Saturday 25 May 2013

Thank you & Happy Birthday

My granddad turned 90 the other week. They threw a party for him at the sheltered accommodation where he lives. During the do we at together and talked. Well actually he did most of the talking and I just listened. This is often the case with family and it’s the way I like it; it’s like panning for gold or precious stones. There are always one or two priceless gems in there. One of the things I always get a sense of when sitting with him is his simple sense of gratitude for having lived his life; he respects the fact that he has had the opportunity to live a life, something I’ve certainly not always had myself. During the conversation he recounted a tale from the war. He was in the Royal Navy and it was at the time when the allies were invading Italy. He told me that the "American’s" had made a big error and that his ship was under bombardment. During the battle the ship was hit by a shell that went right through to engineering. Somehow it never went off and as a result he and his crew mates were spared. His friend Percy, who went to sea with him, was not so fortunate he never came back. He later said that he has been a very fortunate man throughout his life. Like everyone he has known his share of suffering, but he knows how fortunate he has been to have had the chance to live the life he has had.

As I was driving back home that evening I was really struck by what he had said. If that shell had gone off you may well be reading something far more interesting right now. Think about it if he had been killed that day I would not be here and none of my family would have been born. Think about it we are so fortunate to experience life at all, in so many ways we all beat the odds. How many bullets have we dodge to get where we are today? How many shells have landed in our engine rooms and yet somehow failed to go off?

Often in life when trouble strikes we all ask the question why me? Why is this happening to me? It’s a universal question and yet is a senseless one. It is a question born from taking life personally, it is a self centred question and one that is probably the curse of the modern age. The truth is that when bad things happen they are not just happening to us personally, they are happening to others too.

The question “Why me?” always brings that 1960’s classic film “Zulu” to mind and one particular scene just before the encampment at Rorks Drift is attacked. The soldiers are waiting as the Dutch missionary is being sent away crying out “you are all going to die, can’t you see that, you are all going to die.” The camera then focuses on one private who has fear written all over his face he asks the question out loud “Why, why us” to which Colour Sergeant Bourne answers “Because we’re here lad and nobody else, just us.”

Because we are here, we have been given the most precious gift that is life. We have been given the opportunity to live life. Yes sometimes that is hard and painful, but it is life, a privilege I have not always appreciated.

Birthdays are oh so important and they should be marked and celebrated. They are truly “Holy Days”; they are an opportunity to honour the sacredness of our lives; they are opportunities to recognise one another’s sacred uniqueness. As Henri Nouwen so delightfully said “We should never forget our birthdays or the birthdays of those who are close to us. Birthdays keep us childlike. They remind us that what is important is not what we do or accomplish, not what we have or who we know, but that we are, here and now. On birthdays let us be grateful for the gift of life.”

Now some people have two birthdays. I am not just talking about the Queen here by the way. Alcoholics in recovery also celebrate a second birthday. They celebrate their sobriety birthday as well as their belly button birthday, a kind of re-birthday if you like. Mine is the 10th October 2003. On this day I began a journey turn down a different path, I began my life journey again. I turned from non-being to living. Forrest Church when reflecting on his new life after 10 or more years of sobriety wrote the following in the last few months of his life as he was succumbing to cancer:

"Taken literally (in Hebrew and Greek as well as Latin), "conversion" is not "re-birth" but "turning". Once converted, we re-direct our journey. The American short-story writer Raymond Carver turned his life around by a decision to stop drinking. From that point forward, he met life's trials with equanimity and grace. When dying of brain cancer at the age of forty-nine. Carver summed up the nine years of freedom he had enjoyed during what turned out to be the final decade of his life with same word that lept to mind when I give daily thanks for a yearlong reprieve from my cancer: "gravy".

When we see life as the precious gift that it is, when we celebrate our birthday as a truly holy day we see that everything is indeed “gravy”

Rumi the Sufi mystic said:

“For sixty years I have been forgetful,
every minute, but not for a second
has this flowing toward me stopped or slowed.
I deserve nothing. Today I recognise
that I am the guest the mystics talk about.
I play this living music for my host.
Everything today is for the host.”

We are all guests in life, guest of this world. Surely we should offer thanks and praise for the very fact that we can take the breath of life into our lungs?

Meister Eckhart said that “if the only prayer you said the whole of your life was "thank you", that would suffice.” "Thank you" is the greatest prayer of them all. I have a friend who recites that prayer with every breath when he goes swimming. This man has known the pain that life can bring; he's also been responsible for creating plenty of it himself. He has changed though and as a result is grateful for the fact that he can draw breath. He says thank you for every single breath.

...that takes my breath away...
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the author of “Gigi” once said. “What a wonderful life I’ve had. I only wish I had realised it sooner.” These are very similar sentiments to those uttered by my granddad. Now who would have thought that a French novelist and a former market trader from Batley would come from the same school of philosophy?
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? Well isn’t that the great mystery of life, we do not know what is coming.
Religion for me is essentially about how we live with ourselves, one another and whatever it is that we believe permeates all life. For me everything matters; it matters what we do and just as much what we do not do. That is why I believe it is so very important to give thanks for life. I believe that every time we say thank you for what life has brought to us we instantly give back to life in a loving positive way and by doing so we invite more of life to us. In that creative interchange, in my experience, God comes to life. We need to say thank you.
We also need to say thank you to one another. Why you may well ask? Well because when we do so we encourage others to do likewise, to give thanks for life itself, we encourage others to bring to life that create interchange and incarnate thanks, thanks for life.
I have written before of my belief in the “Chaos Theory of Compassion”, well maybe this is the “Chaos Theory of Thank You”. If we each of us focus on offering thanks for all that is our lives, especially to one another we may just spark chain reactions of thanks all over the world. Just imagine what our world would be like if each morning we awoke and simply said thank you for the fact that we can draw breath and then continued offering thanks and praise for all that life offers to us. Just imagine that for a moment.
This is no great task, anyone can do it. Try focussing on offering thanks and praise for the simple fact that we draw breath at all; Look at the world through thankful eyes. Yes we all have burdens to bear, of body, mind and spirit but I suspect that these may become easier to carry if we gave thanks for life for truly it is the measure of our days.

“For the sun and the dawn
Which we did not create;
For the moon and the evening
Which we did not make;
For food which we plant
But cannot grow;…
We lift up our hearts in thanks this day.”

By Richard M. Fewkes

Sunday 19 May 2013

Courage: We can be heroes every day

One thing about the modern multi-media age is that it throws up instant heroes. People can do a heroic act in some part of the world and if it is caught on film or the person is filmed shortly afterwards within hours it can have gone viral and people all over the world soon get know of their heroic deed. Well such a thing happened last week.

I'm sure you heard about  Charles Ramsey?

He became famous by responding to screams he heard coming from a home in his neighbourhood. He thought it was a domestic dispute and broke into the home to free three women who were held captive there. The three women turned out to be Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. They had been missing for ten years and were presumed dead. They had in fact been held prisoner in the Cleveland home that Ramsey had rescued them from. Ramsey did not consider himself a hero and said he was only doing what any right minded citizen would do and certainly did not feel he ought to rewarded for his actions and any rewards ought to be given to the three women. Nevertheless he has become a modern day hero and has been held up to acclaim all over the world. He has become a modern day hero, if only for one day.

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

The stories we tell today are full of heroic characters. We only need look at the recent remaking of the comic strip super heroes such as Spiderman, Batman, The X-Men, or Star Wars, Harry Potter, Dr Who, the Lord of the Rings, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These are modern day heroes, but they are no different in character to the heroes of ancient times.

The heroes of ancient times were endowed with great strength and were often descendants of the gods; while the modern day heroes tend to be superhuman mutations. Both the ancient and modern seem beyond the reach of mere mortals. Even momentary acts of heroism seem to be outside the scope of ordinary people. Charles Ramsay has become a modern day hero because he did something outside of the norm and also reacted to what he did in such a humble and almost startled way.

So is the song true, can we all be heroes just for one day?

I was recently chatting with my brother law. In the middle of the conversation my niece Aimee asked what the difference between heroism and courage was? Dave struggled to answer and I thought about it for a short while and then said something like “heroism is a single act a momentary thing that a person does on the spur of the moment without really thinking about the consequences, it is also something that is recognised by others. Where as courage seems a quiet consistent ordinary activity that almost goes unnoticed and is rarely glorified. It's about sticking at something despite the presence of real fear. As I see it courage is something that materialises in the ordinary.”

I recently came across the following, it speaks beautifully and powerfully to me about the everyday characteristics of courage:

 "The Art of facing Things" By Mark Nepo

"What people have forgotten is what every salmon knows.  Salmon have much to teach us about the art of facing things.  In swimming up waterfalls, these remarkable creatures seem to defy gravity.  It is an amazing thing to behold.  A closer look reveals a wisdom for all beings who want to thrive.

What the salmon somehow know, is how to turn their underside—from centre to tail—into the powerful current coming at them, which hits them squarely, and the impact then launches them out and further out and up the waterfall; to which their reaction is, again, to turn their underside back into the powerful current that, of course, again hits them squarely; and this successive impact launches them further out and up the waterfall.  Their leaning into what they face, bounces them further and further along their unlikely journey.

From a distance, it seems magical, as if these mighty fish are flying, conquering their element.  In actuality, they are deeply at one with their element, vibrantly and thoroughly engaged in a compelling dance of turning-toward-and-being-hit-squarely that moves them through water and air to the very source of their nature.

In terms useful to the life of the spirit, the salmon are constantly faithful in exposing their underside to the current coming at them.  Mysteriously, it is the physics of this courage that enables them to move through life, as they know it, so directly.  We can learn from this very active paradox; for we, too, must be as faithful to living in the open if we are to stay real in the face of our daily experience.  In order not to be swept away by what the day brings, we too, must find a way to lean into the forces that hit us so squarely.

The salmon offer us a way to face truth without shutting down.  They show us how leaning into our experience, though we don’t like the hit, moves us on.  Time and again, though we’d rather turn away, it is the impact of being revealed, through our willingness to be vulnerable; that enables us to experience both mystery and grace”

Courage in many ways is the essence of life, maybe it is our daily bread. Anais Nin once said “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” I think that there is something very powerful in these nine simple words. I’m sure we can all think of moments when our own lives have either expanded or shrunk in proportion to our courage. Courage itself comes from the French root “Cuer” meaning heart. To have courage is to have strength of heart. Courage is a consistent and sustaining love, it is a spiritual energy that sustains us in sickness and in health in loss or disappointment.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to the size and inclusiveness of our vision and our heart; life shrinks or expands in service of high and noble ideals that allows life to evolve to a higher plain. It is not just about risking everything and overcoming fear, that may well be bravery or even heroism, but I'm not sure it's courage. Many people risk and sacrifice their lives but not always in the service of love and life, they do so in a destructive way that is against life. Such people are fearless, but I’m not sure that they are courageous.

So how do we know if what we are doing is expanding or shrinking life?

Well during the 3rd century the theologian Origin came up with a two part test to determine whether a person was interpreting scripture rightly. I think that we can expand this same test and apply it to how we live our lives in 21st century Britain. Origin’s formula claims that our course of action must always meet two criteria it must be both useful to us and at the same time worthy of God.

This to me seems to be the essence of courage it must be useful to humanity and at the same time worthy of God. To have courage is to have strength of heart and to live from our hearts in our ordinary everyday activities.

Howard Thurman said the following on "Courage"

"There is a quiet courage that comes from an inner spring of confidence in the meaning and significance of life. Such courage is an underground river, flowing far beneath the shifting events of one's experience, keeping alive a thousand little springs of action. It has neither trumpets to announce it nor crowds to applaud; it is best seen in the lives of men and women who do their work from day to day without hurry and without fever. It is the patient waiting of the humble person whose integrity keeps his spirit sweet and his heart strong. Wherever one encounters it, a lift is given to life and vast reassurance invades the being. To walk with such a person in the daily round is to keep company with the angels"

Courage is a way of living and breathing it’s about living openly and vulnerably in the world. It is about bringing this attitude of Origin’s into life itself, it needs to be useful to us and worthy of God. We can bring this attitude into any situation, even the most difficult. It is not just present in the middle of a crisis when all is going wrong it is also there living and breathing as life returns to normal at the end of a crisis as we start to rebuild life when the storms have blown away. Courage comes in those ordinary acts of love as we walk slowly through life. It is courage that allows us to learn that even when life has betrayed us, love is still present. 

It is courage that allows us to stay open to life even when the storms are really blowing. It is courage that is formed in the heart; it is courage that is the ultimate act of faith; it is courage that keeps us open to life so that we can live in ways that are useful to everyone and worthy of God.

Yes we can all be heroes, we can perform heroic acts, we can all be heroes even if it is just for one day. Courage though is something more, something deeper, something that comes from the heart, from that place deep within each of is something that has to be useful to life and worthy of God.

I’d like to end this little chip of a blog with the following words on courage by J. Ruth Gendler.

“Courage has roots. She sleeps on a futon on the floor and lives close to the ground. Courage looks you straight in the eye. She is not impressed with power trippers, and she knows first aid. Courage is not afraid to weep, and she is not afraid to pray, even when she is not sure who she is praying to. When courage walks, it is clear that she has made the journey from loneliness to solitude. The people who told me she is stern were not lying; they just forgot to mention that she is also kind.”

Saturday 4 May 2013

Water water everywhere

I awoke on Monday morning with a completely empty mind. I had no idea what to explore this week. I went through my usual morning prayer and meditative routine which continued as I enjoyed my shower. Now as you may or may not know I have a brand new bathroom, with a wonderful shower. As I stood there washing and just enjoying the heat of the water splashing all over me, as my senses woke fully to life, it came to me what I wanted to explore this week, water.

Water the most basic element of life, both of the external life and our own bodies. We are made of water. We live on planet earth and yet truth be told if we look at picture of our world from space should we really call it planet earth, surely it is planet water. The surface of our planet is two thirds water. Physically we are mainly made up of water.

We are like water. Yes our physical form is solid and unbending but our psyche is not. It can be bent and shaped in all directions, much like water. The bending and the shaping does not really occur at the physical level, more the metaphysical one. People change, although physically they may well look the same.

Although our world is mainly water so many people live without this basic resource. I’m very aware how fortunate I am to live in a time and place where clean, hot, running water is readily available. A hundred years ago this was not necessarily the case in this country and it is not the case for so many people who live in many parts of the world today.

I remember being made aware of this during my trip to Transylvania a couple of years ago. I noticed that there were wells in several of the yards of the homes I visited in Maros St George. Now as it happens these were no longer in use as the town now had a general water supply. That said this was not the case for the more remote village of Icland. The homes there were still supplied by well water.

For many folk in many parts of the world the situation is far more desperate. How many lives perish each year because of the lack clean or any water at all?

We cannot live without water, well not for more than one week they say. I know I can't if you've ever seen me lead worship you will see I guzzle large amounts of it throughout the hour. What that is about is a mystery to me to, maybe it’s that living breathing spirit coming out of me? God knows!

With water being so central to life it is hardly surprising then that it would play such a large role in the many religious traditions of humanity. It is central to many of rituals of most faiths. It symbolises birth and re-birth and is seen not only as a sustaining substance but as a cleansing and therefore purifying one.

God or the Divine is often portrayed by water. This is hardly surprising when you think of its many qualities. It can bend into any shape and cover and over power all life. It is life giving and sustaining and can be immensely powerful. It brings to mind some words by Forrest Church on God. Forrest said “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that power that is greater than all and yet present in each.” Isn’t that what water is a power that is greater than all and yet present in each.

The spiritual, the religious life, is about living in a certain way. The question I suppose is what is the right way? Well maybe water or the qualities it possesses can teach us the way. Perhaps the way is to live like water; to live with the qualities that water has.

Taoism teaches this, claiming that we must go with the flow of life, like water:

Nothing in the world is softer than water,
Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.
This is because nothing can alter it.

That soft overcomes the hard
And gentle overcomes the aggressive
Is something that everybody knows
But none can do themselves.
Therefore the sages say:

The one who accepts the dirt of the state
Becomes its master.
The one who accepts its calamity
Becomes king of the world.

The Martial Artist Bruce Lee offered similar advice when he said:

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You can put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You can put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

I believe that there is real wisdom in this. We can’t physically bend and shape much like water does, but I don’t think this is what is being meant here. I think this is talking about how we live. It’s our persona, our spirit, it is this that needs to bend and shape in order to be in harmony with all life and that eternal spirit that flows like water through all life.

There is something in this formlessness and the bending and shaping that speaks to me of truth, particularly religious truth. In the introduction to “One River Many Wells” Matthew Fox states:

“Meister Eckhart says: ‘Divinity is an Underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up.” Fox himself says that “There is one underground river – but there are many wells into the river: an African well, a Taoist well, a Buddhist well, a Jewish well, a Muslim well, a Goddess well, a Christian well, an Aboriginal well. Many wells but one river. To go down a well is to practise a tradition, but we would make a grave mistake (an idolatrous one) if we confused the well itself with the flowing waters of the underground river. Many wells, one river. That is Deep Ecumenism.”

Again this teaches something of the qualities of water that we can learn form. We can access water as we can access truth but we can never get the full picture, the whole truth and how ever we access the truth is always limited. That said if we come together we can drink from one another’s sources and share the one universal river of life.

We are one we are interconnected as we are with all life.

Water is the basic element of life. We are mainly made from it and we depend upon it. It unites everything that lives on this earth and links us not only to one another but to all that is. It is a power that we can work with and therefore live successfully or against and therefore struggle with.  If we remain rigid in all things we will struggle but if we can be moulded and bend ourselves to fit with life and that spirit that permeates all life we can be in harmony with everything.

Today I offer praise to water, that power that is greater than all and yet present in each.

Water the most basic ingredient of all life, may we absorb the lessons you offer us.

Bend us, shape us, form us in your image.


I will end this little chip of a blog with following words by Denise Levertov

“The Fountain” by Denise Levertov

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water

to solace the dryness at our hearts.

I have seen

the fountain springing out of the rock wall

and you drinking there. And I too

before your eyes

found footholds and climbed

to drink the cool water.

The woman of that place, shading her eyes,

frowned as she watched — but not because

she grudged the water,

only because she was waiting

to see we drank our fill and were


Don’t say, don’t say there is no water.

That fountain is there among its scalloped

green and gray stones,

it is still there and always there

with its quiet song and strange power

to spring in us,

up and out through the rock.