Sunday 29 September 2013

So Do We Reap What We Sow?

“Harvest” is a time for reaping, but I also see it as a time for reflection; “Harvest” is a time just before Autumn sets in and all around us slows down; “Harvest is a time to gather in all that has occurred in our lives; “Harvest” is a time to feast on the good and perhaps chuck out what is of no use.

We will, before we are probably aware of it, soon enter into the winter of the year. Let us hope we have gathered enough to see us through the darkness of winter; let us hope we have planted enough, and cared for what we have planted, so that our harvest will be a fulfilling one, that it will leave us fulfilled.

So how is your harvest this year? How does your garden grow?

In Paul's letter to the Galatian’s Ch 6 v 7 you hear that well known phrase “for you reap whatever you sow”.
This roughly translates as you get whatever you give off in life; that life gives back to you in proportion to what you give to it.

These words bring to my mind the story of “Echo”...

A man and his son were walking in the forest.

Suddenly the boy trips and feeling a sharp pain he screams, "Ahhhhh."

Surprised, he hears a voice coming from the mountain, "Ahhhhh"

Filled with curiosity, he screams:

"Who are you?",

but the only answer he received is:

"Who are you?"

This makes him angry, so he screams:

"You are a coward!",

and the voice answers:

"you are a coward!"

He looks at his father, asking,

"Dad, what is going on?"

"son," the man replies, "pay attention!"

Then he screams, "I admire you!"

The voice answers: "I admire you!"

The father shouts, "You are wonderful!",

and the voice answers:

"You are wonderful!"

The boy is surprised, but still can't understand what is going on.

Then the father explains,

"People call this 'ECHO',

but truly it is 'LIFE!' Life always gives you back what you give out!

Life is a mirror of your actions.

If you want more love, give more love!

If you want more kindness, give more kindness!

If you want more understanding and respect, give more understanding and respect!

If you want people to be patient and respectful to you, give patience and respect!

This rule of nature applies to every aspect of our lives."

Life always gives you back what you give out.

your life is not a coincidence, but a mirror of your doings.

I do believe that generally speaking life is echo, what we give off we often get back, “We reap what we sow,” but that this not the full story. It is important to realise and understand that we are not the only force at work in our lives. There is injustice present, at some level, in every life and that we do not always get what we deserve. That said we are not passive, what we do and what we do not do matters. We are co-creators in the dance of life. While we are not the force, we are a part of the force and we have the force running through us.

I recently came across the following words by the 19th century Transcendentalist Henry David Thorau (1817-1862)

“On fields o’er which the reaper’s hand has pass’d

Lit by the harvest moon and autumn sun,

My thoughts like stubble floating in the wind

And of such fineness as October airs,

There after harvest could I glean my life

A richer harvest reaping without toil,

And weaving gorgeous fancies at my will

In subtler webs than finest summer haze.

It matters what we are and what we do, we are not passive in life, but then again neither are we the only force at work. That life force is within our DNA, but we are not God and neither are we the only force at work in our lives.

Every seed we plant needs external help. We can plant the seeds and we can care for the seeds, but they do not grow merely from our effort. Each seed is dependent on many things. It needs good soil to land upon, it needs water and it needs sunlight and it needs care and attention. Most of these are things that are to some extent out of our control.

There is also something unknown and mysterious in how these seeds grow. Yes I know that we can explain the mechanics, but not fully and we cannot truly answer the how and why. There is an unknown mystery in the whole process; a mystery that does not truly offer us any guarantees. We can do everything to the letter, to the book and yet our crops can still fail. This is due to forces at work, forces beyond our control. It is always worth remembering that it rains on the righteous and the un-righteous. The weather pays no attention to our plans and designs.

My auntie Catherine, her partner Robert and her son Edward grow strawberries. Each year they hope for a good crop and every summer I have heard continual tales of woe about these strawberries that never come out as they should. Each year they question whether it is worth putting all the effort in. Each year they plan various tactics to create the perfect crop for the few weeks they are in season. Each year it seems has been a bad year due to too much rain, or not enough rain, or the wrong kind of rain at the wrong time of year. The last two years I am told have been particularly unfruitful.

Well this year they prepared like they have never done before and this year was the best crop they’ve ever had. Now was it because of all the extra special drainage Rob put in or was it just that it rained at the right time and the sun shone at the right time...who knows, not I. I’m just grateful they had a good year, although I know that the fact it was such a good year was exhausting for them all. Here’s to another good harvest next year, but one that is not too exhausting.

You see whether we have a good harvest or not is not just down to us, we do not always reap exactly what we sow, there are other forces at work. We cannot control every element of life; there are powers at work other than our own. Sometimes everything can be destroyed, can be blown away by forces way beyond ourselves. This can lead us to believe that all is lost, but this not necessarily so. We can begin again at any time. Seeds can begin to grow again, even after utter devastation. This brings to mind the words “Seed” by Linda Hogan.

From“Dwellings. A Spiritual History of the Living World” by Linda Hogan,

"Seed. There are so many beginnings. In Japan, I recall, there were wildflowers that grew in the far, cool region of mountains. The bricks of Hiroshima, down below, were formed of clay from these mountains, and so the walls of houses and shops held the dormant trumpet flower seeds. But after one group of humans killed another with the explosive power of life’s smallest elements split wide apart, the mountain flowers began to grow. Out of destruction and bomb heat and the falling of walls, the seeds opened up and grew. What a horrible beauty, the world going its own way, growing without us. But perhaps this, too, speaks of survival, of hope beyond our time."

Out of the destruction of Hiroshima these new seeds grew. Out of total and utter despair new seeds of hope grew. Isn’t that life, isn’t that our lives.

Tell me about your harvest this year? Have the seeds you planted failed to grow this year? Are you left with a bad harvest? Is this because you have not nurtured and cared for your crop as you should have or is it due to forces way beyond your control? Either way do not despair, hope springs eternal, even in the Autumn and the winter. There is always time for new beginnings. Let’s gather in the harvests of our lives and lets offer thanks and praise for all that we have been given, even if it’s a hard lesson, let’s give thanks for the lesson.

Tomorrow is another day and we can begin again in love.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Community: Men's service reflection

The following blogspot is a collection of material shared by the men of Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel Altrincham, on Sunday 15th September 2013, during our annual "Mens Service".

The theme was "Community"

Opening Words

We gather to share

our faith

in the spirit of freedom,

our doubts

in the spirit of honesty.

We gather to focus

our love in prayer,

to send it to those

who suffer and grieve –

in our own community

and in the wider world.

We gather to strengthen

the good that is in us,

that the goodness may be

stronger on the earth.

We gather to worship.

Extract from: "Exploring Our Desire to Belong" by John O’Donohue taken from "Eternal Echoes"

The ideal of community is not the forcing together of separate individuals into the spurious unity of community. The great traditions tell us that community somehow already exists. When we come together in compassion and generosity, the hidden belonging begins to come alive between us. Consequently, a community which is driven by power, or too great a flurry of activity and talk, will never achieve much more than superficial belonging. The attempt to force community often drives away the more independent and creative people.

We do not build community as if it were some external and objective structure. We allow community to emerge. In order for community to emerge, we need time, vision and a certain rhythm of silence with each other. The invisible tissue which sustains real belonging is never spectacular; - It is quiet and unostentatious.

At its heart it is impossible to grasp what makes true community. We often hear the phrase "community spirit" and that recognises that community is not so much an invention or construction of its members, but a gift that emerges between them and embraces them.

Perhaps community is a constellation. Each one of us is a different light in the emerging collective brightness. A constellation of light, of course, has greater power of illumination than any single light would have on its own. We need to come together. When people come together because they care and are motivated by the ideals of compassion and creativity, true belonging emerges, communities cease to be inward looking and enrich our world.


Spirit of light, Spirit of life, hear our prayer… help us to see that we are

children of this earth, children of God, children of the universe. Help us to see that we are precious and that our world is a precious blessing ... still us, help us to be still and to know that we are loved.

If we come here feeling alone, help us to know we are not alone ... we are here among

friends, some we have known for many years, some we have known for only a short time and some we may never have met before ...

If we come here with guilt for what we have done, or failed to do, help us to see, we are not alone, that we are in the healthy company of others with the same guilt over our human shortcomings ...

.If we come here wishing our lives were more whole, more satisfying, perhaps even more

perfect; help us to see that the honesty of these wishes marks us out, as someone who belongs here….here we come to face the truth unafraid, even when we are afraid. Because we know, even when we do not want to know, that the truth can set us free. Perhaps not painlessly, but nevertheless the truth can set us free…

After all we do know ... we just need to remember, that we are children of the earth, children of God, children of the universe. We know that we are precious and the world needs our blessing.

Be still and know that you are loved.


"First Reflection"

The following reflection is by Aled Jones (Chapel Secretary)


“Time Flies”, what an over used cliché you would say, but since it is used so frequently there must some truth in it, I find it remarkable that it is now well over a decade since I retired from full time work. With the passing of time the details of my routine tasks are receding. However there is one aspect of the work I still recollect vividly, but it is rather a bleak recollection, but relevant to the theme of community.

One of my occasional duties was to attend Inquests at the local Coroner’s court as an expert witness, in Salford where I worked. One of the main functions of the coroner systems is to inquire into the circumstances of death in case of accidents and such like. Attendances at the court were always formal occasions but the events I refer to are particularly sombre and somewhat depressing.

The environment of courtroom where the hearings were held, was old fashioned and drab, the Court met in what had been the council Chamber in Pendleton in Central Salford, built I suspect at the beginning of the last century when Pendleton was an independent borough with a Mayor and its own local councillors and in its day it would have been a rather splendid chamber, but now rather drab past its best and in need of refurbishment.

The whole court proceeding was not enlivened by the character of this particular Coroner, whose full title was Her Majesty’s coroner for the Greater Manchester Area, Northwest region. He was one of those unfortunate individuals, a solicitor by training, who though able enough, was I considered totally unsuited to his job. He lacked dignity, had no aura of authority, he was diffident and sometime had difficulty in making up his mind ,who looked perpetually worried and unhappy could be petulant and angry and I suspect someone who lost a lot of sleep worrying about his cases

Nevertheless, when the court was in session, it was a lively enough scene with Police Officers or fire brigade officers, Ambulance crew, members of the public, all ready to give their evidence and lots of relative and friends of the deceased together with representatives of the local press.

However, sometime it would be totally different and this is the point of this account, I would turn up and the court room would be empty apart from the coroner, his officer perhaps a solitary policeman and me. These would be tragic cases where the deceased had died alone, perhaps a homeless person found in a deserted building, a recluse who was an alcoholic, sometimes a young drug addict and often there was a background history of mental health problems. These were indeed unfortunate people who had lived tragic lives, who had slipped through all the social service support networks that the state had tried to provide for such people in the inner city. But the most striking nature of these cases was they had become alienated from society, there were no relatives or friend, and there had been no community to help during life. Although these were depressing and rare cases, I still remember these events with great sadness and impressed me of the great importance of belonging to community.

So what do we mean by community and what makes them work?

I have been member of both religious and secular communities at different stages in my life. The greater part of my early life was spent in North London and then in a leafy suburb in Liverpool and in both places I experienced community life as a member of Welsh Chapels. At that time and I am referring to the 40’s and 50’s, there were significant Welsh speaking communities in both cities due to the migration from rural Wales to seek urban employment in the cities and a significant part of the migrant’s social life were centred on these chapels which provided both vibrant social and religious communities. There were shared cultural religious activities and much communal support and good pastoral care and these communities nurtured loyalty and much community spirit. They worked well because of the communal common goals.

After my retirement I was associated with community association near to where I live in Chorlton. As the sociologists would express it, I live near a social interface, in plain English my neighbourhood is adjacent to a fairly large overspill housing estate built by Manchester city council just before and after the second world war and at the time of building this was country side at the very edge of the city. At that time city planners thought that if they built small but good quality houses, the rest of the amenities to make a vibrant and cohesive community would just follow without any specific money and plans. Unfortunately this is not so. Fortunately there were many good and visionary people on the estate who saw the need for a cohesive community and one way of achieving this was forming a community association and providing a purpose build community centre.. The community leaders worked hard and with the help of the local member of parliament cajoled and, persuaded the central government and local authority to provide money for such a building, and it was built about 30 years ago and has been a successful amenity for the whole estate since then.

It is relevant to ask what makes any type of community work. In the reading by John O’donohe he takes a very spiritual view of what makes a true community and he said

“At its heart it is impossible to grasp what makes a true community, we often hear the phrase ‘community spirit” and recognise that community is not so much an invention or construction of its members , but a gift that emerges between them and embraces them.”

Yes, he claims that it is ”a gift that emerges between them and embraces them.”

This is what I would call the ethereal view of building communities. If that were true how easy life would be!! What little I know of building community life is, if there is a good clear vision of what is required, there is a good chance that the community will succeed, but vision and goals are not enough and it means that community members and especially leaders have to roll up their sleeves and pitch in with hard work if it really is going to be a successful community, religious or otherwise.

As I mentioned, I was a member of the management committee of this local community centre in Chorlton for the last ten years. But it entailed a lot of hard work to keep it afloat and make sure it met the needs of the community it served, especially in the last few years when it has been a period of economic stringency and this is always a difficult time for the voluntary sector. Due to cut backs it was always a struggle to raise the money for new projects and indeed keep the core activities afloat.

It is said of society in general, that nowadays people are reluctant to join social clubs; fraternal organisations, volunteer groups and faith communities as they once did and so Individuals are increasingly becoming more isolated and independent ,so, perhaps this is why people are turning to the social media such as facebook etc, and as a result perhaps it will become a difficult time for communities of all types

Next year, our chapel will celebrate its 200th anniversary, having provided a religious community in this town for that period. It has had good periods and it’s not so good periods. Its reason is to be a place of worship based on reason, freedom and tolerance, which is its vision, and because of that it will continue.

The following extract is titled "Community at Unity Church Milwaukee"

Living, as we do, in a world that is very impersonal, it is important to build a network that will support us as we move through passages of our lives. Life as we know it isn’t easy. Nor will it be easier in the future until we recognize we are all members of the same divine family. As for our personal happiness, there are strategies we can employ to alter and alleviate the difficulties we encounter in life. Many of these strategies are to be found at Unity Church and one we advocate strongly is to participate in our spiritual community here at Unity.

How do you define any community? We are all familiar with what is called a functional community, be it either a nuclear family or an extended family since these are already there for us and these are functional communities. But most communities nowadays are intentional communities. So when we speak of building community today we mean an intentional one and this is characterised by sharing one or more common visions and working together to build mutually fulfilling goals and completing these goals

People who belong to intentional communities and indeed the one at this church, stay committed to the community for a significant period of their lives and by so doing, contribute to the wellbeing of the other members.

However it is not always easy to build and sustain a successful community, religious or otherwise. Large individual egos, personal jealousies and rivalries and destructive competitiveness can be demoralising and these need to be overcome. However, the rewards of joining and participating are huge.

There is an old saying, “You only reach God by serving others”. This is also true for a caring religious community.

The following extract is titled "Community and Hospitality£ by Stephen Lingwood Minister at Bank Street Unitarian Chapel Bolton 

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it”. (Hebrews 13:2)

Hospitality is one of the key practices handed to us Unitarians, by the Islamic ¬Judeao-Christian tradition.

One of the key ministries of our Unitarian communities should be the practice of hospitality. We are communities who welcome the weary traveller with open arms. And we welcome the whole person: mind, body and soul. We do not ask anyone to leave any part of themselves at the door. We welcome people with their doubts and beliefs, with their imperfections, whomever they love, wherever they are on their spiritual journey. The only qualification to our welcome is that those who are welcomed, should also welcome others, and should contribute towards the welcoming and loving ethos of the community.

This is our religious mission: to welcome the stranger. There are many ways we do this: by demonstrating a genuine and warm welcome to the visitor at Sunday worship; by making a cup of tea for the homeless man who drops in at an inconvenient moment; by creating community for those who would otherwise be very lonely: the elderly, or international students, or stay-at-home parents.

Such work creates religious community, and it is my belief that such religious communities save the world. Never doubt the power of this mission.

Second reflection

This final reflection was written and delivered by Phil Jackman the chapel's publicity officer

As part of my recent holiday to Morocco we spent a week in the Atlas Mountains.

I thought that a little of the stillness from the mountains would provide an excellent break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

However my time in the mountains was to teach me something far more poignant, about today’s subject of community.

The Atlas Mountains are home to the Berber people who carve out a living through a mixture of subsistence farming, tourism and the manufacture of beautiful woollen carpets.

Put in these terms a cynic may judge this way of life as primitive; many of the luxuries we take for granted are absent;

There is no local government as we would recognise it, limited electricity and fresh water. They don’t even have a police station.

However to judge the Berbers on these things alone would be to miss an important lesson.

For I have come to see that society and community are two separate entities.

All of the things the Berbers lack we have provided through an impersonal system of local government. Despite their developmental and societal shortcomings, the Berbers are more than compensated by the intricate bounds which bind them together.

As we walk down the windy irrigated mountain paths through their villages, children run up to greet us, shouting “bonjour” in excited voices through beaming smiles, and offering to high 5 us.

After growing up in a Mancunian suburb this experience is somewhat alien.

It is as if their mothers never told them not to talk to strangers, like mine did. In fact it seemed quite the opposite, as if they were actively encouraged to do it at every opportunity.

By the river which winds through the valley, women laugh and gossip as they wash their clothes in the icy flow, their livestock contentedly grazing close by.

In the village men stand in the square, laughing and talking among themselves.

Life takes a much slower pace here.

The life here is full of time, whereas we often find ourselves struggling to manufacture this elusive entity.

They revel in the limitlessness of their time, whilst we are too often bound by the constraints of our only too limited time.

I suppose the lesson I learnt is that, for me, it can be all too easy to hide behind our impersonal yet functional society, with our technological driven communications.

I learnt that community is not societal security, a reliable health system or even technological and material comfort.

What I am coming to realise is that community is as simple as greeting strangers with a smile and a hello.

Building relationships with our spiritual, geographical and physical neighbours; our fellow travellers in the ship of life.

It is perhaps not without irony that The Beatles asked “where all the lonely people come from”.

I share with them their confusion; babies are not born lonely, quite often exactly the opposite.

Due to this, people must become lonely.

I have learnt that the opposite of loneliness is the sense of belonging which is provided by community, whether it be religious, geographical, physical or through shared interest.

However I have also learned that for community to be successful it is as much about giving as it is taking.

If chaos theory suggests that the clip of a butterflies wings can cause an earthquake half way around the world, then surely a smile is enough to break a person out of the binding constraints of loneliness.

If only for a few seconds.

After my experience in the mountains, I am coming to see that community, at its most basic origin is about courage.

About having the courage to be open to strangers.

About having the courage to be present in others lives.

About having the courage to look life in the eye, smile and say hello, perhaps even ask how it is.

Who knows where that may lead… 

Closing word

As we leave this sanctuary

may the holy music linger in our ears.

May the poetry of the spoken word stay in our minds.

May our spirits remain uplifted

May our lives be blessed.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Blessings for the Journey: The Temple Bells

Please watch and listen to the story "The Temple Bells" by Anthony De Mello  before reading the blog

I am suspicious of soothsayers. Why? Well because I know that you cannot predict the future; no one knows where life will lead us. By the way I include weather forecaster in my distrust. How often do they get it wrong; very wrong on many occasions. Last spring I remember hearing predictions that we faced 10 years of wet miserable summers. Well how wrong was that prediction? And yet I still put my trust in them.

Last Saturday evening I checked the forecast, I was hoping for sunshine for my final day of leave. Well they said it was going to be dull and grey and that it was going to rain. I remember feeling a little disappointed but I accepted what was on offer. Well I awoke to a pleasant surprise; last Sunday was a beautiful day. I enjoyed a lovely day with several friends. Now this may well have been the last day of summer, we shall have to wait and see.

I do not believe that anyone can truly predict the future. I am deeply suspicious of those who claim that they can, whether they hold an optimistic or pessimistic view. By the way even if we could see into the future would it be that helpful, where would be the adventure?

When we step out into the world can any of us truly say where life is going to lead us, what we will end up doing or where we will end up going and who we will end up with. We do not know who we will meet along the way and we don’t know what these folk will give or perhaps take from our lives. Some people we will meet only once and never again; some will stay with us a short while and others will be with us until the day our bodies breathe their final breath, but we do not know who these people are the day we are born.

It’s much the same with situations. Some we may experience only once, many we may never experience and others we will continue to experience over and over again. At the beginning of our lives we can not predict what these are and would we really want to even if we could?

I do not personally believe that these are preordained either, before we were born. Do not get me wrong I am not an atheist I have a strong faith in a force that runs through life, that I call God. That said the God of my understanding does not control all life and does allow it to develop freely. For me God offers the Lure of Love to all life but does not control every interaction.

Many people describe life itself as a journey that moves from one stage to another, sometimes full of joy and sometimes full of fear. Like the seasons life is forever changing. During my week off I have spent quite some time reminiscing. Thinking of where my life has taken me at different stages and where it may lead to next. This tends to happen to me a lot at this time of the year, during those last days of summer. Late September is always a time of personal reflection for me.

I love the changing seasons, they so reflect the way we experience life. I was talking with a dear friend the other day who has spent many years of her life living in Australia. We were talking about the changing seasons as we walked in the cooling evening air. She told me that in Australia you only really get summer and winter and that the sun sets and rises at pretty much the same time each day, regardless of the time of year. I remember thinking how I don’t think I would like that much. I so love the way that the days and seasons seem to change.

I'm not sure why but this year the seasons seem to have lasted longer. I know that this does not make logical sense and yet it has felt this way, this year. I don’t really know why this is, all I know is this is how I have experienced the last few months. Last winter seemed unending and the spring seemed to last forever, it rained and it rained and it rained. And as for the summer, the beautiful summer has gone on and on and on. Just when you think it is coming to an end, we get another warm sunny day. I was thinking this last Sunday morning as I sat in a friends garden enjoying a hearty breakfast and recounting the dandelions tale to him as we talked about something in his life that he was struggling with.

Life truly is an adventure and one that is ever changing. I’m just grateful these days I have found the courage to fully embrace and enjoy it. It has not always been this way.

For all of us at times just to simply step out into the world takes all the courage we can muster. Past experiences can often stop us dead in our tracks. Fear can block our attempts to step out into the world and back into the adventure of life with all its many challenges.

I recently came across the following blessing by John O’Donohue. It is specifically for the traveller, but I believe it applies to the daily adventures of our lives.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

I have often heard life described as a call to adventure. Increasingly in my life I am hearing this call, although sometimes I still fail to heed the call. I wish I didn't, but sometimes I do not hear the temple bells or at least I I believe I do not.

Life is a call to adventure. Just look at our human history it is littered with stories and adventures inspired by the search for treasure and or wisdom - Stories such as Jason and the Argonauts or many of the other Greek tales, Pilgrims Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Lord of the Rings the list goes on and on – Humanity’s canon is littered with folk tales and myths which teach us about this call to adventure, about the potential for both beauty and horror that is life.

Joseph Campbell spent years exploring these myths and stories believing that they possessed universal qualities that could help us understand how so often life calls us out to adventure, often at the least expected of moments.

Campbell identified four distinct stages of these mythical journeys. He claimed that they had universal qualities that can speak to all people at all times. The first stage he named as “The Call to Adventure”. This he claimed is caused by discontent, which draws us out of the comfort of our lives to risk something new. The second he described as an initiation, where ordeals are faced that test someone’s mental and physical skills. The third stage is the time of revelation the discovery of truth and treasure. The final stage is the return to one’s community, with wisdom gained and with treasure to share.

Now on our journeys through life there will be many obstacles that we meet along the way. No one’s life is a perfect smooth ride and I do not for one minute believe that it is meant to be this way. Life throws many obstacles at us that can blow us of course. The key is not allow these troubles to rule or lives and to maintain the faith in life itself that we will be able find the courage to walk through the storms. There is also another key too, don’t carry your own monsters with you, just deal with what is there in front of you.

I suspect that is what the poem Ithaca by Constantine P Cavafy is hinting at when it says:

"When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.

The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you."

What is required, to keep on heading the call, is faith in life itself. It is vital that we do not become ruled by the fear of meeting those old monsters that can still haunt us from our past. The key is not to be ruled by the fears of our past or the fears of the pasts of others and to keep on listening for those bells, that ring out to us from the seas that surround all life.

Everybody is seeking in one way or another, we may not all be seeking those bells that were spoken of in DeMello’s tale. Nor may we  be looking for our own Ithaca's but I suspect that we are all in some way looking for something , even if we are not so sure what that something might be.

Now we may not hear those bells that we are seeking or find the treasure we are truly looking for, but this ought not to leave us disappointed, for we have had the beautiful adventure. It seems that the call itself ought to be enough. I suspect that this is the real message in the poem Ithaca which reminds us...

"Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithaca means."

I have come to believe that we do not have search madly or even strain to hear those bells, they are all around us, in the ordinary in the everyday. All that we have to do is adventure in the right spirit. In fact sometimes all you have to do is lie down and listen to the sea, the rhythm of life and the bells will find you. All we really have to do is travel in faith and in love and leave our own monsters behind. Neither do we need to journey to some far off place to hear those bells singing, they are with us right here right now. We can hear them, we can know them if we just pay attention to life, to life that surrounds us all. I heard them walking with a friend and her dog the other evening and I heard them again sat in another friends garden as we enjoyed breakfast and the warmth of the morning sun.

No one knows what the future holds it truly is unwritten, but we not fear it. All we need do is journey on with open hearts, minds and spirits and listen out for the bells, for they sing the sweetest music. Listen to those bells that sing from the sea, the sea that surrounds and is all life.

Please listen to this beautiful reading of Ithaca

Saturday 7 September 2013

The Missing Piece: Practising Imperfection

Please watch this clip before reading the rest of the blog...

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

I love this story by Shel Silverstone. I really relate to it as I’m sure many others can too. It can be understood in many ways and I’m sure people take something different from it. What fascinates me about is this search, this struggle for completeness, this drive for wholeness and yet when it happens, when the piece is found that creates the perfect circle it does not bring happiness at all. In fact the circle rolls on at an ever increasing pace. So much so that it can no longer sing; it can no longer sing its little song nor can it appreciate all that surrounds it; it could no longer talk to the worm, or smell a flower, the butterflies could no longer land on it. Eventually it saw that it was no longer happy in its completeness, because it could no longer appreciate and or relate to life. So it rejects the missing piece and continues on imperfectly and once again begins singing its song.

"Oh I'm looking for my missin' piece
I'm looking for my missin' piece.
Hi-dee-ho, here I go,
Lookin' for my missin' piece."

Like everyone it didn’t really learn his lesson, it’s still looking for whatever will complete it.

There is a fear that haunts so many of us; it’s certainly taken its toll on me over the years. This is the fear of criticism. It can squeeze the life out of us and stop us doing whatever it may be that we want and need to do in life. I have often been held back myself, less so today, but it still lingers. It’s part of being human I suppose.

I was talking with a friend on the other day who had got herself in a bit of a "tizzy". She was starting a new job the next day and had basically driven herself mad in her attempts to prepare for it. She bought a new computer program to practise because she wasn’t sure she’d be up to the job and all kinds of other things. She wanted to be perfectly prepared for her first day and was terrified she would not make the perfect first impression. She had sought advice from all kinds of people and had desperately tried to download the program but it had gone horribly wrong. To calm herself she had practised what seemed like hours of meditation, but to no avail. In the end she stopped and realised that what she needed to do was to be with people, to sit with people and to simply say I can’t do this on my own. Within ten minutes of her simply sharing her troubles, it didn’t seem so bad at all. She had calmed down and realised that all would be well, she just needed to get a good night sleep and step into the new place of work the very next day.

The conversation brought to mind similar experiences in my life. A friend recently reminded me that I vowed I would never drive. Truth be told I only actually learnt because I had to. Now I can come up with a thousand and one reasons why I never learned, but the truth is I was terrified. I never thought I would have the right kind of co-ordination. Not true, it turned out; I got there in the end. It was a hard slog, a painful slog, but I got there in the end. I remember when I was learning I drove myself almost mad with anxiety as I got ready to begin my lesson. Each week I tried a different pair of shoes or trainers, the ones that would give the best feel on the clutch. After about 10 weeks I reckon I stumbled on the perfect ones. Truth be told, on reflection, I had probably just about learned about clutch control by this time. Each week I would spend an hour in prayer and meditation trying to get over the anxiety, which never really subsided. The only real cure was walking in the park and connecting to life. After about twenty weeks, the fear seemed to subside, as I found I could actually handle the car.

I did eventually pass my test and have been driving for over three years now. I’m never going to be Nigel Mansell, but I can drive. I stuck at what I needed to do; I found the courage to keep on going, despite my fear and error strewn early days

The biggest difference about my life today, compared to the first thirty some years is that I have faith and courage. I have found that something that sustains and holds me and guides me despite my doubt and fear. I can practise imperfection, incompleteness these days. There is far less fear of the criticism of others.

I love the following meditation by Forrest Church, it really chimes with me. It is titled “The Imperfectionsist”:

"The reason I’ve been able to produce so much is that I’m not a perfectionist – I’m an imperfectionist. I’m confident that everything I say can be improved upon by others, and that’s my great strength, because I know that it won’t be improved upon by others unless I take the first step. When we only do things which please us, or don’t frighten us, after a while fewer and fewer things please us. Over time, our circle of options diminishes until we are prisoners in gardens of our own making. The more decisions you make in your life, the more times you act, the more certain it is that you will be wrong. To be fulfilled we need to recognize, all of us, that the world doesn’t owe us a living – rather we owe the world a living. And in the brief time that is given us, we must somehow learn to give ourselves away."

I really believe that what we need is more imperfection, more incompletion. More people who are unafraid to do what they can, however falteringly so that others can improve on their beginning. Think about it if we all held back until that perfect moment, nothing would ever get done; nothing would ever happen; nothing would ever change. We would just sit around complaining about our lives and the state of the world where in, I have wasted a lot of my life doing precisely this. These days, thank God, I have enough faith to practise imperfection.

It is ok to be imperfect; in fact I would suggest that it is rather lovely. It makes us fully human. No aspect of life is perfect. I do wonder where this drive, this need to be perfect comes from, to escape our humanity. Maybe that is exactly where it does in fact come from? It is an aspect of that drive to somehow transcend our humanity. I am reminded here of the text from Genesis I. When God looks at his creation he does not suggest that is perfect, he sees that it is good. Some translations suggest that it means “fit for purpose”. This fascinates me. Perfection is not part of natural life and yet we so often cripple ourselves in our attempts to strive for it, to prove ourselves worthy of life. We forget that to be imperfect is to be incomplete and that there is nothing wrong in this, it is to be fully human. To be incomplete simply means we have not yet created the perfect circle and thus we can roll through life singing and enjoying all that is life, with all that is life. We can journey together in love. In our perfect imperfection.

I believe that by practising imperfection we can bring ourselves closer to one another and encourage one another to be all that we can be; imperfectionism gives us the courage to be all that we can be. If we can learn to celebrate imperfection within ourselves, then we can learn to celebrate it in one another. It will bring us closer to one another and we can begin to encourage one another to be all that we can be. We can then work together to build a better life for us all. Perfectionism is a manifestation of selfishness, it’s all about the individual. Where as imperfectionism draws us out of ourselves and encourages us to encourage one another to what ever we can. You never know we may end up doing more than we ever dreamed was possible, for the good of ourselves and the good of all.

I say lets practise being perfectly imperfect children of life, children of love, children of God. Let’s continue singing our song.

"Oh I'm looking for my missin' piece
I'm looking for my missin' piece.
Hi-dee-ho, here I go,
Lookin' for my missin' piece."


Sunday 1 September 2013

Pay it Forward

"Do all the good you can

By all the means you can,

In all the ways you can,

In all the places you can,

At all the times you can,

As long as ever you can "

Words of John Wesley the father of Methodism.

A week last Friday I drove up to Keswick to conduct the funeral of Bill Molyneux. I set off very early in the morning and decided to call in at Stretford cemetery on the way. The date was 23rd of August (2013), it would have been Ethan’s 13th birthday. Unfortunately I had not really thought ahead and had assumed that the gates would be open, they were of course locked at that hour, 6 o'clock in the morning. I left feeling annoyed and frustrated and somewhat tired, with a little trapped in emotion. Thankfully as I drove I was able to connect to my purpose that day.

It was a beautiful journey through the Lake District and a deeply moving day. I was able to get back in time, before it turned dark and visit the cemetery to leave my card, to talk with him at the side of the grave and to offer thanks and praise for all that Ethan gave in his short but rich life.

Following Bill’s funeral we shared a lovely tea at a local hotel and his friends, family and former colleague Bob shared some beautiful memories about his life. It is obvious he was a greatly loved man. I sat next to Bob who shared many tales about Bill and few other stories too. Bill used to run a jam making factory and Bob recounted a tale when they had run out of supplies of damsons. He had noted I was from Yorkshire and said that this type of jam was very popular there. Bob recounted how he began the round of calls all over the north of England in a desperate search for extra supplies. Eventually he got through to a firm in Yorkshire who had plenty extra. Bob thanked the man at the end of the phone adding “I don’t know how or when we will be able to pay you back for this.” To which the man replied, “Nah then lad, thas no need to pay us back, there’s no debt. What I’d like thee to do is pay it forward.”

Bill’s business partner explained to me that what the man had wanted him to do was to remember this favour and to pass it on when someone else was in trouble and needs a favour too. He didn’t want him to pay it back, he wanted him to pay it forward.

This really got me thinking. First of all it exploded one of those myths about Yorkshire folk and especially one of those awful clichés that are said of us. You have no doubt heard this one “Ear all, see all, say nowt; eyt all, sup all, pay nowt; and if ivver tha does owt fer nowt allus do it fer thissen.” Which roughly translates as “Hear all, see all, say nothing; eat all, drink all, pay nothing; and if ever you do anything for nothing always do it for yourself.”

The man on the other end of the phone certainly exploded that myth. He didn’t want the favour to be paid back, instead it wanted it to be paid forward, to be passed on to the next person in need.

Pay it forward is an interesting term, don’t you think?

There are disagreements over its origins, which may well go back to the ancient Greeks. Luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson made reference to the principle. In a letter to Benjamin Webb in 1784 Franklin wrote “I do not pretend to give such a sum; I only lend it to you. When with another honest man in similar distress, you must pay me by lending this sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a knave that will stop its progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

In his essay “Compensation” Emerson wrote: “In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.”

During the 1950’s the phrase “Pay it Forward” was popularised by Robert A Heinlein, initially by being referenced in his book “Between Planets.” Heinlein preached and practised this principle in his daily life and this led to the formation of the Heinlein society, a humanitarian organisation based on this principle.

In the year 2000 Catherine Ryan Hyde published the novel “Pay it Forward” which became a best seller and was soon made into a film by the same title. This led in time to the formation of the “Pay if Forward Foundation.” It even has its own day. Did you know that April 26th is “International Pay It Forward Day”. This is a day when millions of people intentionally commit to acts of kindness and caring.

Pay it forward is based on what is known today as the “ripple effect”, which has its roots in Confucius's concept of “Concentric Circles of Compassion”. Like a pebble dropped into a pond, our actions create ripples that go out and affect others beyond what we can imagine. It works on the premise that we can make our world a better place if we share, if we care as much for others as we do for ourselves. It is firmly grounded in the ethos of the “Golden Rule of Compassion” a concept found at the core of every single one of the world’s great religious traditions. It is an effort to change the world one small act at a time. Everything we do and everything we do not do really does matter. We affect our world, for good or for ill, by every thought, word and or deed.

One of the great movements for social good of the twentieth century is enshrined in the concept of “paying it forward”. Alcoholics Anonymous and the near two hundred other fellowships that have sprung from its principles have brought about recovery for millions of people from all manners of addiction. When a person is released from their destructive addiction they are not asked to pay back what was freely given to them, instead they are asked to pass on what has been given to others in desperate need and when doing so to also pass on that they do not have to pay back what has been given to them, instead they too must pass it forward. The principle of "Paying it Forward" is at the root of this simple movement that has saved millions of lives.

When I look back at my life it blows my mind to think of all the good that people have done for me. Two of those people I have remembered with tears of grief over the last week. One of course was Ethan who revealed God’s love to me and other was Enid Johnson whose funeral I conducted last Wednesday. Enid was a member at Cross Street Chapel when I began attending 10 years ago. Enid was one of the many people who welcomed me with open arms into the community and who also supported me when Ethan was killed, further she was another who supported me as I took the first tentative steps into ministry and I know her love and support has remained ever since. I cannot directly pay back Enid, Ethan or the countless other people who have helped me over the years, but then again I don’t have I just have to keep on “Paying It Forward”. I just need to keep on passing on to others what was so freely given to me.

It is easy to look at our world and despair and give up and say “what’s the point? Everyone is out for themselves. If I go out of my way to help another, they’ll just keep on taking advantage and what will I ever get back in return? It's easy to follow the selfish rule, “If tha gunna do owt for nowt, do fir thee sen”

I believe there is another way; I believe there is a better way. This other way is the purpose of the “Pay it Forward” movement. I like them believe that we can change our world, one act at a time. This is religion in its deepest and simplest form, binding up the broken manifesting God’s love in life. At its core is this life affirming principle that in spite of a great deal of evidence to the contrary faith, hope and love do in fact still remain. You see these ripples touch everybody both the giver and receiver and all who are eventually touched by them; both the giver and receiver are transformed by the experience; both giver and receiver are blessed abundantly.

I’d like you who read this to do something for me, “for thee sen”, for your world. I’d like you to remember all those times in your life when someone has gone out of their way to help you with no expectation of anything in return; whether they have helped you materially, intellectually, emotionally, or spirituality. I’d like you re-feel these occasions and to meditate on them and to come up with ways that you can pay these debts forward. I’d like you to think of ways that you can give back to your world; how you can create ripple effects that can impact in our shared world in ways we perhaps can’t even begin to dream of.

We can change our world today; it begins with thee and me. If you can’t do it for me, then "do it for thee sen."

I’d like to end this blog with this lovely tale by David J. Wolpe

"There is a marvelous story of a man who once stood before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world. "Dear God." he cried out, "look at all the suffering, the anguish and distress in your world. Why don't you send help?" God responded,"I did send help. I sent you." When we tell our children that story, we must tell them that each one of them was sent to help repair the broken world-and that it is not the task of an instant or of a year, but of a lifetime."