all of them. He asks the crowd to sit down and to share a meal with him. He then instructs the disciples to serve the people personally. The crowd eat and are filled. Not because their bodies were filled to the brim, but because their hunger was met in the most important way possible. What occurs is a true human encounter between the disciples and the crowd; the people are served face to face and are therefore truly loved and cared for. They had not only been physically fed they had been personally served and therefore their humanity recognised, each individuals hunger mattered.

From you I receive to you I give, together we share and from this we live.
We all thirst and hunger even in our seemingly materially abundant lives. We cannot feed this hunger in isolation in self reliance it is only fed in that relationship that occurs as we feed one another. This is fellowship to me. Fellowship is what occurs in the relationship between the two. In this relationship, in this space, we can know the Love of God.

We all hunger for purpose and meaning. As Viktor Frankl pointed out we are driven by a will to find meaning and purpose. I would go further and suggest that we are also driven to find companionship in our increasingly isolated and isolating culture. We need to serve one another, or our souls will starve. I have discovered and I keep on discovering that our deepest pangs are not satisfied by the food that is laid on the table but in the relationship that occurs as we feed one another and as we drink from one another’s cup. This is fellowship.

William Wordsworth once wrote.

“There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.”

“Spots of time” are moments in our lives that have the potential to change us forever. Moments when life not only feeds but truly nourishes us on a deep, deep level, deeper than the marrow of our bones; moments when the common becomes uncommon; moments when the veils we create ourselves seem to slip away; moments when we seemingly see beyond the ordinary; moments when we experience reality on a deeper level.

These “spots of time” are sacred moments that are made holy by their mysterious ability to nourish us and perhaps even repair us in body, mind, heart and soul. These moments are so special because they seem so rare. I suspect that they are a kind of grace; they seemingly come to us, from a place somewhere beyond ourselves.

Karen Armstrong believes that we can create these “spots of time” in each other’s lives. That small acts of kindness when we serve, feed, nourish one another can be spots that have the potential to change people’s lives forever. Can you recall “spots of time” in your own lives, those moments that lifted you up when once again you had fallen.

I wonder if we could break off into pairs for a few minutes and perhaps think and then share with each other moments in our lives, “spots of time” when someone has done something for you, or given you a moment of their time from their heart that has perhaps changed you, transformed you...a time when they have enjoyed true fellowship with you. After we have perhaps shared with one another we could come back together and perhaps if we would like to we could share with all who are here...

Sharing time for 5mins

I have served the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston for two years now. I feel that we have got to know one another quite well during this time. 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. Leading worship for me is about communicating the language of the heart. An address should never be a lecture that merely feeds the intellect. I hope to God this is not a lecture. 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. It was an attempt to feed one another; it was an attempt to develop fellowship. 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 a deep 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. They have fed me as I have fed them; they have given to me as I have given to them. We have truly enjoyed fellowship together, in this deepening relationship.

“Listen with the ear of your heart”, has become one of my mantras. It comes from “The Rule of Benedict” a set of ancient principles for monastic orders. 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 “.

I see this as a key component of fellowship, listening to one another “with the ear of our hearts” and of course to speak the language of the heart. If we do we may just begin to hear that uncommon sense spoken by that “Great Mystery”

A man approached Nasrudin and asked him, “how does one become wise?”. To which Nasrudin replied: “listen attentively to wise people when they speak. And when someone is listening to you, listening attentively to what you are saying!”

Ah Mulla Nasrudin, the wise fool. The “Holy Fool”. He spoke a lot of un-commonsense.

Ernest Hemingway once said "When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen."

Listening is about invitation. It is about inviting the other into our lives; it is about ‘making place for the other’. This is not always easy to do especially when engaging in conversation.

How many of us can really say that we listen to one another? When we begin to converse do we take time to truly listen to what the other person is saying? Or are we merely waiting for our turn to make our point? When we engage with one another are we really attempting to make space for them or is it all about us? Is it about our need to be heard? Are we in fact engaging with others in the hope that they will agree with us?

In “Forgotten Art of Deep Listening” Kay Lindahl asks us to:

“Think of the difference it would make if each of us felt really listened to when we spoke. Imagine the time it would save to be heard the first time around, instead of having to repeat ourselves over and over again. Envision a conversation in which each person is listened to with respect, even those whose views are different from ours. This is all possible in conversations of the heart, when we practice the sacred art of listening. It takes intention and commitment. We need to slow down to expand our awareness of the possibilities of deep listening. The simple act of listening to each other can transform all of our relationships. Indeed, it can transform the world, as we practice being the change we wish to see in the world.”

By listening we can begin to transform the world; by listening we begin to practise being the change we wish to see in the world.

About nine years ago I met a man in Oldham who changed my life, actually he saved my life. He taught me many things one of which was how to listen. This began with practising noticing when I wasn’t listening, when others were speaking. He taught me to observe when my mind wandered off or to notice when I was listening how much of my time was spent on working out what “brilliant” response I was going to make, in an attempt to refute what the other person was saying. He taught me that when we are listening to another we are extending ourselves to that person, we are giving them a gift; a gift that we can both share in. In making space for the other, we create a sacred space, we make space for God and we get a taste of heaven.

He taught me that when we listen to another we truly give of ourselves. Whereas when we only appear to be listening and are in fact judging or comparing ourselves to them we are in actual fact judging ourselves. He taught me that if we learn to listen to others, without judgement, we can begin to learn to accept them for who they truly are. By doing so we are learning to love them; by doing so we give them the dignity to be themselves; by doing so we dignify ourselves; by doing so we create a sacred space in that relationship between one another.

Now of course not all the great sages come from Oldham. Those of ancient times taught similar lessons to this ordinary man.

Karen Armstrong has highlighted that human dialogue has tended “ be aggressive, a tradition we inherited from the ancient Greeks.” If we look at our world today we tend to debate competitively, whether we are public figures or just talking in the playground, the pub or through social media. Often when we are engaging in conversation we are trying to trip one another up, or prove one another wrong. How many of us can say that we are truly listening to one another?

Since ancient times the great sages have offered solutions to this competitive and aggressive way of communicating, but I’m not sure they have ever won out.

As Armstrong has highlighted:

“The Socratic dialogue was a spiritual exercise designed to produce a profound psychological change in the participants - and because its purpose was that everybody should understand the depth of his ignorance, there was no way that anybody could win.” The key as Plato highlighted “ to ‘make place for the other’ in his mind and to listen intently and sympathetically to the ideas of his partners in dialogue...” Can you imagine this happening during Prime Minister’s Question Time today?

Other great sages such as the Buddha and Confucius conducted discussions in a similar manner. Confucius always developed his ideas in conversation. He did this because he felt that to achieve ‘maturity’ required this kind of friendly interaction. The Buddha taught his monks to converse kindly and courteously with one another. His lay disciple King Pasenadi of Kosla observed the contrast between his Royal Courts and the Buddha’s communities. In the courts everybody seemed to be looking out for themselves and they were always quarrelsome. Where as he observed that the monks were “ together as uncontentiously as milk with water and looking at one another with kind eyes...smiling, courteous, sincerely happy...their minds remaining as gentle as wild dear.” They listened to one another, they served one another and they showed reverence to one another.

Listening is about making space for the other, it is an invitation; an invitation to create true spiritual intimacy. Listening is one way to release ourselves from the treadmill of own ego centric little worlds. It can release us from hell.

Listening is a loving practise and as such it requires discipline, it requires spirit and it requires devotion. It begins by being aware, mindful, of when we do not listen and re-committing to listening once again. It is one step towards living more empathically, more compassionately with one another. This is not an overnight matter. As Karen Armstrong herself says “...the attempt to become a compassionate human being is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or a day - or even in twelve steps. It is a struggle that will last until our dying hour.”

It begins with listening, by attempting to be the change we want to be. By truly listening, ‘with the ears of our hearts’ we can turn away from judgement toward empathy and understanding, we can truly invite the other into our lives.

We do not journey alone, we sail the ship of life together. I hope this little boat trip that we have shared together this morning as opened you up to the concept of fellowship, of the fellowship of the spirit. I hope that in some way it is has shown how vital it is that we invite the other into our lives, how we need one another and how vital it is that we truly give of ourselves to others and let others truly give of themselves to us. Let’s feed one another from each other’s hearts in our thoughts words and deeds.

It all begins by listening with the ears of our hearts. By doing so we may just begin to understand that un-common sense that is spoken through all of life, but so rarely heard.



I would like to end with a short blessing
Go now in peace. 
Deeply regard each other. 
Truly listen to each other. 
Speak what each of you must speak. 
Be ready in any moment to disarm your own heart, 
and always live as if a realm of love had begun.

And may the blessings of God be with us in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do.