Sunday 18 November 2012

Never Curb Your Enthusiasm

In “One Minute Wisdom” Anthony de Mello wrote

“To the woman who complained that riches hadn’t made her happy the Master said, ‘You speak as if luxury and comfort were ingredients of happiness; whereas all you need to be really happy, my dear, is something to be enthusiastic about’”

All you need is something to be enthusiastic about!

I received two very different phone calls on Monday evening from two people I hold very dear to my heart. The first was from someone really suffering with life, someone who had lost all the zest all the spirit from themselves. It was a real cry for help. They just could not face the world that day, they’d had enough. I listened; I really listened, as hard as it was to hear someone you love in such a desolate state. I empathised too as I had been in that very same place myself about 11 years ago. By the end of the conversation things seemed a little better, my loved one put down the phone in hope.

A little later I received a phone call from another friend, who was just full of it. He was full of the spirit of life, of love, of God. He was saying I know you are busy but in half an hour a new series of “Sorry I haven’t got a clue” is starting and Jack Dee (A very British Larry David) is the new compare, it will be really funny etc...It was just wonderful to hear this. Not because of what he was telling me, but just to hear the enthusiasm in his voice. Only eighteen months previously this friend had given up, he had had enough. He was suicidal and seriously so. That’s what brought such joy to my heart, to hear someone who had gone from the depths of his own private hell to such enthusiasm about a programme on radio 4.

Those two conversations once again showed to me how life, just like the sherbet lemons I love, can be so bitter sweet. It also once again showed that there is always hope, no matter how despairing things can seem.

I was naturally enthusiastic as a child, I think most children are. I use to more or less wet myself when going on new adventures or just fairground rides. The first time I flew I was shaking so much I could hardly get on the plane. I wasn’t shaking with fear, it was pure excitement and it was flowing out of me. I also remember how excited my brother use to get too. Every year as children we would go on holiday to Scarborough and one year, actually it was 1981 and just after Ian Botham’s defeat of the Australian’s at Headingley. We were staying at the same hotel as the Yorkshire cricket team; nothing could have been more exciting for two boys from Yorkshire. We had great fun with them. I was taught how to swim by Chris Old’s glamorous wife and how to drink whiskey and lemonade by Chris Old and David Bairstow. My brother though was more interested in getting his bat signed. He’d got the whole team to sign it, except for one, our greatest hero, Geoffrey Boycott.  One morning he saw him sat reading his newspaper and he plucked up the courage to ask him for his signature “Mr Boycott, Mr Boycott will you please sign my cricket bat.” There was no answer. So he asked him again “Mr Boycott, Mr Boycott will you please sign my cricket bat,” still no answer. Finally he asked him a third time “Mr Boycott, Mr Boycott, will you please sign my cricket bat.” This time he looked up ever so slightly and peered over his paper and said “I heard you the first time” and held out his hand and signed the bat and then returned to his paper. He said nothing more. This destroyed my brother; it completely curbed his enthusiasm for quite some time.

It is so easy to destroy the enthusiasm in others, especially if they are a little on the fragile side. That said we can also help to build enthusiasm in others too. Enthusiasm and cynicism are just as infectious as each other. I think this autumn we have been going through a cynical cycle. Some are probably relieved to witness this. For some folk the enthusiasm and high spiritedness of the summer was probably a bit a too much. Maybe we need a bit of both; perhaps they balance one another out. “Maybe, maybe not”! Personally I do not agree in curbing anyone’s enthusiasm, we need more of it! There can never be too much enthusiasm!

Oh by the way enthusiasm is one of those words that have changed in meaning over time. The etymology of words is something I am getting increasingly enthusiastic about. It is amazing to me how many words have been reduced in meaning and impact as time as gone on. Enthusiasm is one of those words.

Enthusiasm comes from two Greek words “Theos” (meaning “God”) and “En” (which means “in”). The words put together create “En-theos-ism, which literally means “to be filled with God” or “to have God within”.

When we think of enthusiasm today we think of being thrilled or uncontrollably excited about something. Like the first time I flew in an aeroplane as a child and I was shaking with enthusiasm or when my brother discovered that we were staying in the same hotel as the Yorkshire cricket team. Enthusiasm in its truest sense is actually much more than this, it is one of those words that we have tried to tame and it has therefore been reduced in meaning. Enthusiasm has a deeper and much more sustained and longer lasting quality, than the current understanding we have of it. It has a truly deeply spiritual quality. It means to be filled with the great spirit of all life; it’s about being in touch with that highest quality of life already within us and all life; it means that we are able to live and express this quality in all that we do. This becomes infectious as we pass it on to others and it becomes manifest in our daily human actions. My friend, who called the other day, was bursting with it and yet just eighteen months earlier he had lost the will to live, life had become empty and meaningless, he had lost the taste for it.
Enthusiasm gives us is the ability to be fully engaged with all of life, whether that’s a radio program, the sunrise, a conversation with an old or new friend, a walk alone in the park or the hug of a loved one, or just simply settling down with a good book. Enthusiasm is a deeply spiritual quality that allows us to fully live in the richness that is life, in our time and place.

To be truly happy in life all we need is something to be enthusiastic about. This can allow and enable us to do great things and it can inspire others to do the same.

Margaret M Stevens tells a story of three bricklayers who were asked by a passing stranger what they were building? The first answered rather gruffly “I’m just laying bricks”, he didn’t even look up to acknowledge the person asking the question. The second did look up for a brief moment and simply said “I’m putting up a wall” and then carried on. The third put down his trowel and rose to his feet and with great enthusiasm and obvious pride said “I’m building a cathedral”.

“I’m building a cathedral”

A person overflowing with enthusiasm gives all that they have. They tend to hold nothing back. They can do great things and they can inspire others to do likewise. They give all that is in them to life and life tends to reward them in turn. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is beautiful; it is by abandonment.” Enthusiasm is about believing in life itself; it’s about being filled with life; with the spirit of life; it’s about knowing that God is in us. It is more than that though; it’s about expressing that in our lives and allowing it to spread throughout our world. The conversation I had with my friend on Monday certainly did that for me.

Enthusiasm can be infectious it can start to spread. In previous blogs I have written of my belief in the chaos theory of compassion. Well I believe that the same theory applies to enthusiasm. This can be infectious too. Last summer we were all lifted by the sporting spectacles throughout Britain, as my brother and I were by Botham and Willis’ heroics at that beloved cricketing cathedral of Headingly in 1981. This autumn we seem to have begun to slip back into cynicism once again as we have seen the negative side of humanity gain prominence. Both have power over us, both can live in and through us, but which one is it better to live by? Which one serves life? Well I for one want to live with enthusiasm and to share that with the world. If you like this is my religion.
In my view the purpose of the religious life is to discover ways to find and develop that natural enthusiasm at the core of our being and to share it with our world. You never know but that one phone call by my friend on Monday may lead to a tidal wave of enthusiasm all over this world. It certainly picked me up after a rather painful phone call had ended only minutes earlier.

I’d like to end this little chip of a blog by repeating a story I have shared before. I believe that it is definitely worth repeating. This is the story of “Two Wolves”

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. 

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It’s a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil -  he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, ego and it makes me cynical about life.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, faith and it fills me with enthusiasm for life. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

So I say never curb your enthusiasm, feed it and let that flavour flood out of you.

Life needs it.

Below is one of my favourite YouTube clips

Sunday 4 November 2012

Catching falling leaves

(This blog was first published during autumn 2012)

I am someone who attempts to practise what they preach. Yes of course I do not do this perfectly but I do at least try.

In recent blogs I have spoken several times that spiritual development requires an increased sensitivity to life and that one way of achieving this is to listen, to really listen to people as they speak. This takes discipline. Well actually it takes more than that, it takes obedience. To increase my sensitivity to life, requires me to be obedient to life itself. This is no easy task.

Now you may not like the sound of this. Obedience is a word that probably sounds too passive to the 21st century ear. This is certainly true in the modern understanding of the word. Today when we hear the word obedience or obedient we think of yielding to the authority of another, which does indeed sound unhealthy and potentially exploitative. 

The problem stems from our current understanding of the word. Obedience is one of those words that has changed in meaning over time. If you look at the etymology of the word it comes from the Latin audere, which means to listen. Actually it is more than that; it means to listen and to understand. Words like audio and audit are also formed from the same root.

Obedient originally meant to listen and to hear what is being said. As I have said many times before you give no greater service to a person than to listen to them and to hear what is being said. It is the same with life by the way. To truly understand life you have listen to it with all your heart, with the sense of your senses. If you do you truly live; you are truly alive.

I recently spent a week catching up with family and friends. During this time I made a real effort to listen and to hear what was being said by the people I spent time with. I made a conscious effort to be obedient to what they were saying. Now of course this was painful at times as I bore witness to the joy and suffering of those I love. Thankfully these days I am able to remain obedient to this. I do not turn away.

I heard many tales, one of which could only be told at this time of the year. This was story of a friend walking in the park with his grandchildren. They were enjoying the autumn leaves together, the colours, the rustling under their feet, when suddenly the children shouted out, “let’s play the catching leaf game”. 

My friend had never even heard of it before, let alone played it. The game goes something like this; you look at the trees and watch for when the leaves begin to fall. As you see one falling you attempt to catch the leaf before it hits the ground. This is apparently no easy task, although it doesn’t sound too challenging. After all it’s just a leaf, it has no mind of its own and gravity should surely bring it down safely into your hands. Well apparently not. It seems that there are other forces at work, namely the wind. My friend said it was virtually impossible to catch the leaves as they fell because they would constantly be blown off course by sudden and unpredictable gusts of wind.

Isn’t life like this, beautiful but unpredictable. The leaves rarely fall directly into our hands. How often are they blown off course just as we are about to catch them.

The wind is a powerful, an ungovernable, beast. It pays no attention to our wants and needs and desires. Once again we have seen this power in the last few days. We have witnessed the devastating effects of the wind as Hurricane Sandy swept across the Caribbean and the east coast of America, with devastating effect. Many homes and livelihoods have been destroyed and many lives have been lost.  It even brought the presidential election to temporary hold. We are very fortunate in Britain that we do not suffer from the extreme weather that many people in other parts of the world have to contend with. although it has to be said we do complain about it a lot!

The wind truly is an ungovernable beast that cannot be tamed. The same can be said for all of life, which will always remain unpredictable. All of us can at times be swept away by the vicissitudes of life, with little or no warning. A bit like the dandelions I wrote of in a previous blog we have to learn to not only except this but learn to love these vicissitudes as part of the joy of living. The key is to learn not take these troubles personally. If the weather is one thing, it is democratic. When it rains in Manchester, it rains on everyone.

How though can we not only learn to accept and love life, but to also not take it personally? Well, it begins by becoming obedient to life itself, to accept life as it truly is. What is required is the ability to listen and to really hear life and to learn to dance in those winds as they gust in and through us. The key is to be in harmony with life itself and to truly understand that we are all in this together. Oh and to learn to play or at least remember how we use to play when we were children. It might be an idea, while there are still leaves on the trees, to go out and try and catch them as they are falling.

Jeffrey Lockwood in his beautiful meditation “Go Fly a Kite” wrote:

“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.”

Rejoice in the wind – but attend to your string. How on earth do we do that?

The key it would seem is the string itself. It is this that sustains us that enables us not only to live, even with all the vicissitudes of life, but to fully enjoy the experience. Our families, our loved ones and our communities are part of that string, but they are not all of it. We each of us have things that hold and sustain us when the winds of life blow, or when they don’t blow. It is strange but I often find that I am at my best in the middle of a crisis, or a storm. Sometimes the hardest days for me are when all is calm and quiet and still. Sometimes that is when the real trouble visits. I know that I am not unique in this.

It is spiritual practise and primarily prayer that holds me and sustains me, it is this that keeps my string in good health. I often pause to pray and connect to life many times throughout the day. I am obedient to this practise. It enables me to listen to and to truly hear life, with the ears of my heart. When I live this way I am more able to speak the language of the heart and to attempt to practise what I preach.

Every Tuesday morning I attend a meditation group. This little group has been vital to maintaining the string that allows me to fully live.  This Tuesday as I went to collect the milk I looked up the sky just as it was becoming light. At the same time the week before it was still dark, I recognised this as a blessing from the clocks going back. The sky that morning had some beautiful pink tinges to it. I also noticed a flock of Canada geese flying past, migrating for the winter. I thought to myself what a beautiful blessing. I also noted some sadness too as I wondered to myself, maybe the beauty of the sky at that moment was in some way related to the horrors brought by hurricane Sandy on  the other side of the Atlantic. These thoughts may of course be nonsense and I am sure that any scientists reading this blog can correct me on this.

Not that it matters too much to me whether it is true or not. What is important is that at the moment I was able to connect to all of life. Not just within me and around me, but in other parts of the world too. The moment increased my sensitivity to life itself; the moment made me obedient to life itself. It allowed me to dance in the joy of the moment and fully appreciate the gift that is life itself, while also acknowledging the suffering in other parts of the world. Life is truly awry.

"By breath, by blood, by body, by spirit...we are all one..."

Thursday 1 November 2012

All Souls: Love I swear it, is immortal

      All Souls by May Sarton

Did someone say that there would be an end,
An end, Oh, an end, to love and mourning?
Such voices speak when sleep and waking blend,
The cold bleak voices of the early morning
When all the birds are dumb in dark November -
Remember and forget, forget, remember.
After the false night, warm true voices, wake!
Voice of the dead that touches the cold living,
Through the pale sunlight once more gravely speak,
Tell me again, while the last leaves are falling:
"Dear child, what has been once so interwoven
Cannot be raveled, nor the gift ungiven."

Now the dead move through all of us still glowing,
Mother and child, lover and lover mated,
Are wound and bound together and enflowing.
What has been plaited cannot be unplaited -
Only the strands grow richer with each loss
And memory makes kings and queens of us.
Dark into light, light into darkness, spin.
When all the birds have flown to some real haven,
We who find shelter in the warmth within,
Listen, and feel now new-cherished, new-forgiven,
As the lost human voices speak through us and blend
Our complex love, our mourning without end. 

Tomorrow the 2nd of November is the feast of All Souls. A time in the Christian Calendar to remember all souls who have departed this life. It follows All Hallows Eve or Halloween  on the 31st of October and All Hallows or All Saints Day on 1st of November. This time of year is a time of reflection; a time to remember.

Like other Christian festivals, including Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, these three autumn days are a fascinating mixture of pre-Christian, Christian and even post-Christian tradition and mythos.  I am fairly certain that the children going door at Halloween are probably not aware that they have created a modern day variant on the pre-Christian festival of Samhain; a festival that not only celebrated harvest, but was also a time to commune with spirits of ancestors. There are similar traditions throughout most culture's, autumnal and winter festivals. Autumn is a time of reflection, a time to take stock before the harsh realities of winter come.

I will be conducting an All Soul’s service at Dunham Road tomorrow evening. I have invited anyone who wishes to come and join me to remember those souls who have touched their souls but who are no longer physically with them. It will be a time and space to light a candle and to offer a few words. Or if people prefer it will be a time to sit quietly, silently and reverently and to just remember.

All Souls Day speaks powerfully to my own soul. This is because of what happened on November 2nd 2006. Before this day I am not sure that All Souls held any significance for me. This was the day when I lost a soul dear to me and to the lives of so many others. Ethan the little boy who had taught me about my own soul and who had enabled me to not only find my soul but to connect to the universal soul that I know as God today.

I first came across May Sarton’s poem “All Soul’s” a few weeks before the first anniversary of Ethan’s death. They were planting a tree in memory of him at his school and I had been asked to offer some words of prayer. This was a time before I had begun ministry training, although I was conducting worship. I decided to offer those words above by May Sarton as I felt that they spoke perfectly of the time and place. It is the lines that follow that sink so deep into my soul.

Tell me again, while the last leaves are falling:
"Dear child, what has been once so interwoven
Cannot be raveled, nor the gift ungiven."

Now the dead move through all of us still glowing,
Mother and child, lover and lover mated,
Are wound and bound together and enflowing.
What has been plaited cannot be unplaited -
Only the strands grow richer with each loss
And memory makes kings and queens of us.
Dark into light, light into darkness, spin.
When all the birds have flown to some real haven,
We who find shelter in the warmth within,
Listen, and feel now new-cherished, new-forgiven,
As the lost human voices speak through us and blend
Our complex love, our mourning without end.

Some things cannot be unravelled they are with you forever and nor should they be. The gift of love is priceless and once given is a part of our soul forever. It survives death.

Now please do not get me wrong I am not suggesting that I know what happens to us after we die. While I have a belief in God, born from experience, I remain fairly agnostic when it comes to what happens to us after we die. I have no knowledge, gained from experience, of this. Therefore I do not know. That said I do know that love survives death, as I experience the love of those who have been in my life many years after they have gone.

When I say I am agnostic about the afterlife I am not implying that I am agnostic about God in this present life. I personally feel God’s presence powerfully, most of the time. As I often say “God is just there” Please do not get me wrong when I say I am agnostic about the afterlife I am merely acknowledging  the fact that I know little or nothing of what happens to us after our bodies die. I suspect that we move onto to another state of being and I am fairly certain that it can be no stranger than our current one.

While I do not know where the souls of those who have departed our time and space exist I do know where we can experience them. They can be felt and known every time we talk of and or remember them, especially when we gather together with others who remember them too. In moments such as these their souls touch our souls once again. “What has been plaited, cannot be unplaited”. The more sensitive souls amongst us talk of actually feeling their presence.

Those we have loved and lost live on in our dreams and memories. Such memories do indeed makes kings and queens of us. Their souls are woven into our souls, they impact on our daily actions and our waking thoughts and feelings. The love that we shared never dies. Yes their death changes our relationship with them, but the love we shared lives on. The love has created a bond that cannot be broken “what has been plaited cannot be un-plaited”. This love is an eternal force that cannot be taken from us. Its influence will continue to impact upon us until our dying day and even beyond as it impacts on the lives that we touch, lives which our loved ones will never have physically known. We are all bound together in a rich tapestry of love. Those who came before us, those whose lives touch us and whose lives we touch and those who live beyond our time and space live on. This love is eternal it never dies.

Forrest Church said:

“Whatever happens to us after we die, life doesn’t end in oblivion. It continues in love, our own love, once given, everlasting. After death our bodies may be resurrected. Our Souls may transmigrate or become part of the heavenly pleroma. We may join our loved ones in Heaven. Or we may return the constituent parts of our being to the earth from which it came and rest in eternal peace. About life after death, no-one knows.
But about love after death, we surely know. The one thing that can never be taken from this world, even by death, is the love we have given before we die. Love I swear it, is immortal”

Tomorrow I will remember all the souls who have touched my soul and who have shown to me the way, who have revealed the love that is God to me. I will also think of the lives that have been touched by these souls who they never physically knew. I will not be doing so alone. I will be sharing this time and space with others who will be remembering and offering thanks and praise for those souls who are no longer physically with them but whose love will never leave them. "Love I swear it, is immortal."