Sunday 24 November 2013

Tears: The Most Sacred of Waters

In recent blogspots I have explored suffering and despair and how to find meaning in difficult times; ways to the engage with the kind of deep sustenance that can sustain us when life seems difficult. In this final piece for Novemeber I am continuing with this theme by discussing a substance that occurs naturally within everyone. It will explore that most sacred of waters; it will be exploring tears. I suspect that the tear may just about be the ultimate of human sacraments. Tears mark many of the most sacred moments of our lives; tears connect us to these moments in ways that are way beyond mere words.

Tears rolled down my cheeks on several occasions last weekend. Most of them were not tears of sadness; no they were tears of gratitude, joy and connection. I have shed tears of sadness in recent weeks, but not last weekend.

Last Sunday I was deeply touched by the anniversary service I attended at Oldham Unitarian Chapel and One World Centre. They were celebrating 200 years of Unitarian witness in the town. The first Unitarians began gathering there, officially at least, for the first time in an upstairs room just a few months after the Trinity Act was passed in 1813. This act allowed Unitarians to worship free from persecution for the first time. The history of Oldham Unitarians has been one of struggle. There have been times when they have thrived, but in the main they have struggled. This has been particularly true in recent years. This is why it was such a joy to be there last Sunday and to see them harvesting some of the fruits of their labour. Over the weekend their new One World Cafe was opened and they also unveiled the most beautiful new stained glass window. The dedication of the new window was led by Marion Nuttall ,one of the stalwarts of the congregation. As she spoke tears began to roll down my face. As they did I looked around the chapel and noticed the same thing occurring in the eyes of others that were present there tpp. These were tears of love and understanding, tears of recognition for Marion and her steadfast dedication to the chapel, the people of Oldham and free religion. It was a real privilege to be a witness to this.

I also experienced some wonderful tears of gratitude as I tried to settle down to sleep last Saturday night. I was quite high on life at the time. I’d been to a wonderful New Model Army gig that night and had been moved deeply by the whole experience. I had shared the night with some new friends and yet I felt that I had experienced the whole event with friends I had known from being a teenager. I even bumped into an old mate I’d not seen since the later 1990’s. As soon as we saw one another we just hugged, what more was there to do. As I lay in bed that night I tried to come down from the high of the evening and just could not. I tried to clear my head and connect to my breathing, but it just did not work. So I decided to just lie and re-feel the memories not just of that night but of many nights over many years. I remembered old friends and passions and as I did tears began to form in my eyes. They were not tears of sadness; they were tears of gratitude, connection and most of all love. After a while a broad smile spread across my face and I drifted into a deep dreamless sleep.

There is something deeply sacred in tears. I’m not really talking about crying here by the way. I think that crying is something else, something that demands attention from others and something we often feel we need to do something about. Crying, sobbing especially in children is something which makes most people feel deeply uncomfortable.

In recent times I have heard several people say that they cannot cry alone; that they need other people to be there so that they can feel safe enough to cry. I suspect that this has something to do with the fear of being out of control and being unable to get back to what they perceive as normality. I may well be wrong, but I don’t think so. If you cry in public you will of course be heard and there will usually be someone or even several people who will respond and help you to put things back together again.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently. I’m not sure I cry in public, or not very often anyway. I do shed tears though. I do so a lot actually, sometimes while leading worship. I don’t fear it. I know these tears are sacred and it is my soul responding to something greater than myself.

Tears though don’t only come in response to gratitude and happy moments of connection. They are also a response to deeply felt suffering. It will not surprise you to hear that Forrest Church had something rather beautiful to say on this subject, He wrote that...

"...the ancient Hebrews honoured suffering, viewing it as a sign of a deeply felt experience, a symbol of their passion. I encountered an intimate expression of this on a recent visit to Israel.

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

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

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

Washington Irving the author of the Gothic novel “Sleepy Hollow” claimed that “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.”

Tears are sacred; they are perhaps the holiest of holy waters. I have not always seen them this way. I used to see them as a sign of weakness; that they symbolised emotion that needed to be controlled and not expressed. I remember the day that my father died, walking into the room where he lay. I went in alone, I looked at him and kissed him and then turned and walked out of the door and into my grandma’s kitchen. As I did so my auntie and grandma asked if I was ok as they did I felt the emotion come and I swallowed hard, no tears came. I did not cry at the funeral either. It took me 10 years before I was able to grieve my father’s life and death.

Thankfully I am no longer like that. One reason I spend so long preparing the funeral services I lead is because of the way they affect me. I have to go over them again and again to work through the emotion, so has to maintain professionalism on the day. Yet no matter what I do the emotion is there, there is always one or two tears. As there should be, these are sacred moments that I am attempting to hold people through.

For so much of my life I have been afraid of my emotional nature and this is one of the reasons why when I was first asked by my granddad if I would conduct his funeral, when the time came, I refused. I did so because I was afraid I would be unable to cope on the day. Since then thankfully my faith has grown. Only a couple of weeks ago it came to me that this is something I must do. Yes tears will be shed, but it is something I must do. It is the right thing to do. Today I try not to shy away from the sacredness of life.

I have for many years been fascinated by two very different images of overflowing cups. One is the Zen Buddhist tale about an overflowing tea cup and the other the verse from the 23rd Psalm “my cup runneth over”. The Zen tale depicts the importance of an empty mind. The story teaches that we need what Buddhist describe as “Beginners Mind” in order to truly learn what is required to find peace. It teaches that our problem is that our minds are overflowing with so much stuff that we have no room for anything new. There is a real deep truth here. A clear mind is a priceless commodity. The question this raises for me though is how do we create the clear mind?

For a long time I believed that the way to achieve this was to learn to control my thoughts and not allow them to attach to things. Well this never really worked for me and today I can clearly see why. You see back then I wasn’t really trying to control my mind at all, more my emotions. No doubt this is why it never worked for me. I have in recent days learnt a better way. I have found that by filling the cup of love to the point that it ‘runneth over’ my mind has become clear. The cup that is of course being filled is my heart, nay my soul. I have discovered by connecting fully to all that is, all that has been and all that is yet to be my spirit has become healthy and as a result my mind has pretty much emptied. Hard to believe really because for many years my mind never stopped swirling, this is why I suffered insomnia for so long. When I stopped and lay my head on my pillow my head would not slow down it would in fact speed up and there was nothing I could do about it. I thank God this is no longer the case; I thank God that I have discovered by filling my heart, my soul, that my head becomes empty.

This of course leads to another question. How do we fill the cup to overflowing? Well maybe there's a lesson to be learnt from those ancient Hebrews and their tiny ceramic cups. Maybe the answer is to find a way to store those tears to let them build up so that they overflow out of ourselves and into our lives. Now I’m not suggesting you buy cups yourselves, please don’t take me literally here. What I mean is that we can do so by increasing our sensitivity to life and we do this by simply connecting to the world in which we live, moment by moment, breath by breath. I’m not just talking about saving the tears of about sorrow here either, I’m talking as much about joy as anything else. Tears are a sign of a truly felt experience and I believe that to truly live meaningful lives we have to experience everything and to carry that experience out into our world.

November is the month of change and reflection and this year this has been quite an intense experience for me. Now it is time to move forward into the winter, into December, into Advent. It is time to move forward into the new light that can come if we fill our hearts and souls to over flowing and attempt to bring into our world glad tidings of comfort and joy. Our world needs it and we need it too. 

So I say fill those cups to overflowing and spread this abundant love into our world. Drink from one another’s cups and from the cup of the eternal for that is one cup that is forever overflowing.

Sunday 17 November 2013

How The Rainbow Works

This blogspot was originally published on 17th November 2013... 

Please watch the clip above before reading on...

Last Saturday I was driving down the road that links the two congregations I serve. I was in a hurry, I had an urgent appointment to make. Someone needed to speak to me over a very important matter, something was seriously troubling him. I remember I was growing increasingly frustrated at the slow moving traffic. I have lost count of number of times I’ve got stuck on that road. By now the weather was beginning to turn quite ugly. The song “Storm Clouds” by New Model Army was blaring out of my stereo, it is an aggressive and intense number. I could feel a bit of a storm brewing inside of me, so I began to connect to my breath and relaxed. As I did I began to look up above the line of traffic, probably in desperation, asking that ludicrous question, why does this always happen to me? As I did I was confronted by an incredible sight, the most intense skyline I have seen in some time. The blackest clouds I can ever recall and just in front of them was a beautiful vision, just the most luminous double rainbow.

I continued onward the traffic was clearing by now and then the heavens opened. Not just bouncing intense rain, but hailstones too. Weather of Biblical proportions I thought. I arrived at my destination and had the privilege of engaging in the most beautiful and open conversation I have had for some time.

I left a few hours later and by now all was once again calm outside. As I walked to my car I recalled the image I had seen in the middle of my frustrations. That double rainbow which shone ever more brightly against those dark thundering storm clouds. This got me thinking once again, more about that song that I had been listening to than the dramatic sky. I was particularly thinking of the chorus and the following lyrics.

“There's a line of shadows on the far horizon. It could be stormclouds and it could be mountains. All my life I've been gazing to the far horizon. It could be stormclouds and it could be mountains.”

It got me thinking about what I see when I look out onto the world. Do I see stormclouds and the terror they can bring or do I see mountains? What do any of us see see when you look out of our windows and gaze at the far horizon?

We are very fortunate in this country that we do not have face the extreme weather conditions that many other people in far off lands have to. We have witnessed once again the horrors that the people in the Philippines have had to face these last few days. Typhoon Hayian has reaped utter destruction and taken thousands of lives. It has caused damage that will take many years to recover from. We can do our bit to offer support, but really there is not much we can do for them. We do what we can; we pray and we send what aid we can, that said we cannot take away their suffering. If only we could! A grim reminder that we are all at the mercy of the elements.

Where do these souls turn in time of trouble? Where do any of us turn in times of trouble?

I was deeply moved by the following words by Crisante E Igama.

"The Typhoon"

In the darkness of the night,
roaring flow of waters,
not a single scream was heard,
outpouring rains and howling winds,
baldness of the mountains uncovered,
giant logs came rushing,
angry rivers eating away the lands,
floating haven,hogs and bodies,
wildly running with the debris,
not a single scream was heard,
only the mad voices of the angry waters,
pulling away the happy memories,
into the rivers, into the sea,
blinded by the thick mud and too much garbage,
in the middle of the night,
hope flickers with a single rope,
cling on, cling on, sing with the rivers,
even the roof detached the dream of yesterday,
sleep and gone with the rivers,
heard a simple and powerful prayer,
help us, help us, please…

"Help us please..." Three of the most humbling words we will ever hear...

Over the last few weeks Psalm 121 has been floating in and out of my consciousness. Several people have quoted the opening verse to me as they have struggled with grief and other distress too. A member of the Altrincham congregation Ann Molyneux who recently moved to the Lake District and whose husband Bill died within weeks of them moving there told me that every morning after Bill died she would look out of her window in Keswick, stare up at the hills that surrounded her and would ask this very question that the Psalm begins with “I lift up my eyes to the hills-from where will my help come?” It’s a good question. Now of course the Psalm answers it in the very next line by stating that God is the help on offer and not the hills themselves.

Now while the hills themselves cannot offer help directly I still suspect that they can point to it, they certainly do for Ann as they have for countless generations. They are symbolic of something larger, something greater something that can hold us in our times of need. The hills that Ann stares at each morning are the very same hills that Wordsworth described in his poetry. His memories of walking them created “spots of time” that held him through darker days later in his life. Hills that generation after generation have come to know through the beauty of his words. Now those hills are not the same hills as those referred to in Psalm, but perhaps they lead to the same summit.

Sometimes by just asking the question we make a beginning, we open a channel, maybe a bridge to something more than self...

The Psalms to me are prayers. They often begin with a question that is cried out and then followed by an answer. How often in life do we all do this? How often do we cry out a prayer? Are these ever answered? Some say no, of course not do not be so naive, but I’m not so sure. I suspect that they are always answered it’s just that we rarely hear the voice of transcendence. We need to learn to listen with the ears of hearts in order for the language of the heart to break through. To listen we need to make the time and space in our lives. This I believe is what those hills point to. They may not quiet the external storms of life but they will give us the courage to walk through them.

When we look out on the far horizon what do we see? Do we see storm clouds or do you see mountains?

And what of the rainbow? What does the rainbow point to? What does the rainbow mean? I don’t mean how is the optical effect created, which is of course fascinating in and of itself. Please do not get me wrong I am not being literal here. No what I mean is what can the rainbow teach us? What does the rainbow symbolise?

The rainbow is central to many of the great religious traditions. In Greek and Roman mythology they were considered a path between Heaven and Earth. There was a similar understanding in ancient Norse Mythology, where they were known as the Bifrost Bridge which connects the homes of the God’s and humans. In Hinduism and other ancient traditions they were considered the bow of various deities.

In the Epic of Gigamesh the rainbow symbolises the jewelled necklace of the Great Mother Ishtar that she lifts into the sky as a promise that she “will never forget these days of the great flood” that destroyed her beloved children. This myth is almost identical to story of Noah’s Ark found in Genesis (Ch 9 vv 13-17) and the great flood. Here the rainbow appeared as a resealing of God’s covenant with his people.

Many people see the rainbow as a symbol of hope for the future, but I think it is more than that. It is also one of connection and not just with the future but all time. This is message that is found in some of those ancient traditions. It seems to be a bridge to the eternal a link between past, present and future. When I look at a rainbow it reminds me of that connection and it is this that sustains me no matter what is going on around me. It’s carried me through many a storm.

At the beginning of this blogspot is a video clip reading of the poem “How the Rainbow Works” by Al Young (If you have not watched it please do so before continuing). He wrote it for Jean Cook a woman he worked alongside who was struggling with grief following the death of her mother; now her grief was not just about the physical loss but also about the fact that she and her mother had never really got on. He also explains that the poem is not only about our connection to those who have died but all that has existed and all that will exist past, present and future. It links every moment to eternity; the rainbow therefore is the bridge between now and eternity. It points to the eternity of all life what happens before we are born, what happens now and what happens beyond. The poem The rainbow therefore depicts the rainbow as a symbol of eternity.

Here is the poem in written form:

“How the Rainbow Works” by Al Young

(for Jean Cook, on learning
of her mother's death)

Mostly we occupy ocular zones, clinging
only to what we think we can see.
We can't see wind or waves of thought,
electrical fields or atoms dancing;
only what they do or make us believe.

Look on all of life as color -
vibratile movement, heart-centered,
from invisibility to the merely visible.
Never mind what happens when one of us dies.
Where were you before you even get born?
Where am I and all the unseeable souls
we love at this moment, or loathed
before birth? Where are we right now?

Everything that ever happened either
never did or always will with variations.
Let's put it another way: Nothing ever
happened that wasn't dreamed, that wasn't
sketched from the start with artful surprises.
Think of the dreamer as God, a painter,
a ham, to be sure, but a divine old master
whose medium is light and who sidesteps
tedium by leaving room both inside and outside
this picture for subjects and scenery to wing it.

Look on death as living color too: the dyeing
of fabric, submersion into a temporary sea,
a spectruming beyond the reach of sensual
range which, like time, is chained to change;
the strange notion that everything we've
ever done or been up until now is past
history, is gone away, is bleached, bereft,
perfect, leaving the scene clean to freshen
with pigment and space and leftover light.

"Where are we right now?" is a very good question indeed

The more I grow and understand the more I see that everything is connected in ways we will probably never fully know or understand. To me this understanding is so central to the religious life. Everything is connected to everything, there is no separation. I’m not just talking about the human family but all life and that that is beyond life. We are not even separated by death. I’ve been thinking of this over the weeks of November. Everything I’ve been experiencing has been connecting me with these thoughts and feelings as I moved through all that I have experienced and witnessed and heard said. Everything is a part of everything, it is not limited by time and space; life is not the beginning and neither is death the end. 

"Sometimes all we need to do is search for what is at the other side of the air." Anon

I have not always thought this way and I know many will think this nonsense, I have thought very differently myself in the past. I may change my mind in the future, but right now my whole senses seem filled with this truth.

When I look out of the windows of my soul through these eyes even when I see storm clouds I know at the other side I will also see those beautiful mountains and I know that I will soon once again glimpse the messenger of hope, the rainbow, and that this will link me to all that is and all that will ever be. By doing so I stop worrying and can once again focus on what I can do instead of what makes me afraid to live the life I have been given. I can offer whatever help I can to my suffering brothers and sisters.

I’d just like to end this little chip of a blogspot with something I recently heard from an anonymous friend.

"There is a rope that connects everyone to God. Sometimes these ropes break. When a broken rope gets retied, however, the distance between us and God becomes shorter."

"Storm Clouds" by New Model Army

Sunday 3 November 2013

D=S-M: Equations and Meaning

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry

These beautiful words touch me so deeply.

I do not think I am different to anyone else. Some days I despair at the world; some days I despair at all that is life; some days I despair at myself. I ask what is the point of all of this? Can I really make a difference? Is there a place for love in this cold, hard, unfeeling world? Some days I feel utterly gripped by despair. Thankfully I do not feel this way very often; thankfully when I do these feelings do not last very long.

I was visited by these feelings of despair, very strongly, only the other day as I was driving home in the pouring rain, tears rolling down my cheeks. I had watched the horrors on the news I had been in the company of people I love and who love me, but who are obviously suffering and it just seemed like too much. I got home and there was a knock at my door, it was the last person in the world I wanted to see. What did I do? Well I welcomed them in, I sat and I listened. I did not turn them away.

And then it happened. As I sat and listened something inside me changed; as we engaged in conversation something inside me turned right around; as I looked at this young man I remembered why I am here. Meaning began to emerge once again from the nothingness, from the emptiness.

The person left and thanked me for my time. I thanked them; I thanked them for reminding me why I am here.

Mathematics has never been my strongest suit. At primary school I was brilliant at mental arithmetic I think in all my time there was only one occasion when I failed to get 10 out 10 during a mental arithmetic test. I remember my cousin once telling that this was because I was the most mental in my family and in my school. She may well be right. What’s amusing is that the comment has stayed with me all these years.

So yes as a small boy I was brilliant at mental arithmetic, but when it came to mathematics and especially understanding and remembering equations, well that was a whole different kettle of fish. I struggled, it just didn’t make sense. I think even then there was a part of me that didn’t like the idea of reducing things down to simple equations. Never made sense to me; never been the way I have looked at life. Even when I studied history and politics I hated the way that economic and social history seemed so often to be reduced to equations. I would stand back and just think to myself, this just doesn’t make any sense. This is not what life is, what history is. What has this got to do with how we live, or used to live? Is life really made up of equations?

Thankfully the world in which we live is made up of very different people than myself; people who can make sense of such things and who truly know their value. Such things are essential to how much of life works.

Now you may well be wondering where the hummer I’m going with all of this. Well there is a point to my meanderings. There is an equation that does in fact make sense to me. You may have even heard of it.

The equation is D=S-M

Despair equals suffering minus meaning.

The equation comes from Viktor Frankl. In “Man’s Search For Meaning” he wrote “Man is not destroyed by suffering; he is destroyed by suffering without meaning.” He discovered that if we have a “why” to live for we can endure anything. More than that actually it is this that allows us to thrive, to be all that we are born to be. To not only improve our lives, but to serve our world.

The question this raises though is how do we uncover meaning? Where do we find meaning in our lives? What about those who tell us that life is essentially meaningless? Is there one meaning? Is there one truth?

Now Frankl would suggest that it is for each of us to discover our own meaning in any given situation. That this is our task; that this meaning may not be in the given moment but in some place in the future; that it is to be found in some purpose or meaning yet to come.

What are the things that hold us and sustains when life seems too much?

Wendell Berry's poem that opens this blogspot, speaks of this. It begins with the following words.

“When despair for the world grows in me

And I wake in the night at the least sound

In fear of what my life and my children’s life might be”

There is something universal in these words, I’m sure we have all shared this despair from time to time. It is so easy to look at our world and despair and worry about how things are going to turn out, not only for ourselves but those we love and those who will follow us.

There is more to the poem though. When he feels this way Wendell Berry says that:

“I go down and lie down where the wood drake rests

In his beauty on the water,

And the great heron feeds.”

He connects with nature when he feels despair, when life seems too much with him. It is this that allows him to reach beyond himself to something more.

I believe that the most destructive aspect of despair is that although it is a universal experience when it hits it is so powerfully isolating, it has certainly done so to me over the years. Misery and worry always turn me inward and cut me off from all that is loving and meaningful. To once again find meaning I need to be opened up to all that is, mentally, emotionally, physically and perhaps most importantly spiritually.

Wendell Berry is opened up by nature it is this that brings him that sense of connectedness. He says

“I come into the peace of wild things

Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.

I come into the presence of still water.

I come into the presence of that stillness and that stillness calms my soul.

This brings to my mind words from Matthew’s Gospel ch 6 vv 25-34 and especially the lines “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
29 yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

I also hear echoes of the 23rd Psalm too:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."

I find it hard to live by equations because for me they reduce life down to nothingness and there is danger here for me. I have found something that sustains me in the storms of life, something that gives me meaning in despair. I can’t really explain what that is. For me to even begin would require me to reduce it. All I know is that when I turn back and out beyond me I experience something infinite something beautiful, something that can only be described as pure love, something that makes me feel whole.

I experience it in nature. Especially for me in the birds, particularly those wild Canadian geese. I experience it with others, when engaged in meaningful and open conversation. I experience when walking round the streets of where I live and look at the faces of the people I meet. I experience it alone, when sitting alone in silence, contemplating the simple fact that I am alive and that I can draw breath. Finally I experience it in prayer when I reach beyond myself to that great mystery that I have come learn is at the core of life, even the aspects I don’t like so much.

In such moments “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Now some will say how can you? that life has no real meaning beyond physical sensation. How can you? Look at the suffering in this world. These are good questions and maybe they are unanswerable and maybe that is not good enough for some people, maybe it is not good enough for anybody. All I know is what I experience and that is the Divine Lure of love in my life, I never lose faith in this, even in those darkest moments. When I turn to it I feel my cup runneth over with abundant love. This tells that even in those darkest moments when despair is closing in I know “that this too shall pass.”

By the way I do not believe that this Great Mystery controls everything, all interactions in life, but I do believe that it is there to hold and guide all physical life. Our task is to turn to it and to be open to it. I know that the day I began to do so that my life has been deep and rich in meaning.

That though is me and my thoughts. What I would like to leave you with this week is something to ponder, something to take with you as you finish reading this and carry on with your life. What gives you meaning, what sustains you when you experience the suffering present in life? And what can you do to not only sustain what holds you in life, but also to develop it?

Remember Frankl’s equation D = S-M. Despair is suffering without meaning. How do we find and develop meaning in our lives, in spite of the inevitable suffering that will always be present?

Viktor Frankl explaining D=S-M